Visit Japan: A Practical Guide For First Time Visitors

Even if you’ve never had the chance to visit Japan before, I’m almost positive you would have at least seen or read something about the place. Am I right? You’ve probably seen the bright lights and incredible atmosphere of Tokyo. You may even be dying to visit the two Disney parks and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. But do you know the best way to travel from city to city? Or the correct side to stand on an elevator? Because oddly enough, Japan has some pretty fierce elevator etiquette going on.

My partner Russell and I visited Japan for the entire month of March this year. We did a ton of research beforehand, building our Japanese bucket list, and learning the basics of public transport. Given the fact that Japan was the first non-western country that we had been to, it was tough to figure some things out. But we got there in the end! We put the knowledge we learned before the trip together with tips we learned along the way and it proved to be quite a success. There were some minor missteps though, which were to be expected. Small things like catching the wrong train and communication barrier issues with hotel reception staff. But generally speaking, our trip was fairly issue-free!

To make your Japanese adventure as smooth-sailing as ours, I’ve decided to write this practical guide for first time visitors! A few things you should know before arriving in Japan, and how to make your trip as amazing and easy as possible!

Visit Japan: A Practical Guide For First Time Visitors

10 things you should know about the amazing Japan, before your first visit! Click To Tweet

Visit Japan: A Practical Guide for First Time Visitors

Don’t be Afraid of the Train System

I have never before experienced a public transport system that runs so seamlessly. From the comfort, to the fact that every single train is precisely on time. Even the signage throughout each train station is surprisingly easy to read, with everything written in English as well as Japanese. This is great news for people who don’t read or speak Japanese very well (like us!) because you’ll still be able to navigate your way around the country fairly easily. 

Navigation Tips:

  • Google Maps will be your best friend when it comes to train and Subway travel. The maps will give you the exact route you need to get to where you’re going!
  • If you’re ever stuck, ask for help! Japan is renowned for having the friendliest locals in the world (and it’s true!) so don’t be afraid to speak up. Almost everyone will go out of their way to help, regardless of how little they understand English.
  • If you plan to travel between cities throughout Japan, purchase a JR Pass. These are exclusively for visitors to Japan, and you must be staying in the country for less than 90 days to qualify for one. We purchased a 21 day JR Pass, which allowed us to travel to six different areas within Japan with absolute ease! You can read our 1 month itinerary here!

Visit Japan: A Practical Guide For First Time Visitors

The Shinkansen Bullet Train. The best option for visitors to Japan, who want to explore different regions of the country!

Haneda Airport to Tokyo: Purchase a Bus Ticket

We arrived in Japan on a freezing cold, 1 degree celsius morning. It was around 6am, and we were tired, jet-lagged and hungry. The first thing we had to do upon arriving in Japan, was find where we had to go to purchase a bus ticket. If it weren’t for the fact that we researched this before we arrived, we would have been totally confused! We were traveling from Haneda Airport to Yokohama, but since most people will more than likely be heading to Tokyo, here’s how to do it!

Unless you’ve visited Japan before, the craziness will overwhelm you almost instantly. The best way to avoid this, is the catch a bus from the airport directly to Tokyo Station (if that’s the direction you’re heading). This is the far better option, than having to find your way to the busiest city in the world, while jet lagged and exhausted. 

Quick facts about the Airport Limousine Bus:

  • An adult one-way fare costs 930 yen. A child’s one-way fare costs 470 yen.
  • The bus departs from Passenger Terminal 1 at Haneda Airport
  • There’s also a night bus option, for 1,860 yen for adults and 930 yen for kids. This only applies on scheduled trips to and from Haneda Airport between midnight and 5am.
  • The bus ride takes between 30 and 45 minutes, which will vary depending on weather and traffic conditions.
  • The Airport Limousine Bus runs fairly frequently, with a new one arriving roughly every 45 minutes.
  • You can purchase a bus ticket from a few places: the arrival lobby, the information desk or a touchscreen ticket machines located near baggage claim.

Download Navigation Apps to Your Phone

These apps are generally the most helpful when you can use them offline. Download maps for the cities you plan to visit while in Japan. Once the maps have been downloaded, you will always have them with you even if you don’t have access to the internet. There are a lot of apps available these days, for both Apple and Android, that provide offline use. So experiment and test a few out! You’ll definitely be thankful for offline apps when you visit Japan.

Tips for using Navigation Apps:

  • Generally, these navigation apps will be extremely useful when it comes to public transport. You’ll be able to see the different lines leaving from each train station, and where to hop off..
  • The offline feature is perfect for travelers who choose not to purchase a pocket wifi device.
  • Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, download every available map for each city you’re visiting. Unplanned adventures may mean you’ll need a map you didn’t think to download to your phone!
  • It’s also a good idea to pick up any guide books that are available in train stations. More often than not, these guide books provide a ton of awesome tips and little known places to visit. If they don’t tell you anything you didn’t already know, you can always put them back or throw them away!
Google translation and navigation apps that work offline, are a great way to stay on track without internet! Click To Tweet

Japan Has a Huge Variety of Food Options

I’m a pretty picky eater, and don’t really like to stray from the foods that I know I like. So Japan wasn’t about the food for me. It was for Russell though! He loved experimenting with different Japanese cuisine, trying new street food in Osaka and Tokyo. There is so much variety when it comes to both Japanese and western foods. I was expecting Japan to be filled with mainly Asian cuisine, but I was wrong!

You’ll find a McDonalds on almost every corner. Subway is pretty common in Japan too, and their subs are a million times better than any I’ve eaten in Australia! Japan also has a cheap but delicious Italian restaurant chain called Saizeriya. With tons of locations throughout Japan which can easily be found on Google Maps, it’s a great place to stop for a cheap meal. Most meals cost under 1,000 yen, which includes an unlimited refill beverage.

Tips for food in Japan:

  • Dotonbori in Osaka is one of the best places for street food.
  • You will find Japanese cuisine for every budget. The great thing about Japan, is the fact that everything they do, is impeccable. This means, even if you can only afford a cheap version of one of Japan’s specialties, it’s still going to taste pretty great!
  • Keep an eye out if you’re in Japan during March and April. The end of winter and into spring is Japan’s Cherry Blossom (Sakura) season. During these months, you’ll find all sorts of Sakura flavoured snacks. McDonalds do some pretty unique deserts during Cherry Blossom season!
  • Make sure to try some of Japan’s most well-known cuisine. Takoyaki (octopus filled batter balls), Yakitori (skewered meats), crepes and Okonomiyaki (savoury Japanese pancake).
  • You’ll find a ton of international fast-food chains in Japan. In cities like Tokyo, we saw so many well-known brands, like Subway, Carls Jr, TGI Fridays, Cinnabon, Starbucks and more.

So if you’re planning to visit Japan for the food, don’t worry – you won’t be disappointed. No matter where you turn, there’s something for everyone. You’re surrounded by Japanese food culture almost everywhere you go. Japan really is a foodie’s heaven! However, if you don’t enjoy experimenting with food, or have specific food preferences/requirements, it won’t be difficult finding something suitable to eat in Japan!

Stand on the Correct Side of the Elevator

Japan is such an incredible country in so many ways. Everything has a system in place to make everyday life run smoothly. This doesn’t stop at elevators. If you’re using an elevator, you are to stand on one side, leaving the other free for people who choose to walk up or down. In most cities around Japan, you’re supposed to stand on the left hand side and leave the right side free. For some reason, in Osaka, it’s the opposite! This little known Japanese rule proved to be quite handy at times, when we had to rush to make our train!

Hotel Rooms & Bathrooms Are Small

Don’t be that person writing a review about a hotel and complaining about the size of the bathroom or room itself. Especially in Japan. Everything in Japan is small. There are so many people, crammed into such small cities, it’s inevitable that everything will need be as small as comfortably possible.

When planning our trip to Japan, we were prepared to have much smaller hotel rooms than what we were used to, living in a western country. However, in most of the rooms we stayed in, we were pleasantly surprised at the size. A good example of this, is our hotel in Nagano. We didn’t just have a bed squeezed into a tiny room. There was enough space to lay out our open suitcases and backpacks, without getting in the way of the coffee table or desk area.

So remember: Japan’s accommodation is more than likely going to be much smaller than what you’re used to. But, if you go in with an open mind, you might just be surprised!

Tip for Budget Accomodation: Japan has a cool style of accomodation in the form of capsule hotels. They’re essentially exactly what they sound like. You pay to sleep in a small, capsule style ‘room’. Which might be a bit of a generous explanation. If you have issues with claustrophobia, I’d give the capsule hotel a miss. But for budget travelers, it might be the perfect option!

Japan is Still Cash Oriented

Although advanced when it comes to technology, Japan isn’t big on the use of credit cards. There are lots of places throughout Japan that are still cash-only. Most restaurants don’t even accept payment on card yet. So it’s best to bring along as much cash that you feel is safe, then keep the rest on a savings or travel card. Reliable ATM’s can be found at 7/11 convenience stores around the country, and they’re everywhere. Just be aware of the currency conversion and any ATM fees when withdrawing money.

If possible, I suggest using a travel card over your credit or savings card. Some travel cards allow you to convert money to the currency you need, directly onto the card. That way you won’t need to worry about the conversion rates throughout your trip, as your money will already be converted into Japanese yen!

Don’t Just Stay in Tokyo, Explore More of Japan

When we were planning our trip, we knew we wanted to spend the longest amount of time in Tokyo. But that didn’t mean we wanted to miss out on seeing more of Japan. So this is what our itinerary looked like:

Visit Japan: A Practical Guide For First Time Visitors

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – incredible Hogwarts Castle!

Yokohama was our first stop, which turned out to be a good introduction to Japan. It wasn’t a big, loud, confusing city to manoeuvre, and everything was very easily accessible. A highlight from the few days we spent in Yokohama, was our trip to the Cup Noodle Museum. You can read about that here!

Osaka was our next stop. One of our favourite memories from Osaka, was our trip to Universal Studios where we finally visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As a self-confessed Potterhead, this was a dream come true! Read our full Osaka itinerary here

Throughout our stay in Osaka, we took a few day trips out to Kyoto. Kyoto is still one of Japan’s most historic towns. There is an endless amount of beautiful scenery to enjoy, as well as the amazing Bamboo Forest and Fushimi Inari Temple. Read about our day in Arashiyama, here

Hiroshima was up next, which turned out to be my favourite city in Japan. It was such an appreciated chance of pace, having come from the hustle and bustle of Osaka. We visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum, and strolled through the beautiful Shukkeien Garden. Read about our time in Hiroshima, here

After Hiroshima, we spent a couple of days in Nagoya. To be honest, it wasn’t as enjoyable as the other cities we visited. But that’s partly due to our poor planning. None of the things we wanted to see in Nagoya were open, and it was pretty horrible weather. But that just could be due to Hiroshima blowing my mind, and nothing could compare!

Nagano will always be an extremely memorable experience for me, as it’s where both Russell and I saw snow for the first time! We caught a bus from Nagano Station, up to the Happo One Ski Resort in Hakuba. For under 500 yen, and a ride up the jumping stadium ski lift used in the 1998 Winter Olympics, we were rewarded with incredible views of Hakuba. You can read about that breathtaking experience here.

Tokyo was last on our itinerary. With so much to see and do, we stayed in Shinjuku for 12 days. We saw so much in a short amount of time, which was a fitting way to explore the crazy capital of Japan!

Related: Read about our epic 12 day Tokyo adventure here.
Related: The Ultimate Guide For a Four Week Visit. Click here for that monster post.

Explore more of Japan than just Tokyo. Visit cities like Hiroshima and Osaka to fully appreciate everything Japan has to offer! Click To Tweet
Visit Japan: A Practical Guide For First Time Visitors

Fushimi Inari Temple in Kyoto!

Look Out For Great Deals on Flights & Accomodation to Japan

There are two sides to Japan:
1) The budget friendly, cheap but still delicious food and cute Japanese souvenirs side
2) The high end, expensive 5 star restaurants and top-notch hotels side

Russell and I fit somewhere in the middle. We prefer hotels over other forms of accomodation, and don’t mind spending a little bit extra for comfort and peace of mind. As long as we’re in a decent area, close to convenient transport, that’s all that matters. To compare prices on accomodation in Japan, try Hotels Combined. You can come across some pretty good deals, on accomodation within your budget!

It can be a bit harder scoring deals on flights, but it is possible! If you’re traveling to Tokyo from the east coast of Australia, you can generally score a deal with Virgin Airlines when you book early.

Alcohol, Food & Cigarettes Are Super Cheap (In Most Places)

I come from Australia, where alcohol is taxed so ridiculously high, that the price of getting drunk is rising and people aren’t happy. In Japan, Russell was buying bottles of whisky for under $20. I was enjoying $4 bottles of wine, and wondering why Australian’s get so ripped off.

There are some exceptions to this cheap alcohol, however. If you’re planning a night out in Japan, bars tend to have a pretty hefty entrance fee. That’s before you start buying overpriced drinks. So my advice, is to plan ahead and drink before you head out.

Visit Japan: A Practical Guide For First Time Visitors

You can purchase alcohol in any convenience store in Japan. They sell everything from wine to spirits, and of course premix bottles to take on the go!

There you have it. The 10 things I found the most useful or interesting about Japan! Have you had the chance to visit Japan? What was your favourite thing about the country? Tell me in the comments below!

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