A trip to Japan is no small thing (especially for first-timers!). For most of us, a trip to Japan means a long flight to an exciting location that is nothing like home. Because of that, preparation is crucial. Here are 20 tips for a worry-free trip.
While my intentions are always good, I’m a habitual over-packer. After my trip to Japan however, I learned my lesson (at least for future trips to Japan). Most Japanese hotel rooms are pretty compact and large luggage is tough to haul around on trains and through stations (and unless you stay at one hotel for your entire trip, you will be hauling it around). And in addition to using small luggage, be sure it has wheels or that it can be easily carried (like a backpack).Getting Money.
Japan uses the Yen, and I have found the most convenient place to convert my money to Yen is at the airport. Narita Airport has several currency exchange offices on the 1st and 4th floors, and exchange rates are prominently posted. (If you wait until you get to your hotel, you will probably be charged a higher fee.) While full banking services are not available 24/7 (hours vary, but offices are open from 6:30am – 11pm), automatic currency exchange machines are available around the clock and are located on the 1st floor of Terminal 1, by Arrivals. The 3rd floor of Terminal 2 also has currency exchange offices.
If you forget or just want to wait, several Tokyo train stations, like Ueno Station and Tokyo Station, also have currency exchanges (but hours are limited).
Be Sure to Have Yen with You at All Times.
Some Japanese businesses do not accept credit cards. While cash-only locations are becoming less common, be sure to have enough Yen to cover your daily activities and hotel stays, just in case.
Banking, ATMs and Cash Withdrawals.
Many Japanese banks won’t accept overseas cards. However, ATMs that do take overseas cards can be found in post offices and convenience stores (like Lawsons, Family Mart and 7/11), and luckily, most of these ATMs have basic English language instructions. Also, remember that your bank places a limit on the amount of cash you can withdraw daily.
Plants, Animals and Weapons.
I’m not sure why anyone would want to bring this stuff to Japan, but, be aware that transporting any type of meat or produce is discouraged and will have to be declared to Customs (and could delay your entry into Japan). Pets are also subject to strict quarantine. Certified and properly vetted service animals are permitted, but be sure to check the requirements and prepare well in advance. Finally, weapons (including guns, knives (even pocket knives) and ammunition) are prohibited.
Be sure to bring any medications you may need (and bring enough to last the duration of your trip). It is also highly recommended you bring any medicines in their prescription bottles/packaging to avoid any issues at Customs (though I have never been questioned on anything, it’s best to be prepared), especially considering there may be a language barrier.
It’s a good idea to have a print out of your hotel confirmations with you. While this does add a (very) little weight to your bags, it can be a lifesaver because many booking sites print the confirmation (including hotel details) in English and Japanese. I once used a print out to help my taxi driver find a little-known ryokan in Kyoto where I had reservations. I also like the paper version as opposed to electronic, just in case email is not accessible for some reason.
Japanese Hotels May Ask to Copy Your Passport.
It is routine procedure for hotels in Japan to make copies of their guests’ passports (though not all Japanese hotels do it, which is interesting). The desk clerk should only have your passport briefly.
Internet, Email and Electronic Devices.
Many (if not most) Japanese hotels have wifi, so you can access the internet and email much like you would at home. However, hotel wifi and internet access in smaller towns is more sporadic (though internet cafes are usually still available). Finally, while many modern Japanese hotels have electrical outlets that will accept both American and Japanese plugs, this is not always the case, so be sure to have an adaptor and converter for Japan so you can charge your devices.
You can also rent a pocket wifi device if you are worried about connectivity (and there are many easy rental options). For instance, if you plan to purchase a Japan Rail Pass, you can rent a pocket wifi from them and they will deliver it to you at the airport or to your hotel. Most SoftBank locations also rent pocket wifi, with discounts if you pre-book online.
Your Cell Phone May Not Work in Japan.
Unless your phone is GSM-capable and you have the proper service plan, your cell phone will probably only work sporadically (at best) in Japan, and even if it does work, the rates will be astronomical. So, if you must have a phone, it’s probably best to rent one or buy a disposable phone after you arrive in Japan. Narita and Haneda Airports have several cell phone rental locations available.
Wear Comfortable Shoes.
Japan is definitely a place you will do a lot of walking. While the public transportation system is excellent, walking through stations, up and down stairs, and to and from tourist sites will definitely put some miles on your feet. (I would also recommend your shoes have good grip on the bottom, especially if you plan to visit temple sites, because in some locations the terrain can be unpaved and mossy or damp.)
The Japanese Walk, Drive and Bike on the Left.
If you’re coming from America like I am, walking and driving on the left is completely different from what you’re used to. While there are a few well-marked exceptions in train stations, the Japanese walk, drive and bike on the left. Even on escalators, people stand to the left so others can pass (so be sure and extend that courtesy too).
You May See People Wearing Surgical Masks.
Although not common anywhere else (that I am aware of), in Japan, wearing a mask is totally normal. People often wear them during allergy or flu season and young people even wear them as fashion statements.
The Japanese Railway System is Pretty Easy to Use.
Japan’s rail lines are color-coded and stations are typically very well-marked (often with English language signs as well). Rail line maps are displayed over tickets kiosks by station entrances and fares are listed next to the various stops. Of course, if all else fails, ask the station attendant for help. As long as you can say the name of your destination, they should be able to help you pay the right fare and get you to the right train.
While handshaking has become much more common in Japan, bowing is still the customary (and preferred) greeting. There are many types of bows (and all kinds of rules about which type of bow to use when), but don’t worry, as a tourist your bows won’t be scrutinized. Just remember that it’s polite to greet someone with a bow and return the gesture if someone bows to you first.
In an effort to go greener, many public bathrooms in Japan don’t have hand towels or dryers, so it is a good idea to come prepared. Train station shops usually carry small towels (more like a washcloth) for about 400-500 Yen, or you can bring your own.
Japanese toilets are either high-tech or low-tech, there really is no in-between. Toilets in Japan will either have a lot of bells and whistles or will be a hole in the ground that flushes. The high-tech versions have user options (like bidet or air freshener) on a control panel. Use the pictures on the panel to help you decide which button to push, if desired.
Bathing and Onsen.
Japanese bathrooms are associated with strict rules of etiquette (which are designed to promote good hygiene). Before getting into a public bath or tub in a private home, be sure to wash yourself off first (with both soap and water). You will find a shower area co-located with the baths designed for this purpose. Pre-washing is customary, and skipping this step would be considered very unsanitary. While it may seem strange to wash before you bathe, baths are designed for relaxing, not washing.
Even if you forget something, Japan has all of the modern products and conveniences you can imagine (and I personally think trying new things is part of a fun travel experience anyway). Above all, just enjoy your trip. Japan is a very hospitable country and even if your Japanese manners aren’t perfect, if you give it a shot, your efforts will be appreciated.
For more helpful travel tips, check out Travel Can be Stressful. Here are 5 Great Ways to Unwind on Your Trip in Japan.