Japan is spectacular, dazzling, boisterous and contemplative all in one. Here, tradition and modernity effortlessly share space, centuries-old shrines bump up against skyscrapers, castles and temples whisper of history, and bullet trains whisk you through breathtaking landscapes to cities packed with world-class restaurants, nightlife and shopping.
As amazing Japan is though, planning your travel here can be a bit overwhelming. Different culture, customs and language barrier make it a bit hard to figure certain details out. Here is my list of top 10 things you should know when traveling to Japan:
Best Time to Visit
Each season in Japan is unique and beautiful. My personal advice would be to travel either in spring (March-April) or fall (November) to marvel incredible beauty of cherry blossoms and foliage.
Having said that, summer is either rainy or humid and hot, but is filled with festivals and fireworks, while winter allures with astounding Christmas illuminations.
Getting to Your Hotel
Once you arrive to the airport (Narita AND Haneda) you have an option to take a bus or train to the city. Both cost approximately $25-$35, depending on where you are heading and tickets are typically sold right outside the baggage claim area. Needless to say, you have an option to take a taxi if you don’t mind to splurge.
Despite being such a technologically developed country finding free wifi in Japan can be a challenge. Thus I recommend buying portable wifi from SoftBank or eMobile stands right at the airport (unless you plan on being on a digital detox, of course).
Many places in Japan accept foreign credit cards, and many don’t. You will definitely need cash, but it is not necessary to take all your cash out right as you arrive. ATMs at 7/11 grocery stores (which are conveniently located EVERYWHERE) accept international credit cards, so you can take money out based on your daily needs.
Japanese are generally very shy and avoid talking in English because they are afraid to make a mistake and embarrass themselves. However, everyone speaks at least a tiny bit and I almost never had difficulty finding my way around. The most important thing to know is that Japanese are very hospitable and welcoming. All signs in metros and roads are in Japanese AND English so you will not have difficulty navigating. When we visit a restaurant where there is no English menu we typically use Google Translate which gives us a general idea what we are ordering. If you are not keen to experiment, there are PLENTY of eateries that cater to foreigners and provide menus in English.
Is it expensive? Yes! Is there a way around it? Absolutely! Sure, $300 sushi dinner or $10 cup of coffee do exist, but so do $10 bento box and $2 coffee from 7/11 or Family Mart. For cheaper dining alternatives opt for ramen shops ($8-$10), grocery stores and underground food parlors called depachika. It is filled with gourmet freshly cooked food and desserts. And you know what’s the BEST part? Almost everything (excluding sweets) goes on sale after 7 p.m.! You are welcome.
Oh, and even expensive restaurants offer more affordable options during lunch time.
Japan is blessed with sophisticated train system which is easy to navigate, is clean and reliable.
First and foremost, download Hyperdia app on your phone which will be your best friend in Japan. You indicate which station you are at, where you are heading and it will give you detailed breakdown of which lines to take, what time and how much the route will be.
Now, travel costs. One thing that makes traveling in Japan extremely expensive is bullet train costs. Sadly, as a temporary resident I cannot buy JR Pass and travel everywhere I want by paying one time fee, but you as a tourist have that option. Basically, you have two major options: PASMO card, which is a refillable card granting you access to any metro/bus line in any city in Japan (excluding Shinkansen and rapid trains like Romance Car); JR Pass which allows unlimited access to any JR line in and outside the cities. Japan Guide has wonderful detailed information about purchasing JR Pass. I’d just add one comment: it is worth buying it ONLY if you are traveling to multiple cities and regions (more than three). Otherwise the cost won’t be worth it. Do your homework. Download Hyperdia and calculate how much it would cost you to get to your desired destinations without a JR Pass and based on that estimate you’ll know whether or not it is worth the money.
Another tip: if you are traveling without a JR Pass, opt for unreserved tickets and show up 15 minutes before departure to line up by cars 1-5 which has first-come first serve seats. You’ll save approximately $10-$15 per person that way.
Best Place to Stay
Major cities in Japan (like Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kyoto) are sprawling and have more than one “downtown” area. As a general rule, make a point to book a lodging near a train station. That way you will be able to easily navigate and access any sight you want to visit.
As for the lodging options, you can stay at a luxurious hotel, a traditional ryokan, or a bit more affordable business hotel, hostel or even a capsule hotel!
Etiquette and Minor Details
Probably the most important thing to remember is that Japanese do not tip anywhere, for any service. It was very hard for Mr. B and I to get used to and I felt guilty every time I left a restaurant. But offering a tip is actually taken as an insult. Service charges are already included in the price.
At certain sights, as well as ryokans and restaurants it is customary to remove your shoes, so you might want to carry extra pair of socks just in case.
There are no trash cans in the streets in Japan. If you need to dispose your trash you will have to find a grocery store which might have a waste bin, or carry it around until you spot one at the train station or public bathroom.
As for bathrooms, some are equipped with state-of-the-art toilets, while others have Turkish toilets where you have to squat to do your business. Also, not many bathrooms have hand dryers or even hand towel napkins (a phenomenon I can’t quite figure out yet). So make a point to carry around a tiny towel or a pack of napkins to dry your hands with.
Last but not least, places get really packed during weekends, so if you plan on visiting places like Tokyo SkyTree, Disney Land, Universal Studios or similar entertainment spots, aim to go on a weekday.
Hope these tips and lessons learned will help those who haven’t been and are just now planning their unforgettable trip to Japan. As always, don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you need help or have questions.
Have you been to Japan? Do you have any travel tips or lessons learned you’d want to share?
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