The only thing I knew about Japan before moving here was that it made anime, Final Fantasy, and high-tech gadgets. Looking back, I couldn’t believe how limited my knowledge was; especially considering that I had visited Japan before to see my then-boyfriend (now husband).
Although I grew up watching shows like Doraemon, Sailor Moon, and Dragon Ball Z, I really didn’t care enough to learn about Japan beyond the shows and games they produced. Quality travel blogs also didn’t even exist at that time. All I saw was general information about Japan, such as things to do and sample itineraries. Nothing noteworthy or ‘personal’ tips.
Aside from this guide, here are a few resources to help you plan you ultimate trip to Japan:
- Japan Travel Essentials: The Full List of What to Pack for 2019
- The Ultimate First-Timer’s Guide to Tokyo — Things to Do & See in 2019
- Portable Wi-Fi rental in Japan: Best plans and deals compared (2019)
- Best Japan Travel Guide Books of 2019 (Paid and Free)
Nowadays, it seems like everyone has a travel blog talking about Japan, so there isn’t an excuse to not doing your research. Though there is certainly still an argument about the quality of the information.
So together with other bloggers who’ve been to Japan, I’ve put together a list of useful tips and things to know before visiting Japan:
Don’t forget your towel! Not only great advice for interstellar hitchhikers, (ugh, my husband insists that SOMEONE will get that reference…) carrying a face-towel or handkerchief is also very useful in Japan. During the summer months is when carrying a small towelette is the most useful; there’s no way you’re not going to sweat. The heat is one thing, and the humidity just makes it worse.
Another reason is that public restrooms usually don’t have paper towels to dry your hands. This may seem like a strange practice, but the reason for it is an effort to cut down on unnecessary waste from paper towels. So when you think about it like that, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing after all.
You can find bathrooms with hand dryers, but it’s not something you tend to see in older buildings or small cities. So, unless you’re the type to wipe your hands dry with your jeans, it’s best to bring along a small towel.
2. Comfortable Slip-on Walking Shoes.
In Japan, you’re going to walk A LOT. So, the more comfortable the shoe, the better, especially when you are on your feet all day browsing the storefronts in Omotesando or trekking through one of Japan’s many beautiful parks. So to keep your feet free from painful rubbing and aching, we recommend shoes with memory foam technology. These style of shoes really help given the amount walking and standing you’ll be doing throughout your stay.
Now, note that we also said slip-on shoes. That’s for an excellent reason. In Japan, it can be seen as rude to wear your shoes in certain situations, such as entering someone’s house. In fact, most Japanese homes have a genkan, an area just inside the front door specifically for the removal of shoes.
This is also the case in many Airbnb houses, some traditional restaurants, and in hotels with Japanese style rooms. And with all the times you will be removing and putting on your shoes, why not make the whole process a little easier by getting some slip-on, without the hassle for shoelaces. So make sure there are no holes in your socks.
This is why my husband and I love the GoWalk series (mine is similar to this) and Slip-On series (he has this one) from the Skechers brand, which are available for both men and women. It proved to be the best for walking the cities of Japan, being both memory foam and slip-on.
Japan may be known for being high-tech, but it still has a strong cash culture. And many restaurants and shops will not take credit cards. This becomes even more prominent the further you travel from major cities. You can exchange your currency for Yen at the airport, but you’ll be getting most of your cash from ATM machines that accept foreign cards.
Previously, only the ATMs at 7-11 could be used for transactions using foreign cards. But as part of the preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, you can now use the following ATMs to withdraw cash with your international card:
- Japan Post ATM
- Lawson, Ministop, and Family Mart convenience stores
Depending on how many people you’re paying for, expect to spend around ¥15,000 – ¥25,000 (or 134–179 USD) per day for expenses such as food and sightseeing. If you are going shopping for souvenirs, consider bringing a little more. Hey, we didn’t say Japan was cheap.
It might seem a bit scary carrying such a large amount of cash on you, but Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. It is not unusual to find someone with tens of thousands of yen in their wallet. The chances of your wallet getting stolen are pretty low (but not impossible). In fact, you have a better chance of someone chasing you down or turning in your wallet to the police than stealing it.
If you find yourself suddenly sucked into an alternate dimension version of Tokyo, where convenience stores aren’t located on every street corner, then your next best option is to find a local Japan Post Bank ATM. Just look for a “JP Post” logo. Again, thanks to the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, Japan Post Bank ATMs are now available in English as part of their preparation. For tourists that use Bitcoin, there is a sprawling Bitcoin scene in Tokyo. However, do not count on establishments accepting any crypto-currency as they do in some parts of Europe.
4. Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot.
This is probably one of the most critical things on this list. You’re going to need Wi-Fi to access train routes (we’ll get to that soon), maps, and a Google Translator App. You’ll also need to be connected to check the weather and to find events or points-of-interest.
You can buy a data-SIM card, but the registration process can be a pain. The simplest way to access the internet outside of your room would be to rent a portable Wi-Fi that you can slip into your pocket. We recommend that you also read our portable hotspot rental guide for Japan.
5. Google Maps app or HyperDia.
Google Maps. Google Maps is excellent when traveling around Japan. It is also excellent at helping you find convenience stores, shops, or services.
Just type in what you are looking for, such as ‘ramen near me.’ And boom, Google Maps will come up with some options around you and give you the route to it! But Google Maps isn’t always the best when there are delays or changes to schedules. So be careful when you have to be somewhere at a precise time.
HyperDia. For even more precise and accurate route planning, there is Hyperdia which is up-to-date and has accurate timetables. But HyperDia’s app isn’t free, though it is free to use by visiting the website. HyperDia is excellent if you have a JR Pass as the route search allows you only to ride the trains that are covered by your JR Pass.
We recommend that you also read our 9 must-have apps for Japan trip.
6. Power Banks.
Your mobile phone and pocket Wi-Fi devices are going to be running continuously throughout the day. So a power bank with enough mAh or battery capacity for 2-3 full charges should be more than enough to keep you going all day. Be sure to store it appropriately inside your bag.
Some cafes may contain power sockets for you to charge your phone. But it would be a shame to force yourself into a long wait in a busy café, nursing a donut and latte, just for the sake of charging your phone.
Japan is a great place to buy tech gadgets, but that’s not true with power banks. Power banks are expensive in Japan and only provide a small mAh capacity.
For this reason, we recommend that you get your Power Bank from your home country and get the one with the highest mAh capacity. Our favorite power bank is this one. You may also consider the newer model with gigantic mAh capacity.
7. An IC Card.
If you’re traveling in Japan without any type of train pass like JR Pass, then an IC card is the next best thing to have. As buying paper tickets each time you want to take the train can be very annoying. It could also be the reason to miss the train.
IC cards work like prepaid cards. You can buy it on any ticketing machine at the train station. Most ticket machines have English options which make things even more convenient.
Depending on the ticket machine, you can buy Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, or PiTaPa IC card; they’re all priced the same. Suica IC card has an iPhone app that allows you to recharge it with a credit card.
To use an IC card, all you have to do is place the card over the card reader at the gate. The fee is automatically deducted. The price is also a little bit lower than that of paper tickets. IC cards can be used on most buses, convenience stores, and even vending machines! When you’re ready to go home, you can withdraw the remaining cash on the card, however, you have to return the card. Did you know that you can also pre-order your Suica card online?
8. Only buy the JR Pass if you plan to travel a lot.
You may have heard of something called a JR Pass discussed on blogs and travel websites everywhere. JR Pass is an unlimited train pass that you buy from outside Japan before you arrive. Then you can use it to travel on JR trains and select bullet trains (shinkansen).
However, some people fall into the trap of buying this as a “must-have” when traveling to Japan and end up not getting their money’s worth.
Only purchase the JR Pass if you plan to travel extensively across Japan. For example from Tokyo – Osaka – Kyoto – Hiroshima. Calculate whether you will really be saving with this purchase. Be smart with your money!
9. Fly into Haneda Airport.
Flights to Narita may be cheaper, but the additional cost of travel to the center of Tokyo from Narita will end up costing you more. So if you’re visiting Tokyo and have the option, fly into Haneda Airport. Narita Airport is much further from the center of Tokyo – about 2-3 hours away – whereas Haneda is only 20-30 minutes away. If you do end up flying into Narita, we recommend booking your transfer from Narita to central Tokyo and back in advance. We have put together all the best ways to transfer to Tokyo center from Narita Airport on our Tokyo travel guide.
10. Avoid taxis whenever possible.
Taxis in Japan are expensive. Depending on the area, fares can range between 400-700 JPY for the first 2 km (just over a mile), so the price can really add up. Uber and other taxi alternatives aren’t options here either. They exist, but they’re far more expensive.
We suggest you use trains and buses to get around as they’re a very reliable and good value for money. Speaking of trains…
11. Get used to trains that are always on time.
If you’re like most travelers from countries with extensive train systems, you’re probably used to trains arriving at least 2-3 minutes late and plan your travel around it. Not so in Japan. Trains arrive and leave on the dot, and are often very frequent, particularly in bigger cities.
12. Make use of a luggage delivery service like Ta-Q-Bin.
Ta-Q-Bin is perfect for travelers who have lots of luggage and will be traveling across Japan.
How does it work? Just drop off your pieces of luggage at a Ta-Q-Bin center (Yamato Transport or 7-11 convenience stores) and have it forwarded to your next destination like a hotel or an airport. Delivery is usually within 1-2 days. After discovering it, we’ve used this service every time we’ve had a flight, dramatically reducing the hassle of carrying large luggage on public trains. You can even drop your stuff off the day prior, giving you less to worry about the morning of the flight! Need help on what to really pack for your Japan trip?
13. Visit Japan between November and February.
Many tourists flock Japan during the cherry blossom season which is around the end of March to early April. And while cherry blossoms are undeniably beautiful, it is quite humid and rainy during that time. Plus, the cost of everything is high with it being a peak travel season.
If you can handle colder temperatures, then November to February can be an ideal time to visit. The weather might be cold and dry, but the skies are clear, and there’s little rain or snow. So if you’re in Tokyo, the chances of seeing Mt. Fuji during this season are quite high!
14. Bring small trash bags.
Japan doesn’t have trash cans. Okay, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but they’re few and far between. You’re most likely to find them at convenience stores, but you’ll seldom see them on the street. And the number one rule about trash cans in Japan is that they’re never where you need them when you need them.
So unless you like carrying that empty bag of chips or plastic bottle for a few hours, bring something to take your garbage in. If worst comes to worst, you can always say: Gomibako wa doko desuka? (Where is the trash can?)
Oh, and be sure to separate your trash.
15. Japan is very family-friendly.
If you’re traveling with children, rest assured that many public spaces in Japan have appropriate and clean child facilities. Department stores have diaper changing areas, nursing rooms, and clean drinking water. Ask at an information desk to be pointed in the right direction.
Oh, and don’t freak out and call the police when you see children between the ages of 5 and 13 wandering about without adult supervision. They’re probably just going to/from school, and it’s normal and safe here!
16. Hire a local guide.
There’s no better way to experience Japan than to hear from a local’s point of view. Our favorite local guide curator is Voyagin. Based in Tokyo, they’re your expert when it comes to unique Japanese experiences. Try joining a Walking Tour with Kyoto’s Last Samurai.
17. The Google Translate App is your friend.
18. Book or reserve restaurants in advance.
There are many quirky “attraction” restaurants in Japan. Kawaii Monster Cafe and Robot Restaurant in Tokyo are two famous examples. Attractions like these are better experienced when you book in advance. You’re more likely to get preferred seating and can skip the long lines for tickets. We also suggest you check out the best-selling Owl Cafe Experience in Osaka.
19. If you see a long line, don’t bother.
Japanese people seem entirely unaffected by long lines and will queue up for things like restaurants for well over an hour. Just avoid these lines unless it’s something you REALLY want to see or eat. From our experience, it’s rarely worth the wait, and the line probably has more to do with marketing; sometimes because of a famous advertisement, and often because a TV personality or other celebrity ate there and suggested it.
20. Traveling alone? Join a group tour!
Joining a group tour is beneficial for you if you’re traveling to Japan alone. You’ll gain even more value from trips like Mt. Fuji tours from Tokyo or Hiroshima and Miyajima Tours from Osaka instead doing it yourself.
21. Lost? Ask for help!
Even if they’re not very confident in English, Japanese people are some of the most welcoming and friendly people in the world, and will always be willing to help you.
However, not all areas in Japan are safe to ask. For instance, if you’re in a red-light district like Kabukicho, it isn’t wise to ask for directions. That’s because most of the seemingly “helpful” people they’re most likely just going to take you to a bar or club they work for.
The good areas to ask for help are the train stations and police boxes (koban).
22. Get down to the basements of departments stores.
There’s a world of culinary delights to explore in these underground sections, known in Japanese as Depachika. You’ll find beautiful displays of delicious foods in stores like OIOI (pronounced ‘Marui’), Matsuya, and Takashimaya.
23. Wander into 100 yen stores.
These “dollar stores” are ubiquitous – from Daiso to Seria to CanDo. Unlike in some countries, products here are often of high quality and can be decidedly un-tacky. Buy anything from snacks to kitchen gadgets, organizers, stationery, to affordable souvenirs.
Be aware that with VAT, products are actually 108 yen. Some larger or better quality products can be up to 300 yen before tax. Be sure to check the price tag.
24. A tip on buying souvenirs.
25. Visit a Don Quijote Store.
This store allows for tax-free shopping as long as you have your passport. Think of it as a labyrinth of any product you could ever imagine. A crazy jungle of clothes, cosmetics, gadgets, food, drinks, toys, homeware, even adult goods… anything!
26. Don’t forget to look up!
Particularly in larger cities like Shinjuku in Tokyo or the Dotombori street in Osaka, restaurants and other stores are built skywards.
You will often find delicious restaurants tucked away on higher floors.
If you can’t see them from the windows, then look for the large signboards near the building’s elevators or escalators so you can see what stores are upstairs.
27. Know the difference between a temple and a shrine.
Japan has two main religions: Buddhism and Shintoism.
Buddhism, originally introduced from China and Korea, is practiced at temples. You can recognize a temple by Buddha statues, incense burning in metal pots, and a pagoda. Usually, the temple also has the word -ji on end, meaning ‘temple.’ You may even notice that Buddhist temples are recognizable by Manji symbols. These are not to be mistaken for the far more infamous symbol co-opted by terrible people.
Shintoism is practiced at shrines. You can recognize a shrine by the massive torii gate, stone shisha or lion-dogs that guard either side of the entrance, and a well or fountain for purification. Meiji Shrine is a famous shrine in Tokyo.
28. Get naked in an onsen hot spring bath.
Onsen is an ingrained part of Japanese culture and is unrivaled when it comes to relaxing after a long day of exploring. There is some etiquette to be aware of before partaking in this activity: You must be completely naked!
Men and women are separated. Don’t bring large towels into the bathing area. Small towels are fine but don’t put them in the actual bath.
Before entering the bath, wash thoroughly with soap and shampoo in the shower area, and don’t let touch your hair fall into the bathwater. As much as possible, try not to wet the changing area by drying yourself off as you exit. And unfortunately for many foreigners, many onsens don’t allow tattoos.
29. Absolutely no tipping!
Tipping in Japan can even be considered rude. If you leave a tip, the staff might think you’ve forgotten your change and bring it back to you. Pay precisely what it states on the check. The cashier is usually located at the entrance of the restaurant, so you must bring the check with you.
30. Toilets in Japan can be a lot of fun.
In both private homes and public bathrooms, toilets often have very advanced technology. Lids that automatically open as you approach, heated seats, audio of running water (to cover up any sounds), and the all-important bidet! There are two options for the bidet, so choose the right one or prepare for a surprise! Japanese toilets are also dual flush. Choose either a large flush (大) or half flush (小).
31. Vending machines can be fun too.
Located in practically every conceivable nook and cranny, and even on top of remote mountains! Vending machines stock warm and cold drinks, soups, a myriad of coffee, energy and soft drinks, water… the list goes on. Some even have beer and sake, although these are less common nowadays. You can pay with cash or with an IC card. Some vending machines also have free Wi-Fi.
32. Convenience stores are not your average one-stop shop.
Known in Japanese as konbini, these stores are everywhere and open 24/7! The main stores include 7-11, Family Mart, Daily Yamazaki, and Lawson. They all seem to stock everything you could want, from hot and cold food, sushi, bentos, and desserts.
The food can even be better than some ordinary restaurants. Drinks, snacks, toiletries, fresh coffee, stationery, alcoholic beverages, umbrellas, socks, gloves, and other miscellaneous items, you can find it here.
33. Japan is a safe place, in general.
Of course, be as careful as you would in your home country. Use your common sense, keep valuables on you and be wary of your surroundings. Police officers in Japan are friendly and helpful, and police boxes (koban) are a great place to get help if you need it. Also, if you lose something, chances are it will be handed into the nearest koban.
34. Don’t be surprised when restaurants have smoking sections.
Although this is gradually changing, some restaurants still allow smoking. Ask to be in the non-smoking area if this is what you prefer.
35. A tip when eating a restaurant with no English menu.
Restaurants with no English menu usually have a plastic food display outside or photos on the menu. Just point to either the food display outside or photo.
36. Eat ramen!
Although originally Chinese, ramen is now one of the most popular dishes in Japan. There are various bases for the soup; tonkotsu pork broth, miso, and shoyu (soy sauce) being the main ones. Typically topped with pork, fishcake, and nori, Japanese ramen is increasingly beginning to include other meats, soybean suitable for vegetarians and fish.
Be aware that most do contain animal fats. The noodles can be cooked soft (yawarakame), regular or firm (katame) to your taste. Just add whatever toppings you wish. Many ramen joints require you to pay upfront near the door using a ticket machine.
37. Don’t eat while walking.
Food is meant to be enjoyed and savored, not scarfed down on your way to the subway. So this is considered rude in Japan, so don’t do it.
38. Drinking alcohol in public is legal.
You’ll see this particularly in public parks and outdoor festivals. Alcohol isn’t stigmatized here like it is in western cultures. However, the penalties for things like drunk driving are so harsh that almost no one risks it. Alcohol is simply part of the culture of Japan, so feel free to kick back under a cherry blossom tree and relax with a beer.
39. Mind your chopsticks.
Some basic chopsticks etiquette include not poking your chopsticks on your rice as it’s a funeral symbol. Don’t talk while waving your chopsticks. And more importantly, do not blatantly scrub your chopsticks together in front of the restaurant owner or staff to remove splinters. They would think that you think their chopsticks are of low quality. You may do so if the chopsticks are cheap quality but make sure to hide the act of rubbing them together.
40. When using electronic products, use the (almost) same plugs as in North America.
There are, however, two main differences to remember. First is the voltage: Japan is 100 V, North America is 120 V, and Central Europe is 230 V. Second is the outlets: Outlets here don’t include the third ground prong, so only two-pronged plugs will work without an adapter. That said, most North American products will still work fine without an adapter, but using one is best to avoid damaging the item. If you’re not from North America, we recommend getting a Type A travel adapter specifically for Japan. A universal adapter will also work.
41. Take those damn shoes off!
If you’re staying in a host’s house, have the courtesy to do as they do in Japan. When eating at a restaurant, take your cue from whether there are slippers placed near the entrance.
42. Shower rooms are the entire room.
Most westerners are accustomed to having a small shower or large bath in their bathrooms and take care not to let the water splash outside. Japan steps their bathing game up substantially by making shower rooms actual rooms. So feel free to sit down and relax in the shower after a long day of sightseeing.
43. Hotel is a better option than Airbnb here…
Airbnb is a popular option for travel, but we don’t recommend it for Japan. The prices are actually higher than hotels and they’re always located out of the way, far from a train station. Even worse, Airbnb Japan has a strict rule. Effective as of June 15, 2018 , Airbnb hosts are now required to check you in. Yes, like a hotel check-in. Like a hotel, they need to record your name, nationality, address, and occupation (for some reason), and a copy of your passport.
We would only recommend Airbnb if you’re a large family or traveling in a large group, then Airbnb can be a great way to save. If you are new to Airbnb, you can sign-up using my link to get $40 Airbnb credit which you can instantly use for your first stay.
And those are the things we wish we had known before traveling to Japan. We sincerely hope that learning from our mistakes leads to a better trip for you. So enjoy your trip! Japan is a beautiful country and gives you memories that will last a lifetime.