Last Updated 1 year ago
If you've come looking for some Japan travel tips, you've made it to the right place! Japan is wacky, weird, intoxicating and uniquely unforgettable. It’s one of the last places on Earth that truly beats to the tune of its own drum. No wonder it tops the ‘favorite places I’ve ever been’ list of so many travellers, it’s just so incredibly bizarre yet remarkable at the same time.
Since Japan has retained so much of its personal identity, shielding itself from the influence of other cultures, there are some things you’ll want to be aware of before your trip.
During my first trip to Japan I started learning all these nuances with fresh and innocent eyes. Sure, I made some mistakes and may have committed a cultural taboo or two, but it really gave me a better understanding of just how different the Japanese lifestyle really is.
Whether you are looking for first-time travel tips for Japan, or you just want to know about Japanese etiquette for your next trip, I’ve got you covered. You don’t have to look like such a tourist noob.
Here are 47 travel tips you need to know about visiting Japan, with some key do’s and don’ts.
47 Insider Travel Tips
You Need To Know Before
Going To Japan
1. Eat At Lawson's To Save Money
Yes, you obviously came to Japan to eat ALL the sushi but hear me out on this one. Dining out for every meal in Japan can get expensive. Sure, there are conveyor belt sushi bars and hole in the wall ramen houses that are kind to your wallet, but even they will start to add up. (And don’t even get me started on what a nice 3 or 4-star hotel wants to charge for a simple breakfast.)
Lawsons, Family Mart or any 7-11 convenience in Japan has awesome food at shockingly low prices. You can get salads, fruit, sushi, yakitori, and tons of other ready to eat meals for just a few bucks. Even celebs like Katy Perry and the late Anthony Bourdain chose to eat at Lawsons when they came to Japan because it’s an experience everyone should have.
2. The Price of an Airport Taxi Will BLOW YOUR MIND
The busiest airport in Tokyo is Narita, so there is a good chance that’s where your flight into Japan will land. If you have never been to Tokyo before, you’ll quickly find out just how far Narita Airport actually is from downtown Tokyo. REALLY FAR. I made the mistake of saying “Oh, I’ll just catch an Uber… it can’t be that much!” Yes, it is that much. A taxi or Uber from Narita airport to Tokyo (or the reverse trip) will be anywhere from $250-$400 USD!
Don’t worry, there are cheaper ways to get where you need to go.
3. Use Airport Limo Buses
This Japan travel tip will save you money on those extortionately high taxi prices: Take an Airport Limo Bus. These are simply passenger buses with large luggage holds underneath for your suitcases that will bring you to and from the airport. They are 10x’s less than a taxi, but they do take a little longer due to stops, however most buses have free Wi-Fi AND even a toilet on board!
Most tickets are around 3000 YEN ($29 USD) and the routes cover almost anywhere in and around Tokyo you’ll need to go. You can buy the tickets online, at the airport, or at the kiosks in many hotel lobbies.
4. The Trains Are Expensive, But Worth It
If you came to Japan to adventure throughout the country, I would highly recommend getting a JR rail pass. The high-speed train system in Japan (also known as the Shinkansen) is super-fast, sparkling clean, and extremely efficient.
Taking the train is much easier than booking flights and a much better use of your time than riding on buses. You can buy one to cover access to the ENTIRE country by rail, or just access between certain cities.
Note: You MUST buy one before you enter the country, so plan ahead.
5. Yes, You CAN Bring Luggage on the Shinkansen
If you have decided to take the Shinkansen, but you’re worried about your luggage, don’t be. I took the train from Tokyo to Nagoya before an oncoming typhoon when ALL the seats were 100% sold out, and I was still able to fit on my large checked bag and smaller carry-on. I did have to stand in the aisle packed in like a sardine for the entire trip, but my luggage fit.
Many people are worried there will be no place to put luggage, but you can always find a spot. When the train is not sold out due to a natural disaster, there are many places to pack in luggage, like the seats at the front of each car.
6. You Can EASILY Ship Your Luggage To Your Hotel
One last bit about luggage and trains. If you really don’t want to lug your baggage all over the stations, you can have it shipped to your hotel. I know this sounds weird to Westerners, but sending your luggage ahead is actually a really popular and common thing to do in Japan.
The Yamato will take your luggage at the airport and have it delivered to your hotel for you. You can even use the service to deliver from one hotel to another hotel along your journey, and then back to the airport again. Let’s say you fly into Tokyo and will be taking the Shinkansen to Kyoto. For around $20-$30 you can have your luggage sent directly to the hotel in Kyoto, freeing up your hands to easily take the train and make sight-seeing stops along the way.
I WISH this service existed in other countries!
7. You Will Love The Toilets
From the waterfall noises they make to drown out any sound you make, to the heated seats, right down to the good ol’ wash and dry – you are going to love Japanese toilets! I have heard of so many travelers and expats that installed similar Japanese-type toilets when they moved back to North America.
When I first encountered these super high-tech toilets, I have to admit I was a little intimidated, but don’t let the fear of the unknown stop you. Sit down and just push all the buttons until you learn what they all do. I promise you will end up wanting one back home!
8. Obey The Rules
Japan is a society of rules and regulations that everyone adheres to. If there is a posted rule or suggestion of how you’re expected to act, follow it. Don’t try and skip the line, jump over a fence, or skirt the rules in some way. It’s not that something horrible will happen to you if you do break a rule, but the Japanese people have a well-oiled system that works on common courtesy and compliance. It's one of the reasons Japan is so safe, clean and courteous.
Be respectful and remember that you are a guest. Try your best to follow rules, but of course the Japanese people are very forgiving if you make a common tourist mistake.
9. Everything Really Is SMALLER
You have probably heard that everything is smaller in Japan and that is absolutely true. Hotel rooms are smaller, cars are smaller, doorways are smaller. You can even find micro bars in the heart of Tokyo that are so small, they only seat 3 people at a time.
The size standard is a good thing to be aware of before you go. Where $200 might get you a palatial suite in some parts of the world, the same amount spent in Japan might only get you a miniature 90 sq ft hotel room. Be prepared for smaller spaces and just go with the flow.
10. Learn a FEW Words in Japanese
Japanese is a difficult language to learn, but that shouldn’t exempt any traveler from learning a few helpful words and phrases. There are so many ways to do this, but the easiest of them all is to watch a YouTube video on common beginner phrases and keep them in a note on your phone.
First time visitors will want to know super basic stuff like: “Hello, good morning, thank you, excuse me” etc.
Make an effort but don’t put pressure on yourself to get it perfect. Everyone will highly respect you for trying, even if you make a mistake.
11. Sakura is the Most Beautiful Time To Visit (but the busiest)
Sakura, otherwise known as Cherry Blossom season in Japan, is one of the most beautiful times you can visit. On the contrary, it’s also one of the busiest times. People come from all over the world to experience the blossoms in full bloom, not to mention the local residents of Japan.
If you do visit during Sakura (which is usually around March and April) know that popular areas of Japan will be busier, and perhaps more expensive than usual.
12. It's Safe To Walk Around At Night
Actually, it's just as safe to walk around at night as it is during the day. Japan is one of the safest places you’ll ever visit, period. From small petty crimes like personal theft, right up to major violent crimes like sexual violence, the data consistently shows that Japan has some of the lowest rates in the world.
Compared to the U.S., Japan’s violent gun crimes are 148x’s lower and their drug crimes are 134x’s lower than the states.
Japan is not only a safe place to walk around at night, but it’s also an ideal country for solo female travelers.
13. English is NOT as Common as You Would Think
It’s not an issue though, because even if a Japanese person cannot speak or understand English, they will still go out of their way to help you. Be aware that many people, especially in the lesser visited areas, are not going to have a conversational level of English. When you are stuck, hand gestures and props are always good universal ways to get the point across.
One great thing about Japan is even if a restaurant’s menu is entirely in Japanese, they will likely have pictures of each item, or even full-scale plastic models of the dishes you can refer to.
14. You Will Want Some Cash (¥ Yen)
Japan is very much still a cash society, which was a little surprising to see. Before I went I imagined a super advanced country with people paying by swiping the RFID-chip implants in their wrist across scanners to pay for items. Not so much. Cash is still king in Japan. It's the most widely accepted payment, especially for things like vending machines, train tickets and even at restaurants.
Bring some Yen with you for your trip, but also remember you can withdraw more at one of the many international ATM’s you’ll find all over the country.
15. Vegan Food Can Be Hard To Come By
Pescatarians will be in foodie heaven, but vegans might have a hard time tracking down a good meal. Japanese people do eat a very healthy diet, but that doesn’t mean it’s vegan friendly. While you will find a lot of tofu, tempeh, kimchi and soy on the menu, it will also likely be accompanied by some sort of fish, fish broth, fish eggs, normal eggs, or other animal product.
I don’t eat red meat and it was even difficult to find a ramen bowl that wasn’t made with a pork broth. This doesn’t mean that there are not vegan and vegetarian restaurants out there, because there are some, but fish, pork and egg are still in the majority of the dishes.
16. Check Train Times in Google Maps
Inside the Google Maps App on your phone, you will be able to see the train times between different JR rail stations. The app will tell you what time the next train comes, how full it’s expected to be, when it will arrive at your destination station, and how much it will cost without a JR rail pass.
You can use Google Maps when calculating far distances by train, like Tokyo to Kyoto, or even for small distances within Tokyo like Shinagawa Station to Shibuya Station.
I found using this app was easier than trying to read signs and posters at the stations.
17. Get a SIM Card or Mobile Hotspot
Since you will want your phone for Google Maps and translation apps, I highly advise getting a local Japanese SIM card or traveling with a mobile Hotspot like TEP wireless. My first trip to Japan I brought TEP, as I was staying for an extended period of time, I needed a lot of data, and my husband needed to hotspot off the same device as well. My second time in Japan, I grabbed a SIM card at the airport since I only needed it for a few days and I was headed home right after.
As of August 2019, here are the prices for using a mobile hotspot like TEP Wireless and a local Japanese SIM card from the airport:
Per day: $8 for unlimited data. Can connect up to 5 devices at once. Get one.
1 GB, 6 Days Usage = $10 USD
3 GB, 8 Days Usage = $15 USD
Unlimited Data, 8 Days Usage = $23 USD
18. Smoking is Still a Thing
There is little in this world I detest more than cigarette smoke. I can’t stand it! I’m lucky to live in a country like Canada that has some of the strictest non-smoking laws in the world. Visiting Japan made me realize just how much of a bubble I live in when in Canada.
Smoking is still a thing in Japan and is still widely accepted in bars, karaoke rooms, pachinko spots, pubs, restaurants, and even inside smoking cabins on trains.
While you won’t see people walking down the street very often puffing away, it’s very odd (and for me a deal breaker) to walk into a restaurant and it be all cloudy with cigarette smoke. People who are very sensitive to smoke should do some research before dining out to see if they are choosing a spot that won’t make them uncomfortable.
19. Don't Eat and Walk
I think it was us ‘busy’ North Americans that coined the whole ‘eat and walk’ trend, but it certainly hasn’t made its way to Japan. Out of respect for others the Japanese do not eat while walking down the street, while sitting or standing on the subway, or any other public place where it’s deemed inappropriate.
If you need to eat on the run, try to carve out a moment for yourself that doesn’t involve stuffing your face while walking down the busy streets.
20. Stay in a Ryokan
You can stay in a normal hotel anywhere in the world, but a Ryokan is only somewhere you can stay when you’re in Japan. Take advantage of how unique and amazing they are! A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn or hotel.
What makes them so unique is they are usually designed with straw tatami mats as the flooring, paper sliding doors and walls, futon style beds on the floor, and separate living/dining/sleeping areas. The decor is very simple, yet elegant, and inspires rest and relaxation. It’s a minimalist’s dream.
Many Ryokans also have the added perk of an Onsen, which is a pool or a bath formed around a natural hot spring.
Ryokans are an authentic Japanese experience that I think everyone should have at least once in their lives. We stayed in one in central Japan and wrote an entire Ryokan guide on what to expect.
21. They Drive on the LEFT
In Japan, they drive on the left side of the road. If you are visiting from the UK, you’re already used to driving on the left side of the road, but for North Americans it can sure be a shock!
Although chances are you won’t be renting a car and driving around, you will still want to be aware of the reversal when looking before you cross the road, as the cars will be coming from the opposite way you normal expect.
22. Walk Left, Stand Right?
Since they drive on the LEFT side of the road in Japan, one would think that they also walk on the left side of the sidewalk, but this is still an area of debate.
Many people say that you are supposed to walk on the right side and for times when you need to stand (like on an escalator) you should stand to the left, allowing right-side foot traffic to pass you. However, in Osaka the whole theory is reversed! They stand right and walk left.
I have no answer for you on this one. I tried to see what people were doing on the escalators first-hand, but everyone stood and no one passed, making my experiment irrelevant. I also watched busy streets in Tokyo, but crowds of pedestrians just seemed to flow in an inexplicable organized way.
My advice is just to match the flow of others around you!
23. Don't Tip
Tipping is not a thing in Japan. It was explained to me like this: To tip a Japanese person for good service is not appropriate because they should be giving the highest level of service each time anyway, because it is their duty and honor to do so. What a refreshing take!
People in Japan take a lot of pride in what they do and are happy just to give you the great service you deserve.
Tipping is so rare in Japanese culture that if you did leave a tip on the table, your waitress would likely chase you out of the restaurant trying to return your forgotten change.
24. They Dress Well
Something I’ve noticed each time I’ve been to Japan is: everyone is always nicely dressed. I’m not saying fancy and super stylized, but just very well put together. Even their casual clothing looks so much nicer than anything I would wear to the grocery store. Nice button up shirts, slacks, cardigans, stockings, etc – they always look presentable and fresh.
Another thing I noticed is that Japanese women do not wear low cut tops or shirts that reveal cleavage. It’s just not their thing! Walking around in the U.S. or Canada it’s really common to see lower cut tops, but in Japan I never saw any.
25. Don't Stick Chopsticks Upright in Food
Received an important email mid rice bowl? Set your chopsticks down beside the bowl or across the bowl, but never standing upright in your food. This is because it mimics the incense they use during funeral services and represents something you don’t want affiliated with your meal.
26. Don't Be So Loud
When in doubt, take your volume level down a notch. Japanese people are very quiet and reserved by nature and find it uncomfortable when other around them are making a scene or being too extroverted and loud. There is a time and place to let your hair down and that is at pubs, bars, karaoke and other kinds of night life. As for during the day, especially in already quiet places, don’t be THAT tourist.
27. Don't Blow Your Nose in Public
On the topic of doing loud things around other people, it’s also not a great idea to blow your nose in public. In Japan, doing something like blowing your nose should be done in the privacy of the bathroom or at least away from others. I actually noticed that people sniffle a lot because they don’t want to blow their nose on the subway, as it’s considered rude to do.
28. Take Your Shoes Off
You will be asked to take your shoes off in many situations like going inside someone’s home, touring through a temple or shrine, even at some restaurants. I think as a Canadian this was a very easy rule to adapt to, but I know some of my American friends (who wear their shoes inside their house?! What!?) found it a little strange.
On the topic of taking your shoes off, it’s always a good idea to carry around a tiny pair of socks in your bag in the case that you are barefoot beneath your shoes. Being barefoot in public is not something Japanese people do often and it can be seen as a cultural no-no.
29. Bathroom Slippers
This one was hard to wrap my mind around at first. In your hotel, ryokan, and even at some public places like restaurants, there will be a pair of slip on sandals in the bathroom.
You are supposed to take your shoes off outside and step into these sandals which are to be worn inside the bathroom only. This is to keep bathroom footwear and outside footwear completely separate, which is seen as more hygienic and appropriate.
Just don’t make the mistake of forgetting to put back on your normal footwear after leaving the bathroom. It won’t go over well if you wear the bathroom shoes around the restaurant!
30. You Can Choose To Bow, Or Not To Bow
Bowing is a big part of Japanese culture, but it can be a little complicated. There is a whole set of etiquette-based rules around bowing, many of which tourists will never learn.
Japanese people won’t expect you to know how to properly bow, so don’t worry if you are too shy to give it a try. If you want to bow back at someone who is bowing at you, here are the basics. Tilt forward at your centre, look down towards the ground and give a subtle bow.
31. There Will Be Nudity At Onsens
If you want to relax in an Onsen (a natural hot spring bath), just know that you will be required to go in naked. This is customary at almost every onsen in Japan and seen as completely normal and appropriate. FYI- the onsen pools are separated into different ones for men and women.
32. You Can Drink The Tap Water
Yay! A country with water perfectly safe to drink from the tap. This means you can bring a reusable water bottle and refill from any fountain you see. The water is very clean, safe and refreshing.
33. You'll Find Just As Many Cold Coffee Options as Warm
Japan certainly has a great coffee and caffeine culture and you’ll find tons of hot AND cold options. At every convenience store, small café and even vending machines you’ll find almost equal cold coffee options to hot ones.
One weird thing I saw a lot in Lawson's was a rack of coffee drinks in aluminum cans with screw lids, looking like they were cold coffee drinks, but the rack was actually heated, keeping them hot all day long.
34. Wearing a Mask in Public is Super Common
My husband is all about wearing a mask in crowded public spaces, so he fits right in when we visit Japan. You will commonly see people wear surgical type masks over their nose and mouths walking down the street, riding the trains, or at their place of work. Most of the time they are not wearing a mask because they are sick, it’s because they are trying to avoid getting sick in the first place.
35. Use The ‘Photo' Translate App To Read Japanese Signs
One of my favorite language hacks of all time! Download Google Translate to your phone and install the Japanese ‘offline’ tool you can use without Wi-Fi. Then, whenever you are confronted with signs or labels in Japanese, open the app and hold your camera over the text/characters. It will translate the Japanese you see through the camera into English in real time!
I used this on signs at attractions, on vending machines, at the train station, and most importantly at Lawsons. I just held my phone over the label on the food I was considering buying and it told me what it was. LOVE!
36. Use The Cash Dish in Shops
In true Japanese fashion of not wanting to offend anyone, make anyone uncomfortable or even have the chance of unwanted physical contact, they even have a way to take payment in a systemized way.
Instead of handing your money or credit card directly to the cashier, you will see a small (usually rectangular) dish on the counter that you’ll put place it on instead. The cashier will retrieve your card or cash from this dish in order to pay for your purchase.
It’s a small cultural difference, but one worth noting! I had no idea was the dish was for at first until a local told me that is where I should place my payment.
37. Tattoos Are Still Taboo
This is slowly changing over time, but for now visible tattoos are still a taboo topic. There are certain bars, attractions and spas that might prohibit you from entering if you have any tattoos that can be easily seen. Even when we went to the ultra-famous Robot Restaurant they had rules about entering with tattoos. (even though I don’t believe it was really enforced.)
The place where you WILL see the no tattoo rule enforced is at an onsen. They seem to be pretty strict on tattoos in these natural hot spring public baths, but if you have one that is small enough you can cover it with a bandage.
38. You Might Need An Adaptor
The plugs are almost the same in Japan as they are in North America. The use very similar voltage (120 in North America and 100 in Japan) and anything with a 2-prong plug will likely work fine, like your cell phone charger. However, for more hefty devices that might have a 3-prong plug, you might need an adaptor.
If you are coming from the UK, Australia, or Europe, you will need an adaptor.
39. Don't Point
In Japan using your finger to point at something is considered rude and a little aggressive. Instead of being so direct with one finger, use your entire hand to gently gesture to the object you are referencing. Also, you shouldn't use your chopsticks to point or gesture. It’s a small bit of etiquette but one that will be appreciated if you can remember.
40. There's a Man Inside The Machines
This is kind of an inside joke… but I was told by someone that at the JR rail stations there is a man inside the automated ticket machine, should you need help. I thought she was pulling a fast one on me! That was until I was actually at the train station and I needed assistance.
There was a typhoon on its way in and it seemed every train was being rescheduled so I needed to double check what trains were being cancelled. I pressed the ‘help’ button on the kiosk and low and behold there WAS a man inside the machine! A little window opened, and a man’s face appeared asking how he could help me. I was astonished!
41. A Great Way To Get There Is By SHIP
Not only did I get from Canada to Japan by ship, but I also took a return voyage from Japan back to Canada on one as well! Taking a ship, or more specifically a re-positioning cruise, is a great way to get to Japan without stepping on a plane. And guess what, it costs about the same as an economy flight, but gives you two weeks of luxury!
If you have the extra time I HIGHLY recommend getting to Japan by way of crossing the Pacific Ocean. You can read all about my journey TO Japan and my return voyage (on a newly renovated ship) from Japan to Canada.
42. Go Beyond Tokyo and Kyoto
Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka are all the most popular places to visit in Japan, and with good reason! They are all incredible diverse cities with so much to offer tourists, even if it’s your 10th time visiting Japan. I would however highly recommend going beyond the beaten path and taking your adventure to a few lesser known spots in Japan.
We spent a week in central Japan in the prefectures of Gifu and Aichi and found it to be one of the most rewarding and culturally stimulating trips we’d ever been on.
Read More: Gifu Travel Guide and Nagoya Travel Guide
43. Wear The Yukata in Hotels
If you stay in Ryokan or a Japanese style hotel, you will likely find robes inside your room called ‘Yukata’. You are supposed to put these robes on to relax and feel more at ease during your time at the hotel. Many hotels even encourage you to wear them throughout the property to areas like the onsen, lobby and even the restaurants for meals.
I LOVED wearing yukata when staying at hotels. It took all the guess work out of what to wear and made it a much more unique and relaxing experience. We even stayed in a spa town where it was totally cool to wear yukata all throughout town!
44. Taxi Doors Are Automatic
Most of the taxis in Japan, especially in Tokyo, have automatic doors that will open and close using a control by the driver. Let the taxi driver operate the door for you, as they don’t like it when their car doors get slammed.
45. Learn The Umbrella Etiquette
It can rain a lot on this island nation, so umbrellas will be available almost everywhere should you need to buy one. However, there is some etiquette around what to do with your wet and soggy umbrella when you come inside.
If there is an umbrella rack outside the establishment, leave your umbrella there. Other places offer a small plastic bag for you to put your wet umbrella in so you can come inside without making a mess.
46. Haneda Is Much Closer Than Narita
If you have the choice to fly into EITHER of Tokyo’s 2 airports, I would personally pick Haneda. It’s much closer to downtown and if you are taking a cruise, Haneda is also much closer to all the most popular cruise ports.
47. Melons Can Easily Be $100
I don’t know about you, but whenever I eat fruit salad I am always picking out the ‘good’ fruit (like strawberries, pineapple and grapes) and avoiding the cantaloupe and honeydew at all costs. Not in Japan! Melons like cantaloupe and honeydew are extremely popular, especially as high-end gifts, and can easily be priced over $100.
Have you been to Japan before? If you have any Japan travel tips or Japanese etiquette advice, please comment them below! ↓
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