These top tips before visiting Japan are good to keep in mind, especially weeks in advance as you start planning. There’s some places that speak to you and Japan is no exception. It’s a country I’ve fallen in love with multiple times, and when I think about where I want to revisit, it’s always Japan.
Naturally the next question is why? It’s hard to capture the culture of Japan in a single sentence. The combination of design, a strong sense of preserving the arts, and the kindness from the people are really what I find I’m most attracted to. The level of passion and care poured into each daily task, making the ordinary the extraordinary, is really hard to find at home. You’ll find an elderly man who has spent his entire life dedicated to perfecting soba noodles — and it’s honored by his community. It’s special, hard to replicate, and makes Japan what it is today.
So if you’re planning a trip, here’s my top tips before visiting Japan.
Top Tips Before Visiting Japan
You’ll find the planning process a bit strenuous then say putting a trip together for Europe. A lot of the “gems” in cities like small ryokans and restaurants are either not online or don’t speak English well, so be patient in putting together the components. I would take your time in the planning process — this is not the kind of destination I would recommend booking a week before unless you’re going to just Tokyo or bigger cities. You’ll find many restaurants and hotels book months in advance and even with us planning our trip almost 7 months in advance, many of our first choices were sold out.
Trains and Transportation
All life in Japan centers around their incredibly articulated train system. What does this mean for you? A sure and easy way to get around but also expensive. Pending your trip, you’ll want to pre-purchase a rail pass before arrival, I bought mine here. You can do the math before hand and see if it adds up, in most cases it always does. The benefit of having the pass which needs to be purchased before arrival and sent to your house, so keep this in mind, is that you get to reserve seats on trains that have reservations. Use Hyperdia to plan out your schedule and print out the trains you want before hand to help the process.
If you’re interested in all forms of transportation and what to know before, I wrote a really extensive post on breaking down transportation in Japan.
For as modern as Japan is, money is one category they are really behind in. It’s still primarily a cash-only destination with only the larger hotels and restaurants excepting credit card. Be prepared to exchange or withdraw quite a bit when in country. (don’t forget to call your banks!)
Reservations and Dining
So how do you get into those top restaurants? Have someone locally do it for you. This was the best thing about the trip — both our Airbnb hosts to hotel concierge would call in advance to help set up reservations.
When it comes to dining in Japan, I have a full guide to the different kinds of cuisine. Be sure to read this post to see everything there is to try! There’s also a small section on chopstick etiquette which is well worth a read.
Hotels and Accommodations
There’s a wide variety of accommodations in Japan and we tried a little of each. We stayed in Airbnbs, bigger hotels, small ryokans on a mat, and an onsen spa. It’s great to try everything but definitely understand what it is your signing up for. The traditional Japanese ryokans don’t have beds normally, usually small mats with a big fluffy cover. So things like that are good to know before committing. I used Japanese Guest House to book the ryokans for our trip.
You’ll find a spectrum of English in Japan. I would lean in and say it’s more common in the big cities to find someone who speaks English but in the countryside, you’ll be hard pressed. It’s good to know a few words. I studied Japanese with Rosetta Stone before my trip and really happy I did. It was an amazing way to connect with the local people.
Beating the Crowds
You’ll find the major sights to be very crowded and can often feel disappointing, especially when you see those empty Instagram shots. How to beat the crowds? Get there super early, at sunrise or come back for sunset. At around sunset (unless it’s a view spot), they seemed to be much more quieter than say early afternoon.
You’ll find sim cards to be challenging to use in Japan, so I would recommend getting a pocket wi-fi while there. Most telecom counters in the airport offer these by the week and you can easily rent and drop off before flying out.
Print out all addresses and information ahead of time.
If you hop in a taxi or need to ask a stranger for help, it’s good to have these printed so they can read it. It’s a lifesaver to have all of the important information printed.
They’ll be your best friend and pretty much the only thing open before 9 am in the city. It’s a good spot to get necessities like cash, phone chargers, tickets and more.
And finally, always carry hand sanitizer and a plastic bag.
You’ll find there’s rarely a trash can around and yet the city is very clean. It’s because everyone holds on to their own trash — amazing! Hand disinfectant is also good to have as many public bathrooms will not have soap.
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