After years of missed travel plans due to the pandemic, experts speculate that 2023 is going to be a year of prioritizing travel for Americans. Of the 62% of online flight searches made for international destinations, nearly a quarter are directed toward Asia. In fact, only two non-Asian cities have made it to the list of the top ten most trending international destinations in the world, and leading the board is the capital of Japan: Tokyo. This comes as no surprise considering Japan has previously ranked second in the most sought-after destinations by travelers across the world. As Japan continues to remain a popular international destination for Americans and non-Americans alike, here’s what you need to know before you decide to go.
10 Do I Need A Visa?
Passport with visas and money
As of January 2023, Japan allows passports from a total of 68 countries visa-free entry inside its borders, including American, British, and Canadian passports. As long as your passport belongs to one of the 68 countries, you will not need to apply for a visa to enter Japan. That said, visa-free access is only applicable for short-term visits, that is, 90 days, so anyone hoping to stay in the country for longer may need a valid visa.
9 What Currency Does Japan Use?
Japanese yen bills
The official currency in Japan is the yen, and one dollar roughly amounts to 130 yen. While Japan does accept international debit, credit, and travel cards for the most part, like most Asian countries, it does have a preference for cash. Centuries-old family-run businesses, remote ryokans (inns), and small izakayas hidden between alleyways are the backbone of Japan, and these don’t always accept cards. You may find yourself frantically searching for an ATM if you don’t have any cash on you whatsoever.
8 Do I Need To Make Dinner Reservations In Advance?
A Japanese chef making food
Japan is a legendary culinary destination for foodies, but with that reputation comes the unfortunate stipulations of dining in Japan. Tourists may find that some eateries are off limits for them, there is favoritism for regulars, reservations are made months in advance, and in some cases, top-rated restaurants may refuse to even accept reservations from non-Japanese customers. Not only must visitors make reservations well in advance if they plan to eat at busy restaurants, but famous Michellin-star restaurants require all bookings to be made through a reputable hotel’s concierge — spending top dollar on the creme de la creme five-star hotels is required for reservations at the country’s most coveted dining spots. Luckily, Japan’s street food has an equally stellar reputation, and this, thankfully, doesn’t involve making a reservation.
7 What Is The Best Time To Visit Japan?
Temple and landscape in Japan
The best time to visit Japan depends on what you’re going there for. Although there’s no bad time to visit the country, you may find yourself ending up at the wrong place at the wrong time. Those hoping to hit the ski mountains in Japan and soak in hot spring onsens may want to visit between December and February when the country is at its coldest. March to April is a good time to go for those who want to experience the sakura season, whereas any time between March and May or September and November is a good time to see Japan’s natural beauty, like the blooming flower fields of Hokkaido.
6 Do I Need To Be Fluent In Japanese To Visit?
The Japanese and English languages — both written and verbal — are poles apart, and not knowing the language before visiting Japan can rightfully cause anxiety. Those visiting urban areas or major cities mustn’t worry, though, as most signages are bilingual, and people there do understand English. When traveling to any country, however, it’s a good idea to know basic phrases or be equipped with a translating book or an app. The more you venture to remote islands and offbeat villages, the more you may find yourself wishing you’d known a little Japanese.
5 Are Japanese Toilets Really That Smart?
Quite simply, yes, they are. Believe it or not, Japan’s public toilets have something of a reputation worldwide for being extremely clever and high-tech, which can take some getting used to. From measuring your heart rate while you empty your bladder and playing music to mask the sound to spraying water, drying your derriere, and deodorizing the air — there’s a lot that a toilet in Japan can do. Some even come with the option of warming up the toilet seats and the temperature of the water!
4 Is The Japan Rail Pass Worth It?
a bullet train pulling into the station in japan
Japan was the first country to implement a high-speed rail system way back in 1964 with the bullet train. It goes without saying then that trains are perhaps the best way to travel across the country. The Japan Rail Pass (or JR Pass) is meant exclusively for tourists and gives unlimited access to Japan Rail trains, busses, ferries, and airport transfers. Starting at ¥29,650 for a weekly pass, the JR Pass can save you a lot of money if you plan to use public transport, even just a couple of times. For context, a one-way trip from the Narita International Airport into Tokyo city on the Narita Express costs ¥3,020, and a round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto costs ¥26,160. Even if you only plan one round trip and a train to or from the airport, you’ve already saved a few bucks with the rail pass.
3 Which Cities Should I Visit?
Fuji Five Lakes in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park with mount Fuji in the background, Japan
Japan is a unique country in that there’s great diversity in what it has to offer. Depending on what you like, these are some of the must-sees in Japan:
- Tokyo & Kyoto: Excellent cities for first-timers hoping to get a taste of Japan
- Yakushima: An enchanting island famous for shinrin yoku or forest bathing.
- Osaka: A delight for street food lovers
- Kamikōchi: A remote highland valley tucked between the Japanese Alps
- Kanazawa & Takayama: Japan’s most well-preserved cities from the Edo-era
- Nara: Home to several UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed temples and shrines
- Hokkaido: Famous for its top-notch winter powder and snow sports
- Mount Fiji: To see (or climb) the country’s tallest mountain
- Beppu: Known as the “home of the hot springs” and a must-see for those looking to soak away in an onsen
2 Is Staying In A Ryokan Worth It?
Nature through the window from a ryokan in Japan
Hotels and Airbnb are hardly a novelty, but you’ll probably never be able to stay in a ryokan outside of Japan. Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn where guests are expected to leave footwear outside their minimally furnished tatami mat rooms. With access to private onsens, muti-course kaiseki dinners, balconies overlooking remote natural landscapes, and dressing up in traditional yukatas, nothing will immerse you into Japan’s rich culture quite as a ryokan will.
1 What Food Should I Try?
dinner at a ryokan in japan
Japan’s food is as diverse as its natural landscape. No traveler can say that they’ve been to Japan if they haven’t slurped their way through a hot bowl of tonkatsu ramen or eaten one too many pieces of fresh nigiri sushi. But there’s more to Japanese food than that. Michelin-star restaurants aside, Japan is famous for its multi-course kaiseki dinners, the Buddhist cuisine known as shojin ryori, and elaborate tea ceremonies led by tea masters. Sake and Japanese beer at an izakaya are accompanied by otsumami or finger foods like karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken), street food stalls are famous for their okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), and bento boxes are best picked up from train stations. Plus, don’t forget to visit a convenience store when in Japan — they are a wonderland for snacks, beverages, and confectioneries.