I first ventured to Japan in 2017 in search of world-famous powder and ski resorts. As a snowboarding enthusiast, the mountains were where I was headed. I spent two winter seasons in Hakuba and travelled to other parts of Japan in the Spring. I absolutely fell in love with Japan. There is so much to discover from nature to megacities, beautiful temples, unique cuisine and of course the amazingly friendly people that make this country so special. Add a few robots and ninjas and you have one of the best travel destinations in the world.
What you need to know
Currency – Japanese Yen. Cash is still the payment of choice in Japan. The number of shops and restaurants that will accept card is increasing but I still recommend always carrying plenty of cash. Tipping – There is no tipping culture in Japan and it can be considered rude to tip. Sometimes a waiter or waitress will even chase you down to give you your change so no need to tip.
Japan is not cheap to travel around compared to other Asian countries. I spend around $1500 AUD in two weeks excluding flights and travel insurance. Transport is very expensive so moving from place to place will blow out your daily budget. Longer, slower travel will average a lot less per day. Hostels ranged from $20 to $40 per night.
Daily Expenses Estimate Per Day
Tight – $ 50 Low – $ 70 Mid – $120 High – $200
In Japan the power plugs and sockets are of type A and B which is the same as the USA, however the voltage differs. The standard voltage is 100 V and the standard frequency is 50 / 60 Hz.
Vegan In Japan
Vegan travel in Japan poses quite a challenge as animal products are heavily incorporated into local cuisine. Fish stock known as “dashi” is commonly used in dishes that would otherwise be vegetarian. The big cities have lots of vegan options but things get a little harder when you get to smaller towns. The Happy Cow site is the best way to find vegan options and the Vegan Japan Facebook group is full of people happy to answer any questions.
Although it takes a little more time and research it is still very possible to travel to Japan as a vegan and there are some exquisite dishes and flavours to discover.
The Best Vegan Eats
Japan is famous across the world for sushi but it’s actually not as common in Japan as you would imagine. Japanese cuisine has a huge range of dishes and flavours and although many dishes are not typically vegan it is worth seeking out places that offer a vegan version. Ramen, soba, udon noodle soup, gyoza, okonomiyaki and Japanese style curry are all available and all delicious! If you are visiting Hakuba check this guide.
Japan has some excellent drinks to sample. I am a big fan of Sake which is made from fermented rice. There are some great Craft Beers to be discovered in Japan if you tire of the standard offering of Asahi. One of my favourite discoveries in Japan is a “Red Eye” which is a beer with tomato juice. I love it however pretty much everyone else who tried it thought it was awful but you never know until you try!
As a zero-waste enthusiast, I found Japan to be extremely frustrating. Based on the immaculate streets you would not think Japan has a problem with waste, but the excessive use of plastic is astounding. Food products are sometimes individually wrapped inside a packet within a packet. I have seen individual bananas wrapped in plastic. Convenience culture produces so much plastic. Even though waste disposal very efficient and recycling rates for metal and electronics are very high, the majority of plastic waste is not recycled. Plastic is incinerated which is known to release toxic gases. It is actually very difficult to find garbage cans in Japan so keep a bag with you to carry your rubbish with you until you find one. The convenience stores will have one and there are sometimes bins near the vending machines. Avoiding waste is impossible in Japan but always do your best. Pack your eco-travel essentials and be ready to let the convenience store clerk know that you don’t need a bag, straw or cup.
Respect Local Customs
-Avoid pointing and use your whole hand to gesture towards something. -Don’t eat while walking. I find this one a little strange because of the convenience store culture. You can’t walk more than a few hundred metres without finding a Lawsons or 711 filled with on the go meals but it’s ideal if you can stop and sit to eat. -Be quiet on public transport and don’t speak on the phone. -Many restaurants and accommodation places expect you to take your shoes off before entering but they will provide a pair of slippers for you to use.
Particularly useful if you are visiting the ski fields and have ski gear with you, Japan has an awesome luggage forwarding service available at the airport. You can pay a fee of around $30-$40 to send your bag directly to your accommodation at your next destination and avoid the hassle of taking it on public transport.
An onsen is a public bathhouse where geothermally heated water is pumped from underground to fill pools of delightfully hot and mineral enriched water. Some onsens are part of a hotel or ryokan and others are a separate business. Some have beautiful outdoor pools where you can well and truly relax. Westerners can be a little shocked by the fact you need to bath naked but there are separate pools for men and women. Before you enter the water you need to clean yourself in the shower and then proceed to the pools. You are able to use a small towel for modesty but don’t submerge it. You can do as the locals do and keep it on top of your head while bathing. Tattoos are still very taboo in Japan and some onsens do not allow tattoos to be visible. Places that are more popular with tourists are generally more relaxed but more traditional places can be strict so always ask first. A soak in the onsen is a great way to rest weary muscles after a busy day sightseeing.
You can purchase a sim card at the airport but they are expensive. Costing as much as $80 AUD for 2 weeks. An alternative is hiring a wireless modem. The cost is similar but this is a great option to share between a couple or group. Wifi is easy to find but nothing beats mobile internet for navigation especially for catching trains.
Some of the most fun you can have in Japan is in a Karaoke Box. If you need a few drinks to boost your confidence you can buy an all you can drink package called Nomihodai (also available at some Izakaya restaurants). Most karaoke venues will have an extensive list of English songs so you will find all the classic singalongs.
Tax – Free Shopping
Purchases of Y5000 and over of certain good are exempt from tax for foreign visitors. Take your passport with you when you go shopping to pay the tax-exempt price.
Hello – Kon’nichiwa Yes – Hai No – Iie Please – Kudasai or O-negai shimasu Thank you – Arigatogozaimasu Excuse me – Sumimasen I am sorry – Gomenasai Good morning – Ohayo gozaimasu or just Ohayo Good evening – Konbanwa Good night – O-yasumi nasai See you soon – Matane Go ahead – Dozo I’m fine – Daijoubu
Japanese – is written with 3 different alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. You won’t have too much trouble finding people that speak English and many signs, especially in the train stations are written in English. Google Translate is extremely helpful and you can download the language for offline use.
Walking and cycling are my methods of choice for seeing the sights of Japan. The streets are very bike-friendly and you can ride on the footpath if you aren’t confident on the road. For longer distance, the train system in Japan is absolutely fantastic. The trains are easy to navigate with all the routes and times incorporated into Google Maps. The trains are always on time and run so frequently that missing one is rarely an issue. You can pick up a Suica card which you can top up with credit and tap when you travel. There is a deposit on the card but you can get a refund at the end of your trip. One popular option for travellers is the JR Pass where you pay a fee to have unlimited rail access for a certain time period. When I crunched the numbers it wasn’t going to work out to be good value but depending on your route it can work out nicely. Buses are a slower and cheaper option for intercity travel if you have more time than money. An overnight bus can save you a night’s accommodation too.
Japan has some interesting choices when it comes to getting a good night’s rest. You can choose to stay in a capsule hotel which is a super modern hostel with individual pods for each traveller. Hostels usually start from about $30 per night depending on the area. For a more traditional option, you can stay in a Ryokan which is a Japanese style inn. They are typically furnished with tatami mats and the bedding is in the form of a futon which is a roll-up mattress which is laid directly on the mats. I can’t say I had the most comfortable sleep on my futon but it was worth the experience.
Skiing & Snowboarding
There are over 500 ski resorts in Japan with some of the most popular destinations being Niseko on the northern island of Hokkaido and Hakuba, Myoko & Nozawa Onsen on the island of Honshu. The ski season begins in late November to mid-December depending on the year and runs through till early May however I don’t recommend visiting after the end of March. Spring skiing extends into April & May but conditions aren’t great and the majority of seasonal businesses finish up by end of March. Peak – January & February – More likely to have great snow conditions. Off-Peak – March – Spring skiing and budget-friendly. Spring skiing extends into April but conditions aren’t great and the majority of seasonal businesses finish up by end of March.
Some of the most spectacular sights in Japan come and go with the seasons so if you want to catch a certain event make sure your timing is right. Natural events such as the autumn foliage will start in Hokkaido in the North and move down the islands. Spring blooms move the opposite direction.
The Sakura is a magical time in Japan when the streets are filled with the colour of millions of flowers. The Japanese people celebrate with a hanami (flower party). This mostly consists of having an outdoor party beneath the sakura during daytime or at night. You can see big groups of friends and family having a picnic and drinks beneath the trees enjoying this special time. This spectacular display can be seen from late March to early May but the timing is specific to the region so check this guide for dates and to see which other flowers might be in bloom.
Autumn is a great time to visit Japan. The weather is mild and the trees are filled with leaves of vibrant yellow, orange and red. You can catch the colourful display between mid-October & late November depending on the region.
Winter Light Displays
We have all seen Christmas lights but Japan really take it to the next level with their Winter Illuminations. Catch the impressive display across Japan in November and December.
Snow Festival – Sapporo
This incredible festival is held for 1 week in February and features spectacular snow and ice sculptures.
Golden week runs from the 29th of April to early May and contains a number of Japanese holidays. This is when many Japanese people travel within Japan making it very busy. I would advise avoiding this week if possible.
Japan is very safe. You don’t need to worry about being robbed or scammed. In Tokyo, trains stop between about midnight & 5am so you really need to commit to a huge night out if you miss the last train! Police – Under Japanese law, persons suspected of a crime can be detained for 23 days without charge. Very unlikely but it definitely has happened to a drunk Aussie breaking into someone’s home instead of his lodge.
Japan is famous for having cafes which are home to various animals which you can visit and interact with. Examples include Hedgehog Cafe, Owl Bar and a Penguin Bar. I would highly recommend avoiding them as the stress it causes the animal is cruel and they are not able to live a natural life. Worth the cute pic for Instagram? Definitely not. If you are an animal lover don’t miss Nara. There are over 2000 semi-wild deer roaming the streets.
The health care system is very good in Japan so if the need does arise seeing a doctor shouldn’t be too hard (except for the language barrier). Make sure you have travel insurance that covers you for all the activities you plan to do.
I can safely say Japan has the best toilets in the world. With a full control panel with a bidet function & heated seat. Sometimes they even have the ability to play music to help you relax. You really don’t know what you’re missing until you experience Japanese toilets!
You can’t smoke on the streets in Japan although you can in some bars and restaurants. There are dedicated smoking rooms in some locations too.
The tap water is safe to drink in Japan so it’s easy to fill your reusable bottle on the go.
I hope you found this helpful and that if you weren’t already planning to visit Japan then you will be now. Please get in touch if you have any questions. If you have been to Japan already or are currently there I would love to hear about your experience!