Can you believe that right now, you’re one of 21.1 million people predicted to plan a trip to Japan this year? If that doesn’t get your head spinning, the estimated 30+ hours you’re likely to spend combing through websites for the information you need probably will. Before you start massaging your temples and reconsidering your plans, we’re here to help.
Introducing the ultimate guide to Japan. You'll find it all here, from tourist trends and travel statistics to flavorful foods and locally beloved practices. With a whopping 32 million travelers touching down in 2019, the “Land of the Rising Sun” is one of the most visited countries in the world.
Though the pandemic drastically dipped visitors to 3.8 million in 2022, the recently reopened nation is headed for a tourism revival, and you could be part of it. So close those tabs and let’s lock into what makes Japan a sightseer’s dream!
Why We Love Japan
Japan, also known as Nippon, is a large cluster of islands resting along the northwest Pacific Ocean. There are 4 major islands, Honshu (the largest), Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu, and over 4000 smaller islands! With a population of 126 million and varying climates, Japan is home to several cultural phenomena and visual wonders that have already attracted 4.7 million visitors in the first 3 months of 2023. So, why do so many people go to Japan? Let's break it down.
Japan's cultural legacy is as inescapable as its dedication to technological advancement and traditional preservation. Two hundred years of isolation, or Sakoku, built an unshakeable appreciation for Japanese philosophy, society, and values. The result? These elements of Japan bewitch even the most casual traveler;
- Manga & Anime - Japan’s love affair with animated storytelling dates back centuries to 1765 when color printing was introduced. What started as Gesaku, a playful way to entertain people while delivering socio-political commentary, has evolved into a form of passionate artistic expression with a dedicated fanbase. For a fast-paced deep dive into anime, video game, and manga culture, head to Akihabara in Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward.
- Looking for a calmer, nostalgic journey? Try the Ghibli Museum, dedicated to the brilliant world of Hayao Miyazaki and his beloved characters.
- Japanese Traditional Architecture- Known as Wayo Kenchiku, Japanese architecture is distinct, featuring wooden structures, sliding doors, cushioned floors, and intricate roof designs. If you're looking for an immersive traditional experience, head to one of the many Ryokan (traditional inns) across Kyoto, Hakone, and some parts of Tokyo.
- Tea Time - If you’re fortunate enough, you’ve got to experience the art form that is a Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony. The attention to detail, hospitality, and reflective nature behind such a simple task is enchanting.
- Pottery - How can you interact with over 16,000 years of rich pottery traditions? Touring a pottery town, of course! Interactive experiences can be found from Tochigi to the islands of Okinawa. You'll walk away with plenty of knowledge, some pottery skills, and a suitcase full of souvenirs.
- Swordsmanship Celebrated - Broadly referred to as Kenjutsu, the Japanese art of sword fighting flourished during the Edo period (think Samurai, shoguns, and elaborate castles). You won't get your own katana (sword), but a kendo class will get you pretty energized!
Food is the stuff of life, and it doesn't get any better than Japan's world-star cuisine. Which Japanese dishes should be on your list?
- Sushi - There's no food more synonymous with Japanese cuisine than this vinegared rice-based dish that comes in different shapes, sizes, and prices. In fact, sushi is so popular that it generated 1.55 trillion yen nationwide in 2019 alone! Nigiri, Gunkan, Norimaki, Temaki, and Inari are just some of the many varieties.
- Ramen - Warm, hearty, and enjoyed with endless toppings, Ramen is hard to miss no matter where you are in Japan. Each region has its special twist, but Sapporo is known for celebrating the bubbling bowl of goodness with endless options, including the savory miso ramen.
- Takoyaki - Made famous in the Japanese street food capital Osaka, Takoyaki is a ball of grilled octopus and flavored batter decorated with different toppings and sauces. The best place to find some fresh takoyaki? Dotonbori district!
- Tempura - Did you know that this snack is imported from Portugal? Now a staple in many restaurants, tempura features deep-fried seafood or vegetables accompanied by soba or rice bowls.
- Wagyu - Looking for a taste of Japanese luxury? Wagyu is where it's at. This high-end beef is expensive for a reason, and every bit worth it. Around 90% of the world's full-blood wagyu cattle are in Japan, so don't miss out on this delicacy.
Travel Treat: Feeling for fresh food and exciting flavors? It's time for a GoWithGuide Japan Food Tour! Simply pick your region and taste your way through the nation.
As the brilliant Japanese writer Haruki Murakami says, "Nature grants its beauty to us all, drawing no line between rich and poor". So let's discover the landscapes that inspire Japan's love affair with nature.
- Mt. Fuji - Located in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Mt. Fuji is Japan’s tallest mountain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a source of spiritual significance for Japanese people. In the summer of 2022 alone, over 160,000 people trekked this sacred mountain, and the park sees millions of visitors each year.
- The Hokkaido Lavender Fields - Sakura season isn’t the only time to revel in Japan’s flora and fauna. Tucked away in northern Japan lies the rolling purple fields of Hokkaido. To catch the full bloom, plan your trip around late June to mid-July.
- Kumano Kodo - Be prepared for the nature walk of a lifetime. The Kumano Kodo trails are a network of routes that span 1000 years, hosting countless spiritual pilgrimages. Today, traversing across the UNESCO World Heritage sacred site will bring you face-to-face with breathtaking waterfalls and green rolling hills.
- Ishigaki Island Beaches - Looking to experience Japanese island living at its finest? Head to Ishigaki island in the Okinawa prefecture, where you'll find several sandy beaches such as Kabira Bay, Yonehara, Sukuji, and Sunset. It's a snorkel enthusiast's dream come true.
- Ogasawara Islands - This one is for animal lovers. Home to endangered species such as the flying fox, this cluster of islands is recognized by the UNESCO world heritage convention. For an unforgettable trip, clear your schedule and take the ferry from Tokyo to Chichijima.
Who Else Loves Japan
Okay, so clearly Japan is a bucket list nation. So where does Japan rank in top tourist spots? Well, in 2019, Japan was crowned the 11th most visited country in the world. It was also the 3rd most visited country in Asia & the Pacific, beating out top destinations like India, South Korea, and Malaysia!
So this begs the question, what country visits Japan the most? The winners are…
- China- A whopping 9.5 million Chinese residents traveled to neighboring Japan in 2019. Due to heavy travel restrictions, this number dropped to 189,000 in 2022.
- South Korea- Coming in second is South Korea, with 5.5 million visitors in 2019. The travel lift in October 2022 saw South Koreans overtake Chinese travelers with 1 million visitors.
- Taiwan- In 2019, over 4.8 million Taiwanese travelers touched down in Japan. This number dipped to 331,100 in 2022 but has blossomed to 248,500 in February of 2023 alone.
- Hong Kong- Hong Kong takes 4th place with 2.2 million travelers in 2019. By 2022, Hong Kong held the 5th position with 269,285 travelers.
- The United States- Rounding out our top five is the United States, with a hefty 1.7 million travelers in 2019. Even with restricted travel in 2022, 392,000 U.S. citizens came to explore the country. So do Americans need a visa for Japan? No. Thanks to the 90-day visa waiver, American citizens can touch down in Japan at any time with a few requirements.
So Japan is popular all over the world, but want to know who really loves this nation? Japanese people! Domestic tourism in Japan is no joke. So what are Japan's domestic tourism statistics? Well, in 2019 alone, a staggering 587 million domestic trips took place.
In fact, domestic travel kept the tourism industry afloat during the pandemic, with around 268 million domestic trips taken in 2021, during nationwide travel restrictions. This tourism contributed to 76% of the nation's tourism spending.
Japan At A Glance: Planning The Perfect Trip (Where, When & How)
Blessed with rare landscapes, unforgettable meals, and stunning sites, it's no wonder Japan has a vibrant relationship with tourism. So what percentage of Japan's GDP comes from tourism? In 2019, 7.5% of the nation’s GDP came from this industry.
Does that mean the nation depends on it? Well, in 2017 alone, the tourism industry employed over 6.5 million people, and 2019's travel and tourism numbers brought in 359 billion USD. It’s clear that tourism and Japan go hand in hand, so how can you create a trip that creates the same chemistry? Let’s find out.
Japan's Top Destinations
So where do Japanese & international tourists go? Let's see, shall we?
- Tokyo - This one’s for the city lover. With 66 million visitors annually, Japan's capital has something for everyone, from the buzzing streets of Shinjuku to the waters of Lake Biwa. If you know you want to taste the best of Tokyo, but you're unsure where to start, check out this essential Tokyo Tour, or speak to a local Tokyo private guide about creating a personalized Tokyo itinerary.
- Kyoto - Welcome to Kyoto, where traditional style meets modern living. Here is where you'll find popular sites such as the Fushimi Inari Shrine, the Nijo Jo Castle, the Kinkakuji Temple, and the Nishiki Market. You can spend days exploring Kyoto, and the lodging is world-class, with several Ryokan (Japanese inns) to choose from.
- Osaka - Calling all food lovers, it's time to tour Osaka! Over 39 million visitors flock here to discover the heart of Japanese cuisine. Osaka is also a great base destination for those looking to travel to nearby Nara, Kobe, or Kyoto. For the ultimate thrill, plan a trip to Universal Studios Japan, where the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the Super Nintendo World, and terrifyingly enchanting worlds from anime like Jujutsu Kaisen and Attack on Titan await.
- Okinawa Main Island - Okinawan culture is so unique that several residents consider it distinct from Japanese culture. If you're a history lover, you'll enjoy Okinawa's World War 2 experience, and for foodies with a soft spot for fresh ingredients, spend your days along mainland beaches and seaside towns. Our Okinawa guides have interacted with the island for years, giving them a unique perspective on day-to-day living in the popular prefecture.
- Kanagawa - You could spend a day getting lost in Kamakura, one of Japan's ancient capitals. Sankeien Garden, the Ramen Museum in Yokohama, and the Hakone Open Air Museum are just some of the many attractions to add to your adventure.
When To Go: Festive Seasons
When it comes to touring Japan, timing is everything. Here’s the scoop on the best each season has to offer.
Spring: Sakura Season (March to May)
If you time your trip just right, you'll experience Japan's beloved Sakura (cherry blossom) season. Running from late March to early May, this phenomenon draws in crowds from around the world. Enjoy the view at the Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival held from April to May, or the Kakunodate Festival.
Summer: Bring The Heat (June to August)
Japanese summers are known for the legendary festivals that follow. Kyoto’s Gion Festival eclipses the entire month of July with its beautiful lanterns and elaborate floats. Early August brings the Aomori Nebuta Festival where gigantic, human-shaped floats take over Nebuta's streets.
Fall: Floats, Food & Fun (September to November)
Did you miss the Sakura blooming season? Not to worry, it's Momiji (maple leaf) time! The Fujiwara Autumn Festival in Hiraizumi is a three-day celebration full of performances, costume displays, and the opportunity to watch Japan's maple leaves turn color. Fall is also the best time for entertainment enthusiasts to enjoy Tokyo Comic Con and the Tokyo International Film Festival.
Winter: Fire & Ice ( December to February)
Winter isn’t all about chilly nights and damp days. Heat things up with the Nozawa Fire Festival. Every January, a fire-setting battle lights up the night sky. If you’re a fan of sculptural work, you’ll enjoy the Sapporo Snow Festival, where Japan's snow is transformed into beloved characters, monuments, buildings, and historical figures.
How To Get Around: Japan’s Iconic Transport Systems
It's no secret that Japan's public transport is among the best in the world. Once the innovative Shinkansen (bullet train) took the world by storm, this nation has been ahead of the curve. Want to enjoy the ride? Here are a few transit tips.
- Shinkansen (bullet train) - With top speeds of 320 km per hour, you could get from Tokyo to Osaka in under 3 hours. For a stress-free trip, we suggest getting a JapanRail Pass at the airport when you arrive. It’s reloadable and easy to use, plus there’s no limit on where you can go. Be sure to pick up an eki-bento box before you board.
- Daily Travel (rail & bus) - Japan's train system is efficient, and timely and makes your day-to-day transport a breeze, especially with a prepaid IC Card. The card takes away the annoyance of cash and change. On top of that, you can recharge it at most malls, shops, and convenience stores, so you'll never be stranded. Not sure where to start with transport cards? Check out a guide's perspective on transport options in Tokyo.
- Private Car - Looking to travel with a little more convenience and luxury? A private car is the way to go. Though uncommon in Japan's public-transport dominant culture, private cars give you the freedom of stopping and starting whenever you want.
What To Expect: Life In The Land Of The Rising Sun
As Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “there are no foreign lands, it is only the traveler who is foreign”. So let’s get you acquainted with the lay of the land in Japan.
Thanks to its closeness to the ocean, volcanic terrain, and position along the Pacific Ocean, Japan experiences a mixture of climates and weather conditions, though they all fall under the 4 seasons structure (Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter). Here's what to expect from Japan's major regions.
Northern Japan (Tohoku Region)
Destinations: Aomori, Fukushima, Akita, Miyagi, Yamagata,
Temperature lows of -3°C (27°F) can be experienced during the coldest month of February, while average annual temperatures of 9.7°C (49.5°F) can be felt year-round. Winter is the dominant season here, but things warm up around summer with highs of 25°C (77°F).
Eastern Japan (Kanto Region)
Destinations: Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Chiba
Eastern Japan sees the highest tour traffic, thanks to locations like Tokyo and Kanagawa. During the winter, the Kanto region can get pretty cold. For example, Tokyo can reach temperatures of 2.7°C (37°F). The summer brings much-needed relief with average highs of 30.5°C (86°F). Overall average yearly temperatures float around the 20°C (68°F) range.
Western Japan (Kansai/Kinki Region)
Destinations: Himeji, Kobe, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara
Western Japan has an intense mix of hot and cold. Temperature highs of 38.6°C (101°F) in August demand sunhats and breathable clothing. Things can get pretty humid from June-August. Fall and Spring temperatures are much cooler with averages of 10.1C (50.2°F). During the winter, average lows of 1°C (31°F) are expected, though, in areas like Kyoto, it can drop to below zero.
Okinawa & South Kyushu
Destinations: Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Nagasaki, Okinawa
Japan's southern region holds mostly subtropical and Mediterranean weather, so expect high temperatures during the summer, and a fairly cool winter. The two dominant seasons are spring and summer.
So what is the best month to visit Japan? If you're looking for fun in the sun, try July to August. Japan's winter season is the best for hot spring lovers, so December to February is your target time. Flower fans will enjoy Japanese springtime, which falls between March and May. Lastly, Autumn brings the best of all seasons and festivals, so travel between September and November.
Do’s & Don’ts
Japan is one of the most inviting, hospitable countries in the world. With that said, here are some practices to keep in mind.
Pretty amazing isn't it? And we're not just saying that because Japan is GoWithGuide's mothership. There's never a dull moment when touring the country. You know what can be dull? Getting lost in a process that’s supposed to create relaxation and anticipation.
Take it easy and let our Japan Private Tour Guides take the reins. With a dedicated guide by your side, you'll discover the places you're truly interested in, avoiding awkward language barriers, social missteps, misinformation, and confusion. On top of that, you'll have a vast pool of knowledge, a flexible itinerary, and endless information at your fingertips. It's time, let's plan the perfect Japan trip together!
P.S.: Looking to travel with companions? The more, the merrier! Share this post with your friends and get them as excited about touring Japan as you are!