Japan is a remarkable country filled with so much history, natural beauty and modern touches. I’ve just returned from my second trip to Japan and was reminded of so many things I had forgotten about the country! Traveling in Japan is an amazing and enriching experience, however it is also a country filled with traditions and unique ways of operating that visitors may not be used to. Below I share the best Japan travel tips to help you make the most of your trip.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Jump to a Heading Below
Top Japan Travel Tips to Know BEFORE You Go
Before you head off to Japan, there are a few things you will need to know in advance and to plan for. While most things on this list can be figured out while in country, a few MUST be done before you leave your home. Whether you opt for the classic tourist circuit Japan itinerary or get off the beaten path, these tips will go a long way to help you enjoy your trip to the fullest.
If you want a Japan Rail Pass, it is only available to purchase for overseas tourists BEFORE they enter the country. Once you are in country, you can no longer purchase a JR Pass, so if you plan to use the bullet train between destinations quite a bit, this is a must do before you leave. You must also give yourself plenty of advance notice as well as the pass is still mailed to a physical address.
However, I will say that sometimes it’s not actually cheaper to get a JR Pass. Research the Shinkansen trains here and which trains you plan to take to budget accordingly. Often you can take a train that is just a bit slower, for a lot cheaper.
Regardless, the most important piece of advice for the JR Pass is once it is activated you CANNOT lose it. If you lose it, it is gone. You will not be able to print a new pass. You will not be given a refund. You cannot buy another pass until it is expired as it is connected to your passport. A fellow traveler on my recent trip had this experience, and it was not pleasant to lose a $600 pass on day 1 of his trip!
Keep Your Train Tickets With You
Along with the JR Pass information above, another thing to know when traveling on the trains in Japan is to keep your train ticket with you at all times. One, you will often be asked to show it on many longer distance train journeys and you will need it to exit the stations. Even better is to get a transportation card mentioned below for city travel as it is a little less easy to lose. Trust me, these tiny slips of paper are easy to misplace!
Get an IC Transport Card
There is nothing worse than arriving to Japan, transferring through the airports and needing a drink but unable to get one! Japan’s vending machines and many shops do not take US or foreign credit cards. What do you do when you only have a vending machine as an option in the airport? The best way to deal with this is to download and preload an IC card BEFORE your arrival. Not only does a Suica card or Pasmo card provide easy access to public transportation, it can also be used at vending machines and for small purchases at convenience stores.
Insider Japan Travel Tips You MUST know: If you have an iPhone, you can go to your wallet, click the plus sign, then click Transit Card. Now you can search “Japan” to see the Suica option. Now you can select the amount to add to your card and go through the payment portal. BAM. You are ready to roll upon hitting the ground in Japan.
If you cannot load it on your phone, you can purchase Suica Cards at most train stations. You can also order Suica Cards online and have them mailed to your house abroad prior to your trip to be sure you will have access when in the country.
Learn Basic Japanese Words
While you might find some level of English in the big cities or top tourist spots, much of Japan still exists without much English. I always find this interesting, but again, how cool that they have managed to keep their language and Japanese culture so true to themselves! That said, if you plan to get off the beaten path at all, make sure you know a few phrases and have your Google Translate handy!
The top phrases I found useful while in country include:
Hello – Konichiwa
Thank you – Arigato
Thank you very much – Arigato Gozai mas
Delicious – Oishi
Cute – Kawaii
Cheers – Kanpai
Sorry, Excuse me, Pardon me – Sumi masen
Download Google Translate
One of the most important travel tips I can provide is to download the Google Translate app and Japanese packet as you will often need it. As mentioned above, there is often still quite a bit of a language barrier in Japan, especially in smaller towns or off the beaten path at all. Having Google translate will help you when you want to say something to someone but can’t communicate. The translate will provide it in text for the other person to read which is super helpful. Additionally, you can actually just turn on your microphone and let a person speak into your app and get the translation quickly. This is a great help throughout Japan!
Cash is King
Even though Japan is such a modern country and technologically advanced in so many ways, they are still behind in some. In the case of accepting ApplePay and credit cards, you will often find that cash is still king here. We ran into MANY restaurants that had machines to order your food, but only accepted cash. Vending machines often accept only cash. I found that overall, the only places that accept ApplePay were foreign shops – 7-11, McDonalds, Starbucks. There were also times that they accepted credit card, but not Visa – only Mastercard. It is best to always carry plenty of cash with you for these reasons.
Tipping is NOT Customary
Contrary to the West, tipping is not customary here and in some cases can be considered rude. To be honest as an American who is asked for a tip at every turn, this was a welcome change. I was so happy to not have to worry about tipping at restaurants, bus drivers or our guides. If you are unsure you can ask, but in general it is not done!
Don’t Expect a Western Breakfast
One of the things I most remembered from my first trip to Japan was the very different, for me, breakfast options. While I am all for trying things and diving into the local culture, sometimes you want a little something that is reminiscent of home. For me that is often breakfast. At most restaurants and hotels, you can expect to see very little western offerings for breakfast. If you want something you are used to (coffee even) you will need to seek out western establishments. I don’t often go to McDonalds at home or abroad, but I sure do like that sausage egg mcmuffin after a week in Japan!
Without even noticing it, I found myself crossing over a path of people in the underground to get on the “right” side of the walking path. You will see that people traffic flows very smoothing in Japan and most of that is because of how the Japanese walk on the correct side. Watch the flow of food traffic and you will quickly see where you need to be! When I was in Sapporo, there was an entire city of underground walkways. I quickly realized that everyone was sectioned off in the direction of their travel. It made it very easy to get through even with large end of day crowds. But beware of those very useful, but pesky bumps for sight impaired. They are everywhere and are not really an indicator of which side of the street you should be on!
View this post on Instagram
Get Ready to Take Off Your Shoes
While it isn’t as common to remove your shoes in Japan as it is for say India, you will need to remove your shoes for more traditional establishments including restaurants. We had to remove our shoes at the front door to one of our hotels even and couldn’t put them back on until we were leaving! I love not wearing shoes indoors, but it was not always easy especially when I was wearing my Blundstones that are so difficult to get on/off!
Take Your Passport Shopping
If you would like to take advantage of tax-free shopping, make sure to take your passport with you when you go shopping. Some shops like UNIQLO will automatically give you the tax free savings right away once they see your passport, helping you to avoid doing it at the airport. Other shops will require you get a refund at the airport. If you plan to do any shopping, just take it with you!
Respect the Japanese Traditions
One of the most amazing parts of traveling to Japan is how it is SO different than what many of us are used to. Historically, Japan has been a closed off society. Most of the country is Japanese origin with little Western influence. It is one of the many things that makes it so unique. That said, the most important thing is that you recognize and respect their traditions even if it’s very foreign to you. Take time to learn and ask about the traditions and practice them during your visit. It’s a great way to show respect and fully immerse yourself in the country.
Prepare Yourself for A Japanese Onsen
One of the most beautiful parts of Japanese society is the public bathing system of the onsen. These hot springs are located throughout the country in stunning locations. It is definitely a big part of life here and something tourists should try at least once. I will warn you though, that unless you are having a private onsen, they are completely nude and can be mixed gender as well. I could write an entire article on how to visit an onsen as there are customs and rules to know, but in general you will need to fully shower and bathe with soap before entering the pools, they are totally nude and many do not allow people to enter with visible tattoos. If you are staying in a ryokan with no private shower facility in your room, make sure the staff are aware of any tattoos in advance so they can make arrangements for you.
There are a lot of spoken and unspoken rules for Japanese transportation. One of the most important Japan travel tips I can provide to to be aware of what others around you are doing. For example, you must line up to board the trains, allowing ALL passengers to get off before you begin boarding. Second, most people to do not have conversations on the trains. Third, phones are almost always on silent mode and you would definitely not want to have a phone conversation on the train! There are also cars designated for women and children during busy times, so pay attention to signage at the station.
Don’t Be Afraid of Shopping at Convenience Stores
In Japan, convenience stores are everything. And EVERYWHERE! There are so many varieties from 7-11 to Lawson’s to Family Mart or more local shops like SeicoMart in Hokkaido that you can never be very far from one. Here you can literally get anything you want including breakfast or dinner! You can find ready made meals like fried chicken in Hokkaido to udon noodles, tempura, sandwiches and more. They also have chargers if you happen to have soaked your phone and need a cordless charger. They have candy and sweets, beer, iced coffee and so more more.
Get Ready to Carry Your Trash Around
One thing that is always a surprise to me when I’m in Japan is the lack of trash cans in public spaces. They are not on the roadsides or even that frequently found in shops. You will carry a lot of trash in your pockets all day long! Carry a small plastic bag for your trash to make life easier, but do remember to say no to plastic bags at most places as they are given very freely still or a minimal extra cost.
Separate Your Trash
Japan is not super up on the “use less plastic” concept, but they are very strict about separating their garbage. Hopefully this means they have a much better track record of recycling than we do in the US! If you are not used to separating your trash, educate yourself a bit on what is compostable, what is recyclable and what is landfill trash. At big festivals or events you will find very trash cans (as mentioned above), but when you do, they will expect you to seperate it all into the correct containers.
Eating, Drinking & Smoking in Public
While I am not 100% if there are rules on this, but in general you will notice that the Japanese people do NOT eat, drink or smoke while walking. There are of course designated areas for smoking, which is not allowed all over the place. But for drinking your morning coffee on the way to the train station? Nope, you won’t see Japanese people do this. Is it an unspoken rule or just a custom I am not certain, but I tried to follow suit as much as I could.
Throughout history, Japan has been a closed off society. Would you believe that almost 99% of the country is Japanese? The result is a unique culture with little Western influence and little English. So don’t be surprised if you ask questions or try to converse with people, but don’t receive much of a response. It’s not because they are rude, they simply know they can’t speak your language, and you likely can’t speak Japanese
Japanese Toilets Will Spoil You
Ok, one of the BEST things about Japan has to be their toilets. From the airport to public restrooms, you will find some really great toilets to literally write home about! My absolute favorite that I didn’t realize until I got back home was the heated seats. It really does feel so nice to sit down on a toasty toilet in the middle of the night. There are also several bidet options, drying options and of course also “privacy” sounds/music for many public toilets. Make sure to have your phone handy though as you may need to translate some of the buttons if they aren’t obvious. I have found myself stuff with the water on, not knowing how to turn it off! All of that said, you will also still find squat toilet options in most public bathrooms. They typically have a sign on the door indicating what type of toilet you can expect.
Get an e-SIM For Your Phone
If you haven’t tried an e-SIM yet, you need to get on the wagon. They are SO easy to use, super affordable and available all over the world. For my recently 2 week trip, I used a 10 GB e-SIM card which allowed me to have data access wherever I went. While there is often free Wi-Fi around major cities, often the log-in screen is only in Japanese which makes it challenging to login quickly. Get $3 off your first purchase at AIRLO using my code: KARILY0402
One of the coolest Japanese cultural experiences I can recommend is to stay in a ryokan. A ryokan is basically traditional Japanese inns. While they come in many forms these days including a super traditional ryokan where you sleep on the tatami mats, you can also opt for ones that do have more “western” beds. I have stayed in all various forms and personally I love being able to plop down in an actual bed, but for a one night experience I would recommend trying the super traditional way as well.
As part of the experience, you might find that you have a traditional kaiseki meal for dinner or breakfast, you might also have no private shower in your room or have to take your shoes off at the hotel entrance. It is so fun and cool to see Japanese locals having their dinner or breakfast in the provided yukata (robe in the room) and wearing the slippers. I find this to be one of the most immersive cultural experiences you can have in Japan and well worth the price tag. (Shockingly they are usually quite a bit more expensive than western style hotels).
Japan is Not THAT Expensive
Japan has a reputation of being an excessively expensive country. While it is definitely more expensive than it’s other Asian counterparts, it is also not as pricey as some places in Europe! There are ways to reduce your expenses quite easily. One recommendation to mix up accomodation options – stay in a traditional ryokan, but also stay in chain hotels like Tokyu Stay. We had a great room at Tokyu Stay with a washer/dryer in our room for less than $80 a night. There are plenty of small shops for meals that will run you $5-10 a meal, while more traditional kaiseki meals will cost more. The biggest expense tends to be transport between cities, so that is why it is important to price it out in advance and check for internal flights and getting the JR Pass.
Do NOT Lose (or Keep) Your Hotel Key Card
One of the biggest surprises for me on my recent trip was that when I thought I had lost my all white plastic room key card I was going to be charged 2000 Yen for a replacement! What?? My son often likes to keep these cards as a souvenir, so I am glad to know in advance that you MUST return all room keys or else you will be charged. Even when they are non-descript white cards with no text on them.
Traditional hotels still use actual keys, so those are much easier to keep track of and not loose. If you are worried about losing one, you can drop it off with reception before you go out for the day.
Japan Trains Run VERY Timely
While I can’t say that Japanese trains run on time always because I have experienced delays with them, overwhelmingly they do run on a very tight schedule with very little disturbances. This is great as long as you are early, but it’s tough when you are running late! Always plan for delays in the train station and arrive with plenty of time.
Check for Seasonal Festivals
Regardless of when you visit Japan, there is sure to be some type of festival happening. These are often the best places to fully immerse yourself into the culture. For example, the cherry blossoms in the spring often have many festivals that accompany it, which can be quite fun. In Sapporo, there is an Autumn Festival in September that brings in tons of amazing food options every day for visitors to sample.
Bring Snacks With You
Whether it is a bus or train journey, do not plan on food being available. There are no dining cars on trains regardless how many hours they are. We found out the hard way that we needed to always have water and snacks with us because options were not always available. Shockingly though, you can eat and drink on the long distance trains, just make sure to take all of your trash with you.
Tap Water is Safe to Drink
One of the best things about travelling in Japan is that the tap water is safe to drink. I loved not having to purchase water bottles all the time or worry about water being bad quality. I even drank from a mountain spring in Rishiri Island that was crisp and cold and so delicious. Bring you recyclable water bottle and fill up in the hotels every day instead of buying more plastic.
Japan has a concept called “ma” or personal space. Respect it, especially in crowded places with lots of people. Many of these etiquette rules are unspoken, but if you take time to look around you, you will notice that the Japanese people strictly adhere to them. Again, one of the best Japan travel tips I can provide is to look around you and follow what the locals are doing!
Wear Your Bag In Front on Crowded Trains
In places like Paris or New York, you might see people wearing their backpacks on their front on busy trains, but in Japan this is not for safety as much as it is a respect for fellow passengers. When you wear your bag on the front you are making sure that you are not accidentally hitting other people. This culture is one that is very fond of respect for others and I just love this example!
Safety in Japan
Overall I feel VERY safe in Japan at all hours of the day and night. Trains can get super crowded and you will see people wearing their bags in front like I mentioned above, however that is not necessarily for safety as it might be in other cities. All of that said, I would still be aware of your belongings when in crowded public places and wear your mobile on a strap like this one to make sure it isn’t snatched!
Use Google Maps for Train Travel
If you don’t already use Google Maps, one of my top Japan travel tips is to download it now! One of the coolest features of Google maps is that it will tell you how to walk to a train station, which train to get on and even which exit to look for when you arrive to the destination train stations! However it is important to note that oftentimes your internet may not work in the subway stations, so it is a good idea to have it all loaded before you get underground.
Expect Lines at Restaurants
Many restaurants are tiny in Japan and can hold only 10 or so people at a time. This means that there are often queues outside of restaurants, which is often a sign of delicious food! Meals in places that are small are often very functional affairs, not, sit back and socialize kind of meals. You order, pay, eat and vacate! Note: many restaurants have plastic food models displayed outside to help you order.
Dietary Restrictions are Challenging
In Tokyo you can often manage with dietary restrictions more easily, but once you leave the big city, it can often be quite challenging to deal with dietary restrictions. I personally am allergic to MSG, which meant asking everywhere if I could eat the food prepared. For the most part, most chef’s knew instantly whether they used it or not. In the more rural parts of Japan in the far north of Hokkaido, I ran into a few more challenges. If you are a strict vegetarian, it is also a bit cumbersome to find food that does not include any fish sauce as it seems to be included in a ton. Just take your time and ask around as there are often places that can cater to your needs.
An International Drivers License is Required in Japan
If you plan to hire a car and self drive during your visit to Japan, make sure you acquire an International Driver’s license before you leave home. If you are in the US, this is easily obtained at AAA for around $20 in one day. This is just an additional piece of paper that says that yes, your license is for driving and you are able to drive outside of your home country.
Japanese Wait for the Walking Sign
Just like in Germany, for the most part Japanese people do not jaywalk or cross until the walking sign is illuminated. I have seen a few people here and there cut across the road or go before the walk sign is lit up, but by far the general rule is that you wait patiently on the sidewalk!
Try All the Drinks, But Don’t Expect Much More than Coke
In Japan you will quickly notice that the only western drink you can purchase by and large is Coca Cola and not even diet, just regular coke. I was so surprised when our Japanese exchange student had never had a Sprite, but after my recent visit I was reminded why – it’s tough to come by! Only occasionally did I see a Sprite in a convenience store and almost never in a vending machine. Overall, you will be presented with a ton of drinks that are only Japanese!
Also, I found out after much sampling and discussion with our Japanese hosts – you will never find sweetened tea in the vending machines unless it is Chinese or American. They do not put sugar in their green tea at all. I purchased MANY tea varieties looking for a sweet option, with absolutely no luck!
One of my top Japan travel tips includes buying stuff from the vending machines. I just love the vending machines in Japan. And I love that you can purchase almost anything in the world from them. At one of my onsen visits, they had a vending machine with underwear (new!), razors, earbuds and more. We saw a vending machine selling frozen ramen which would be the perfect take out food if you lived there. You will of course find drinks machines everywhere you go as well. My favorite one of the entire country has to be the “cake in a can” vending machine in Sapporo. The cake was amazing as is the concept. It was pricey, but worth it at least once.
Another great one to look out for and try is a coffee vending machine. You can usually adjust how strong you want the coffee, how much sugar and how much milk. It is so fun to just pay 100 yen and have a hot coffee. Additionally, on most regular machines you can look for the signs that say hot/cold as some machines dispense BOTH hot and cold drinks. You want a hot tea, but your friend wants a cold drink. You got it. Seriously, these machines are the best and one of my favorite things to check out while wandering around towns!
TRAVEL ESSENTIALS FOR JAPAN
Japan is a country with a rich culture and history, so embracing its traditions and customs can really enhance your travel experience.
There really is no “best time” to visit. There are distinct seasons, each offering unique experiences, so you do not have to only go during the high season of summer (or during the cherry blossom season in spring!). The colorful foliage in fall is worth a trip as is seeing the country blanketed in snow! Wherever you go, have fun and enjoy all the differences that you are sure to find!
MORE TRAVEL AROUND JAPAN
We hope you enjoyed these Japan travel tips! For more travel around Japan, see the links below:
- 3 week Classic Japan Itinerary in Photos: Tokyo, Kyoto, Snow Monkeys & More
- Get off the Beaten Path in Hokkaido: Rishiri & Rebun Islands
- The Best Food in Japan That You MUST Try!
If You Enjoyed This Post, Sign Up To Receive Posts By Email or…
- Join us on Facebook for regular updates and related articles
- Check us out on Instagram to see what we are up to in photos
- Follow us on Twitter for links to great travel articles curated just for you
- Or share this post with others by pinning on Pinterest!