Japan, a wonderful country that may seem enticing and intimidating at the same time. It took us a while to get there, but after just a few hours in Tokyo, we knew we would be back. And we ended up going there 4 times within 1.5 years.
I wish I’d known some things before our first visit. It would have made travelling easier and even more enjoyable but it doesn’t mean discovering them ourselves wasn’t fun.
If you’re planning to visit Japan for the first time, here are our 25 useful tips & things to know.
1. Convenience stores are really convenient
FamilyMart, 7-Eleven, Circle K, Lawson and Daily Yamazaki stores (the konbinis) are everywhere and offer lots of useful products and services. Hot meals, sushi, alcohol, ice cream, bathroom essentials, ATMs, coffee – you can get there almost anything you may need on a trip. Most have also a small area with a kettle, microwave and bar-style seating space. Payment by credit card, cash or IC (Suica or similar) card.
2. Look up
Restaurants, shops and cafes may not be on the street level – buildings in Japan are often very narrow but tall. Look up to see what’s on higher floors or find a building directory near the main entrance.
3. Go to the basement
Big department stores and shopping malls usually hide a real foodie paradise in the basement. Bento boxes, sweet treats, sushi, teas, fruits, hams and cheeses plus sometimes a few restaurants. Last hour before closing they mark down bento boxes and you can get a good dinner for 50% or less.
4. Trains are ALWAYS on time
No matter if you need to catch a local train or a shinkansen, you need to remember they will be on time. When we were using our JR Pass for the first time, I had to remind myself that when the ticket says “15:24” it will be exactly that time. Not (how I’m used to in Australia or Poland) “sometime around 15.24”. It’s good to remember this when you have the last train to catch or need to be at the airport at a certain time.
5. Toilets are amazing
They clean themselves, clean your butt and private parts, have warmed seats and flushing sound to cover your sounds. Widely available, not just at home or fancy hotel – even public toilets in the most shabby-looking place. They are possibly the best thing ever. One day I’ll bring one with me as a souvenir.
6. No bins in sight
If you like to eat and drink on the go or have a takeaway coffee be ready to carry your trash. There are no bins on the streets. It’s a good idea to keep a plastic bag in your backpack to use as a trash bag and dispose of it at your hotel. Bigger convenience stores have bins outside, next to the entrance.
Always carry some cash, especially if you’re outside of big cities, where card payments may not be widely accepted. But even in Tokyo, you may have to pay for dinner with cash. We usually carry ¥ 5000 – 10 000 to be safe.
8. Lines, arrows and numbers
I like when things are in order so I love Japan for having clearly marked places where you’re supposed to line for a train or bus and arrows on stairs so you know which side is for walking up or down. Stickers with carriage numbers on platforms are very helpful too. It all makes commuting less frustrating.
9. Vending machine is the king
There aren’t many things that couldn’t be purchased in a vending machine. From simple water and tea, through coffee and beer to ramen or mystery electronics (put ¥1000 in and you will get a t-shirt, radio, mp3 player or PS3). The beverage ones are the most common and offer drinks that are chilled or warmed (red colour for warm and blue for cold). Some are pretty advanced with touch screens and cameras that will analyse you while you’re approaching the machine and suggest you some drinks based on the data they have. Vending machines are available at airports, train stations, streets, in hotels and ryokans as well as mountain summits and in parks.
10. Opening Hours
Shops and cafes open their doors quite late throughout Japan. 10am – 11am is too late in my opinion for that very much needed morning cup of coffee. When we travel, we’re usually up early and find it inconvenient that so many places start their day late. But that’s when konbinis come in handy.
11. Don’t be loud
If you travel by train, metro or bus, remember to keep your conversations to a minimum and don’t answer your phone unless it’s an emergency. Commuting is often the time to catch up on sleep or read a book, nothing worse than loud tourists disturbing people’s routines.
12. Get an IC card
To make your travels around cities easier purchase a Suica or other IC card. It saves you time – you don’t have to stand next to a machine and think which ticket you need. Instead, you only have to top it up and then tap to enter and tap to exit. Very convenient.
You can pre-order your IC card. For Narita Airport, Haneda Airport, Shinjuku, Harajuku or Osaka Airport pick up pre-order Suica here. For Osaka Airport or Osaka City Air Terminal pick up pre-order ICOCA here.
13. Free tissues on the street
Don’t ignore people standing on the street thinking they want to give you a flyer. There is 99% chance they give you a pack of tissues. Yes, there is a printed ad on them but still, these are free tissues and you may need them when you get a runny nose eating a big bowl of hot ramen.
14. When in doubt, ask for help
Locals are extremely helpful and nice but you need to approach them the right way. Speaking from experience, I would recommend saying hi and getting straight to your question – this will give you much greater chance they will help. If you ask do you speak English? they may panic and run away. When we need help in Japan, we usually get much more than we ask for – people printed maps for us, bought tickets and shared umbrellas.
15. Is it safe?
Very much so. People leave their wallets or phones to reserve their tables while they order coffee. They sleep soundly in the trains with open bags on their laps. Or go for a smoke in the train leaving their laptops, bags and other belongings on their seats. It’s also very safe to walk around at night. We had zero issues on all our trips.
16. It’s easy to get around
Public transport is very efficient and like I mentioned before – it’s always on time. If you don’t feel comfortable using a map, get a SIM card and use Google Maps. It works great in Japan showing not only which train you need to catch but also (in most cases) the right platform number and cost of the fare.
17. Pre-order your SIM or WiFi router
Consider ordering a SIM card or a WiFi router before arrival, with delivery to your hotel or airport pick-up. We always use data only SIM cards. Tried So-net, as well as b-mobile and both, worked well. Why do we recommend pre-order? It’s quite common to hear “sorry, sold out” when you want to buy something in Japan. This way, you can be sure you’ll get exactly what you want.
18. English menus?
Not every restaurant will have menus in English or plastic dishes display where you could simply point to what you think is the dish you want. This happened to us not only in some small towns but in Tokyo, including Tokyo Station. If you can read kana and some kanji, you shouldn’t have a problem (I know only basics and was able to read, understand and order correctly). The staff may be able to translate, but most likely they will warn you “no English”.
I read on many websites that it’s hard to find ATMs and I don’t agree with that at all. Most big cities will have international banks like CitiBank where your cards will work. You can also use the ATMs in 7-Eleven shops which are widely available.
20. Bring slip on shoes
There are many places, including restaurants and hotels, where you will have to take off your shoes. It’s convenient if you can do it faster. Side note: slippers or special socks are often provided, but it’s good to have your own socks that have no holes just in case.
21. Learn at least 3 words
This rule is not exclusive to Japan. Local people always appreciate if you can say at least 3 words in their language. There are countless videos on YouTube you can learn from. Thank you, excuse me/I’m sorry and good morning are a good start. We also had two beers please in our repertoire when we went there for the first time.
There are many places where you can buy souvenirs. I personally find 100 yen stores (like Daiso) & Don Quijote the best for this kind of shopping. You can find there pretty much everything from quirky Japanese products, through food and kitchen wares to clothes and electronics.
I really like how most big cities, especially Tokyo, have banned smoking on the streets. It means you’re not constantly in a stinky cloud of cigarette smoke and can enjoy walking. There are special areas, mostly fenced in some way, where smoking is allowed. On the other hand, it’s unfortunately quite common for people to be allowed to smoke in restaurants. If you’re a smoker, you can easily find smoking areas on streets, near train stations or in trains and can easily buy cigarettes in vending machines.
24. Plan in advance
If nice hotels to stay at are important to you, book your accommodation early. There seems to be not enough hotels in Japan and good ones are booked out many months in advance. Especially in Tokyo, they go really quickly!
If you’re feeling lost with all the accommodation options in Japan have a look at the guide I created to make your life easier.
25. Don’t be afraid to get naked!
I was very self-conscious and scared of going to a public onsen while at the same time, I really wanted to experience it! It took me 4 trips to Japan, until finally, during the 4th one I manned up and went to my first real onsen. And do you know what? No one cared. Old ladies were chatting in the bath, someone else was showering and not a single person looked at me. It took me no longer than 5 minutes to completely relax and enjoy myself. It was great and I can’t wait to do it again.
Bonus 26: Prepare yourself to fall in love!
Nothing compares to Japan. Leaving after our first trip, I couldn’t hold my tears. We were back 6 months later. And we keep coming back because we can’t get enough. Be ready to feel this way, most people do.