I recently got back from my first trip to Japan, which was also my first foray traveling anywhere in Asia. For me, part of the fun of going to a foreign country for the first time is getting out of my comfort zone and experiencing a new culture that’s entirely different from my own. But no one wants to be that bumbling tourist who attracts attention in all the wrong ways! If you’re traveling to Japan for the first time, here are some tips I learned that can help prepare you for your trip!
1. Trash cans are few and far between.
You won’t find many public trash cans in Japan, so it’s handy to keep a plastic bag with you just in case. This is especially helpful if you plan on eating street food! You may find yourself carrying your trash for quite a while before you’re able to dispose of it.
2. Rent a pocket Wi-Fi.
I rented a pocket Wi-Fi for my trip to Japan, and it was a lifesaver! Tokyo is MASSIVE, so you’ll need all the navigation help you can get if you’re headed there! I relied on Google Maps the entire time for walking directions as well as planning our routes via subway/train, both within the city and between cities. It was extremely helpful to have a mobile hotspot available at all times.
3. The JR Pass might not be worth it for you.
Everyone tells you to get a JR Pass before you go. But I did the math, and for my itinerary, it would’ve been a colossal waste of money. Unless you’re planning on traveling to a lot of different cities in the span of a week, you probably won’t get your money’s worth. For Tokyo and Kyoto, a Suica or Pasmo card was sufficient!
4. More places accept credit card than I expected.
Another thing everyone says about Japan is that you can’t use credit cards at most places. I didn’t find this to be true at all! Sure, there were a few small shops and street vendors that only accepted cash. But for me, it wasn’t any different than any other international trip I’ve taken. Definitely bring cash with you, but know that you can still use your card at many restaurants and shops.
5. Don’t try to tip.
You don’t need to tip taxi drivers, waiters, or bartenders. There’s no tipping in Japan. In fact, they may even be insulted if you try to leave extra money. Avoid the confusion by just paying the price as is.
6. Some restaurants will ask you to remove your shoes.
I went to one restaurant where we had to remove our shoes at the entry, after which the hostess put our shoes in a cubby behind the hostess stand. At another restaurant, we removed our shoes at the table and tucked them next to our booth. Just a heads up, you should always wear socks!
7. Be respectful of the rules on the subway.
People take the rules very seriously, and you should too! Be quiet and considerate when you use public transportation. That means no talking on cell phones and no food or drinks. Make sure you don’t sit in priority seats reserved for pregnant women, elderly people, or people with disabilities. Be sure to line up on the left side of the door on the subway platform, and wait for people on the train to exit before getting on.
8. Department stores are a foodie’s paradise.
Go to the basement level of Japanese department stores for a food lover’s paradise! Imagine the jewelry counter at your local department store but instead of jewelry, it’s filled with delicious food of every kind! I went to Isetan (no photos allowed unfortunately!) and ended up leaving with everything from tempura to macarons to herbal tea.
9. Tattoos are still a little taboo.
Tattoos are becoming more common, but there is still some social stigma attached to them. If you plan on visiting a traditional onsen (hot spring-fed public bathhouse), most of the facilities will not allow people with tattoos to enter. I brought some tape to cover mine, just in case.
10. Get used to high tech toilets… and the occasional squatty potty.
Western style toilets in Japan have more electronic options than you ever thought possible– heated seat, bidet, deodorizer, noisemaker. And that’s just to name a few! At some shrines, temples, and older buildings, you may encounter a traditional Asian style squat toilet which is built into the floor. Squatting over it can be a physical challenge for some foreigners to use, but many public restrooms will have both options available.
For first-timers traveling to Japan, it helps to know a little about the culture before you go. But once you’ve arrived, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you acclimate! Japan was such an amazing destination. Without a doubt, I would go back in a heartbeat! If you’ve already traveled to Japan, what are some things you didn’t know until you got there? Feel free to share your own tips in the comment section below!
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