14 Japan Travel Tips For First Timers


We’ve just got back from nearly a month travelling Japan and, whilst it wasn’t a complete culture shock, there were lots of small details about the country we noticed as we explored.

We were surprised how such a modern country has such a reliance on cash, at getting odd stares as we wolfed down 7-Eleven sandwiches on the move and at some of the excellent services (such as luggage transfer) that seem unique to the country.

This list contains our favourite little Japan travel tips for first timers that we noted down on route.

Enjoy!

OUR JAPAN CREDENTIALS

The Reeves Roamed for 25 days through Japan, taking notes as we went. Our route was based on our typically thorough research, though we also found some surprises along the way. We only write about places we’ve actually been, so you can be confident that the details are first-hand.

READ OUR COMPLETE JAPAN GUIDE
Ben Reeve
Post Author

Use Luggage Transfer Services

a man in a 7 eleven uniform filling in a luggage transfer form in japan
Getting our luggage transferred at a 7-Eleven.

Luggage transfer service was something I’d not encountered in any other country we’ve visited.

For prices starting at ¥1,500 these services, (also known as takkyubin), offer a convenient way to send your bags from one location to another, allowing you to travel hands-free.

These services are reliable, reasonably priced, and can be arranged from hotels, airports, and some convenience stores. Your luggage is typically delivered the next day, making it ideal for those who want to explore cities without carrying heavy bags.

Companies such as JAL ABC, Sagawa Express or Yamato offer these service, but the easiest way to find out is to ask at the desk of your hotel or guest house who can organise for you.

Service ProviderTokyo to OsakaTokyo to KyotoTokyo to HokkaidoTokyo to OkinawaWithin Greater Tokyo AreaTokyo to Hiroshima
Cost¥1,700¥1,700¥2,100¥2,100¥1,500¥2,100

Bring a Wallet or Purse (Cash is Still King)

man holding a japanese 50 yen coin between his fingers the coin has a hole in the centre
The 50 Yen coin has a hole in it.

I was amazed that a country as modern as Japan still relied on cash so much.

And it’s not just in small shops or rural towns, even trying to pay for a train ticket from the airport was difficult without having Yen.

My advice would be to get some out before you arrive in the country, and make sure you have a wallet or purse with you capable of carrying cash and coins. I know it’s very 2023 of me, but my regular wallet only has space for cards, as Australia is almost cashless now, so I ended up with a pocket full of coins for the whole trip!

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Download Google Translate

an image of the instructions to a japanese toilet, translated through google translate
Using Google Translate to help me figure out the Japanese toilets!

If there was one app. we couldn’t live without whilst we were in Japan it was Google translate.

Think you can survie without it?

Yeah, I did too, until the first time I sat on a toilet and tried to figure it out.

Honestly, do yourself a favour, swallow your pride and make your life a whole lot easier!

To use it though, you’ll need a decent WiFi connection, get 10% off Ninja WiFi through this link. Ninja Wifi is one of Japan’s biggest mobile internet providers and available for pre order and collection at all major airports.

READ NEXT: Is It Difficult To Travel in Japan If You Only Speak English?

Don’t Eat or Drink While Walking

In Japan, eating or drinking while walking is considered poor etiquette.

This cultural norm has its roots in traditional Japanese values of cleanliness and respect. The Japanese emphasis on cleanliness is reflected in their pristine streets and public spaces, and eating on the go can be seen as a threat to this cleanliness.

This etiquette extends back to the values of mindfulness and respect in Japanese culture. Eating is considered an activity that should be enjoyed without distraction, and doing so while walking is seen as failing to give the food the respect it deserves.

You’ll often find signs around street vendors in Japan clearly stating “no eating or drinking on the street.” As a visitor, it’s respectful to follow this local custom, finding a spot to sit and enjoy your snack or drink.

Don’t Tip

In Japan, tipping is not a common practice and is often considered unnecessary or even rude. In Japanese culture, good service is expected and considered part of the job, not something extra that needs to be rewarded with a tip.

If you do leave a tip, you might find the server chasing after you to return your money, as they might think you accidentally left it behind. Instead of tipping, a polite thank you or a bow is more appreciated and aligns with Japanese customs.

This custom stems from the Japanese value of ‘omotenashi’, which translates to ‘hospitality’. Omotenashi is about providing excellent service without expecting anything in return, ensuring a pleasant experience for the guest.

Drink the Tap Water

I mean it’s hardly a world beating travel tip for you Japan first timers, but it’s worth knowing.

The tap water is good, clean and tasty (that’s really a thing to me, I really dislike some of the chalky British water).

Oh, and it’s also not green and radioactive (yes, I really searched for that), in fact it has less radiation than New York or Paris, despite well documented nuclear issues in the country.

Find Your Queue Zen

a big queue in japan
One of the huge queues at Tokyo DisneySea.

I’m British, so I love a good queue as much as the next person, unless they’re Japanese that is – they love queues a little too much!

The ‘order amongst chaos’ in Japan is a sight to behold. Rush-hour stations, packed to bursting, remain polite, with perfect lines leading to the doors of the on-time trains. Whether it’s temples, stores or street vendors, you can not be seen as the place to be unless you have a snake of people waiting to get in.

Learn To Read the Metro Maps

a japan train ticket machine with map of metro above it
A metro ticket machine with map above it.

Big London-Tube style maps, adorn the walls of all metro and train stations.

The maps are designed to be user-friendly, even for those who don’t speak Japanese, but they take a little getting used to, especially the numbers, which represent the fares, not station numbers (this took us a couple of days to figure out!)

Here’s are some quick first timer tips on how to read Japanese train and metro maps:

  1. Color-Coded Lines: Each train or subway line is typically color-coded, making it easy to follow routes on the map.
  2. Station Names: Stations are usually written in both Japanese (Kanji and Hiragana) and Roman alphabet. This makes it easier for non-Japanese speakers to identify their stops.
  3. Fare Information: Next to each station name, you’ll often find a number. This number represents the fare (in yen) from your starting station to that particular station. It’s a handy feature that allows you to quickly calculate the cost of your journey.
  4. Station Numbers: Some systems, like Tokyo’s, use station numbers (e.g., H-05, M-16) which can be easier to locate on the map and remember than names, especially for non-Japanese speakers.

You’ll Need To Carry Your Rubbish

Travel Japan for a while (especially with an often-sticky toddler) and you’ll notice one thing – there are rarely any bins around!

This situation largely originated after the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, leading to the removal of many bins in public areas as a security measure.

Japanese people are accustomed to carrying their rubbish with them until they find a suitable place to dispose of it, often at home, which contributes to the cleanliness of public spaces.

This practice is also tied to the Japanese ethic of ‘mottainai’, which emphasizes respect for resources and avoiding waste. The lack of bins encourages people to produce less waste and be more mindful of their consumption.

Reserve Big Attractions In Advance

a giant globe in a fountain at tokyo disneysea
Thankfully we reserved out DisneySea tickets in advance.

Don’t underestimate how far in advance some of the big attractions in Japan sell out, many first timers (like us) get caught out.

We wanted to go to Studio Ghibli, and thought we’d book a few days in advance, but there was no chance! Tickets usually sell out very quickly, often within an hour or less of going on sale and are released monthly, on the 10th at 10 a.m. Japan time, for the following month. For instance, tickets for May become available on April 10th.

Here’s a list of popular attractions in Japan, that often sell out early:

  1. Pokemon Cafe: This popular themed cafe in Tokyo requires advance booking due to its high demand. Reservations open at 6 pm Japanese time on the 10th of the month for the following month. Same-day cancellations are sometimes posted outside the cafe, offering a chance for last-minute visits​​.
  2. Kirby Cafe: Located in Tokyo Skytree, the Kirby Cafe also requires advance booking. Like the Pokemon Cafe, reservations open at 6 pm Japanese time on the 10th of the month for the following month. They also offer cancellation seats on the day​​.
  3. Shibuya Sky: This observation deck in Tokyo is immensely popular, particularly at sunset. Tickets go on sale 28 days in advance, and sunset time slots usually sell out within a few days of going on sale​​.
  4. Mori Building Digital Art Museum (TeamLab Borderless): Booking in advance is recommended for this digital art museum in Tokyo. Tickets can sell out, especially for popular visiting times​​.
  5. Universal Studios Japan (USJ) in Osaka: It’s advisable to buy the Express Pass in advance, which allows you to skip long lines for major attractions and enter popular areas like Harry Potter World​​.
  6. Katsura Imperial Villa or Shugakuin Imperial Villa in Kyoto: These require joining a tour, and advance booking is necessary​​.
  7. Ghibli Museum (Mitaka near Tokyo): Tickets must be purchased in advance and sell out quickly, often within 30 minutes of going on sale. They are available on the 10th of every month for the following month​​.
  8. Ghibli Park (Nagoya): Tickets for Ghibli Park need to be purchased in advance as well, with no tickets available at the gate. They are available three months prior to your visit​​.
  9. Tokyo Disney Resort (Tokyo): Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea tickets are sold two months in advance. You must buy park tickets beforehand unless you’re a Disney hotel guest​​.

Registering Your JR Pass

the rules for using the jr pass
There are some archaic rules attached to having a JR Pass.

Whilst there is some debate whether the JR Pass still represents value for money, we were in Japan just before the price-hike, so it was a no-brainer for us.

We were surprised though at how archaic the system for registering it is (another query we enjoyed!) and at how it relies on carrying around a ticket for the length of your pass (ours was 21 days), which if lost, invalidates it!

One of the main challenges is the need to physically exchange an ‘Exchange Order’ for the actual JR Pass upon arrival in Japan. This process involves visiting a JR Pass exchange office, which are located at most major airports and train stations (but certainly not all). However, the office hours can vary, and we found there to be long queues (it took us 45 minutes to be seen), so don’t try and do it on the rush to a train! Also, don’t forget your passport as they require physical proof that you are who you say you are.

Another issue is the necessity of carrying the physical pass at all times. This is like travel from 30 years ago, lose the piece of green paper and that’s it, no exchanges, no refunds, your JR Pass no longer exists.

READ NEXT: The Perfect First-Timer’s Itinerary For Tokyo

Brush Up On Your Natural Disaster Procedures

Japan is in the top 10 most earthquake prone countries in the world, and is also know to have tsunamis, cyclones and volcano eruptions.

I’ve only ever lived through one earthquake (the Melbourne rumble of 2021), so if you are like me, it’s probably best to brush up on what to do in the event of an emergency, so you have a plan if the worst happens.

Get Out Early

a mum and toddler holding hands walking away from the camera by a japanese temple
Becca and Grace near Sensoji Temple – it was so calm early in the day.

Getting up early is one of my favourite travel tips, but it is especially relevant in Japan where it gets so busy.

Here are a few reasons why it’s worth getting up early while in Japan:

  1. Avoiding Crowds: This is the number one reason! Many popular tourist spots in Japan, like temples and shrines, can get extremely busy during the day. By visiting early in the morning, you can enjoy these places in a more serene setting, often with fewer people. For instance, the iconic bamboo forest (which is one of the top reasons to visit Kyoto) is known to get crowded mid-afternoon, but visiting around sunrise offers a much quieter experience.
  2. Experiencing Local Life: Early mornings in Japan provide a unique opportunity to observe local life. You can witness the city waking up, people going about their morning routines, and even partake in local morning markets that are not as busy as during the day.
  3. Better Photography Opportunities: For those interested in photography, early morning light provides excellent conditions for capturing beautiful shots of Japan’s scenic landscapes and architecture, without the interference of crowds.
  4. Enjoying Cooler Temperatures: Especially during summer, the mornings in Japan are cooler, making it more comfortable to explore outdoor attractions before the heat of the day sets in.

Join Facebook Groups

japan travel facebook group

It’s a great travel tip for first timers in Japan to join Facebook groups related to Japanese travel.

These are packed full of people with recent, first-hand advice rom their adventures in Japan. You can also search them for answers to almost all your question.

Here are some suggestions:

Before You Go

We have got a big collection of Japan posts which will be perfect for first timers – check out our complete Japan Travel Guide here for links to all the best stuff we’ve written.

Leave us a comment below if you’ve got any first timer Japan travel tips of your own (you can also link back to your own websites to share your stories).

the reeves family picture

AUTHOR – BEN REEVE

Reeves Roam, is a first-hand travel blog. The Reeves have lived in the UK, South Africa and Australia and have travelled extensively in Europe and Southeast Asia.

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Thanks – Ben, Becca and Gracie

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