This post is Part 1 of the Series: Planning your trip to Japan focusing on which time of the year to visit, and how to travel within Japan.
Click on below links to read other parts of the series (opens in new tab).
Part 1: When to visit and how to travel
Part 2: Where to stay and what to see
Part 3: What to eat in Japan
Part 4: What to pack (and not to pack)
Part 5: Twelve cultural must-knows
When should you visit Japan
Japan is a travel destination for everyone. You heard me right, there is a reason everyone loves Japan. It offers something for all kinds of people regardless whether they are travelers or not, as well as all age groups of people. Japan has the perfect mix of ancient culture, modern culture, history, nature, food, architecture, wildlife, fashion, anime, arcades….and the list goes on.
I finally made my trip to Japan this year for 3 weeks during Autumn. I wanted to see everything, but I was most excited about exploring the culture and food across the country.
I believe there is never a best time to visit Japan, because every season has something different to offer but springs and autumns are preferred because of the comfortable weather. So you have to decide what is convenient for you taking into account weather changes, typhoon season, and busy festivals in Japan.
This is the Cherry Blossom season (sakura), and the busiest time of the year. The weather is warm with colder evenings, but the Cherry Blossom forecast changes every year. The best time to see the cherry blossom is April in Central Japan, but it is also the most expensive time of the year with most places crowded with tourists. Hence, I would recommend not to visit Japan during Spring unless Cherry Blossom festival is the highlight of your visit.
This is the rainy season in Japan, especially June, with excessive summer heat. However, there are several summer festivals in Japan and desired by travelers from non-tropical countries. There are two important events that take place in summer – the Gion Matsuri Festival in Kyoto during July which is the biggest and oldest festival in Japan, and the climbing season for Mt Fuji which starts in July and ends in September. Although the weather is hot and humid during summer months, it is also much less crowded and cheaper to travel compared to Spring, except for next year when the 2020 Summer Olympics are scheduled to be held in Tokyo from 24 July to 9 August.
September marks the start of fall season, where you can already start seeing the beautiful fall foliage. This is my favorite time of the year, and I decided to make my trip over Sep-Oct. The weather was wonderful – cool breeze all days, sunny afternoons, and almost no rain most days. However, its also typhoon season. I was in Tokyo when the Super Typhoon Hagibis struck Japan this year, but I never felt unsafe. You cannot forecast for the typhoon much in advance, but there are several measures taken across the country to prepare for its arrival, hence I would advise to take the chance to visit Japan during autumn. The 29th Rugby World Cup was hosted in Japan this year also during autumn, hence the flights and accommodation were not as cheap as other years, but making reservations couple of months in advance definitely helped,
December marks the start of Ski season, and the perfect time for skiing and snowboarding. Winter season in Japan is also best for enjoying the >2000 onsens (hot springs) all over Japan.
In short, Autumn (Sept-Nov) is the best time to visit Japan because of the nice weather and less crowded time compared to Spring. Spring (Mar-May) is the most popular and most expensive time to go to Japan because of the Cherry Blossoms. Summer is hot and humid but still good to visit for the less crowded places and fun festivals. Winter is perfect for travelers who want to visit for the snow season.
How to travel within Japan
There are 3 things you need to ensure smooth travel within Japan – A JR Pass, an IC card and a navigation app, and you are all set.
The best way to get around Japan is by train. The Japan Rail (JR) Pass is the most cost-effective for tourists who want to travel across Japan. The Pass can be purchased online for 7, 14 or 21 days, but the voucher needs to be ordered before you enter Japan. There are several agencies that provide these vouchers. I bought the voucher from japan-rail-pass.com. The 7 day pass costs around 245 euros, while the 14 day pass costs 390 euros. Once you enter Japan, you can exchange the voucher for the actual pass at the JR counter located in the airports (Narita/ Haneda), or main train stations within cities. You can also decide which day you want to activate the JR Pass at the time of collection, in case you do not want to use the pass for all days of your travel. The advantage of the JR Pass is that you do not need to book any trains in advance. The seat reservations are free, and you can reserve seats a day in advance at any JR station. You can take most trains with the pass, incuding Shinkansen (bullet trains), except the Nozomi line. Definitely recommended to purchase the JR voucher – it will give you a lot of flexibility for travel.
These are the pre-paid transportation cards for trains, subways and buses, for within city travels. They are of 2 types – Pasmo or Suica cards, and there is no difference between the two, except who sells them: SUICA is sold by JR East, while Pasmo is sold by Non-JR operator. The Osaka version of the card is called ICOCA. All IC Cards work across Japan no matter where you purchase them from, can be bought at any station, can be topped up at all stations – convenience at its best. They cost 1000 yen (~8 euros), with a 500 yen deposit which you can reclaim when you return the card back. They can also be used to pay at many convenience stores, shops and vending machines. I would advise to buy the IC card as soon you reach Japan – no more hassles with change, or figuring out the exact cost of the ticket. The metro lines run in Japan only till midnight, so plan your night travels accordingly.
There are 3 apps I used for transportation in Japan – Japan Direct, Hyperdia and Navitime. I used Hyperdia for within city travel, and Japan Direct for planning the inter-city train routes. The best “all-in-one” app in my opinion is ‘Japan Direct‘. It has a good English interface, option to select routes where JR Pass is available and an itinerary planner. I used the itinerary planner a lot to save my favorite routes in the app itself. This also helped me to book seats all at once at the JR station by just showing the kind Japanese person (with limited English skills) behind the ticket counter my planned trains for the week on the app.
Transportation in Japan was amazing – the trains are punctual, clean and safe. The signs are also in English, and the directions in train stations are clearly labelled. While using the IC cards, you need to scan them at the smart machines while entering and leaving. However, the JR Pass just needs to be physically shown at the counter to an agent while passing through the barriers, and does not have to be scanned.
I found the trains more convenient to use than metro lines because the cars (coaches) are clearly labelled (reserved versus non-reserved) and there are several ticket officers at the platforms in case of questions. For the subways, some stations like Tokyo main station can be overwhelming because they operate several lines and more than 3 million people use the station everyday. I would suggest to avoid peak times of travel while using the metro if possible ( between 6.30-9.00 and 17.00-19.00).
This ends Part 1 of the Series: Planning your trip to Japan!
Continue reading Part 2: Where to stay and what to see
If you would like to see a glimpse of what Japan has to offer (under 4 minutes), check out the video below 🙂