This is a guest post by our friend Amy Cham who compiled us an amazing guide full of her Japan tips to help us plan our trip to Japan.
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.
Here are some tips for planning your trip to Japan.
- Before You Arrive in Japan
- General Dos and Don’ts in Japan
- Places to Visit in Japan
- More Japan Tips
Before You Arrive in Japan
- No visa requirements for most nationalities for stays of up to 90 days but have a return flight out as they may 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! The Pimsleur Japanese audio course is good for learning the basics.
- Get an International Driving Permit. You’ll need this for Maricar where you drive a go-kart around the real Tokyo roads dressed as Mario characters. Insanity!
- Buy travel insurance. Healthcare is expensive in Japan, so make sure you are covered in case the worst happens. We use and recommend True Traveller (UK/EU residents) and World Nomads (if you’re from US/Australia/worldwide).
- Consider hiring a local expert to plan your trip from ViaHero (click here for a 5% discount for our readers). They can tailor the trip to your interests and help you get off the beaten track.
- Make sure your phone is unlocked so you can buy a data SIM card in Japan (we got a Umobile SIM from a vending machine at Tokyo Narita Airport). Having access to maps and Google Translate makes life so much easier.
General Dos and Don’ts in Japan
- Get a Japanese Rail Pass. There’s no way around this, it’s a bloody fortune (£306/$402 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. 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 and you need to order online from JRailPass.com. Read our guide to whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for everything you need to know.
- 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! Booking.com is our favourite site for finding hotels.
- 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 in 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. Read more about accommodation options in Japan. [Erin: we absolutely loved our ryokan stay at Hotel Musashiya in Hakone where our room and onsen had a view of Lake Ashi.]
- 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—they have branches in Hakone (with onsen!), Kyoto, Hiroshima, and all over the country. 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 kickboxing, it’s the pre/ post game rituals that are fascinating to watch. Fairly cheap and easy to score tickets on the day for matches. If you aren’t there during a tournament you can see a practice session at a sumo stable.
- Expect bursts of freakery!
- 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! You can also get one at the gorgeous Sensoji Temple in Tokyo.
- Love the Japanese for their never-ending capacity to help you out, and they won’t stop until they do!
- Read these Japan books before you visit for a greater understanding of this weird and wonderful culture.
- 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: we aren’t going to start eating fish but we did find lots of delicious vegetarian Japanese food).
- Appreciate the plastic food models as works of art!
- Pack slip-on shoes. You’ll be taking your shoes on and off a lot in temples and restaurants. (Erin: I wore my super comfortable Tieks ballet flats most of the time).
- 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. There are just so many amazing places to visit in Japan.
- Play in the numerous arcades dotted around cities, the taiko drum game rocks! The Anato No Warehouse in Tokyo is one of the coolest arcades we’ve ever seen.
- 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!) and SIM cards. In Tokyo you can use your Suica transport card to pay for it.
- 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!
- Track your expenses. Your finances can easily get out of control in Japan so use an app like Trail Wallet to keep track of what you’re spending and help you stay on budget. Read more about travel costs in Japan.
- Pack light. It will be much easier to hop on and off trains if you pack light and hotels have limited storage space for luggage. Best of all, travel with just carry-on luggage. Erin’s book The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light teaches you how.
- Look on Voyagin for interesting tours and activities in Japan, many at discounted rates. The Robot Restaurant is the most insane show we’ve ever seen (read our Robot Restaurant review for details) and driving a go-kart around Tokyo dressed as Mario characters on the Maricar trip was ridiculously fun!
- Withdraw cash from 7-11 ATMs. They are the most reliable no-fee option for international cards and can be found everywhere.
- Use Hyperdia to check train times and prices (to work out if a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for your itinerary).
- Check out our travel resources page for more resources and gear recommendations to help you plan your trip.
- 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. (Erin: We have eaten some delicious Indian and Italian food in Japan, but I agree that the local cuisine is so incredible that why risk it?)
- 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.
Places to Visit in Japan
Japan has so much to offer but here are a few places to get you started.
- Tokyo – The best of modern Japan. This huge city has incredible food, diverse neighbourhoods, and some crazy experiences. Try these cool things to do in Tokyo and enjoy the best vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo.
- Kyoto – The best of traditional Japan with many stunning temples to explore.
- Takayama – A smaller, quieter alternative for traditional Japan with a beautiful historic centre of preserved wooden houses.
- Hakone – For the chance to see Mount Fuji, mountain scenery, lakes, onsens, and fun transport options (cable cars and pirate ships!).
- Nikko – Stunning temples in the forest. Could be visited as a day trip from Tokyo.
- Hiroshima – Visit the moving peace memorial that commemorates the atomic bombing.
See our Japan 2 Week Itinerary for a detailed guide to visiting many of these places including things to do, transport, and where to stay and eat.
More Japan Tips
- Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?
- Where to Stay in Japan: A Guide to Accommodation Options
- 15 Fascinating Books to Read Before Visiting Japan
- 10 Unmissable Places to Visit in Japan
- Vegetarian Survival Guide to Japan
- 72 Random Observations About Japan
- How Much Does it Cost to Travel in Japan?
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Are you planning your next adventure? See our Travel Resources page for our favourite tools and gear to help you plan the perfect trip.