There are many things I wish I had known before traveling to Japan for the first time! That’s why, in this article, I want to share some Japan travel tips with you to help you avoid making the same mistakes that I did.
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Japan in General
1. Get used to the new time zone
Whether you are traveling to Japan from the Americas or Europe, the time difference and the associated jetlag shouldn’t be underestimated. For less severe jetlag, the best thing you can do is sleep on the plane. If you’re like me, however, you won’t be able to close your eyes and get a restful sleep. You can still prevent severe jetlag by making sure you’re well hydrated. So even if you’re not thirsty: drink water! Keep in mind that the time difference between the Eastern United States and Japan is 13 hours. That’s not to be compared with a flight to Europe, where you only have a 6-hour difference.
Since the jetlag will hit you sooner or later, I’d advise you against planning too much for arrival day or even making reservations. Take it easy on the first day and make sure you adjust.
2. Know your money’s worth
The easiest way to convert currency is to remember that ¥1,000 equals around 90 dollar cents, so you can divide the price in yen by 100 to get a rough estimate. An error in your calculation, however, can substantially change the price. In order to avoid heavy mistakes, I recommend downloading the money conversion app, XE Currency App (for more useful apps see below). It’s simple to use and may save you some trouble in the future. Generally, though, prices in Japan are comparable with those in the United States. Here are some examples of what you might spend on certain items and services:
- bottle of water = $1 (¥100)
- dinner at a restaurant = $10-20 (¥1,000-2,000)
- single subway ride = $1.60-1.90 (¥170-310)
3. Electricity and plugs
The good news for Americans is that you won’t need a special adapter for your electronic devices in Japan. You can use your regular plug since it perfectly fits into the outlets. The only difference is the voltage. While Europe enjoys 230V, the United States uses 120V and Japan 100V. You may find your electronic devices charge slightly slower than what you’re used to.
If you are not using socket types A/B like in the United States, you will need a power converter.
4. Plan for major Japanese holidays
This Japan tip actually applies to all trips, regardless of the destination. One of the most common traveler errors is not being aware of important holidays that are celebrated during their stay, so I recommend having a general idea of holidays that take place. It’s best to take a look at the official Japan Tourism website.
5. Do you need a visa to travel to Japan?
Whether you need a visa and what type of visa to travel to Japan depends on your country of origin. Most of you are entitled to a 90-day visa-free stay in Japan:
- 90 days: Visitors from most countries are granted a 90-day visa-free stay entry upon arrival. These countries include the United States, New Zealand, Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, Canada, Australia, Spain, Singapore, Korea, and France.
- up to 180 days: Other countries, like Austria, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Switzerland, and the UK have also issued a 90-day visa-free stay upon arrival with the difference that they can extend their stay by another 90 days after they have entered Japan.
There are other countries, like Thailand, that only receive a 15-day visitor visa. Regardless of your citizenship, always check the official website of your embassy before you travel as visa regulations may change. You can find the US embassy in Japan here.
Two important travel tips for your trip to Japan:
- Your passport must be valid for the entire duration of your trip
- No matter where you are coming from and how long you are intending to stay, it’s always best to have proof of onward travel
6. Travel with insurance
Never travel abroad without travel insurance. It’s pretty inexpensive and can save you a lot of money and trouble in the case of sickness, an accident, or other emergencies.
Just in case, have these Japanese emergency numbers into your phone:
119 – fire and ambulance
110 – police
⚠️ Don’t be afraid or hesitate to dial any of those numbers in case of an emergency. The police service is available in English!
7. International Driving Permit (IDP)
Before you rent a car or plan on driving real-life Mario Kart in Tokyo, remember that the Japanese drive on the left side of the road! It surely takes some time getting used to it. Driving on the left side of the road isn’t all too complicated once you get the hang of it though. What I find more challenging is sitting on the right side of the car, which makes it hard to estimate the space between the car and the right side of the road at first.
If you plan to drive in Japan, you cannot drive with just a foreign license. That would be illegal! You need an IDP – an international driving permit. Luckily, it’s extremely easy to get one. You can head to the nearest AAA and let them issue it for you there on the spot. The permit is valid for one year.
Download and fill out the form before you go there. It saves you time.
Having the IDP application form with you saves you even more time. You can simply download it online and print it at home. With the filled-out form and two passport-style photos in your hands, the issuance of your IDP to drive in Japan will then only take a few minutes. In Japan, be sure to carry the IDP with your driver’s license, as it is only valid when presented together.
8. Safety in Japan
Before you travel anywhere, you probably ask yourself whether your destination is safe. Accordingly, many travelers ask whether Japan is safe. The answer to this is very simple: yes. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world and you don’t have to worry about crimes. They are extremely uncommon. The U.S. Department of State recommends to “exercise normal precautions”, but you should always doublecheck for the newest information on the Japan Travel Advisory before you embark on your journey.
From my experience, I can say that I never felt unsafe in Japan. The truth is even if you lost your phone in the subway, chances are it will still be there when you come back the next day. Japanese are very respect-driven and it would be extremely out of character to commit crimes. Nevertheless, you are not only surrounded by locals but also by fellow travelers, which is why a basic level of precautions is always recommended.
9. Don’t underestimate the language barrier
Japan is probably not your first overseas destination, so you’ve already experienced communications in foreign countries. Japan, however, will probably differ from your prior experiences. While you can get by fine speaking English in other parts of the world, you will find Japan to be more challenging in terms of communicating. This is not meant to encourage you but rather to help you prepare. From my experience, Japanese locals will do anything they are capable of to help you despite the language barrier.
That’s also why you see many restaurants with fake displays of food. True local stores, however, don’t typically use displays nor do they have English menus. We learned it the hard way during our first stop in Osaka when we went into a little restaurant. Only after sitting down, we noticed they did not have an English menu. It would have been rude to get back up leave so we handled the situation by basically playing charades with the server. We honestly had no idea what we were getting, but it turned out to be a great meal and most of all, one of the most memorable experiences we’ve had during our first Japan trip.
To save yourself some trouble, here are some Japan travel tips that will help to communicate in Japan. Whoever feels nervous about the language barrier in Japan, should consider:
- learning key phrases in Japanese
- having a cheat sheet with you
- downloading a visual translations app
10. Do not tip, ever!
Not to tip is one of the most important Japan tips! The tipping culture is different all over the world with two extremes being the United States and Japan – each one on either side of the spectrum. Japan stands in total contrast to the United States, where it is more or less mandatory to tip a server. In Japan, on the other hand, it is considered extremely rude to tip. Your tip would be denied and everyone will feel uncomfortable.
11. Cash is king
The importance of cash in Japan is something I learned the hard way. Needless to say, that’s one of the top things I wish I had known before traveling to Japan. So having cash on you is one of my most important Japan travel tips for you. Considering that Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries, it comes to a surprise for most that a lot of stores don’t accept credit cards. That includes little local shops, but also larger restaurants. If you don’t carry any cash, it can be a pain to look for stores that take a credit card. That’s what happened to us in a suburb of Kyoto when we were looking to buy water without cash. It was the summer and we couldn’t have been thirstier! It felt like forever until we finally found a convenient store. Please do not repeat my mistake!
12. Always follow the rules and show respect
The Japanese have a strong sense of order. That’s only one of the reasons many find them so efficient. You will quickly get to experience it upon arriving in Japan. Let’s take staircases as an example. There are arrows painted on the staircase indicating which side is dedicated to going up and which side is dedicated to going down. People actually do follow these arrows, so be sure to follow them too. You’ll also find similar markings on train platforms. When waiting for a train, you’ll know exactly where to line up before embarking. Say goodbye to shoving into crowded trains.
Another cultural difference I quickly noticed was the silence in public. In Japan, it’s disrespectful to be noisy. You’ll see most people quietly looking onto their phones on the subway. Respect the culture and keep the noise to a minimum.
13. Tattoo = taboo
Tattoos are still a real taboo in Japan. This can be particularly inconvenient when wanting to go bathe in one of the Japanese baths (onsen). You are guaranteed to encounter problems if you don’t cover your tattoos, and a large visible tattoo may prevent you from even being admitted. In Japan, tattoos are associated with gangs and violence. While they will get you into trouble in traditional places, you don’t have to worry about them too much on the streets. The Japanese have gotten used to tourists having tattoos. Yet, the fact that tattoos are looked down upon can be a useful thing to know before traveling to Japan.
14. Drinking tap water is safe
“I’ll just have tap water, please” – me, always.
When traveling abroad, always check if the tap water is drinkable! In Japan, you can drink tap water without hesitation. At restaurants in Japan, you typically get free glasses of water before you even place your order.
15. Always check to take off your shoes
Another pitfall most travelers stumble upon in Japan is keeping on their shoes when entering places. In many instances, it is rude to leave your shoes on.
Always be sure to check or even ask if shoes need to be taken off before entering. Most of the time, you will already see shoe shelves in front of a building. This is how you know to take off your shoes. If you are not sure, always ask first. It’s best to ask rather than keep your shoes on and break cultural rules. Keeping your shoes on is one of the worst things you can do in Japan.
16. Japanese toilets are a life-changing experience
I never thought I’d be writing about toilets, but here I am! Japanese toilets are not just toilets; they are high-tech toilets, unlike anything you have seen.
These “washlets” (as they are referred to) are equipped with an extensive control panel that makes you forget why you can there in the first place. The scope of functions equals those of a Smart TV, with symbols indicating functions that regulate water pressure, music, scents, temperature, and many other things. You’re in control of it all! These Japanese smart toilets provide the highest level of comfort and privacy.
It may seem ridiculous to you to read about them now, but just wait until you’ve tried them! The realization hit me hardest when we found ourselves in the subway system. I opened the door to what seemed more than a 4-star hotel bathroom rather than a subway bathroom. At this point, I’d like to make a shoutout to anyone who’s used a toilet at New York’s Penn Station. You deserve better!
Compared to these modern toilets, you will have a very different experience when traveling to more rural areas of the country. You’ll likely be facing the exact opposite: old-fashioned squat-toilets.
17. Brush up your chopsticks skills
How good are your chopstick skills right now? You may want to brush them up a little before traveling to Japan as many local restaurants will not provide forks and knives. If you don’t consider yourself very skilled with chopsticks, don’t worry, by the end of the trip, you’ll be an expert!
18. Good luck finding trash cans
Japan is notorious for being clean. It doesn’t matter where you are – subway, inside restaurants, or out on the streets. Japan is cleanliness goes so far that you will have trouble finding trash cans. Believe me when I say there aren’t many. I’d be walking around forever with trash looking for a place to dispose of it. That’s why it’s always good to have pockets or a backpack in which you can temporarily store your trash until you find the next trash can.
Getting Around in Japan
19. Get Pocket WiFi (or a SIM card)
Staying connected makes everything much easier, especially when you’re out in a foreign country. I found internet access crucial to get by in Japan. Internet access was extremely helpful for finding addresses because it’s so easy to get lost in Japan’s streets.
Another reason why I wouldn’t travel without pocket WiFi (or local SIM card) is my need for certain apps to translate or convert currency.
20. Book your attractions in advance
Tokyo is the most populous city in the world and records show that tourism is increasing. What you should know before traveling to Japan is that tickets to some popular attractions are limited, so booking your tickets in advance is the right thing to do. It’d be sad to miss out on a fun experience because you didn’t know to book beforehand. Booking in advance and online guarantees your admission and ensures a hassle-free time when you get there. That being said, you don’t have to book everything months in advance. Sometimes a few weeks or even a couple of days should be enough time.
Here’s a rough timeline of the best times to book tickets:
- > 1 month: flights and hotel
- > 2 weeks: main attractions
- > 10 days: other attractions
- > 7 days: JR Pass
- > 5 days: helicopter flights
21. Check whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it
Are you coming to Japan for a city trip or are you also planning to explore more of the country? If you are traveling to more than one city in Japan, chances are that a Japan Rail Pass may be worth the purchase to save money on your trip.
22. Note that the subway doesn’t run 24/7
Unlike other major cities around the world, the subway in Japanese cities does not operate 24/7. Generally, you can expect to ride the subway from 5 am until midnight. After that, you probably will need to hail a taxi as night buses aren’t very common in Tokyo and other larger cities.
The Tokyo metro network is huge! You can download the Tokyo subway map onto your phone ahead of time to see which ones work best for your trip. Should you have trouble remembering Japanese words, here’s some good news: All stations are numbered, meaning you may as well just remember a number instead! This way it’s also easy to tell whether you’re headed in the right direction.
23. Download these useful (and free) apps
There are several apps that make traveling to Japan easier. Here are the ones I like to use to when in Japan:
- currency converter: XE Currency
- translator: Google Translate
- train travel: Hyperdia
- navigation: Google Maps for regular directions within the city
- subway: Navitime for the subway (Google Maps does fine here, too)
- maps: Google Offline Maps (just in case!)
Just search your Apple Store or Google Play Store for the respective apps. They are all free to use!
Shopping in Japan
24. Know the tax situation
Before going shopping in Japan, be aware of the taxes that apply and the tax refunds you could be eligible for. In Japan, there is an 8% consumption tax. The tax exemption program applies to most items and only applies to foreign visitors!
To qualify for a tax refund, you’d need to make purchases over ¥5,000 (almost $50) in one calendar day at a licensed store. Don’t be surprised if, sometimes, you may be asked to pay full price at the checkout. That’s because you will need to obtain the refund at a customer service desk after your purchase.
Don’t forget that any items you may purchase in Japan may be subject to import duties in your home country. Also, keep in mind that when buying electronics, the voltage between Japan and your home country may differ.
25. Be aware of the opening hours
Just like in the United States, you can expect Japanese stores to be open every day of the week. If it comes to banks and post offices, however, as well as regular offices, these stay closed Saturdays, Sundays as well as national holidays. Attractions and museums are not affected, but museums close a little earlier during weekends and holidays.
These were my Japan travel tips for you. I hope they prove to be helpful. Should I have forgotten something important, please let me know!!