Practical Tips for Japan


You’ve made the decision to travel to Japan (or even move here) and you’ve now started to plan. Japan tends to do things its own way, which may leave you intimidated or even confused.

Having called Japan home for several years now, I have made mistakes, fumbled through situations, and even made a fool of myself (remind me to tell you about the time I accidentally ordered a live fish for dinner).

Now, I want to share my practical tips to help you while you’re visiting (or even living) in this gorgeous country.

If you’ve done any earlier research, you might have read a few of these before. While these tips have the first-time traveler in mind, it’s worth scanning through even if you’re experienced. Think of this as a condensed beginner’s guide to Japan.

These tips aren’t meant as a comprehensive list, but rather a reference for practicalities while you’re here. For printed guidebooks, I recommend the Lonely Planet guides for Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, and Japan. (Even as someone who lives here, I reference these!)

Table of Contents

Before Your Trip

A list of items that I highly recommend getting before traveling to Japan:

  • SIM Card or Wi-fi Device to save yourself the hassle of relying on free wi-fi (Starbucks, McDonald’s, and 7-Eleven offer free wi-fi)
  • Travel insurance is essential (not unique for Japan, but for travel in general)
  • Buy your JR Rail Pass in advance if you plan on extensive travel within Japan on the train (Read my detailed blog post)
  • Travel USB Hub (works with Japanese outlets) and external battery
  • Travel Adapter for other electronics (This one is excellent if you’re going to China, too)
  • Comfortable and easy to slip off and on walking shoes (Some temples and restaurants ask you to take off your shoes)
  • Layers for winter and thin, breathable clothes for summer

Some links throughout this article are affiliates and at no extra cost to you helps keep the site running. See my full disclosure.

Necessities

Japan

The best advice I can give is to buy tickets in advance (if possible) for your top attractions to avoid disappointment and save yourself money (in most cases). My recommended services are Klook and Voyagin (including the Ghibli Museum). Use our exclusive offer code KLKTDREX for $4USD off your first order with Klook.

  • The voltage in Japan is 100v and outlets are two-prong (You’ll need an adapter for three-prong plugs)
  • North American-style two-pronged USB adapters for smartphones and tablets work in Japan
  • The word for toilet is the same in Japanese as in English (Pronounced toe-ee-re)
  • If you’re offered free tissues on the street (it’s advertising) take it as some toilets may not have toilet paper (Temples, shrines, and parks usually don’t)
  • Public toilets may not have soap (and use only cold water), so carry hand sanitizer
  • Some public toilets may not have a hand dryer, so get yourself a small towel at any convenience or 100 yen store
  • For toilets with a washlet (watch video), the ビデ (bidet) button is sometimes coloured pink for women (front spray) while the おしり (o-she-ree) button is sometimes coloured blue and sprays water to clean your behind
  • Flushing is usually one of two options: 小 (small flush for #1) and 大 (big flush for #2)
  • Carry your passport with you at all times (If Police ask you for identification, you need to prove you’re legally in the country)
  • Trash cans are scarce, but you’ll find them at convenience stores, train stations, parks, and malls. Keep everything in a plastic bag to make it easier to carry
  • If you need anything, always check the nearest convenience store (7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart are the most well-known)
  • Have any important addresses printed out in Japanese and English (Hotel bookings should offer this)
  • Visit the major tourist destinations on weekdays and Japanese Public Holidays to avoid large crowds (most of the time)
  • Use the weekends to take day trips to the countryside or lesser known areas to avoid crowds
  • Daiso & Don Quijote (often called Donki) are excellent shops for cheap souvenirs and snacks (Donki carries KitKat)
  • Ship your luggage to/from the airport to avoid lugging it around
  • Download the “Yurekuru Call” for live updates if an earthquake occurs (iOS & Android)
  • Read about what to do in case of an Earthquake

Money

Japan is still a cash-based society, which surprises a lot of people. The biggest takeaway is always having cash on you. For reference, you’ll see 円 or ¥ on prices which both mean “yen.”

  • There is no tipping, so you don’t need to worry about it (Higher-end restaurants and hotels may add a 10% service fee to the bill)
  • Always carry cash (¥10,000 a day is enough for most people) as some places don’t accept credit cards
  • MasterCard, Visa, and American Express cards are accepted at many of the larger retail shops (Always ask if you are unsure)
  • ATMs at 7-Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawson accept overseas bank cards to withdraw Japanese currency (Check with your bank if there are any fees or if your card works in Japan)
  • Japan Post Offices (also called JP Post and denoted on maps and signs with a 〒 symbol) is another place that has an ATM to take out money (limited hours)
  • Money comes in these denominations (photos)
    • Coins:
      • 1円
      • 5円
      • 10円
      • 50円
      • 100円
      • 500円
    • Bills:
      • ¥1,000
      • ¥2,000 (rare to find in circulation in Japan, but you may get it if you exchange money at home)
      • ¥5,000
      • ¥10,000
  • Most places it’s acceptable to pay with a ¥10,000 note (Unless it’s a small food stand or small store)
  • Some shops in Japan are Tax-Free for temporary visitors if you spent ¥5,000 or more in a single transaction (Look for the sign that’s in English on the storefront)
  • When possible, always put your money/credit card in the small money dish (if there isn’t one, then handing into the cashier’s hand is acceptable)
  • A quick way for an estimate of prices in Australian, Canadian, or US dollars, move the decimal place over by 2:
    • ¥100 is about $1
    • ¥1000 is about $10
    • ¥10,000 is about $100

Transportation

Transportation Japan

At first glance, a map with all the train lines within Tokyo (and other major cities) is intimating. The best way to get comfortable is to do a bit of planning! If you’re ever unsure what line or train to take, ask an employee at the ticket gates and they’re more than happy to help.

  • Download train line maps for Tokyo, Osaka, and other regions of Japan
  • If you’re staying near Tokyo Station and traveling from Narita Airport, take “THE ACCESS” bus for ¥1,000
  • Both Narita and Haneda airport offer buses and trains into the city
  • Taxis are expensive and I only recommend if you’re in a hurry (or if budget is not a concern)
  • Uber only exists in the Tokyo area (Lyft isn’t in Japan)
  • Use Google Maps to figure out your routes (You likely already have it; don’t bother downloading another app)
  • Another excellent train resource is the Hyperida website (I don’t like the mobile app)
  • Get yourself a Suica or Pasmo card at the train ticket machines (These are known as IC Cards and make paying for transit easier)
  • IC Cards are also accepted as payment at vending machines and convenience stores
  • To put money to your IC Card, use the ticket machines (English option) with cash (credit cards aren’t accepted)
  • If you have a compatible iPhone, you may set up your Suica card on your phone and charge with Apple Pay
  • Purchase day passes if using public transportation multiple times a day
  • Avoid rush hour on the trains in Tokyo (7-9 AM and 5-7 PM) and use the cars at either end for fewer people (Take note of the women-only cars during rush hours)
  • Trains don’t run 24 hours (most stop around 12 AM to 1 AM)
  • Train announcements are in Japanese and English (there’s English text on most screens) in most major cities (Outside the cities are hit or miss)
  • If you’re lost, ask any of the attendants at the gates and have where you’re trying to go written down

Food

Bento Box Japan

When you think of food in Japan, the first thing that comes to mind is probably sushi or ramen. While those dishes are common (and you should definitely try them), there is more to Japanese cuisine than fresh seafood and delicious noodles. From mouth-watering fried chicken to Japanese curry, there’s something for everyone. If you’re worried about food, don’t be. You’ll have tons of options that don’t include eating McDonald’s for every meal.

  • Use Tabelog (iOS & Android) to find places to eat as it’s one of the most popular among locals
  • If you have allergies download these useful cards with phrases to use
  • Use Happy Cow to find restaurants for vegan and/or vegetarian options
  • It’s acceptable to call the restaurant staff to your table by saying “sumimasen” and putting up your hand (If there’s a button to push, use that instead)
  • To ask for the cheque, say “O-kai-kay o-ne-guy-she-masu” and you can also cross your index fingers to make an “X” (which means you’d like the cheque)
  • Many restaurants have plastic food displays outside to show what they serve
  • Izakayas (Japanese pubs) are excellent for a range of food and drinks
  • Japanese convenience stores (7-Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart, etc) are great for cheap and delicious food
  • Grocery stores (called スーパー or “sue-pah”) have ready-made food and are discounted mid-afternoon and before closing (Most stores are in basements of department stores in cities)
  • Don’t pass food from chopstick to chopstick or leave chopsticks upward in rice
  • Customizing food orders is not common (adding/removing ingredients) at most restaurants (even McDonald’s)
  • Western chains such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, and KFC are everywhere
There’s quite a bit of etiquette related to chopsticks, so I recommend reading this excellent resource. My favourite Japanese fast-food chains for a quick and cheap meal are Sukiya (beef bowls on rice), MOS Burger, First Kitchen, and CoCo Ichiban (Japanese Curry).

Etiquette

  • Don’t talk loudly on trains (or talk on the phone)
  • Don’t walk while eating or drinking (Walking with coffee or Starbucks is generally okay)
  • A simple bow over shaking hands or hugging (physical contact is usually only between good friends and family)
  • Blowing your nose in public is considered rude, but sniffling is acceptable (If you need to blow your nose, do it in private)
  • Always take off your shoes at the entrance of a private home (The floor is raised and you’ll usually receive slippers to wear)
If you’re in a situation and you’re unsure how to act, watch and copy what locals do. As a foreigner, you’ll be forgiven if you don’t know all the proper etiquette (within reason, use your common sense, and always be respectful). If you’d like to go more in-depth about etiquette for specific situations, then I recommend reading this extensive guide and Wikipedia article.

Language

You are able to get by without knowing any Japanese while in Japan, but knowing a few key phrases and a bit of effort goes a long way.

  • A simple “Arigatou” (thank you) and “Sumimasen” (excuse me) goes a long way
  • Get a simple phrase book for more complicated phrases
  • Download Google Translate (it has a live translate feature that works okay for menus and signs)
  • English is still not widely used by locals, so don’t expect everyone to speak it
  • Most major tourist areas have English-speaking staff
  • Knowing how to write your first name in Japanese is useful
  • If you want to get used to hearing natural Japanese, I recommend watching Terrace House on Netflix

Above all else, if you are ever lost or confused, don’t be shy or scared to ask. Locals are friendly and are almost always willing to help you out, even if they don’t speak English. As someone who is anxious even on a good day, knowing most people are willing to help (regardless of language ability) reduces my anxiety quite a bit.

Other Tips?

As mentioned at the beginning, this isn’t meant as a comprehensive list. If you have any more you’d like to add, please put them in the comments!

Categories

10 Comments

Add yours
  1. Valeria Soifer de Irijimovich

    Hi Chris!
    I’m planning to travel to Tokyo this April for two weeks with my 12 years old daughter, I wanted to know if its safe to walk the streets at 10 pm and after…??
    And I’m a little confused about the transportation , we wont travel outside of Tokyo only to Disneyland but we will use the metro often ,what is the best card? JR,Suica or Pasmmo?
    Thank you in advance

What do you think?