Planning a Trip to Japan: DOs & DON’Ts

This is a guest post by our friend Amy Cham. Amy compiled us an amazing guide full of her Japan tips to help us plan for our trip there next month and it was too good not to share some of her advice with you.

Ah Japan, irasshaimase!  Welcome to the land where everything, just works. The land of convenience, the land of delicious food, paradox, naked strangers, and where respect permeates through every part of society and culture…

In Japan the food can be described as clean and minimalist, but never simple, which probably sums up Japan as a whole.  It’s a place that both lives up to, and out does, any expectation you have upon arrival.

Uh-huh, they have the fastest, sleekest, most efficient trains (ever!), but they still have paper posters pegged up on their Tokyo subway.  Yeah, they have amazing futuristic architecture, but they also have countless traditional wooden buildings in amongst it all.  Yes, they have the busiest people-crossing in the world (shibuya), but at no point is it ever chaotic, no need for anyone to bang on a cab screaming, “Hey, I’m walking here!”.  Yes, they have scores of scarily trendy, funkily clad young people who like to cosplay on weekends, but they also have evening family outings to sentos.

Elegant women in Tokyo

Here are some tips to get the most out of a trip to Japan.

Before You Arrive

  • No visa requirements for most nationalities for stays of up to 90 days but have a return flight out, as they WILL grill you upon arrival.  It was the nicest immigration interrogation we’ve ever had though.
  • Buy your Japanese Rail Pass exchange order (more on that later).
  • Practice even rudimentary Japanese, numbers are very useful!

General Dos and Don’ts

DO:

  • Bow if you are being bowed to.  If you can manage it too, don’t turn your back upon exit.  Don’t overdo it though or you’ll be a total gaijin, no need to bow to the supermarket checkout person!
  • Say “moshi moshi” when you ring someone on the telephone.  It’s the Japanese version of the Chinese “wai” which all roughly translates as…hello!  I don’t know why, us Asians just have a separate hello for the phone!
  • Pre-book accommodation.  Wise anyway as the good hostels always get filled up fast (we kept missing out on doubles and had to put up with twin (bunk bed) rooms, but in line with the whole respect thing Japanese people like to be prepared for your arrival.  So don’t just randomly rock up at a ryokan for the night!
  • Get a Japanese Rail Pass.There’s no way round this, it’s a bloody fortune (£350/$555 per person for a 2 week pass), but one that more than pays you back.  The luxury of shinkansen (bullet train) hopping is exhilarating.  No need to book seats in advance, just choose a train, wave your pass and hop on.  This is only worth it though if you want to explore the country, probably not worth it for just 1 – 2 journeys.Be warned though, decide now whether to get one or not.  You can’t get these babies inside the country.  Yes, that’s right.  They’re magic passes that are only available to foreigners. It’s a convoluted business getting an exchange order, and then getting it swapped for a pass and validated in the country.  We had to seek out a specific travel agent in Bangkok to get our hands on an exchange order, but there are websites that deliver the orders to addresses in Europe and the US.The important thing to remember though is to not get it validated until you need to start using it; the clock starts ticking as soon as the stamp goes on it.

    See this post at The Road Forks for more on whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it.

  • Go onsening…although if it’s summer when you get there…!  Seriously, hot, doesn’t even come close to describing the water temperatures! Read more about Onsens in Japan.
  • Stay in a ryokan (traditional inn).  Outrageously expensive, but worth the experience and the amazing meals that often get included with the room rates.  You can cheat like we did and stay in a modern (much cheaper!!) ryokan but it’d be great to experience a more traditional one.
  • Stay in a traditional tatami mat room.  If you can’t stay in a ryokan, a much cheaper way to stay in one is a traditional room in K’s House hostels. We never had a bad experience with this hostel chain.
  • Appreciate the zen like calm on all modes of transport – no need for quiet only carriages here!
  • Try to speak as much Japanese as possible.  In three weeks I never got beyond pidgin Japanese but still, even equipped with the basics we would go days without needing to use any English.  You’ll have no choice anyway, as not a lot of people speak any English whatsoever, and a lot of transport maps etc are in Japanese only.
  • See some sumo.  If you’re lucky enough to be in the country when one of the sumo tournaments is on, go!  Admittedly the sport lacks the drama of muay thai, but like thai kick-boxing, it’s the pre/ post game rituals that are fascinating to watch.  Fairly cheap and easy to score tickets on the day for matches.
  • Expect bursts of freakery!

    Weird Japan

  • Get your paper fortune at a Japanese Buddhist temple. Okay we cheated and got an English one at the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, but what the hell!
  • Love the Japanese for their never-ending capacity to help you out, and they won’t stop until they do!
  • Have some sushi… Oh go on…You’re in Japan, sushi is the essence of Japan, plus sushi-train/ sushi stand up bars are so much fun watching the chefs take your order, and all shout in unison, “samon!” or “tamago!” etc.  (Erin’s note: we aren’t going to start eating fish but we will look out for vegetarian sushi!)
  • Appreciate the plastic food models as works of art!
  • Shop at the 100 Yen shops.  Like pound shops BUT BETTER!
  • Get any vouchers going at the hostels you’re staying at, every yen counts!
  • Stay longer if you get the urge. It’s one of our biggest regrets of our travels that we didn’t.
  • Play in the numerous arcades dotted around cities, the taiko drum one rocks!
  • Make use of the many vending machines EVERYWHERE.  You will never go thirsty in Japan that’s for sure.  You can even get hot coffee…in a can!  In fact you can get friggin’ anything from vending machines from cheap 100 yen sake (yuk!) to hot chips (not surprisingly we did not try!).
  • Press random buttons on the panel next to you on the loo.  It will make you giggle ;o)!  Also, if it’s cold then appreciate the absolute miracle of heated toilet seats.
  • Fall in love with seeing toriis (shrine gates) everywhere, especially small red ones in rows behind each other.
  • Love and appreciate the beautiful presentation of absolutely everything from the amazing architecture, to the way bento boxes are wrapped in a napkin tied in a knot just so, to amazing manhole covers!

DON’T:

  • Eat non-Japanese.  We only tried this once in Fukuoka.  We had an Indian curry craving, but after that experience we went straight back to Japanese.

    Ramen in Japan

    Stick to the ramen…

  • Be impatient.  Things will get sorted for you.  The good thing about Japan though is that you probably won’t ever find yourself getting impatient anyway, everything, smoooootthhhhh as.
  • Go whizzing around the country too much.  Although I wouldn’t change a thing about our three weeks, I wish we had had more time to stay longer in certain places.
  • Wear holey socks.  You’ll only be embarrassing yourself when you take your shoes on/ off constantly!
  • Go into an onsen without washing first, that’s just dirty dude!  Also don’t go into the bathing area with a towel wrapped around you, you’ll just look stupid.  Embrace the nudity!  Everyone’s naked so no-one cares.

Thanks to Amy for the helpful advice (She doesn’t have a blog but she really should!)

We’ll be in Japan from the end of August and will spend 3.5 weeks house sitting in Kyoto followed by a week travelling around the country (any suggestions?)  and ending with about 5 days in Tokyo. Let us know if you have any tips for us, especially about Kyoto and finding vegetarian Japanese food.

All photos by Amy Cham.

Trail Wallet

What are your top tips for planning a trip to Japan? Leave a comment and tell us.

57 thoughts on Planning a Trip to Japan: DOs & DON’Ts

  1. GREAT post – you’ve got a little bit of everything here =) Let me know if you need any ideas on Tokyo – I spent about 10 days in and around that area last year =)

  2. Oh I love Japan so much and I haven’t even been there yet! This is a great list – it solidified everything I was thinking about our upcoming trip to Japan. My 3 years of Japan in college might finally pay off…haha.

    I’m excited to hear about your 3 weeks in Kyoto too!

  3. 100 Yen shops are soooooo brilliant. Get some tabbi socks too. Shinkansen, though expensive, are so worth it – you can travel vast distances so quickly and it is a breath of fresh air to use any Japanese public transportation after the British version! Gavin and I were due at Tokyo airport one cold wintery day. Woke up at 4.30am to catch our bus to Tokyo (4 hours away) to find snow knee deep. Freaked out, how would we get to Tokyo now? Needn’t have worried – Japanese workers were all out clearing the roads and our bus rolled in right on time.

    Really good post, Amy you sure squeezed a lot into your 3 weeks!
    Erin x

  4. Glad everyone likes the post! Love your story too Erin! I remember our friend Noriko said that, after living in Manchester for awhile, she was glad to return to her homeland of convenience!

  5. Hi, it’s Mariko, came to check out your blog. Interesting article but I can’t keep my mouth shut on a few things. Please DO try non-Japanese food in Kyoto… we have such a great selection of Brazilian, Nepalese, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Italian restaurants it would be a shame if you stuck to only Japanese food. Also, Kyoto is probably the vegetarian capital of Japan if there ever was one. There are a lot of veggie and vegan places as well as a special kind of buddhist vegan meal that you have to pre-book, but is very nice.

    A lot of people speak English here (not necessarily GOOD English, but…) . Almost everywhere in Japan there are English translations of Japanese signs (subway, trains, buses etc. ).

    ….I swear I’m not a jerk! I just want your information (and the info for anyone else who reads this) to be up to date. Don’t hate me, Amy!

    • It sounds like Kyoto is a lot more cosmopolitan than other parts of Japan. We are really looking forward to trying the vegetarian food, especially the Buddhist meals.

    • Hi Mariko!

      Thanks for your comment and of course you’re not being a jerk, :o)! The post is based on our 3 week experiences in Japan so obviously would never be definitive in anyway. I’m sure that other non-japanese food is great (apart from the Indian curry we had in Fukuoka!) but I guess my point for fellow travellers is that Japanese food is so delicious why waste your stomach and yen on other food during your stay!

      I’m sure too that many people do speak english, in our encounters this was rare even in Tokyo, but again Japanese is such a beautiful language why not go ahead and dive in and try to speak it!

      Lastly too, in our 3 weeks there were indeed occasional english transport signage to be found, but we also had many experiences standing at a bus/ subway terminals not having any clue as to where to go or what to pay. Again though, this isn’t a bad thing, sometimes the best thing about being intrepid travellers is being able to figure things out!

      I certainly don’t hate you (!), in fact I apologise if you found anything in the article to be of offence. I certainly did not mean to, and again after only 3 weeks in your amazing country, the list was only ever meant to be a broad guide to anyone else going to visit.

      All the best,

      Amy

  6. I love Kyoto though it has been years since I was in Japan and longer since I was specifically in Kyoto. My recollection is that it was easier to find English speakers there, though I tend to agree the not speaking the local language is harder in Japan than many places. To make up for that though, the people are probably more willing to be helpful than anywhere else I have ever traveled. Anyway, the number of incredible temples in Kyoto is impressive. Also, if you will be there for the fall foliage (Kouyou in Japanese) you will indeed be fortunate as it is incredible in Kyoto.

    I would also point out that Japan is definitely one of the safest places in the world to visit.

    Also worth mentioning is that Japan is a country where many towns and cities are famous for something very specific (knives, a certain type of food, pottery, etc.) so always try to find out what a place you are visiting is famous for.

    I can’t recall how far away it is from Kyoto, but I think not too far is a place called Takayama which is one of my favorites. Especially if you can make it to the Fall festival which is one of the most impressive festivals in all of Japan, though there are many all around the country and throughout the year. Good festival street food is always available too, though I can’t recall if any of it is vegetarian friendly.

    Many famous things in Japan come in 3s – 3 famous gardens, 3 famous shrines, etc. One of the 3 famous shrines is Ise Jingu which is a bit south of Nagoya and one of my favorites if you get a chance to see it. Nara is also quite special and not too far from Kyoto.

    Speaking of food, you’ll have no trouble satisfying a sweet tooth as there are many good bakeries to be found, especially in the train stations. And, a popular chain of restaurants called Mister Donut is good and ubiquitous. You may also be surprised by how many people get a quick meal at the local convenience store.

    If I think of anything else I’ll add it later. Ganbatte ne! (“good luck”)

    • Thanks so much for the advice Jeff! Unfortunately we are only in Japan until the end of September so I think we’ll miss the foliage. I had been considering Takayama though so glad to hear you like it.

  7. We stayed in Kyoto in 2008 for a week and went back there last year for a quick day during a week long trip to Osaka. The best thing about Kyoto is it’s location to other places for day trips – Osaka, Nara, Kobe, Himiji (although the castle is covered in scaffolding). You can get a cheaper Kansai Japan rail pass for four days (about $80?) to get to all these places.

    Make sure you get to the Nishiki Market for fresh food – our post at http://www.streetfood.com.au/2010/12/nishiki-kyoto-japan-street-food-market.html is a big band width one with loads of pictures and we have more posts on our trip last year. Also, the rice burger at MOS burger is vegetarian and yum.

    We will be in Tokyo from Sep 23 for a week of exploring Tokyo and surrounds. Thanks for the onsen tips nearby, will be looking for some there.

    • Thanks for all your tips Alison. Your post on the Nishiki market is fantastic – we will definitely visit although I’m not sure I’ll know what most of the things are! Looks like we’ll be in Tokyo around the same time as you!

  8. Oh I forgot one of the highlights of Kyoto (besides the monkey park) is a trip on a little train that takes you outside of Kyoto and up into the mountains to Kurama and Kibune. You can then do a walk up over the hills from one village through to one of the big shrines at the other village. There are onsens at the end to rest in. A really lovely walk out in the countryside and the train trip is so much fun.

  9. I think Japan is going to be my next trip abroad, and this list is extremely helpful. I love that it addresses those smaller opportunities and moments and not just the big sites to see. Bookmarking right now!

    • Glad you found it helpful. Yes, for us travel is always more than just about the big sites. So far we are really enjoying Japan and soaking up the cultural differences.

    • We were there in summer which suited us as we like hot weather. It is more scenic in the spring or autumn as you have the cherry blossoms or autumn leaves. The spring is peak season though. My friend went in the winter and loved it as the snow is beautiful, you can ski, and you can warm up in onsens (it was too hot for those when we were there). It really depends what you are looking for but anytime has something to offer.

  10. In the planning stages for 9 days in Japan during June 2012 (flights booked). Can anyone help me with how long to see Hiroshima/Miyajima and whether we should base in Osaka or Kyoto to do the Osaka / Kyoto / Nara and possibly Takayama?

    • Hi Leonie,
      Two days would be enough for Hiroshima/Miyajima. I would chose Kyoto as a base as we much preferred it to Osaka and there’s more to see there. You can easily visit Osaka and Nara as day trips. We didn’t go to Takayama but it is quite a bit further away so it’s up to you how much you want to rush around. You could definitely find enough to do in Kyoto with a week.

  11. Great Post. I lived in Japan for a few years and loved it. I would suggest going to any matsuri (festival) that are going on during your stay. There is lots of culture to be seen at those events. Plus there is good food. Depending on the location you’re at in Japan, during August or September, there are festivals for Obon.

  12. I am planning a 10 day trip with my two teenage girls. We really want to see Tokyo well. I keep hearing about Kyoto is it worth seeing, it seems far from Tokyo (8hrs) and expensive to get to?

    • I don’t think it’s that far if you get the bullet train. You can look up train times and prices on this website: http://www.hyperdia.com/. You might also want to consider a rail pass if you are planning to visit other places. Compare the prices on that site with the rail pass.

  13. Hello, with one of your Dos its not mushy mushy its moshi moshi aka (もしもし). I’ve been leaning japanese for about 9 years now i was wondering id you could correct it please

    ありがとうございます (^_^)

  14. Hello, i am starting a trip around the world in february. I start in Tokio and end in Canada in december. How many days do i need to see Tokyo and are there some real good hidden secrets?
    Gr. Bert

    • That’s a difficult question. There is so much to do in Tokyo you could spend a few days or months. We didn’t spend that much time there so can’t really advise.

  15. I going to Japan next year and through out my researches I always came across those dos an don’ts and I have to say this is really nice and short one but has a lot of information in it, which is something I really like!
    Keep up the good work ;D

  16. Hi I was wondering if you could help. Basically I want to pay my mum and dad back for being such brilliant parents and helping me bring up my little boy. My dad went to Japan about 40 yrs ago he has always wanted to go back. I want to plan a surprise trip next year to Japan. I’m planning about 10 or 14 days away but not too much travelling maybe a few days in 3 places and ending up in Tokyo for 4 days to finish . Can you recommend anywhere that would be a must. I am completely lost as am not familiar with hotels or places etc.
    Any help would be brilliant
    Thanks nadya :)

    • It really depends what you are interested in but I’d definitely recommend Kyoto as well as Tokyo. Have a read through our Japan posts and see what you like the sound of. Good luck with it.

  17. Hi guys, great blogs-thank you for sharing it. We’re planning to do a trip in December 2013 14-27/12.

    Could you advise which cities we should visit using the shinkansen. We have 14 days to spend with the first 3 days in Tokyo, so it’ll leave us with 11 days in other cities.

    I am confused with the the shinkansen map and which one we should take and which cities we can visit that is on the way. We are targetting to return to Tokyo on the last 3 days to do some shopping.

    It is basically that 8 days, we need to use to the cities that can be visited using the shinkansen line.

    Thank you in advance for your help

    • Hi Matthew,
      I’m planning to travel to Japan at the beginning of March 2015 as well. If you got any great idea, we can discuss. Thanks

  18. This is a great post! It is very helpful. I am planning to go to Tokyo this June. I will be staying in Shibuya/Shinjuku area. I don’t know which hotel to stay in and where to go first. Do you have any advice for the first time traveler? Thank you very much! :)

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