15 Tips & Tricks for First Time Travelers to Japan

Kyoto Kinkaku-Ji

The next few articles that I post will be about Japan (日本 in Japanese and Chinese). This first one, I’d like to share some tips and tricks for first time travelers to Japan that I wish I knew on my first trip. I’ve been to Japan about ten times now and I still feel like I’ve only touched a small corner of the country. I can’t wait to go back again. It’s one of my favorite countries to visit not only because it’s beautiful, but also you’ll never be bored.

Japan has a harmonious mixture of conservative traditions with futuristic innovations. It is these deeply rooted traditions that allow Japan’s culture to be so strong. It is the devotion to innovation that allow Japan to continue to progress so quickly. You’ll experience an amazing variety of delicious foods, a myriad of temples, shrines, parks and gardens, skyscrapers and high-speed bullet trains, and finally how the Japanese respect nature and build their lives around mountains, springs, lakes, and forests.

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Are you ready? Let’s get cracking with my top 15 tips and tricks for first time travelers to Japan!

  1. Plan ahead

    If this is your first time to Japan, I highly recommend planning ahead. I know some of you enjoy being spontaneous, but honestly there’s an overwhelmingly long list of things to do and see. It’ll be hard to cover all of it in one trip. You want to be prepared, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. I am happy to say that over the past 10 years, it has been getting easier and easier for people who don’t speak Japanese to travel around Japan.

    Think about which cities you want to visit, if you’ll need to take the train, do you want to take day trips or book tours, which hotels or ryokans to stay at, what would you want to eat, and how to get from the airport to your hotel. PROTIP: If you’re visiting Tokyo, ifyou can, fly into Haneda Airport instead of Narita Airport. Haneda is closer and less crowded, thus would save you some time.

    These next tips will also help you think about what to prepare before you leave on your trip.

  2. When to go

    There’s never a “bad” time of the year to go to Japan. It doesn’t matter the season, there’s always something interesting to experience.

    • Spring: This is the most popular time of the year to go because it’s Cherry Blossom Season! Cherry Blossom season tends to run from late-March to late-April. Check this website for forecasts depending on which area in Japan you visit. Parks famous for their cherry blossoms will be overflowing with people. If you’d like to go to Hokkaido to ski, you’re in luck, ski season doesn’t end till late-March or early April. Late-April (starting around April 29th) till early May is the Japanese holiday of Golden Week. It is a very popular time for locals to travel around Japan, escaping the urban centers such as Tokyo to relax for a week. Hotels and resorts tend to get booked up well in advance. If you plan to go during this week, make sure you book your accommodation at least a couple of months in advance and check with the hotel what sites and restaurants are open during this time.
    • Summer: With the warmer weather, summer is the perfect time to climb Mt. Fuji. It is also a very active time of the year for the locals. There are numerous Japanese festivals around the country and majority of them happen during the summer. And for those who love music festivals, the famous Fuji Rock Festival takes place at the end of July. Summer is “low season” in Japan with the rain kicking in. Hotel prices are lower, thus a good time to go if you’re on a budget. However don’t expect to have the streets all to yourself! During low season in Japan, you’ll still experience crowds in bigger cities.
    • Autumn: As the leaves start to turn color and weather cools to a perfect temperature, more tourists start to pile in. Still not “high season” yet so hotel prices remain on the lower end. Although not as popular as the cherry blossoms, Japan’s autumn foliage is a beautiful experience. Kyoto is especially famous for its picturesque autumn leaves. Halloween has also become a popular event for both children and adults. If you love dressing up and partying on Halloween, Tokyo is the place to go. The clubs throw huge parties and people gather at Shibuya before heading to the clubs to dance the night away.
    • Winter: Japan truly lights up in the winter time (literally and figuratively). This is the start of high season. If you plan on going to Japan from late-November till late-January, especially for Christmas and New Years, it would be wise to make plans at least 3 months in advance to secure “cheaper” prices and restaurant reservations. Doesn’t matter if you’re in the city where it doesn’t snow and the weather is generally dry and sunny or if you’re up in the mountains skiing where the snow is perfectly powdery; winter in Japan is breathtakingly beautiful. Unfortunately, prices go up and places get crowded very easily. This is the perfect time to go on a ski vacation or visit a onsen (hot springs) resort. Take note that a lot of restaurants and shops tend to be closed on New Year’s Day and hotel prices spike between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
    • Okinawa: Why does the island of Okinawa get a section to itself? Well, it stays warm throughout the year! How amazing is that? Always a nice tropical escape for people during winter. Best time to go is around March to May or late-September to December. You’ll want to escape the rainy season from late-May to June and typhoon season from August to late-September (sometimes it could go till early October).  
  3. Purchase the JR pass

    High speed bullet trains in Japan are not cheap. A one way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto unreserved seating is ~US$115 and reserved seating is ~US$120. During high season, definitely get reserved seating since it’s not a big price difference. If you know you’ll be taking multiple bullet train rides and travel across many cities, I highly recommend getting the Japan Rail Pass for foreigners. It is only ~US$250 for a 7-day pass and you can reserve seats for free! Of course, you can’t use it on ALL rail lines but it does cover the the main intercity JR lines.

    You can buy it online from Japan Experience and have it mailed to you or you can buy it in-person. Read the fine print! If you’re going to Japan for non-tourism reasons such as working holiday, diplomatic, cultural, professional, etc, you are not eligible to use this pass. You have to have the “temporary visitor” stamp on your passport when you enter Japan. There’s also cheaper regional passes if you’re only staying within a certain area of Japan.

  4. Stay connected – get a sim card

    I highly recommend getting a sim card in Japan as a tourist. Google maps and Google translate will make traveling in Japan 1000x smoother. There are a ton of sim card or pocket WiFi options at the airport and convenient stores, but the b-mobile sim from Bic Camera is the one I found to be the best choice. It is a data-only sim card, but you can always use Skype or Google voice to make calls. For ~US$28 you get 5GB over 21 days on LTE/3G with refill options. You have to have an unlocked phone to use it and make sure to read all the instructions on how to configure your phone to use the sim.

    You can purchase it from any Bic Camera branch. There is a Bic Camera in Haneda airport at arrivals. What I usually do is just have it mailed to my hotel. I find that to be most convenient so I have it right when I check-in.

  5. Book hotel & restaurants in advance

    If you go during high season, I suggest that you make accommodation and restaurant reservations in advance. Yes, it might take the spontaneity out but usually it means lower hotel prices and for foodies, you won’t miss out on the best restaurants. I went to Tokyo two years ago during Christmas and New Years and didn’t start looking for hotels till three weeks before. Bad idea, I ended up only securing a teeny tiny room around Tsukiji for 2 people for US$320/night. The room barely fit two people with two luggages and it cost $320. All of the more spacious hotels at decent prices were fully booked; I even tried my luck and repeatedly called and emailed hotels to check for cancellations.

    As for restaurants, you’ll have to make reservations through the hotel concierge or a friend who speaks Japanese. Some foreign friendly restaurants have online booking systems you can use, but even AMEX platinum concierge goes through the hotel concierge. Quite a few top sushi restaurants require reservations at least a month or two in advance. And around Christmas, yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) is very popular. Most of the good spots will be fully booked by locals at least a month before. Yakitori (grilled skewers) can also be hard to reserve, especially if it is catered to locals and only have bar seats.

    If you don’t mind not eating at restaurants all the time, one of my favorite places to eat is at the food floor (usually in the basement B1 or B2) of department stores. It is cheaper than restaurants, a wide variety, and generally very delicious.

  6. Lose the change – get Pasmo or Suica cards

    Taxis in Japan are extremely pricy. Luckily, their public transportation system is so good that you rarely have to take taxis. Since you’ll probably be taking subways or busses quite frequently, having to purchase a ticket and figure out the price multiple times a day would be a huge hassle. By purchasing a Pasmo or Suica card, you’ll save a ton of time standing by the ticket machine looking up at the map. The Pasmo or Suica card is similar to the Oyster card in the UK or Octopus card in HK or Easycard in Taiwan. Deposit money into the card and you can use it on the subway, busses, convenient stores, and even vending machines. You won’t have to carry coins or worry about receiving coins when paying at convenient stores.

    japan pasmo cardYou can purchase the card at any ticket machine and you can even put your name on it! That’s why you see a yellow sticker over the photo of my pasmo card. 🙂 It has a 500 JPY deposit that you can get back if you return the card.

    What is the difference between pasmo and suica? Not much, except they’re issued by different companies. Just choose one, you can’t go wrong with either. Learn more about the differences between the two cards and how to get your 500 JPY refund.

  7. Carry tissues, hand sanitizer and plastic bags with you

    One of the first things you will notice when traveling in Japan is that it’s a very clean country. How do they keep it clean? Well, everyone is respectful about throwing trash only where you’re supposed to throw trash. There is rarely any littering. Similarly, bathrooms are generally kept very clean, not because someone is constantly cleaning, but because everyone respects the space. This means that in some public bathrooms, you’ll have to bring your own tissues or hand towels or even soap or hand sanitizer. Don’t worry, if you find a bathroom in a nice mall or department store, it’ll have soap and tissues. Many locals carry a plastic bag in their hands filled with their own trash. Trash cans are hard to come by on the streets, but you can find them in the public bathrooms and train or subway stations.

  8. Travel light – luggage delivery

    This is probably one of my favorite things about traveling around Japan. They make it super convenient for tourists. On one of my 2-week trips in Japan, I went to Tokyo, Kobe, Hakone, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima, I was worried that I’d have to lug my luggage around. After checking into the hotel in Tokyo, I asked them about bringing my luggage on the train. They told me about the luggage delivery service – Takuhaibin or I call it the black cat service (the company’s logo is a black cat). For a small price ~US$10-20 per piece, they could deliver my luggage door-to-door from my initial destination to my next destination. The luggage will arrive the same day it is sent. How amazing is that? This made my commute across Japan easier and lightweight!

  9. Close the language gap – download Google translate

    Google translate has always been able to translate Japanese to English and many other languages, but not real-time. You had to take a photo of it and highlight what you want translated. But starting from 2017, you can now translate Japanese in real-time. All you have to do is point the camera at the words and it will show you the translation immediately. How cool is that? Closing the language gap! I have to caveat though, it works better when there’s less words to translate and you have to hold your camera pretty still. Definitely a great advancement but not perfect yet.

  10. Where to get cash

    Japan isn’t fully on credit cards yet, so many places are still cash only. I would recommend keeping a good amount of cash on you at all times just in case. Though in Tokyo, majority of places we went to accepted credit cards. Even taxis in Tokyo accepted credit cards. Can’t say the same for other cities. Unfortunately, most ATMs in Japan don’t accept non-Japanese debit or credit cards. The ATMs that do take foreign debit or credit cards are at post offices, 7-11 convenient stores, and Citibank.

    Don’t forget to let your bank know you’ll be withdrawing money from Japan and double-check if there’s any hidden fees from withdrawing money abroad. I would recommend taking a bit of cash out in your home country before heading to Japan. It wouldn’t be the best exchange rate, but it would be a nice safety net to have.

  11. Discount with certain credit cards

    I was surprised this isn’t more widely promoted, but my last trip to Tokyo in 2016, there were quite a few discounts for various credit cards. For example, the Airport Limousine Bus from Narita Airport to my hotel had a 10% discount for Discover cards. Also, at Bic Camera they had an extra 5% off for anyone who uses a Visa credit card. There were several other ones I saw at department stores. Look out for signs that show these discounts, it isn’t well-advertised and they usually don’t tell you about it unless you ask.

  12. Get your 8% back – tax-free

    Japan now offers tax rebates and you get your money right then and there! You’ll be able to get 8% back! Not all stores process the tax-free and the stores that do usually have a “tax-free” sign. You have to spend at least 5000 JPY on consumables or non-consumables, they count as different categories. For example if you purchased from a store that has both consumables and non-consumables, you’ll have to spend at least 5000 JPY on consumables and at least 5000 JPY on non-consumables to get the tax-free for each category. Make sure to bring your passport everywhere you go because the tax refund must be done on the same day as the purchase. The store will staple the itemized receipt to your passport.

    japan tax free
    Photo from Japan Tourism Agency
  13. No tipping please

    Japan is a no tipping country, apparently it is considered rude to tip. Service fee is already included in all services rendered. My first time there, I left some money in my hotel room every day for the cleaning service and it was never taken. I hope they didn’t find me rude!

  14. Get use to bowing

    It is considered a sign of respect to bow when saying hello, thank you, and goodbye. Bowing in Japan is truly an art. How deep you bow depends on the situation and you also have to make sure to keep your back straight. Hard to memorize all the rules overnight, so remember, it’s the thought that counts!

  15. Useful Japanese phrases to learn

    Last but not least, a few useful Japanese phrases to remember:

    • Hello: kon-ni-chi-wa
    • Good morning: o-hai-yo go-za-yi-mas-u or more casual just o-hai-yo
    • Good evening: kon-ban-wa
    • Excuse me: su-mi-ma-sen
    • Goodbye: sa-yo-na-ra
    • Cheers: kan-pai
    • Thank you: a-ri-ga-to or more casual do-mo

    I hope these tips and tricks will help all the first time travelers to Japan and make your trip much smoother. Look forward to my article next week on Tokyo!

    shrine wishes
    This article is not affiliated with or sponsored by any of the above mentioned brands.