As with any trip abroad, your first time visiting Japan will be filled with adventure, new experiences, and interesting challenges. But from your first time sleeping on a futon to your first time getting on a night bus to Osaka, there are a few things you need to prepare yourself for.
We’ve already taken a look at how to prepare for post-pandemic travel, but here we will look at some of the basics to keep in mind when planning your first Japan trip.
1. Don’t just stay in Tokyo
On your first trip to Japan, it can be tempting to set your sights on Tokyo and not aim to explore much further. But if you want to get a real sense of what Japan is like, you’ve got to cast a wider net!
One way to explore without venturing too far out of your comfort zone is to choose a city as a base and find some interesting day trips in the area to experience a bit more culture. For example, while staying in Tokyo, you could travel to areas like Nikko, Chichibu, Kamakura or Kawagoe in a day. These areas give you a taste of life outside the big cities.
You should also consider what kind of holidays you like in general. Many first-time visitors only think of Japan as Tokyo or Kyoto, but there are all kinds of regions to explore. Here is an overview of what activities you can do in other areas:
- Skiing and snow activities: Hokkaido, Nagano, Niigata
- Beaches: Okinawa, Kyushu, Chiba
- Nature trails: Most of Japan!
- Tradition: Kyoto, Tochigi, Ishikawa
- City life: Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Sapporo
2. Figure out transportation in advance
Once you’ve figured out where you’re going, you should think about how you’ll get there. Don’t make assumptions about how easy it will be to get from A to B!
Deciding your method of transport will depend on where you’re staying and your travel priorities. While you may think that taxis are the easiest option, they can be expensive and are not always easy to find outside big cities.
- The shinkansen (bullet train) is the most expensive and convenient transportation option. Purchasing a JR Rail Pass is the best way to cut costs if you’re visiting on a temporary tourist visa.
- Buses and local trains are best for budget travelers but these tend to have the longest travel time so plan accordingly.
- Car rentals are perfect for those heading into less touristy areas, but costs increase quickly with toll and gas being key factors.
- Taxis are expensive but come in handy if you’ve missed the last train and aren’t traveling outside city limits.
If you’re getting a mix of different transportation, you can easily get a Pasmo or Suica top-up card on buses and trains. Remember that taxis and local buses may have little to no English availability in less populated areas.
3. Get a SIM card or pocket wifi
Before you set off on your Japan adventure, you should ensure that you have some connectivity. Not only is the internet useful for map-viewing and sharing snaps of your favorite landmarks, but it may also be the difference between you eating chicken breast and chicken heart! Translation apps have come a long way these days.
You can buy SIM cards and pocket WiFi in any large electronics shop like Yodobashi Camera or BIC Camera in the cities, but probably the easiest option is to rent them out at the airport. At the airport, there’s the highest likelihood of getting someone who can speak English and explain how to use everything and return it at the end, and it’s one thing you can immediately check off before even getting to your hotel.
There are a few other online options, like Sakura Mobile, so you can order them before you arrive to pick them up at the airport or elsewhere.
4. No English?
Depending on where you’ve traveled to before, you may be used to being able to speak English wherever you go. In Japan, that isn’t always the case.
In big cities, shop and restaurant staff are much more likely to understand English, even if it is only to a basic level. However, outside of the cities, you likely won’t get much more than “hello” and “thank you.”
There was a time when many people used electronic dictionaries, but these have largely fallen out of use. Google Translate has progressed in leaps and bounds and is much more used nowadays. It works best when speaking in single sentences, though. If you are worried about battery life or internet usage, you could buy something like Pocketalk to carry with you.
5. Understand the culture
Once you’re all kitted out and ready to explore, ensure you’re respectful to the places you visit.
While many western style restaurants and modern hotels are pretty similar to what you would expect elsewhere in the world, more traditional-style places can give overseas travelers a bit of a shock.
At some traditional restaurants and izakaya (traditional Japanese pubs), you may be expected to remove your shoes and sit on cushions on the floor. These places are also likely to charge an “otoshi” service fee. The fee includes a small dish at the beginning of the meal, often something cold and pickled. This is non-negotiable, and every customer gets it.
At ryokan (traditional inns), the schedule and food are usually decided in advance. Some places might allow a bit of leeway, but be prepared to have breakfast at 6:30 am and to sleep on futons instead of mattresses.
You might run into many other cultural nuances, but the important thing is to keep an open mind and “do as the Romans do.” If you ever slip up, just say “sumimasen”! (Sorry / excuse me).
What cities are you hoping to visit on your Japan trip? Let us know in the comments below!