Simply put, Japan is a fascinating destination. You’ll find a seamless blend of old traditions and new technology here. You’ll also discover gorgeous natural landscapes just a short train ride from sparkling, sprawling cities and loud, jarring outlets a short distance from quiet areas full of nuanced rules. It’s the kind of place where people will wait patiently in line for water after a natural disaster but socially ghost you if you accidentally offend them. With a distinct culture and language, it’s tough to list all the things you should know before heading to Japan. We could spend hours describing the country’s spectacular cuisine, listing the top spots to get ramen, sharing all the hidden gems, and explaining how you’re likely to offend someone accidentally. However, for now, we’re sticking to the basics: everything you need to know to help make sure your trip to Nippon is fun and only full of good surprises. We’ll help you save some money along the way, too.
1. Safety in Japan is high.
One of the best things about Japan is that it is safe. Repeatedly shining on the top ten lists of the world’s safest countries, Japan is also a great place for solo female travelers. That doesn’t mean you can throw caution to the wind. As with any destination, you’ll need to be vigilant as a foreigner, stay out of shady areas, avoid flaunting your cash, and don’t provoke anyone.
2. Cash in Japan rules.
Cash is king in Japan. Workers are usually paid in cash, and most businesses and services, including restaurants and shops, accept only cash. Your hotel and some big department stores will usually take credit but always check first. That said, always have plenty of yen in your wallet to avoid awkward conversations that can easily get lost in translation. Tip: If you find yourself without cash, head to 7-Eleven to use the ATM. Not only is your bank card guaranteed to work every time, but it’s also open 24/7.
3. Buying a Rail Pass in Japan is worth it.
A Japan Rail Pass can help save you plenty of money, especially if you plan to travel around a particular region or the whole country. You can buy an unlimited pass valid for a specific region or country-wide. This will give you access to the bullet train (Shinkansen) and JR-branded commuter trains, buses, and ferries, often for about the same price as two individual train tickets. Remember that passes are valid for a certain number of days within a seven, 14, or 21-day period and cannot be used on the Nozomi trains. JR passes should also be bought before you arrive in Japan, though you’ll still have to validate them at a JR office with your passport and voucher in-hand. If you visit Japan before March 2018, you can buy a pass in Japan, but beware, as it will cost between 10 and 20 percent more and is only sold in certain stations.
4. The metro in Japan is not 24 hours.
It may seem shocking that a country filled with so many conveniences doesn’t have a 24-hour train system, but it’s true — even in the glittering, well-oiled Tokyo. When planning your night out, expect to make a mad dash for the last train. Depending on where you are, you’ll have to be through the doors anywhere between 11:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. Missing the train can be an expensive (though adventurous) mistake, leaving you to rely on a pricey cab. (Ensure your hotel or destination address is clearly printed or written before you go out.) Another option? Head to one of the all-night karaoke joints and sing into the early morning. It’s often cheaper than a cab.
5. You’ll likely see many drunk businessmen on trains in Japan.
It’s not the most becoming part of their culture, but it happens — frequently. While the majority of Japanese society is mild-mannered, you’re likely to come across drunk Japanese businessmen. Part of the diehard Japanese work culture is businessmen going out for drinks after work and booze. That said, don’t be surprised if you walk on a train around 7 p.m. and are hit with the smell of booze and visibly intoxicated men in suits. We’ve even seen a few passed out (picture one shoe off, shirt untucked, and briefcase a few feet away on the train station floor).
6. Learn a few Japanese phrases and how to recognize keywords.
We always recommend learning a few basic phrases in the local language whenever you travel, but this is especially important in Japan, where etiquette is held in the highest esteem. Make sure you are familiar with how to say “thank you,” “please,” and “excuse me,” even if you have to write them down phonetically. You may also want to write down a few translations for your own reference, including the words for bathroom, ramen, karaoke, exit (trust us), and certain toiletries.
7. Tattoos in Japan are considered taboo.
While your tattoos may be an artistic way to express yourself, in Japan, they tend to be associated with criminals — namely, members of the Yakuza gang. This is especially important to consider if you are interested in visiting a traditional Japanese onsen. They will most likely ask if you have any tattoos before you’re allowed entry. And don’t think about fibbing — most onsens require bathers to be in the buff.
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8. Most Japanese people love Americans and American culture.
Considering some of our dark history with Japan, it may come as a surprise that Japanese locals are taken with Americans and American culture. Not only do they get excited to meet folks from the U.S., but you’ll also find a handful of American-themed bars and plenty of Japanese versions of American items, especially food. A word to the wise: They don’t often get the recipe right, so it’s not uncommon to find sandwiches with cheese, strawberries, and whipped cream or pizza with mayonnaise and sweet brown sauce or shell-on clams.
9. Keeping your shoes on in certain places is highly offensive.
Leaving your shoes on when entering someone’s house is a major sign of disrespect. Like many other parts of Asia, removing your shoes when entering a home is a must. This is also the norm for several restaurants, so be sure to check whether you should slip your shoes off. Oh, and you’ll have to take off your shoes before entering most dressing rooms, too.
10. You don’t have to tip in Japan.
Speaking of restaurant etiquette, you don’t need to tip in Japan. If you do, there’s a big chance your server will run after you to give you the money you accidentally left behind. Waiters get paid a living wage in Japan, so don’t feel guilty. This rule is also true for hotel and other service staff you’ll encounter during your trip.
11. Don’t expect to find any hibachi restaurants in Japan.
We have some bad news for lovers of flashy Japanese restaurants where they cook in front of you, juggle knives, and set stacks of onions on fire. Hibachi restaurants are a Westernized invention. The closest thing you’ll find here is a teppanyaki restaurant, but there’s no chef slicing and dicing for you. In Japan, you’ll be cooking up your own food table side, which, for us, is half the fun.
12. You won’t always find an English translation.
Speaking of eating out, be prepared to encounter menus and signs with no English translations. If you are in tourist-heavy spots, especially in Tokyo, this won’t be a problem. However, once you venture outside of the major tourist hot spots, it’s common to see solely Japanese. This is where your list of Japanese words will come in handy, especially in restaurants. While many places will attempt to rectify this with pictures, it’s still hard to tell what a miso-katsu is. If you don’t have a list and there are no pictures, you can always pick a place with plastic versions of the menu items displayed in the window and at the very least, point to what you want.
13. Most Japanese locals speak English better than they admit.
You can politely ask for help by finding someone who speaks English. And even if your new best friend says they don’t speak much English, it’s likely better than they say it is. Tip: Speak slowly.
14. Don’t flag down your waiter in Japan — there’s a buzzer for that.
You don’t have to impatiently flag down your waiter in Japan. Many restaurant tables have a small black box with a black button so that customers can summon the waiter without calling attention to themselves or creating disruptive noises. Better yet, some spots don’t even have waiters. Instead, guests order from a screen in their booth, and the food arrives in a little slot.
15. Department store sushi is pretty good.
There’s no doubt sushi in Japan is expensive. Thankfully, if your budget doesn’t allow for a chirashi splurge every day, you can still get your fix at a depachika, a food hall in the basement of a department store. Here, you can find a wide range of foods, including high-quality sushi, all prepped and ready to be carried out by tourists.
16. The underground malls in Japan are huge.
Japan’s cities are covered — no, stacked — with buildings. It’s easy to get stuck looking up, but you’d miss all the action taking place underground. Like South Korea, Japan has utilized its underground space by building huge shopping centers full of stores and restaurants.
17. Skip the animal cafes in Japan.
We’ve all seen the adorable videos of the cat, owl, and other animal cafes found all over Japan. However, these spots are hardly more than petting zoos for animals that would otherwise not receive any attention. If you must go, research your spot first and make sure they are animal-friendly.
18. Get in on the nomihodai in Japan.
What if we told you there’s a way to save big on drinks in Japan? Enter nomihodai — the Japanese all-you-can-drink special you should experience at least once while visiting. The price for a beer or two in New York City will allow you to drink for one or two hours. This deal is often found at izakayas, and they might even offer a food-related all-you-can-eat special too. There are a few rules, though. You’ll need to finish your first drink before ordering your next, and there’s sometimes an entrance charge. When the time runs out, you’ll have to abandon all the drinks you haven’t finished.
19. Speak quietly in public in Japan.
Watching the volume of your voice — and the content of your conversation — is extremely important in Japan. Everyone in Japan is aware of the fact that they are sharing space with others, so keeping conversations to a minimum and voice levels at a low volume in public is always appreciated.
20. A small gift in Japan can say a lot.
While you can’t tip in Japan, you can still offer a small token of appreciation if you want to thank someone for their help or service. This could be in the form of a trinket, such as a keychain or a souvenir from your hometown. No matter what it is, be sure to say thank you and bow as you hand it over. However, don’t make too big a deal out of it, or they might feel ashamed that they have nothing to offer you in return.
21. Pointing at people and things in Japan is considered rude.
Pointing at people or things with your finger, greeting strangers on the street with a friendly “hello,” eating or drinking in public, and snapping photos of people without their permission are big no-nos in Japan. It’s also impolite to raise your voice or lose your temper in Japan, so be careful of how you handle situations that don’t turn out the way you planned.
Plus, Japanese people are constantly worried about offending people, so consider this when asking for favors. They often say “yes” to something when they mean “no.” This indirect communication requires you to read between the lines a little. Look for context clues, like if they go grab a manager or aren’t fully committed to the “yes.” It’s a big deal for them to say no, so if they do, do not push it.
22. You can smoke in most restaurants in Japan, but there are designated spots to do so outside.
It’s worth noting that nearly every restaurant in Japan has a smoking section, though it is much more common in izakayas. Some will even let you smoke anywhere inside. It’s funny when you consider that there are several designated smoking stations outside, too.
23. Those surgical masks aren’t what you think.
If you think the people wearing surgical masks are germaphobes trying to avoid getting sick, you’d be wrong. It’s the other way around. People don a mask when they aren’t feeling well to help stop the spread of germs to their friends, family, and colleagues. Others wear it to block exposure to pollen.
24. Try a ryokan for a traditional Japanese hotel experience.
If you want a unique Japanese hotel experience, check into a traditional ryokan for a night or two (or more). Originating in the early 17th century Edo period, ryokans are Japanese inns where you’ll sleep on tatami mats rolled onto the floor, sample a traditional Japanese set breakfast, and probably have communal bathing facilities. The latter isn’t for the shy or modest; it’s a fully naked locker room experience where you sit on a stool in front of a vanity and bathe with a shower nozzle. We highly recommend this experience for at least a night in Nippon.
Established in 1818, this historic ryokan has been family-run for six generations, though it still offers a high-end experience. Rooms are minimal, with sliding wooden doors, floor mats, low furniture, and bathtubs made of umbrella pine. There are, however, many modern amenities, such as minibars and free Wi-Fi. If you’re looking for Western-style facilities, this is not the place for you, but for a slice of history and tradition, Hiiragiya is a solid choice.
25. Hotel rates are high during cherry blossom season in Japan.
In the spring, cherry blossom season in Japan lures locals and travelers from around the world. In addition to contending with crowds, expect competitive hotel rates during this time of year. With that in mind, book your hotel, flight, and even trains ahead of time to avoid exorbitant prices.
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