First Time to Japan? These 88 Essential Tips Make Everything Easier

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Planning your first trip to Japan? Overwhelming isn’t it? Don’t panic, we’re about to explain everything you need to know to make your first time to Japan a lot more simple. Transport, money, where to stay, etiquette and a few surprises – here’s 88 brilliant tips to help you plan your trip.

I came back from my first trip to Japan with my mind totally blown. ‘It was amazing, but I couldn’t live there,’ was how I described it to everyone. Now, many, many trips later I absolutely could live there, the description of my trips could take about four days of excited babbling and, I can even read basic Japanese writing!

How times change… but what this means is, I know that if you’re travelling to Japan for the first time, it’s confusing. You’re not sure how to get to A-B, how much things are going to cost, what on earth to order in a restaurant and, what to do to ensure you don’t put your foot in it and offend an entire train… but I also know how to help!

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So, here’s 88 of the most useful tips I think you need if it’s your first Japanese trip. Some are super obvious, others you only learn after a few trips – meaning your first time to Japan is already off to a flying start.

The Big One: Narita or Haneda

If you’re landing in Tokyo, this is one of the first decisions you might need to make when planning your Japan trip.

Haneda is closest to the city which can be a definite benefit after a long flight. It’s connected to central Tokyo by monorail, train and bus and will connect you to the super central Yamanote Line in about 15 minutes. Note – the transport does not run all night so if you have a late-night flight you’ll need to get one of the late-night buses, or, you might prefer to book a private transfer.

Narita is much further away. There are two speedy train options that will take you into Tokyo – the Skyliner and the Narita Express and they take between 40 minutes to 90 minutes depending on where in Tokyo you are staying.

I hate night flights and so prefer to fly during the day which, from where I live, brings me into Narita at about 9pm. By this point, I can’t be bothered to travel into the city and so I tend to stay near the airport. Hotel Nikko Narita is a favourite as it has a convenience store on-site so I start my trip with my first night ritual – a Zima beer and an egg sandwich. I crash out and then head into town the next morning wide awake.

What to Carry

2. As little as possible: Even with public transport, you’ll walk a lot in stations and lifts and escalators aren’t always easy to find which means carrying bags upstairs On top of this, Japanese hotel rooms can be quite small and trying to navigate around two large suitcases can be hard. Keep bags as light and small as you can (you can always buy another one for souvenirs)

3. Know the train rules: Some Shinkansen (the superfast train between cities also known as the bullet train) lines now restrict baggage – this includes the popular Tokaido line which goes between Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Bags over 160cm (height + width + depth) are fine. If they are between 160-251cm you have to reserve space for them or you will be fined. Over 250cm can’t be taken on the Shinkansen.

4. Send it onwards: If you do take a bigger case and are moving around Japan, think about having it forwarded between destinations via a luggage shipping service. I know it sounds unusual but it’s a common thing for Japanese travellers to do. Have a look at Yamoto Transport, or ask your hotel if they offer a Takkyubin service and it will be picked up at your hotel.

5. Get a locker: You can also leave baggage in lockers at stations. This is great if you want to go exploring on the day you leave and don’t want to head back to your hotel.

Busy Times

6. Holidays to Know About: The three main holidays in Japan are Golden Week (end of April, early May), Obon (mid-August) and New Year (Dec 29-Jan 4). Opening hours will change and you should definitely book accommodation and bullet train seats in advance.

7. Golden Week Tip: If you do find you have booked over Golden Week, it can be cheaper to stay in Tokyo that week and move around before or after. You do have to be a bit more flexible with plans as hours change, but I had a great Golden Week in Tokyo. Look, I got to do this!

If you suddenly realise you have booked your trip to Tokyo in Golden Week, don’t panic and don’t rearrange things, instead check out this guide to Golden Week tips that will ensure you make the most of your trip to Tokyo at this amazing time.

Woman sitting in the middle of the street in Ginza, Tokyo

The Big Mistake

8. Don’t try and do everything. It’s impossible. On my first trip to Kyoto, I thought I could see all the big sights in a day trip from Osaka – me now, can’t believe I was so daft! Not least as I didn’t even really look at a map – I still haven’t seen all of the temples in Kyoto! The place is enormous.

If you’re not sure whether Osaka or Kyoto is best to base yourself, have a look at our Kyoto vs Osaka guide whcih can help you decide.

9. Build in time to rest your feet: Try and spend a few days in each place. Focus on one area at a time with 3-4 must-sees – and have the rest as an ‘if we’re not exhausted.’ option. Expect to need a sit down between going out all day and heading out at night. Book a trip to an onsen halfway through to soak away the aches!

Things You Must Pack

10. I’m not going to give you a detailed packing list here, (but there is a longer post on packing for Japan here if you do need a little extra help) but I am going to suggest a few things that you might not think to bring with you but definitely shouldn’t forget.

Your comfiest shoes: I cannot emphasise this enough. I once took shoes I thought were comfy, they weren’t! Three days of walking 20km later, I had blisters the size of 50p pieces on my feet. It was awful. Thankfully my friend was coming to meet me and she could bring me oldest, stinkiest shoes so I could at least walk without wincing.

Lots of clean socks: You will take your shoes off a lot and if you’re not wearing clean socks it can be mortifying! If you run out, look in Daiso (see below) to restock.

A small hand towel or flannel: I didn’t know why my friend Jonelle handed me one of these as a Welcome to Japan gift – but, it turns out Japanese bathrooms don’t generally have towels or driers. Your Tenugui, as it’s known, lets you wash your hands without having to dry them on the back of your jeans. If you forget this, you can buy Tenugui in many souvenir shops.

Antiperspirant/deodorant: You can buy most toiletries in Japan, but the deodorants and antiperspirants may not be quite as strong as the ones you’re used to so, don’t forget to pack your own.

11. Be very careful packing medication. Some drugs (including one or two you can just buy in any pharmacy elsewhere) are not allowed into Japan at all. Others need a permit. Find out more here.

Where to Stay on Your First Trip to Japan

12. In Tokyo: Shinjuku, Shibuya and Asakusa are probably the best places to stay on your first trip to Tokyo. They have everything you need and are very central.

13. In Kyoto: look at the Downtown area around the area of Nishiki Market and a few blocks in any direction if you want to be right in the middle of everything. Or, on the other side of the river, Southern and Northern Higashiyama are also good spots.

14. In Osaka: Around Namba is good unless you’re doing a lot of day trips in which case you might find it better to stay around Shin-Osaka station as travelling to and from Namba adds a lot of time to your journey.

On our first trip there we stayed at the Fraser Residence Nankai which was a fantastic hotel, surrounded by bars and restaurants and brilliant at night, but we did find it a bit annoying to have to come back so far from the station as we went on a lot of day trips.

15. Is Kabukicho safe? Shinjuku does have a red light district called Kabukicho and, there are quite a few hotels in this area. One common question is is it safe to stay here, and the answer is yes. The touts are very unlikely to bother westerners and there’s not the same shady element on the street as there might be in such areas in other cities.

16. The main area to be a bit more careful in Tokyo is Roppongi which aims at foreigners; keep an eye on your belongings and watch your drinks (or yourself if you overdo it).

17. Where to be a bit wary in Osaka. You might want to steer clear of Kamgasaki – there are a few backpacker hostels here, and again, by Western standards, it wouldn’t exactly be classed as a no-go zone, but it might also not be what you’re expecting from your Japan trip.

Other Japanese Hotel Tips

18. Book near a station. After a day of sightseeing, you do not want to have to walk 20 minutes back to your hotel from the nearest station or metro.

19. Japanese hotel rooms can be extremely small (16sq metres is not uncommon) – always check the room size and the bed size if there’s more than one of you. One chain that has larger than average rooms is the Citadines – we like the Citadines Shinjuku a lot.

20. Pyjamas? You’ll usually find basic toiletries included in your room – and, if you’re staying at one of the Japanese chains aimed at business people like APA, Dormy Inn, Mitsui Garden or the B Hotels, you might find a set of pyjamas laid out for you too.

Inside of a traditional Japanese hotel  room with a tatami mat floor and low table

21. Japanese plug sockets are two straight pins so you’ll need to buy an international adaptor to make things work. If you forget, then ask at your hotel reception desk, they might have one you can borrow.

Internet Access in Japan

22. Do you need a SIM? There is a lot of free internet around Japan, and there’s a school of thought that says you don’t need to rely on anything else. I am not in that school! It’s just easier to get around if you have maps, train apps and timetables on your phone.

I generally buy a SIM card from Klook to pick up at the airport and then I’m set for the whole trip. You can also use personal wifi devices but it’s one more thing to carry and one more thing to charge so personally, I’m Team SIM Card

Things You Must Do

I’m not talking about the big things, these are little tiny things not to miss on your trip…

23. Eat an Egg Sandwich from 7-11: These things are legendary – I have no idea why they are so good but they are totally addictive. If the thought of egg makes you feel queasy, have a strawberry and cream one instead.

24. Buy a Gachapon: Everywhere you go in Japan you’ll see these little machines that look like bubble gum machines stuffed full of tiny capsules – these are gachapon and they are one of the cheapest souvenirs you can buy. Well, apart from the fact that, like the sandwiches, Gachapon can become a bit addictive.

25. Buy a hot milk tea from a vending machine. Not only it is delicious -but how cool is hot drinks in a bottle from a machine! The blue buttons are for cold drinks, red ones are hot.

If you like these ideas, you’ll find another 14 in our full post on the small, but cool things not to miss in Japan.

Money in Japan

A useful bit…Despite its high tech image, Japan is still very much a cash-based society so you should always have some cash on you.

26. The currency in Japan is called the yen. There are five coins – 1 yen, 5 yen, 50 yen, 100 yen and 500 yen. Notes are 1000, 5000 and 10,000 – if you ever see a 2000 you might want to keep it as they are very rare!

27. You will get a lot of coins – make your first souvenir a change purse from one of the discount shops like Daiso.

28. Don’t go to a bank to get cash – foreign ATM cards don’t work in Japanese banks. Instead, go to an ATM in a convenience store like 7-11, Lawson or Family Mart. When I did this on my first trip to Japan I was convinced it was a big scam and my account was going to be cleaned out by the time I got home, but it’s perfectly fine.

29. Airport Money: The cash points at Narita and Haneda do accept foreign cards, but I always still arrive with 100 dollars worth of yen just in case. This is a full list of all the ATMs at Narita and their locations. If you’re flying into Haneda, this is where you’ll find the Haneda ATMs.

30. Etiquette tip: When you buy something in Japan, place the money, or your card if you are using it, in the tray on the counter of the shop. You’ll get your change back in the same tray.

31. Hotel bills: You will be able to use your credit card to pay for your hotel in most places – but do check it you’re going somewhere a bit more rural just in case.

32. If you really hate small change, then you can use prepaid Suica and Pasmo cards to pay for items in shops like 7-11, some restaurants and some vending machines. These also act as travelcards for local train, tube and bus journeys – like the Oyster or Opal cards in the UK or Australia.

Budgeting Tips

One of the biggest misconceptions I think there is about Japan is that it’s really expensive to visit – it can be, but you can also do things very cheaply. Here’s a few budgeting tips.

33. Look for restaurants where order by machine outside: You can see the prices, order and pay before you even go inside so no worries about accidentally overspending.

If you’re a bit nervous, we’ve got a whole guide on how to use a Japanese food ticket machine here.

34. Know your chains: It always makes me laugh when people sneer at chain restaurants in foreign countries as ‘not being local’ – erm, who do you think is filling up the seats!

Chain restaurants can be a quick, easy, cheap way to get a meal. They usually have menus in English or with pictures and on your first trip to Japan, if you’re just a bit intimidated by the whole Japan experience, they can help while you find your feet. Some of the chains to look for include

Yoshinoya, Sukiya – sells ‘bowl’ dishes which are basically sliced meat on rice

Mos Burger or Freshness Burger – the names give those two away

Coco Ichiban – Japanese curry. It’s not like Indian curry.

Even McDonalds and KFC can be fun to visit – they have things you won’t see at home.

Another cheap way to eat in to try some street food dishes, check out this list on some of the best dishes in Osaka and where to find them here.

If you’re travelling to Tokyo, you’ll find some great suggestions in this list of Tokyo street foods over at Trip Anthropologist.

35. Check for seat fees: In some of the small atmospheric drinking alleys like Memory Lane or Golden Gai, you might have to pay for your seat as well as your drinks – if you’re budgeting carefully, double-check for this. We got caught one night as it was well hidden on the menu.

Other bars might serve you a small food item after you’ve placed your drink order. Sorry guys, it’s not on the house and nor can you really say no to it without being seen as rude, it will be added to your bill and this is another form of seat fee.

36. Try standing: If in doubt, join the locals at one of the standing-only bars or, pick a larger bar – it generally bars with just a few seats that apply these fees as they can’t afford you sitting around all night nursing one beer.

37. Stay on one train line. Different lines in Japan can have different owners which means you need to buy different tickets to travel between them and it can add up. To save cash, try and work out your journeys so you stick to one train line and walk a little bit,

38. Consider a tourist train pass: Suica and Pasmo cards are very convenient but if ever I overspend on a day in Tokyo, it’s on transport – also look at the train passes available to tourists. These can be a bit complex as they only work on set lines, but, if you can’t walk long distances and want to hop on and off trains all day they might save you money. A full list is here.

39: Japanese KitKats come in some very unusual flavours – and, if you’re travelling to Japan for the first time you might have trying these on your list of things to do. You can go to one of the shops dedicated to all things KitKat to do this, but they can be expensive. Instead, head to one of the shops that sell a bit of everything that you’ll find in most areas and you can pick up bags of small KitKats. That’s a horribly vague description of the store, but when you see one you’ll know – they’re often a mix of chemist, beauty store and sweetshop. Personally, I find Japanese Kit Kats too sweet, but, you have to try one.

Handy Words to Know

Japanese is incredibly complex and there is more than one way to say many things, but these will get the message across even if they aren’t perfect.

40. Sumimasen – excuse me – you’ll say it a lot particularly when trying to get off trains. It also works as I’m sorry.

41. Arigato gozaimasu – thank you, but a bit more polite

42. Kudasai – please

43. Wakarimasen – means I don’t understand

44. Gochisousama – I was coached to pronounce this for 10 minutes during a food tour! I still can’t quite do it – it’s kind of like goats’ cheese salmon. It loosely means thank you for preparing that meal and shows you enjoyed it. If like me, it’s too tough to remember, try oishi which also conveys that you’ve enjoyed the food and experience. Make waiting staff and chefs happy.

shinkansen train passing Mount Fuji in Japan

Things to Know About Bullet Trains

45. If you’re going to be using bullet trains, then download the Hyperdia app. It tells you the times of trains and often the platform and its essential for planning a smooth trip in advance. You’ll save a lot of time making your seat reservations if you know what train you want to be on.

46. Be on time, the trains don’t wait – nor do they hang around for long at stations so be ready.

47. Fuji views: If you’re travelling from Tokyo to Osaka and want to see Mount Fuji from the train, book seats on the right and pay attention about 40-50 minutes into the journey. If you’re going the other way, book on the left and wait until about 40-50 minutes before you reach Tokyo.

48. Sign up for our mailing list and we’ll email you our absolutely brilliant ‘Bullet Train Cheat Sheet’ which has everything you need to know about using the Shinkansen in one place.

The Quick Guide to the Japan Rail Pass

49. The Cliff notes version: There will be a longer post on this at some point, but right now, here’s the bullet point guide.

  • The Japan Rail Pass is a pass for tourists that lets you use trains around Japan without having to buy tickets every time.
  • You can now buy it inside Japan, but it’s cheaper to buy it in advance. You can order yours from Klook or Japan Rail Pass
  • You do NOT need one if you are only going to be in Tokyo.
  • It’s only worth it if you are making at least two long bullet train journeys
  • If you’re not sure, cost your journey on Hyperdia.
  • Don’t lose it. It’s like cash. If it goes, it’s gone.
  • For more advice on whether you need a Japan Rail Pass for your trip check out our guide on if the JR Pass is worth it. If however you’ve already decided you do want a rail pass but aren’t quite sure how it all works, then you need our guide to using the Japan Rail Pass instead.

Other Trains

50. The easiest way to pay for train tickets is to buy a Pasmo or Suica card. You then just load them with cash and they can be used on any line. As I mentioned above, it might not be the cheapest option, but it is the easiest.

51. Plan your escape: Always check google maps to see what exit from the station you need (it’s marked with a little number). Otherwise, you could literally be the other side of the area from where you need. Follow the yellow signs for the right exit when you get there.

52. Find the magic chart: On the wall of each Metro station, you’ll see a diagram that looks like lots of trains all on top of each other. This diagram is time-saving gold! It tells you exactly which carriage to get into to be nearest to exits or interchanges. So, look up the name of the station where you’re getting off and then look for what you’re going to do when you get there – like change to the Ginza line or go to the exit. This will be marked on a carriage – that’s the closest one to be in.

53. If you notice a pink sign on the floor by the carriage doors or pink signs on the windows, you’re going into a ‘ladies only’ carriage – this is fine if you are a lady. If you’re not you might want to shuffle along the platform a bit.

54. Join the queue. I forget this so often and just hang around the platform. Then have to get in line. If you live in London, I know you’re used to every man for himself on the tube, but this is the polite version.

55. Do NOT go on the Yamanote Line during rush hour because you’ve seen the people being pushed on trains on TV. It’s not fun at all!

Taxis and Ride Share

56. Don’t touch the doors: Taxi doors open and close automatically so you don’t need to touch them.

57. Be Understood: Make sure you pick up a card with the hotel’s address written on it in Japanese so you can show it to your driver. If you’re going somewhere other than your hotel, then ask your host to write down the address.

58. That’s interesting… If you need to catch a cab on the street, don’t get confused. A red sign means it’s empty, the green sign means it’s not for hire.

59. Uber exists, but it isn’t as popular as it is elsewhere in the world.

Faux Pas not to Make

Japan is a very polite society and there are a few things you should try not to do…

60. Blow your nose in public: Despite the fact that you’ll often be handed tissues on the street, blowing your nose is not the done thing.

61. Eat or drink while walking down the road. If you buy something from a vending machine, stay at the machine to consume it – the benefit of this. They are usually the only place with a bin (if you do end up with rubbish, convenience stores also usually have a bin).

62. Chat on your phone or speak loudly on the train: You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how nice and quite it is!

63. Giving up your seat for someone older than you – I know, but it’s just not done. It’s better to just stand up quietly and let them take it if they want to. The exception to this is if you’re sitting in the priority seats at the end of the carriage (they’re marked) in which case, you should get up.

64. Stick your chopsticks upright in your rice. Or pass anything to other people on the table with the ends of your chopsticks.

65. Pour soy sauce on your sushi – you’re supposed to lightly dip it in. In very formal sushi restaurants you also shouldn’t ask for more wasabi. The theory is the chef knows exactly the right amount to put on.

66. Be careful about taking photos. This is mostly for those going to Kyoto. Some areas around the Gion district now forbid photography to protect the geisha and Maiko working in the area. You’ll see large wooden signs if you’re in one of these areas and there is a fine if you break the rule.

If you do want to meet a geisha or maiko on your trip, you can book organised tea or other activities where they will be happy to be photographed.

Things To Book in Advance

67: You’ve probably worked out that a trip to Japan needs a bit of forward planning – but there are some attractions where you should not just decide when you’re going to visit them, but also book your tickets in advance. Here are the big ones

Studio Ghibli. If you want to visit this museum, you have to book 3 months in advance. Tickets for the whole month go on sale on the first of the month – so, if you’re travelling in August, you’d log on May 1st to buy your ticket. Buy them here.

The Robot Restaurant: It’s loud, tacky and completely potty, but it’s fun (and very busy)! See more here.

Team Lab Borderless: This interactive exhibit is very popular, book in advance here.

Tuna Auction: It’s not quite the same as it used to be when the fish market was at Tsukiji, you have to observe from above now, but it’s still popular. You should book a month in advance.

Sumo: If there’s a tournament in town, you’ll need to book in advance.

Tokyo Skytree: It’s not as important to book this one, but if you want to avoid the queues, book in advance here.

Tokyo Disneyland. You don’t have to book these in advance, but it will save you time if you do. Here’s what to do.

68. Make Disney Easier: If you are going to Tokyo Disneyland, check one of the crowd calendars to find the least busy day during your trip. It will make a LOT of difference to your day to go when it’s less crowded. Try this one, but you’ll need to translate it to English.

Restaurants and Eating Out

69. You don’t need to tip, it’s not expected.

70. Expect to find a large head of froth on your beer – don’t complain! The Japanese think it makes the beer taste better.

71. What’s that for? If there’s a basket by your seat, it’s for your bag.

72. The Mistake I Still Make: If you’re ordering from a food ticket machine, put the money in first. I forget this one every time. Once you’ve finished ordering, get your change and the ticket. Hand the ticket to the staff and wait for your meal.

73. Smoking is allowed in many bars and restaurants – but ventilation seems to be pretty good. I’m very sensitive to smoke and can’t think of any bar or restaurant I’ve had to leave because of it – nor do your clothes smell the next day.

74. It can be quite hard to be vegetarian or vegan in Japan as some restaurants don’t always understand what classes as veggie or vegan. Visit Happy Cow which has a whole Japan section, or Vegewel (who also list gluten-free restaurants) to find those that definitely do.

75. If you have a food allergy, you’re obviously going to want to convey information correctly. You can buy cards written in Japanese that explain you have an allergy and what to – or, this excellent resource from Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia is free to print out.

76. Don’t be upset: Sometimes you might see a sign that says ‘no foreigners’ or be turned away from a small bar or restaurants. It’s not personal. Often it’s because the owners don’t speak enough English to feel they can serve you properly. Don’t get stressed or upset, just let it go and find the next cool place around the corner.

77. Hands, Hands. Hands. If you’re handed a damp cloth before your meal it’s for cleaning your hands, not your face.

Things to Know About Onsens

Onsens are hot water baths than you can soak in – but you have to do it naked! When I was on my first trip to Japan, I didn’t go because of that, but I’m so glad I got braver on trip two. Here are a few tips…

78. No-one cares about your naked butt in an onsen except you! Don’t miss out on going because you’re worried about having to strip off in front of strangers, they really don’t care about you.

79. Don’t break the cardinal rule of onsen etiquette. You must wash your body before you get in the communal baths. There’s a room for this. Scrub everything.

80. Top tip: You’re given a little towel to carry – you can strategically position it to hide some blushes. Don’t put it in the bath.

81. Onsens are segregated by gender. Make sure you go through the right door.

82. Tattoos are frowned upon and you will find signs telling you that you can’t go in swimming pools or public onsens with them. If you can cover them, then do. If you have larger tattoos, the site Tattoo Friendly Japan will help you out a lot.

Bathrooms

Yes, trust me you do need a section on this – I’ve already told you you might need a little towel, but here are 3 other things to know…

83. Check outside for some slippers: It’s not in every place, but if you are in a smaller bar or cafe, someone’s home or a royokan, you’ll notice some slippers outside the door of the toilet. These are the bathroom slippers – use them. And don’t forget to take them off when you come out.

84. The toilets are talked about for a reason. Switch on your heated seat. You’ll thank me for this tip when your legs are aching after sightseeing.

85. Press it – go on. If you enter a public bathroom, and notice a button on the wall, press it. It’s to disguise any noises you might make.

Safety and Health

86. Don’t be afraid to experiment: Restaurants are generally extremely clean so you don’t need to worry about food poisoning. You can also drink tap water in Japan.

87. If you lose something it’s likely to be returned. If you lose it on a train, visit a Travel Service Centre at the nearest station who can help you or, ask your hotel reception to call the Lost and Found Department of the relevant train line. If it’s on the street, go to the police station close to where you think you lost it and ask for help.

88. Earthquakes do happen. I haven’t experienced one yet, but my friend has. They were in the shower and couldn’t work out why the water was acting strangely! Don’t panic, but do locate emergency exits and stairs when you get to your hotel room just in case you ever need to use them. You’ll also find a torch in your room for if the power goes out.

So there you go 88 of the most essential tips to make visiting Japan for the first time a bit easier – and, I hope a bit more special. If you enjoyed it, please share it with friends, family or on social media to help out other people wondering how to prepare for their first trip to Japan.

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