Your first trip to Japan can be quite daunting. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you think about things like costs, travel and the language barrier.
However, there’s no need to be put off – going to Japan isn’t just realistic, it’s as easy or as hard as you want it to be. So don’t panic! Lets look at 3 different ways you can visit Japan. Have a read through and decide which difficulty setting suits you best.
(Easy mode) – Tour Guide
My first trip to Japan was quite a leap for me, I had never been on a plane before, nor had I left Europe before and all of the sudden I found myself on a 12-13 hour flight to Japan! If you’re also not well travelled then I highly recommend a tour group for your first visit trip to Japan. With a tour guide all the heavy lifting is done for you, you will be given a itinerary and all you have to do is follow and enjoy your holiday.
Another reason I urge you to go with a tour guide is that you wont be alone, you will be accompanied by a group of like-minded individuals in a very similar boat to you. In just one week I had gone from a mishmash of strangers to a group of friends. Many of them still meet up today and even organized a second trip together.
Lastly, visiting Japan in a tour group will build your confidence. You will be eased into handling those scary situations like travel, greetings, ordering food, working out yen etc but with your tour guide there as your safety net. After your first trip, you will come out of more confident and you may even feel ready to move up to normal/hard mode for your second trip.
What to do?
First things first, you will need to pick a tour group. This might seem like a large job with the number of companies to pick from (the dragon trip, Samurai tours, Inside Japan etc) but I personally recommend Japan Journeys. Japan Journeys have a growing number of interesting tours including their Manga tour, Tokyo game show tour, gourmet tour just to name a few. They’re also one of the few tour companies I’ve seen to include flights in the final price.
I suggest browsing their guided tours page on their website, read through their daily itinerary. See something you like? Click on the ‘enquire now’ button to contact them and they will help guide you through the rest.
Have no fear, your tour guide is here! My tour guide was a godsend, handling the most troublesome moments of communication with ease. The only times you will need to get by without a guide is when the group splits up to explore areas, often for shopping and ordering food.
Shopping and ordering food were two things I was most worried about as I knew very little Japanese, but you really can get by with just few words of Japanese. Shopping is easy, handover your items, keep an eye on the final price after tax (it will appear on the till) then give them the correct cash and finish with a slight bow and say ‘Arigatou’ or ‘Arigatou Gozaimasu.’ Ordering food might sound more complex but a lot of restaurants in Tokyo have English menu’s, simply point at what you want then say thank you the same way you would while shopping. Don’t forget your meeting place and keep an eye on the time for when you need to return.
With the tour group I went with, all you had to do was pay a total cost that includes flights, hotel, travel costs and breakfasts. Outside of that you will only need extra money for the rest of your meals and anything luxury expenses.
Don’t forget to convert your money to yen (this can be done at your local post office or at the airport). You can use card but I advise cash, Japan is very cash focused.
Japan Journey’s guided tours include the rail and subway fares. They will hand out tickets as you need them (just make sure not to lose them like me!)
Pros – great for beginners, make friends with like-minded people in the tour, simply enjoy the holiday with no stress, be introduced to places you never knew about, never a dull moment, always something happening, potential bonus things outside of itinerary
Cons – Very fast moving with tight time restrictions, can be quite exhausting if you’re used to much slower paced trips
(Normal mode) – on your own, but with your trip organised for you
Tour groups isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you want more freedom on your trip but don’t want the hassle of organizing everything then normal mode is the best of both worlds.
What to do?
- Research and make a list of everything you want to do, decide how long you want to go and lastly when you want to go
- Make an appointment to visit Japan Journeys (or your preferred travel company)
- At your appointment you will discuss your ideal holiday with them
- Shortly after, you will receive a draft itinerary with information on locations, travel and hotels
- If your happy with their draft then you just need to pay them a deposit and leave them to do the rest
Pointing at things and sumimasen
It’s always best to know some basic Japanese, but I wouldn’t stress over the language barrier. I really feel you can get by in Tokyo with just handful of key Japanese words. It’s easy to be overwhelmed thinking you need to memorize countless phrases to scrape by but just make sure you at least know the word ‘Sumimasen‘.
I word argue that ‘Sumimasen’ is the Swiss army knife of essential Japanese words, you will find yourself using it for everything. Sumimasen means excuse me,I’m sorry for the trouble and even thank you. It is actually harder to think of a situation that didn’t start or end with ‘sumimasen’. For example, if you need directions say ‘sumimasen’ then bring up a map and point at where you want to go. If your in a situation where you need help, use ‘sumimasen’ to politely get someones attention then follow up with your query.
The last thing I want to do is discourage anyone from learning Japanese. Being fluent in Japanese may not be essential for a basic holiday, but it is for a more rewarding experience. Being unable to speak the language will mean you will miss out on one of the best things you can do in Japan, talk to the locals.
One of my most cherished memories in Japan could have been so much better if only I could speak the language. We visited one of the local bars near our hotel, inside we were welcomed by staff who were keen to ask us about our holiday. We tried to get by with what little Japanese we knew, and we did get by, but the language barrier still really restricted the flow of the conversation.
The price will depend on how ambitious you want to be with your first holiday. If your only visiting Tokyo (which I think is enough for your first trip) for a week then this will keep costs down, however, if you want to go for multiple weeks and travel across Japan then be prepared for additional costs. If you’re worried about going over budget then discuss this with your travel company so they can adjust your itinerary to something more affordable.
If you use Japan Journey’s, you will be provided with a lot of essential information to guide you about 12 weeks before your trip. This will include train time suggestions, accommodation addresses, information of attractions near your area, maps in both English and Japanese and a Japan rail pass (if needed).
Even with all this information to guide you it can still be unnerving to know your going without a tour guide. It’s always best to have a back up plan if something goes wrong, so you might want to consider mobile WiFi rental.
Pros – you get the best of both worlds with a itinerary catered for you, flights, travel and hotels planned for you
Cons – will find out when we visit in 2019! (to be updated)
(Hard mode) – going solo
My fiancée and I had quite the shock as we had to leap from easy mode (tour) to hard mode (going solo) within the space of two months after we won free flights to Japan (not complaining!)
Would I recommend hard mode for your first trip? Absolutely not! I think we would have struggled a lot more if it was our first time. But everyone is different, I know plenty of people who started with hard mode and have no regrets.
What to do?
There is a lot more to think about when going solo, but the first thing I would do is make a to do list.
My to do list would include:
- Book flights
- Plan your itinerary
- Book hotel
- Get travel insurance
- Decide whether it’s worth getting a JR rail pass
- Print out maps with directions and travel instructions from airport to hotel, directions for locations you want to visit.
- Look up opening times and closures
- Look up entry prices for attractions you’re interested in
- Make a budget plan
Planning your own itinerary
The best way to start your itinerary is to research attractions and places that interest you. Try Trip Advisor and Expedia to get the ball rolling. With Trip Advisor and Expedia, you will also have the option to book tickets for attractions. Sadly, you’re unlikely to do everything on your list , it’s just not feasible on your first trip. Even after travelling to Japan twice, we still haven’t touched on the massive list of things we want to do.
I’m afraid you’re going to have to be ruthless and separate your list into three new lists – must, maybe and leave for another time.
I would start with ‘leave for another time‘ list as it’s easier to weed out what you can’t do due to distance, costs and duration. For example, lets assume you’re going for one week from the UK. That means you have two days you need to deduct for flights, that leaves you with just 5 days. If you only have 5 days you need to think wisely about how much distance you’re willing to travel. If you’re staying in Tokyo you may want to leave Hokkaido for another trip, as that can take up to 16 hours of rail travel to get there and back.
Once you’ve completed your ‘leave for another time’ list, you can organize your ‘must’ and ‘maybe’ lists. For the ‘must’ list I would consider what things you would regret not doing, such as temporary attractions. With your ‘maybe’ list I would include attractions that are either located near attractions in your must list or things you would like to do if there is some gaps to fill in your itinerary.
The next step is to organize as much of it as you can into your 5 day itinerary. Things to think about are opening times and locations. If one place isn’t open on Mondays then you will want to move it to another day, if one place is open earlier and another is open much later then you can sort them this way. If some places are close together then you may want to organize a day around them. For instance, Shinjuku, Yoyogi park, Harujuku and Shibuya stops are next door neighbors on the subway.
Once you’re completed your itinerary you can relax, your holiday has structure now.
I suggest going through your itinerary and checking the entry price and additional costs for everything you have planned, having a total cost for this beforehand will make it easier to budget the rest of your money.
Think about what location you will spend most of your money at (Akihabara for me), maybe put this location at the end of your trip so you don’t go over budget.
Quick warning on using taxi’s, on more than one occasion we were dropped off quite a distance from our destination. I’m not sure if we were just unlucky or if this is quite common, but best you know as you don’t want to end up lost like we were.
Luckily, the friendly locals will come to your rescue. I have a lot of gratitude for the kindness of the Japanese public, as they are always keen to help. I remember struggling to find our hotel and not 1, not 2, not 3 but 4 different people came up to us to offer directions.
Pros – Total freedom to plan your own itinerary, complete independence
Cons – Research can take away from the mystery, things can go wrong, planning and research while fun for me might not be for you
Hopefully you’re left feeling more confident and eager to plan your first trip. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments.
Photography © Kathryn Taylor.