Last Updated on 18th August 2023 by Sophie Nadeau
Japan is a beautiful country where old meets new and tradition meets cutting-edge modernity. A country set across a set of islands (the main ones being Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu), here are the top Japan travel tips you need to know before visiting…
Even before setting foot in Japan, I knew that it would end up being one of my favourite ever travel destinations (and it’s in my top three along with France and Italy). After all, the country is known for its rich culture; including beautiful Temples, fantastic food, and amazing organisation.
Here are some of the things I wish I had known before visiting Japan especially because being respectful and polite is such a big part of the society and culture and you’re a guest in someone else’s country!
Japan travel tips
Always carry cash
If there’s one thing that you need to know before visiting japan, it’s that cash is king. Despite the modernity of much of the country, you’ll find that many bars, restaurants, and even tourist attractions only accept cash.
The currency is the Japanese yen and the best place to withdraw cash is at ATMs located within 7-eleven shops which can be found all over the country.
English isn’t as widely spoken as you would think
While it’s always polite to learn a few words of the local language wherever you’re travelling (sorry, please, thank you, and excuse me are a great place to start), what surprised me the most during our trip to Japan was how few people spoke English.
This included at a number of tourist hotels we visited and major attractions. I would highly recommend taking out a data plan to help you translate things into English (the photo translation tool on Google is surprisingly good), which is especially useful when you’re ordering food in a restaurant.
Get a local sim card
One of my top tips before visiting Japan would be to take out a sim card. We personally downloaded an app called Airalo and used the eSim feature on one of our phones (check if your phone is compatible) to use data while we were in Japan.
Having access to data was priceless as we could use Google maps as much as we wanted and easily order from menus. It was also of great use when we weren’t quite sure what an ingredient was and wanted to check what we were ordering!
As a vegetarian, I also loved that we could check out where the closest 7-eleven or Starbucks was as I found that these were the best options for finding snacks that were meat and fish free.
Check out how to get from the airport to your first hotel before you leave home
If you’re travelling to Japan from Europe, then you’re in for a 12+ hour flight (from London, the flight to Tokyo took over 14 hours). As such, the last thing you want to do upon arrival and going through passport control is checking how to get to your hotel.
Be sure to check out transportation options before you leave your home so that you know the route in advance. If you’re flying into one of Tokyo’s airports, then there are a number of easy to use transportation links to reach Tokyo itself.
Don’t eat while walking
If you’re in a rush to go somewhere, then you should note that it’s considered rude to eat while walking. As a general rule of thumb, you should be sure to find a quiet bench where you can sit and eat your snacks without disturbing anyone. The exception to this is street snacks and eating at a festival.
Don’t smoke outside in Japan
If you’re a smoker, then you should note that, for the most part, you’re not allowed to smoke in the street. Instead, most public spaces have a designated room where you can queue up to smoke (use Google maps to locate these).
If you’re caught smoking in a non-designated area, then you can face a pretty big fine. With this being said, almost all metro stations have their own smoking room and many pubs/ bars allow indoor smoking (though you should always check first).
Public transportation is the best way to get around
If it’s your first time in Japan, then chances are that you’ll be spending the majority of your time visiting the big cities like Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo, and Hiroshima. The easiest and most convenient way to get around is by public transportation.
While the metro in Tokyo can be a little tricky to navigate to start off with, as a general rule public transportation is fast, easy, safe, and reliable. In fact, we were shocked to see when a bullet train we were taking was listed as ‘severely delayed’ and the delay was just five minutes!
Buy the Japan Rail pass before you leave
If you’ve read anything about visiting Japan as a tourist, then no doubt you’ve heard of the Japan Rail pass. This pass is great value for money if you’re planning on visiting a number of cities in a short time as it will allow you unlimited rail travel (note that there are exceptions to the kinds of trains you can use) for one or more weeks.
With this being said, the easiest way to get this great deal (though do count up the number of trips you’re planning to take and see how much the journeys would have been individually to check that the pass is right for you) is by buying your pass one to three months before you travel. Find out more about the Japan rail pass here.
Buy travel insurance
Japan has some of the best healthcare in the world, but if you’re not a resident then this can come at a high cost. As it’s impossible to predict every scenario, I personally recommend never travelling abroad from your home country without travel insurance.
The best time to visit Japan is in the spring or fall
In terms of weather and the sheer beauty of the nature in Japan, the best time to visit is in spring (when you can enjoy sakura- cherry blossoms) or in the fall (when you can enjoy koyo- the falling leaves).
As you can imagine, visiting at one of these times is the most popular time to go and therefore the most expensive. However, seeing the blooming cherry blossoms or fall leaves is a once in a lifetime experience that you’ll never forget and so is, in my opinion, more than worth the extra price tag.
Tipping isn’t the norm
Don’t tip while in Japan. It’s not really part of the culture and will not be expected. If you do try and tip, an awkward situation will probably ensue as the person will try and return your money to you. You have already paid for service as part of the dinner/ drinks that you’ve ordered.
There are numerous places where you’ll have to take off your shoes
Whether you’re visiting someone’s home, a historic castle, or a temple, there are many situations in which you’ll have to take off your shoes. As a result, I recommend always wearing socks under your shoes. If you’re wearing sandals, then be sure to bring a spare pair of socks in your bag.
Carry your passport at all times
It’s actually the law to have an official ID on you at all times in Japan and so you should always carry your passport with you. It’s also pretty useful to have your passport with yos anyway as many stores offer tax-free shopping to visitors (including Uniqlo).
Don’t blow your nose in public
It’s actually seen as really rude to blow your nose in public, especially in enclosed public spaces such as in the metro. Instead, people sniff and you’ll notice this more and more while you’re travelling through the country.
Stand on the left on escalators
When taking the escalator in Japan (which you’ll do plenty in malls, the metro, etc) always stand on the left. The only exception to this is in Osaka, where people stand on the right.
It’s not really typical or customary to walk on the escalator either, and so most people stand on the left and wait for the escalators to take them to the top.
Don’t hand someone cash directly
Even though you’ll often be paying cash, it is not seen as polite to directly hand someone cash. Instead, there will be a little tray where you can put your cash and the cashier will take this and put your change on the tray.
You can then collect your change from the tray. Whenever you are handing something (like the tray or a business card) to someone, then you should be sure to do this with both hands, placing your thumbs on top and bowing a little.
For the most part, you should cover up tattoos when out in public. This is especially important when visiting hotel pools, public baths, and onsens. Some hotels will provide cover up patches for tattoos and others will not allow you to use their facilities at all so do check in advance of your booking.
Using the toilet
If there’s one thing you’ve probably heard of about Japan, it’s the amazing futuristic toilets that are pretty high tech. While almost all toilets have basic functions like bidets, heated seats, and privacy music, some have even more options like lighting.
You should note that, even in restaurants, hand soap and towels are not widely available. as a result, wherever you’re travelling in Japan you’ll want to carry hand sanitiser and tissue on you.
Vending machines are everywhere
Of all the Japan travel tips I could give you, one of the best things to know is that there are vending machines pretty much everywhere- there was even one close to the top of the mountain on Miyajima Island, next to the entrance for the top cable car.
One of the things that surprised me the most was that most vending machines are for drinks and there aren’t a huge number of ones selling food. There are also vending machines selling novelty items, including a Pikachu vending machine at Haneda airport.
There aren’t very many bins/ trash cans
One of the more surprising things to note is that there aren’t many places to throw away your garbage (apart from recycling bins right next to almost every vending machine).
It’s generally expected that you’ll carry your trash around with you and then throw it away at your accommodation. In order to not get your rubbish everywhere, I recommend carrying around a little zip-loc bag to put all of your garbage in!
Book restaurants in advance
At a number of popular spots, the best way to secure a table is to book ahead of time, often a few days in advance of your preferred slot. Luckily, many restaurants have online reservation systems and so you can often use Google to help you book a spot.
The one thing you should never do is put your chopsticks facing up in a bowl. This is reminiscent of funerary rites and is seen as offensive. Instead, you should use the chopstick rest provided to put down your chopsticks. You should also never use chopsticks to spear your food.
Convenience stores are great
Whether you’re looking for a quick snack, an easy dinner (like instant ramen) or something to drink, convenience stores are located all over Japan and truly are convenient! Even in smaller towns and villages there’s often at least one or two convenience shops.
Stay in a ryokan
If you want to have the experience of staying in a traditional Japanese lodging, be sure to book at least one night in a ryokan. These traditional Japanese guesthouses see guests sleeping on rolled up tatami mats on the floor.
Save room in your suitcase for shopping/ souvenirs
Japan is honestly one of the best places in the world to go shopping. As well as picking up the usual souvenirs like a Nintendo Switch or Manga related merchandise, there’s all sorts of cool things to buy. My husband even picked up a Japanese whisky to bring home for my dad!
It’s really safe
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. From riding the metro to a lack of pickpockets (though there are still a few out there, it’s pretty rare), travelling through the country is really safe.
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Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, travel, pizza, and history. A fan of all things France related, she runs solosophie.com when she’s not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming something sweet. She lives in London but travels as much as she can. Subscribe to Sophie’s YouTube Channel.