15 Essential Tips for Your First Trip to Japan

Planning a trip to Japan

Planning a trip to Japan can be a doozy; it’s an organized, rule-following country that requires a lot of planning. Booking things in advance goes a long way in Japan — it’s one place I don’t recommend winging it.

Japan also has lots of cultural quirks that you should be aware of. For example, did you know that in Japan, splitting food or drinks is discouraged? If two people are at a cafe or restaurant, you both have to order something.

Before my trip, I did an extensive amount of planning. So I wanted to share my Japan travel planning tips, as well as what I wish I had known before visiting.

Tips for planning your first trip to Japan:

1. Know what to pack

The weather in Japan is surprisingly volatile; I had no idea it could get so hot and humid! Clothing-wise, I recommend packing layers so you’ll be prepared for anything.

Here are some items you’ll definitely want to have for Japan:

  • Print outs of your hotel reservations – This is especially useful if it includes an address in Japanese, which is useful for taxi drivers.
  • Universal adapter – rather than buy a Japan-specific adapter, bring a universal one you can use in other countries.
  • Jet lag relief pills – so necessary if you’re traveling from another hemisphere.
  • Compressible packing cubes – they make packing and unpacking SO much easier!
  • Reusable water bottle – the tap water in Japan is drinkable, so save money by filling up in the sink

2. English is not widely spoken

Overall, Japanese people speak very little English. Though the language barrier is sizeable, Japanese people are incredibly helpful and polite. So if you’re ever lost or need help in Japan, don’t worry about the language barrier — someone will help you out anyway.

For example, I asked a pharmacist for directions to the subway, and she stopped working and walked with me a quarter-mile to help me find it. Where else would that happen?

3. It’s wise to learn a few words of Japanese

Before you arrive, it’s best to come prepared with a few Japanese words and phrases. I recommend learning the following:

  • Hello – Konnichiwa
  • Thank you – Arigato
  • Delicious – Oishii
  • Cute – Kawaii
  • Excuse me/sorry – Sumimasen

A little Japanese goes a long way towards being a polite and respectful visitor.

4. Japanese etiquette is very strict

Japanese etiquette is very formal — minding your manners is essential. Here are some etiquette tips for first-time travelers to Japan.

Did you know it’s considered very rude to talk on the phone while on trains and buses in Japan? It’s also rude to point with your chopsticks.

5. Go to the convenience store to save money on food

Essential Japan travel tips for planning a trip to Japan

This might sound strange, but Japanese convenience stores (konbini) have amazing food. So if you want to save money on food, head to convenience stores like 7-11, Lawson, and Family Mart to pick up sushi, onigiri (rice balls), or other tasty treats.

RELATED POST: 9 Bizarre and Delicious Foods to Try in Japan

6. The best way to get around Tokyo is by subway

Essential Japan travel tips for planning a trip to Japan

As you may know, Tokyo is the largest city in the world. Because it’s so massive, taking the subway to get around is essential.

Luckily, the Tokyo subway is clean, punctual, and well-connected. If you’re struggling to buy tickets, ask the extremely helpful and friendly staff for assistance. There’s almost always someone around to help you.

Know that the Tokyo subway closes at midnight, and most rides cost $2-3 for a one-way ticket. You can check train and subway schedules on HyperDia.com.

READ NEXT: How to Make the Most of Four Days in Tokyo: A Detailed Itinerary

7. A Suica card will make your life so much easier

Essential Japan travel tips for planning a trip to Japan

One of the best things I did on my trip to Japan was buying a Suica card. A Suica card is an electronic public transit card that allows you to load prepaid money onto a card, which you can use to take the subway or train (it also gives you a small discount). You can also use it to pay at many vending machines and convenience stores.

This made taking public transit so much faster and easier. You can buy a Suica card at most subway and train systems. Trust me — you don’t want to waste your time with paper tickets!

8. The Ubers are extremely professional and clean

Essential Japan travel tips for planning a trip to Japan

If you do need to take an Uber, you’ll be impressed. The cars are roomy, and the drivers wear suits and white gloves and are incredibly helpful and polite. The Uber drivers spoke the best Japanese we heard in Japan.

You can also download JapanTaxi App, which is like Japanese Uber.

9. You may (or may not) need a Japan Rail Pass

Essential Japan travel tips for planning a trip to Japan

The easiest way to ride the bullet train (shinkansen) in Japan is to buy a Japan Rail Pass. That being said, you may not need one. The Japan Rail Pass doesn’t cover all bullet trains in Japan (though it does cover most).

Before your trip, calculate how many bullet train journeys you plan on taking, and see if it’s worth the cost. Personally, I was glad I bought the Japan Rail Pass, as it saved us so much time. To get from Tokyo to Kyoto, the normal train would take nine hours. With the bullet train? Only three.

If you do decide you want the Japan Rail Pass, buy it before your trip; It’s not available for purchase in Japan. You can buy a rail pass online from Japan Rail Pass, an official vendor. Click here to see current prices.

Tip – To minimize stress, I highly recommend picking up your rail pass at the train station the day before you travel by train. I picked mine up the morning of my train trip and ended up waiting in line for three hours — such a nuisance.

10. Download the Google Translate app

Planning a trip to Japan: Japan travel tips

The Google Translate app is a godsend while you’re in Japan. It lets you take a picture of the Japanese text and then (roughly) gives you an English translation. So handy for reading signs!

11. Buy tickets in advance for certain activities

Many activities book up in advance, so it’s important to buy your tickets ahead of time.

For example, if you want to visit the Ghibli Museum, you have to book your slot online within 30 minutes or so after it goes live on the website.

Here are some activities I recommend booking in advance:

  • teamLab Borderless – Buy tickets to this incredible moving art gallery a month in advance on their website.
  • Ghibli Museum – Tickets for the Miyazaki museum go on sale from the 10th of each month for the following month. You can buy them on the Lawson website — more information here. If you miss the sale on the 10th, you can also buy Ghibli Museum tickets from Viator here.
  • MariCAR Go-Karting – You can book directly through the website here. You can also book a private Go-Kart tour from Viator here. Note that you’ll need an international driver’s license to do this.
  • Airbnb Experiences – I highly recommend doing Airbnb Experiences in Japan — there are so many good ones! I did two (a sushi-making class and Japanese makeup shopping trip) and both were wonderful.

Free $15 Airbnb coupon code! Sign up for Airbnb HERE and get $15 off your first $50 Airbnb Experience

12. Make reservations in advance at high-end or popular restaurants

Planning a trip to Japan: Japan travel tips

High-end restaurants also require some planning. To reserve many restaurants, you have to email the restaurant a month or so in advance. I booked my reservation Sushi Bar Yasuda six weeks in advance.

13. Bring your passport to shop tax-free

Planning a trip to Japan: Japan travel tips

Foreign visitors staying in Japan for less than six months are eligible for tax refunds on most items (see the full list here). If you spend more than 5,000 yen ($50) at any one store in Japan, you’re entitled to a tax refund. This means they basically will get a discount on your purchase.

Foreigners are required by law to carry around their passports. That being said, I was never asked for my passport, so it’s up to you.

14. Staying connected is fairly easy

There are two main ways to stay connected in Japan: you can buy a prepaid Japanese SIM card or bring a portable wifi hotspot.

Using a Japanese SIM card is easy. You buy it in the US, download the app before leaving for Japan, and then set up the SIM card once you arrive. I recommend this one from eConnect Japan.

Using a portable wifi hotspot is a good idea if you’re traveling with someone else, as it can tether to multiple devices. I’ve used this one and it’s very good.

If you don’t want to buy data, you can use the Maps.me app to download maps on your phone and use them offline for orientation and navigation. Unlike Google Maps, Maps.me includes walking directions.

15. Foreigners are required by law to carry their passports

Foreigners are required by law to carry around their passports. That being said, I was never asked for my passport, so it’s up to you.

Have you ever visited Japan? How did your Japan travel planning go?

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

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