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8 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Coming to Japan

8 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Coming to Japan

Date published: 7 August 2018
Last updated: 8 November 2018

The more you read, watch videos, and talk to people who have already been to Japan, the more you can familiarize yourself with things that at first may have appeared to you as quirky, or hard to understand. We’ve asked several visitors to Japan to share some of their experiences, and these 8 things were commonly shared!

This guide will certainly help you a lot, but if you’re the adventurous type, and like to discover things by experiencing them on your own skin, fear not. In fact there’s always something else that no one has thought about. These are just a few of the many things you’ll find useful!

1. Book popular places in advance

1. Book popular places in advance

Ain’t this the truth! It might sound like a no brainer, but you would be surprised to what extent you’ll have to do this. In another article we talked about booking restaurants, especially popular ones. In some cases you have to give them a call weeks ahead of time to secure a table.

When things are popular in Japan they are really popular and they get very crowded extremely quickly. If you add to this that planning weeks and even months in advance is a very common thing for Japanese people, things could get rather difficult for those of us who like impromptu plans.

Some of the most sought after destinations in Japan are the Ghibli Museum, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea, Universal Studios Japan, and the Yayoi Kusama Museum.

One might think that given the size of these destinations, it wouldn’t be that hard to get in just by buying a ticket at the gate. Oftentimes, though, this proves to be impossible—not only because of the number of foreign tourists, but also (and possibly especially) because of domestic tourism. Some of these locations are not only fun and interesting for most, but they also represent some of the prides and staples of Japanese culture and media.

■ Ghibli Museum
Take a look at the main website for more information. http://www.ghibli-museum.jp/en/

Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea
Disneyland and Disney Sea need no introduction. These two theme parks will always be packed to the rim. Make sure you visit https://www.tokyodisneyresort.jp/en/tdl/ well ahead of your trip for your tickets.

■ Yayoi Kusama Museum
The Yayoi Kusama Museum also lets you know that tickets won’t be available at the gate. This museum, dedicated to the wildly popular contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama opened only in 2017 but has since become a major destination for tourists and those interested in modern art in general. You’ll be able to book your tickets here: http://www.e-tix.jp/yayoikusamamuseum/en/

■ Universal Studios Japan
If you’re in Kansai, you’ll probably want to go visit the Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. It’s an amazing dreamland with so many attractions, you’ll likely need all day (or more) to see them all. Once again, though, plan ahead. Here is the link to the main website’s page to purchase tickets (ENG). http://www.usj.co.jp/e/ticket/
Several third-party websites also sell tickets, but it’s hard to recognize those who are authorized to do so. It’s recommended to refer only to the main website. Furthermore absolutely avoid buying tickets from other people. The resale of tickets is strictly forbidden. Tickets are also non-refundable, so choose your dates carefully.

2. Bring comfortable (and easy to take off/put on) shoes, and socks.

2. Bring comfortable (and easy to take off/put on) shoes, and socks.

Most of us know that when we visit new cities and areas we’ll need to walk a lot—and in many cases we will walk considerably more than we would Yet some days in Japan may challenge even the most seasoned travelers when it comes to going from place to place on foot.

So many things to see and, more importantly, so little time. The transportation system in Japan is top notch, but often it’s less time consuming to walk from one place to another, than it is to commute (it can also help save some money, if you’re on a budget). While it may not look like much to walk for 20 minutes, or half an hour to your next landmark, when you do that several times a day, the minutes (and the miles) will stack up. Those comfortable (albeit maybe not very fashionable) shoes and socks you decided to bring with you, will be the deciding factor between being forced into your hotel bed the following day, and being ready to go for round two in the morning.

The same goes for socks. Make sure that your footwear is not only comfortable, but also presentable. As most of you probably already know, when entering a home in Japan you should always take your shoes off. Some of our favorite and most comfortable socks may be those that we’ve had for years. They may be worn off, or a little broken. We usually don’t care though. Who’s going to see them after all. Well, in Japan, many people. It’s not only in private residences that you’ll be asked to take your shoes off, but also in indoor areas in temples and shrines, as well as in some restaurants, and even some museums. There’s really no way to know by looking at the signs outside which establishments will require you to remove your shoes before entering, so it serves to be prepared to quickly and seamlessly slip in and out of your shoes.

3. Pack small gifts and mementos for others

3. Pack small gifts and mementos for others

This might sound a little counterintuitive. If you’re traveling abroad, you’ll likely want to buy some souvenirs for your friends and family back home. We rarely think about small presents for people we may meet during out travels. This recommendation is particularly useful if you’re visiting Japan. You may already know some people here, or you may make new friends. It’s not uncommon to form bonds with people you meet in a bar or restaurant or walking around. Despite some stereotypes about Japanese people, the truth is that more often than not, it’s easy to make friends with them in social settings. Especially if you know a little more than the average visitor about Japanese culture and mannerism, you might end up spending a few days with people that you met randomly. Oftentimes, your Japanese friends will customarily buy you a small gift to remember them and your trip by, before you leave. If you stayed at a bed and breakfast with a family, or at a guest-house with a lot of other people, receiving some gifts is almost a given.
So why not be prepared to return the kindness? Of course you could buy something in Japan, and it will surely be appreciated. Yet, how cool would it be to give them something that they could not easily find in their own country? No one will really expect a gift from you, nor would anyone think any less of you if you haven’t thought of it, but if you do, it will surely leave an even sweeter memory of you for the people who’ve met you.

4. Don’t overload your itinerary

4. Don’t overload your itinerary

You’ve finally managed to fit in your schedule that trip to Japan you always wanted to take. You have a few days, but there are so many cities you want to see and who knows when you’ll be able to go back? Why not visit as many as you can during that week/ten-day period you’ll be spending there?

We would recommend against it. While it’s true that Japan has a lot of interesting cities worth visiting (one might even say too many), how much can you see of any given one if you only dedicate one or two days to it (including the travel time to get there)? Surely you’ll have to cut out some amazing options, but if you do, you’ll find that you’ll enjoy your trip more. Each city has much to discover, many things to try and a world worth of people to meet.

Especially if you like to interact with the locals, and you seek to experience places that most tourists don’t have time to see, focus not on how many cities you can say you’ve been to, but on how much of each city you managed to learn about. Most people prefer to visit two or three cities during their first trip. Others would even go as far as staying only in one city for their whole vacation. Ultimately you’ll decide, but, if at all possible, make sure you stay in Japan for as long as you can. The jet lag alone, depending on where you’re travelling from, might be enough to make you lose a couple of days since you’ll feel more tired than you’d expect and you’ll want to rest. The first time I visited Japan I used up my whole vacation in Tokyo and never regretted it. It took years until the second visit, and I did the same in another one. The best framework for most would be two to three cities within a 10-day to two weeks period.

5. Plan for what-ifs

5. Plan for what-ifs

One thing that people often overlook (and some later regret not thinking about) when traveling is some form of medical or travel insurance. Depending on your country of origin, there probably will be many companies that offer this kind of service. Some of them may look pricey (although some research will likely result is something affordable), but they could turn out to be a real money-saver (not to mention giving peace of mind). No matter where in the world you travel, it’s always good to be prepared.

In Japan, for example, should you need to get visited by a doctor, or even worse to be hospitalized, you may have to face some serious expenses. Extended stays in a hospital might pile up very high (¥50,000/day). A hospital visit could cost you anywhere between ¥10,000 and ¥30,000 (¥10,000 amounts to almost USD100 at the current exchange rate).

Hospital bills aren’t any different for foreigners when compared to Japanese citizens’, but Japan implements a mandatory National Insurance that cuts the costs by at least 70%. Many private insurance companies in the country and abroad provide a similar service. Hopefully you won’t need to use your insurance, but, especially if you travel with kids, it’d be a highly recommended addition to your top-of-the-list preparations.

6. Don’t overpack

6. Don’t overpack

You’re usually a parsimonious traveler. You don’t really buy too much stuff when you leave your country. Why would Japan be any different? Because there is so much that you will like and will hate yourself if you don’t buy it! It doesn't matter what you’re into: clothing, anime, cute items, masks, shoes, quirky products or gizmos, puzzles, decorative items, traditional products, unique snacks and food… Japan has its own version of it and you will want to take it back with you. You won’t need to pack too many articles of clothing, even for a longer trip. Most hotels, and all guest-houses, or bed and breakfasts have a laundry machine. It’s also not uncommon to see several coin-operated self-service laundries. The space you’ll save will likely be filled by new clothes, presents, and much more by the time you go back home.

In addition, some train stations do not have escalators or elevators. Carrying around a very heavy suitcase (or even more than one) would be challenging.

7. Check the weather

7. Check the weather

Since we are talking about packing, make sure that you check the weather in the area(s) of Japan you’ll be visiting. Weather in Japan changes a lot from area to area and you may be caught off guard if you don’t do some research. Summer in Japan (especially in Kyoto, but also in many other cities) can be unbearably hot and humid. Winter in Hokkaido is extremely rigid. Furthermore will it be rain season during your trip? Will you have to deal with some typhoons here and there? All these things are good to know when packing. Depending on your country of origin you may be surprised at how different the weather is in Japan from the one you were expecting!

8. Make sure where to eat

8. Make sure where to eat

Last but not least, do some research on where to eat. Food in Japan is amazing. From fine dining to typical Japanese “fast food” there is so much to experience. The problem, sometimes, is that when walking in the streets of a Japanese city it’s very hard to understand from the outside what kind of establishment exactly you’ll be stepping into. Sometimes you’ll see pictures outside by the door, but oftentimes there will just be a sign with the name of the place.

Occasionally there might be another sign indicating the kind of food that is served (yakitori, sushi, ramen, soba, yakiniku, shabu-shabu, etc.), but if you’re not proficient in Japanese (and especially hiragana, katakana, and kanji reading), you’ll still feel a little lost. Looking up some places you absolutely want to try will solve these issues. Even if you’re comfortable with your Japanese, and know a lot about Japanese food, you may not be sure about which restaurants in a given city are a must-try for visitors. Make sure you don’t miss out and do some research.

You’re all set

You will certainly enjoy your trip to Japan. This article and many more on this website will help you find even more value in your trip, and ultimately your experience with the country, its sights, and its people will not let you down.

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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