How to plan a trip to japan for first time visitors

At the end of this year it’s finally happening – I’ll be going to Japan! Japan has been my ultimate dream destination since I was a teenager, but actually planning the trip took me a while. When I started university I promised myself that I would make this dream come true as soon as I graduated. And last summer that happened, I graduated from university! So now it’s time to make the Japan dream come true!

Planning such a big and important trip can seem a little overwhelming, especially if you have little to no experience planning a holiday. That’s why I’m taking you along my own planning for my dream holiday to help you plan yours!

How to plan a trip to japan for first time visitors

Step 1 – Book your flights to Japan

The first thing we booked were the flights. Because flights are one of the most expensive things about a trip like this, we wanted to make sure we got the cheapest option possible (with the exception of dirt cheap flights with 14-hour waiting periods on an airport in the middle of nowhere). I knew I wanted to go for 2-3 weeks in order to see everything I want to see. Via websites like Cheaptickets, Skyscanner and my personal favourite HolidayPirates I searched for the best flight. This meant putting in different flying dates, different airports, different length etc.

We ended up booking a return flight from Amsterdam – Tokyo Haneda with a 1.5-hour overlay in Frankfurt for £425 per person. The return flight stops in Frankfurt again for 1.5 hours.

A few things to keep in mind while booking your own flights.

  • Always book as early as possible! We’re flying to Japan at the end of October and we booked our flights in March. We probably could’ve saved some more money if we had booked them even earlier.
  • Check different airports (both departure and arrival). We wanted to fly from Manchester but it turned out to be £100 more expensive per person! You can get super cheap flights to Amsterdam with EasyJet or Ryanair and save yourself some sweet dollah. (I’ve heard it as to do with flight tax in the UK, but don’t quote me on that!)
  • Double check the overlay time if it’s not a direct flight. We found flights as cheap as £300-£350 but with a 16-hour overlay between flights (same thing on the flight back), which meant we would basically miss out on two full days of Japan time!

How to plan a trip to japan for first time visitors

Step 2 – Which cities and when?

Next step is starting the REAL planning. Once you know how many days you’ll be in Japan, you can start planning where you want to spend those days. After booking our flights, we knew we had 16 days in Japan to fill. We also knew that we wanted to see more than just Tokyo. That meant having to use the trains.

Because trains are quite expensive in Japan, it’s a great idea to get a JR Pass. This pass allows you to travel through the entire country for one set price. One week will cost you as much as a return from Tokyo to Kyoto (£202), so it’s definitely worth buying. For two weeks you’ll pay a little more (£323).

Apart from Tokyo, we decided we wanted to see Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara (with the possibility to see Mount Fuji on our way back to Tokyo if we decide to). In an attempt to save some money, we ordered a JR Pass for 7 days instead of 14.

This meant that we had 7 days to go from Tokyo to Kyoto, to Osaka, Visit Nara and get back to Tokyo. To break up the trip we planned it like this:

5 days in Tokyo, take the train in the morning to Kyoto.
4 days in Kyoto, take the train to Osaka in the evening.
3 days in Osaka (with a day trip to Nara), then a train back to Tokyo in the morning with a possible stop near Mount Fuji.
4 days in Tokyo to end our trip and explore some more of Tokyo.

How to plan a trip to japan for first time visitors

Step 3 – What to do in the cities?

After you decide what cities you want to visit, you need to decide what specific things you want to see and do in said cities. Personally, I started reading through a ton of blogs, watched a lot of YouTube videos and even scrolled to the end of Trip Advisor for inspiration. Pinterest, too, is a great start to search for things to do in certain cities – it links to so many great blogs you wouldn’t normally find!

For me, the best way to keep track of everything I want to see and do is use Google Maps. You can put a little pin in everything you want to see, creating a clear overview of your plan. This is important for the next step but also super handy for when you’re actually in Japan and need to use GPS to find the next landmark you want to visit.

How to plan a trip to japan for first time visitors

Step 4 – Find the perfect hotels

We now know what cities we want to visit on what days and what we want to see in those cities. When I book hotels/Airbnbs I find it important that I’m near the things I want to see. I don’t really want to spend an hour walking or having to wait for a train/bus to get to the place I want to see. Plus, being a recent graduate, it also needs to be affordable.

For this trip, I used booking.com to book all my hotels because it’s nice and easy and you don’t have to pay upfront for most hotels (giving me some extra time to save enough money and time to change my mind in case we find something better without it costing me any money).

The way I searched for hotels was simple: I put in the dates, the maximum price I wanted to pay, double bedroom with breakfast and clicked search. I then moved to the map of booking.com, displaying all the hotels in my price range on the map. Then I compared the map with my own Google maps, deciding whereabouts I wanted to stay to make sure I’m staying close by everything I want to see.

Here’s a link to the hotels we’re going to stay in during our trip!

5 days in Tokyo Sunroute Higashi Shinjuku (this hotel is probably the most expensive hotel we’re staying in because of its location)
4 days in Kyoto Urban Hotel (walking distance to Fushimi Inari Shrine, the place I’ve been wanting to visit for over 10 years)
3 days in Osaka Sonezaki Luxe Hotel (close to the train station for when we arrive in Osaka late in the evening and for our day trip to Nara)
4 days in Tokyo Belken Hotel 

How to plan a trip to japan for first time visitors

Step 5 – Plan activities

When you’ve chosen your hotels, you can start planning your days with a little more detail. Because you’ve saved all the pins on Google Maps, you can choose what things you can do on the same day because they’re close to each other.

The way I’ve planned our trip is in Google Sheets. I’ve made columns for the date, the place, the time (for flights, kimono rental, train times etc.), what activity, the price (in case of entree fees etc.) and a space for extra information (a link to an information page, opening-closing times etc.)

Having a plan for this trip has calmed me down a lot. Japan has been my dream holiday since I was a teenager and I was incredibly scared that I was going to miss out on seeing things. Now I know what I can expect and can simply sit back and relax until it’s time to start packing our bags!

How to plan a trip to japan for first time visitors

Step 6 – Extras Tips for First Time Visitors

Once you’ve made your plan, it’s time to look at some extras that you need to figure out before leaving.

  • Pocket Wifi from Japan Wireless – I’m unable to use my mobile data while in Japan, which is why we’ve ordered a Japan Wireless box for the 16 days we’re there. It’s basically a little portable router you can take anywhere while in Japan. It connects up to 10 devices and gives you unlimited WiFi during our stay. Especially cause we’ve pinned everything on Google Maps, booked everything on Booking.com and have our entire plan on Google Sheets, we need our WiFi! (And to update you guys via Twitter and Instagram, of course!)
  • Notebook for stamps – My good friend Becky went to Japan a couple of years back and told me to bring a little empty notebook. Apparently, you can get stamps at all train stations and certain landmarks.
  • JR Pass – If you want to use the trains in Japan, it’s the best idea to get a JR Pass (the one I mentioned before). In order to use them while you’re in Japan, you need to order them before you go. You’ll be sent a voucher that you have to exchange when you’re in Japan. It’ll save you a TON of money if you do want to see more than just one city.
  • Book certain trips and activities in advance where possible! In Kyoto we’re going to rent a Kimono for a morning, we’ve got tickets to see a concert while we’re in Tokyo, we’ve secured tickets for Disney Sea and got our tickets for the Studio Ghibli museum.
  • Learn some basic Japanese! You don’t have to speak it fluently, but it’s always very much appreciated to know words like “Thank you”, “Please” and “Good Morning” when you’re traveling abroad.

I can barely contain my excitement for this trip and now most things are planned, October can’t come any sooner! If you have any questions about planning your own trip, feel free to leave a comment or email via the contact form.

If you want to follow my trip, please make sure to follow me on Instagram and Twitter (as I’ll be sharing a lot along the way!) Looking forward to City Guides and tips for when you’re actually in Japan? Make sure to subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter for updates on new articles!

Would you ever like to visit Japan?
What would you like to see best?