14 Tips You Probably Wouldn't Think About Before Traveling To Japan
I traveled to Tokyo, Japan in April 2019. While I did my best to learn everything I could before traveling, there were just some things that were impossible learn until I got there. Here are 14 tips you probably wouldn't think about before traveling to Japan.
1. Don't Panic If You Don't Know Japanese
Most Japanese people have taken English as a subject in school. Plus, the more touristy the location is, such as a train station or a theme park, the more English vocabulary the people will know. Most signs are written in both Japanese and English, so you will always know where you are going and what you are reading. Reading signs was a life savor for me! Also, the trains will announce the next stop in English after announcing it in Japanese. However, the more rural the area, the less likely you will encounter English.
2. They Have Holidays We Don't
It's hard to imagine, but it makes sense. Every country has their own culture, government systems, calendars, etc. I didn't know this until we booked our plane tickets, but the week we just HAPPENED to go was right smack in the middle of Golden Week - a string of national holidays where citizens have the opportunity to travel due to time off work. During this week, there are 4 national holidays. Also, if there are any week days in between two holidays, those are also counted as public holidays. Because many people have the opportunity to travel, tourist attractions and train stations are packed! Think of the week between Christmas and New Years here in the Western world and it's the same level of craziness, particularly in theme parks like Tokyo Disney Resort (see my other article about How To "Do" Disney During Golden Week).
Golden Week Holidays:
April 29th is Showa Day, a former emperor's birthday.
May 3rd is Constitution Day, when the new constitution came into affect post WWII.
May 4th is Greenery Day, a celebration of the environment and nature.
May 5th is Children's Day, a day celebrating boys (Girl's Day is March 3rd).
...basically, avoid traveling during this time frame if you can.
2019 was especially crazy due to the way the holidays fell. It created a 10 day holiday, plus a new emperor was ascending to the throne after his father abdicated, the first abdication in 202 years, right smack in the middle of it all. The year 2020 will see a 5 day weekend.
Sometimes Silver Week is observed in the autumn if the days line up perfectly with a weekend. Silver Week in 2020 will be from September 19th-22nd, so avoid traveling during this time frame as well.
3. Buy A Train Pass
Most travel in Japan is done by train. Their system is efficient, with a train arriving every 5 minutes on average. Within Tokyo, stops are in about 2 minute increments, so no matter where your destination is, it's most likely near a train station. This is why people choose public transportation over driving. Despite having a population larger than New York City, there weren't as many cars on the road (at least in the areas we were in). There are some taxis, but when train fare is on average $1.50 - $3.00 USD within the city, it's quicker and more cost efficient to go by train. Day trips outside the city will be more like $20.00 USD one way.
Even though it sounds inexpensive to just pay your way as you go, I recommend a train pass because you can reserve Express Trains and the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) for free. JR (Japan Railways) owns the majority of train lines throughout Japan. Our 5 day train pass cost us $172 per person and a Shinkansen ticket by itself is about $200. It's worth it. However, there are different passes for different regions. Many include Tokyo, but will have a different geographical layout. If you can, calculate what you think you could spend on trains depending on where you want to go and this should help you choose the correct pass.
If you don't plan on doing any day trips outside of Tokyo, there is also the Tokyo Metro Pass. I am personally not as familiar with this one, as we already had the JR pass, but we saw advertisements for it in the train stations. You can buy it for the day or for other time increments for a low cost.
4. You Can't Make Train Reservations Until You Have Your Train Pass In Hand
While I encourage you to make as many accommodations and reservations as possible before arriving to Japan, you can't make train reservations as a foreigner prior to your arrival. Unfortunately, you can only make the reservations at JR ticket offices in major train stations such as Tokyo, Shinjuku, or other stations where you can usually catch the Shinkansen. *Note: Local trains don't require reservations*
This kind of derailed some of our plans (no pun intended), especially since we were in Japan during Golden Week. Many of the desirable ticket times were already sold out by the time we even had the chance to go to the station. I'm assuming this was an issue because of the holiday. During non-peek times throughout the year, it should be easier to reserve the train you need.
If, for whatever reason, you can't get ticket reservations or you forgot to reserve a return ticket (like we did ... twice), you can still get on the train you need. However, you will have to stand for the whole ride if the train is sold out. It won't be fun if you just spent the whole day exploring and then have to stand for an hour or two, but you can at least still get home and a crisis can be adverted.
If you don't have a train pass and need to purchase tickets for an Express Train or Shinkansen, you will need to purchase these tickets in advance as well.
5. It's Rude To Talk Loudly On Trains Or In Other Public Places
The people of Japan have an insane amount of respect - I'm pretty sure it's ingrained into their genetics. It's also considered the quietest country in the world despite it's large population in cities. This is because they believe it is rude to speak loudly on trains and other gathering places in closed quarters. They don't want to be a nuisance to other riders who appreciate the peace and quiet, especially after a long work day. Don't worry though, you can still have conversations. Whispering and talking softly is acceptable.
Also, absolutely no talking on cell phones. If you need to while you are on a Express Train or Shinkansen, you will need to move to the cell phone area. Otherwise, you will need to wait until you are off the train.
6. When On Escalators, Stand To The Left
If you just want to stand and let the escalator take you for a ride, stand to the left so those who are in a hurry can walk up the escalator on the right side. In Japan, the left side is the "right of way". They drive on the left side of the road, so even on sidewalks it's proper etiquette to walk on the left side to keep the flow of traffic moving. Luckily, I learned about this at the airport train ticket office and I was able to catch on quickly. By the time I got back to the States, I was constantly going back and forth between habitually standing on the left on escalators or standing on the right out of pure rebellion.
7. Eating / Drinking While Walking Is A Big No-No
They also see it's rude to eat or drink while walking (and yet they have no problem with looking at their cell phones while walking - I'm just sayin'). Like I've said, Japan is a very respectful country. However, it is a little difficult when you come across street vendors with hardly any public seating. Most people will stand on the sidewalk and eat/drink in place. When we got crepes in Harajuku, we stood off to the side with the rest of the horde of people also eating their crepes (very inconvienient because it was raining and there was no shelter). We also walked past a 7-Eleven where a group ate their goodies right outside before continuing on with their adventures.
The no-walking-and-eating/drinking rule doesn't seem to be followed at Tokyo Disney though. Most of the time, people bring their snacks into the lines with them. There are way more places to sit to enjoy a snack though #BlessDisney.
One last thing: you can drink and have snacks on trains as long as they are small ones. Also, you can only enjoy meals on the Express Trains and Shinkansen since each seat has a tray table.
8. Hotel Rooms Are Not As Big As The Ones In America
This goes for the rest of the world, too. Here in America, we're used to being in big, spacious, hotel rooms. If you ever have been on a cruise, Japanese hotel rooms will remind you of a cruise ship's stateroom. They are similar in size - small (maybe just a tiny bit bigger). However, this is still plenty of space to walk around your room. It only starts getting cluster phobic when both people have suitcases open. My friend and I would take turns going into our suitcases, or she had hers on the bed and I had mine open in our little hallway by the bathroom. It worked just fine. Stay organized, put unnecessary things away, and you won't have any problems. Honestly, it was quite homey!
9. Need An International Friendly ATM? Go To 7-Eleven
While you're in Japan, 7-Eleven will be your best friend. International card holders can withdraw money from this ATM and it's English friendly (information can also be displayed in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and Portuguese). A handling fee may apply - as though you're using an ATM from a bank that is not yours in the States - but it's a small price to pay in order to easily wire yourself money. The downside: you can't withdraw small bills. My only option was to withdraw 10,000 yen (about $100) ... which, like, meh ... but if my account was loaded I would have been able to make withdrawals in 10,000 yen increments.
10. Need Cheap Food? Go To 7-Eleven
When you first walk into a Japanese 7-Eleven, you have a split second familiarity. You instinctively start walking towards the section with the item you're looking for. Then you realize that these extremely-convenient Japanese convenient stores have so much more. Granted, you aren't going to find the American products you know and love. BUT there are so many other cool food items in this place - and everything is super cheap!
First, they put our hot cases to shame. They have fried chicken, fried fish, egg rolls, skewer things, fried food balls (I actually have no idea what they are), and more! And then, they have a HUGE selection of to-go meals (also known as bentos) in their refrigerated section. If you buy one, the cashier will ask if you wanted them to heat it up. They have a microwave behind the counter! This is a great option if you're staying in a hotel with no microwave in the room. I hate eating food cold (it's a pet peeve of mine), so this was life saving. You can also get rice balls! Did I mention it was cheap? I got two of those weird, boneless fried chicken thigh things for $5 and I was full. It was great.
And don't forget to visit the bread section. It's like going to the sweet aisle that has prepackaged donuts and cookies and whatnot. But cooler. They have dozens of different types of bread. My top recommendation is melon bread. #PlotTwist: it doesn't taste like melons. In fact, it tastes more like those sugar cookies you get in those cheap tins during Christmas time that are covered in sugar crystals, but in bread form. It's called melon bread because the grooves on the top make the loaf look like a melon. Recommendation #2: strawberry cream sandwich thing. Not the one in the cooler. That one was okay. I'm talking about the one on the rack at room temperature. It's like a vanilla and strawberry sheet cake cut into sandwich triangles filled with strawberry cream. 100% a dessert, but oh-so-good.
*Friendly reminder: if you do buy food from 7-Eleven, make sure you can find a place to sit to enjoy your food. If decide to take it with you, don't walk and eat. It's frowned upon.
11. Ramen Shops
While we're on the subject of food, let's talk about ramen. You can't go to Japan without eating ramen. That would be blasphemy. However, we found that many of their restaurants were quick service (meaning you don't need to be sat by a host and you don't order through a server at your table). In fact, many shops have you order your food at an electronic kiosk by the front door. Once you pay it prints your order out on a ticket. You either hand this to either a cashier-of-sorts behing the counter or to a runner who will then send your order through the kitchen and bring your food to you. You're welcome to pick your own seat in these restaurants.
Budgeting? You don't have to buy a soda. A water pitcher is provided for free either at the table or a common space shared with the rest of the patrons. Also, the ramen was DELICIOUS!
12. Pre-order Activity Tickets Prior To Leaving For Japan
This is the area where I totally crashed an burned. I felt I was so prepared, but little did I know how wrong I was. Here's why:
We wanted to go to Disney, but couldn't on the day we wanted to because they were not selling tickets that day (read why on How To "Do" Disney During Golden Week). I did, in fact, cry.
We wanted to go to the Digital Art Museum - currently viral on social media - but no. They had a limited number of tickets per day and you needed to purchase them 24 hours in advance. Dreams squashed.
We briefly wanted to go to the Studio Ghibli Museum when we couldn't do the Digital Art Museum and we encountered the exact same problem with the tickets.
Deciding to go to a ninja show day of? Forget it. Also 24 hours in advance.
We WERE able to purchase tickets online for the Robot Restaurant the morning of because they had a cut-off time of something like 4 hours before the show. However, you can't just show up to the Robot Restaurant and expect to get in. Tickets have to be pre-purchased.
Purchasing tickets day-of may not be an issue during off-season. However, I HIGHLY do not recommend waiting. You are literally asking yourself to be screwed over. So just be a responsible adult and order your tickets ahead of time. You will thank me later.
*Remember, you can't reserve your train tickets until you have arrived in Japan and have your train pass in hand. This made activity planning hard for us, especially since we went during a holiday week, so if you insist on keeping to a pre-planned itinerary, reserve your non-local train tickets as soon as you possibly can.
13. You Can Only See Mount Fuji 30% Of The Time
So ... our trip to Mt. Fuji was a comedy of errors ... after errors ... after errors.
First, we couldn't even go on the day we wanted to because we were dumb and forgot to reserve a return ticket for the express train. Learn from me, little grasshoppers, because the people at the ticket office will not ask you (we talked to many during our trip and they did not once ask us "...is this a round trip ticket?"). So let me repeat myself: DO NOT FORGET TO RESERVE YOUR TRAIN TICKET BACK TO YOUR DEPARTING DESTINATION. Or you are going to have to stand, have sore feet, and regret everything.
When we did finally get to go, it was cold, rainy, and foggy. Mount Fuji stands 12,389 feet tall, or 2.35 miles, high. Want to know how low stratus clouds, the ones you see on a typical rainy day, hang? 6,000 feet. The Mount Fuji area is already 2,000+ feet about sea level anyway, so that leaves about 4,000 of viewing space of the mountain and the clouds were quite literally covering it. Plus, fog was continuously rolling over the surrounding mountains so even if it wasn't raining, so all you could see was grey sky where Mount Fuji should have been. Because of conditions like this, Mount Fuji can only be seen about 30% of the time, even on a "good" day.
So many other things happened to us, such as buying the wrong bus ticket, getting on the wrong bus, not knowing here we were going, and shivering to our bones within our Florida-level winter gear. It was ... quite an experience, to say the least.
Look, I'm not here to crush your hopes and dreams. I just want you to be informed before you go. It was a 1.5 hour excursion from Tokyo (an absolutely breathtaking train ride) and even though you may not be able to see the volcano, there are many attractions around Mount Fuji. If you plan properly, you will have a great time. Even though it didn't go as planned, we were still smiling by the time we were back in out hotel. In fact, the most memorable memories came from that excursion. I highly recommend Yagizaki Park if you want nice sight seeing of the Kawaguchiko Lake area / Mount Fuji and Iyashinosato by the adjacent Lake Saiko if you're looking for historic Japan. If you are a thrill seeker, check out Fuji-Q Highland for roller coasters and haunted houses.
14. Charging Outlets In Japan Are Like American Ones...But Not
Once again, I thought I did my research. I even physically looked at outlet converters at the airport and they kept pairing the U.S. and Japan ones together. I was mistaken. Many of our heavy duty electronics (i.e. laptops) have the three pronged charger. But in Japan, their outlets only have holes for the top two prongs. Which meant I arrived to Japan with a dead laptop. R.I.P. to me.
Moral of the story: just get a converter.
On the bright side, hotel rooms typically also have several USB outlets, which was convenient.
I hope you enjoyed my handy dandy tips and tricks. Making mistakes is a way of learning and hopefully I've allowed you to skip step one (making said mistake) and going straight to step two (learning from it). If you have any questions about traveling or looking to book travel, click on my logo below to get started. Sayonara!