15 Things to Know Before Visiting Japan
Japan is a country full of quirky symbolism, ingenious technology, and amazing food. Before visiting Japan, you should know a few things to not get caught off guard. Below I quickly cover things like transportation, traveling costs, etiquette, gadgets, and culture.
1. Getting Around While in Japan
If you intend to travel to Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima or any other city, you’ll want to purchase a JR Pass. The JR Pass will save you tons of money and allow you to ride unlimited JR and Shinkansen trains during your stay. This pass does not include train rides provided by any other private line (more on this later). It’s worth noting the trains in Japan are incredibly dependable, safe and organized. Lastly, you’ll want to purchase the JR Pass before going to Japan, as the special JR pass will not be available to you once you arrive.
Where to Purchase JR Pass
You can purchase your JR Pass here. Tickets start at $267 for 7 days. Ticket prices scale down for each additional week. If you’re looking for a 3-week vacation (which I’d definitely recommend…Japan is immense), it’ll cost $546. Please Note: the JR Pass voucher will be mailed to your house and you will need to bring it to Japan. Once you arrive, you can exchange the voucher for the actual JR Pass and determine the start date.
Where to Buy Tokyo Metro Pass
There is an awesome store in Tokyo called Bicqlo where you can buy discount electronics and clothing. It also turns out to be an ideal place to purchase your Tokyo Metro Pass. Visit the Bicqlo store in Shinjuku and purchase a 3 day Tokyo pass for 1,500 yen (roughly $15). This will be immensely useful while traversing all of Tokyo.
2. How Much Does it Cost to Visit Japan?
While Japan has become much more affordable to foreigners, prices can still get as high as other large cities in the United States or Europe. However, people of all budgets could most definitely enjoy the country. Maria and I spent about $2,000 during our stay in Japan, not including the JR Pass or AirBnBs. AirBnB is very affordable in Japan and I’d highly recommend staying like a local while there.
3. When To Visit Japan
We traveled to Japan in late October and early November. It was much colder than we suspected (anywhere from low 40’s to high 60’s [Farenfeit]). I personally loved the temperature, but if you do not want to explore Japan in jacket weather, visit anytime between April and September.
4. Do I Need to Speak Japanese to Experience Japan? Yep
It definitely helps to speak the language while in Japan. You’ll find most Japanese people do not speak English, so communication can you know, get lost in translation from time to time. However, nearly all street signs and train station maps are in both, Japanese and English. You’ll want to learn some basic phrases to greet and thank people while there.
5. Cash Rules Everything Around… Japan
Japan is mostly a cash-only country. You’ll want to have money on hand where ever you go. When you’re low on cash, simply find a 7-Eleven and withdraw some cash. Though, be aware the ATM’s only withdraw increments of 10,000 yen ($100 USD).
6. You Order Upfront & Never Tip at Restaurants
Unlike their American counterparts, you don’t really have a server at Restaurants in Japan. In fact, most orders are facilitated by vending machines. You insert your cash, select a dish, select a drink, grab your ticket and give it to the chef. That’s it. As a result, you won’t really have the opportunity to order another round of drinks unless you go back to the vending machine. It seems as though most restaurants are meant to be enjoyed in a quick fashion and bars are to be enjoyed over the long-haul.
The Japanese are also not accustomed to tipping. Doing so could be seen as an insult, so make sure not to. There is an opportunity to give someone a gift for amazing service, but it might require you to explain why you are gifting to avoid confusion.
7. Everything is Orderly & Proper
In Japan, everyone dresses very well. Men in Tokyo wear suits almost 24/7 and women wear heels with elegant dresses. Although Tokyo is arguably the largest city in the world, the streets are immaculate. You won’t find things like trash or cigarette butts on the floor as you explore (not necessarily the case for Osaka!). Also, people walk in line everywhere—don’t go against the current, just go with the flow.
8. Karaoke is Everything
When visiting Japan, you have to do Karaoke—it’s an absolute must. Unlike Westernized Karaoke, the Japanese close off the experience with dedicated rooms. This means you can sing your heart out, air guitar and be yourself without fear of being embarrassed by onlooking patrons (if you’re one who is shy that is).
9. Pachinko is a Big Thing
As you walk the streets of Japan, it is inevitable you will hear the mechanical clanging and sirens of Pachinko. At first, you may think it’s an arcade but do not be fooled by the stationary gallery of video-like games. Pachinko is a form of gambling and the machines are similar to casino slots. Be aware that gambling for cash is illegal in Japan, so don’t expect to walk away with wads of cash.
10. 7-Eleven is the Best Damn Store Ever
In Japan, 7-Eleven is a haven for everything and anything. You can buy delicious packaged snacks, fresh rice treats, delicious mango bread, whiskey, ATMs, diapers, you name it. Since breakfast isn’t very common in Japan, we would purchase our breakfast meal at 7-11 most morninigs—which leads me to my next point.
11. Breakfast is Not A Thing
In Japan, you won’t find places serving eggs, bacon, toast, and waffles. The closest thing to breakfast would most probably be Ramen or some other soup-like dish.
12. Restaurants Focus on One Dish
If you walk into a Ramen place, expect to only find Ramen and dumplings on the menu. If you walk into a Japanese Curry restaurant, expect to only find variations of curry. Most places in Japan will focus on one kind of dish and masterfully craft it in a unique way. There were times Maria and I had to compromise our meals at times to ensure we got to eat what we wanted.
13. There are Vending Machines for Everything
The Japanese are somewhat reclusive in nature. They’ve built technology to reduce as much human interaction as possible. I mean, it’s the birthplace of Ichiran Ramen!. With that in mind, you’ll quickly notice there are vending machines for everything. You can purchase water, sport drinks, tea, hot coffee and in some places, beer. Yes, you can buy beer from a vending machine! Also, most small restaurants require you to purchase from a vending machine as well.
14. The Toilets are Futuristic
So they have toilets that will play music, warm the seat and spray fragrances. The warm seats were probably the best feature, as my girlfriend wouldn’t freeze every time she went to the bathroom.
15. Tokyo’s Nightlife is on Another Level
People in Tokyo go out late—especially in areas like Shibuya, Shinjuku and Roppongi Hills. You’ll find nightclubs, live houses, rock bars and more open until the early morning. It’s also not uncommon to find people intoxicated and passed out along the street.
All in all, Japan and Tokyo in particular, is an amazing place. The people, food, technology, places, and drinks are incredible and worth visiting over & over.