First Time in Japan? Things to Know Before You Go!
Your tickets are booked for your first trip to Japan and you are ready to fly off to the land of the rising sun! But wait... you've heard stories about cultural dos and don'ts
and you want to be prepared.
Odigo has you covered! One of the special things about Odigo is that we are not a travel site, we are a travel community
. That means we know a lot of folks who love Japan and want you to have a great time and feel confident, comfortable and ready to explore.
We asked some of our frequent contributors for a few hints on things to know before you arrive. Even if this is your first visit to Japan, here are 8 top tips that are sure to make you seem like an insider. Know some other tips we should add to this list? Add them in the comment thread. Let's help each other have a great time traveling around this amazing country!
Go Go Nihongo
Learning a Little Japanese Can Go a Long Way -- Photo from Flickr cc by vintagecat
A little effort goes a long way. The Japanese know that their language isn't much use beyond their borders so they aren't expecting visitors to be pulling out polished phrases, but they do appreciate anyone making an effort. Gird yourself with a handful of useful daily expressions, like arigatou (thank you); konnichiwa/konbanwa (hello/good evening); sumimasen (excuse me) and the all-important kanpai (cheers), and you'll find yourself more warmly welcomed.
My Tip? Don't!
You Don't Need to Tip in Japan -- Photo from Flickr cc by Yamanaka Tamaki
Put your wallet away! Tipping is not required in Japan, ever. If you come from a tipping culture, it can make you feel very grinchy not to recognize good service with a little cash, but this custom is unnecessary in Japan. Not only that, but if you try tipping, you will certainly create confusion. I've had store staff chase me down the street because I dropped a single yen on the way out, so imagine their panic if you leave a bill on the table! If you want to thank someone for excellent service, just repeat after me: arigatou gozaimasu! (thank you!)
First Time in Japan? Expect the Unexpected
Fashion Here May Surprise You -- Photo by Nathan Hosken
People who visit Japan have a lot of preconceived notions. Hollywood films and TV shows are often a source of misinformation about Japan. Maybe you've heard that Japan has either too much new technology or that it's extremely old fashioned and traditional. You might be surprised to hear Japan doesn't have more technology than any other big city like London, Paris, or New York. In fact, one surprising difference is that WiFi is not easily available here and you may need to rent a pocket WiFi device during your visit. (This situation is improving as more WiFi services become available in the lead up to the 2020 Olympics!)
The second misconception -- about everything being traditional -- is true when it comes to restaurants, polite service and how people interact on the street when bowing to each other. However, fashion and design are very westernized. Japanese people often wear the latest fashions from Europe and America; most global brands are popular. These days, not many people dress in traditional kimono. You will see some people dressed traditionally at temples, formal events like weddings, and at specific festivals. As with travel anywhere, keep an open mind about fashion, culture, and technology when coming to Japan. What you see may surprise you.
Trains Are By Far Japan's Leading Form of Transportation -- Photo from Flickr cc by bonnici_cam
Many foreigners don't realize the amount of travel that is done by train
in Tokyo and other parts of Japan. The Shinkansen
(bullet train) is known throughout the world but no one really talks about how common regular local trains are, and that you have to basically ride trains and subways every day to get around. If you get motion sickness from train travel you need to bring medication with you. Also, not all train stations have elevators. For most people, using the stairs isn't a problem, but for the elderly or the disabled, it's very important to have an elevator option
. People who have trouble walking must keep this in mind. Tokyo does have some elevators and escalators at the train and subway stations, but once you leave the main city these options are far less common. Don't underestimate how much walking and train riding you will do when you come here. The good news is you will become fitter and healthy during your vacation, getting great exercise without needing to go to the gym!
Train Poster Detailing the Hazards Caused by Cell Phone Use -- Photo from Flickr cc by Doss
Please don't talk on your cell on the train. Yeah, the health and other "reasons" that cell phones shouldn't be used in crowded places that are posted on signs may not apply to you, but using your phone on the train is not good manners. Manners and customs are very specific to particular locations. What may be customary in one country is taboo in another. Doing what is socially acceptable as if in the home of another person might not make sense to you, but minding your manners is a very effective way of making new friends. (Additional tip: On the train, turn off the ringer and use your phone's silent or vibration mode. In Japan, this is called "Manner Mode."Having good manners is good diplomacy.)
The Right to Go Left
A Common Mistake Made by First-time Travelers to Japan: Where to Stand on the Escalator? -- Photo from Flickr cc by Karl Baron
In Tokyo, go left. In Osaka, stay right
. This rule refers to the direction of traffic: mostly on escalators, usually on staircases, and often on sidewalks and hallways. This stance often applies when one is walking but is particularly relevant when standing -- especially with luggage and in groups. Protocol is inconsistent on this one. Not only are Tokyo and Osaka different, but some people go against the generally accepted flow. Don't be like those people!
When having a conversation on a long escalator, or lugging bags in the station or in a department store, staying on the left side in Tokyo (and most of Japan) and on the right side in Osaka is important. When you block the other side, people who are in a rush can get upset. Save yourself some frustration by abiding by the "rules" and staying out of the way of the people who are rushing around. And when someone whizzes by you, relish that you are relaxed and taking your time!
Not a Dining Car
First time in Japan? The Crowds on Trains May Surprise You -- Photo from Flickr cc by Somegal
Eating and drinking on suburban trains and buses is just not done (and that includes chewing gum). If you try, you will find people glaring at you reprovingly. This unwritten rule is probably due to the fact that trains are so often packed, but it holds at any time of day (even on a nearly empty train).
On long-distance trains such as Shinkansen, however, eating is very much the norm. In fact, buying an ekiben
(lunch box featuring local specialties) before boarding the train is something of a ritual among travelers. Friends setting off on a trip together will often bring along a wide range of snacks to share. If you forget your snacks or lunchbox, don’t worry. Japanese trains don’t have buffet cars, but well-stocked food trolleys pass through regularly.
On local trains in the countryside, the rules are a bit more fluid. You may well find yourself being offered a satsuma (fish cake) or some dried squid by the elderly Japanese person sitting across from you, in which case, smile and give it a try!
Go Against the Crowd
Visiting Sensoji? Come Early in the Morning to Beat the Crowds -- Photo by Lauren Shannon
Avoid (some of) the crowds at famous tourist sites. Many of the visitors to major tourist sites in Japan come on group tours. So, if you are traveling independently, knowing the "typical" schedule is helpful so you can try to work around it. Lunchtime in Japan, generally speaking, is from 12:00 to 13:00. If you time your arrival at a popular tourist spot for around 12:30, you’re likely to find it a bit less crowded. This tip is not foolproof, but it often works for me. This strategy also means that restaurants are likely to have some space by the time you eat lunch a bit later.
In many cases, the tour groups are also staying elsewhere. If you can find accommodation near your destination (or get up early), first thing in the morning is another good time to visit. When I was in Kakunodate
, for example, the historic streets were almost empty at 9 am, so it was a shock to emerge from a samurai house at 10:30 and find them suddenly packed! Late in the afternoon is a similarly quiet time.
These days, though, Japan is pretty popular, and you’re unlikely to have any of the top tourist destinations to yourself. Luckily, you can explore many more, equally interesting and beautiful places. Rent a bike, get deliberately lost down some side streets, or check out the insider recommendations
A big thanks to our community experts for their advice! Head on over and browse through our curated spots and trips to plan your custom itinerary.