If you are traveling to Japan for the first time here are some really useful things to know, including many things I wish I knew before going to Japan! Japan is a fantastic country and it is definitely an Asia bucket list destination, but as it can be overwhelming at first – here are my top 10 travel tips for traveling to Japan and things to know before visiting Japan for the first time!
TOP 10 TRAVEL TIPS FOR JAPAN – THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE VISITING OR TRAVELING TO JAPAN FOR THE FIRST TIME
1. Get a rail pass and ride the bullet train!
If you will be taking a trip round Japan for 10 days or so and will be travelling around, a Japan Rail (JR) pass will save you money if you plan to travel long distances. However YOU MUST ORDER THIS BEFORE YOU VISIT JAPAN!! They will send you a ticket to your address (must be outside of Japan) and then you will exchange this for your rail pass when you are in Japan. JR tickets can be booked on jrailpass.com. A 7 day pass, costing you around $250 (around the same price as a return ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto anyway), will allow you unlimited access to all JR lines in the country and many of the infamous shinkansen (high-speed) bullet trains. They are really something phenomenal and you need to experience a ride on a bullet train – they reach speeds of upto 320kph!
You can use the super useful Hyperdia website (or app) to work out if it is worth it for you to get a JR pass or not: Hyperdia is the BEST Japanese transport planning tool: it shows you transportation timetables, route searches and prices, and enables you to accurately plan your trip around Japan.
2. Be punctual
Transport leaves ON TIME. TO THE SECOND. I’ve never seen punctuality like this in my life! The doors will shut and they will not wait for you. If you have a train to catch, get there in plenty of time.
3. Always carry cash
You need cash. Japan loves cash – you can’t even pay for a McDonald’s on card – it has to be in cash! Luckily there are ATMs in almost every convenience store (7/11, FamilyMart etc) so you are never too far away from one.
4. Save money on accomodation
You will get better value for money if you stay in an airbnb as opposed to hotel rooms: they are always small in Japan ESPECIALLY in Tokyo. Or if you are travelling alone, or want to save even more money and have a unique Japanese experience: stay in one of the capsule hotels in Tokyo! It is a really cool experience and it is the only type of accommodation I book if I ever have 24 hours in Tokyo!
5. Use public transport to save costs!
There is no Uber taxi service in Japan and taxis are expensive; the minimum fare is 710 yen even to go just down one block! Albeit the taxis are very clean, the drivers are polite, you can pay by card or cash, and they won’t try and rip you off. But it’s always best to use public transport where possible – taxis just seem an unnecessary alternative to the public transport system, which is very efficient in Japan!
Something important to remember about the taxis: a RED light on the roof of the taxi, or a red plate in the bottom corner of the windscreen indicates the taxi is VACANT. No light or a green sign means it is occupied. This is the opposite to many places so just keep it in mind when searching for a taxi! Also most taxi drivers don’t speak English very well, so have a map or the address written down in Japanese to show to the driver.
6. Tax free shopping!
As a tourist, you are eligible to get a tax refund (8% sales tax) on your shopping in Japan. Like everything in Japan – this is hassle-free, and actually much easier than in other countries! In most countries, you apply for the tax back at the airport by showing customs your purchases and applying for a tax refund, which can take a while. But in Japan, you actually get the tax refund immediately, in the store you purchased it! Larger department stores will make you buy the product with the tax, then you go to the tax counter to get the tax refund in cash, whereas smaller stores will just deduct the tax for you whilst doing the transaction.
When purchasing the items you MUST show your original passport (NOT a copy) and the value of the item must be over 5,000 yen (around $60) excluding tax (or over 5,4000 yen including tax). A tax refund form will be stapled into your passport, and your items will be put in a sealed clear bag – do not open it until you leave Japan (this is to prove that you will be using the items outside of the country, otherwise you may have to pay the tax at the airport). When at the airport, give the tax refund form to the customs officer. Simple!
7. Accessing the internet
Consider purchasing a wifi hotspot device or a local SIM card when you arrive in Japan. Otherwise probably the only places you can get free internet when you are out is at McDonalds and Starbucks: literally all internet accounts in Japan except these ones are security protected and will ask you for a password to join. I guess if you’re having lunch/dinner somewhere, you can politely ask the staff for the wifi code, but don’t expect it. The Google maps app is particularly useful and proves invaluable during your time in Japan as you will use it a lot to work out subway or bus routes.
8. Download a translation app
Many tourists are surprised that not many Japanese people speak English. So before you go, download Google translate and download the Japanese language so you can use it even when you don’t have access to wifi. Honestly having a translation app is brilliant as it doesn’t just show the translation but it actually says it out loud aswell – because of this app I managed to actually have an interesting conversation for nearly an hour with some Japanese girls I met, which otherwise would have been impossible as they spoke no English! Google translate is also useful as you can take a photo of a menu (often menus are solely in Japanese) and the app will translate it for you! Pretty amazing I gotta say! If you haven’t seen how Japanese looks, here is my 24 Hours in Tokyo guide translated into Japanese!
9. Never leave a tip
It is actually very offensive in Japan to leave a tip as it implies that the person you’re tipping doesn’t earn much money, so it will often be refused.
10. Japanese etiquette
Just do as the locals do. Japanese culture has many unique rituals very different to our cultures and it is important to respect it. Two very important aspects of Japanese etiquette to abide by to ensure you aren’t perceived as rude are: removing shoes and bowing. If there are shoes in the entrance to a building, make sure to remove your shoes before you enter aswell, as wearing shoes indoors, particularly in homes, is seen as dirty and very rude. Likewise with bowing, just do it as the locals do: keeping your back and neck straight and bend at the waist and try to bow at the same angle as the person who is bowing to you.
Another custom in Japan is bathing in communal same sex pools (onsen pools) naked. I went in one when I visited Mount Fuji. I did feel a little uncomfortable at first, but swimming costumes are prohibited so I just went with the flow and embraced that part of their culture!
And so there we go, there are my top 10 travel tips for traveling to Japan for the first time as well as things to know before visiting Japan! Japan is an incredible place and I really hope you enjoy what this beautiful country has to offer! If you are thinking to move to Japan for a year check out this article on How To Work And Travel In Japan!
Arigato gozaimasu (thankyou)!
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