Last Updated on July 7, 2023
Japan is a fascinating country with visible signs of its ancient society, and yet it is incredibly modern and technological. I loved the high-tech toilets with their heated seats, the curved, tiled roofs of the houses, the squares of rice paddies that you will find in the towns, and the wonderful people who celebrate their heritage by wearing traditional clothes when visiting cultural places. Japan is clean, safe, and a place I will definitely visit again.
Here are my 15 tips for traveling in Japan:
1. Buy Your JR (Japan Rail) Pass at Home Before You Go
Numerous websites offer JR passes. The official site is www.japanrailpass.net, but you can use other sites such as www.japan-rail-pass.com and www.jrpass.com. Even www.expedia.com can get one for you. They will courier the pass receipt to your home.
You can buy a pass in Japan at some rail stations and airports, but it will cost more. But who needs the hassle of trying to find the kiosk in a huge airport or train station after a 10-hour flight to Japan?
You must have a visitor’s visa and not a student or work visa to qualify to purchase a pass. Residents of Japan cannot buy the JR pass.
When you trade in your receipt for the pass, you will need your passport so the official can take note of your name, nationality, and passport number. There are English speakers at JR ticket areas who are happy to help you.
Is it worth it? If you plan to visit a few different cities, it will save you money and time. Pay a little more for the Green Ticket, for assigned seating. Also, in some cities, the JR pass will work on the blue buses. Saving a few hundred yen here and there is always good.
2. You Can Drink the Water
Break that plastic bottle habit. I brought my own water bottle and filled it from the tap. I didn’t take any medicine before traveling to prevent stomach upset and I was okay.
In some places, like Gujo-Hachiman, there are fountains where you can use a cup provided for a refreshing drink of mountain water. Be sure to rinse the cup after you use it.
3. Learn a Few Words of Japanese
They appreciate it when visitors attempt to speak English so try to do the same. I tried to learn Japanese before getting there but I couldn’t get a sentence out, only a word here and there. Many Japanese (certainly not all, by any means) know English. If you are on the street and need help, look for people in their 30s. Many are businesspeople and have learned English.
But they are not the only ones. We had two different tour guides in their 70s who had learned English so they could be tour guides in retirement. We had another 70ish gentleman spontaneously ask if we needed help. He walked with us to find a sake shop and then walked us home. Sweet!
4. Consider Flying Into a City Other Than Tokyo
You’ll get to see much more of the country. There is a lot to Japan. Tokyo is the largest city in the world at 37 million—more than the population of Canada. So, you could spend all your time and money in Tokyo. That may be all you want.
We flew to Hawaii (who doesn’t like a few days in Hawaii?) because there are many airlines leaving from there to all over Japan. We flew to Nagoya, which got us close to Kyoto, Osaka, Okayama, and Kanazawa.
We used our JR pass on the Shinkansen or bullet trains to travel between cities and were able to spend several days in each place and even went one day to Naoshima Island to see the ‘Art Houses’ and outdoor sculptures—think of Yayoi Kusama and her pumpkin installations.
5. No Tipping
It is not expected or wanted. I did give extra to a taxi driver once because our drive was so short—about three minutes long. We were tired and lost and couldn’t find our lodging. The tip amounted to 200 yen or about $2 . He was satisfied.
There are taxi stands at the train stations, plus buses. Taxis near a sign that says “tourist taxi” are for English speakers, not to take you on a tourist trip, unless that’s what you want. The other taxis may have drivers who do not speak English. The drivers don’t know where every place is so show them your itinerary with the phone number of the place you are staying, and they can call to get directions.
Remember, if they don’t speak English, they probably can’t read your directions, but they can read the numbers to make a phone call.
Try 7-Eleven (often referred to as Seven in Japan), Lawson, or Family Mart for a quick snack or coffee. It’s pretty good and inexpensive. Some of the food is even available in a warming case.
Try the onigiri (Japanese rice balls). They are a good quick snack. Or for drinks, there are vending machines everywhere. Some with hot drinks too.
The large train stations have very good and interesting food. In Kyoto Train Station there was a ‘Vie de France’. The locals go there for croissants and French pastries. It was part of a Food Pavilion where you could buy amazing chocolate and petite fours. Some of the food combinations might seem odd but try it anyway. My curry donut was quite good.
How about little cooked octopus on a stick, or deep-fried squash? It’s also a great place to get souvenirs. Remember there’s no eating or drinking as you walk. Most places provide a small place to sit while you eat your delicacy. You will seldom see anyone walking and eating or drinking. One, there’s no place to put your refuse, two it’s crowded.
7. Take a Little Bag to Put Your Garbage in
The streets are quite litter-free and garbage bins are hard to find. It’s ironic that we have lots of garbage bins here and yet there is still lots of litter. Look near vending machines for the garbage bins. Don’t smoke on the streets (or vape). Most airports and train stations have separate enclosed smoking areas.
8. If you are Gluten-Free
…or celiac, or vegetarian, you’ll be eating a lot of rice. For gluten-free they say buckwheat soba is okay, but you’ll have to make sure the noodles are 100% buckwheat. Usually they are 50% or 80% mixed soba with wheat. Soy sauce has wheat in it also.
The Japanese eat a lot of fish and meat. We found many restaurants where they served what I would refer to as nose to tail and everything in between meats. Very good but you may have to order vegetables separately.
9. Bring Shoes That are Easy to Get On and Off
Save your high-laced hikers for when you will be hiking Mt Fuji. Many temples, castles, restaurants, and most homes require you to remove your shoes. At temples and castles plastic bags are provided to put your shoes in so you can carry them with you. These places are very old, and they are trying to protect the floors and buildings. There is a bin for the empty bags as you leave.
Those fabulous boots might be a fashion statement, but you’ll spend a lot of time lacing and unlacing them. When you remove your shoes at someone’s home or at a restaurant, place the toe end facing outside.
10. When Paying for Something,
Put the money in the little tray that is near the cashier, do not hand it to them.
11. Japanese are Very Polite
…and aware of others comfort. On the train (or bus) keep your conversations at a low tone. I observed businesspeople on the train get cell phone calls and quickly move to the area between the cars to talk. Again, do not eat and drink or smoke on the street as you walk.
12. What’s With the Tattoo Ban?
Tattoos are not a fashion statement in Japan. They are thought to represent membership in the Yakuza, an organization from the 1700s that is now an international crime syndicate. Full body tattooing was and is a form showing you are part of the Yakuza.
Some gyms and public baths will not allow you in if you display your tattoo. In one hotel there was a sign on the reception desk ‘no tattoos’. I asked about it and was in turn asked how big my tattoo was. I showed the receptionist and immediately a drawer was opened, and an appropriately sized bandage was handed to me. It may seem nonsense to us, but it is their house, so we play by their rules.
13. Try Different Types of Accommodation
We stayed in a hostel, an Airbnb, a hotel (www.intergatehotels.jp/en/kanazawa/ with a great breakfast of Western and Japanese food) and a Ryokan (also a good Japanese breakfast). We’re happy we tried them all and enjoyed the differences. None of them were very expensive. And some provided breakfast.
They all had bathrooms within our space—no shared facilities. The hostel toilette/shower/sink was very compact. So very large people might have a problem with that. I’m 5’2” and my knees almost touched the wall.
14. Wi-Fi and Data
Always a big question. You can buy a SIM card at airports, railway stations, and some curbside kiosks. Or you can rent a Pocket Wi-Fi device at the same places. You can order the Pocket Wi-Fi ahead of time. It’s a competitive market so look at more than one offer.
We had one provided at our Airbnb but didn’t use it. Luckily, we were in populated places, so our T-Mobile international unlimited data was quite adequate.
There are many apps you can download to help you get around Japan, but mostly we used Google Maps and Google Translate. Translate helped us ask questions in restaurants, have taxis wait for us, and read ingredients of purchased food and sundries. We walked miles and Google maps helped us not get lost, find bus stops and trains stations.
You’ll see decals on the back of cars. They are multi-colored and have up to four leaves. They designate the age of the people who will be driving the car, learner to senior. I found that to be genius.
Japan is a left-hand side of the road place. In smaller towns, there are no sidewalks. Cars are small and so are some of the roads. What I thought was a driveway one day was a two-lane road. Yikes!
If you rent a car, be very careful about drinking alcohol and driving. The limit is strict – 0.00 BAC unlike many places with 0.08 or 0.05. Bus drivers must take a breathalyser test before they can drive each day. So be careful.
We are seniors and travel on our own. We use public transit. We get up late and go to bed early. So we go to cultural places in the middle of the day with all the other sluggards. We have no golden hour pictures.
We do have wonderful memories though of the crowds, families, and friends enjoying historic places and taking pictures of themselves. We took the bullet trains during the day so we could see the mountains, the rivers that were everywhere, and the little towns and villages that looked like they had been in the same place for centuries. We did go to the Bamboo Forest and the Inari Gates. We saw lots of women and men in kimonos strolling at the same historical places as us. We are fascinated by the life that is happening around us on any given day. That’s why we travel.