3 Reasons Why You Actually Need To Plan In Advance For The Best Trip To Japan

And no, not just during cherry blossom season.

Some locations are uniquely suited to spontaneous, “winging it” kind of travel. Japan? Not so much. Unlike some other popular destinations, Japan is best experienced when planned for well in advance.

Here are three of the main reasons why, according to Journy’s expert Japan Trip Designer, Sarah.

1. To get into the best restaurants

Restaurants in Japan can be tiny (we’re talking 10-seater hole-in-the-walls), which means they fill up quickly. Dinner reservations are absolutely necessary and, for the most part, set in stone. Many establishments will charge cancellation fees equivalent to the cost of the meal—sometimes the cutoff is 24 hours, other times up to five days.

“Japanese culture is very orderly,” explains Sarah. “Nothing really happens haphazardly. There's a culture in general of making advance plans or appointments and respecting them, which includes restaurants.”

Reservations are primarily only accepted by phone, which presents two main challenges for foreign travelers:

  1. Time difference
    The window when most restaurants accept reservations is often during the middle of the night in the US.
  2. Language barrier
    Even if you do manage to get through on the phone, odds are the person on the other end won’t speak English.

And, more likely, no one will pick up at all since many establishments only accept reservations from a local Japanese number. And sometimes they don’t even field calls from third party travel agents at all.

If you do stroll into a restaurant without a reservation, don’t expect to be put on a waiting list. Even if there’s a spot open in two hours, you won’t be asked for your name and phone number. You’ll simply be turned away.

That’s why, here at Journy, we recommend all travelers planning a trip to Japan to opt for our FULL service where we make all reservations and bookings for you. We work with a dedicated Japanese reservationist to snag those hard-to-get spots at the best restaurants, which is when we also double check to ensure that any and all dietary accommodations and/or allergies can be accommodated.  

Plus, with our insider intel and expert network, we have a pulse on the Japanese dining scene and will only recommend the spots that are, in fact, the best—both for the food and overall attitude towards foreigners. Sometimes, it’s a spot you’ve heard of before. Other times, it’s not. Remember, name recognition and Netflix fame aren’t everything.

We steer you in the right direction so you avoid wasting time waking up in the middle of the night on a fool’s errand to try and get a reservation at a restaurant that—surprise!—is booked for the next 16 months (or will only let you in if you’re a regular).

And we mark our calendars with the exact date and time that a reservation opens, so you don't have to. We know the best ways to contact the restaurant, what type of communication they’re most receptive to and who they’re most receptive to receiving it from. And we make sure, above all, that your experience is nothing short of incredible.

Touring the Imperial Palace, entering the lottery to attend the tuna auction at the fish market, experiencing a traditional tea ceremony, taking a food tour and visiting a handful of museums (especially Ghibli Museum, Yayoi Kusama Museum and teamLab Borderless Digital Arts Museum) are examples of attractions and experiences that require advance booking—but it’s not as easy as purchasing tickets online.

Oftentimes, there’s a specific day and time that bookings open for the specific day that you want to attend the attraction. So for the Ghibli museum, for example, you have to be online at 10AM Japan time on the 10th of the month prior to the month you’ll be visiting. If you don’t click to purchase the moment tickets become available, you’ll likely miss the opportunity to do so. Plus, because there’s so much targeted traffic at that specific time every month, the site tends to crash. Crazy, we know.

“Japan is known for being at the forefront of a lot of technology, but in reality a lot of the way day-to-day life functions is pretty analog,” explains Sarah. “Business is conducted over the phone or in person and they don’t necessarily have user-friendly websites even if there’s an English translation.”

Traveling with Journy on the FULL service means it’s OUR job to take care of that. As long as you request far enough in advance, we’ll mark our calendars and work with reservationists who do everything in their power to secure these tickets for you, whether that means purchasing in-person at a vending machine or navigating the confusing, sometimes poorly translated websites.

There was even one time a popular tourist attraction needed to receive the booking confirmation by mail in order to actually confirm—in which case our reservationist promptly sent it through.

3. To get a JR Pass

Shinkansen | Gérard | Flickr

The Japan Rail Pass (also known as the JR Pass) is a cost-effective option for long distance train travel in Japan—used most often by travelers en route from Tokyo to Kyoto and down to Osaka and Hiroshima. This is not something that can easily be purchased in Japan; not only is it available in limited locations, but it’s more expensive to purchase there.

Instead, it’s best to buy it well before you leave via www.jrpass.com. Just make sure to give yourself enough time to get the pass shipped to your home. You can also have a pre-loaded Suica card (similar to a metrocard for public transportation) sent along with the JR Pass, which is recommended for peace of mind—especially on your first day so you don’t have to navigate the ticket machines when you may not be familiar with them or have Japanese yen yet.

For most, Japan is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, so why risk the uncertainty of not getting into a restaurant you’ve been dying to try or a museum everyone has been telling you to go to? Why risk spending more on transportation than you need to or losing sleep (quite literally) over the stressful reservation and bookings process?

Planning a trip to Japan with Journy’s FULL service means your personal trip designer will make the coveted reservations first and then build the remainder of the itinerary around those reservations. Trust us, we’ve planned hundreds of thousands of Japan trips… we’ve got you covered.

To see a breakdown of different multi-city itineraries, check out our guide for planning your first trip to Japan.