Japan Travel Tips: 15 Essential things to know

by Best-Japanese Team
Osu Kannon Shrine

Irraishaimase! You’ll hear this friendly greeting welcoming you whenever you enter Japanese stores. If you are visiting Japan for the first time you might want to know the correct way to respond. Actually you don’t need to say anything! Even if it’s just you and the owner in the store. Having said that, you can always give a quick smile and small bow of the head in such a situation. Want to know more Japan tips like these? Read on and we will go through the time saving ones as well as the face saving ones!

As you’ll have probably heard, Japan is a country that is unique and different to many neighbouring countries in Asia. Even if you are a well-seasoned traveller, you’ll find Japan a mesmerising destination full of fascinating traditions and culture. What you’ve read or seen is true – Japanese food is incredible, the people are polite, the temples and shrines are beautiful and the cherry blossoms are breathtaking. Did we even get to Omotenashi which can be translated into selfless customer service? The list just goes on!

So what do you need to know before you travel to Japan? In this post we will cover 15 essential Japan travel tips to help you get the most out of your time in the country. Having lived in Japan for 18 years and worked at a globally recognised Japan tour operator for 2 years, we’d like to think the following advice will be helpful and will allow you to fully experience the best of Japan while you are there! Please feel free to comment below or ask questions. We’ll do our best to answer!

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Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass)☆ 

Japan Rail Pass Bullet Train
Photo by Bna Ignacio on Unsplash

Is it worth buying a Japan Rail Pass? The likelihood is yes especially if you are taking more than 4 long Shinkansen (bullet train) journeys across country. But what is the Japan Rail Pass exactly? It’s a multi-use hop on and hop ticket for foreign tourists* that can be fantastic value for money when travelling in Japan. It’s valid for Shinkansens (excluding the fastest Nozomi and Mizuho services), Express trains, Rapid trains and Local trains. You can buy 3 Standard carriage options with different durations – 7 days, 14 days and 21 days.

To give you an idea of when you should buy it, let’s do some quick calculations. The seven day pass is 44,810 yen. If you take multiple journeys from Tokyo to Kyoto (13,850 yen), Kyoto to Hiroshima (11,300 yen), Hiroshima to Osaka (10,420 yen), and then Osaka back to Tokyo (14,200 yen), then you’re saving 5000 yen with the 7 day pass.

One thing to remember is that you will want to consider how many nights you want to stay in each destination. You definitely don’t want to rush around like crazy and get tired ticking off sightseeing boxes. The seven day route above works if you are willing to stay less than 2 nights in either Hiroshima or Osaka. Here is where planning before you fly to Japan is best. Have a look at places on your bucket list, look at train prices on Jorudan or HyperDia, and then decide if you need the JR Pass or not.

* You can get the JR Pass if you are a Japanese citizen provided that you have proof that you have been living abroad for 10 consecutive years or more.

Jorudan or HyperDia?☆

When planning out your journeys for Japan, you’ll find Jorudan super helpful. You can either use the website or app for free to search in English how to get from one destination to another by train, plane and aiport shuttle buses. Jourudan gives you 6 route options for each search along with the cost of the trip and the journey time.

HyperDia was a popular alternative to Jourudan, however they stopped providing actual train times earlier in the year. This means you can only see the average train journey times. Jorudan continues to provide train departure, transfer, and arrival times which is why we would recommend it at this stage. You can also use Jorudan’s Rail Pass search feature which only shows you journeys you can take with the JRP rail pass. Essentially all the train journeys except Nozomi and Mizuho trains.

Extra tip: Remember that when travelling to Osaka, the Shinkansen bullet train station is called Shin-Osaka.

Shinkansen bullet train japan tips
Photo by Fikri Rasyid on Unsplash

Buy a Suica, Pasmo or Manaca IC Card☆

IC Cards are rechargeable train passes that you can use to pay fares on various public transport networks within cities across Japan. They’re like the London Oyster card and although don’t they come with cheaper fares your life will be a lot more convenient with an IC Card. You don’t have to worry about how much the fare will be or waiting in a queue for tickets, and they can be used in other cities to the one you bought your IC card in. Suica and Pasmo are for greater Tokyo, Sendai and Niigata but work perfectly fine in Kyoto or Osaka. Meanwhile Manaca cards bought in Central Japan (Nagoya or Hamamatsu) work equally fine in Tokyo or Hiroshima.

While the JR Pass can be used on JR Lines within cities like the Yamanote Line in Tokyo, train and subway fares are incredibly low in Japan compared to London. So instead of the hassle of getting tickets with the JR Pass, you might as well load extra on your IC Card.

The other great thing about IC Cards is they can be used to pay for drinks and snacks and other purchases at most convenience stores and vending machines. The number of places where you can do this and the range of items you can purchase continues to grow as Japanese people are trying now to avoid handling cash with Covid-19 prevention measures.

Check your medication☆

Japanese Drugstore Tokyo
Photo by DLKR on Unsplash

Our list of Japan travel tips has to include this as you don’t want to get caught out. Generally over-the-counter medication is allowed in Japan but there are a few exceptions such as medication that contains stimulants. Be careful as Actifed, Sudafed and Vicks inhalers come into this category. If you have a medical prescription that involves the use of narcotics like morphine, codeine, and oxycodone, you will need to submit an import application form, photos, and a medical certificate from your doctor. For a full list of narcotics and controlled substances for medical use in Japan that require permission before travelling to Japan, please check the Narcotics Control Department website.

Important tip: It can take 2 – 3 weeks or longer to get all your documentation in order and to receive certificates for bringing your medication into Japan. If you are under the 2 week stage, you can write write “URGENT” in the email subject line. It is also illegal to try to post banned medication to Japan so don’t attempt this.

Get the Airalo app (eSIM)☆

When travelling abroad, you want to be able to use your phone without worrying about high roaming bills. You also don’t want to worry about choppy Wi-Fi at stations when trying to figure out which train to catch. Portable Wi-Fi devices like PuPuru were the way to get around this until recently, however now there is an alternative – Airalo.

Instead of having to worry about carrying a portable Wi-Fi device or exchanging your phone SIM for a local one, we recommend getting Airalo’s eSIM. They operate in 190 countries including Japan, and offer eSIMs at low prices by partnering with local mobile operators who have the best coverage. Currently you can get a Moshi Moshi eSIM on Airalo for 6USD (about £5) with 1 GB of data. Or you can get 3GB for 14USD (about £12). You obviously save on the 3GB pack and it’s valid for 30 days while the 1GB is valid for 7. Although if you are like us, you may want to test out the 1GB first to see if it works. Then you can get the 3GB once you’re satisified.

Two more benefits of the Airalo app is that you don’t need to spend time on your last day giving your portable Wi-Fi device back to the provider, and you don’t need to worry about it running out of battery.

No tipping!

Japanese restaurant
Photo by Thomas Marban on Unsplash

When in Japan remember that you can not give tips when eating out or taking a taxi. This is great for people who spend ages trying to work out what percentage would not be considered too low. In Japan, the service should always be stellar. If for some reason you tried anyway, then your tip would be refused. I have seen some occassions where stealth actions were attemped and people left a tip quietly and left. Those folks were embarassed a few moments later when the restaurant staff ran down the road to give them “the change they forgot to take”.

Buy tickets in advance

Be warned – do not expect to get tickets for the most popular attractions on the day you go. Many require booking in advance. Destinations that often sell out quickly include Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea, Universal Studios Japan, the Yayoi Kusama Musuem, and teamLab Planets Tokyo. The Ghibli museum is currently not selling tickets internationally, so if you want to make this part of your trip, we’d recommend booking with a Japan tour operator who can purchase these in Japan for you.

Also when considering restaurant reservations, especially for non-chain restaurants, it is a good idea to book ahead. However. please do not cancel on the day or even worse cancel last minute. It is not only extremely rude but makes it hard for all international travellers to make future bookings.

Know when to take off your shoes

Japan tips temple no shoes
Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

Japan tips online often talk about this rule. But remember you don’t always need to take them off. But in general, the easy rule to follow is whenever you see a Tatami mat, you take off your shoes. You don’t want to get the Tatami mats dirty or damaged. While on the subject, when staying in accommodation with Tatami mats, make sure you carry luggage over them. Rolling your luggage over them could easily ruin the mats.

Another place to take off shoes is when there is a raised wooden floor by the entrance. In restaurants, accommodation or temples you’ll see other shoes lined up neatly to the side which makes it fairly obvious. In some restaurants, you may see lockers by the entrance where you store your footwear.

Big one to remember is that toilets will often have their own special slippers! So here be careful to firstly wear these slippers when in the toilet. Secondly, remember to take off these slippers when you come out of the toilet!

Japan Tip: Make sure you don’t have any holes in your socks when packing!

Be polite

In Japan, there are a few things to be aware of and these tips are ones you should definitely follow. First, you shouldn’t be talking on the phone in trains or listening to music at a volume that disturbs others. If you do, you’ll be told not to by the train staff. Second, don’t blow your nose in public. Third – don’t eat while walking on the street. The other things to consider are probably similar to general conventions around the world. You should not be speaking too loud in public and you shouldn’t point at anyone. Make sure you do clean up if eating in a park and take rubbish with you. Also be careful to separate rubbish into the burnable and recycleable bins. If you are wondering where to find them, they will be in most convenience stores.

Finally don’t smoke in the street. This is actually not just about being polite but there are many non-smoking designated areas in Japanese cities. If you are caught smoking in these built up areas you may be caught and given a fine.

Bring cash

Japan is known as being a cash-orientated society and you will need cash when travelling in Japan. For example when visiting a temple or shrine or buying some snacks from a stall. Quite a few taxi companies are now accepting payment through IC Cards. Some take credit cards but just in case always have some cash on you when in Japan. We would recommend exchanging and taking cash before flying to Japan. However you can also withdraw cash from a 7-Eleven convenience store ATM, Citibank ATM or post office while there.

Plan ahead if you have dietary restrictions☆

Japanese food is extremely varied and healthy, however travelling with dietary restrictions in Japan can be tricky. There is definitely more awareness of dietary requirements in the last decade, although knowledge of the Coeliac disease remains low. Two resources that will be particularly helpful are LegalNomads article on the Essential Gluten Free guide to Japan, and Happy Cow which has an abundance of vegetarian restaurant recommendations in cities all over Japan. Also, if you are looking for a Halal-friendly restaurant, we’d suggest checking out Halal Gourmet.

Make use of luggage forwarding services☆

Out of all our Japan tips we have to say this is one of the most useful. Luggage forwarding services in Japan are extremely efficient and convenient. Instead of attempting to move around with big suitcases in crowded train stations, you can forward them to your next destination from your hotel reception or a nearby convenience store. Like trains and buses, the luggage forwarding services do work like clockwork. You receive your luggage the following day after sending so you only need to take an overnight bag with you. It’s not expensive (often around 4000 yen) and it will save you a lot of hassle. Yamato with the easily recognisable black cat logo is probably one of the most well known.

Also since 2020, you need to reserve special seats on Shinkansen trains if the overall dimensions of your suitcase or bag is greater than 160 cms. While this does not cost any extra money if you reserve in advance, there are only 5 seats at the back of train carriages where you have space behind for oversized luggage. So you can imagine these will get taken up quickly.

Please note there is a 1000 yen baggage fee if you do not make a reservation!


Purchase travel insurance

Remember to get travel insurance before you fly to Japan for peace of mind. You want to be covered in case your luggage gets losts or there is some hold up with flights. Make sure the coverage lasts the entire duration of your trip and covers cancelled hotels, planes, lost luggage, theft (rare in Japan), damage to your luggage, and of course medical care. And while it often costs extra, we’d suggest getting insurance that covers Coronavirus travel costs.

Wear face masks

Japan Face Masks
Photo by DuoNguyen on Unsplash

Japanese people have been wearing face masks for many years and well before Covid-19. The idea has always been to protect yourself from colds and to avoid passing on any sickness to others. It’s common to see the majority of people wearing face masks on public transportation, in streets and indoors. While mask-wearing is not legally enforced, there are government guidelines to wear masks on public transport and indoors when you can not socially distance. Also you’ll find a large number of indoor and outdoor sightseeing spots will ask you to wear masks. When it comes to the material of face masks, unlike some countries that have specific requirements, Japan is more relaxed. The recommended masks are non-woven surgical masks and you can buy these at pharmacies across the country.

Learn some travel Japanese!

It’s only going to take you a few minutes but learning how to say thank you (Arigatou gozaimasu) and please (Onegai Shimasu) will obviously make a lot of difference. There are plenty of free online resources such as NHK’s Easy Travel Japanese where you can learn useful expressions from 3 minute short videos. Remember that “Sumimasen” (Excuse Me) will be one of your most used words. You’ll also hear it a lot in restaurants when people order or get the bill. Don’t be afraid to say it in a large voice.

Useful Travel Japanese 101

  1. (O-Mizu) wo kudasai = Please could I have some (water)
  2. (Eigo no menu) ha arimasu ka? = Do you have (an English menu)?
  3. (Toilet) ha doko desu ka? = Where is the (toilet)?
  4. Watashi no namae ha (John Smith) desu = My name is (John Smith).
  5. Ikura desu ka? = How much does it cost?
Japan tips Kyoto
Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

We hope these Japan tips were helpful for you. If your trip is coming up soon, we recommend reading through our article on the Japan borders opening. This is where we go through Covid-19 test requirements, how to fast track when entering Japan, and some of the new attractions you can see.

Want to see hotel availability in Tokyo? Booking.com provide their top picks and most reviewed hotels across the city. We’ve also compiled our picks of the top 15 hotels in Nagoya if you’re travelling to the city for Ghibli Park or Osu Kannon and more traditional sightseeing spots. For those who are passionate about Japanese food, we’ve rounded up the 20 best Japan Food Tours throughout Japan that you won’t forget!

Finally, if you’re searching for flights to Japan, feel free to use the Skyscanner widget below to get the latest prices.

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