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30 things to know before traveling to Japan

By Emiko _

Updated: 22 December 2019

Visiting Japan only once in your life will simply not be enough. With so much to do and see, we’re hoping that our ‘top thirty’ list will help you navigate this exhilarating East Asian country. 

Offering the perfect blend of culture, history, modern comforts and a food scene to top all, Japan has something in store at every turn and if there’s one thing this country specializes in; it's the ability to keep the surprises coming. 

General information

Content page entry image General information

1. Japan is a safe country

Japan is safe in general. You’ll often find people leaving their bags and belongings on the tables in cafes and restaurants. 

We suggest just taking a little extra care in the red light districts, such as Kabukicho, Juso and Susukino, as some bars in these areas tend to overcharge and conceal some opportunistic individuals touting their wares. However, apart from those areas, it’s very safe in Japan. 

2. It is an extremely clean country

Japanese people pride themselves in a country that is clean and orderly. You won’t find any trash on the streets and you’ll soon discover, there are also hardly any trash cans around either. Most Japanese people carry their trash with them until they find somewhere suitable to throw it away, even if that means taking it home with them. If you’re needing a trash can, be sure to look out for convenience stores as they tend to house a bin inside for your items of disposal.

3. Public wifi is not always free

Public wifi is not always free in Japan, so it may be useful to rent a ‘pocket wifi’ as you arrive at the airport. You can also order it online in advance and get the tiny modem delivered to your hotel and then post it back as a return. Easy Peasy!

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4. If you are a smoker, beware... you can’t smoke everywhere

Content page entry image 4. If you are a smoker, beware... you can’t smoke everywhere

In the main urban cities, such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, smoking on the street is forbidden in certain areas. Keep your eyes peeled for a smoking area, generally near the station, or head to the closest coffee shop, where there are normally two booths divided between smokers and non smokers. It’s not all bad news for smokers visiting Japan though, as the tobacco is not very expensive and some izakayas (bars) and restaurants will allow you to happily puff away. 

5. Learning a few words in Japanese is useful

Even though most Japanese people can speak a bit of English, they can also be a little shy. Knowing a few local greeting words can be really useful to kickstart conversations, learn some insider tips or understand the always-necessary directions when lost. 

The basics will help you get by! Here are a few phrases to get you started.

Arigatou - Thank you

Sumimasen - Excuse me, or sorry

Daijobu - All right

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6. Climate

Content page entry image 6. Climate

Just remember Japan is spread over both the North and South and there's a huge difference in the climate geographically, especially taking the mountainous areas into consideration. We suggest doing your homework before you go, to check the climates of the cities you plan to visit. As humidity is also a factor here, you will find public transport and stores usually turn down the temperature with air conditioning, so if you’re out adventuring for a day, pack an extra layer just in case. 

Restaurants, Izakaya

Content page entry image Restaurants, Izakaya

7. Get used to tech. Ordering via a tablet is really common

It’s really common to have gadgets replace traditional menus in Japan, so look out for the ordering bell button or a tablet on your table. You’ll often need to use a tablet to order your food and drinks. When you go to the bathroom, you might not find ordinary flush levers and instead find several buttons attached to the wall. Be on the lookout for vending machines, scattered everywhere for your convenience and those essential daily purchases. Not all accept cash though so keep that travel IC card handy!

8. There is no tip system in Japan

This one’s a biggie... there is NO tip system in Japan, so for taxis, restaurants, bars, hotel porters, anywhere and everywhere in Japan - you don’t need to tip. It's not considered rude, it's just not part of how things work and typically tends to cause confusion when you do try to tip. The great news is that you’re guaranteed great customer service, even without tipping, all over this beautiful country. 

9. When you go to an Izakaya (bar), expect a table charge

Content page entry image 9. When you go to an Izakaya (bar), expect a table charge

As mentioned, there is no tip system in Japan, however there are table charge systems at most of the izakayas or bars. They serve little ‘welcome’ nibbles called “Otoshi” as part of this charge. If you don’t want them, you can try to negotiate, but it will depend on the place. Find out what you’ll be nibbling on by asking the waiter what the “otoshi” is and if you’d prefer to skip it, simply say, “ Otoushi katto dekimasuka?” (Can you cut the table charge, please.) 

10. 'Nomihoudai, Tabehoudai' System(all-you-can-drink, all you-can-eat system)

If you love drinking and eating then you’ll need to learn these two words, and fast.

This is really common in Japanese chain izakayas and karaoke places, where there’s a fixed price for ‘all you can eat and drink’ over a certain time period. If you arrive more than a little thirsty and hungry - it’s definitely worth it but beware of the sake, it has a way of creeping up on you ;)

11. If you are vegan, you may struggle to find places to eat, as they often use fish stock in their vegetarian dishes

Content page entry image 11. If you are vegan, you may struggle to find places to eat, as they often use fish stock in their vegetarian dishes

If you are a very strict vegetarian or follow a vegan diet, we’ll be honest and say Japan will be tricky food-wise for you. Although many local dishes do not contain meat, they do use fish stock a lot and sometimes even in vegetarian dishes and hidden in sauces. So if you are vegan, take some time to research vegan-friendly restaurants suitable for you.

12. Try Japanese fast food 

Your image of “fast food” will be forever changed once your taste buds arrive in Japan. Forget the ‘golden gates signs’; Ramen, for example, is actually classified as ‘fast food’ in Japan and there are many other types of delicious fast food restaurants, serving Gyudon (Rice with beef and onions simmered in a sweet sauce), Tendon (Rice topped with Tempura) and Kaiten Sushi (conveyor sushi chain restaurant) In short, there are countless options for cheap and ‘fast’ but really delicious dishes minus any of the usual junk food connotation. 

Culture

Content page entry image Culture

13. Expect to take off your shoes 

In Japan, there’s a tradition of removing your shoes before entering a home. Normally you’ll find a shoe box at the entrance or front door, where you will be required to take your shoes off to enter the house. This extends to temples or shrines, select hotels and even some izakayas as a sign of respect.

14. Tattoos are not as taboo as people think, however you may find certain places that do not allow them

Tattoos are traditionally taboo in Japan, but this usually only extends to locals and not to foreigners. It shouldn't affect your travels too much, but there are a few traditional places such as ryokan, public spas, some onsen and pools where you may have to check beforehand. This is due to the historical background of tattoos (irezumi) in Japan being linked to negative and symbolic icons or members of illegal organizations.

15. Chopstick etiquette

Content page entry image 15. Chopstick etiquette

You may struggle to use chopsticks and that’s totally fine. You can easily switch sticks for western cutlery at most places, so just ask! If you are using chopsticks, then try keep these tips  in mind as a way to showcase your table manners. 

Firstly, please do not leave your chopsticks standing upright in the middle of the rice bowl. This is reminiscent of Japanese funerals where family members place their chopsticks this way, but is a sign of bad luck at any other occasion. Chopsticks are pronounced “Hashi” which is the same pronunciation as bridge, in funerals chopsticks are symbolized as the “world after death and the bridge between the two worlds.

Also try and avoid passing food from one chopstick to another. This also has connotations of death and funeral customs.

16. Bowing

Content page entry image 16. Bowing

Instead of shaking hands, or saying ‘hi’ or ‘thank you’, Japanese people often bow as a greeting substitute. Bowing is called “Ojigi”- a Japanese custom to show your respect to others. 

When you arrive at a restaurant, they bow and welcome you with “Irasshai mase” and when you leave, they bow and wish you well with “Arigatou gozaimasu”.

17. Be prepared to share - Onsen or public baths

It's a great, unique experience to stay at a traditional ryokan instead of a hotel.

Expect tatami mat floors and futons, for something completely different from the usual run of the mill hotel experience. However Ryokan usually have a big onsen or communal bath that is shared with others. This is normal...so just relax and enjoy.

If this is really not something you are not comfortable with, you can reserve a room with a private bath. (This can be expensive though, so please check first)

Trains

Content page entry image Trains

18. Be careful when you take a train during rush hour in Japan

If you are going to a city with a very high population density in Japan, such as Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka, we suggest you try avoid the trains during the morning and evening rush hours.

Also, if you’re carrying a massive suitcase or backpack, or are traveling with children and buggy travelers, you’re probably going to struggle to get on the train during these times too. It’s seriously busy between 7am to 9am! Try to avoid the unnecessary hustle and extra stress and rather enjoy a slight morning lie in.

19. Trains/metros are not 24 hours

The trains and metros of Japan are always clean and on time. Especially bullet trains, which operate down to the minute. However they don’t operate on a full 24 hour cycle so it’s always better to check the last train time if you are attempting to go for a late night out.

20. Remember your mobile phone manners

Japanese people tend to speak relatively quietly in public. With so many people on the trains, especially during peak times, you’ll still find it to be so quiet on the trains and those visiting for the first time, may find this quite strange. You’ll also note people don’t talk on their phones on the train and instead turn them to mute mode, in order to not disturb others. 

21. Japan Rail Pass holders, may not be able to get every train. Best to check before

Content page entry image 21. Japan Rail Pass holders, may not be able to get every train. Best to check before

If you have a Japan Rail Pass and are trying to travel by bullet trains, it’s better to check which trains you’re able to take before-hand. There may be certain trains, such as ‘Nozomi’ (one of the fastest ones) that you aren't able to take and also where you may need to book a seat pre-departure.

Allow yourself some extra time at the platform and know your train times by checking before-hand to avoid any stress or confusion. 

22. Female-only train carriages exist in some cities for certain hours in the morning

Like any other highly-populous country, there can be some harassing of female passengers during peak times. As safety is such a high priority for Japan, they’ve cleverly countered this by creating women-only carriages over ‘rush hour’ peak times.

23. Bullet train luggage reservation *New*

Content page entry image 23. Bullet train luggage reservation *New*

The Bullet train systems are in the process of changing at the moment, currently if you carry your big suitcase, you can actually take it in the bullet trains for free and there’s no need to pre-book. However, regulations are changing due to the increase in tourist numbers in Japan.

Bags on these lines will now be split into three categories, depending on their external dimensions (height x width x depth):

Bags with external dimensions adding up to less than 160cm are allowed on the train and nothing changes here, though you’ll be expected to put it on the shelf above your seat. (Luggage this size is about the same as an airline carry-on bag) 

If you carry a massive suitcase, between 160cm to 250cm, you’ll need a special seat reservation from May 2020 onwards.This costs the same as a normal seat reservation (and is covered under your JR Pass). If you bring a bag this size on the train without reserving in advance, you’ll need to pay 1,000 JPY.

24. Public transport is always on time and without delay in Japan, however it can be the most expensive rail network

If you’re traveling to several cities and are planning to be in Japan for one or two weeks, we’d definitely suggest purchasing a JR pass as the easiest way to get around. However, if you’re staying in just one city or region, the regional passes or a ‘one day city pass

Cash, ATM, Payments

Content page entry image Cash, ATM, Payments

25. ATM’s and where to find them

You’ll be able to find both 24 hour convenience stores and ATMs all over Japan. On occasion, overseas cards may prove tricky with certain ATMs so best to check with your bank before you arrive. We recommend using the ATMs at the ‘7Eleven’ convenience stores as they tend to accept foreign cards with no problems.

26. Carry some cash!

Some places are ‘cash only’, especially small shops and certain restaurants so it’s useful to carry some cash with you, even if it’s just a small amount. 

27. Get yourself an IC card

IC cards are the rechargeable cards that are used to pay for fares whilst using Japan’s public transport. The IC card also allows you to buy things in convenience stores and vending machines, making it super useful during your travels. Depending on the area you’re visiting, it may also be known as other card names so look out for ‘Suica’, ‘Pasmo’, and ‘pitapa’ cards.

Others

Content page entry image Others

28. The ‘100 Yen Shop’ is begging for a visit!

Japan is known to be on the expensive side but not when you go to the ‘100 yen’ shop! You won’t believe the variety of things available for just one coin. From sushi magnets, toys, chopsticks and every small good under the sun- this place is perfect for using up your holiday spare change.  

29. Use the Takkyubin service

No one wants to lug their bags around any city and Japan is no exception. Use the lockers dotted all over the city and in stations as a super-handy storage solution. Be warned though, during busy seasons and big events, these may be all occupied. 

30. Don't be surprised when you see people wearing surgical masks

This is pretty common in Japan, especially during hay fever period. Don’t be alarmed, this is very normal here and is because locals are not wanting to pass on their germs or are just avoiding pollen.