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. We noticed that Japan is quite different from Europe or another Western country. That why we partnered up with other travel bloggers to give you useful tips for traveling to Japan for the first time.
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Planning a trip to Japan for the first time
Finding cheap flights to Japan
If you want to score cheap flights to Japan we advise you to have a look at Momondoand Skyscanner. Both are flight aggregators that compare several hundreds of booking sites and give you an overview of the best flights and the cheapest sites to book them.
Momondo and Skyscanner are both very good at finding good deals, of the two, Momondo is probably the one with the most intuitive user interface.
Those who are always on the lookout for the best deals should join the Dollar Flight Club. Joining is free and once you’ve joined you will get alerts in your mailbox whenever cheap flights out of your home airport have been found.
I recently joined the club and already saw some incredible deals. Joining is free and it can literally save you thousands of dollars.
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.
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 Japan 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 decide 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.
Take overnight buses to save money and time
Contributed by Ben from Horizon Unknown
Even though the Japan Rail Pass already economizes your travel expenses it still takes a big chunk out of your travel budget. If you don’t mind giving up some comfort in exchange for a cheaper alternative you should have a look at the overnight buses.
Taking overnight buses in Japan is a great way to save money and time when you’re traveling through this beautiful country.
Not only does tasking overnight transport save a day in travel, you’re traveling while you’re sleeping rather than through the day, it also makes travel cheaper.
Taking transport during the night in Japan acts as your accommodation as well. You don’t need a bed to sleep if you have one on your bus. Sure, it isn’t always easy having a full and peaceful 8 hours of sleep on a moving bus, buts it’s a great way to save a bit of Yen and a day time travel-day if you’re on a tight schedule.
Willer Bus is one of the companies offering overnight bus routes throughout Japan, and you can save even more money by booking a multi-ticket pass.
Rental Car tips for Japan
Contributed by Chris from CTB Global
If you think Japan, you might not directly think of hiring a car as public transport is so efficient. This is true for lots of places, but a car makes life much easier in other cases. If you add a snow monkey visit (near Nagano) together with a Tomioka Silk Mill visit on your Japan itinerary you won’t be able to visit both on a day from Tokyo. There are a few things to keep in mind when hiring a car in Japan. The following tips will help you have a smooth trip.
Japan drives on the left side of the road. If you’re not used to this then take extra precaution when driving. It’s not difficult and most cars are automatics which make switching sides much easier as you don’t need to use the gear box with your hand.
Tolls are expensive if you do not have a subscription. Ask the rental agency if they can supply a subscription together with the car which you’ll pay when returning the car. Paying on the spot at each toll road otherwise double or triples the rental price.
Directions are in Japanese only so make sure you have a local data sim-card which allows you to use Google maps. This is your friend navigating Japan by car.
If you keep these 3 tips in mind when adding day trips by car to your Japan itinerary, you’ll be fine and get the most out of your day. Drive safe.
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.
The best travel credit card
Since expenses abroad can be seriously inflated by fees from your bank or credit card, we are huge fans of our N26 account.
The account is available to most EU residents.
The checking account is free as well as the associated Mastercard and there’s no exchange rate provision when you use to card for payments abroad. There’s a 1,7% exchange rate provision when you withdraw money abroad but even that is free with the premium Black Mastercard.
The app is another great feature of the card, you can follow your expenses in real-time and instantly block your card if you see any signs of fraud.
Save money with a tax refund
Contributed by Pinoy Adventurista
As a budget traveler, I always make sure to find ways on how I could save on travel expenses. Traveling to Japan is not cheap, and could be very expensive in terms of transportation and hotel expenses.
One of the best ways to save on travel expenses is to take advantage of the tax refund scheme. But how does it work?
Tax-free shopping in Japan is simple and easy to avail. Tax-free shopping can be availed by foreign tourists at licensed stores when making purchases of over 5,000 yen at a given store.
All you need to do is pay the full amount first at the cashier then proceed to the tax refund counter. Present your passport and receipt, fill up the form and get the refund. As easy, and simple as that!
Get a Public Transit Smart Card
Contributed by Ingrid from Second-Half Travels
One of the first things to do in Japan is getting a public transit smart card at a subway or train station. These essential rechargeable cards can be used for public transport as well as purchases at vending machines, shops, and restaurants. They can even be used to pay for taxis and the Shinkansen.
Smart cards generally do not provide discounts over regular tickets, but their convenience makes them indispensable.
Obtaining a card usually requires a small deposit, refundable when you leave the country. Note that a card cannot be used by multiple travelers at the same time.
While there are many card networks, the best for travelers are PASMO and Suica. Most networks are compatible, making it possible to travel on almost all trains, subways, and buses in Japan’s major cities with just a single card. Suica also offers a mobile app and is supported by Apple Pay, so you can tap your phone instead of the card.
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 :-).
Arrive at popular sights early
Contributed by Alexei from Travel Lexx
Japan is an incredible country of magnificent castles, grand temples, stunning natural beauty and much much more. This fact is not lost on the millions of visitors that head to the Land of the Rising Sun every year. So how to avoid long queues and crowds at popular spots? By setting that alarm clock, of course!
Arriving early to major sights is one of the best ways to beat the masses and experience them without fighting your way through selfie stick-wielding tour groups. While this may mean sacrificing your lie-in, you’ll thank yourself later. Getting to places such as the Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto around sunrise will allow you to explore in peace and take some stunning photos.
Public transport in major cities starts running around 5 am so wrap up warm, grab breakfast and a hot coffee from a 24/7 convenience store and head off on your early morning adventure.
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 dedicated 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.
Read also: 9 fun things to do in Kyoto at night.
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
Japan has had a long tattoo history and somewhere around the 17th century the government even used tattoo’s to publicly humiliate criminals. Criminals had the word “dog” tattooed on their forehead.
2 centuries later the government changed course and tattoos were banned completely in the country. Japan wanted to set a modern course and tattoos were seen as primitive and barbaric.
The ban was lifted again after the second world war but today tattoos are still not widely accepted and much more rare in Japan than abroad. There are various reasons for this but the most important reason is probably that tattoos are still associated with criminals. Partly because criminals used to be marked with tattoos but also because the “Yakuza”, Japanese for members of organized crime syndicates, traditionally have their bodies inked.
In some Onsen (public baths), tattoos are even banned or 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.
Understand Onsen Etiquette
Contributed by Katie from Two Wandering Soles
Soaking in an onsen, or hot spring is one of the top things to do in Japan. But before you undress and slip into the water, there are a few important things to know about onsen etiquette so you don’t break any rules or offend the locals.
First of all, it’s necessary to rinse off before entering the water. Most onsen will have some sort of shower area for you to use. Secondly, if you have tattoos, it is important for you to cover them with a waterproof bandage of some sort or find an onsen where tattoos are acceptable (this is becoming more common).
Another onsen “rule” is you must not wear any clothing or bathing suits in the water, which is considered unclean. While it may feel uncomfortable at first to get naked around complete strangers, take this as an opportunity to get out of your comfort zone. When you realize everyone else is nude and nobody cares, it may actually be a freeing experience.
If this makes you very uncomfortable, there are some onsen where bathing suits are allowed. These aren’t the traditional experience but can be a good way to try an onsen if you don’t want to completely shed your clothing.
Now that you’re in the onsen, there are still a couple of things to keep in mind. If you have long hair, secure it so it doesn’t touch the water. And don’t even think about dunking your head beneath the surface – a big onsen taboo. This prevents oils, styling products, and hair from collecting in the water. One last thing to keep in mind is to cover yourself with a towel when walking to and from the onsen. It might seem like a contradiction that you can’t wear clothing but should cover up with a towel, but this is seen as a way to practice modesty. Just don’t let your towel touch the onsen water (again, seen as unclean!).
It may sound like a lot of rules, but it comes down to being respectful, modest, and clean.
Don’t forget to take it all in and enjoy this unique Japanese experience!
Research what is and isn’t culturally acceptable
Contributed by Melissa from Parenthood and passports
Visiting Japan is a cultural experience that can send you into serious culture shock if you aren’t prepared for it. There are certain things that are considered rude and unsanitary in Japan that many in western cultures may find completely normal.
Throughout Japan, it isn’t uncommon for restaurants and hotels to require you to take off your shoes upon entering. Some hotels will even wipe down the wheels of rolling luggage before allowing you to take it any further than the lobby.
The flooring in many places, particularly inside homes, ryokans, or hotel rooms is a type of weaved bamboo called tatami, which is difficult to clean. In Japan, it’s customary to sit on the tatami floor when you eat and some families even roll out a futon on the floor at night. So requiring shoes to be removed is a way to keep the floor clean and sanitary.
It’s a good idea when entering any building to observe others, take note of the flooring inside the building and look for shoe cubicles or lockers to determine whether removing your shoes is expected.
It’s also smart to pack plenty of socks or carry a pair with you in your purse if wearing slip-on shoes.
If visiting Japan with kids make sure they know the rules and expectations, as well. Japan is a very family-friendly country so you may find many establishments will provide small, kid-sized socks or slippers for your children in addition to some for you to wear while you are shoeless.
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.
Don’t touch the taxi doors
Contributed by James from Travel Collecting
Japan is one of the world’s leaders in technology and this extends to the taxis. Taxi doors are automatic in Japan.
When you approach a taxi or the taxi pulls up to you, the door will open automatically. Don’t touch it. Just get in and the door will close for you. When you arrive, the doors open then closes again after you get out.
Taxi doors are operated by the taxi drivers and they get very upset if passengers attempt to open or close them manually. I’m not sure if this is because it’s part of their – not the passengers’ – job, or if it’s because moving the doors manually can break the driver-controlled mechanism, but I do know that you should NEVER touch a taxi door in Japan.
It can take a bit of getting used to, but after a while, you learn to love and possibly even resent having to open your own taxi door when you get back home 😊.
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. The floors are always very clean but if you don’t feel comfortable to walk on your bare feet you can take a pair of socks with you.
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 shapes and colors, but despite the fact that wearing mouth masks is apparently trendy, most are still 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. Japanese are very helpful but waiters usually spoke limited English. Not quite enough to explain the options on the menu.
Pointing at pictures or at dishes at other tables got us quite far and sometimes we just tried our luck by picking random menu options. We ate some delicious food, but occasionally it was disappointing.
With varying success we also used the google translate app on our phone. Google’s instant translation allows you to translate menu options on the fly by just pointing your phone’s camera to the menu options. The translations were certainly not perfect but it often gave an idea of some of the ingredients of the dishes.
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. 😉
Learn some basic Japanese phrases
Contribution by Alyse from The Invisible Tourist
Part of the mystique of Japan is the preservation of their unique culture, which includes their language. New visitors to Japan may be surprised to learn that outside the major cities, English is barely spoken or understood at all.
When visiting a new country, it’s respectful to use a little of the local’s native tongue. Considering Japanese has three alphabets, it’s understandable why it’s easy to feel intimidated! Although contrary to popular belief, learning a few basic phrases doesn’t have to be as hard as you think.
Luckily for English speakers, Japanese is a very phonetic language so you’ll already be familiar with many of the sounds. Even if you don’t learn the alphabets, it will be immensely helpful if you can communicate with a few simple greetings and questions.
Some tips for learning basic Japanese phrases include phrasebooks with audio, mobile apps, and even a short language course if you’re really keen. No one expects you to be fluent, but learning a little of the language will go a long way in Japan!
Vegetarians: Japanese are not really familiar with it
Contributed by Carine & Derek from We did it our way
Eating the local food is probably the best part about traveling, and a great way to discover the country’s culture, heritage and customs. Traveling while being a vegetarian adds a small layer of difficulty, but if you’re prepared, it can easily make any restaurant outing more exciting!
In Japan, the food culture is quite meat and fish heavy. After all, it is the home of sushi!
In order to survive as a vegetarian, it’s important to understand that ‘meat’ only refers to beef, pork, or other four-legged mammals in Japan. Fish and chicken are not considered as meat. So when you order your food, make sure you specify what animals you can and cannot eat. Just saying you’re vegetarian will only create confusion as it’s not a common lifestyle in Japan.
We would highly recommend using Google Translate, or another dependable translation tool, and learn how to say the names of what you can and cannot eat. You can do the same for allergies, just to make sure!
This will help save you time and make eating in Japan a lot more fun!
Don’t stick chopsticks into your rice vertically standing up.
Contributed by Henry & Zory from This Life of Travel
Called tsukitate-bashi (突き立て箸), this is incredibly taboo in certain Asian cultures, including in Japan, since it resembles the rice offerings to people who have passed away.
In a way, when you do this to your own bowl of rice, you’re declaring yourself ‘dead’ to your family, which is an incredible insult. An even more incredible insult would be to place your chopsticks this way in another persons bowl of rice!
But really, if you’re a tourist and you do this, most Japanese wouldn’t be offended since they’d realize you’re not aware of their customs.
But still, it’s better to be aware of any countries customs and cultural norms so you don’t embarrass yourself or make other people uncomfortable.
One other minor thing about chopsticks – try not to use them to ‘spear’ food – it’s considered tacky in Japanese culture.
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 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 a 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.
Take a factory tour
Contributed by Sarah from ASocialNomad
Japan is the birthplace of “just in time” manufacturing and has some superb free factory tours that you just won’t find anywhere else in the world. It’s well worth building time into your schedule to head out to one of them.
You can take a factory tour at the birthplace of instant noodles (Ikeda) – and make your own cup noodle to take home for dinner. There are great free brewery and beer factory tours available from Asahi, but our favorite has to be the car factory torus. They’re run by Mazda and Toyota at their plants near to Nagoya. At the Toyota Factory Tour you’ll get to visit their museum and see the full production process – including a revolutionary line that allows for multiple models to be made on the same production line. At the same time.
The best thing? All these tours are free and presented in both Japanese and perfect English!
More tips for traveling to Japan
More travel tips about visiting Japan can be found in this article.
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.
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