This article is a sequel to the Japan Travel Essentials, which I recommend reading if you haven’t.
Here are the 37 things to know before traveling to Japan, especially if your first time.
1. Only buy the JR Pass if you plan to travel a lot.
You may have heard of something called a JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass) discussed on many travel blogs and travel websites. JR Pass is an unlimited train pass that you buy from outside Japan before you arrive.
It’s only valid on JR trains and select Shinkansen (bullet train). 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. (E.g. Traveling from Tokyo – Osaka – Kyoto – Hiroshima – Tokyo).
Calculate whether you will really be saving with this purchase. Be smart with your money!
2. 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.
3. 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 very reliable and good value for money.
4. Trains 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.
5. 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?
6. The best time to visit Japan is from November to 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!
7. 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 bottles 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.
8. 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 and from school, and it’s normal and safe here!
9. Hire a local guide.
They are very well-established Japanese companies and experts when it comes to unique Japanese experiences. Try joining a bar-hopping tour in Tokyo.
10. The Google Translate App is your friend.
Some smartphones don’t have pre-installed Google Translate. So make sure to download it as it’s one of the most useful travel apps that you’ll use when traveling Japan.
11. Book or reserve restaurants in advance.
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.
12. 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.
13. 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 of doing it yourself.
Bar-hopping is another great way to experience the drinking culture in Japan. So make sure to join one from our bar-hopping tour list.
14. 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).
15. Get down to the basements of department 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.
16. 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 110 yen (Japan tax has increased to 10% starting October 1, 2019). Some larger or better quality products can be up to 300 yen before tax.
Be sure to check the price tag.
17. A tip on buying souvenirs.
18. 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!
19. 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.
20. 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.
21. 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.
22. 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.
23. 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).
24. 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.
25. 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.
26. 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 (just like what happened to my wallet).
27. Smokers always have designated areas.
Smoking is prohibited in main streets, but you can always find designated smoking areas usually beside a train station. Some restaurants still allow smoking. Ask to be in the non-smoking area if this is what you prefer.
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.
29. Eat ramen! (And slurp LOUDLY)
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.
Slurp loudly! It may be considered rude and annoying in the U.S. But in Japan, it’s a way of enhancing the flavor of the noodle and a way of telling the restaurant that they have really good noodles.
30. 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.
Burping in public is also a bad manner.
In Japan, bowing is actually a Japanese culture. Bow when saying sorry or apologizing. Bow when thanking someone. Bow after a restaurant staff has taken your order.
32. 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.
33. 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.
34. 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.
35. 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.
36. 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.
37. 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 1, 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.
As for hotels, our favorite website has always been Booking.com.
If you are new to Airbnb, you can sign-up using my link to get $45 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.
- What should I know about booking a home in Japan? (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2019, from https://www.airbnb.com/help/article/2274/what-should-i-know-about-booking-a-home-in-japan