Traveling to Japan For The First Time? Here’s What to Expect!
Last updated: 28 December 2018
The amazing thing about Japan is its image: for all tourists there is the perception that Japan has a very deep, and old, culture while at the same time it is also known for its cutting edge technology. It is a highly developed nation, and its deep culture goes hand in hand with the pride that people in Japan have regarding their nation’s history and long-established cultural traditions. In particular, there is a noticeable pride in Japanese culinary arts which have been successfully exported around the world. It is quite easy to say that because of Japan’s technological accomplishments, and developed infrastructure, that many tourists see it as being almost like a Western nation, but Japan’s culture means that it has one foot in the past and one in the future, it truly has a unique footing spanning both worlds.
For the first-time traveler to Japan, what can you expect in such a unique country? There are many expectations that you might have, such as that there are sushi restaurants and a lot of anime/manga fans, but what can you really expect in your daily interactions? You might have a picture in mind of Japan, but allow us to color it in for you with some pointers about Japan.
Japanese – An Impenetrable Language?
Films like ‘Lost in Translation’ can leave a lingering impression of a country which is linguistically on a different planet, with tourists left dumbfounded by the language being used around them.
However, in large cities you will find that many young people do speak at least basic English, including even waiters and waitresses in the most local of looking places. In all cities, and even major towns, you will also find that signage is excellent with names in English and Japanese.
In addition, restaurants have been rapidly adapting their menus and services in order to help international customers enjoy their culinary delights, with even some major chains even purposely employing bilingual Japanese people or non-Japanese people.
In rural areas, just like rural areas in any country, you can’t expect to find the same level of support or English language level but generally Japanese people are very approachable and helpful.
How Do Japanese People Feel About Foreigners?
Generally speaking people won’t be staring at you in wonder, and in cities you won’t really stick out, so you can relax and not worry about being a tourist.
One point which is quite important is that you can walk around without being hassled by anyone and you can buy whatever you want without having to haggle over the price.
Japanese people are very polite, straightforward and friendly. Though if you visit somewhere which doesn’t receive many foreign tourists, particularly out in the countryside, you may be surprised with friendly people trying to have a nice chat with you, and who even might buy you something to eat or drink. In this case, especially with older people, its best to be gracious and accept it as in Japan there is a strong desire to express gratitude to people for visiting Japan.
There are very few places where you might feel the hint of unwelcome, but the best advice that we can give is that if an area is giving you a weird vibe or an uncomfortable feeling, then just move on.
Paying by Card – Japan is far from being a cashless society
While some countries are rushing ahead with apps and technology to facilitate cashless payments, Japan is still a bit stuck in the past. In particular most small shops and restaurants only accept cash, so it’s normal for people to walk around with a fair bit of money on them.
There are different places to exchange money, which will usually have similar exchange rates, including airports, but you might find that exchanging money at hotels to be a bit expensive. It might feel a bit uncomfortable to carry around cash, but as long as you use a bit of common sense and caution you will be fine.
Larger shops like department stores or chain restaurants will normally accept payment by card. It is definitely worth investing in a Suica card for the greater Tokyo area, or an Icoca card for the Kansai area; these cards are great for using for trains and city buses, but also they can now be used to pay for items at convenience stores and vending machines. While at the end of your stay you can return it for a refund, or keep it as a souvenir!
For tourists who aren’t used to dealing with cash which comes in ten thousand notes, or prices such as several thousand yen for a meal, it can be disconcerting to quite understand whether something is cheap or expensive.
To get a rough idea of prices in euros or dollars just imagine a decimal point two places to the left of the price, for example ￥1560 is roughly $15.60.
For pounds you can just think of ￥1500 as being like £10, so every ￥15,000 is equal to £100. For US dollars, you can imagine ￥10,000 being roughly approximate to $100.
If you ever get stuck for money than just look out for an ATM at a 7-Eleven or Japan Post Office. You will be able to use your credit or debit card, though you may want to check with your bank in advance whether you can use your card overseas.
The Joys of Japan’s Public Transportation!
It might sound like an exaggeration to say that transport runs on time in Japan, but it really does! If a train is due to leave at 10:05am, it will leave at that time.
Besides the absolute dedication to a fixed timetable, the other remarkable aspect about trains, or even buses, is how quiet all the passengers are. People don’t speak on the phone, don’t play loud music or games, and even groups or families will talk in low voices. As such it is best to do the same and fit in.
City transit maps can look quite intimidating, especially in Tokyo, with some likening them to a pile of colored spaghetti, but there is a kind of logic to them which just require getting used to. The best advice is don’t let it overwhelm you: just try to look at them with an open mind. It is really a good idea to look up your route on Google or your favorite maps app too as that will tell you which line to take.
To add confusion to intimidation there are different rail operators with different train tickets which can only be used on those operator’s lines, and on those lines you might find that trains are local, semi-express or express! Information in train stations is slowly getting better so that you can see exactly where a train is going and at which stations it will stop!
As a hint it is best to keep in mind that a local train will be slow and will stop at every station while a semi-express or express train will be faster but may not stop at the station you are travelling to.
Also, if you are finding the ticket machine to be difficult, these days they normally offer an English language version, then try speaking with a member of staff – many of whom tend to speak a little English.
Other things to remember about are fairly common across the world rather than being Japan-specific, so if you get on a train during rush hour in a city than it will be crowded, and you should absolutely not travel with large bags or suitcases at this time unless you absolutely have to. As you might imagine morning rush hour means around 8am to 9:30am and the evening rush hour is about 5pm to 7:30pm.
In common with quite a few cities around the world, and perhaps against expectations for Japan with its 24 hour restaurants and convenience stores, the public transportation doesn’t run 24 hours and late night taxis can be quite expensive. Especially the further out you are from a central area the trains or buses will be even more infrequent, so it is an absolute must to check when your last train or bus might be.
If you are travelling somewhere very rural then bus stops will probably lack any bilingual support - so it is especially important that you plan your journey in advance.
The White Gloved Guardians of Japan’s Taxi Cabs
You call down a taxi and the door opens by magic, and inside you will find a white gloved driver ready to take you, safely, to wherever you want to go. Welcome to the world of Japanese cab drivers, an experience quite like no other!
The cars are safe and clean, and the drivers can be absolutely trusted to take you by the most efficient route possible – no going around in circles. Prices are fixed as well, so there is no price inflation, no haggling over the cost and no tips.
Many drivers will unfortunately not be able to speak English, or will only know basic English, but more and more cabs have informative material on the back seat or on the door which offer help with Japanese and some companies now offer a free service by which an interpreter can be called.
To make things easier for you, and the driver, it is best to have an idea of where you are going before boarding and if possible an address in Japanese.
Finally, absolutely don’t try to open the passenger door, the cab driver controls this!
Japan is the land of gourmands – there is delicious food of every variety!
Contrary to popular belief, Japanese people don’t just eat fish, or sushi, there is an incredible variety of cooking, including many Western-inspired dishes.
There is so much choice in fact that you might need to keep an open mind about some dishes that are served to you, just try to enjoy it without asking what it is until afterwards.
The Japanese version of a pub, an izakaya, are great places to try a great range of different food and really let you see what you enjoy the most. Most places will follow the exact same routine of giving you a oshibori hand towel, like a wet cloth, to clean your hands along with free tea, while many will serve you an otoshi (a small appetizer) which will be added to your bill. An otoshi is a bit like a tip, but with food. Meanwhile, as in taxi cabs you don’t pay a tip with your bill. While many chain restaurants do typically stock cutlery, it is a good idea to practice with chopsticks before you come.
If you feel really confused about what to eat then it’s a good idea to check in advance, or with local people when you are there, what is the best regional cuisine. Every area in Japan is proud of a certain ingredient or a kind of cooking, Japanese people really love, and boast of, their regional dishes.
Restaurants usually have displays of their cooking in the front shop window, so if you spot something there which looks good then take a photo and just show it to the restaurant staff.
In terms of food for vegans or vegetarians, or even eating Halal food, there is less choice but gradually the options are increasing.
The land of the rising sun - and of temples and shrines
Cities like Kyoto are absolutely brimming with temples, and shrines, but across the country you can find them everywhere and they have to be visited. Some are old, some are beautiful, and all are interesting!
You don’t have to worry about there being a strict dress code, but in the summer when it is very hot it is best not to trundle in barefoot or in a bikini. They always have a very quiet and peaceful atmosphere, so try not to disrupt that environment and always stay respectful in regards to behavior and how loudly you speak.
A number of temples and shrines will allow you to enter the inner sanctum, or will have special days when you can enter, and the main point to remember is that there will be a place to remove your shoes.
A great souvenir for your holiday would be to get a goshuin-sho, this is like a stamp card and you can get a stamp at each place that you visit. If you are thinking to go to many temples and shrines then you can get many stamps to commemorate your trip!
Which button do I press?? Japanese Toilets
For most people the toilet is a mere thing, something which is just a requirement, but the Japanese have infamously lifted the humble toilet into the status of a luxury.
Toilets with various buttons which do various things are pretty famous, but there is no need to get into a sweat about using one, you can just use these toilets in a normal way.
Public restrooms can be found pretty much everywhere, including in train stations and even in convenience stores, and they are usually clean and have toilet paper. In older stations and more rural areas you might come across an old fashioned squat toilet, which looks like a sideways urinal implanted in the floor, and which you can use as normal while facing the ‘hood.’ In nice department stores and hotels you can usually have a more hi-tech experience, which you can experiment with if you feel brave!
A few survival tips
In this article we have covered quite a few topics to help you with your first trip to Japan, but it doesn’t finish there! Let’s end this article with just a few extra survival tips to make your journey a success.
・As mentioned Japan is a cash society, so always try to keep around 10-20,000 yen in your wallet or purse.
・Come prepared with walking shoes, the train stations or bus stops generally won’t take you directly to the doorstep of the place you want to visit, you can expect to walk more than may do in your own country.
・Convenience stores are common and make perfect pit stops, and emergency pit stops, and sell many of life’s necessities – from snacks to memory cards.
・Always keep the name, phone number and address of your accommodation in Japanese on your person, that way in an emergency, or if you need to get a cab, you have something to refer to.
・Crime rates are really low in Japan, but stay street smart and use common sense. Japanese people are very trustworthy in regards to belongings, but as in any country in the world it is better to be safe than sorry.
・Japan does regularly experience minor earthquakes, so don’t worry too much if you feel the earth move, but if there is a big quake then check out our article on what to do:
Knowing even a tiny bit of Japanese will go a long way, so try to practice some basic greetings and phrases, or bring a phrasebook with you. This will also be really handy when ordering food. You can check out our tips at the links below:
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*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.