Whether you visit Japan for a short stay or a long vacation, this complete Japan travel guide will help you to prepare. Japan’s customs, culture, and weather is probably completely different from your home country. In fact, it’s probably different from any other country in the world.
Don’t be put off – it may take some preparation before you go, but Japan is one of the coolest places to visit on earth. This complete Japan travel guide will help you plan your trip to the land of the rising sun and make it will be an unforgettable experience.
- Japan Travel Guide: Pre-departure
- What to Pack for Japan
- Budget Travel in Japan
- Places to Stay in Japan
- Japanese Culture
- The Language: Do People Speak English in Japan?
- Learning Japanese: Can I Learn Japanese in a Few Days?
- Tap Water
- Train Etiquette
- Emergencies in Japan
- Language Apps
- For More Information
- Traveling Tips
- Insider Tips
- What Tips Can You Share?
Japan Travel Guide: Pre-departure
You can’t buy many of the things you need for your trip while in Japan. A little planning will go a long way. Here’s some of the basic things you might need to bring with you to Japan.
What to Pack for Japan
Try to find a balance between bringing too much or too little. You don’t want to be stuck trying to find something you need in Japan. Yet you don’t want to drag around big suitcases while traveling in Japan. Here’s some of the things you need to consider when packing your bags for Japan.
Absolutely Necessary Items to Pack
- Passport/Visa: In addition to having your passport and visa, you should also make copies of them in case you lose them. If you want an awesome travel wallet to hold your passport, documents, credits cards, and even a pen, the Zoppen travel wallet is awesome.
- Cash (many places don’t accept credit cards or traveler’s checks. Exchange money before coming to Japan)
- Prescription Medication: You might not be able to get what you need in Japan. If you need to take medication while in Japan, bring proof you’re allowed to have it. Get a doctor’s note. Make sure the note lists your reason for having the drug. Many medicines are not allowed in Japan (even over-the-counter medicine)
- For accepted over-the-counter medicines, you can have a two-month supply. There’s a one-month limit for prescription drugs. If you need more, you have to apply for a yakkan shoumei — a certificate allowing you to carry medication. See the note below for information on prohibited medicine
- Personal Hygiene Products: While you can get feminine hygiene products, shampoo, cosmetics, condoms, etc. in Japan, it’s better to bring your own if you have a personal preference
- Flight Tickets/Hotel Vouchers: Of course you need your tickets to get to Japan, but just to be safe, you should also print out any flight or accommodation vouchers for proof of purchase. You can simply show your voucher/confirmation to your hotel should any problems arise.
- Appropriate Clothes: Make sure you check the historical forecasts for the time of year you visit. See what the weather’s like, particularly the temperature.You definitely don’t want to be without warm clothes in the winter, nor do you want to be in a sweater during the hot and humid summers.
- There are lots of stores where you can buy clothes for cheap, but it’s better to come prepared. If you do plan on buying clothes in Japan, keep in mind that Japan sizes often run small. You might not be able to find much clothes if you normally wear anything larger than XL sizes
- The Japanese yen bills are larger than many other world currencies. If you wallet is made to fit smaller bills,the Japanese yen bills might not fit comfortably in your wallet
- There are lots of stores where you can buy clothes for cheap, but it’s better to come prepared. If you do plan on buying clothes in Japan, keep in mind that Japan sizes often run small. You might not be able to find much clothes if you normally wear anything larger than XL sizes
Many over-the-counter medicines in your country might be illegal in Japan.
Stimulant medications (like some inhalers and Actifed) are illegal. Codeine, Viagra, and Prozac are also against the law.
Do some research on the specific drug you need to take with you. Feel free to contact the Japanese embassy for help.
Also, know the consequences of bringing something prohibited in. Bringing strong narcotics (even with a prescription) could cause a serious problem.
For More Information on Bringing Medicine to Japan
For U.S. Citizens Bringing Medicine to Japan
United States Consulate Guide Homepage: U.S. Consulate Contact Information
Recommended Items to Bring to Japan
- Credit Cards: (Visa or Mastercard is the most commonly accepted cards in Japan. Good for paying for big purchases at places like hotels, department stores, most fine dining restaurants, etc.). You should also make copies or take down all of the information on your credit cards in case you lose them
- Good Pair of Walking Shoes (preferably one that slips on and off easily): Many of Japan’s attractions can only be seen on foot. You will be walking a lot. Just standing and walking around in a museum for a couple of hours can be tiring. If you plan on hiking in Japan (particularly on mountains like Mt. Fuji), make sure you’re well equipped. Large-sized shoes are difficult to find in Japan. You’ll also need to bring your own gear.Keep in mind that some restaurants, in addition to most shrines, temples, and other holy places, require you to take off your shoes when you enter. Shoes that slip off and on are a lifesaver. It gets tiring when you have to constantly bend down to untie your shoelaces.
- Pocket Wi-Fi: If you have a smart device, having internet service in Japan will help you out A LOT. Google Maps will be your best friend, and will make finding things 1,000 times easier. You can also look up train and subway times on Hyperdia
- Handkerchief: Japan rarely has paper towels in bathrooms to wipe your hands. Also a handkerchief is essential in the summer where you’ll probably be sweating a lot. A handkerchief can also be used to hold a table when you’re at a busy cafe or restaurants where you seat yourself. All you need to do is put your handkerchief on the table/counter space you want and Japanese people will know someone is sitting there.
- Pocket Tissue: In some restrooms, you won’t find any toilet paper (either ran out or not provided at all). Believe me, using the bathroom only to find that there is not toilet paper is not a fun experience. Carrying your own tissues ensures you won’t get caught short.Also, many cheaper/smaller restaurants don’t provide napkins, so its good to have some tissues at hand
- You can buy handkerchiefs and tissues at the 100 yen shops and most convenient stores throughout Japan. If possible, buy them at a 100 yen store. However, more often than not, you’ll find a convenience store first (they are ALL over the place). One cloth handkerchief or a few packs of tissue in a convenience stores usually costs around 200 – 600 yen.
- Camera: This is a must. Japan might be the most photogenic country in the world. If your phone doesn’t have a camera or you forget to bring one, you can buy one quite cheap. Keep in mind the instructions might not be in English.
- Electric Converter/Adapter: Japan’s electrical outlets are two-pronged and is 100V. You may need an electric converter or adapter for your electronics. They are so cheap and small that it’s worth bringing one just in case. If you travel a lot, a International power and AC adapter (amazing for electronics, but doesn’t work with high-power devices like hair dyers or curling irons) is a good choice. Or a simple universal travel adapter to change the shape of the outlet plugs (doesn’t covert the electrical charge) is might be enough for those using electronics from the USA.
- U.S. Devices: Outlets in the U.S. are usually 120 Volts. Most American cell phones, laptops, and tablet usually won’t give you a problem in Japan. However, appliances like hair dryers and curling irons have been known to not work at all.
- Good Suitcase: Unless you use a service to send your bags everywhere, you’ll probably be walking with your luggage a lot. So you need to have a suitcase that rolls smoothly, and is durable. If you plan on taking the trains, your suitcase should be as small as possible. Local trains and even the bullet train doesn’t have a lot of storage space for your bags
- Travel Bag: If you plan on traveling to many places in Japan, I highly recommend you stay in a city with the bullet train nearby, and do day trips from there. That way you won’t need to carry all of your big bags with you everywhere you go. You can just bring a small travel bag or backpack with you to carry your necessities and to hold things you buy. If you want a compact and lightweight backpack, the Outlander travel bags are great. If you have a laptop or tablet to carry, the Swissgear laptop backpack is awesome.
Keep in Mind
If you buy electronics in Japan, they may not work in your country. Most electronics you buy should be okay, but it is definitely worth checking up on. The charging requirements may be different in your home country, so check before you buy.
You need a passport to visit Japan.
Getting a passport can take a few weeks to a few months, depending on where you live. Apply in advance. It costs much more if you wait until the last minute.
Visitors from 68 countries don’t need a visa to enter Japan.
If you’re from one of these countries, you don’t have to do anything visa related. You just get a stamp in your passport when your plane lands.
Be sure to check the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website before you go. The information can change from time to time.
For More Information
List of the 68 Countries for Visa Exemption (July 2017)
Most people can visit for 90 days as a tourist. If you’re from Brunei, Thailand, or Indonesia, you can only visit 15 days. If you’re from the United Arab Emirates, you can visit for 30 days.
For some visitors, you can extend your stay from 90 days to 180. You must apply for the extension before the 90 days expire. Countries with this option: Austria, Germany, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Switzerland, and the UK.
Tourists from China, Russia, CIS countries, Georgia, or the Philippines must apply for a visa before visiting.
For More Information:
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan: Travel Visa Information
ALWAYS have some cash when you are in Japan.
The currency of Japan is the Japanese yen.
The largest banknote is 10,000 yen (approximately 90 – 100 US dollars), which is not a large amount of money.
If you bring lots of cash with you, it’s easy to end up with thick wads in your wallet.
Consider how much money you need for your trip. You might want to bring something other than just cash.
You WILL need some cash, though.
Cash is still the preferred method of payment. Many small establishments (like restaurants, bars, and shops) are cash only. It is also common for larger, modern restaurants to accept only cash during lunch.
It’s always good to have some cash on you in case you need to buy train tickets or can’t find an ATM anywhere.
If you can’t speak Japanese, paying with cash makes things much, much simpler as well. Most taxi drivers or employees at local shops can’t speak English, which can make the process of paying with a credit card difficult.
Should you exchange money before coming to Japan?
I highly recommend you change at least some money to yen before arriving to Japan.
If not, you can exchange your money at most international airports in Japan.
If your home currency is popular, you can get a decent rate. The US Dollar is a popular currency, so Americans get a good exchange rate in Japan.
If your home currency doesn’t get exchanged in Japan very often, you’ll most likely get a bad rate. Examples include the Canadian Dollar, Norwegian Kroner, and Indian Rupee. For truly unpopular currencies, you might not find a way to exchange at all.
Check current rates to find the best deal. Do it before you go, as you may find a better deal in your home country.
For More Information
Yen Exchange Rates: X-Rates Website
Where to Exchange Currency in Japan
- Major Airports: Many post exchange rates online for you to check before you fly
- Large Chain Hotels: They might not have as much cash as you need. They usually only accept a limited number of currencies. However, they usually don’t have the best rates of exchange
- Japanese Banks: The Japan Post Bank is another place to exchange money. However, in my experience, I recommend you don’t exchange money here. It can be very complicated (as many branches don’t speak English) and many banks don’t exchange money at all. At the very least, some banks require you to be a member to exchange currency. If possible, exchange your money elsewhere
- Some ATM’s: Please note: many ATM’s don’t offer service in English. When they do offer English, that doesn’t always mean all the services are available to you. Also, ATM’s in Japan don’t stay open 24/7 – some close in the evenings, others for the whole weekend
Other options include Travelers Checks and Cash Passport Cards. Both might be great choices if you plan to visit other countries besides Japan on your trip. They allow you to withdraw money in many currencies. However, they are not good options if you just plan to travel in Japan.
**I highly, highly recommend that you exchange your money BEFORE coming to Japan. At least enough to get you to your hotel, eat at a restaurant, and buy things from a convenience store. More often than not, when you arrive in Japan, your next mission is to get to your hotel as soon as possible. Depending on what airport you are at, and where your hotel is, doing this without cash can be very difficult, if not impossible. When you get to your hotel, you’ll probably want to have a meal, or at the very least buy some things from the convenience store nearest to your hotel. So be sure to have at least enough cash to do this.
I find that exchanging your money at your local bank/exchange center before coming to Japan will make your life a lot easier. You will probably get better exchange rates, and you won’t have to struggle to find a place to exchange your money when you are in Japan.
I would also avoid bringing traveler’s checks to Japan. Unless you plan on only staying in luxury hotels, traveler’s checks are a pain in the butt. Most restaurants, shops, and small hotels don’t accept traveler’s checks. Also, many banks won’t or can’t exchange traveler’s checks for you. Some just don’t do it at all. Other banks require you to have an account with them. So avoid traveler’s checks unless you are going to visit countries other than Japan.
Budget Travel in Japan
Many people think that Japan is expensive, and you need to be rich to travel there. Of course, there are lots of luxury hotels and restaurants that cost an incredible amount of money, but Japan also has tons of cheap restaurants and places to stay. Where else in the world can you stay find places to stay for $20 a night or less or a meal for $2.00 – $3.00? If you want to travel Japan without spending a lot of money, check out our cheap travel in Japan guide.
Places to Stay in Japan
Japan doesn’t have a shortage of places to stay. There are so many different options you can choose from. There’s everything from luxury hotels to budget capsule hotels. You can even find traditional Japanese inns for a unique and memorable experience, or a friendly hostel to meet travelers all over the world. The problem is that many places to stay in Japan only has a website in Japanese, or no website at all. This makes it a challenge to find and book the right type of accommodation for your budget. One of the easiest way to find good deals and book places to stay in Japan is by using a 3rd party website. However, many of these websites aren’t very good, and some are even risky to use. There are two sites I have used that I highly recommend.
Recommended Websites for Finding a Place to Stay
Agoda.com: For booking hotels, ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), or hostels in Japan, Agoda is my number 1 choice. It’s reliable, easy to use, and offers the most accommodation options in Japan (or other countries in Asia).
Booking.com: Agoda is slightly better for reserving places to stay in Japan. However, if you plan on reserving multiple hotels in multiple countries on your trip, Booking.com is better for this.
Before visiting Japan, it’s important to understand a little about the culture.
Japanese people are so polite a small faux pas won’t be a problem. Even so, it’s good to know the basics.
The Language: Do People Speak English in Japan?
Let’s be real. Japan is one of the most beautiful, exciting, and memorable places to visit in the world. However, unlike many other beautiful countries in the world, there is one big negative about Japan that most travelers agree on.
The language barrier.
Most people do not speak English. While most Japanese people take years of English in school, very few can actually speak it. This is mainly due to their methods of study. They put an emphasis on reading, writing, and translating English, but little emphasis on speaking and usage.
Where to Find English Speakers
You’re likely to find quite a bit of English speakers in big city areas where there are a lot of foreign tourists. These are places like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Hakone, Mt. Fuji, etc.
However, these English speakers are concentrated ONLY in tourist areas. These are places such as luxury/chain hotels, hostels, high-end restaurants, popular tourist attractions (like Disneyland, Tokyo Skytree, etc), or popular shops.
Just because you’re in a popular tourist area like Shibuya or Odaiba, doesn’t mean you’ll find English speakers everywhere. If you go to a mom and pop restaurant, local store, or even a smaller hotel, the staff there might not know any English at all.
If you don’t know how to speak Japanese, chances are high that you’ll run into some language difficulties in Japan. This is especially true if you go to the countryside, or areas that are not super popular with travelers.
Now don’t let this scare you. Japanese people are some of the nicest and most helpful people in the world. Even if they don’t understand you, they usually will try their best you help you out.
Just like anywhere else in the world, you might run into people who are cold or even rude. But this is very rare in my experience. Some of the culture may feel rude to you (see the culture section below), but if you ask someone for help, the overwhelming majority of Japanese people will try their best to help you out.
Tips for Speaking with People in Japan:
- It’s okay to use English, even if they don’t understand. Just try to speak slowly and clearly and use simple language (no difficult words or slang)
- Use gestures to help get your point across
- While many Japanese people can’t speak English, many of them can read it. Writing things down can help the other person understand you
- Printing out things like hotel information (with the address), attraction information, or travel itineraries (preferably in Japanese) can help you a lot. Just show the person you are talking to the information and it will be much easier for them to help you out. I often use my smartphone to search for routes on the bullet train. I would just show my phone to the ticketing agent at the train station and they would make my tickets for me
Learning Japanese: Can I Learn Japanese in a Few Days?
Of course the best way to get the most out of your experience in Japan is if you can speak the language. Now you don’t have to be fluent. If you are just learning Japanese, that is even better for you. You will have the opportunity to try out what you learned and can have lots of fun doing so.
But what if you don’t speak Japanese at all? It’s not a problem at all. While you can run into some difficulties and confusion due to the language barrier, this is usually just a minor setback. Most people who can’t speak Japanese at all usually has the time of their lives.
However, if you want to learn Japanese for your trip, good for you! While Japanese is considered to be a difficult language, it’s actually not that hard and it’s fun to learn. Here’s how you should learn Japanese for your trip.
How to Learn Japanese for Your Trip
If you want to learn Japanese quickly, I highly recommend Japanesepod101. Unlike learning Japanese from books or reading websites (usually boring as heck), Japanesepod101 has tons of audio and video lessons. The audio and video lessons teach you useful and natural Japanese in a fun and easy to understand way. This resource is especially good if you want to continue your Japanese studies even after your trip is over.
However, if you don’t have the time or desire to learn a lot of Japanese, here’s what you should focus on with the time you have.
Learning Japanese: What to Study for Your Trip
Here’s a guideline of what to study with the amount of time you have to prepare.
Less Than 1 Week: Learn basic words and phrases. You’ll most likely use these words (hello, thank you, excuse me, how much, and please). Use this word list and this survival phrases list to learn them. Check out the first 3 lessons. They are free but very useful (need to sign-up with an e-mail address).
1 – 2 Weeks: In addition to learning the phrases above, learning basic grammar is useful. Here’s some basic grammar lessons that are great for learning (Use the first 3 lessons. They are free).
2 – 4 Weeks: In addition the basic words, phrases, and grammar, you should start to learn hiragana and katakana. These are 2 of the Japanese writing systems.
While you won’t be able to reach much, just knowing how to read them can help you to identify restaurants, hotels, attractions, and most importantly, train station stops in Japan. Check out our learning Japanese for absolute beginners guide to learn hiragana, vocabulary, and basic grammar.
1 Month or More: If you have a month of more to study Japanese, you can learn quite a bit. You can probably learn enough to understand basic conversations in stores, the train stations, and Japanese people you meet.
However, if you don’t practice listening and speaking, you’ll probably have a little trouble at first. But studying Japanese daily for a month or more can give you enough skills to make your trip a lot smoother.
If you plan on just using Japanese for your trip, I highly recommend the lessons on Japanesepod101. If you plan on studying Japanese after your trip, I would get a good book in addition to the Japanesepod101 lessons.
Fashion in Japan: What to Wear
Japanese people tend to dress in a fashionable but conservative style. You rarely see large amounts of flesh on display. You almost never see the revealing dress styles popular with some western women.
Attractive clothing tends to lean more towards cute than sexy. Short skirts and knee-high socks are popular… at times you might think you’re seeing real-life Manga characters!
If you prefer a more revealing style, it shouldn’t cause too many problems — aside from a few stares.
If you visit religious sites (shrines, temples, etc), dress more conservatively.
Japanese people bow.
Several times each day.
Sometimes several times each hour.
It’s quite catching – even if you don’t mean to, you end up bowing along.
The bow is more than a nod of the head. You hinge at the waist with your hands folded in front of you.
Whether the bow is in thanks, apology, or gratitude, the bigger the bow, the bigger the emotion.
If the 7-11 cashier thanks you as you leave, it’s a quick dip (or doing nothing at all is fine too).
If you did something really insulting and want to apologize, be prepare to have your forehead almost down to the ground.
You don’t have to bow, but you probably won’t be able to help yourself.
One word: Nope!
Japan probably has the best service in the world. Yet, it is also a country where tipping is NOT a custom.
Going to eat a nice restaurant? No need to tip.
How about that nice bellhop bringing your bags to your room? No tip necessary.
What about catching a taxi? Yup, no need to tip there either.
The only time where it’s custom to tip people (and even then not completely necessary) is for personalized, and special services. For example, hiring a moving company to move all of your furniture and boxes to your new house. That probably is a good time to tip.
Of course, there are other situations where a tip might be okay, but as a traveler in Japan, you probably won’t encounter any of these situations. For those from a tipping country, I know it may feel weird, or even rude to not give someone a tip. But leaving tips can actually be awkward or even bad.
If you try to tip someone, they’ll get confused and most likely refuse, or may even be offended. If you leave money on the table at a restaurant or pay more than the amount of your bill, you’ll have the restaurant staff running after you to give you back your money.
Luxury hotels or places that have lots of foreign visitors (especially from America) might have employees that are used to getting tips (that is, they won’t be shocked that you’re giving them money and will accept it). Even at these places, you don’t need to tip for anything.
However, if you catch a taxi, and your fare is 975 yen, and you give then a 1,000 yen bill, you can tell them to keep the change. This is just to speed things up if you don’t want to wait for change.
Just remember this: Keep your money. Nobody tips in Japan.
Everything in Japan is orderly, even how you ride the escalator.
Sometimes you see “single person” escalators where it’s only wide enough for 1 person. People stand on these and enjoy the ride rather than walk, but if you’re the only person on one you can do as you wish.
For double escalators (with room for two people to stand side by side), there are strict rules. The left side is for standing and the right side for passing. Keep to the left if you’re standing.
*Note: Standing on the left and passing on the right is only done in places outside of the Kansai area (Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kyushu, etc.). In Kansai (especially Kobe and Osaka) it’s the opposite. In places like Kobe and Osaka, the standing lane is on the right and you pass on the left.
If you aren’t sure, check to see what everyone else does. Some escalators have signs to let you know the rules.
People passing on the right won’t make a fuss if you stand in the way. They usually wait awkwardly and silently until you reach the top – or barge past if in a hurry.
Make sure your suitcase or bag is either in front of you or behind you. Don’t leave it next to you and block up the passing lane.
Tap water is almost always safe to drink in Japan.
That doesn’t mean it tastes good. It’s especially awful in big cities like Kyoto and Tokyo.
Most people prefer bottled water. A portable water bottle with a filter is a good idea, particularly if you’re going camping. If not, you’re almost guaranteed to find a convenience store (or several) anywhere you go if you’re in a big city. Buying water from a supermarket is almost always cheaper, but most convenience stores sell 2-liter bottles for around 100 yen.
If you do volunteer work on farms in Japan, you might notice people don’t drink the tap water. Instead, they fill up large thermoses at natural springs.
Have Some Emergency Water
I recommend always having bottled water on hand.
During earthquakes and typhoons, the water system gets cut off. If you’re staying somewhere for a long time, buy a few 2-liter bottles of water — just in case.
They’re cheap. You’ll need them if your water supply goes off.
We all know the Japanese are famous for politeness. Do they expect the same from foreign visitors?
Just because you’re a tourist doesn’t mean people let you get away with rudeness (like most other places in the world). Most of these rules are common sense…. but read them anyway. You don’t want to offend anyone on your trip.
In general, don’t make noise on the train. You can talk with your friends or use gadgets — but do so quietly.
Try not to talk on your phone. If you must make a call, speak softly and cover your mouth to reduce noise. There are some trains where you’re not supposed to use your phone at all. There are usually signs posted up.
Playing games or listening to music is fine with earphones/headphones. The sound shouldn’t be audible to other passengers.
Most trains and subways have priority seats. These seats are for the elderly, pregnant women, disabled people, etc. These seats are easy to spot because they are usually a different color than the other seats. They are usually located at the ends of a train car instead of the middle.
A pregnant woman wears a little keychain/badge hanging off her handbag. The badge has a cartoon of a mother and child on a pink heart. It lets people know she’s pregnant.
She might need to sit down, even if she’s not showing yet. If you see a woman with one of these badges standing, it’s customary to offer her your seat.
Offering someone your seat isn’t a cut and dry thing — particularly with older people. Sometimes when you offer an elderly person your seat, they refuse to take it. They might even get offended, but more often than not, they will be happy that you were nice enough to offer your seat!
To make things simple, I recommend NOT sitting the priority seats at all. Save these for those who truly need it. Yes, you’ll see apparently healthy people sitting there. But it’s much better to stand than to let someone who really needs the seat to stand.
Don’t Block Entrances or Aisles
Finally, be careful not to block entrances or aisles with bags and suitcases. This is especailly true when you are riding the train.
During peak hours, some trains are unbelievably packed with people. If you’re by the door when it opens, and people are trying to exit, try to move to give them room. If there isn’t much room, exit the train and stand to the side of the door. You can enter the train once everyone exits.
Japanese people are very nice, but can be very aggressive when entering and exiting trains. Getting bumped is a common incident in Japan (since there is very little room to move) but no one really cares since it’s accident. It takes some getting used to but you shouldn’t think twice about it either.
I recommend that if you’re in the city, or catching a train to a big city, AVOID the rush hour like the plague. The absolute worst times to catch the train in any big city is from 6:30am – 9:00am.
The trains also get busy around 5:00pm, when people start to get off from work. Also, avoid trains from about 1 hour before the last train. These late trains are not only busy, but usually, have a lot of drunk people riding them. That being said, it is very rare to see loud or belligerent drunk people. Even drunk people in Japan are very polite and quiet.
Getting Used to Crowds of People
Back in my hometown in the the USA, we have lots of personal space. Its rare for me to be within 1 – 2 feet of a stranger, and even rarer for me to be so close that we are touching. In Japan, especially in big cities, this is a daily occurrence if you take public transportation. I rode the bus and train every morning during rush hour to get to work. It absolutely sucked. I hated being packed into the train like sardines and being surrounded by a sea of people.
The good news is, as a traveler visiting Japan for a vacation, this experience can actually be quite fun and exciting. It’s kind of neat to be so packed into a train that it’s impossible for you to fall over. Of course this would get old very quickly if you had to do this everyday.
So to make your bus and train rides a lot more enjoyable, here are a few tips:
- Avoid taking the train during morning rush hour. In big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto the trains, subways, and buses start to get busy from around 6:30am, and get REALLY packed from 7:00am – 9:00pm or so. Avoid public transportation at these times if you can.
- Also, avoid taking the last few trains for the evening. Try to avoid taking any trains from 1 hour before the last train leaves. If the last train is at 12:30am, at the very latest catch the 11:30pm train. Earlier is even better. The last few trains are packed too, and are usually filled with drunk businessmen. Here’s the strange thing though. Even most drunk people in Japan are polite. I have probably seen thousands of stumbling drunk people on the train at night, and very rarely are they loud or cause any trouble. It does happen, but it’s not that common. That being said, it’s better to avoid them. Even if they are polite and keep to themselves, I have had drunk men fall on me since they can’t even stand up.
- Avoid long distance travel (especially the bullet trains) during peak seasons. This is especially true for the Obon season (mid August. Around August 13th – 18th). This is when people travel back to their hometowns. Even the bullet trains can get so full that there might not even be any standing room available. New Years (the end of December to the first week of January) and Golden Week (end of April – beginning of May) are also busy times of travel.
- If you have a Japan Rail Pass, always get a reserved seat in advance for the bullet train or express trains. It doesn’t cost extra, and if you miss your train or even lose your tickets, you can just jump on the non-reserved section of most trains.
Bumping in to People
The one part of Japanese culture that may seem rude to Western cultures is that you may have people bumping into you. Sometimes there are just crowds of people rushing to exit the train, or sometimes it might be just one person running to be on time for work. Whatever the case, it’s not uncommon to be bumped or have people hit you from behind in Japan.
Yes, for most of us, this can be irritating and even upsetting. But it’s almost always an accident, and in Japan, it’s no big deal (unless someone straight up tackled you or round house kicked you in the head). So be calm, play it cool, and go along with it. If you are the one who accidentally bumps into someone, you can either say “sumimasen” or “gomenasai” to apologize. Problem solved.
There’s a lot of cultural mistakes people make when they first come to Japan. It’s natural to make these mistakes since most of the are brand new to us.
Here’s some of the bigger ones:
- Don’t place chopsticks upright in your food. Upright chopsticks look like incense sticks at a funeral
- Don’t pass food from chopstick to chopstick – if you want to pass food to someone, put it on a plate
- Don’t point at people with your chopsticks. Don’t point at things in the room, either. This is even ruder than pointing with your fingers
- Some restaurants make you take off your shoes when you enter. They often have traditional tatami mat floors. These restaurants usually provide slippers if you want to use the restroom
- Noisily slurping ramen noodles is normal. Most Japanese people think it’s the best way to enjoy the flavor
Emergencies in Japan
Hopefully, nothing goes wrong on your trip.
Just in case, know what to do in emergency situations and who to call for help. Before your trip, find out whether it’s typhoon season (usually in August/September). Research what to do if an earthquake strikes during your stay.
Natural disasters happen. It’s a good idea to get travel and health insurance before you visit.
Emergency Contact Numbers
For the police, dial 110
For the ambulance or fire department, call 119
If you experience crime in Japan, traffic accidents, or theft, the police should be your first call.
You can also visit a “Koban” (police box) in person. You’ll find them all over the place. Locals can point you in the direction of the nearest Koban if it doesn’t come up in your Google search.
Make sure you know the number to your country’s embassy in Japan… especially in case of emergencies like natural disasters.
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There are plenty of useful Apps to use during your trip to Japan.
For simple translations, use Google Translate. If you just need to look up a word or translate a kanji from a menu, Translate is a great option. You can use your phone’s camera to focus on a kanji character and it will tell you what it says. It isn’t so good for whole sentences or complicated exchanges
For more in-depth language resources, check out Japanese by Renzo. It’s a comprehensive dictionary and learning App for iOS and Android. It’s great if you really want to learn Japanese. The dictionary is top rated. It’s the best way to learn Japanese I’ve come across, and right now it’s free!
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Packing light is particularly important in Japan.
Bullet trains and other public transportation don’t have much space for luggage. You’re better off with a small bag. A good plan is to stay in one place and travel to different places throughout the day. This way, you can leave your big bags in your room and just take a backpack or small bag with you to travel during the day.
You might find you’ve brought too much luggage. If so, try the Takkyubin door-to-door delivery service. They deliver your bags so you don’t have to take them on a crowded train or bus. You can send you bags anywhere. From hotel to hotel, from the airport to your hotel, or even your hotel to a home address.
One final tip – use Hyperdia to check out prices, times and schedules in Japan. The app is particularly useful for trains, but also covers buses, subways, and planes.
Iif you want a Japan Rail Pass, you can only buy one abroad. They aren’t sold in Japan. The Japan Rail Pass allows you to travel freely on most JR trains, including the bullet trains. It even covers some buses and ferries. If you plan to travel to many destinations in Japan, a Rail Pass is too good to miss, so get one before you go.
Other travel passes have the same rule. Make sure you check the details about how, when, and where to buy them.
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A Few Tips From Travelers in Japan:
- Put the address of your hotel or destination in a notebook. Better yet, put it in your phone. This way you can copy the Japanese address into your phone. Writing the address in English might cause some confusion. Show the address to a taxi driver or tourist information center if you get lost
- If you have the time, I highly recommend learning some basic Japanese. Learning how to say a few basic words or phrases, along with learning how to read basic Japanese will greatly enhance your experience on your trip
- Trash cans can be hard to find. Convenience stores and train stations are the few places that have them
- Get a plastic bag when you go shopping, even if you don’t need one. When you have trash, you can’t get rid of, put it in your backpack until you find a bin
- Japan can have unexpected bouts of rain any time of year. Carry a small umbrella in your bag. If you buy one in Japan, it’s worth spending a bit more because the cheap ones break easily. If you want to bring one with you, I highly recommend the Repel travel umbrella from Amazon.
Have you been to Japan? What would you want someone who’s never been there to know? Did we miss anything in this Japan travel guide?
Let us know in the comments.
Are you planning a trip to Japan? What do you want to see?
Don’t forget to share this Japan travel guide with your travel buddies. You might just inspire them to plan a trip to the land of the rising sun! Let me know your plans… I might just go with you.