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Explore Japan Without A Guide

Planning and research is essential if you want to explore without a guide and discover the real Japan. 

Can You Explore Japan Without A Guide?
Reasons to Explore Without A Guide
Six Things To Do Before You Travel To Japan
Ideas For Exploring Japan Without a Guide
Bonus Recommendations


Japan is a land of discovery, filled with unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. If it’s your first time visiting this incredible country, one of your earliest decisions will be whether to book a tour guide and holiday package or plan your own trip and explore without a guide. The latter is undoubtedly appealing for those who want to see the ‘real’ Japan and who enjoy the freedom of being in complete control of their travel experience. If you want to go your own way while having the flexibility to play it by ear while on the move then a holiday without a guide could be for you. In this blog, we’ll look at how best to plan your trip, the main reasons why exploring without a guide is a good idea, how best to get around with the JR Pass, and a list of recommended activities. Okay, let’s get started. 

Can You Explore Japan Without A Guide?

The short answer is ‘yes, absolutely’ but, of course, there is much more to it than that or this would be a very short blog! The key to exploring Japan without a guide is good planning research beforehand. If you do this properly, it will give you the knowledge foundation to be more flexible when you’re in Japan as the need arises. If you want to wing it  and head to one of Japan’s beaches for example, because the weather is good, then you’ll know exactly which beach to choose and how to get there with the right research. Similarly, if it’s the rainy season, good planning will educate you on how to book sumo or kabuki tickets, which temples and shrines you can visit nearby to find shelter, or the nearest onsen where you can soak and relax. From travel planning using Japan’s domestic rail network to language and etiquette tips and much more, you can research everything you need to know and that’s going to be key when you hit the road (or the rails) without a guide.   

Reasons to Explore Without A Guide

Now that we’ve established that you can explore Japan without a guide, let’s look at the main reasons why you might want to: 

  • Freedom to plan your own itinerary
  • Flexibility to be spontaneous and change your plans if you feel like it
  • The opportunity to see the ‘real’ Japan
  • A chance to explore off the beaten path and visit more remote, less touristy destinations where guides and tours aren’t likely to go
  • Japan is safe, clean, and incredibly well connected by train making it an ideal country to explore
  • The ability to tailor your Japan trip to your exact interests. If you’re a book lover, why not go on a Literary Tour of Japan? If you’re a gamer, geek, or lover of all things contemporary, you might want to plan a trip based around Japan’s gaming industry hotspots. Perhaps you want a spiritual detox by visiting the country’s temples, shrines, or monasteries, or a journey that takes you the length and breadth of Japan in the form of a Torii Gate Tour of Japan? The choice is yours when you travel without a guide! 

Six Things To Do Before You Travel To Japan

As we’ve explained above, planning and research is essential to exploring Japan without a guide. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be.  

1. Plan your travel itinerary and Order a Japan Rail Pass 

Plan your travel itinerary using the country’s fast, efficient, and world-leading domestic rail network. This is one of the places where good planning and research beforehand will really pay off. Learning the best way to get from A to B with the Japan Rail Pass will help you plan the best itinerary possible and avoid any surprises while on-the-go. This can help you avoid accidentally spending too much time travelling (by accidentally taking the long way round) when you’re only in Japan for a week or so. While most routes are easy, it’s still good to know when your train is coming, how much time you have for a given transfer and when you’ll be arriving. 

2. Check out our blog! 

Our blog features hundreds of in-depth guides on every subject you can possibly imagine related to Japan. It’s an indispensable resource for anyone planning a trip to this amazing country. We have also mapped out dozens of detailed train itineraries for you to follow to make it as easy as possible for you to get anywhere in Japan that you want to go. You can find our blog here

3. Read books on Japan

Whether you’re a fan of fiction or nonfiction, travel writing, history, or food books, if you enjoy reading, there’s so much you can learn about Japan without even leaving your chair. For more on this subject, check out our blog, Five Books To Read About Japan before you travel. Japan has a rich literary history going back centuries, from one of the first novels in history in ‘The Tale of Genji’ to award-winning contemporary authors such as Haruki Murakami in the modern day, but if you’re looking to learn as much as you can about Japan’s past, present, and future, you need a selection of books that explore this amazing country from different perspectives. As a starting point for an undertaking of Japan’s rich history, why not try ‘Japan Story: In Search of a Nation – 1850 to the Present’ by Christopher Harding? Meanwhile, for Japan’s more colourful, contemporary culture, we recommend ‘A Geek in Japan’ by Hector Garcia. For more on this subject, check out our blog, Five Books To Read About Japan Before You Travel.

4. Research Japan’s Language and Etiquette

A little Japanese can go a long way, especially if you plan to travel without a guide. When it comes to the Japanese language, even 15 minutes a day can make a huge difference and can help you go far beyond just Arigatou and Konnichiwa (meaning “thank you” and “hello”). Listen to a podcast on speaking Japanese, watch a class on YouTube, download a language app in your App Store, or order a book through your local bookshop. A good place to get started is to learn Hiragana, the standard Japanese phonetic alphabet. It will help you read most things in Japan, and is super handy for finding the right stop on the train while travelling with the JRailPass. Again, our blog page can really help you here as we’ve already covered a number of topics related to etiquette including table manners, bathing etiquette, visiting a Japanese home, business etiquette, and more. Finally, for a general guide, you can find out more about customs and etiquette in our comprehensive Guide to Japanese Etiquette for Beginners: Rules Every Visitor Should Know.

5. Learn about Japanese Food!

Japan’s food is famous and rightly so, which makes this research arguably the most enjoyable, especially if your holiday planning takes you to Japanese restaurants! Of course, there’s more to Japanese food than simply eating it and there’s also a huge number of regional dishes and specialities to discover in Japan that you might not know from Western restaurants that focus mainly on sushi and ramen. You may even want to practise cooking Japanese dishes in our own home as preparation for your visit. Our Beginners Guide to Japanese Food and Regional Dishes is another good place to start. You’ll also find other useful food-related blogs on our website including guides to Japanese table manners, ordering from a traditional Izakaya restaurant and more.

6. Virtually Explore Japan Using Technology

Thanks to the wonders of 21st century technology, you can explore Japan using your computer and phone without travelling an inch, which is perfect for virtually planning your real-life trip. One great way to do this is via Google Maps and Google Street View - and yes, you’ve guessed it, we’ve even written a blog post on the subject. Using this technology, you can explore Japan from the comforts of your home: wander around in cities, virtually climb Mt. Fuji, take a drive along the Okinawan coast, walk through a Shinkansen train carriage, enjoy an Onsen bath, have a virtual Sakura pick-nick, the list goes on. Read our guide to Using Google Maps to get a sneak peek of Japan and our Tips for Exploring Japan Virtually for everything you need to know. Alongside this, there are some amazingly useful apps out there and some brilliant YouTube channels you can watch in preparation for travelling to Japan without a guide. Channels such as ‘Only in Japan’, ‘Life Where I’m From’, ‘Rachel and Jun’, and ‘Abroad in Japan’, can provide a huge amount of easy to absorb information about different aspects of visiting Japan. ‘Only in Japan’, for example, has more than 1.4 million subscribers, and covers everything from travel in Japan, technology, festivals, pop culture and more, while ‘Abroad in Japan’ features advice to travellers for getting around Japan, destination videos, and more. Read our guide to Japan Travel YouTube Channels for an in-depth guide to our recommended channels and what they cover.   

Ideas For Exploring Japan Without a Guide

There’s a huge amount to see and do across Japan, from the futuristic cities to the rural landscapes and coastlines, the ancient history, culture,  and religion, to the latest technology, shopping, and trends. Japan is so diverse and so packed full of unique experiences that you could have a number of completely different holidays there.  Let's take a look at a few ideas to get you started.

1. Japan’s most remote destinations

If you’re going without a guide, you’re likely to be interested in going your own way and exploring off the beaten path locations across Japan. Needless to say, Japan has some of the most exciting, spectacular, and beautiful remote places to visit in the world. Here are a few suggestions: There are few places in Japan as remote as Cape Nosappu, located at the most eastern point of Hokkaido. A train journey from Tokyo takes more than 15 hours, with only one possible route per day. The cape is at the point where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Okhotsk and Russia can be seen far in the distance. It is truly a place of rough winds, wild waves and the oldest lighthouse of Hokkaido - dating back to 1872. Next, at the opposite end of Japan, is Okinawa. Found in the East China Sea southeast of mainland Japan, Okinawa is a chain of islands that’s a world away from the Japan you know. It is actually closer to Taiwan than to Kyushu, so it is no surprise they have their own culture, history and climate. It’s these characteristics that make the islands of Okinawa so enticing. Most of the people that live in the Okinawa Islands are found on the main island of Okinawa. What that means is that many of the other 150 or so islands that make up this archipelago are completely uninhabited. Instead, you’ll typically find white sand beaches, vibrant coral reefs and lush tropical jungle on and around the islands. Other exciting, off the beaten path destination ideas include Iya Valley, Shikoku, Hachijojima, Noto Peninsula, Honshu, and the Kita Alps. Japan is an amazing place for exploring wild and wonderful places off the beaten path and without a tour guide. For more recommendations, read our guide to The Most Remote Places in Japan

2. Check out Japan’s lesser-known (yet still awesome) cities

Japan’s biggest and most famous cities, Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, may get a lot of the press, but if you want to tailor your holiday into a more personalised and less ‘touristy’ experience, then Japan has many lesser known and equally incredible cities, packed with temples, shrines, sights, and sounds, you’ll never forget, while also feeling like a place you’ve ‘discovered’ for yourself. Beautiful and historic destinations like Kamakura and Koya-San are definitely worth visiting while cities like Kanazawa, Yokohama, Nikko, Nagano, Beppu, Kagoshima, and Fukuoka, are just as vibrant, fun, interesting, and dazzling places to visit as Japan’s more famous cities, while offering the chance of a more one-off, personalised experience. For more examples like this read our guide, The less frequented Cities of Japan You’ll definitely Want to Visit.

3. Visit real-life magical Studio Ghibli locations

World-famous Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli, have created magical films that have captured the hearts and imaginations of fans worldwide. If you explore Japan without a guide, this means you can tailor the trip exactly to your unique and individual interests. If you’re a Studio Ghibli fan this could mean visits to the Studio Ghibli Museum, but also to the newly opened Ghibli Park as well as off the beaten track journeys via train and the JR Pass to real-life locations that served as the inspiration for many of Studio Ghibli’s most famous films, from the stunningly picturesque fishing village of Tomonoura to the wild, untamed forests of Yakushima.  

4. Take a Walk on the Wildside!

Japan’s diverse natural landscape is as beautiful and wild as its cities are big and modern. It’s an exciting contrast and one which lends itself to wild adventures. From the country’s numerous National Parks to mountains, forests, lakes, rivers, and beaches, Japan has it all, as well as a spectacular range of wildlife, from the famous snow monkeys to whales, mobula rays, rabbit islands, cat islands, and much more. Read our guide to going on A Wildlife Tour of Japan for a great overview. Make your visit to Japan unique by travelling around this unique country’s strikingly diverse landscape by train on your own itinerary for animal experiences and outdoor adventures.  

5. Stay in Unusual Accommodation

Without a guide, you’ll not only have the flexibility to go wherever you want to go, but also to stay wherever you like, including more adventurous accommodation. Japan is famous for its weird and wonderful places to stay. This is the country that invented the capsule hotel after all! Without a guide and standard accommodation options, you’ll be free to choose from the likes of bookshop hotels (literally sleeping between the bookshelves), sleeper trains, Buddhist monasteries, art islands, ice hotels, accommodation staffed by robots, and any number of unique, quirky, and themed capsule hotels (from Toy Story to Hello Kitty). For an in-depth guide to Japan’s diverse accommodation, read our guide to The Most Unusual Accommodation in Japan - ideal reading for those who want a unique visit to Japan.  

Bonus Recommendations

As we’ve emphasised in today’s blog, planning and research are essential if you plan to explore Japan without a guide. Here are a few bonus recommendations that should help:

  • There’s no limit to the amount of useful research you can do on Japan before you arrive, especially if you’re planning to travel without a guide.
  • Invest in a pocket wifi device so you’re never without access to directions, transport times, language tips, or any other help you need. A Pocket Wifi device gives you unlimited internet on up to 10 devices wherever you go in Japan. It’s indispensable when travelling without a guide.
  • Get a helping hand on arrival. Even if you want to explore Japan without a guide, it doesn’t hurt to have some expert help when you first arrive. Our special Meet and Greet Service is like having a personal assistant to liaise with and offers much more freedom and flexibility than a tour guide.   

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