Konichiwa! So you want to go to Japan, huh? Good choice! With its mixture of history and art with technology and modern architecture, Japan is a wonder. But, for you first time, it could be overwhelming, just like any new country. Don’t worry though! I am here with a Japan travel guide to help you know the basics and make your first trip to Japan as worry-free as possible! Also, if you haven’t read my impressions about Japan, check them out!
Getting to Japan
I’ll be honest, probably the most expensive part of your trip will be flying to Japan. It’s not cheap. But, if you’re willing to be flexible, you can snag a good deal. For example, I got my husband’s round-trip flight out of NYC for less than $600. Yes. A third of the cost I paid for my work trip. But, we had to arrange for separate flights to NYC from Syracuse (don’t worry, those are cheap) and he had pretty long layovers in Beijing – 8 and 14 hours. The plus side? He got to do an airport layover tour and visit the Great Wall of China on his way to Japan! For more tips on finding cheap flights, check out my previous post.
Also, if you are traveling domestically within Japan, you can get some pretty cheap flights. I booked mine for less than $100 each directly on ANA airlines website – they offer discount prices for foreign visitors.
While the amount of people who speak English in Japan is increasing, particularly with the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo, not everyone will speak it. Most taxi drivers included. But don’t worry, if you’re in a big city like Tokyo, they are used to visitors. Most people, particularly those in the service industry, know the basics to help you. When all else fails, there’s Google Translate. In any case, all of the signs on public transportation are in both Japanese and English.
To help you out, here are some of the most useful phrases that you will need during your travels. Luckily, Japanese is a very flat language and pronunciation of vowels is consistent. “A” sounds like “ah”, E is “ay”, “I” sounds like “ee”, “O” like “oh”, and “U” like “oo”.
“Konichiwa” – Hello “Sayonara” – Goodbye “Arigatou (gozaimasu)” – Thank you (very much) “Doitashimashite” – You’re welcome “Wakarimasen” – I don’t understand “Hai” – Yes; okay “Nihongo” – Japanese (the language) “Ego” – English (and yes, it sounds like the waffles) “Samimasen” – Excuse me; sorry “Omizu” – Water “Kohi” – Coffee
As of this post (October 2018), 1 US dollar is worth a little more than 100 Japanese Yen. So, it’s easy to think of yen as US cents. Take off the last two digits and that’s about what the cost is in US dollars. Since the exchange rate is a little over 100 yen, you’ll overestimate the price and actually pay a little less.
Most places in Japan accept credit cards, but it’s always a good idea to have some yen in cash. Keep in mind that your wallet or purse may get heavy though. Everything under 1,000 yen is in coin form – that means 500 yen and lower. The coins definitely add up!
Dos and Don’ts in Public
Japanese people are very orderly and keep many things private. For example, it is considered rude to eat in public on the sidewalk. I also haven’t seen anyone eat on a train. So don’t. Be as polite as possible. If you aren’t sure if something is okay to do in public, err on the side of caution and don’t do it. Other things that aren’t allowed – smoking on the sidewalk (another fantastic rule we need to adopt!), excessive public displays of affection.
Eating Out in Japan
Since you’re traveling, chances are you will be eating out at a lot of restaurants! Keep in mind that some restaurants may ask you to take off your shoes and either leave them in a locker near the front door, or put them in a plastic bag. In some places, shoes/slippers are provided for you when needed (i.e. in the bathroom).
When you get to your table, some waitstaff may pull out your chair for you, so follow their lead. If you have a bag or purse with you, place it in the basket under your table or on a spare chair if there is one.
You’ll see a wet washcloth (sometimes in a plastic pouch if it’s disposable) at your place setting. Unfold it and wipe off your hands. (This has to be my favorite tradition and we need to make this a thing in the US!)
When you are ready to pay, ask your waiter/waitress how – some places you pay at your table and others you pay at the main register. Either way, you do not tip the waitstaff. In Japan it is actually considered rude to tip, as if they didn’t do a good enough job. Pay exactly what your bill says.
Shopping in Japan
Japan has quite the shopping culture – particularly in a big city like Tokyo. There are shops everywhere! And like I mentioned before, the train stations are even full of shops – both before and after the ticket gates. Some of the bigger stores are several stories high, with different departments on each level. It can be both overwhelming and confusing. Just be sure to complete your purchase in each department before taking the escalator up or down to the next floor. Some of the major stores carry almost anything you can think of – from electronics and clothing, to liquor and toys. Take the elevators to the top floors and you’ll usually find restaurants to fuel your energy for more shopping!
Japan has SO MUCH amazing food. It’s not just sushi! If you learn nothing else from reading this, it’s that Japanese people don’t just eat sushi! Oh. My. Goodness. I wish people would realize this. Some of my favorites? Keep reading.
Fried pork or chicken breaded in flaky breadcrumbs. Super yummy, and friendly to those less-adventurous diners.
Yes, you’ve heard of this before. But it’s nothing like those ten-cent noodles you buy in bulk at your grocery store. True Japanese ramen is fresh and delicious. Ramen restaurants offer quite a variety of options, but vegetarians beware. Ramen broth is usually made with pork, so check with the waitstaff if you need a veggie option. Another cool thing about ramen? Many ramen restaurants use ‘vending machines’ to place your orders. You walk up to the machine, put in your money, and then push the buttons for each item you want. The machine will spit out your tickets and you’ll give them to the waiter/waitress. Cool!
Another somewhat popularized dish in the US, tempura in Japan is even better. Veggies and meats battered and deep-fried – somehow without being heavy or filling. Yum!
My favorite! Shabu shabu is also known as “hotpot” and is similar to what you might find in a fondue-type restaurant. But so. much. better. In a shabu shabu restaurant you order the type of broth you want to cook in (or more than one) and trays of food that you want to cook. Vegetables are popular, particularly leafy lettuce, mushrooms, and bean sprouts. Very thinly sliced pork is the most common meat to cook. Basically, you get the raw food delivered to your table on a tray and you use the extra-long chopsticks to cook them in the broth. Everything cooks fairly quickly, so then you move it to your own plate and enjoy! On my last night in Tokyo, I went to this shabu shabu restaurant where we prepaid for our table for an hour and a half. Included were two broths and endless trays of meat and veggies off of a set menu. We just had to finish before our time was up! It was so much food but so darn delicious!
“Cool Japan” Restaurants
In addition to the amazing food, tourists in Japan are often treated to entertainment while they dine! These restaurants cater specifically to foreigners, and can be on the pricier side ,but they are such a fun experience. If you’re looking online for things to do in Japan, you’ll see ‘robot restaurant’ come up a lot! And several Japanese people recommended it to me as well. They have all sorts of themed restaurants, but the one that I went to (and LOVED) was Ninja Akasaka – a ninja themed restaurant! Read more about it here!
Getting Around Japan
There are so many options! But trains are going to be your best bet. Keep reading to find out more.
Possible, can be a bit expensive if you are going during peak time or more than a few kilometers. Most drivers do not speak English, so be ready to have the address on your phone. Also, always enter and exit the taxi on the left side of the car. Most taxi drivers can automatically open the door for you as well, so follow their lead.
You can pre-book a taxi in Japan through the app JapanTaxi. While you will have to pay a small booking fee for the service, you can have the taxi pick you up if you’re in a more remote location – and you can pay right on the app!
Not very common, and at least twice as expensive as a taxi. Currently there is only Uber Black, so not your best option.
There are several different types of trains in Japan. In Tokyo there is the metro, the JR line, Keikyu, and Shinkansen (bullet train). The metro and JR will get you to most places you’ll need to go. You can buy an IC card and reload it so you only need to tap in to get in and out of each station, but it’s also just as easy to buy tickets – up to you.
The ticket machines are outside every entrance, and have an option to change to English. Check the metro map above the machine, look for the station you want to go to, and find the price. Then, on the machine, choose “purchase single ticket” and choose the cost that matches your station. Put in your card or cash and you’ll get a ticket. (Don’t lose it! It’s tiny). At the entrance gates to the station, choose a lane that has a ticket slot and put your ticket in. It’ll get punched and spit back out to you – take it with you! When you get to your final destination, you’ll put the ticket in the slot to get out. This time you don’t get it back. If you purchased a ticket for the wrong amount (or changed your final destination), the ticket will spit back out and it will say “fare adjustment”. Next to the gates you will find a machine to adjust your fare and pay the difference.
When all else fails, walk! You’ll get to explore the various Japanese neighborhoods. If you’re in Tokyo, that means you can see the different culture and style of each district. Well worth a visit. But, your feet will get tired eventually. Have a back-up plan.
One more thing to remember about transportation – it is opposite from the US; people walk and drive on the left side of the road/sidewalk.
Where to Stay in Japan
One of the priciest parts of your trip to Japan will be on your accommodation. Definitely do your research before booking any hotels, hostels, or Airbnb. If you’re lucky, you can find a good deal on Expedia. A few things to keep in mind: space is in high demand in big cities like Tokyo, so don’t expect a huge room – particularly if you’re in the heart of the city. Also, try to check what the nearest train station is – this will be very useful when you’re trying to get around. You’ll be able to save more money the further outside the city-center you are.
I hope you’ve learned some helpful tips for your upcoming trip to Japan. It’s such an amazing country, I know you’ll enjoy it! Have you been to Japan? Do you have any advice to add? Let me know in the comments!