Japan is one of the most incredible countries in the world. Ask anybody who has visited, and I’m almost positive they will agree with me. If you’re ever lucky enough to visit Japan, it will be one of the most wonderful and unique experiences of your life. In this guide to Japan, I am sharing some of the most important things you should know, before visiting for the first time.
Compared to Western countries, Japan is very different. Other than the obvious language barrier, traveling to such a unique country will bring some difficulties. Nothing that is unbearable, and not even difficulties that will hinder your visit. But there are a few things to remember when visiting Japan, to make your time there as enjoyable and stress free as possible.
We spent the entire month of March 2017 exploring six different cities across Japan. From the quiet and calm Yokohama to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, there’s always something different to see and do. Here is our ultimate guide to Japan for first time visitors.
Table of Contents
- 1 A Comprehensive Guide to Japan for First Time Visitors
- 2 Currency & Money in Japan
- 3 Climate and Weather in Japan
- 4 Language in Japan
- 5 Transport in Japan
- 6 Wifi & Sim Cards in Japan
- 7 Safety in Japan
- 8 Accommodation in Japan
- 9 What to Wear in Japan
- 10 Things you should do in Japan
- 11 Things you should not do in Japan
- 12 Things To See and Do in Japan
- 13 Food in Japan
- 14 Did you like this post? Pin it for later, or share with friends!
A Comprehensive Guide to Japan for First Time Visitors
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Currency & Money in Japan
The currency used in Japan is Japanese Yen. In comparison to Australian and United States Dollars, Japan’s currency is quite similar. By that I mean, if you were to purchase something for 100 yen, converting that back into AUD or USD works out to be pretty equal. Of course, always check with a currency converter before your trip.
In most aspects, Japan is a very advanced country. When it comes to the use of credit or debit card, however, you might be surprised to know that Japan is still pretty far behind. Most restaurants and shops don’t accept card payment, and you’ll find a lot of places are still very cash focussed businesses. Here are some tips to help with the currency and money in Japan:
Always have some cash with you
Having cash at all times is super important, especially on your first day in Japan. It will come in handy for transportation from the airport to your hotel, as well as snacks and other small things you may not have planned for. It’s also a good idea to have a good amount of cash during the rest of your stay. Given that Japan is still a cash-oriented country, you might struggle to find places that accept card.
Withdraw cash at Convenience Stores
There aren’t many reliable places to withdraw cash throughout Japan, but convenience stores are one of the most common. Find a 7/11 or Family Mart, as they are going to be your best bet. Don’t worry about trying to find one either – they’re everywhere!
Tip: Get yourself a travel wallet, to not only keep your cash, but also your passport and any tickets you need to keep handy.
Tipping is not required in Japan
One of the best things about Japan is that tipping is not required. In fact, it’s almost considered rude. So there is no need to tip anyone in restaurants, hotels or transport staff.
Climate and Weather in Japan
We visited Japan in March 2017, the tail end of their winter and the beginning of spring, which means Cherry Blossom season. Although we didn’t see the blossoms falling, we did get to experience the start of Cherry Blossom season, and it was beautiful. Given that we visited at the end of winter, it was still quite cold. Here are some of our top tips about Japan’s weather and seasons:
Cherry Blossom Season
Cherry Blossom season runs from March to May, and is the busiest time of year in Japan. We were lucky enough to see the very beginning of Blossom season, however didn’t get to see the country in full bloom. For some great tips and incredible photos of Japan during Cherry Blossom season, read this post by Viola from The Blessing Bucket.
Seasons in Japan
The seasons in Japan are: summer from June to August, autumn from September to November, winter from December to February and spring (Cherry Blossoms) from March to May. Cherry Blossom season is very busy in Japan. It’s the most popular time of year for tourists, which means everything is more densely packed than normal.
That being said, although it will be busy I recommend planning your trip for spring, because it’s a beautiful experience. Be sure to book early and prepare for large crowds everywhere you go – theme parks in particular.
Japan is a very mountainous country
One of the things at the top of our Japan bucket list, was to see snow. Lucky for us, Japan has a ton of really beautiful mountains and countryside. On our way to Tokyo, we spent a couple of days in Nagano, where we took a day trip to one of the nearby snow vilages of Hakuba.
Japan’s vending machines change with the seasons
This is another quirky fact about Japan – the vending machines found on almost every corner throughout the country, change with each season. During the colder months in the year, you’ll find a mixture of cold beverages (water, ice coffee, juice, milk and soft drinks) and hot beverages (hot coffee, tea and soup).
Language in Japan
One of the first things we noticed when arriving in Japan, was that very few people speak English. This is obviously something we were prepared for, as it shouldn’t be expected that every person in the world speaks English, when it isn’t their first language.
It’s best to come prepared and have a few key phrases or words memorised, to make your visit as easy as possible for everyone involved. Here are some common phrases you should know before arriving in Japan:
- Arigatou Gozaimas – Thank You
- Konnichiwa – Hello
- sumimasen – Excuse Me
- Ohayou Gozaimasu – Good Morning
- Konbanwa – Good Evening
- Hai – Yes
These are just a handful of the phrases you will need on a daily basis. From our experience, Japanese people are very patient and will do everything they can to help, regardless of your knowledge of Japanese. That being said, it’s simply good manners to practice some every day sentences or phrases to make certain situations easier.
Tip: If you are worried about learning a few key phrases, and even want to expand your Japanese knowledge further than just saying thank you or hello, purchase a Japanese phrase book. Take this with you everywhere you go, and you will always know the perfect thing to say!
Transport in Japan
One of the best things about Japan is their impeccable public transport system. Although it may seem confusing and overwhelming when you first arrive in Japan, the trains and Subway are actually super easy to navigate. All train stations have directions and signage in both Japanese and English.
No matter where you need to go or which city you are heading to, it won’t be too difficult finding your way. Here are some tips for using Japan’s train system:
Use Google Maps
The ‘directions’ function in Google Maps will be your best friend. Type in the location you’re heading (from your current location) and Google Maps will list all of the different train lines that will take you there. Find the corresponding platform in the station, and hop on the right train – it’s that simple!
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Japanese people are some of the most friendly and helpful people in the world. If you’re ever stuck and need directions, don’t be afraid to speak up. Whether it’s a conductor on the train platform or someone simply walking by, almost everyone will do their best to help. We even had people voluntarily come up to us and help when they saw that we were struggling with directions on our first couple of days in Japan.
Purchase a Suica or Pasmo card
Purchase a Suica or Pasmo card the day you arrive, for ultimate ease and convenience when exploring Japan. Simply load some money onto your card, swipe your card at the gate and walk on through. We bought a Suica card on our first day, which made traveling around the country super easy. Suica and Pasmo cards can also be used for purchases in some convenience stores
Consider purchasing a Japan Rail Pass
If you plan to travel between cities across Japan, I highly recommend purchasing a Japan Rail Pass. This is only available for visitors to Japan who will be staying in the country for less than 90 days, and must be purchased online before arriving. The JR Pass will get you onto the Shinkansen Bullet Train and various JR train lines throughout Japan.
The JR Pass can be quite expensive, so you should first decide whether it’s worth purchasing. For example, if you are only spending time in Tokyo, you won’t need a JR Pass as you can simply use Tokyo’s train or Subway system. But if you are doing some city-hopping, they are definitely worth it. Check out the Japan Rail Pass and see if it’s right for you, here!
Wifi & Sim Cards in Japan
Before arriving in Japan, we purchased a pocket wifi device. This turned out to be an absolute life saver, as we had wifi wherever we went, had a spare battery and a protective case to keep it all in. I recommend purchasing a pocket wifi if you plan to spend a significant amount of time in Japan.
Another great option for data in Japan is purchasing a local SIM card. Grab one from the airport before heading out into the excitement of Japan.
Safety in Japan
Japan is definitely one of the safest countries I have ever visited. The entire month that we spent traveling around Japan was very smooth sailing, and we had no issues with crime or felt unsafe at any point. If you are planning a solo trip to Japan (in particular solo female travelers), you don’t need to worry too much.
That being said, as a general rule for travel, you should always remain vigilant and be aware of your surroundings. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world to visit, so as long as you keep your wits about you, there will rarely be any issues.
I traveled with my partner, but even if I had traveled alone, I would have felt perfectly comfortable walking the streets of Japan at night by myself. It is an incredibly safe place (from our experience, and from what I’ve heard from other travelers to Japan) which is awesome.
Accommodation in Japan
We always stay in hotels when we travel, purely for personal preference. We like our privacy and are happy to budget a little bit extra for a comfortable and secure place to sleep. Just like everywhere else in the world, Japan has a few options when it comes to accomodation:
Hotels – Check out HotelsCombined for some awesome deals!
Airbnb – Airbnb is a great option for families and groups of friends
Hostels – For budget travelers, hostels are the perfect option!
Capsule Hotels – For a totally unique and budget friendly option, capsule hotels are perfect! Read more about this awesome style of accomodation here!
The type of accomodation that you choose depends on your style, who you’re traveling with and your budget. There are a ton of options to suit everybody, whether you prefer a five star resort or a cheap budget friendly hostel. Do some research before booking, and always shop around!
What to Wear in Japan
Japan is a weird and wonderful place to visit. If you’re into fashion, you’ll be in heaven winding through the streets of Tokyo, shopping up a storm. When it comes to the style in Japan, it seems nothing is off limits. Harajuku for example, is one of the best districts in Tokyo to get a taste of Japanese fashion. There are an endless amount of unique stores, filled with everything from cat clothing to second hand bargains.
Tip for Females: From what I could tell, girls tend to show off their legs and cover up the top half of their body. During our month in Japan, we visited Disneyland, DisneySea and Universal Studios. A lot of Japanese girls were wearing shorts or skirts, despite the cold weather and I never once saw any cleavage. That’s something to keep in mind for you ladies traveling to Japan!
Things you should do in Japan
Do buy alcohol and snacks at Convenience Stores
The second you step into your very first Japanese convenience store, you’ll be hooked. They literally have almost everything you would need at the last minute, including food, drinks and toiletries. If you are an alcohol drinker, Japanese convenience stores sell bottles of wine for less than 500 yen, bottles of scotch for under 2,000 yen and premixed drinks for 200 yen a pop.
If you are craving a snack, visit your nearest convenience store. You’ll find a huge range from chips to chocolate, ice cream, cup of noodles and various hot foods. Convenience stores are one of the things I miss most about Japan!
Do slurp your noodles
If you visit a ramen restaurant or really anywhere that serves noodles, always slurp them! Of course this seems to only be acceptable in Japan, as anywhere else in the world frowns upon making this much noise while eating. Make the most of being able to slurp your food while you eat, and it being okay!
Do try to be on time
The Japanese are very punctual people. As a whole, Japan runs very smoothly. The trains always arrive precisely on time, and if you have a meeting planned with somebody, I’m willing to bet money on the fact they’ll be there right on the dot. In this day and age, almost everyone has a phones with alarms and a clock, so use them and don’t be late!
Do take your shoes off when necessary
In some places, such as the fitting rooms in stores and temples or shrines, it’s expected that all visitors remove their shoes before entering. Generally there will be a sign asking people to take their shoes off. But if there isn’t, just have a look around to see what everyone else is doing.
Do appreciate Japan for it’s unique and contagious atmosphere
Whether you’re spending the day at one of Japan’s theme parks, hiking up one of the incredible mountains, or strolling through the winding road’s of Osaka’s Dotonbori. Japan will fascinate you in the best way possible. Be sure to appreciate every moment of your time in Japan, and take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself.
Things you should not do in Japan
Like anywhere in the world, there are some things you should and should not do when visiting Japan. Some of these are super quirky and some are pretty strange – in the best way, of course. There is a system in place for almost everything in Japan, which helps to make the country run as smoothly as possible. Here are some of the things that are frowned upon in Japan:
Don’t stand in the middle of an escalator
In all cities across Japan (except Osaka), it’s customary for people to stand on the left hand side, leaving the right side free for anyone who wishes to walk up. Trust me when I say that this one is important, because escalators are absolutely everywhere in Japan.
I mentioned this earlier, but tipping is considered rude in Japan. It’s a well-known fact that Japanese people put their heart and soul into everything they do, meaning that if somebody tips them for a job well done, it’s assumed the service was better than expected. I promise, you’ll be surprised just how polite and friendly the Japanese are.
One thing you’ll notice when you arrive in Japan, is the lack of rubbish bins in public. This is especially inconvenient in busy shopping districts. Despite the lack of bins, the streets are immaculately clean (in most areas), so don’t be that person and leave your rubbish on the side of the road. Generally you’ll find bins outside of convenience stores and vending machines, so hold onto your rubbish until you can dispose of it correctly.
Don’t eat while walking
I’ll be honest, I’m guilty of this one. I didn’t realise until the very end of our trip, that eating while walking in Japan is frowned upon. If you grab a quick snack while shopping, either sit down or stand out of the way while eating. I still feel ashamed about the number of times I scoffed down McDonalds fries while running for a train or window shopping.
Don’t blow your nose in public
I’m also guilty of this one. I’m from Australia, where it is not frowned upon to blow your nose in public. But for some reason in Japan, it is! This is why you’ll hear anyone who is sick on trains, sniffing instead of blowing their nose. Just wait until you have some privacy, and sit in discomfort instead.
Don’t talk loudly on the phone in public
This mainly applies when traveling on trains. The first thing you’ll notice about catching trains in Japan, is that everyone is on their phones. Either texting, playing games or listening to music. But you will never hear a Japanese person peaking on their phone while on the train.
Things To See and Do in Japan
There are a lot of incredible things to see and do in Japan. But unfortunately, whether you are spending one week or one year in Japan, you will never be able to see it all. The only way to make the most of your time in Japan, is to choose what you absolutely cannot leave without seeing.
With that said, here are some of our favourite things to see and do throughout the six cities in Japan that we visited. These are obviously not all of the best attractions, they are just what we experienced personally, which I have even organised by city. You’re welcome. You can also read out super in depth one month Japan itinerary.
There are a few fun and unique things to see and do in Yokohama, including: the Cup Noodle Museum, the Ramen Museum, Cosmo Clock Ferris Wheel. We didn’t plan our time in Yokohama very well, so the Ferris Wheel was closed on our only full day in the city. But if you’re looking for a couple of fun and very Japanese things to do, don’t leave without checking out the Cup Noodle Museum and Ramen Museum.
After Tokyo, Osaka is the second biggest city that we visited. There are so many things to see and do, but some of our favourites are: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, Osaka Castle, Tempozan Ferris Wheel and Dotonbori.
We took two day trips to Kyoto during out six days in Osaka, and I’m so glad we did this. Kyoto is one of Japan’s beautiful historic, country towns and there are a lot of relaxing places to spend an afternoon. The Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama and Fushimi Inari Shrine are two of my favourite things to see.
Hiroshima is my favourite city in Japan, at least out of the six that we visited. If you are only spending one day in Hiroshima, I highly recommend visiting Hiroshima Peace Museum and Memorial.
As I’m sure you are already aware, Tokyo has an endless amount of things to see and do. There is absolutely something for everyone, it doesn’t matter in the slightest what your interests are. Some of our favourite attractions in Tokyo are: Harajuku, Shibuya Crossing, Akihabara, Shinjuku Batting Centre, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (free!), Disneyland and DisneySea.
Food in Japan
If you love meat or seafood, you will feel right at home in Japan. Almost every major city is filled with dozens of Japanese and Western restaurants. There are a huge range of options available, across all budgets. If you’re like me (a picky eater who doesn’t eat much meat) don’t worry, you will still find plenty of delicious food.
Along with the plethora of Japanese restaurants selling ramen, sushi, yakitori and much more, there are also a lot of western food chains. I ate at McDonalds, Subway and KFC quite a bit, since I’m not really interested in experimenting with food. However, if you plan to sample Japan’s cuisine, you are in for a treat.
That brings us to the end of this extremely long and in-depth guide to Japan. Have you visited Japan before? What surprised you the most and what was your fondest memory of the wonderful country? Tell me in the comments below and don’t forget to share this with your friends!