24 Things you should know before traveling to Japan

I first came to Japan over two years ago now. My first trip was to visit Dan the summer before I joined the Air Force. I have learned a lot about Japan since then. Everything from how to handle the long haul flight to the culture and traditions here. So, here are my 24 tips for when you travel to Japan.


*all photos were taken by and belong to me and my husband


The Geisha district in downtown Kyoto

Traveling and Speaking in Japan


1. Comfort on the Plane:


Your flight could be anywhere from 8-15 hours. No matter the length, you will want to be comfortable on that long flight. Things that I wish I had brought on my first trip were an eye mask, ear buds (for music) or ear plugs (to block out noisy neighbors), melatonin to help you fall asleep, a battery pack or USB to charge your phone, and your zero waste travel essentials. Some honorable mentions that I personally do not use/need or I do not think are complete necessities are: a book, tablet/laptop, neck pillow, a sweatshirt (planes get cold), compression socks, snacks, and anything else you may find essential.

The bamboo grove in Kyoto

As a bonus, here are some things you might not know about long flights if you have never been on one:

- They usually provide two meals and a snack. Airlines going to and from Japan unfortunately do not have vegan options, though vegetarian seems to be growing.

- Blankets and slippers will be provided. I assume they are washed and repackaged so don't feel bad about using them.

- Airlines offer disposable ear buds so I highly encourage you bring your own.

- The seats have TVs in the back with free movies, TV shows, music, and games for your enjoyment.

- Don't feel bad about getting up whether that is the use the restroom or just to stretch. It can get really uncomfortable if you are cooped up in a window seat for 12 hours.


Cherry blossom festival in Okinawa

2. Learn a few basic phrases:


You can check out my complete guide to learning Japanese here, but some key phrases I think you should know are:


- Thank you; arigatougozaimasu or airgatou (ah-ri-gah-toe)

- Do you speak English? Eigo wa hanasemasu ka? (eggo wa hah-nah-say-mas kah?)

- I don't speak Japanese; Nihongo wa hanasemasen (knee-hon-go wa hah-nah-say-ma-sin)

- Where is the bathroom/toilet? Toire wa doko desu ka? (toe-ee-re wa doh-koh dace ka?)

- Will you take a photo of me? Shashin o totte itadake masu ka? (sha-she-n oh toe-tay ee-tah-dah-kay mas ka?)

- No bag please; baggu nashi desu (bag-goo nah-she dace)


Shinkyo bridge in Nikko

While most airport employees speak pretty good English and can help you navigate, it doesn't hurt to know a few basic phrases. Especially once you get out into the rest of the country, you never know who may speak English and who won't which leads to tip #3...


3. Download the Google Translate app and download Japanese:


Like I mentioned, not everyone speaks a lot of English and most people don't speak any. Instead of giving them a rough time or feeling embarrassed, try Google Translate. It has helped me many times. When in doubt, you can always point to photos or ask them for their most popular dish!


Try not to give them a hard time or make them feel bad. Imagine if someone from Japan came to America and expected you to be fluent in Japanese for your convenience


American Village, Okinawa

4. Tokyo has two airports:


This is important if you, like me, travel within Japan. If you plan on going to Hokkaido, Okinawa, or Osaka, make sure your layover in Tokyo is at the same airport. It is a hassle to switch airports considering they are about an hour away from each other by train. Haneda is located closer to Tokyo city center where as Narita is about 40 miles away.


Nishiki Market in Kyoto

5. Driving on the other side:


If you plan on traveling outside the cities, I would highly recommend that you get your international driver’s license and rent a car. But, if you are coming from the US, there are a few things you should know:

- They drive on the opposite side of the road and the car. Yup, left-hand side of the road, right-hand drive cars. It does take some getting used to, but don’t let it scare you. Don’t worry, this leads me into point 2…

- They drive super slow in Japan. The fastest you will ever legally see a speed limit is 80kph (only about 60mph) and that is if you pay to drive on the toll road. Normal speeds are about 40-60kph (35-50mph).

- Lastly, Japan’s stop signs are very unique. They are an upside-down triangle, but luckily they are still red. Just be careful when driving that you don’t misinterpret this sign.


Kinu-Tateiwa-Otsuribashi Suspension Bridge North of Nikko

6. Flying Internationally:


If this is your first international trip, you will want to get to the airport with plenty of time to spare. I typically aim for about 2 hours. This is just because traveling between countries has the potential of being complicated. You will want to have time to check your bags, go through security and customs, make sure you have all the correct documentation, and of course you will need to find your gate. It’s better safe than sorry after all.


The Samurai museum in Tokyo where they let you try it on

7. Japanese Customs:


Customs is really nothing to worry about. When you go back to the states, the US process is a lot longer and more complicated, but when arriving in Japan, it should be quick and simple. Just be sure to have your passport, ID, and customs paperwork that you receive on the plane filled out and ready to go. This makes your process a lot faster and less stressful. Try to schedule any connecting flights with time to spare so you can get through customs, get any bags if you have any, and go back through security.


The famous robot restaurant in Tokyo

8. Public Transportation:


Their public transportation system is incredible. Each major city has an extensive railway system and you can almost always find taxis, ubers (or equivalent), bikes, and rental cars. In Tokyo and Kyoto, I would highly recommend using the railway system. It is so convenient and Google Maps can even help you when it comes to which stop to get off at.


The best way we found to do this is to get a pass card. You can buy these at almost any train station and load it up with yen. Instead of paying exact cash for a ride, you can scan your card at the beginning and ending of your route. Most cards are also excepted by many taxi companies and convenient stores so you don't have to worry about losing money. Plus, they can always be loaded with more yen later and are good throughout the whole country.


Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto

Food and Money


9. Food Portions:

It’s true, the portions are smaller than in the US. But, the good news is that the portions are still plenty of food. You will still walk away satisfied, if not full, but you won’t be stuffed or have leftovers more than likely.


If you like noodles and sushi, you’re in luck. Japan is home to both sushi and ramen (and udon and soba) and has many famous restaurants and dishes.


10,000 Eisa Dancer festival in Naha, Okinawa

10. Learn how to use chopsticks:

I was super embarrassed when I first tried chopsticks in public. I wish I had practiced more in the US before I came here. You can always buy your own set or go to an Asian restaurant in your hometown and ask to try them there. They really are not that tricky once you get used to them, but it will save you time and patience if you learn before you go.


Another photo of the bamboo grove in Kyoto

11. Should you tip?


Nope! Tipping is unnecessary in Japan. The employees get paid a wage that does not require a tip. Sometimes tipping can even be considered rude.


In most restaurants, you pay at the end and walk up to the register with your bill. This is uncommon in the US, so don’t wait at your table forever hoping your waiter comes back to take your money. There are even some “vending machine” restaurants where you put money in, get a ticket, and then get your food so you don’t even have to worry about tipping afterwards.


The river that runs through the heart of Nikko

12. Currency:


Yen is the main form of currency in Japan, though some places may take US Dollar (especially if you are closer to a US military installation). So, it is probably a safe assumption to just carry Yen on you at all times especially since not all establishments take card. Make sure to have a coin purse as well since most of their currency is in coins. If you don’t want to look up the exact exchange rate, 100 Yen is equal to roughly $1 for easy conversion but it usually (this year) sits around 107-112 Yen to $1.


The golden pavilion, Kinkaku-ji, in Kyoto

Using your Phone in another Country


13. Foreign Phones:


In order for your foreign phone to work in another country, you must either buy a sim card that is compatible in that country or you must be on WiFi. If you chose the WiFi route, I would recommend using a pocket WiFi device so you can use your phone on the go as well.


If you plan on using a sim card, make sure you unlock your phone with your home phone company so that your phone can still operate using a new sim card.


And of course, you can always switch your phone plan to an international plan for the duration of your trip.


Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto

14. Where are the street names?


They do not use street names in Japan. The good news is that Google maps and Apple maps still work fine without using street names. The apps will just use units of measure instead...


Fukushūen Gardens in Naha, Okinawa

15. Get used to the metric system:


Google apps has the option of switching to metric system if you would rather use the same form of measurement as taxis, trains, and signs, or you can leave it in imperial if you want. The metric system is very easy to understand and use, it just takes a little getting used to.

The river that runs through the heart of Kyoto and some traditional boats

More about the Culture


16. Vending Machine Mania:


Thirsty in Japan? No worries! Japan is the land of vending machines and you will probably find one around every corner even in the most remote locations. There are even some options in metal (you know, to avoid that plastic waste). But, these take yen only, so be sure to always have Yen on you in case you need a drink. 


The torii gate that sits in the heart of Nikko

17. Crazy Convenient Stores:


Like vending machines, you will find convenient stores, or Konbini, everywhere. The most popular are Seven Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart and they are known for their wide array of snacks and drinks.


Kabira bay, Ishigaki, an island in the Ryukyu island chain

18. Don't be trashy:


One of the downsides of Japan is their lack of public trash cans. But, most places still remain rather clean. How? They rely on their citizens to pick up and be responsible for themselves. So, don't litter! You can either reduce your waste while traveling or you have to carry it yourself and dispose of it in your lodging area.


Getting a unique, traditional piece of art in Nikko

19. Mind your Manners:


You probably won't see people eating or drinking and walking like you do in the US. That is because is can be considered rude to do so. So, find a place to sit while you eat your snack or save it until later.


It can also be considered rude to eat your desserts in the shop you purchase them in as well as eating on the subway. Just be mindful of those around you and try to remember their customs and traditions.


The Shrines and Temples of Nikko park

20. Ditch the shoes:


Don't be alarmed if a business or residence asks you to take off your shoes before entering. It is custom in Japan to remove your shoes before walking on the floor of most places. Just know that this is common and they usually have a place for you to store them. And don't worry about them being stolen, the Japanese are very kind and honest people.


Shuri castle in Naha, Okinawa

21. Goodbye westernized toilet, hello hole in the ground:


You read that correctly. While you may find regular toilets that you see in the US, most of their toilets are either automated bidets or "squatty potties." The electric bidets have an option for you to...um... spray instead of wipe. You can skip this part if you desire, but just know that these are very common.


The other different form of a toilet is the "squatty potty." This is in quotes because this is just what I hear Americans calling it, I don't know the technical name for them. What they are, though, is a hole in the ground about 2 feet long, 6 inches wide with railings in front or on the sides. You quite literally have to squat in order to use it. While this may seem weird, they are functional and pretty popular in the Far East.


The rope care in Nikko

22. Keeping the germs at bay:


You will notice a lot of people in medical masks especially when traveling. In the US, you might see this when a person is very ill and can't be exposed to germs. It is almost the complete opposite in Japan.


People will wear the medical masks in order to prevent themselves from getting sick or to keep others from catching a cold they may have. They do it for their own health as well as the health of others. If you catch a cold while you're here, you may even consider using one.


A lookout on Ishigaki island

23. Watch the volume:


I am almost positive that the Japanese think Americans are loud, annoying, and rude. They are very quiet, reserved, and well mannered people. While it may not hold true for all Westerners, we tend to be loud, outgoing, and a little pushy at times. So, watch your volume when out in public and make sure to use your manners to show as much respect as possible.