There are countless guides for solo travel, a ton of tips for couple’s getaways, but what about group travel in Japan? From transport to dinner to sightseeing, we’ve got you covered.
Planning a trip to a dream destination with your very own dream team? There’s plenty in Japan that makes it the perfect destination for a group, but like any trip with friends, the planning requires some negotiation for it to run smoothly—be it about dinner plans, sightseeing priorities or just what time to get up in the morning. If you happened to read our guide for solo travel in Japan, you may have thought Japan better suits the lone-wolf adventurer—but don’t worry, being in a group opens plenty of doors too. While counter-seat sushi spots and capsule hotels are perfect for one, there are plenty of great perks for pack travelers too. From cheaper accommodation to having way more fun in izakayas, the strength in numbers theory still holds strong.
Planning: Get organized, get techy
Whether the planning is a group effort or there’s a ringleader, it works best if everyone knows what’s happening and when.
Google Docs is amazing for a simple planning reference: the docs are easy to share, edit and they update automatically whenever you’re online, so everyone will be up to date with the plans and have quick access to key info.
Apps for transport include Hyperdia (good for trains, especially outside of cities) and Google Maps in cities, so ensure everyone has them downloaded before you leave the house, ideally with key stations saved or in a document somewhere. Google Maps works offline to an extent—so if you have saved locations they show up, and you can use the GPS function to find your way to them. Save key addresses like hostels before you leave so you can find them when needed.
Accommodation: Think big
Possibly the biggest perk of a group is the cost-splitting, and since your biggest outlay on most trips is a bed for the night, this is where we’ll start. Rather than looking at hotels, we suggest apartments or whole houses, as there are (still) quite a few left on Airbnb and they give you more freedom than a hotel or hostel. Converted houses or machiya (traditional wooden homes) offer a unique experience you wouldn’t be able to afford with lower numbers and mean you’re more likely to have a decent kitchen for cooking as well. Alternatively, you could look for hostels with private rooms that cater to higher numbers, or simply reserve spaces in the same dorm and if the numbers match up—create your own private room.
Sightseeing: Split up and avoid cabin fever
Despite just referring to you as one (sorry), remember you are not a pack, you managed to agree on a destination, but that doesn’t mean you have to agree on everything else. The best thing about Japan is the variety available—everything from anime to tea ceremony to high-end shopping, so figure out who likes what, and divide your time into group trips for major sites and split up for others. This way, everyone gets the most out of their trip, and time apart helps avoid any cabin-fever-style drama.
Activities: Team bonding / letting off steam
Some good options for group activities when you do meet up include onsen (gender divided so if you’re mixed it’s some debrief time, or if you want to hang out after try Oedo Onsen Monogatari). There are plenty of arcades to enjoy in Akihabara and an unusual one in Kawasaki that can help you vent your exasperation and inject some fun back into the trip if it’s waning. For more physical sports try the baseball halls or Spocha—which has all sorts of sports, from zorbing to tennis. If you’re keen to explore, renting bikes can be a great option to keep people together (or not) and for the extreme version why not try Mario-karting through Tokyo? For food and drink ideas, keep reading!
To make things easier, decide on rendezvous times and places beforehand, and if you’re renting wifi, ensure you have enough for a couple of groups, or get a SIM card for each traveler so you can stay in touch.
Transport: Take the wheel
If you’re staying in a city with the odd day trip, trains can still be a cost-efficient way of traveling, but if you’re planning on long journeys, consider renting a car. With rail passes costing in the hundreds per person, a rental car can work out super cheap when divided—starting from around ¥6,000 a day, so even with gas and tolls added in you’ll be saving plenty. As long as one member of the team has a valid international driver’s license (or translation of their home license depending on the country) and a credit card, you can rent a car from most places, but you can check the finer details in our guide. Since most companies allow you to return the car at a different branch, you can make your way across the country without looking back.
A car allows you to explore the country on your own terms, rather than relying on public transport and gives you the freedom to set your own schedule. As well as the savings, it can be a real game changer for how much you’re able to see on your trip!
Restaurants and bars: The good, the bad and the unexpected
The good: Izakayas are your friend. Not only are they more geared for groups, but they have more varied menus and all-you-can-eat/drink options which are well suited to bigger numbers. Alternatively, head to restaurants that serve okonomiyaki, nabe or other more social dishes which have a communal element like the grill or hot pot—those establishments have more group tables due to the cooking process.
The bad: The aforementioned tiny sushi joint might not fit your group of eight and nor will the standing bars in Golden Gai, but if you’re desperate to try, then go in smaller groups, or agree to sit betsu betsu, which means separately, to speed the process up. If somewhere is on your must-go list, seriously consider making reservations, especially if it’s on a weekend as groups can be hard to place, even in regular-sized establishments.
The unexpected: Some of the more unusual options in Tokyo, like themed bars and izakayas are bigger than regular restaurants and offer group tables easily. Spots like the Monster Cafe and Lock Up in Tokyo are also more fun as a group since you can share the cost of dishes and make it part of the trip—there’s nothing like watching a friend get terrified by a zombie to bring you closer together.
The bill: If you want to split the bill ask for “betsu betsu” but be aware many places will refuse to do this. If you’re concerned, either choose places where you order individually and pay before eating (like ramen vending machines or soba places) or go for restaurants with a tabehodai option (all-you-can-eat) so that the bill is divided equally.
Ok, ok, so you don’t have to be the spring-break types to want a night out, but either way, Tokyo has some great spots. While tiny bars that line alleys like Golden Gai won’t work too well, there are plenty of regular-sized bars and clubs in areas like Roppongi, Shibuya and Shinjuku. When bouncers are checking people, do your best not to look rowdy as they might well turn you away (part racism, part reasonable). Remember to check for dress codes or you’ll all be out on your ear because Stewart decided to wear sneakers.
Rules to remember for Japan group travel
A group holiday can be the trip of a lifetime, but keep in mind that Japan is a pretty quiet, reserved country, unlike their terrifying warning posters. When you’re on public transport especially, keep noise to a minimum—you’ll notice carriages are often pretty much silent.
In small restaurants with a high turnover like a ramen shop, save your daily catch-up for the bar or hostel instead of keeping people waiting.
Rendezvous points agreed in advance are a life-saver, even when half the team doesn’t have wifi—Google Maps still works and you can be reunited in no time.
Make sure you all have the full names, emergency contacts and details of allergies or medical issues for everyone in the group—not saying anything’s going to happen, but if it does it helps to be prepared.