Have you ever had a crush on someone, but couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was about them that made them so attractive?
Maybe they’re handsome and clean, but with just the right amount of sparkle and difference to keep you on your toes?
That’s what Japan was for us: a neat and well-maintained appearance, organized and efficient with great attention to detail, but nothing boring; a good dose of quirkiness and peculiarity to keep the relationship exciting and oddly satisfying.
If you are visiting Japan for the first time, check out our tips and suggestions to make your trip less stressful.
16 Tips For Visiting Japan For The First Time
1. Language Barrier
The first question most newcomers ask is do you need to speak Japanese to visit Japan?
Many people hesitate to visit Japan because they don’t speak Japanese. While being able to speak the language certainly makes things easier, you can still get by without fluency.
We only had a few Japanese words up our sleeves, but we had some trouble – although we spent a lot of time using our hands to describe things!
In Tokyo and ski areas like Niseko, the main street and transportation signs are almost always in English and Japanese. Most subway announcements are spoken in both Japanese and English.
If you do not speak Japanese, we recommend these basic phrases before you go:
Hello: Konnichiwa, Ohayo
Good evening: Konbanwa
Thank you: Onegaishimasu
The easiest way to get around Japan is using rail. You might have heard something called the JR pass for foreigners, but is a JR pass worth it?
This card can only be purchased by foreigners, and must be bought before your arrival into Japan.
The JR pass allow you unlimited train journeys on JR trains (Japan Rail) over a course of 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days.
A 7-day pass will cost ¥29,110, which can work out to be extremely cost effective if you are planning on doing a lot of rail travel, including long-distance trips.
But do the math first.
When we looked at our planned trip, we realised the JR Pass was not an economical decision for us. We only had about 4-days in Tokyo with one trip outside of Tokyo, when we went to visit the Snow Monkey Park near Nagano.
Instead, we simply purchased a Suica card.
The Suica card is a prepaid transport card which you can top-up as you need for use on most of your rail journeys (except the Shinkansen bullet trains).
There are kiosks at every train station which allow you to purchase the card (which has your name on it) and to top-up. It saves you the hassle of having to work out individual fares. Swipe and go!
Flying domestically in Japan is cheap! At least much cheaper than in New Zealand.
We needed to get up to Hokkaido from Tokyo and flying was by far the quickest and ended up being the cheapest too.
We flew with Vanilla Air from Tokyo to Sapporo, with all our bags and ski gear for about ¥6000. For a budget airline, Vanilla Air were amazing. The staff were exceptionally friendly and helpful – we nearly missed our flight to Sapporo due to us getting a bit lost at Narita Airport. They saw how stressed out we were with all our luggage and ski bags, but kindly escorted us through security right to the gate to ensure we didn’t miss our flight!
We couldn’t help wondering what other airline in the world would have been so kind to two foreigners turning up late for their flight?
Taxis are available in Japan, but they are expensive. With such a great public transport system, we never needed to use a taxi at all during our trip. However, if you find yourself needing transport after midnight, then a taxi may be your only option home as trains will have stopped.
One of the top things you’ll notice about visiting Japan for the first time is about how polite the Japanese people are.
Always greet and thank people especially those who are serving you. There are lots of different customs in Japan so it’s a good idea to look at these so you don’t accidentally offend someone.
Bowing is common practice and is a traditional Japanese introduction – but don’t shake hands at the same time! That’s a western traditional. You also don’t need to clasp your hands together while you bow. Rookie mistake!
4. Noise on Trains
Despite bursting at the seams, a full train is surprisingly quiet. There’s no raucous or loud behavior, even if you’re completely squished up against the doors.
The other thing to remember on public transport is the use of headphones and talking on your cellphone. The Japanese are very conscious of noise disturbances, which means you can’t listen through headphones in case there is sound ‘leakage’ to the next person. It’s the same for talking on your mobile phone; it might disrupt the other people next to you, so you don’t do it.
Free WiFi is available in many places throughout Japan especially in airports and other major hubs where people gather. But it can be helpful to have a portable WiFi device with you while you travel – you never know when you might need Google Maps for GPS-guided directions!
6. Dine out at lunch to save money
People often assume Japan is very expensive, but we found it much more affordable than we expected. Part of that was due to us buying food at the mini-marts for dinner and lunches, rather than dining out.
The supermarkets or mini marts have a variety of ready-to-go meals and snacks, beverages and of course plenty of cheap but tasty sushi and rice meals. We used to buy a couple of large sushi triangles for 100 yen each and have those for lunch. In Niseko we would buy chicken and rice meals for dinner for the equivalent of a few dollars.
If you want to dine out, opt for the set menus at lunchtime. Often they are the same as the dinnertime menu but considerably cheaper during the day.
7. Carry Cash
Japan is a cash society, which means you’ll need to carry cash with you throughout your trip. While hotels and some restaurants or shops take credit cards, cash is definitely king.
It’s also best to withdraw your cash before you arrive in the country, depending on the currency conversion of course. There are international ATM machines found at the Seven Eleven stores where you can withdraw cash, but many of them have a limit of how much you can take out at a time.
It’s also worth noting that when you pay for an item, you put your cash in a little tray on the counter. The sales assistant will take the cash from the tray and give your change IN THE TRAY. Use the tray!
*THE HARD LESSON: Always check where the cash is before you depart. Don’t get your husband to put your Japanese yen in the pocket of a backpack that you’re NOT taking with you. Yep, that’s what happened to us and we ended up leaving half our Japanese Yen in New Zealand, only realizing on our stopover in Seoul. We managed to get our parents to head to the bank to transfer the money into our account so we could withdraw it again in Japan, which saw us pay even more for the double currency conversion.
8. Organized Chaos
Japan is busy – Tokyo has a population of 13 million. Given the entire population of New Zealand is around 5 million, it’s pretty crazy to visit such a massive city.
But what struck us was how organized and quiet everything was over in Japan. We’d see hundreds of people cross the road or intersections at at time – but there was no pushing, running, shoving or even noise. It was quiet, efficient and effective.
We never saw one piece of litter or rubbish on the streets of Tokyo during our time there. The streets were always immaculate and cleaners make sure the subway stations are kept in a tidy condition – a far cry from the London Underground!
However, there are surprisingly few garbage bins around. Always take your rubbish with you until you can dispose of it properly.
10. Housing is compact
We’ve stated before how efficient Japan is – and the same goes for housing. Houses and apartments are compact, while still offering everything you need.
Our Airbnb apartment in Tokyo was small and tidy but still had two double beds, a reasonably full kitchen and bathroom/laundry area. It was a bit of a squish, but an example of how you don’t need heaps of space when travelling.
In Niseko, we stayed at Always Niseko which was a bit bigger and more western-style accommodation to cater for the international travelers.
11. Don’t Tip
Tipping can be considered offensive in Japan, so there’s no need to do it. Tipping is not expected in Japan. In fact, it can be considered impolite and insulting in a variety of situations.
Tipping is considered rude in Japan because they value dignity and respect far more than tipping. The Japanese believe that you should not pay more for tips because you are already paying for good service.
Customers in most Japanese restaurants must pay for their meals at the cash register rather than leaving money with the waiter or waitress.
12. Shoes Off
Always take your shoes off before entering anyone’s house – including your accommodation. Most places have inside slippers ready for you to use at the doorway so be sure to swap footwear as you enter and leave the house. When you are using the toilet in another person’s house, make sure you don’t wear your ‘house’ slippers into the toilet – use the special bathroom slippers.
13. The Japanese Toilet
The Japanese Washlet or Bidet is a unique and somewhat high-tech bathroom system!
With lots of buttons and no English, make sure you’re sitting down before you press any buttons or water might spray out at you! There’s a musical note button – which means the toilet will play the sound of gentle flushing while you do your business. The heated toilet seat feature is a winner in winter!
Plugs in Japan have two flat pins. We bought what we thought was an appropriate NZ-Japanese converter, only to find that it was an Australian-Japanese converter, which meant there was no Earth slot for our Kiwi Three-Pin plug. It was quite hard to find an adaptor for New Zealand in Japan, so we’d recommend buying one before you arrive.
We felt really safe at all times in Japan. Even taking the subway trains at night – we never felt any threat. It was a pleasant change from Fiji for us – where as a woman, I would never walk alone at night. Japan was one country where I felt very safe at all times.
However, like any country, Japan is not immune to crime so be sure to use common sense. We have heard of cases of young girls and women being groped on the trains – although we never witnessed any of it, it is important to be aware that no country is 100% safe from a few bad eggs.
In Japan, nearly everyone was wearing surgical masks. On arrival, we both came down with a bit of a cough and cold and we quickly purchased our own face masks too so as not to breathe in the cold air or anyone else’s germs. Although we swapped out the boring surgical mask for something a little more fun: A face masks Disney style!
The Japanese loved it! We would get stopped in the middle of the street by strangers smiling and pointing to our masks, saying “Very cute! Very cute!”
The other benefit of the face mask for travel to Tokyo in winter was it helped keep the air we inhaled warm and moist, which made it easier to breathe. Cold air can sting the nose and throat, especially if you are a little run-down. We’d recommend a mask to all travellers.
Where To Stay in Tokyo
If you’re visiting Japan for the first time, it may be confusing to know where to stay and what type of accommodation to book.
If you’re going to Tokyo, look for places that are close to the JR Yamanote Line. Tokyo is huge so you want to stay in a place that is convenient. The best areas to stay in Tokyo are Shinjuku, Ginza, Tokyo Station, Shibuya and Asakusa.
We stayed in Ikebukuro, which was fine as it was close to the train stations, but next time we would stay in Shinjuku.
We had a beautiful compact and clean apartment through Airbnb.
Airbnb is still quite new to Tokyo, but there is a great selection of affordable apartments in all parts of Tokyo. We’d highly recommend using Airbnb again for Tokyo. Hosts are helpful and polite and the rooms or places are in great condition. As with choosing any accommodation, look for the ones with the best reviews that are close to the JR Yamanote Line or other subway station.
On our last night in Tokyo, we needed to stay as close to the airport as possible for our 430am check-in for our flight back to New Zealand. We also had a late arrival in Tokyo from Sapporo the night before. Fortunately, there’s a great option for circumstances like ours – the Royal Park Hotel The Haneda.
The Royal Park Hotel is located INSIDE the international terminal at Haneda International Airport which meant we got a few hours sleep without worrying about transport to the airport.
And it was beautiful. For around $NZD200, we had the luxury of staying in the airport in a beautiful, quiet, elegant and modern hotel room, with gorgeous nighttime views and enough space to unpack and repack our bags for our international flight.
I doubt we would have made it to the airport in time had we not stayed there. We wish we could have stayed there for more than one night!
Note that there are two airports in Tokyo – Haneda and Narita. Our international airport was to and from Haneda, while our domestic flights were out of Narita.
Overall Impressions of Japan
Visiting Japan for the first time was an eye-opener. Honestly, it’s hard to sum it up.
It is beautiful and efficient. The people are quiet, polite and respectful but also friendly and helpful.
It’s designed for people. My husband works in construction and he was so impressed with the buildings and building designs that were modern, vibrant and exciting while being highly functional.
Everything seemed to make sense in Japan, but there’s enough quirkiness and eccentricity to make it exciting.
Will we be back? Absolutely!