Are you planning to travel to Japan soon? Are you excited? Scared? Do you have your plans ready? Or are you researching what to expect for your first trip to this country?
Well, you’ve come to the right place. Here are ten tips for your first trip to Japan. These are things I wish I knew when I first went there years ago. They’ll cover ways to prepare before your trip to what you should watch out for when you’re sightseeing.
Planning your trip
1. Find Ways to Get Cheap Flights
Japan can be very expensive. So try to find ways to save some money. One way is to use flight aggregators to book a cheap flight. Try Skyscanner or Momondo.
While you’re looking, try to get an international flight preferably with a Japanese airline. You’ll be able to watch documentaries about Japan during your flight. Just remember that Japan gets a lot of foreign visitors. During peak seasons like
Golden Week and cherry blossom viewing (hanami), even locals flock to the popular tourist spots. This can make flights and accommodations very expensive. Make sure that your flight and accommodations are in place before you do anything else.
2. Check the Best Option for Traveling Across Japan
Japan has one of the best train systems in the world.
If you need to cross cities or prefectures, then it’ll probably be better to buy a Japan Rail (JR) Pass. A Pass can be for 1, 2, or 3 weeks. You will need to activate your Pass in Japan.
If you’re staying within a city, the local train system is very good and cheap.
You can also take overnight buses if you cross cities. These are cheaper. Plus, the bus could be your accommodation for one night. Also, you’re traveling while sleeping so your whole day can be spent on sightseeing.
If you plan on renting a car, then remember that people in Japan drive on the left side of the road. Most cars are automatic instead of stick.
Quick tip: check if the rental company has a package plan so that you can get a discount on highway tolls.
3. Japanese is the Language of the Japanese
Directions. Signs. Menus. A lot of things will be in Japanese. Some spots like airports, train stations, and major tourist attractions do have English speakers and signs translated. Young people can speak and understand English since it’s now part of their curriculum, but English will hardly be spoken or understood in rural areas.
Even if you don’t become proficient with the language, it will help you a lot to learn some simple Japanese words. Read this article for some basic Japanese words.
If you’re in a restaurant, it usually helps to just point to a picture of what you want to eat. If there are no pictures, you can look around and point to the food at the other table. This be rude but at least you’ll know what the dish will look like when it comes to your table. If you’ve run out of options, just point to a random string of Japanese words on the menu and hope for the best.
If you don’t want to have a food adventure, there are plenty of American fast-food chains in Japan. (They call McDonald’s MacD there).
You can also install a translation app on your phone. These apps are not perfect so you’ll have varying degrees of success.
Related to this, getting a hotspot or WiFi device for your trip will help keep you wired even in the mountains.
4. Plan Your Clothes
Pack clothes according to the seasons. Spring can be hot one day and cold the next. Summer can be very hot and sultry. Fall can be cold and crisp. Winter can be nippy and sometimes snowy.
Always be ready for rain. Typhoons can happen throughout the year. But Japan’s typhoon season is usually from July to October.
Use comfortable shoes. You will be walking a lot. Also, be sure that these shoes are easy to take off or put on.
5. Keep enough cash on hand
Japan is known for its technology. But, despite this, it’s still a cash-based society. Many restaurants and stores accept credit cards. But you’ll likely come across small establishments that only accept cash. These can be small diners, convenience stores, vending machines, or train ticketing machines. You’ll need physical yen for these.
You can exchange your money at the airport or your hotel. Don’t rely on ATMs to withdraw cash. Most ATMs close when the main banks close. Of course, some convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Japanese Post Offices have international ATMs. But just to be on the safe side, keep about 10,000-20,000 yen handy. And since 1-500 yen is coins, it’ll be good to have a coin purse too.
Don’t like having wads of bills on you when you travel? Then get a Suica or Pasmo card when you’re in Tokyo or an Icoca card when you’re in the Kansai area. These are pre-loaded cards you can use to purchase something from a vending machine or convenience store. You can even top them up if you’ve used up the load. But, again, some small stores or restaurants do not accept even this as a mode of payment.
6. Not a Lot of Escalators or Elevators
You might want to pack light or arrange for your luggage to be delivered by a local courier if you’ll be transferring to a different city or prefecture.
There are not a lot of escalators or elevators at train stations outside of cities. Generally, the elevators are for elderly and handicapped people only.
But the station entrances and exits are usually far from the train platforms. So you have to lug your luggage up several flights of stairs. That’s a lot of walking and carrying, so be prepared.
7. Public etiquette
I’ve discussed a few items about public etiquette in this article. Just to tick some really important points off:
- People like to bow.
- Everyone and everything in the country is always punctual.
- People on public transportation are quiet. They don’t talk to each other loudly. They don’t play loud music or videos. They don’t play noisy games.
- Pointing is considered rude. Don’t point with your finger or with your chopsticks.
- There are a lot of rules on using your chopsticks.
- Tattoos are associated with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia). So, you might want to cover up your tattoos. Even if you’re a foreigner, some establishments won’t allow you to use their amenities like hot springs (onsen) or public bathhouses (sento) if you have some ink.
- Speaking of onsen and sento, there are rigid rules when you use these. Try to read up on it.
- Like many countries nowadays, there are strict rules about smoking in public places in Japan. For those who smoke, there are designated smoking areas in some buildings. Also, many pubs (izakaya) let diners smoke wherever they want to so you’ll be eating with smoke from cigarettes and grilling meat. Yum.
- If you see people wearing masks, don’t panic. There’s no epidemic. The Japanese are very conscientious about not transmitting a cough or a cold to other people. So when they’re sick, they put on these masks. Read this article to find out more about it.
- And one of the most important social rules: Japan does not have a tipping culture. Your server or tour guide would just be confused or insulted if you leave a tip for him or her.
8. Plan your itinerary well
As stated above, Japan’s popular tourist sites get a lot of visitors. Kyoto is wall-to-wall people during hanami.
My Tip: go to the usual tourist spots early. If you do this, you can avoid the crowds and long queues. You’ll be able to take selfies without bumping into strangers. And if you go there at sunrise you’ll have some amazing light for your photos.
If you have to use the train to go to the tourist spots, going there early would allow you to avoid the rush hour. The morning rush hour is around 8:00-9:30 a.m. and evening rush hour is around 5:00-7:30 p.m.
Also, trains and buses don’t run 24/7. Trains services are from 5:00-12:30 A.M. This also includes the Shinkansen. Bus Services will start at 5:00 A.M-11:00 P.M. This does not include overnight highway buses. To avoid getting stranded, you can always follow my own little policy of going out at the earliest time possible, and going home an hour before public services are suspended.
Keep in mind that trains and buses do not make up for accidents that happen. If train services are suspended or delayed because of an accident, train services will still end at 12:30 A.M, no exceptions.
9. Cleanliness is Everything
The Japanese tend to be clean freaks when it comes to public spaces. To keep everything nice and tidy, they require you to change into slippers when you enter some buildings, temples, shrines, and a lot of homes. This is the reason why you need to wear shoes you can easily take off while in Japan.
If you’re staying in a traditional inn (ryokan), you’ll probably have a room with tatami mats. A tatami is a form of woven bamboo, which is very difficult to clean and expensive to replace. The tatami is usually where people sit on and oftentimes lay out futons to sleep on. So for the purpose of sanitation, as well as cleanliness, shoes are not allowed in these places.
You’ll know if you need to take off your shoes if there are lockers or shoe cubicles by the entrance of the inn. If people ahead of you are taking off their shoes and putting on indoor slippers, it’s be a good idea to follow their example. When in Japan, do as the Japanese do.
Now, these slippers are for public use so you might just be wearing slippers used by other people. If this makes you queasy, pack a pair of socks in your bag. If you’re traveling with kids, try to make them understand the rules of the places you’ll be going to. They’re not exempt from following these rules. But Japan is family-friendly so the establishments you’ll be going to will have child-size or kid-friendly amenities for your kids.
There are also different slippers for bathrooms. It’s not uncommon for a ryokan to have rubber slippers in their public bathrooms. You change from your regular slippers to the bathroom slippers at the door, then change back when you’re done. Some restaurants have these special bathroom slippers too, so be sure to change your footwear to keep the restroom and slippers clean for everyone.
A note of warning. Many public bathrooms have soap dispensers or hand sanitizers, but sometimes you’ll find much older restrooms without it. To be safe, better bring some of yours so you can clean up after you’re done. While we’re on the topic of cleanliness, you’ll have a hard time finding a garbage bin in public places. Due to a terrorist attack involving garbage cans in 1995, Tokyo decided to take away many of the garbage cans to prevent a similar attack.
Nowadays, you have to walk a long way to find a bin. Most convenience stores have them. Malls, and train stations have a few, but they are segregated based on the type of trash, so be sure you are dumping your trash in the right place.
If you are walking long distances, you’ll have to keep your trash with you because littering is a no-go in Japan and you can be fined or even arrested by police if caught. If you want to keep your bag clean, bring a plastic bag with you as a temporary trash can.
10. Look for Inexpensive But Delicious Food
Food will take up a lot of your budget. So, unless you can splurge, try to look for small hole-in-the-wall diners and eateries. The Japanese give the same precision and care for street food as they do traditional Japanese food (washoku).
There are all-you-can-eat buffets. Convenience stores (called konbini) also sell snacks, sandwiches, coffee, and ramen from Michelin-starred ramen shops.
Also, Japan isn’t just about sushi or ramen. Each region has its own food. This article will show some things to do and eat in the top cities in Japan. Also, when in Japan, do as the Japanese do. The Japanese like to buy souvenirs from the places they’ve traveled to and give these to people they love or work with. Why not do the same for your own family, friends, and co-workers?
These are just basic tips for your first trip to Japan. I’m sure you’ll discover more when you’ve come back from your vacation.