Japan is an amalgamation of sensory experiences that can rollick your core or offer moments of inner peacefulness. Japan made me laugh and awed me. On one level the sophistication of the society (and its technology ) is way ahead of ours, while in other ways they seem behind the times and so innocent. Japan will surprise you and it will please you, if you have an open mind. For many years cut off from the influence of western culture, you still feel as a stranger in a strange land in Japan.
In planning our first Japan vacastion to this small but wondrous island destination, I couldn't help but guffaw at times when visiting Japanese web sites. The English translations are often a riot (and for a cheap, good time, just searching those websites can make for an enjoyable time). Our advance research prepared us with a lot of warnings: take lots of cash because credit cards (at least those with US banks) aren't readily accepted, be sure to know where you're going or what you want (in Japanese) because taxis and folks on the street or in restaurants often don't speak English, be prepared for an ordeal when navigating the rail and bus network on your own, and be prepared for waiting for everything, because the lines are everywhere (though orderly, except, perhaps, when you're among large groups of Chinese tourists).
There is a lot of truth to all this advice, and the first thing we did was travel a bit off-season, after the summer season ended, and before the full onslaught of the autumn, which is to say, late September, early October. We also happened to arrive just following one major typhoon that closed a good part of Osaka's Kansai Airport days earlier, and as another went through the country and that we encountered in Tokyo, so that, too, could have resulted in fewer visitors. There were plenty of visitors and businesspersons, but more so than not, we felt we were the non-Asian standouts on most train rides, at many of the temples and gardens, and certainly at the various art museums.
We only stood in lines a few times, and those lines were orderly and quick moving. We often got an early start to our days and in the mornings avoided the crowds of mid-day. Other than traveling on commuter trains during rush hour with locals for the most part, (and that, too, was part of blending into the local scene), and perhaps except for the bamboo grove at Arashiyama (overrated), we had few issues with masses of tourists or inordinate lines, as my photos attest to.
The other challenge we had in planning our trip was deciding what not to visit, because there really is so much to see and experience, that unless you have unlimited time, picking and choosing was a challenge. Now that I'm back, I cringe as I await someone to ask me: Did you go here, or there? in fear of having to reply: No, didn't get to it -- because indeed, there was a lot we would have liked to have added. If only I had another full day to visit Himeji Castle or Naoshima Island or Hakone...
The best advice I can offer someone planning a Japan vacation is: do the research and plan your itinerary out in advance. Not only did we plan a list of activities and sites, but we also planned out the travel time between those sites, so we could plan what part of the city things were in, and have a more realistic assessment of what we can accomplish on our own. There are places that take as long to reach by foot as by train, and places where taxis take longer than trains, and vice versa.
A first time traveler to a new destination often wants to optimize their time and, within reason, be able to see and do as much as possible. Planning in advance made our days far more civilized, caused us less aggravation, and saved us untold hours figuring things out on the spot. Of course, our itinerary was our map, a guideline we had in place, and there were times we shifted things around on the spot, or added or deleted things based on circumstances. We've never planned a trip out in such detail as we did for Japan, and it was worth our doing so. Japan can be confusing, and a lot of people dont' speak English, so having a map, as well as key locations written in Japanese on an app so we could show someone, helped us along.
We spent two weeks in Japan, traveling mostly on our own (we took on a guide for a day trip to Nara and Uji, and for a fast day of visiting sites in Kanazawa), we walked an average of 7-8 miles a day, and took numerous local trains and taxis, and trains between cities. Our itinerary was Osaka - Kyoto (Nara/Uji) - Kanazawa - Tokyo....
In advance of arrival, we had our hotels booked, our trains between cities booked with reserved seats, and a few activities: attending a sumo stable to watch a workout, the Robot Restaurant show, and tickets to an amazing butoh-kan semi-private performance that had just 8 seats.