15 Things to Know Before Traveling to Japan
Updated: May 25, 2021
If you read my 'about me' section then you'll see that my very first international trip was to Japan! I was going there to present some of my research at a conference and I was beyond excited. I was also beyond nervous and knew there would be some culture shock, so being a full-time researcher by day I decided to get to work and try to learn what I could before I went. Some things you just have to experience in person to really understand, but here are a few of my most important tips to know before heading to the land of the rising sun.
First, one thing I want to point out in general is that Japan is an incredibly clean and safe country. The cost is relatively similar to that of New York or California (in certain areas) and is cheaper the farther from the major cities you go. Perhaps most importantly, Japan is also a country that prides themselves on superior service, meaning they will take very good care of their customers and visiting tourists. With that said, it's incredibly important to smile and try to convey gratitude when talking to or asking for something from a local, waiter or hotel staff. Same goes when trying to get someone's attention to ask a question: Don't go running up to them with your question (they may look scared or horrified), instead politely walk over and say excuse me ('sumimasen') then ask your question. In this case you'll usually get a very positive and helpful response. This is a good rule of thumb anywhere you go but will go an especially long way when traveling to Japan.
1) If you're going to more than one city, get a JR Rail Pass
You'll need to do some planning on this one as JR Rail Passes are not exactly cheap (they can range from several hundred dollars depending on the length of pass 7, 14 or 21 days). It's a good idea to plan out where you want to go if you're going to multiple cities and calculate the cost of separate tickets vs a pass. Our ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto was almost equivalent to a pass and we were also going to Nagano and around Tokyo so it was worth it for us. They also take some time to get to you if you order by mail (although there are a few places and travel agencies you can go in and pick them up) so make sure to get them well in advance. Also, they MUST be purchased in your home country where you'll get a voucher that you then exchange at the airport when you arrive in Japan. Yes...lots of qualifications so this is one of those things you really can't 'wing'; however, the benefits for me were great. Included in the JR rail pass was the express line to and from the airport, Shinkansen ('bullet train') tickets to and from Kyoto, Nagano and Tokyo and some of the local metro stations.
2) Try to learn a few words of Japanese
This actually goes for any foreign country you visit but is especially good to know here. Trust me this was one of my biggest sources of anxiety I had before visiting, but was relieved to find many people spoke a few phrases of English. I wouldn't necessarily count on it, but I think communication in a foreign country is most important for getting around, ordering food and shopping. Usually knowing where you want to go and knowing which metro stop you need to get to is sufficient. For example: going up to the subway attendant and saying 'sumimasen' (excuse me) 'Harijuku'? (a popular metro stop) will indicate you're looking to find that particular line. In every single case, the attendant either wrote out how to get there or physically escorted me (so nice of them)!
With that said, one phrase to keep in mind is 'sumimasen' which means a lot of things depending on how you use it but can generally mean 'thank you' or 'excuse me' or 'I'm sorry'. When trying to get someone's attention (to ask a question) it could be seen as inconvenient so then 'sumimasen' (I'm sorry, excuse me) would be appropriate. This also applies if bumping into someone on a crowded Japanese street or metro. Remember...manners count! The other important phrase to know is 'arigato gozaimasu' which means thank you. It's fairly formal but it never hurts to be more formal when trying to convey respect.
Finally, many of us have food allergies and this can be especially scary when trying to order food in a foreign country. This was definitely true for my group of friends (some were gluten free, some allergic to shellfish etc.) When traveling to any Asian country you can assume that some if not a lot of the cuisine will have fish sauce or shrimp paste in it. In this case something that came in handy was having a pre-printed card that said (in Japanese) what our food allergies were. This way we could clearly let our waiters know what we were allergic to without offending anyone. This is also handy when using cabs. Some cab drivers may speak a little English but I always had my hotel information saved to my phone in both English and Japanese. That way I could simply show them the screen without having to try to translate anything. Good tip to have whenever you travel to a foreign country :)
3) DO NOT TIP
Again, Japan is a service-based country and people here take enormous pride is providing exceptional service. Therefore, they may find it odd or even rude if you try to tip them.
4) Concentrate on walking
What does this mean? Are Japanese people just extremely athletic?
Not really... what I mean is that if you're walking around on the street or through the metro be sure to do ONLY that. Japanese people will find it extremely rude if you're talking on a cell phone, eating or smoking while walking around. This goes for cell phones too, don't use them in public, on the metro or walking around in public spaces. I actually think this is a great rule and minimizes having to be around people who aren't concentrating or potentially holding up the walkability of public spaces.
5) Don't eat in public places
Again, manners count...This goes for eating food in public places. You won't see any restaurants with outdoor or patio seating for the same reason you won't see people walking around or traveling on the metro eating a sandwich. It could be considered rude so try to plan accordingly. There is one exception to this rule: such as when traveling on long-haul trains like the Shinkansen bullet train. Here, you'll actually see food and drink carts onboard, it's acceptable to eat here because you are typically traveling for longer periods of time.
6) Get used to people wearing medical masks
At first this may seem kind of scary...Is there an outbreak? No there's not, it's just that Japanese people are once again trying to be considerate. This means that if they are or suspect themselves of being sick with a cold or flu, they'll don a mask to reduce the risk of potentially spreading it to others. This could also go the other way around...people may also wear masks to try to avoid getting sick or avoid pollution especially when traveling in publicly crowed spaces. So if you're there and suspect that you're coming down with something get a mask (trust me I innocently sneezed on the subway without a mask and got horrified looks)...
7) Know that there aren't many public trash bins
It seems counterintuitive, but Japan is very clean in part because there aren't many public trash bins. This is good to keep in mind when going out and about. If you have trash it's going to be hard to dispose of it so you may want to carry a back pack or simply be aware of this when stepping out for the day.
8) Get an umbrella
Weather can be fickle...It's always hard to plan for it but rain can be frequent and unexpected in Japan. It could be a good idea to bring a small travel umbrella or simply buy an inexpensive one when you're out. Trust me you will find them, they'll be everywhere.
9) Stand to the left when using an escalator
Again, going with the polite factor, it's considered rude to take up the entire space of an escalator if you're simply riding it. In this case you will see most Japanese people politely line up and stand to the left to let others pass.
10) Learn to love the metro
When traveling to a foreign country it can be daunting at first when trying to get around, but that is usually short-lived once I take my first few train rides. I can't tell you how accomplished I feel when I'm able to navigate around a foreign country and feel like a local! Japan is no different, it may look scary but it's really not. Don't even think about renting a car, you really don't need one. In fact, every major destination you'll want to visit has a metro stop located within a block or two, so getting around is extremely easy (there's even a train from the airport to most major stops). On top of that (like I mentioned before) as long as you know what stop you need to get to someone can help show you the way. Take note: the metros stop at midnight so if you're out past then you'll need to take a more expensive cab all the way back to your hotel or wherever you're staying (a lesson we had to learn one night).
11) Pack nice socks
Strange one huh? Many places you'll go to in Japan (restaurants, temples, hotels/ryokans) will ask you to remove your shoes before entering public places. One thing you'll want to avoid is having to take your shoes off and have either no socks or socks that are dirty or smelly! Also, wear shoes that are easy to take on and off. I learned that not so conveniently when I had to unlace knee high boots...Do-able but not super fun or convenient. So my point...pack the good socks and the easily removable shoes.
12) Plan on bringing enough cash
Also, another good tip when traveling to any foreign country but especially here...Get enough cash before you go. Most hotels and major restaurants will take credit cards (but you should check beforehand); however, smaller restaurants, bars and shops may not, so in this case cash is king. You can always get cash out of a local ATM but be prepared to pay the fee.
13) Indulge in the super nice toilets
Sounds crazy but it's true...the Japanese LOVE their toilets. By that I mean most toilets will have multiple functionalities from sprays to seat warmers. Expect some fun surprises when trying to figure out the translations on the remote ;)
14) Do not stick your chopsticks upward in a bowl of rice or ramen
This one was sort of weird to me because it seemed very specific but apparently chopsticks that are sticking up vertically in a bowl is bad in Japan. It's called tsukitate-bashi (突き立て箸) and is extremely taboo because it reminds Japanese people of funerals where vertical chopsticks are left in a bowl of rice.
15) Tattoos are taboo
One of the surprising things about traveling to Japan is that tattoo's are a bit taboo there. They're reminiscent of the Yakuza gangs and many people have a negative connotation with them. Not a problem if they don't show but if you plan to go to a public onsen or hot soak you may not be let in or may be required to cover them up so it's good to keep this in mind when planning.
With all that said, I can't tell you how incredible lucky I feel to have been able to travel to Japan of all places on my first international trip. It was incredibly fun, clean and easy to get around. I also can't express to you how nice the people were. I genuinely felt safe and cared for when interacting with the locals. So many strangers helped me get to where I needed to be and made sure I was OK, which as a female traveler, is essential.
One thing I learned from my time in Japan is to always be kind. No matter how busy anyone was they always took the time to help me in the nicest, most polite way possible and for that reason (and 100 other reasons) Japan will forever be one of my favorite places to visit.
Arigato gozaimasu Japan!