10 Essential Japan Travel Tips for First-Time Visitors

japanese geisha girl standing with umbrella in bamboo forest

For first-time visitors to Japan, the country can seem like a foreign land. From its unique culture and language to its delicious cuisine, this island nation is a far cry from home.

To ensure that your trip goes off without a hitch, we’ve put together these 10 Japan travel tips for first-time visitors. We’ll guide you through everything from behaving on trains around the Japanese people to general helpful tips while visiting Japan.

So get ready – it’s time to embark on an unforgettable adventure!

1. Choose the best time of year to visit

Mount Fuji with a cherry blossom tree in the foreground

Japan’s seasons are unique, each offering a distinct palette of experiences. Cherry blossoms bloom in spring while the autumn leaves create a picturesque landscape in the fall. Winter lovers can enjoy snow-capped landscapes and ski resorts.

During the entire time that I lived in Japan, Spring was always my favorite time of year. Nothing quite compares to the sight of cherry blossoms blooming in Kyoto’s Maruyama Park. It’s a sight that imprints itself on your memory forever.

2. Be polite, quiet, and respectful

aboard a quiet train ride

Japanese people highly value respect and harmony. So, while exploring bustling Tokyo or serene countryside villages, remember to maintain a quiet and polite demeanor.

Ever visited the bustling Tokyo Metro during peak hours? It’s packed, yet surprisingly serene. My first experience was surreal; the silence in a crowded subway was a refreshing culture shock.

3. Learn basic Japanese words

customers inside of a Japanese store

A few basic Japanese phrases can go a long way in making your travel smoother and more enjoyable.

During my visit to Osaka, I realized saying “Arigatou” (Thank You) and “Sumimasen” (Excuse Me) worked like a charm. The locals appreciated my attempts to speak their language, and it broke the ice many times.

4. Don’t tip at restaurants

close-up of Japanese food

Unlike many countries, tipping isn’t customary in Japan. Leaving a tip might confuse staff at restaurants and hotels.

When you’re dining in a charming sushi bar in Tokyo or savoring a steaming bowl of ramen in a local eatery in Kyoto, don’t worry about calculating tips. In Japan, good service is expected and is included in the initial price.

This extends beyond the dining table, too – hotel staff, taxi drivers, and tour guides also do not expect tips. In fact, offering a tip might lead to an awkward situation. In Japan, exceptional service is not a bonus, but a standard. So, savor that delightful sushi, and remember to forget the tip!

5. Purchase a Suica or Pasmo card

Suica and Pasmo card
Image source: JapanStation.com

For hassle-free travel across cities, get a Suica or Pasmo card. These prepaid cards work on public transport, vending machines, and even convenience stores.

A Pasmo card was my faithful companion in Tokyo, making my metro travels a breeze. A simple tap and you’re on your way!

6. Exchange your dollars and bring plenty of Yen

close up of Japanese Yen

While Japan is technologically advanced, cash remains the primary mode of transaction. Keep a handy stash of Yen, especially while visiting rural areas or small businesses.

Japan might be the land of futuristic bullet trains and state-of-the-art technology, but when it comes to daily transactions, they still value traditional paper currency. While credit cards are gaining acceptance, particularly in urban centers and tourist areas, it’s not uncommon to find places that only accept cash.

Particularly if you’re venturing off the beaten path into rural areas or shopping in smaller, local businesses, cash in Yen is king. So, remember to exchange your dollars for Yen before you dive deep into the heart of Japan.

7. Travel light – Japan has a lot of tight spaces

a smiling tourist in Japan

Japan’s accommodation and public transport can sometimes be a bit compact. Traveling light makes it easier to navigate through.

From capsule hotels to crowded subways, my travel experiences in Japan have been all the more enjoyable due to my compact backpack.

8. Bring a pocket Wifi

pocket wifi for traveling

Internet accessibility is crucial, especially when you’re navigating through a foreign country. Rent a pocket Wi-Fi for constant connectivity.

Renting a pocket Wi-Fi device can be a true lifesaver for tourists in Japan. It allows you to access Google Maps for directions and use translation apps when language becomes a barrier.

Furthermore, with a pocket Wi-Fi, you’re not at the mercy of the varying availability of Japan’s public Wi-Fi.

9. Learn to bow

bowing in Japan for a sign of respect

Bowing in Japan goes beyond a simple nod of the head. It’s an integral part of Japanese social etiquette, deeply ingrained in their culture.

The type of bow – ranging from a small nod for casual interactions to a deeper, longer bow for more formal situations – communicates the level of respect and acknowledgment being given.

As a traveler, your attempts to master this nuanced cultural practice won’t go unnoticed. The Japanese appreciate foreigners who take the time to understand and respect their customs.

So, on your next interaction, whether it’s thanking your sushi chef or greeting a new acquaintance, remember to show respect the Japanese way – with a bow. It’s not just about bending at the waist, it’s about expressing humility and appreciation in the most quintessentially Japanese way.

10. Take off your shoes

Japanese indoor slippers

Stepping barefoot into a Japanese home, temple, or even certain restaurants is more than just a quirky cultural quirk—it’s a deep-rooted tradition tied to the Japanese value of cleanliness and respect. When you see a raised platform at the entrance, known as the “Genkan”, it’s your cue to shed your shoes and switch to slippers if provided.

Even if you’re a fan of your snazzy sneakers, embracing the barefoot life is a must when in Japan. Beyond cleanliness, this custom is also about marking the boundary between the external world and the inner sanctum, and by honoring it, you show your understanding and respect for the local way of life.

Conclusion

Embarking on a journey to Japan is like stepping into another world, a blend of the ultra-modern and deeply traditional. Remembering these travel tips will ensure you have an enjoyable and immersive experience in this amazing country. Here’s to your memorable Japanese adventure!

See our related travel guides for Japan

About Ronaldo Stewart

Wantigo was born out of a deep passion for exploring new places and experiencing different cultures. With a keen sense of adventure and an insatiable thirst for knowledge, I’ve traveled far and wide, immersing myself in the beauty and wonder of the world.

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