Japan is a fascinating destination and a trip to Japan was on our bucket list for quite some time. In March 2018 we realized our dream and we went to Japan for more than 3 weeks. Below we give 15 useful tips for traveling to Japan for the first time. These tips will you help you when you are traveling to Japan for the first time.
Planning a trip to Japan for the first time
Book your hotels in advance
It is the custom in Japan to book your hotels in advance. Especially in busy seasons, like the golden week or the cherry blossom season, you will run the risk of not finding a place to stay or having to pay excessive prices for your hotel room.
If you are traveling to Tokyo, our guide about where to stay in Tokyo for the first time will help you to choose the best place to stay in Tokyo.
Are you also going to Osaka? Take a look at our best recommendations about where to stay in Osaka.
Check if buying a Japan Rail Pass is worth it
All tourist attractions in Japan are easily accessible by train. Riding the train is not cheap but neither is renting a car. If you travel a lot by train, you can benefit from a Japan Rail Pass. There are rail passes for 1 week, 2 weeks and a maximum of 3 weeks (JR pass 21 days). You can enter all your individual routes from your Japan itinerary on the website of Hyperdia. Along with the timetable, Hyperdia will also show you the exact prices for these routes.
Over the 3 weeks of our vacation, we regularly compared this site with other sources like Google maps and came to the conclusion that Hyperdia is really the most reliable site for prices and timetables.
To find the best option you just need to compare the prices of your individual trips with the price of a Japan Rail Pass for the length of your stay. If a Japan Rail Pass turns out to be cheaper its best to buy one beforehand. Until recent the passes could not be bought in Japan. At the time of writing there is a pilot project where the passes can be bought in Japan but with a surcharge over the price you pay if you would order in advance.
You can buy your Japan Railpass here: Japan Rail pass
You can decide yourself when you want to activate the rail pass. If the validity of your pass is shorter than your stay in Japan, you can activate the pass for the time period that it benefits you most. Here’s more info about traveling by train in Japan.
Tip: When you have a long trip ahead of you. Make sure to bring something to eat and drink with you on the train.
Make sure you have enough cash
Most restaurants accepted credit cards, but the smaller establishments still swear by cash and sometimes credit cards are not accepted for train or subway tickets. We learned the latter at a very inconvenient moment when we were rushing to the airport for our return flight home and we had spent all of our money. The only ATM that accepted foreign cards in the station had a minimum withdrawal amount of 10,000 yen. Luckily we found a money exchange office in the station that was willing to exchange the 7 euros we needed to buy our tickets.
Except for this we never encountered any problems withdrawing money or paying with credit cards but after this very stressful moment we swore to never spend all our cash again.
That is why we advise you to always have enough cash with you when you travel to Japan for the first time. But even if you have been to Japan several times it seems like a good idea. You never know, an ATM that you rely on might be out of service or there might be an unexpected problem with your credit card. This stressful moment learned us that having cash is a good backup plan.
We just made it in time for our flight but we don’t want you to experience the same stress we had.
It’s a super safe country
We never felt unsafe and we regularly walked to our hotel after dark. Apparently, one of the most stolen items are umbrellas. We can absolutely confirm this as ours was also stolen once. But as long as it’s only umbrellas we don’t mind too much :-).
It’s usually not so convenient to travel with luggage on the trains. In many train stations, you have to walk quite some distance and do quite some stairs before you arrive at your platform. Often there will be escalators or elevators but it’s not always as easy to find them (despite very good signage in most stations). And most trains have no luggage storage.
That’s why Yamato’s service which allows you to forward your luggage from hotel to hotel is so convenient. Most of the time we traveled with 2 small pilot suitcases with enough things for a few days and we would forward the big suitcases to the hotel where we would arrive a few days later. Forwarding a suitcase will cost about 15€ (depending on size) and it would normally arrive the next day. You arrange and pay at the front desk of the hotel. Easy and inexpensive if you look at the comfort you will get instead.
Japanese people do not like tattoos
In some Onsen (public baths), tattoos are even banned. You may only enter if you can cover your tattoo with a bandage that is no larger than 8 by 10 cm. The same rules apply for Onsen in some hotels.
If you are considering to spend some relaxing time in the onsen definitely check out Yudanaka or this particular onsen in Hakone.
You do not need to leave a tip
In several places, you will find Japanese who will offer you a guided tour and explicitly mention they will not accept a tip. Also in restaurants, it’s out of the question to give a tip. Japanese will feel insulted by this. And you don’t want to insult the Japanese if you are traveling to Japan for the first time. 😉
The toilets come with a manual
You will never have seen such special toilets, often with lots of buttons and a heated seat. The toilets often come with special toilet slippers. Quite funny and as some toilets had quite fancy features it became almost fun to go to the toilet.
There are public toilets everywhere, always free and always very clean.
Smoking is still allowed in restaurants
Despite the strict restrictions on smoking in public places, smoking in restaurants is sometimes allowed. For us non-smokers this was slightly annoying. Especially when you eat in a typical Izakaya, a local pub, you will sometimes have to eat with your head in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Handy “Handy” mobile
Some hotels in Japan provide a free “Handy” mobile phone in your hotel room. With this phone comes a local number where you can be reached and you can use it to make free local and international phone calls. But even more convenient is that it comes with a data plan. The phone has quite a few apps with local information and you can install additional apps. You could also use it as a hotspot. At the end of your stay, all data will be erased or you erase the data yourself anytime you want.
We used Google Maps on the mobile phone to find our way around the city and we also installed an app from the local metro system to find our way in the metro.
We used Google Maps a lot in Japan. And a mobile Wi-Fi device certainly comes in handy here. Even if you don’t have a useful “Handy” mobile phone in your room, it’s easy to find your way through the skyscraper jungle with a local SIM you have bought yourself. You can buy one in local electronics stores like Yodobashi & BIC Camera or you can order one in advance and it will be waiting for you in your hotel upon arrival. Ordering online is possible on Klook and Bmobile.
This will make traveling for the first time in Japan so much easier.
You often have to take off your shoes
Temples, ryokans as well as some restaurants require you to take off your shoes before you enter. So if possible, wear comfortable shoes that you can easily put on and off.
Many Japanese wear a mouth mask
They wear these primarily to protect against bacteria and allergies but apparently, they also think it’s “cool”. We mostly noticed it the first time we were in the area around Tokyo. You will see mouth masks in all kinds and colors but nevertheless wearing mouth masks is apparently trendy most are just plain white.
We thought it looked strange, but for them it’s normal.
If you are looking for the best area to stay in Tokyo, take a look here.
Often you don’t even know what you are ordering. This is sometimes annoying because a lot of Japanese speak very limited English. Not quite enough to explain the options on the menu.
By trying our luck just picking random menu options we ate some delicious food, but occasionally it was disappointing.
We saw it as an adventure. If you are not so adventurous, they do have a lot of McDonald, KFC, TGY Friday’s and so on. 😉
Japan is not as expensive as most people think
Ok, planning a trip to Japan will be more expensive than traveling for example around Southeast Asia. But not as expensive as traveling around Europe. The hotel prices are comparable to those in Europe and transport will probably take the biggest chunk out of your budget.
Restaurants are a lot less expensive. For a complete meal, we usually paid around 13€ per person. That’s including a beer which is quite pricey at around d 4.5 €.
You can also buy cheap food and drinks in the convenience stores. More than 50,000 convenience stores, known as Konbini, can be found across Japan. It’s the place to be to buy cheap food, snacks, sandwiches etc. Japan has also countless bakeries where you can treat yourself to a sweet or sour snack. We especially loved the Melopan bread. It’s a sweet roll with a light flavor and texture and a crumbly cookie surface.
There are usually no waste bins
Apparently, Japan had lots of trash cans before 1995. But then Aum Shinrikyo committed an attack on the Tokyo subway where 12 people died.
After this attack, the Japanese got extremely sensitive against unknown objects left in stations, and all trash cans immediately disappeared from the stations, the streets and all public places within few weeks.
At the same time, there was also an ecology awareness growing, which coincidentally matched the public mood, and that’s why you don’t see many trash cans in Japan today.
Now the only trash cans you can find in Tokyo are privately managed, at convenience stores and the like.
So make sure you have a plastic bag with you to carry your waste until you are back at your hotel.
More tips when traveling to Japan
Public transport is very well organized in Japan but can seem quite complicated at first. That’s why I’ve compiled a first-timers guide to Tokyo’s public transportation. We already had to pay a supplement on the first train we boarded upon arrival at the airport. I hope my complete guide will save you from paying any such supplements.
Wondering what to wear in Japan? Take a look at our complete Japan packing list.
Last but not least… As you might expect health care in Japan is excellent but it comes at a high cost. Make sure you have some sort of insurance before you leave for Japan. We never had anything serious happen on any of our journeys around the world but you know what they say, better safe than sorry…
Have you ever traveled to Japan, and have other tips? Share them in the comments.
Planning a trip to Japan? Have a look at these fun things to do in Japan.
Here are some travel guides to get you started.
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