Before my first trip to Japan, I had no idea just how life-changing the month I spent there would be.
Japan is the kind of country that will stimulate your senses, open your mind and steal a piece of your heart. It's a truly unique country and one that will give you a lifetime of memories, no matter how long you stay. Japan is the kind of country whose people, culture and mentality stay with you long after you leave, but if it's your first trip to Japan, there's a good chance you'll feel a little lost when you arrive.
I don't want to scare you: Japan is one of my favourite countries, if not my favourite, and a very traveller-friendly one. Everything in Japan is so reliable, safe and convenient that it's the perfect destination for solo travellers, backpackers or first time travel in Asia. But it's also a very unique culture where everyone abides by certain unwritten (and written) laws. That means a little knowledge of Japanese etiquette and customs will go a long way, especially on your first trip to Japan.
What to expect from your first trip to Japan
Spend any amount of time in Japan and there are a few things you will notice.
Perhaps the most obvious thing - and something you're likely to notice as soon as you arrive in Japan - is that Japanese culture is built for efficiency. Everybody has a place, everybody knows their place and nobody tries to take anybody else's place. When you're waiting for a train, you stand within the painted lines on the ground. If somebody leaves a bag of money unattended, you don't touch it. If you're going up an escalator, you stand on the same side as everybody else.
Everybody behaves in the best interests of society. Everybody knows how to make the system work. Everybody goes about their own business without concerning themselves with others.
You'll probably feel like a bad person at first, as you ignore a red crossing light or forget to queue in the correct lane for the train, but you'll soon fall into the rhythm and leave feeling like a better version of who you arrived as. I certainly did.
Your first trip to Japan will be eye-opening and thought-provoking, if you'll let it. Knowing a little bit about Japanese etiquette and culture will only make that first trip to Japan even more special and help you appreciate the Japanese way of life a little more.
Tips for your first trip to Japan
If you want to make the most of your time in Japan, try to remember a few of these points. I appreciate that there are a lot - I'm going to be adding anything I think of with time! - but I promise it's not as scary as it sounds and will make your first trip there all the better.
Practical advice for first time travel to Japan
1 - How to bridge the language barrier
Unlike in many countries, English will only get you so far in Japan. Although many people in the larger cities speak at least a little English, you could go days without meeting someone who speaks a single word in smaller towns.
Surprisingly, the language barrier isn't as tricky as you might expect. Everything is very straightforward and logical in Japan, which makes it a lot easier to figure things out. And when in doubt, sign language can get your further than you might think.
2 - Download some Japan travel apps
Those language barriers are easier than ever to overcome thanks to the internet - so take advantage of it! We mostly used Google Translate for understanding menus and communicating with people who did not speak English, and it should be more than enough to help you through your first trip to Japan.
3 - Learn a few phrases
Even with the Translate app downloaded onto your phone, try to learn a few phrases you'll use regularly. Politeness is a large part of Japanese culture and showing even a little effort to learn the language will be greatly appreciated by anyone you meet. A few key phrases to learn are thank you, yes and hello. Some phrases are a little long and hard to pronounce without hearing, so I'd recommend doing a quick search on YouTube to hear them in action!
4 - Take photos of names
The language barrier doesn't need to hinder your Japan travels in any way. If you're looking for an address, take a photo of the name. Even if you don't feel confident writing it down, you'll be able to ask anyone for directions by showing them your phone.
5 - Get a Japan Rail pass
The Japan Rail pass is a very worthwhile investment for any first time traveller to Japan. It gives you unlimited access to much of Japan's rail network, including all JR trains and many of the high-speed shinkansen trains. That means it's possible to venture out on some pretty amazing day trips from Tokyo or any of Japan's other major cities, without being restricted to one area.
Yes, you're going to clench your teeth a little when you hand over your credit card details. I certainly had reservations and wondered if it was really necessary when I saw the price. But if you want to really make the most of your trip to Japan, it's going to be worth it. I promise!
With a Japan Rail pass, you'll be able to see the snow monkeys bathing in hot springs (my favourite Japan experience!), visit Hokkaido from Tokyo in just a few hours and get a better insight into Japan as a whole.
6 - Buy your JR pass before you go
Buy your Japan Rail pass online before you go to Japan to save a LOT of money. Yes, it's possible (sometimes) to buy the JR pass in Japan, but it's much cheaper to buy it in advance. Not to mention less risky!
You can order your Japan Rail pass online with free next day delivery from the J Rail Pass website.
7 - Pack a Japan travel adapter
Japan mostly uses the US-style plug with two flat pins (plug type A). There is no room for a third pin, so you'll need an adapter for devices with more than two pins. Most worldwide to USA adapters work for Japan.
8 - Pack hand sanitiser
Japan as a whole is easily the most logical place I've been. There are only a handful of things that didn't seem to make sense in Japan (and they probably stood out more because of it).
One of those things was the lack of soap in public bathrooms. Although Japan's public toilets are very clean and have a load of fancy buttons to personalise your bathroom experience, most of them are lacking in soap. I would say less than 40% of the public toilets I used in Japan had soap at the sinks so pack hand sanitiser to be on the safe side.
9 - Don't be alarmed if the toilet sings
Or chirps, or makes water sounds. I'm sure you've heard about Japanese toilets before (here's a quick intro, if you haven't!) but something I wasn't prepared for were the sound effects. It's pretty common for public toilets to make, er, more pleasant sounds while you do your business, but it can give you a fright if you're not expecting it!
10 - Get a WiFi device
WiFi in Japan is generally pretty fast, but it's not always easy to find. Even if you normally buy a local SIM card, it's worth renting a WiFi device Japan.
I used the iVideo Pocket WiFi (like I do in all countries where it's available) and Japan has been the best country so far by a long way. Not only is it possible to use 5G (yes, 5G!) WiFi in the major cities, but you can collect/drop off the device at the airport. It couldn't be easier to use and will come in VERY helpful when you need to translate, communicate and generally find your way around!
I had no problems with speed or coverage with my iVideo Pocket WiFi in Japan and recommend it 100%. Click here and use the code JODIEDEWBERRY to get 10% off your own iVideo rental.
11 - Cover your tattoos
You can pretty much wear whatever you like in Japan, but try to cover any tattoos. Tattoos are not socially accepted in Japan, no matter how pretty yours might be.
12 - Stand on the... right?
Cars drive on the left in Japan, but it's not so straightforward for pedestrians. In some cities (e.g. Tokyo), the humans follow the traffic and stand on the left, but in others (e.g. Osaka) it is expected that you stand on the right. It won't take you long to figure out which side you should be on because everybody will be following the rules, but it's something to remember when you travel between cities!
And, as we found out, the people stood behind you will probably all move over if you randomly switch sides on the escalator... that can be a fun game to play ;)
13 - Take several types of card
I would normally recommend travelling with only one or two cards but ATMs are pretty hit and miss in Japan. Every machine seems to favour different kinds of credit/debit cards, so it's good to have a few options. We found American Express to be the most reliable and sometimes the only card that would work for cash withdrawals.
14 - Get a Suica card
A Suica card is a pre-loaded card that you can use all over Japan. Once topped up, you can use your Suica card like a contactless card on subway trains, in some stores and even at some of the many vending machines and avoid any credit/debit card issues.
15 - Most hotels are well-equipped
Every room we stayed in - including an AirBnb - came with all the toiletries you could need as well as toothbrushes, cotton pads and sometimes even a face mask. There's no need to pack body wash, but it might be a good idea to bring your own shampoo - especially if you're blonde, as sometimes the shampoo provided is designed for black hair.
Japanese Etiquette Tips
Japanese etiquette is one of the most important things to know before first time travel to Japan. Nobody will call you out if you do make a cultural faux pas - the Japanese are too polite to do something like that - but you'll fit in much more easily and make yourself more welcome if you're aware of the following:
16 - Be ready to bow
Bowing is a sign of respect in Japan, so don't be alarmed if someone dips their head towards you. It might feel unnatural to bow at strangers at first, but you'll be doing it on auto-pilot by the time you leave (and maybe for a while after you return home!). Bowing etiquette in Japan is a huge topic and one that I can't cover in this post - because there's too much to say and I have too little knowledge - but I found this guide a good way to familiarise myself with the practice.
17 - Do not tip
This is one that many people find hard on their first trip to Japan, but can cause offence if you're not careful. Tipping is considered insulting in Japan, even in situations where it would be rude not to tip elsewhere such as in restaurants and taxis.
18 - Respect your food
In other words: do not stab your food. This can be pretty tricky to grasp if you usually eat with a fork, but using chopsticks definitely makes it easier to avoid!
19 - Pack slip-on shoes
As you travel around Japan, you'll find yourself constantly taking your shoes off to enter homes, restaurants and sometimes even Starbucks. It's a whole lot easier to get on board with this custom if you have slip-on shoes that are easy to take off and put back on. Just make sure you're wearing hole-free socks!
20 - Wait your turn
If you thought the British were keen on queuing, the Japanese take it to a whole new level. It's not unusual for queues lines to be clearly painted on the ground so you know exactly where you should be standing. At train stations, there may even be two or three queues lines for the next trains to arrive - so make sure you get in the right lane!
21 - Slurp your noodles
While some countries considering loud eating rude, it is expected in Japan. Slurping your noodles is a sign that you are enjoying the food and can't eat it quickly enough (because it's so good!). Similarly, slurping hot soup or liquid shows your eagerness to eat it despite it being hot. The one thing I haven't figured out is how to do this without burning your tongue...
22 - Hold the soup
If you're from a country where soup is normally considered a starter, you'll have to change your habits in Japan. It's very common to order miso soup alongside your main dish, but don't finish it first. Your soup should last the entire length of your meal.
23 - Avoid using your phone in public
One of the first things you'll probably notice about Japan is how quiet it is. Even in the middle of a busy Tokyo street, you'll barely hear more than a whisper from the hundreds of people around you. Avoid disrupting this peace by going somewhere private if you need to take a phonecall.
24 - Blow your nose privately
This one is kind of tricky if you end up with the kind of cold I had in Osaka, but try not to blow your nose in public. This one is hard if you hate sniffing but sniff until you can go somewhere private and, if you must, turn away and have a discreet wipe.
25 - Don't point
If yo3u need to point at something, do so with an open palm. Pointing with your finger is rude.
26 - Wear the right slippers
You'll have to change into slippers when entering most Japanese houses and many Japanese restaurants (and sometimes even Starbucks!). This is always obvious and pretty straightforward, with slippers provided for you. What isn't always so obvious is that you should change from your house slippers to special toilet slippers when using the bathroom. Again, these will be provided for you and can normally be found just outside the toilet door so you won't forget.
27 - Watch out for the ladies only carriages
If you're female, this won't be a problem for you. But if you're male, watch out for the ladies only carriages on trains if you don't want to be the subject of giggles.
28 - Avoid eating in public
Even though Japan is full of great takeaway food, Japanese people don't tend to eat on the street. This might explain the lack of rubbish bins everywhere!
Making the most of your first trip to Japan
Although none of these Japan tips are essential, they will certainly make your first trip to Japan a more enjoyable one and give you even more memories to take away with you.
29 - Stay in a traditional Japanese house/ryokan
If there's one experience everyone should have in Japan, this is it. The idea of sleeping on a thin floor mattress may not sound too appealing, but I promise it's one of the best sleeps you'll ever have. Because of the sliding door design that allows multiple rooms to open out into one larger room, most ryokans can accommodate even larger groups and families. Check out this post if you're planning to stay in a ryokan with kids.
30 - Get out at night
Japan is a night country. It took us a few days to realise this, but the country seems to wake up after dark. If you want to get the full Japan experience and really understand its culture, you'll want to head out after dark. Luckily it's very safe and there's a LOT to do!
31 - Reserve your seats
Once you have your JR pass, you'll need to make reservations for most journeys you wish to make. Even though you can ride some JR routes without a seat reservations, I would recommend reserving a seat anyway. It's completely free to do so, makes sure you can sit with your friends or family and guarantees you a spot on the occasional busy train.
32 - Go to the ticket counter
You can reserve JR seats at one of the many ticket machines, but ordering them at the counter is much easier. Not only are the staff super friendly and sure to brighten your day, they may even be able to suggest a better route or help you find the best available seats.
33 - Don't open the taxi door
Most taxis in Japan are automatic and operated by the driver. If nothing else, the rear left door and boot will both be automatic, but it's not uncommon for all the doors to be opened and closed by the driver.
34 - Pay your bus fare when you get off
Unlike most places, there's no need to pay your bus fare upfront in Japan (just make sure you have enough cash or enough money on your Suica card to pay for the ride!). At every bus stop, departing passengers pay the driver as they leave the front of the bus before joining passengers are let on via the rear doors. Sometimes you will take a ticket when you board and sometimes not, but you'll always pay at the front when you get off.
35 - Store luggage behind seats on trains
With the exception of the Narita Express, most trains in Japan don't have a designated luggage rack. There is plenty of room, even for large suitcases, in the overhead rails, but bags can usually be placed behind the back row of seats in the carriage if you can't lift them that high. The seats are very spacious so there is usually also room at your seat.
36 - Buy food from the convenience store
Food isn't as pricey as some people would lead you to believe (especially because there's no need to tip - see above) but the most reasonably priced food is found in the convenience stores.
Japanese convenience stores may just be the best in the world. Like everything else in Japan, the quality of the food is high and the variety of takeaway options is enough to keep things interesting for your entire trip to Japan.
37 - Put your money in the tray
When paying for items in a store, you might see a little tray on the counter. If this is the case, place your money on the tray instead of handing it directly to the cashier.
I hope these tips have helped you prepare for your first trip to Japan! Feel free to send me a message if you have any questions or check out my Japan playlist for more guides to Japan.
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