Tips for First-Time Visitors to Japan

Tomorrow I’m flying to Nagoya, the start of a new adventure exploring Shoryudo, the heart of Japan. This will be my first visit to this exciting country and when I asked my fellow travel writers, bloggers and photographers for a few Japan travel tips, they had a lot to say, with quite a few of them responding excitedly “My favourite country!”

33 top tips for first-time visitors to Japan

Image credit: Jeremy Hoare, Travel Photographer and fellow BGTW member.

33 top travel tips for first-time visitors to Japan

From translating Japanese menus to using public transport, never blowing your nose in public to navigating your way around a high-tech toilet, here are 33 top tips that I’m sure will be invaluable to anyone travelling to Japan for the first time.

UPDATE: I’m back from my trip. Having spent a fabulous week in Japan, I have a few amendments I’d like to make to the list. As my travel blogging friend Jessica from Notes of Nomads explained to me “The thing about Japan is that most tourists understandably don’t speak Japanese and it’s not a culture that can easily be understood in a short time (even after years and years), so it can lend itself to some misconceptions. Plus things can vary widely depending on where you visit.”

Japanese Etiquette Tips

1. Never Leave a Tip!

“It is very offensive to leave a tip and it will often be refused. It implies that the person you are tipping doesn’t earn very much.”
Natasha, The World Pursuit

2. Take Off Your Shoes

“Always look for shoes in the entrances of buildings. If you see them, be sure to remove your shoes before entering. Wearing shoes indoors, especially in homes and some businesses, is seen as very rude and dirty.”
Kay, Jet Farer

3. Bowing

“Bowing in Japanese society is extremely important, and the ritual is filled with rules and etiquette many travellers will not be expected to know or understand. As a general ‘cheat’ you should keep your back and neck straight and bow at the same angle as the person in front of you, and this will get you a lot of brownie points for being polite.”
Mike, Bemused Backpacker

4. Stand on the Left

“Always stand on the left when using an escalator. Everyone does this, no exceptions. Make sure you pick the correct side of the escalator. If you can’t remember which side that is, just follow the others.”
Clemens, Travellers Archive

UPDATE: The exception is Osaka, where you should stand on the right.

5. Don’t Blow Your Nose

“Don’t use tissues to blow your nose in public, it’s highly offensive to the Japanese, just sniff.“
Sally, 3 Kids v the world

6. Don’t Smoke on the Streets

“If you are a smoker and visiting Japan, be aware that in most big cities you will not be allowed to smoke in the street (and could risk a pretty heavy fine if you do). Instead, you will have to smoke in designated areas, which can be pretty hard to find. It is worth checking online where those laws apply – Tokyo and Kyoto are two of the cities that have applied this ban.”
Maria-Carmen, Orient Excess

UPDATE: Smoking areas can be found outside every train station and you can still smoke in a lot of restaurants in Japan.

7. Purification Ritual

“When visiting a shrine, learn the purification ritual. Use the ladle to wash each of your hands with fresh water, then put some water in your cupped hand and rinse your mouth and spit out the water beside the fountain.”
Dawn, 5 Lost Together

8. Cover Tattoos

“Cover up any tattoos before visiting local swimming pools “
Sally, 3 Kids v the world

There is a deep-rooted cultural suspicion towards tattoos, stemming from their association with organised crime gangs, the Yakuza, who pledge their allegiance with full-body markings. You are unlikely to be allowed in swimming pools (including your hotel’s), spas, onsen (see tip 17) and gyms, unless you cover your tattoos.

9. Business Cards

“If you are planning on giving or receiving business cards in Japan then don’t forget the etiquette that goes with it: Always hand business cards over by holding them with both hands, thumbs on top, while bowing a little. Make sure you receive your contact’s card with both hands too and if you are sitting, keep the card in front of you.”
Maria-Carmen, Orient Excess

33 top tips for first-time visitors to Japan

Above and featured image credit: Tim Bird, Travel Photographer,  fellow BGTW member and blogger at Six Images.

Planning a trip to Japan? Check out this 10 day Japan itinerary.

Handy to Know

10. Carry Cash

“Japan is a cash-based society, so make sure you have local currency on you at all times. You’ll be surprised by the number of places that won’t take your credit card.”
Leah, Kid Bucketlist

11. Using ATMs

“Many ATMs (automatic teller machines) in Japan do not accept foreign cards. ATMs that work with foreign cards can be found at post offices, Citibank, 7-Eleven stores and a few other convenience stores.”
Matilda, The Travel Sisters

UPDATE: I fell foul of this one on my last day. I ran out of money and wanted to go out for a drink that evening but couldn’t find an ATM that would accept any of my cards. Thanks to Adam from Travels of Adam for bailing me out.

12. Public Toilets

”Toilets are kind of a complicated deal in Japan, although in more rural areas you will also come across squat toilets. For the high-tech toilets though, you’ll want to figure out in advance the basics of how to flush, which isn’t always obvious from the outset, and is usually a lever or button separate from the Star Trek-style control panel you might initially be presented with!”
Laurence, Finding the Universe

UPDATE: I’d recommend taking hand sanitiser as few public toilets have hot water or soap to wash your hands or any way to dry them.

Don’t panic if you see a squat toilet inside the cubicle. It’s always worth checking the other cubicles to see if there are any western style toilets as well.

And if you notice a button that says ‘flush noise’ it doesn’t do anything other than making a noise. Its sole purpose is to disguise any embarrassing noises you might make. It still puts a smile on my face when I think of it. I’m surprised they didn’t also have a button for covering up embarrassing smells!

13. Don’t Ask ‘Do you speak English?’

“If you need to stop a stranger to ask for directions, don’t start by asking ‘Do you speak English?’– many people are shy and will say ‘No’ even though they understand some English. Instead, try something like ‘Hello, could you please help me? I’m trying to find…’.”
Patrick, German Backpacker

14. Pre-book an Airport Transfer

“My tip is that if you have travelled on a long-haul flight to Japan, you should pre-book an airport transfer, as trying to work out the complicated Tokyo train system when you are tired is pretty difficult.”
Anne, Pretraveller

15. Hire a Guide

“Visiting Japan for the first time can be a daunting experience. Everything is so different that hiring a guide is a great way to ‘acclimatise’ and quickly learn how things work.”
Paul, A Luxury Travel Blog

16. Visit an Onsen

“Go to a Japanese onsen, preferably one with an outdoor bath. Make sure to scrub and clean yourself thoroughly before entering the public bath. Soap, shampoo, and conditioner are usually provided for you. It’s the best way to beat jet lag or any fatigue, and you will love the experience.”
Corrine, Reflections Enroute

UPDATE: I was rather nervous about how I’d feel walking around naked in front of strangers but when I plucked up the courage to do it, it was surprisingly easy, although I’m pleased to say that onsen are virtually all single sex only. If there is a choice of indoor and outdoor baths, opt for the outdoor one as you can stay in longer and for me, it felt far more relaxing gazing up at the stars.

If you go to a true rotenburo (outdoor bath), there may be no showers at all and just a tub with a ladle near the entrance to rinse your body (and no soap, so it doesn’t get into the natural onsen water).


Food and Drink Tips

17. Download Google Translate

“The best way to decode menus in Japanese and communicate when you’re having difficulties is to have Google Translate downloaded for offline use, with Japanese language installed. You can even take a photo of your menu and the app will instantly translate it into English.“
Karen, Wanderlusting K

33 top tips for first-time visitors to Japan

Image credit: Tim Bird, Travel Photographer,  fellow BGTW member and blogger at Six Images.

18. Should You Finish Your Drink or Meal?

“Don’t finish your drink or meal if you are out with Japanese people. They will assume they have not fed you enough, or have not got you drunk enough. This is insulting to the Japanese people who pride themselves on their hospitality. Always leave a little in your glass, and a little on your plate. Also, let your host pour your drink.”
Paula, Contented Traveller

UPDATE: This only applies to certain formal situations and generally it’s actually polite to finish your meal, especially your rice.

19. Eat Sushi at the Supermarket

“Did you know most supermarkets offer fabulous sushi? I’ve found it both tastes great and is very cheap, especially if you go one or two hours before closing time when it is reduced to half-price!”
Cornelius, Cycloscope

20. Eat Everything!

“I was given this advice when I first visited Japan and it was spot on.”
Sarah, A Social Nomad

UPDATE: Having spent a week in Japan eating in a variety of restaurants where I was rarely given a choice of what to eat, I’m sorry to say I don’t agree with this tip. For example, while the eel with rice was surprisingly delicious, the eel liver soup (with a whole liver floating in it) most definitely was not, and while I could stomach the crab brains, the raw crab sashimi was, well, let’s just say it was a step too far.

21. How to Order Food from a Vending Machine

My favourite meal during my visit to Japan was surprisingly at a motorway cafe/truck stop — king prawns in breadcrumbs with curry and rice. There was what looked like a vending machine with pictures of the various dishes on offer. This is where you pay and collect a ticket for your order, which you hand over the counter. When your order is ready they will call out your number in Japanese! Near the counter, there was a drinks dispenser with free water and tea.

22. Book Restaurants in Advance

“If there is a specific restaurant you’re looking to visit in a tourist area, check hours in advance and make reservations. I had more trouble getting seated at restaurants in Japan than anywhere else I have visited, as most had only a few tables.”
Nancy,  We Go With Kids

23. Chopstick Etiquette

“Don’t stand your chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice – it’s the way rice is offered to a deceased person’s spirit; crossing them means a similar thing. You shouldn’t spear food with chopsticks either.”
Emily, Kids and Compass

24. Don’t Walk and Eat

“Don’t eat while walking – it’s considered rude. Grab your food and sit or stand somewhere, and finish it before moving on.”
Thais, World Trip Diaries

UPDATE: There are some exceptions, such as street snacks.

33 top tips for first-time visitors to Japan

Image credit: Notes of Nomads, two fabulous bloggers who have made Japan their home.

25. Slurp Away

“Slurping when eating soups and noodles is not only okay, but is considered polite! It’s a sign you’re enjoying the food, so don’t be put off or grossed out if you encounter it.”
Allison, Eternal Arrival

26. Buy a Bento Box at the Train Station

“You wouldn’t think that tasty sushi could come from a box that’s gift-wrapped at a subway station, but you’ll be blown away – all utensils included.”
Taiss, Together to Wherever

27. Join the Queue

“If you see a line outside a restaurant, get in it – chances are you’re in for a delicious meal. Don’t worry, they’re efficient and the lines move quickly.”
Adelina, Pack Me To

UPDATE from Jessica, Notes of Nomads: It’s a bit of a running joke in Japan that Japanese people will just join any queue they see because they assume what they are selling must be good. Sometimes it is true, but it’s not always the case. And the lines don’t necessarily move quickly. Japanese people can be very patient with these things and will queue for hours if necessary to go to a place they think is trendy/they saw on TV etc. You’ll often see staff in big cities like Tokyo whose sole job is to stand with a sign at the back of the queue that says “This is the back of the queue for X restaurant” because if it is popular the end of the line might be quite a distance from the entrance.

28. Drink Sake

“When drinking sake, the custom is to never pour your own glass, including refills. Sake is intended to be poured for each other.”
Helen, Not Without my Passport

Getting Around

29. HyperDia App

“The app we’ve found invaluable for traveling across Japan is HyperDia, which provides train routes, timetables, and even tells you which platform number to go to at the station.”
John, Roaming Around the World

30. Buy Your Rail Pass Before You Arrive

“If you are planning on travelling a lot by rail, buy your JR (Japan Rail) pass before you leave home to save time (although you can now also buy them in Japan). They can save you a lot of money if you are planning to travel by train between cities but are unlikely to if you’re travelling within a single city. You can use the HyperDia app to check if a pass will work out cheaper.”
Stefan, Nomadic Boys

31. Travelling in the Cities

“You don’t need a JR pass while you’re in the cities. The cost of using JR trains within any city is quite low, just a few hundred yen, and sometimes it’s quicker to walk or use the subway system. If you’re travelling with a group of 3-4 people or as a family, taxis can actually work out cheaper than trains and subways over short distances too.”
Bethany, Flashpacker Family

32. Watch the Taxi Doors

“In some Japanese taxis, the doors automatically open when the taxi stops, and shut after you are inside. It can be a bit disconcerting the first time it happens! Watch your fingers and bags so they don’t get caught.”
Jessica, Independent Travel Cats

33 top tips for first-time visitors to Japan

Image credit: Jeremy Hoare, Travel Photographer and fellow BGTW member.

Great Reads

33. Unbeaten Tracks

“I’d recommend reading ‘Unbeaten Tracks in Japan’ by Isabella Bird, about her travels in Northern Japan in 1878.”
Rosemary Bailey, Travel Writer and fellow BGTW member.

I’d’ like to say a huge thank you to everyone who contributed to this post. There’s a lot I need to remember. Let the adventure begin!

Gujo-Hachiman, Japan’s Water City and the Castle in the Sky

In the Footsteps of the Samurai: Walking the Nakasendo Way

Instagramming Japan – Autumn Colours in Shoryudo

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33 top tips for first-time visitors to Japan

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Hello, I’m Kathryn, a travel photographer and blogger. This is my corner of the world-wide web where I write about my passion for travel, from stylish city breaks to off-the-grid wildlife encounters. I am equally happy zip-lining through a rainforest in the Caribbean as I am unwinding in a luxury European spa or learning to cook fish benachin in Africa. Join me as I discover new countries, cultures and cuisines.

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