I’ve ridden in more trains, flown on more planes, and walked on more streets in Japan without a plan than I’d care to remember. I love the spontaneity of it all, but is this really the best way to explore the country?
It is possible to travel around Japan without a plan which gives you a bigger sense of freedom and potentially a less stressful travel experience. There are however a few things to take into consideration before making that decision, most of which could make or break your holiday.
So while it might be possible to travel around Japan with little to no planning, for some people it absolutely won’t be the right decision. Curious if you fall into that category? Let’s get into it!
Prepare with these Japan travel resources
While it is possible to travel to Japan without a plan, your success depends on how you prepare and the way you set yourself up in the beginning. It’s also important to remember that your version of going to Japan without a plan may be different from someone else.
For some people, you might want to just book your flight and organize everything else when you get there. That can be done as long as you’re going during a less busy time of year.
For others, you’ll want to book things as and when, maybe a couple of days before (which means relying on a few apps and websites to get you there).
And for the remaining few, you’ll want to plan everything (hotels & flights), but leave your itinerary open-ended. For instance, you’ll know you want to go to Tokyo, but what you actually do when you’re there may be left up to chance.
I imagine you’ll fit into one of those three categories, and so make sure your trip goes as smoothly as possible, I’ve collated some essential resources.
I’ve used these time and time again, and they should really be part of any traveler’s preparation!
Airalo – The best travel eSIM
Have you ever been abroad, completely forgotten to turn your data roaming off, and been charged an absolute fortune? Me too…
I also find the whole getting a local sim card thing far too time-consuming and often not transparent enough. If we’re visiting Japan without a plan, simplicity is key, and reliability is everything. That’s where eSIM company Airalo comes in.
You simply download the app, chose Japan out of the destinations available, install the sim, and then activate it. Done!
Japan’s sim ‘Moshi Moshi’ (perfect name by the way!) goes from 1GB of data over 7 days, up to 20GB over a month (and you can top up), so just chose which best represents your situation the best and be prepared before you step foot in the country!
Discover Cars – Car rental = Freedom
This one is highly dependent on your situation and what you’re looking to get out of your trip. If coming to Japan without a plan means you don’t have any clue where you want to go but you know it’s not the city, then hiring a car is an excellent idea.
If you want to stick to the major cities and you know they’re all easily accessible by train, perhaps this won’t be something on your list. However, if it is, Discover Cars are my rental company of choice.
Safety wing – Digital Nomad travel insurance
Please don’t travel without insurance!
If you’re traveling without a plan, this is perhaps even more important, but it should be a must on anyone’s checklist while preparing for their trip to Japan.
Safety Wing is an absolutely fantastic insurance company and if you’re planning a longer trip or perhaps heading off to another country afterward, they’re an even better choice.
For instance, if we take 18-39 year olds (the most common demographic on this site), you’ll have a $250 deductible with $250,000 worth of protection for $45.08 per month.
That’s absolutely insane value for money, such a small price to pay for peace of mind. It’s the insurance company I’ll be going with when I travel!
Wise.com – Fee-free travel card
Wise.com is an essential resource for anyone looking to travel to Japan without a plan and has long been a part of my financial toolkit.
Its best feature? It offers you the ability to open a multi-currency account with absolutely no hidden fees.
Not only that, but you’ll also be able to get cash out of the ATM without fees which means more spontaneity, and less planning!
The amount of money you can save with these guys is just stupid!
Skyscanner – Compare flights
This is an online flight search engine that allows you to quickly and easily compare prices of flights between different destinations in Japan, helping you save time and money while still allowing for spontaneity.
It also offers helpful tips on which airports are the most cost-effective (because flights to Japan can be expensive) or convenient depending on your destination. Whether you’re traveling solo or with a group, Skyscanner can help make sure that your trip goes as smoothly as possible from the outset even if you don’t have a plan while you’re there.
I’ll put the widget underneath so you can get searching (and booking!) right now!
Viator – Local & authentic tours
Believe it or not, you don’t need to have a plan when it comes to taking authentic local tours in Japan. With the help of sites like Viator, you can easily find and book amazing day trips and excursions without any prior planning.
Viator offers thousands of unique experiences that take you off the beaten path and give you a taste of authentic Japanese culture.
And the best part? You don’t have to book these experiences weeks in advance!
While I don’t go on tours often, these are the first people I turn to (and recommend!) if I want to learn more about an area.
Vrbo – Authentic homestays
I’m lucky enough to be living in a Japanese homestay, so I really appreciate the authenticity they can provide to people coming on vacation to Japan. One of the best ways to find these authentic Japanese homestays with little notice is through Vrbo.
Vrbo can provide you with short-term rental options that are affordable, authentic, and flexible. Perfect for those who don’t have a plan but still want something a bit different from a hotel!
I 12/10 recommend more than Airbnb, haha!
Expedia – Compare hotels
Prefer something a little more official?
While Expedia can compare a number of things, in this case, we’re interested in their hotels.
Depending on how much planning you actually want to do (everyone’s threshold will be different) Expedia is a great way to find and compare prices on hotels.
Because of this, it makes it pretty ideal for last-minute bookings without too much bother. I’ve included the widget below so you can play around with the time you’ll be staying!
Again, for some people, this will be too much preparation and planning, for others it will be a nice safety net just in case, and for the remaining people who want to book hotels and have no itinerary plan, it’ll be ideal.
The last resource I’ll suggest to you is this Japan bucket list that I made! The idea is simple, you travel to Japan without a plan, and this little (quite big!) list gives you a selection of options to tick off during your time to make sure you don’t miss anything.
It’s likely better for first-time travelers, but even if you’ve been before I think you’ll still get something out of it.
No time schedules, no planning, no rushing. 0 stress holidays in Japan just became real!
9 benefits of traveling without a plan in Japan
Take it from someone who’s done it frequently: Traveling without a plan in Japan can be an incredibly rewarding experience.
By foregoing the traditional route of booking tours and hotels well in advance, you can open yourself up to unexpected experiences that come with exploring one of the world’s most fascinating countries. Whether you want to go to Hakone or Kyoto, or perhaps even Hiroshima, you can do it all without having to plan anything.
There are plenty of reasons why traveling without a plan in Japan is becoming increasingly popular among travelers who are seeking something off the beaten path. Let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits this approach has to offer.
Traveling without a plan or without a tour gives you the freedom to change your itinerary on a whim. You can decide to stay in a city longer if you fall in love with it or move on somewhere else if it’s not your cup of tea.
You might take a detour to explore something that catches your eye, like an old temple or perhaps just the wonders of a Japanese HardOff. With no predetermined destination or timeline, you get to experience the journey itself and perhaps discover more than if you’d followed a set route. If done right, it’s a liberating way to travel to Japan!
When you’re not tied down to a set schedule, you’re more likely to stumble upon hidden gems and unexpected experiences. Whether it’s stumbling upon a quaint kissaten or a local matsuri (which happened to me once!), traveling without a plan can lead to some amazing discoveries.
You have to follow your heart and learn to truly go with the flow. If your train is delayed (unlikely in Japan), you might see that as a reason to stay just one more night, maybe at a capsule hotel or even a love hotel.
Traveling without a plan allows you to be spontaneous and embrace the unexpected. Who knows what adventures you’ll have when you’re not following a strict itinerary?
While a lot of people in Japan like to keep themselves to themselves, if you’re able to either interact with someone, even just a little bit, you’ll likely find them to be warm, inviting, and incredibly friendly.
Accepting and leaning into the spontaneous spirit of things has seen us party all night in downtown Roppongi, take the perilous 1 man pizza chairlift in Niseko, and spend Christmas day at Disney Sea.
When you’re traveling around Japan without a plan, make all those opportunities your number one priority. It’s perhaps the best reason for not planning your trip down to the last minute.
4. Local experiences
Without a set plan, you’ll have more time to connect with locals and discover their way of life. Whether it’s striking up a conversation with a friendly bartender or getting lost in a local neighborhood (a great idea in somewhere like Oshino Hakkai), traveling without a plan can help you immerse yourself in the local culture.
Whatever city you find yourself in, just pick a direction and walk. Japan has so many flipping train stations that you’ll never be too far from one if you need it, but venturing out of the popular tourist areas is so unbelievably important if you want to have even a slightly more authentic experience.
If you’re really looking for an authentic experience, head over to Viator (linked above in the resource list) and find yourself a local tour guide. Sometimes even something as simple as having dinner or a drink with one of these guides is enough to give you far more perspective on the Japanese way of life.
5. Reduced stress
Planning a trip can be stressful, and not having a set itinerary can take some of the pressure off. You won’t have to worry about sticking to a strict schedule or missing out on something because you’re running late.
I can fully attest to the stress that planning an entire holiday can make you feel. Perhaps stress isn’t the right word, but when you plan something so precisely and you’ve worked out all the connections, restraint bookings, and accommodation, it only takes one cancelation for the whole thing to get out of whack.
We recently found this out when me and my partner planned an entire 3-week itinerary for ourselves and our family over cherry blossom season, and an Airbnb canceled on us less than 12 hours before check-in time.
Not ideal for the holiday of a lifetime.
But if you don’t have a plan, you could simply turn up and figure it out when you’re there. No plan = less chance for disappointment. …Sort of!
Traveling without a plan can be cost-effective as it allows you to be flexible with your budget. However it can also work the other way, but we’ll get to that later on.
You can stay in cheaper accommodations or eat at local restaurants instead of pricier tourist spots. With a planned holiday, there’s a certain sense that we have to book and visit everything because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime holiday.
Without planning we set the budget at the start of our holiday for each day, and go where the money allows.
7. Adapting to circumstances
Traveling without a plan allows you to adapt to unexpected circumstances, such as weather or travel delays. You can adjust your plans on the fly, rather than feeling frustrated and stuck to a set itinerary.
I love outdoor activities, so most of my Japan itineraries include 70% or more activities outside. That’s great for my pocket, but not so great if the weather decides it doesn’t want to play ball.
If I didn’t book indoor things on a certain day and turned up, I may not be able to enter if it was busy, but I would be able to change my days around and dodge the bad weather.
I love helping people plan their trips, it’s literally what I do. However, I completely understand how planning a trip can be time-consuming, and traveling without a plan can save you time.
You won’t have to spend hours researching and creating an itinerary, and you can focus on enjoying your trip instead. Of course, this has a slightly diminishing return if you spend all your time in your hotel room trying to figure out something like where to buy Pokemon cards in Tokyo!
9. Serendipity & Memories
Some of the best travel memories in Japan that I have are the result of serendipity. Just like the photo of me above!
Without a plan, you open yourself up to unexpected experiences and encounters that you may have missed if you were following a set itinerary.
My point here is not the experience itself, but the memories you’ll create. So do yourself a favor and bring a camera along.
You never know what’ll happen next if you travel to Japan without a plan!
12 tips for traveling without a plan in Japan
Ok so by now, I’ve either convinced you to give traveling around Japan without a plan a try or the thought of anything else but getting a tour guide is your only option. Either way, take a look at these 13 tips on how to properly travel around Japan without much of a plan, and maybe I’ll help show you its beauty!
1. Purchase a local SIM card or rent a pocket Wi-Fi
Having access to the internet in Japan can be incredibly helpful for finding information on the go. That’s likely to happen a lot if you’re searching for the best things to do, accommodation options near you, and directions in general.
If you’re staying in Japan for a long time (up to 3 months on a tourist visa) I would recommend looking into a pocket wireless device. I use one from Japan Wireless, and it’s been pretty great so far – the unlimited data is the star of the show in my eyes.
But all in all, I’ve had a positive experience with them for my long-term rental. If you’re just coming over for a few weeks, go back to the top of the page and check out Airalo for the best eSIM on offer for traveling around Japan.
2. Download useful apps
Now you’ve got access to the internet, you’re going to want some pretty decent apps to help you out along the way. The exact set of apps you’ll use will depend on your individual circumstances (I use Happycow to find vegan restaurants), so I’ll keep this list fairly general.
- Google Maps – A decent app for getting from a-b in Japan. Business opening times are not always right, and it does sometimes get directions wrong. Is there an alternative?
- Japan Transit – My number one app for navigating Japan’s trains – EPIC!
- Jisho – A much better version of google translate for Japan if you’re just trying to translate a single word
- Google Translate – It’s definitely not always right, but can always help you get the general point across that you’re trying to make. Its photo mode is particularly helpful, especially for food.
- Booking apps – It could be handy to have the app versions of some of the resources I’ve listed at the top of this page.
3. Pack light
When traveling through Japan without a plan, you may find yourself moving around frequently. Packing light to make transportation easier and more convenient is your best move.
Japan as a whole frequently pushes the idea of ‘hands-free travel’. Not only does that ensure more space and fewer delays on the train, but also means you get to your destination pretty much hassle-free.
Traveling ‘hands-free’ is often accompanied by using a luggage forwarding service (airport -> hotel -> hotel -> airport) like Yamato Transport. These guys will ship your luggage around Japan for a very affordable price.
While I can personally vouch for their simplicity and reliability when I got them to ship my Japanese skis from Tokyo to Niseko (and I took the fun way round from Sapporo to Niseko by train!), I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea if you have no plan and may only stay in each place a single night on your trip. Unfortunately, it does require a small amount of planning and can take 1-2 days to ship to places in Honshu.
So if you’re traveling around Japan without a plan, do yourself a favor and grab your backpack instead of your huge luggage!
4. Bring cash
While credit cards are now fairly widely accepted in Japan, some smaller businesses may only accept cash. That’s especially true if you’re venturing further away from the bigger cities.
In any case, Japan is still a cash-based society, so be sure to have enough cash on hand for any purchases or emergencies. Grab yourself a wise card before you leave, and get some cash from one of over 26,000 7-Eleven ATMs in the country. Honestly, those things are absolute lifesavers!
5. Dress appropriately
If you’ve come to Japan without too much of a plan as to what you’ll get up to, you might feel like you want to bring more clothes. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but you will want to do a little research beforehand into the time of the year your trip is booked for.
I’ve written a small amount on all of the seasons of Japan in this blog post, so hopefully you’ll be able to pack accordingly. Remember to take into consideration any transport you’ll be doing as well.
The night bus from Tokyo to Osaka was a little bit cold, but Japan’s last sleeper train was quite hot. Nothing too drastic, but you don’t want to over-pack or under-pack at the expense of feeling uncomfortable.
6. Take advantage of discount tickets
There are several discount tickets available for travel in Japan, such as the Japan Rail Pass (although in 2023 these costs went up a staggering 77%) and regional passes, though those may require a significant amount of planning. Not quite the idea of this article!
These can be a great way to save money and explore different areas. However, I spent less than the JR Pass and traveled every day for 3 weeks. Once again, it requires you to know a fair bit about your itinerary to work out if it’s worth it or not.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
If you’re traveling around Japan without a plan, there’s a fairly high chance that you won’t know everything there is to do in the area you end up in. That act of discovery is part of the fun, but it’s nice to know a few local secrets from time to time as well.
Even if you aren’t looking for secrets, asking for help is a great way to interact with the community and perhaps learn more about an area. I’d suggest reading my post about surviving Japan without Japanese, because while it can sometimes be a little nerve-wracking, you’ll get into some memorable situations, to say the least!
8. Grab an IC card
The entire idea of visiting without a plan is to be spontaneous and go where your heart takes you. Buying individual train tickets definitely isn’t the ideal way to do it. Instead, you’re going to buy an IC card.
Spend ¥500 on something like a SUICA card, and then just top it up a few thousand yen every so often and you won’t have to worry about where you’re going until you get there.
The great thing is, though different regions have different IC cards, you can use them practically anywhere in the country. So even if you find yourself in the northern reaches of Hokkaido, you’ll still be able to travel around without planning too much!
9. Be prepared for language barriers
As far as I’m concerned, Japan is a very easy country to travel around, and more than doable without too much of a plan. However, one of the biggest problems you’ll likely face if you decide to visit in this way is the language barrier.
You’ll have an easier time if you’re only going to the bigger cities, but if you venture outside of the main tourist areas it’s unlikely that many people will speak Japanese.
Once again, take a look at the article I linked above about visiting Japan without speaking Japanese if you’re interested in learning more.
10. Have a backup plan
While traveling without a plan can be exciting, it’s always good to have a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Keep a list of emergency contacts and important information, such as embassy phone numbers and addresses, in case of an emergency.
I’d also suggest looking at close-by capsule/pod hotels as well. They aren’t the most glamorous, but they will almost always have enough space for you if you can’t find accommodation.
Of course, you can always stay in hostels or even normal hotels depending on your budget. A lot of this decision would come down to when you plan on going and how prepared you want to be.
11. Take advantage of tourist information centers
If you’re looking for a helping hand, tourist information centers can provide you with maps, brochures, and advice on things to do in the area. Use them to get a sense of the local attractions and to ask for recommendations.
Figuring out things online about attractions or restaurants in Japan rarely goes to plan. I’ve talked before about how I once walked to 3 different food places in the evening because Google said they were open when they weren’t. Super annoying…
That was my lesson that asking actual people is almost definitely the better idea if you can get past the language barrier. Staff at your hotel, information centers at train stations, and even other travelers are perhaps your best bet when it comes to finding these things out.
12. Take advantage of free activities
Japan has plenty of free activities and attractions, such as parks, temples, and shrines. Take advantage of these to save money and immerse yourself in Japanese culture. If your idea of exploring Japan without a plan is to do things cheaply, this is something you should rely heavily on.
It helps if you like to do things outside because Japan is full of these kinds of experiences. When we went to Kyoto a few weeks back, I don’t think we spent any money other than transport and food.
You can literally do that whole place (and many like it) without spending money on attractions if you didn’t want to. And I didn’t one bit feel like I’d missed out on anything. We even went for an 11K walk in North Kyoto which was spectacular!
4 potential challenges and how to overcome them
While visiting Japan without a schedule and not being tied down to an itinerary is a pretty great idea for the right person, there are still a few challenges you’ll need to overcome. Get these under control and you’ll ensure your holiday runs as smoothly as possible.
1. Be aware of peak travel times
If you’re traveling during peak travel times, such as Golden Week or cherry blossom season, be prepared for larger crowds and potential accommodation shortages. You may want to travel to Japan without a plan, but traveling during these times will severely limit your options.
If you’re traveling during peak travel times or in popular tourist areas, you may encounter accommodation shortages. To overcome this, be flexible with your plans and consider staying in local accommodations such as guesthouses or ryokans, which may have more availability.
Usually, you could just get onto the Shinkansen in the unreserved seating area, but if there are a lot of you, or you’re traveling during this time, you’ll likely want to book ahead to prevent disappointment.
2. Overwhelming options
Japan has a lot to offer, and it can be overwhelming to decide what to do without a plan. To overcome this, prioritize your interests and focus on a few key areas or attractions.
Ask locals or tourist information centers for recommendations, and don’t be afraid to change your plans if something else catches your interest. Maybe pick a couple of cities at most, rather than trying to fit in as much as possible.
If you chose the latter option, you might find yourself spending the majority of your time on trains! Unless you’re a train nerd like me, that’s not why you’ve come to Japan!
3. Budget constraints
Traveling without a plan can be expensive if you’re not careful. I can tell you from personal experience how I’ve accidentally spent way more than I planned to without a budget because I didn’t plan well.
Having a set budget for transportation costs each day may help. Also consider purchasing discount tickets when they’re available, though as we’ve talked about before, that might require additional planning.
4. You may miss out on things
Finally, traveling without a plan to Japan may give you more freedom but if there’s something specific you want to do, it’s probably worth booking them beforehand.
If it’s a popular activity or a busy time of year, not planning certain aspects of your trip means you’ll almost certainly miss out on doing some of the things you want to do. If it’s your first time in Japan, that’s not the lasting impression you want of the place.
Looking for a bit of inspiration before you head out to Japan? Here is the 2-day itinerary I follow in Hiroshima. It’s an absolute must-visit destination in Japan if you’ve got the time and budget to get there!