Japan is a peculiar and delightful country with a unique culture that can only be experienced first-hand. Because I grew up in Hawaii where Japanese tourism is ubiquitous, I am a bit ashamed to say that I never had the desire to visit the Land of the Rising Sun until just last year when I started reading blog posts and became fascinated with the culture and the food (I mean, the title of my blog is Cultural Foodies so naturally those were the two things I gravitated towards). So when my husband and I saw $250 per person round trip tickets from Honolulu to Osaka on Scoot, a low-cost budget airline, we didn’t hesitate to book our trip! We spent five days in Kyoto, five days in Tokyo and one day in Osaka during the end of March/beginning of April during cherry blossom season.
Below I will share 61 helpful things that every traveler should know before visiting Japan, as well as some of my tips to help make traveling in Japan easier. Many of these we researched before we arrived so that we knew what to expect, but others we learned from locals or on free walking tours, or just by mistake! So hopefully this will help properly equip you for your next visit to Japan. Also, keep in mind that most of these rules apply to the entire country of Japan, but others are more specific to Kyoto and Tokyo; the two main prefectures we visited.
Are you ready to have your mind blown about Japanese customs and cultures? Let’s dive in!
61 Things Every Traveler Should Know Before Visiting Japan:
1) You must purchase the JR (Japan Rail) pass in your home country before arriving into Japan
We traveled in Japan for a total of 12 days, but purchased the 7-day pass because the 14-day pass was significantly more expensive and we did not use it during our first five days in Kyoto. A 7-day pass was $552 USD for (2) people. A good app to compare fares is called HyperDia. Here you can enter the cities you will be visiting to see whether it’s worth it to get the JR pass or just take the local subway system.
A note about the subway systems in Japan: they are not owned by the government; they are privatized and there are several different companies (Pasmo, ICOCA, Suica, etc.) We didn’t notice any major differences between the cards, so it doesn’t really matter which you decide to go with. We did ICOCA in Kyoto and Pasmo in Tokyo. If you’re going on to Osaka, keep your card because it works there too! These are all re-loadable cards that you can pay as you go and refill when necessary at convenient reload kiosks within each subway station. You’ll pay a deposit, and you’ll be refunded whatever you don’t use at the end of your trip.
2) Rent a pocket Wi-Fi
This was extremely useful during our time in Japan. You can purchase it from your local Japan tourism bureau back home, or at the airport upon arriving to Japan, and it costs $65 USD to rent. You only need one box for multiple people to use, and it goes with you everywhere so that you can stay connected. It’s very useful especially for directions on Googlemaps.
3) Drinking tap water in Japan is A-Okay! It’s not only drinkable, it’s delicious and some of the cleanest tasting tap water I’ve ever had, so don’t even hesitate about drinking tap water in Japan – it’s completely fine!
4) It’s not uncommon to see serious businessmen in suits playing Dragonball Z on their cell phones on the train
It appears to me that Japanese people remain forever child-like. With the anime and school girl craze culture, it’s easy to remain Kawaii (cute). Also, people dress really well in Japan, especially in the business districts. It was difficult for me to discern the age of people, as small boys, teenaged boys, young men and elderly men all wear suits.
5) Public toilets are free!
This makes us so happy because we are so accustomed to traveling in Europe where you have to pay to use the toilet. Also, you can find public toilets just about anywhere in the city as well as all train and subway stations. They’re quite clean, too!
6) Japan drives on the left side of the road, and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car
I found myself horrified when I would look into cars and saw children (or nobody) sitting in what would usually be the driver’s seat in the U.S. until it occurred to me that the driver is on the right side. That gave me a good laugh every time. One time there was a dog and I nearly tripped over myself.
7) You won’t find sidewalks everywhere
In Tokyo and Kyoto proper, there are pedestrian paths, but on many main roads in smaller districts, pedestrians just walk on the side of the road, which always felt quite dangerous to me. However, Japanese drivers seemed to be safe and are used to looking out for pedestrians.
8) The toilets will change your life
If you live in a cold climate, you know that miserable feeling when you have to get up in the middle of the night to pee and you sit down on a freezing cold porcelain seat counting down the seconds to when you can hop back into your warm bed? You don’t have to worry about that here. In fact, you’ll find yourself excited to use the loo because the feeling of warmth surrounding your bum reminds you of cuddling by a fireplace drinking hot cocoa at Christmas time. And you’ll never want to get up and leave.
There’s even an option to play lovely music of birds and rushing streams to cover up the unpleasant sound of doing your business. There is also a bidet to rinse your bum, and even a dryer to air your underparts! Each toilet experience is quite zen-like, as the seats are heated and always immaculate because people clean it with sanitizer wipes after each use. Sometimes I found myself just sitting enjoying the warmth because it was so dang cold outside.
9) Japan is not a tipping culture
Do not try to tip in Japan; it’s considered disrespectful. Don’t even round up and leave the change; pay exactly what your bill indicates and take your change.
10) Japan is still predominantly a cash culture
While more and more establishments are beginning to accept credit cards, most places in Japan, especially the smaller eateries and ramen joints, are still cash only. Because we live on Oahu where inbound Japanese tourism is prevalent, there’s a little place near where I work that provides a great exchange rate for USD to Yen. We brought the U.S. equivalent of $500, which we used in less than six days and had to take out more money while here.
*TIP* I recommend carrying a small coin purse, as most change is given in coins, all the way up to ¥500, which is approximately $5 USD.
11) Eating or drinking whilst walking is not allowed
This was very surprising to me because Japan is such a street food culture. This rule is in place to respect other people’s space; not everybody wants to smell when you’re eating, or god forbid you turn around and spill mustard all over some fancy businessman’s suit.
12) The streets are immaculate, but you won’t find a rubbish bin to save your life
Isn’t that wild? You would think that no trash cans would = littering everywhere, but not in Japan. You must carry your own trash with you until you find a receptacle to empty it into. We carried around a little plastic bag with us for our rubbish and emptied it at any opportunity we had. Usually the following places will have small rubbish bins: 7-11 stores, train station washrooms, and fast food joints.
Also, there are no bins for trash or recycling in homes like you see in the U.S. There are designated days for trash and recycling for residential areas, so you’ll see many small plastic bags outside on the street while walking, rather than large bins. It seems to me an inefficient and wasteful way to dispose of trash, but I suppose it’s to prevent eyesores or undesirable smells on the street? If you know the reason for this, let me know in the comments below!
13) There is no open bottle law in Japan
So you can enjoy your picnic with an Asahi or bottle of sake along with your musubi for takeaway. However, back to rule #11: make sure you don’t drink whilst walking in public.
14) Hot tea is provided complimentary at most restaurants, but you’ll have to ask for water
Water is usually served in tiny little cups, but most places will provide a pitcher so you can refill it copious amounts of time without bothering the wait staff. Yes please, I’ll have a shot of water with my tea. A dining experience often made me feel like I was in Alice in Wonderland with miniature everything.
15) Traveling in Japan is not actually that expensive
We never spent more than the equivalent of $60 USD on any given meal during our entire travels in Japan. Because ramen is so filling, we often had this for dinner, and the average cost of a bowl of ramen in Japan is $10 USD, so you can easily dine out for under $20 for two people. Also, many things in Japan are free, such as visiting shrines and day trips to outer lying cities. There are loads of free walking tours in both Kyoto and Tokyo (we did 4 in Tokyo alone), and for these tours you just pay the guide a tip in the amount of whatever you feel is fair. The only thing that I found to be more expensive than in other countries, was transportation.
16) Itadakimasu is a common phrase to say before enjoying a meal
It literally translates to “I humbly receive”, so you say this prior to eating, kind of like “cheers” or “bon appetit”
17) Most dining establishments require that you order one menu item per person, and sharing is not allowed due to small space
This is especially common in Kyoto and Tokyo, where space is tiny and seating is sparse. We visited several eateries that required us to purchase one menu item and one drink per person.
18) Nearly all dining establishments will give you a little basket to place your belongings in so that you don’t have to put them on the floor
19) There are a surprising number of cute cafes and hip spaces!
Forget the cat and owl cafes; coffee culture is starting to spread to Japan like avocado on toast. We spoke with an elderly Japanese man who was a guide on one of our free walking tours, and he said that in his day, the only establishments that existed were traditional tea houses. He said he’s still getting used to the concept of getting a coffee for takeaway or enjoying it while you work in a cafe.
20) Napkins are not usually provided at restaurants
But most will provide tissue for spicy ramen. Therefore, you’ll see that many Japanese people actually carry their own handkerchief or reusable napkin. It is also common to receive an oshibori (hot towel or wet napkin) with each meal. These are not meant to be used on your face; only to cleanse your hands prior to or after eating.
21) Japan loves plastic (sadly)
This made me very sad and was surprising that such a progressive country is not paying more attention to their carbon footprint and waste. They love to individually wrap everything in plastic and provide you with a plastic-wrapped straw to go with it! They will automatically give you a plastic bag with everything unless you tell them no thank you. Whenever we travel, we try to reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible, so we bring our own reusable thermos so that we don’t have to waste single-use cups and lids when we get our daily coffee or tea.
*TIP* Especially since it’s safe to drink the tap water in Japan, I highly recommend that you bring several reusable bottles and fill up wherever you can rather than purchasing bottled water, which isn’t necessary here.
Here’s a photo of a pour over we purchased near Nijo Castle in Kyoto; the barista is pouring it directly into our reusable thermos.
22) There are two types of noodles in Japan: Soba and Udon
Wait, but what about ramen?
Ramen is relatively new (in the past 60 years) and is considered fast, cheap food for University students and working people on the go.
23) Slurping your noodles is completely acceptable and not considered rude
In fact, in most ramen joints, all you’ll hear is the background music, vigorous slurping, and Irasshaimase!!”(welcome) coming from the wait staff as someone enters through the door.
24) You’ll order and pay for your ramen from a machine
In most ramen joints and other smaller food establishments, you pay at an automated machine with colorful buttons (usually located outside) – most accept only cash, and only some have an option to display the menu in English. You’ll then receive a ticket, which you give to the hostess when you walk in, and they hand it to the chef. Have a seat and they will bring your ramen out to your table. Since there is no tipping in Japan, once you’re finished, you just get up and leave. Easiest and most efficient dining experience, ever.
25) You are meant to sip your miso soup directly from the bowl
So don’t be surprised when you are not given a spoon.
26) Breakfast isn’t really a thing in Japan
But don’t worry, coffee and tea is ubiquitous! Eating establishments open later in the mornings; between 9 – 11 AM, so breakfast can be difficult to find. Our breakfast usually consisted of copious amounts of pastries, or random items from 7-11 such as soft boiled eggs and yogurt, which brings me to #27…
27) Japan makes French pastries just as good as in France!!
(And yes, I have been to France) 🙂 I don’t know why nobody talks about this, but we were shocked to find French patisseries in every prefecture we visited. And not just your average pain au chocolat…oh no, we’re talking the full gamut of delicious savory and sweet flaky, buttery pastries as if you’ve just stepped into a patisserie in Paris, only with a Japanese flair. My favorite was the curry pan (Japanese curry bread, usually with beef).
28) 7-11 is a Japanese-owned company and can be found on every corner
They’re pretty much like ABC stores in Hawaii. This is where you can withdraw Yen from an ATM or grab quick food on the go.
29) Japanese eggs have the brightest most golden and beautiful yolks I’ve ever seen
Always order your ramen with an egg; if it doesn’t come with an egg, order an extra (they’re usually 150 YEN, or $1.50.) You can also purchase soft-boiled eggs from 7-11 if you just want one or two. They come slightly salted. And of course, wrapped in plastic.
30) Restaurants will only give you one menu even if you have two people
This baffled me every time. I’m totally fine sharing a menu with my husband, but there were times where there were partitions between seats or the chairs were really far apart, so sharing a menu was not feasible. And don’t worry, most establishments have menus in English, and if they don’t, there will always be pictures. Japanese love their pictures of food. 🙂
31) It’s difficult to find vegetables when you eat out
If you’re a vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free, it’s going to be relatively difficult to find eateries. During March/April when we visited, the only vegetables we found in our food were: cabbage, spinach and mizuna, similar to Japanese rocket (arugula). I’ve never craved vegetables so much!
32) Plastic food is used to display the options so that you can just point to what you want
However, this threw me off sometimes at places where they kept the plastic food outside, because it got dusty and looked like there was hair in it, which totally grossed me out until I realized that wasn’t the actual food they were serving…thank goodness!
33) Do not stick your chopsticks standing straight up in your rice bowl
This is what they do at a funeral to offer food to the dead, and is considered to bring bad luck.
34) When you leave an establishment, every staff member will thank you profusely
They say multiple times arigatou gozaimasu on the way out, making you feel like royalty.
35) Give and receive name cards and money (including credit cards and receipts) with both hands as a sign of respect
36) Do not point with one finger. If you must indicate to something, use an open palm to gesture towards your subject.
37) Japan is one of the most honest cultures you’ll ever encounter
People leave their bikes outside unlocked and they don’t get stolen. We saw several food joints in Osaka keep their cash money in a box completely out in the open instead of inside a locked register. We accidentally left our change outside at a ramen machine (approximately $5 USD), and the next people to use the machine brought it in to the restaurant and the hostess brought it back to us. I wish I could live in a society like this where people could be trusted to do the right thing.
Another thing that surprised me is that the police here carry wands, not guns. I also wish that I could live in a society where guns were essentially non-existent and not a threat.
38) Smoking cigarettes is only designated in marked sections outside
There are also indoor smoking sections that are usually partitioned off, but if a restaurant allows smoking in the entire establishment, they will tell you as soon as you walk in so that you can respectfully leave before sitting down. Smoking is not permitted whilst walking on the streets, which was perhaps one of the things I loved most about walking around in Japan. The air is so clean!! When we visited Budapest last year, we were appalled by the amount of cigarette butts on the ground littering the streets, and nearly choked to death every time we walked outside. This should be a law all over the world.
39) Queueing is a part of life in Japan
You’ll queue for a good ramen joint, you’ll queue to purchase train tickets, you’ll queue to board the subway…even Japanese deer queue for the vending machines in Nara!
40) It seems that nearly 6 out of 10 people wear a sick mask
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are sick, but that they are avoiding getting sick from others because of being in such tight headquarters. Also, Spring is hay fever season because of all the flowers blooming, so they are preventing pollen from entering, causing sneezing, which is disruptive to others.
41) You will be a sardine in the subway during peak rush hour traffic in Tokyo
It’s actually quite a frightening and highly undesirable experience (I can’t imagine during summer when you throw in the stench of people’s body odor and coffee breath after a day of hard work), so get used to cozying up next to strangers and sharing your personal space (personal space is not a thing in Japan).
42) Don’t wear your backpack on your back in the subway or train
And no, it’s not because you’ll be robbed or pickpocketed; you really don’t need to worry about that in Japan; it’s as a courtesy due to lack of space. The proper etiquette is to wear it on your front side, or remove it prior to boarding, and hold it by your side or in between your legs. There are also overhead racks if you’ll be traveling longer distances. Just be sure if you have any liquids that they won’t spill on the person sitting below your belongings. That would be awkward.
43) Don’t talk on your phone while riding on the subway
It’s considered impolite, as it distracts other passengers around you. Are you starting to grasp the concept of politeness and consideration in Japan?
44) Serious businessmen, young girls, grown women and tough teenaged basketball jocks all have a trinket or stuffed animal keychain hanging from their backpack, purse or briefcase
While that may be considered childish in the U.S., it’s a way of personalization and very cool in Japan.
45) Escalator & stair etiquette = stand on the left, walk on the right
Do not run in subway stations.
46) Cars are really shiny, compact and tall
Most cars are newer with the exception of taxis, which are still the old boxy-style Toyota. It’s almost as if in order to own a car in Japan, you must clean and wax it every week.
47) Seasons are highly celebrated, especially in food
We were so lucky to visit during Spring, which is sakura season! We had sakura cake, dried sakura on tempura, and mochi wrapped in sakura leaf. Japanese love attention to detail, and take pride in seasonal dishes and preparation.
48) Subway attendants thank you for riding the train when you exit the station, as if you’ve just done an amazing deed for them
I’ve never heard Japanese use the words ie (no) or doitashimashite (you’re welcome); they always seem to be saying hai (yes) or arigatou gozaimasu (thank you very much).
49) Google translate is king…and also sometimes hilarious
While you will find that many Japanese people speak enough English to understand your requests, if you have a more specific or complicated situation, just type it into Google translate and show them your screen.
EXAMPLE: We paid a bit extra for express train tickets from Nara to Kyoto and ended up accidentally taking the slow train and did not use our express tickets. We requested a refund for our unused tickets using Google translate, which an attendant honored and gave us cash back on the spot.
Sometimes Google translate makes us giggle with its interpretations 🙂
50) If you’re traveling as a couple, tone down the PDA (public display of affection)
You may see couples holding hands, but not a single time did we see anybody kissing or hugging in public. This may be part of the reason that Japan’s population is declining, but that’s a whole other topic…
51) Japanese people are accustomed to foreigners
I thought that Sasha would be gawked at for his height (he’s 6’7″ (2 meters tall), but most people didn’t even notice because they are so used to foreigners. In fact, most of the people who commented on his height were Chinese tourists. I was surprised to see many very tall (over 6 feet) Japanese men! Must be all those beautiful golden egg yolks! 😉
52) Pachinko slot machine stores are owned by North Korea
So that money is getting sent back to the country via sneaky ways. Therefore, if you play on the slot machines, you may be essentially supporting North Korea…just saying.
Source: our free walking tour guide and NBC News
53) Tattoos are generally frowned upon and not allowed in most onsens (baths)
If you’ll be taking a day trip from Tokyo to Hakone, or visiting an onsen, check a list of places that accept tattoos. Also, when visiting during summer, try to cover up your tattoos as much as possible so as not to offend others. Tattoos are associated with the Yakuza (members of organized crime).
54) Japan is the 9th safest country in the world
But it feels like THE safest country in the world when you’re visiting. This was actually quite surprising to me, as I thought it would be higher up on the list.
55) The transportation system is extremely efficient and always punctual, down to the minute
The only time there are delays is if there is an accident. Sadly, Japan’s rate of suicide is quite high and jumping in front of a train is a common way for people to commit the act. When this occurs (it happened twice during our 12 days in Japan), the train will say “delay due to human-related accident” or “delay due to body on track”.
56) There are designated “women only” sections for boarding the subway in certain stations
This is due to increasing complaints about being groped by men, so it provides women a safe space during their commute home. You’ll know you’re on a women-only car when you see this pink sign on the ground. Also, all of the hand straps inside the cabin will be pink instead of blue.
57) Homelessness is not out in the open
We saw zero homeless people in Kyoto and only three in Tokyo. Coming from Hawaii and Seattle, this was shocking and delightful to me to see the streets empty and clean at night.
58) Don’t worry about bowing
We’d probably screw it up anyway. Bowing is a complex thing, and Japanese people understand that as visitors you probably won’t understand the right and wrong way to bow, so just don’t do it. A simple arigatou gozaimasu and a slight tilt of your head towards them will suffice.
However, bowing at a shrine is a whole different procedure. See my post on Kyoto on the proper way to bow before praying.
Bowing to deer in Nara is also perfectly acceptable and highly encouraged. 🙂
59) On the Shinkansen bullet train, each time a train attendant leaves your cabin, they will turn around and bow to you upon exiting
Again, making you feel like a very special person.
60) People don’t try to aggressively sell you things left and right
Unlike in South America or Europe, you will not be approached or harassed by people trying to sell you cheap things, and there are only “getters” in front of restaurants in Tokyo proper. (Stay away from those because they are geared towards tourists and more expensive.) The most aggressive person we encountered was a super happy-go-lucky rickshaw driver in Nara who just wanted to give us a ride around the city.
61) If you’re coming from the U.S., you won’t need an international adapter
Japanese outlets are just like outlets in the states (2-prong). However, if you have a 3-prong plug, you will need an adapter.
This list certainly isn’t exhaustive, but hopefully it helps you prepare for your next trip to Japan! Have you visited Japan before? Did I miss anything? What did you find to be surprising during your trip to Japan? Tell me in the comments below!
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