Japan 101: 20 Tips For First Time Travelers

So, you’ve made the big commitment! You are committed to your first trip to Japan. Hooray! You are going to LOVE it! I mean you! Because it really doesn’t matter who you are, Japan is for every kind of traveler there is. There is more than just something for everyone. Japan is an amusement park of sites and sounds that will entertain, educate, elevate, mystify, and baffle you all at once. The land of the rising sun is modern and streamlined, trendy and a world player. And yet, around every corner is a respect for the ancient and traditional. These are best tips to help you experience the best of Japan on your first visit!

Understanding the basics…

  • Etiquette: Japan is famous for its social rules. But how do you know what to do?! It can be hard to know what is expected when you are Gaijin (foreign). So bow when someone bows toward you. Say thank you and please often.
  • Pleasantries: Raised voices and angry confrontations are not part of Japanese culture. Instead, citizens are pretty consistent in settling matters by following the rules. And follow them they do! Sometimes to a fault. Exceptions and work arounds are just not a factor in this culture. So, don’t expect extra service with a tip rather, expect to be told no very nicely! As my husband says, “Courtesy is king but don’t expect to get your way!”
  • Umbrellas: Everybody, and I mean everybody, has a collection of umbrellas in Japan. The rainy season (June and July) can do that. That doesn’t mean you need to use valuable packing space to bring your own. Instead, if you really do need one, check in with your accommodations or swing in to the local 100 yen store. They’ll have one for very little money.
  • Masks: Like many other Asian countries, Japanese people will wear masks to be considerate of others. So, if you see a mask or two, no worries! It just means that you won’t get that cold from the person next to you.
  • Romanji and Kanji: The language barrier can be overwhelming in Japan (or Nippon) but there is help. While native speakers rely on the Kanji system of writing, all those symbols mean very little to the typical traveler. Look for Romanji to sound out names and common words on signs to make getting around a little easier.
  • Tokyo Bound: If you are nervous about language, culture mishaps, or too much adventure, keep yourself close to Tokyo. Almost everyone you will come in contact with speaks English. The basic rule of thumb is to know the further you get from Tokyo, the more you will need to rely on your language skills.

silhouette of man near outside

Getting ready for a little culture shock!

  • Squatty Potty: Coming in at the top of my culture shock list is the squatty potty! Don’t get this confused with the As Seen On TV stool, squatty potties are modern toilets that sit into the floor and you simply squat over them to use. This may not be comfy for everyone so if you come across one, simply look in another stall to find the classic potty you are used to!

lighted Chinese lantern

  • Don’t alarmed at the random music: Communities all over Japan work together. They get kids to school safely, they garden public parks beautifully, and they keep their communities running with timely little chimes and songs broadcasted over loudspeakers throughout the day. Hum along…
  • You will need Yen more than you think: Most modern travel allows you to get by on just credit cards if you choose and Japan is no exception. However, there are plenty of moments in this country that benefit from a few yen in your pocket. The process of exchanging money has a charm all its own. With little trays and catchy change machines, paying with cash is part of the fun!
  • All the cute: Japan has unbelievable fascination with all things cute! We all know Hello Kitty and Harajuku but there is so much more! There is a pervasive sweetness that envelops everything from bakery sweets to stoplights. It’s all, well, cute!
  • Capsule hotels: Speaking of cute, check out the amazing capsule hotel experience! For just a few bucks, you get a tidy, efficient capsule with plenty of modern amenities. This is a great choice for solo travelers as the floors are usually single sex and perfect for an overnight stay if you are just breezing through.
  • Be prepared for the absurd: You know those “I can’t believe I’m doing this” moments? I once was in Japan, in Chinatown, eating at a Brazilian restaurant. Absurd. It happens everywhere and all the time.

Taking on Japanese cuisine…

  • Tea and fish: First thing’s first, the number one drink on the menu is tea and the number one dish on the menu is fish. All the fish: tempura, sashimi, broiled, sushi. It’s probably a good idea if you are open to tea and fish.

man in chef suit

  • Sushi Go Round: Speaking of fish, be sure to swing in to a sushi go round restaurant,. With conveyor belts and buttons, grab sushi (and other dishes) by the plate and have a little fun. There are so many other novelty restaurants like ones that have ninjas, ones where you catch your own dinner and others where you sip your tea with bunnies. The possibilities are endless.
  • Ramen House: Endless possibilities also await you at the local ramen shops. Those yummy noodles come with so many options and toppings that you’ll run out of time before you run out of new combos. Be careful! When ordering a setto or combo meal, expect a TON of food!
  • Eat anything on a stick: Festival food is a treasure for foodies visiting Japan. This tip comes directly from my kids. Eat anything on a stick, all of it is good! Typical items like chicken or corn come with great Japanese twists.
  • Use vending machines: Quick! What makes pizza, hot coffee, cold beer, and so much more? Break out those yen and try the plethora of vending machines that can literally provide you with a five course meal!
  • Convenience stores and SNACKS: Eat. Them. All. Under that umbrella of cuteness, comes more great convenience store treats than you could ever imagine. Try as many as you can as you hop from place to place. The most popular to travelers are the KitKats and Pringles with all of their different flavors. My kids recommend the green tea and wasabi flavors.

Exploring Neighborhoods…

Part of the charm of Japan are all of the individual neighborhoods that polka dot the landscape. Each little community has a little city center usually with a train station and plenty to keep you interested. Some neighborhoods also boast…

  • Festivals: The Japanese will throw a festival for pretty much any reason but the best Summer festival is Bon Odori by far! This is celebrated all over the place in August. If you stumble upon a little celebration, join the fun and eat anything they serve on a stick. Careful! you may wind up with a goldfish if you are good at the games!

white and black candles on black surface

  • Parks: The Japanese really know how to have fun! Kids are delighted with neighborhood parks like the cloud park where you can bounce to your heart’s content, the pirate ship park where you can take on the pretend high seas, or the treehouse park where you can climb away the day. Other parks are full of tiny features like community gardens, waterfalls and Koi ponds. Check them all out!
  • Flea markets: If you are a souvenir shopper, check out the local rummage sales which are usually set up close to the local train stations. We’ve found all kinds of fun finds like coin style baseball cards or an antique Buddha. My favorite? Yamato, held on the third Saturday of each month.
  • 100 yen stores: If you are looking for a truly unique Japanese experience, go to a 100 yen store. I once walked in with an empty box and filled it up with all kinds of stuff. I had no clue what it was but I sent it back to the States for family to open and discover. The most popular one is Daiso.

Getting around town…

Okay, I know, this is the one you are worried about the most. Let me start by saying this: six year olds navigate the public transportation system on their own. You can too. With a few skills like map reading and romanji, you too can enjoy one of the best transit systems in the world.

  • Public Trains: By far, one of my favorite things in Japan was the train system. JR Railways and friends got me pretty much everywhere I wanted to go. I used a printed map to learn my route and stuck to it. Japan is a country where you can ask for help from pretty much anybody. While there can be some tricky things to navigate – I once had to walk through a department store to find my connecting train to Kamakura) nothing is impossible and it’s all part of the fun.

time lapse photography of white train

  • Driving by Landmarks: I highly recommend leaving the driving to the locals but, if you must, understand that many streets have no name and you may be relying on landmarks for directions. This is not a joke, one time I followed these directions: turn right at the gorilla, cross the train tracks, turn left at the big blue elephant and it’s just past the black ramen shop. I got there.
  • The Number One Driving Rule in Japan: When turning any corner, keep saying to yourself “driver in the middle, driver in the middle”. The driver is ALWAYS in the seat closest to the middle of the road.

Day tripping from Tokyo…

As you expand your horizons toward greater Tokyo, there are a couple of amazing spots to consider. Every popular guidebook will give you the 411 on the details for these particular places. These were among the family favorites in our house.

  • Get your mouse ears at Disney: Unlike the States, Disney in Japan is not so crowded that you can’t enjoy it. Go on an American holiday for a little extra fun and listen to the characters with their Australian accents and the Tower of Terror translated into Japanese. Too funny!
  • Enjoy the suburbs in Yokohama: Check out the tallest building in Japan and one of the fun roller coasters in the downtown area. Then enjoy the ramen museum.

city skyline during night time

  • Learn about Buddha in Kamakura: Down at the seaside, the spectacular Big Buddha awaits you just a five minute walk from the train. Just follow the crowd. This popular spot has great food, an incredible temple with a cave, an aquarium close by, and more. Well worth the trip.
  • Take on the Samurai in Odowara: Climb up the formidable steps of the castle for a walk through feudal Japan and the story of the Samurai. There are plenty of castles to visit, I just really liked this one!
  • Hike Mt. Fuji July and August: Buy your stick, and get it branded at each check in station then reach the summit. Fuji is about 7 hours up and about 5 hours down. It’s a long day but so very worth it. Many plan their hike overnight and sleep at the top so they can watch the sun rise in the morning. The climbing season is short and you want all of your ducks in a row before you get there.

green leafed plant with pink flowers surrounded by bush near body of water

  • Ride the rides at Fuji Kyu Amusement Park: Stick close to the mountain and get your thrill on with some of the most advanced roller coasters in the world. Totally worth it.
  • Feed the animals at Fuji Safari Park: Lions, bears, really smelly camels. The whole place is super fun and very, very Japanese. I’m still a little miffed with the monkeys. They stole my son’s glasses!
  • The Five Lakes including Lake Yamanaka: Nature lovers will love the five lakes region and it is beautiful no matter what time of year you choose. Go for the hikes, the photography, the peace.
  • Become fascinated with traditional Japan in Kyoto: The old capitol is full of so very many sites and experiences. Check out the Geisha scene and the Golden Pavilion.

two women in purple and pink kimono standing on street

  • Meet the locals in Nara: One of the most unique cities in Japan has to be Nara. Famous for the deer who wander freely all over town, they congregate in the city park knowing that tourists will have snacks for them and are happy to get up close and personal if they see you as a potential food source. They are not above checking to see if you have backstock in your purse!
  • Soak in the Hot Springs or Onsens: The best, in my opinion, are located in Hakone and feature soak after soak in all kinds of things from beer to coffee. Immerse yourself in the ritual and enjoy the experience as only the Japanese do.

empty tunnel between red walls

The Ultimate Two Week Starter Kit:

Alrighty, you are ready to plan! The reality is that you will never get to see all that Japan has to offer. I lived there and still couldn’t fit everything in. First time visitors will get the most out of concentrating their time between Tokyo to the East and Kyoto in the West. Use this list as your jumping off point. It has all of the highlights that a two week trip can comfortably fit. You can add or subtract from here to customize your trip and make your time in Japan the best it can be!

  • Fly in to Narita
  • Explore Tokyo and get a handle on public transport
  • Experience Shibuya, Fish Market, Asakura, and other icons
  • Head south toward Yokohama and spend the day by the harbor, enjoy the ramen museum
  • Continue down to Kamakura
  • Swing over to Odowara
  • Take on Fuji
  • Jump in to the deep end at an onsen
  • Enjoy an amusement park or another Fuji inspired hike
  • Arrive in Kyoto
  • Enjoy the sights and Sounds of Kyoto
  • Day trip to Nara and see the deer
  • Take the bullet train back to Tokyo and finish checking off your big city bucket list
  • Tokyo Disney Sea
  • Tokyo Disney Land
  • Fly out of Narita