If you’re looking for tips for traveling to Japan, you’ve come to the right place. At All Japan Tours, we’re constantly on the lookout for lifehacks and hints to help make your journey as smooth as possible. Before writing this “Japan travel tips” blog, I thought carefully about all of the things that I wish I knew before I came to Japan for the first time. I also reflected on some of the feedback I’ve heard from AJT customers and what surprised them about Japanese culture during their stay. Here, I’ve compiled a list of tips for traveling to Japan—before and during—your next vacation! Preparation goes a long way to ensure that you have the best possible experience in Japan, so let’s not waste any more time and dive into this list of 10 Japan travel tips for first timers!
This tip isn’t specific to Japan only, but before you book any travel reservations, check your paperwork! Is your passport up to date? According to Japanese law, your passport must be valid for the entire duration of your stay in Japan. Some foreign nationals need to obtain visas for touring Japan, so check if you need a visa and fill out your application accordingly. Keep in mind, obtaining a visa doesn’t guarantee landing permission. Customs and Immigration reserves the right to deny your entry into Japan and send you straight back to your home country! Although this is rare for travelers who enter with a tourist visa, those with long-term visas must take extra care to get landing permission.
Note: All foreign nationals in Japan are required to carry an ID–including residence cards–on them at all times. Those with a tourist visa must either carry their passport or a high-quality color copy of the last page of their passport.
You might have heard that Japanese people don’t speak much English. This isn’t quite the truth. Actually, many Japanese people can speak English, but whether or not they’re willing to speak English depends on their confidence level, and Japanese people are well-known for their humility. In fact, the most fluent English speakers in Japan are apt to say that they speak very little English when prompted with the question. Learning key phrases like simple greetings, how to order in a restaurant, and asking where the toilet is will not only make your trip go more smoothly, but your conversation partner will greatly appreciate the effort! Don’t be afraid of making a mistake—Japanese people love it when foreigners just try! They might even exclaim, “Jouzu desu ne!” (“Your Japanese is so good!”)
If you intend on traveling to multiple cities in Japan, consider buying the Japan Rail Pass. These passes are only available to people with tourist visas. With this pass, you can ride all Japan Railways trains as often as you like. The Japan Rail Pass can also be used to board Shinkansen bullet trains for domestic travel between cities. However, if you’re not traveling throughout Japan, the Japan Rail Pass might not be for you. In Tokyo, the rail pass might be convenient but not the most cost-effective, and in Kyoto, most people travel by bus rather than train. If you do opt to buy the Japan Rail Pass, many people purchase it before they arrive to Japan. It saves time, and you can use it as soon as you leave the airport!
During an All Japan Tours group tour that I followed, a guest asked me, “Why doesn’t my hotel room have any lotion?” I realized for the first time that accommodations in Japan generally don’t provide lotion! It’s surprising, considering most hotels offer amenities like toothbrushes, razors, cotton swabs, pajamas, and nearly every other need you can imagine. You can buy lotion at any convenience store, drug store, or cosmetic shop, or consider bringing your favorite bottle from home. Unfortunately, lotion isn’t the only item missing from some of Japan's facilities.
You never know what you’re going to get when you walk into a public restroom in Japan. At the very best, Japanese toilets are dizzyingly high-tech porcelain masterpieces. At worst, they’re a hole in the floor without any toilet paper available. When traveling, it’s always smart to expect the best but prepare for the worst. Many public toilets in Japan don’t provide paper towels or hand dryers, so Japanese people carry handkerchiefs for this occasion. You might also want to consider bringing a small bottle of hand sanitizer in case soap isn’t provided either. Since small bottles of gel sanitizer aren’t commonly sold in Japanese convenience stores, I’d recommend bringing your favorite sanitizer from home.
One more essential item to bring is a coin purse or a wallet that can hold coins. In Japanese yen, the smallest bill is 1,000 yen (about US $10.00) and the largest coin is 500 yen (about US $5.00). You’ll use coins often and get many coins back in change! You may need to spend money at the airport as soon as you land, so it’s good idea to bring a pouch with you. If you don’t, coin purses are one of Japan’s best-selling and most famous souvenirs!
Japan has a largely cash-based economy. Until just a few years ago, you couldn’t use a debit or credit card in most establishments. Today, cards are accepted in many places like department stores, but there are still plenty of occasions where using cash will either be less troublesome…or your only option. For example, taxi drivers are slowly starting to accept credit cards, but this wasn’t the case a few years ago. Since this is a recent trend, each taxi company has their own system. Some can swipe your card in the front seat, but others might need to read your information to their dispatch office. If you run low on cash and need an ATM, read on for more money travel tips in Japan!
The best way to save money on foreign exchange rates is to withdraw from ATMs. While most ATMs will accept international cards, some of them might charge high fees to withdraw money from your account. For international cards, the best ATMs to use in Japan are at 7/11 convenience stores, Japan Post offices, or AEON Malls. 7/11s are on almost every corner in Japan. They accept international cards and don’t charge any fees for withdrawing. However, you can only withdraw in increments of 10,000 yen (about US $100.00). Japan Post has a national bank, and you can find their ATMs at any post office. You can take out as little as 1,000 yen (about US $10.00) from Japan Post ATMs, but there is a small service fee of 250 yen (about US $2.50). My personal favorite international ATMs are found in AEON Malls or AEON brand stores. They don’t have any fees, and you can withdraw in 1,000 yen increments. Unfortunately, they’re not as commonplace as 7/11 or Japan Post ATMs.
Note: Don’t forget to inform your card issuer that you plan to visit Japan!
A lot of travel blogs skip this tip… Most train stations in Japan have taxi stands near main exits for your convenience. Taxi drivers line up at the stands, so take the taxi at the front of the line—the drivers in back won’t let you board! Let the front-most driver know you want a ride by slightly nodding in their direction (on the streets raise your hand to hail a cab), but don’t open the door yourself! Cabs in Japan have a mechanism near the driver's seat so drivers can open and close the doors. Customers should never open or close the door themselves! If the mechanism isn’t working, your driver will step out of the car and open the door for you.
One thing that surprises international travelers when visiting Japan is the lack of public trash cans. Due to the 1995 sarin gas attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, Japan got rid of most public bins in an anti-terrorist effort. If you enjoy a snack or finish a drink on the street, you might find it difficult to locate a proper disposal bin. Don’t get frustrated and litter the road! Japan makes great efforts to keep public spaces clean and trash free. Many Japanese people carry plastic bags for wrapping their garbage until they can find a proper trash can. If you’re having trouble, look for a convenience store or a vending machine corner, as most of these places have public garbage bins.
Confused on where to go for lunch? Worried about whether the shop serves good food or not? Want to eat at a local favorite? Here’s an unusual hint: wait in line! At peak meal times, you’ll see long lines of people waiting outside of shops. Many restaurants in Japan (especially traditional Japanese establishments) are quite small and can only seat a limited number of guests at a time, but only the most delicious places are popular enough to warrant a line. Although you’ll have to wait a bit, this is the best way to find excellent restaurants in Japan.
Note: Many restaurants in Japan use ticket machines for customers to order food. If you walk into a ramen shop or fast food place, take a quick look near the door in case there’s a ticket machine.
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