Japan is a beautiful, welcoming, friendly country. It’s also quite different from any country I’ve visited. Before I start sharing the tales of my 10-day trip there, I want to give you my top Japan travel tips for first-timers.
Japan is actually quite an easy country for travelers. People line up for things. Trains run on time. And there is just enough English on signs and in announcements to help you get by.
But that doesn’t mean that navigation is easy or that what the Japanese consider to be good manners are obvious to the traveler from abroad. That’s why I’ve put together this information on traveling in Japan.
With just 10 days experience, I cannot say that this post is comprehensive. I’m sure that many readers, in their Japan travels, have noticed differences from other countries that could be shared in the form of more tips for travelers who are yet to go.
Please leave your tips in the comments.
Tips to Make Your Japan Trip Easier
- Have cash. Everything I had read said that Japan is a cash society. I found that many places take credit cards including the hostels and ryokans where I stayed, 7-Elevens that are everywhere and many restaurants. While I used my credit card a lot, having cash was an imperative. In 10 days I spent about US$300 in cash.
- Watch on your right when crossing. Cars drive on the left in Japan. However, foot traffic is sometimes on the left and other times on the right. Escalators were consistently on the left and then, I found an exception in Tokyo when it was on the right. Default to the left but be prepared to be wrong.
- Cleanliness is highly valued. You will notice that the streets are very clean in Japan. But that’s simply an extension of cleanliness in the home and of one’s person.
- Shoes are for the street. If you see slippers at the entrance of a building you are expected to take your shoes off and put slippers on. At every point along the way, should you see slippers you repeat the process. For example, when you go to a Ryokan you will leave your shoes at the door change into the slippers provided and go to your room. You’ll leave these slippers at the entrance of your room and use socks or bare feet in the room. When you go to the bathroom, you’ll find another pair of bathroom slippers that are only used there. If the bathroom is down the hall you will put the house slippers on as you leave your room, walk to the bathroom and change to the bathroom slippers, then change back to the house slippers as you leave and then leave the house slippers at the entrance to your room.
- Toilets are interesting in Japan. Yes, enter a cubicle and the sound of a gentle waterfall and birds will typically start playing. Sit down and you’ll often find the seat to be heated. A control panel will let you turn off the sound and, in women’s washrooms, give you a variety of bidet options. You’ll have two or three spray options and often be able to control the intensity of the spray. There is also toilet paper. Many public toilets do not have paper towels or blow dryers for you hands. People often carry a small facecloth with them for this purpose.
- A culture of public baths. There are thousands of natural hot springs all over Japan. These are called onsens and are used as public baths. When you arrive at one, you strip down (everyone is naked in an onsen) soap up and wash down completely and only then enter the pool (or pools). I’ll be giving you a more detailed article on onsens soon. They are a Japanese experience not to be missed. Read How to Onsen: The Naked Truth About Japan’s Best Cultural Experience
- Juicing up. Power outlets are the same as in North America so if that’s where you’re from you don’t need an adapter.
- English? Yes and no. The most important words in Japanese are arigato gaziemos, which means thank you. If I had a nickel for every time I heard it I would have earned back the cost of my trip.
- Don’t assume that a taxi driver or anyone will speak English. Whenever possible, get your logistical information, hotel name, address and telephone number, written in Japanese for you.
- There’s more English than I expected. Train station names are written in Japanese and English scripts. The essential announcements on trains and subways are also made in English.
- Chain hotels can be a huge help. If in doubt, go to a large hotel for assistance where there will most certainly be English spoken. I went to the Shangi-La in Tokyo when I first arrived to get help finding my hostel. I was carrying a backpack and yet this high-end hotel treated me very well. They wrote the coordinates for my hotel on a card in Japanese and got me a taxi.
- Miss your pet? If you miss your pet or simply want some quiet time, try a cat cafe. There are also owl cafes (with real owls on hand) and dog cafes. Pay approximately 1300 yen per hour for a drink and the pleasure of sitting with the animals.
How to Travel by Train and Metro in Japan
- Airport to City
- Public transit. You have two public transit options from Haneda Airport.
- The Monorail connects to the subway system to take you anywhere in the city.
- The Keikyu Line goes into central Tokyo. Get off at Takaracho Station and you’re close to Imano Tokyo Ginza Hostel where I stayed.
- Bus to Tokyo Station and other points. At arrivals there is a very obvious bus ticket counter on the left. I bought my ticket to Tokyo Station for 1,000 yen. Cdn$12.
- Taxis. Taxis are available but expensive. It seemed to me that 20 minutes in a taxi cost about ¥2,000 in both Tokyo and Kyoto. You can use Google maps to estimate the length of your trip. Make sure that you have your destination written in Japanese on a piece of paper, as drivers will not necessarily speak English or read western script.
- Public transit. You have two public transit options from Haneda Airport.
- Japan Rail Travel
- Buy your JR Rail Pass voucher before you go. Rule of thumb is that if you are taking more than one train trip it is worth it.
- Trade your voucher for your JR Rail Pass. Go to ticket office at train station. There will be a wicket specifically for getting your JR voucher turned into a pass.
- Get your train ticket. Once you have the pass you need to go to a regular wicket to get a ticket for your train. Note: If you’re taking the train from Tokyo to Kyoto, ask for seat on right side of train for view of Mount Fuji. On left in opposite direction.
- Plan ahead. When you arrive at your destination, go to the ticket office to get your next train ticket so that you get a reserved seat and don’t miss out should you want to travel on a particularly busy day. This is important on weekends.
- The information on your ticket. Your ticket indicates your train number, car number and seat number.
- Matching your ticket with the platform. Find the platform for your train number by looking at the digital signs or asking an agent of which there are many. Be mindful that the next train to your platform may not be your train. Look for the electronic signs indicating the number of the next train to come so you’ll know when your train has arrived. Once your train is next, look for where you should stand on the platform for your car number. They also have signs indicating where your car number will stop along the platform. Wait at the entrance for your car number. When it’s arrives, enter and you’ll easily find your seat.
- Listen to the announcements. Announcements on the train are in English as well so you don’t need to worry about missing your stop. They also tell you what side of the train you’ll disembark on.
- Smoking permitted in designated areas. The Shinkansen train has smoking rooms on certain cars and food trolleys. Not all regional trains have either.
- Your JR Pass and city travel. There are times when you’ll transfer to a JR Train to get to your destination outside a city. You can usually use your JR Pass for this and save on your metro costs.
- Subways – The Metro.
- Here are your Tokyo ticket options.
- A transit card. You can get a transit card in just about any city. The ICOCA card for Kyoto costs ¥2,000 or about Cdn$12/US$10. You can buy it from a ticket machine. ¥500 is a deposit on the card which you can get back from a kiosk along with any balance before leaving the city. My research says that you can use it in Tokyo as well however you cannot cash in the card in that city.
- A day pass. Depending on your plans a 24-hour day pass can be a good idea. In Tokyo be careful as there are two Metro companies. A day pass for the Tokyo Metro is 600 yen. For the Tokyo and Toei subways the price is 900 yen.
- Pay per trip. Buy your ticket at every station based on your destination. The farther you go, the more you’ll pay.
- Ticket machines offer English. There is a button in the upper right corner of the display that will turn the information into English. There is an image of the metro near the ticket machines. Look for your destination station and the price of your ticket will be marked in a circle. Buy your ticket for that amount.
- Using the transit card. Because you pay for your ride based on distance you need to tap in at your starting point and tap out when you leave the subway. The balance remaining on your card will show every time you tap.
- Here are your Tokyo ticket options.
Ryokan and Hostels in Japan
Naturally, all the major hotel chains in the world are present in Japan. However, there are many more local accommodation experiences that are well worth it.
- Ryokan. In Takayama, I stayed at the Hodakaso Yamano lori Ryokan. It was immaculately clean though the carpeting was a little tired. Apparently this is not uncommon. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn or guesthouse and does not have a lot of amenities though Hodakaso does have a public bath. It’s about Cdn$150/night. As described on the site, Japanese Guest Houses, here is what a typical ryokan room includes.
- the “agari-kamachi” (after opening the door guests step into this small area and take off their shoes)
- “shoji” (sliding paper doors) which separates the agari-kamachi from the room
- “tatami” mat flooring (reed floor matting)
- low wooden tables
- “zabuton” (sitting cushions)
- futon (sleeping quilts)
- a “tokonoma” (an ornamental alcove built into the wall used for placing flower vases and hanging scrolls)
- an “oshiire” (a closet for futon sleeping quilts)
- an “engawa” (a glass enclosed sitting area separated from the room by a shoji)
- Hostels. I also stayed in two hostels, Hostel Niniroom in Kyoto and Imano Tokyo Ginza Hostel in Tokyo. Both were less that six months old which I chose just by chance. Both were beautifully designed with very private bunks with blackout curtains. Security is fine with both requiring codes to enter the rooms. In each case the cost was about Cdn$50. I was very happy with my choice. Excellent value!
Tips on How and What to Eat in Japan
I expected to love Japanese food and discovered that, for me, eating was a challenge. First, I eat fish but not meat and, despite being an island, the Japanese eat a lot of meat. If you eat meat, especially beef, you’ll be in heaven.
- Sushi is available. I expected to eat so much great sushi but I only had it twice. It was wonderful but sushi restaurants aren’t found everywhere as I expected they would be.
- Picture your meal. Pictures are available outside restaurants and on menus as well, so if you are without a food allergy or a preference like vegetarianism, it’s easy to choose and to order.
- Buddah bowls. You’ll often find restaurants serve rice bowls with any variety of vegetables and protein on top whether that be meat, seafood or tofu.
- There is a coffee culture. I found cafes everywhere and the coffee was quite good.
- Grocery stores. The fruit and vegetables in stores were, for me, unfamiliar, large, very brightly colored and frequently vacuum-packed in a liquid. It was strange and worried me a bit. With all information written in Japanese and no one who could explain things to me, I found myself paralyzed in the grocery stores. I’m embarrassed to say that on one occasion I walked out with a small jar of peanut butter and bananas for dinner.
- Looking for something special. Just like at home, you’ll find restaurant reviews online.
- When eating…
- A wet towel will be provided to wash your hands before your meal. Use it then fold it neatly and leave it beside your place.
- Take food from the serving bowl and add to your own bowl.
- Sushi is eaten in one bit. Don’t use too much soy sauce or wasabi as it might insult the sushi chef.
- Hold bowls in one hand, chopsticks in the other.
- It is good manners to eat everything on your plate to the last grain of rice.
- When you’ve finished return all dishes to how you received them with lids on, etc. Place your chopsticks back on the chopstick rest.