20 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Japan for the First Time
Before I visited Japan for the first time, I always thought of the place as an enigma. A ‘person or thing that is mysterious or difficult to understand.’ Aside from the stunning scenery you will find in the land of the rising sun, there are so many cultural differences to learn and experience along the way.
As I sit here writing this on the plane, on my way to visit this mysterious land for the second time, I thought it was appropriate to share all the things about Japan that surprised me and that I wish I knew before I visited Japan for the first time.
Here are 20 tips on what you should expect before you visit Japan for the first time!
Is Japan Safe to Travel to?
The one difference you will notice the most in Japan is the personal space, or lack thereof. In a country that has 126 million people, space is a luxury. When in public that’s a luxury you will not be granted. You’ll just have to get used to getting up close to people on public transport, in restaurants, at tourist sites and any other public areas.
That being said, I never felt unsafe. Pickpocketing is very rare. Apparently, there have been some reports of women being groped on busy trains in Tokyo, however, I never experienced this problem. If you’re unsure, avoid the train or metro during peak hour.
What to Wear in Japan
Wear what you want really! Japan is one of those places where the people are so polite that you could wear just about anything you want (within reason) and you won’t be laughed or stared at. However, if like me, you prefer not to draw too much attention to yourself and dress similar to the locals, then smart casual attire is probably best. Pack jeans, trainers and a nice coat or cardigan for cooler climates and short dresses, blouses, smart shorts or slacks in the summer. You’ll be doing a lot of walking so be sure to pack a pair of trainers. I literally wore my white sneakers the entire time I was there!
How Expensive is Japan?
How much will a trip to Japan cost you? Here’s a breakdown of some expenses you might expect to encounter:
- A bowl of ramen = 800-1000 Yen ($7-10 USD)
- Dinner for two at a Michelin star restaurant = 20,000-40,000 Yen ($180-400 USD)
- A plate of good quality mixed sashimi at a sushi bar in the Tsukiji markets (enough for one person) = 1800-2500 Yen ($16-25 USD)
- A night at a four-star hotel in Tokyo = $250-500 USD (varies depending on the season)
- A local Japanese beer = 600 Yen ($5.50 USD)
I found that some things were on the expensive side and others seemed cheap compared to Australian prices. It’s really easy to find good cheap food everywhere. Many temples and tourist sights are also free to visit.
Do You Need to Know Any Japanese to Visit Japan?
Quite possibly the number one question I get asked is; do you need to know Japanese to visit Japan? Honestly, it is really easy to get by without speaking any Japanese, but in saying that, most people in Japan don’t speak English. At least not much. So, it helps to learn a few Japanese phrases that you might come across during your visit:
- Good Morning = Ohayogozaimasu (oh-hai-oh-goz-eye-i-maas)
- Good Afternoon = Konnichiwa (kon-nit-chee-wha)
- Good Evening = Konbanwa (kon-bun-wha)
- Thank You = Arigato (ah-rhi-ga-toe) or Arigatogozaimashita (ah-rhi-ga-toe-goz-eye-i-mash-ta)
- Yes = Hai (ha-eye)
- Excuse me, sorry = Asumi masen (ah-sue-mi-maa-sen)
- Do you speak English = Eigo o hanasemasu ka (aye-go-hanna-se-mas-ka)
Buying a Japan Rail Pass
Yes, it is worth it! Rail travel in Japan is not cheap. The most common itinerary for tourists visiting Japan is Tokyo > Kyoto > Hiroshima > Tokyo. The cost of a 7-day Japan Rail Pass is approximately $268 USD ($383 AUD). If you work out the cost of individual rail tickets between each of these destinations, it works out well over $500 USD ($700 AUD).
Japan Rail passes can be purchased for 7, 14 or 21 days. I would recommend planning your overland excursions appropriately to make the most of you time. Use Hyperdia to plan your travel itinerary and check out train times.
Be sure to purchase your Japan Rail Pass at least 2 weeks before you depart your home country. It will be mailed to an address of your choosing and cannot be purchased once you arrive in Japan. If you’re based in Australia, you can buy a Japan Rail Pass here. Otherwise, check out this website.
Navigating the Japan Train System is Easier Than It Looks
One glace at a Tokyo Metro Map is enough to completely turn anyone off travelling to Japan (go on, Google it, I bet you want to now). But the Japan train system is actually much easier to navigate than you think.
In Tokyo, there are three main rail companies – Japan Rail, Metro and Toei Subway. There are also a number of private lines you may need to take to get to some sights, but in general, these three companies cover the majority of Tokyo.
Tip: Check out which rail company has a station closest to your hotel.
To get anywhere outside of Tokyo, Japan Rail is your best bet, but again, there are some private lines servicing some tourist areas, so you may need to pay extra to travel on these lines.
If I had one recommendation, it would be to pick a rail company and stick with it. We stuck with the Metro while in Tokyo and then used Japan Rail to get to places outside of Tokyo, so we didn’t actually start our Japan Rail Pass until we were leaving Tokyo (so we only had to purchase a 7-day pass instead of a 14-day pass). Check out this website for more information on navigating the rail system in Japan.
How to Take a Taxi in Japan
On my first time traveling to Japan, I perhaps naively thought I’ll just take a taxi everywhere. How hard can it be? I can tell you, taking a taxi in Japan can be very challenging. Navigating the trains is much easier. Not once during my two visits did I come across a taxi driver who spoke any English. I even tried to show my taxi driver the directions to my hotel on Google maps, but because my Google maps was in English and not Japanese, he still couldn’t figure it out.
I would recommend getting the address of your hotel written down in Japanese. I always use Hotels.com for many reasons, one being that they conveniently provide the hotel address in the local language in their booking confirmation email. Otherwise I recommend asking the hotel for their business card in Japanese when you get there. This will make things so much easier!
Try Luggage Free Travel in Japan
I kid you not! If only I knew this service existed when I travelled to Japan for the first time. But what an amazing concept. You got to hand it to the Japanese, they are so efficient. Make your journey throughout Japan more convenient by pre-booking your luggage to/from Airports and also between hotels! Get 20% discount with this link.
Timing is Everything in Japan
If your train ticket says that your train will leave at 13:42, then there’s a pretty good chance it will leave at 13:42, on the dot. Things run notoriously on-time in Japan. Don’t get caught out.
The Japanese are Very Polite
Having blonde hair, green eyes and fair skin, I stand out like a sore thumb in many countries. I get stared at a lot, stalked, asked all sorts of strange questions, I even got spat on once. WTF? But in Japan, despite the fact that I clearly stood out from the majority of locals and tourists, I did not once feel uncomfortable about it. The Japanese are very polite by nature and they will go out of their way to make you feel welcome in their country. For this reason, I fell in love with the place almost immediately.
Learn the Rules and Obey Them
However polite the Japanese might be, try disobeying the rules and see what kind of reaction you get – I dare you. Just kidding.
I like a bit of social order. So, it’s no surprise that I loved this about Japan. The Japanese are sticklers for rules. They stand in the clearly marked places while waiting for the train. They wait for the little green man to start flashing before they cross the road (even if there’s nothing coming). No one speaks on the train. Everything is numbered/labeled for a reason. If you put a foot out of place, you’ll probably be met with stares of disapproval. You know the saying… “when in Rome…”.
Don’t Be Alarmed by the Automatic Toilet Seats
I stayed at a hotel in Tokyo where the toilet seat opened automatically as soon as you walked into the room. I’ll admit, it kind of freaked me out to start with. But by the end of my first 10-day trip around Japan, I was serious considered sourcing a Japanese style toilet for my own home.
Many-a-conversation with friends about travelling in Japan, has ended up talking about the toilets. They make all sorts of ambient noises, like rainforest birds or trickling water. Some even talk to you. Eek. They also come with heated seats, self-cleaning capabilities and offer several different flushing options. You just have to experience it to believe it!
You Will Be Hard-Pressed to Find a Bad Meal
The food in Japan is pretty good everywhere. When we arrived in Japan for the first time, we saw lots of Japanese people lining up out the front of some restaurants. We figured the food must be good if there’s a line, so we joined in. After a while, we begun to realise that the food was pretty good everywhere. Even at places that didn’t have a line up out the front. The Japanese are real sticklers for good food, so you are pretty much guaranteed a good meal wherever you go. Actually, I don’t think we had a bad meal the entire time we were there!
Slurping Your Meal is Totally Acceptable
I come from a country where if you make grotesque sounds while eating your meal, you’ll be met with offensive stares by those sitting in your vicinity. Not in Japan. Slurping is not only acceptable here, it’s almost EXPECTED. If you’re not slurping, you’re not doing it right! Slurping noodles is actually a way to cool down the noodles and apparently enhances the taste(!?). Try it next time you’re there.
Embrace the Bento Box
You’ll spend a lot of time on trains and sightseeing in Japan. Grabbing a quick bit to eat for much will be the easiest option. A bento box is a Japanese-style home-packed lunch which generally consisted of several bite sized rice, fish and vegetables, carefully prepared in a box-shaped container. They can be found all over Japan – at train stations, supermarkets, 7-Eleven’s and take-away stores. The food in Japan is always freshly prepared and tastes delicious, even the Bento’s.
Get Used to Ordering Your Meal on a Vending Machine
We had some fun times ordering our lunch via vending machine on our first time in Japan. They are everywhere. Many of them don’t have English translation. But they do generally have pictures. It’s pretty easy. You simply insert your money into the machine, press the button of the item you want, take the ticket from the machine and hand it to the server, who will seat you and deliver your meal with impressive timing. Presto!
There’s No Tipping in Japan
Honestly, you can try to tip. But you’ll be met with some very quizzical looks. If you leave a tip at a restaurant and walk out the door, you’ll probably be chased down in the street by your server because ‘you forgot your change’.
Be Sure to Check Out the Depachika
Depa-chi-what-a? These are the renowned underground food halls of Japan. They are literally everywhere. But if you don’t know what you’re looking for, they can be somewhat difficult to find. For one of Japan’s unmissable food experiences, just head for the basement of almost any department store. There’s a world of culinary deliciousness down there. You won’t be disappointed.
Tip: Try the one in the Daimaru in Tokyo Station, or Takashiyama in Shinjuku.
Cash is King
I live in a country where card in now king and no one carries cash anymore. But not in Japan. The Japanese haven’t quite embraced a cashless society yet, which is rather surprising for such a technologically advanced country. Things are changing slowly, but when I arried in Japan for the first time I was very surprised to learn that cash is still far more widely accepted than credit card. Be sure to arrange some Japanese Yen before you arrive or get some money changed over at the airport (although I usually don’t recommend this as the exchange rate at airports is generally not that great).
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
The Japanese are VERY friendly. They will literally go out of their way to try and help you. No matter what. On my first time travelling to Japan I asked someone for directions and they couldn’t understand me. But instead of just ignoring me and going about their business, they literally dragged me half a block away to find someone who could speak better English to translate for them, just so they could help me find my way.
Did you have any interesting experiences when you travelled to Japan for the first time? Let our readers know about them in the comments below.
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