Japan is an up and coming destination, with more and more people choosing to visit this unique country every year. But Japanese culture and etiquette is unique and very different from other cultures around the world so there are things every traveller should know before traveling to Japan for the first time. It’s important to understand the culture and traditions, not only to be a respectful visitor, but also to get the most out of your trip to this spectacular country.
You might also be interested in 3 days in Tokyo itinerary.
1. Plan which season to visit Japan
If you want to see the Sakura (blossom) season then you will need to visit in Spring (March - April). Autumn is also famous in Japan and is best seen in September - October. However, if visiting in these particular times are not important to you then visiting in the low season (June - September) can be a great idea, with less crowds and some cheaper deals. Summer is typhoon season but generally rain storms pass quickly. Alternatively, if you’re a skier then winter is a great time to visit.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something. While clicking these links won't cost you anything, they will help me to keep this site up and running! Check out the full disclosure policy for more details. Thank you so much!
2. Download offline maps (Google Maps or map.me)
Download maps or take a physical map on your trip with you. Alternatively ask you accommodation for any local maps. Wifi is not particularly common in most places in Japan outside of the big cities and it isn’t secured. Alternatively you can take a wireless data device like Travel Wifi to ensure you have data at all times.
3. Download translation apps
Download Google Translate or get a phrases book before you go. Whilst signage in big cities is fairly navigable (I had almost no trouble navigating the metro system in Tokyo using the colours and symbols available), but elsewhere this is trickier. English is not widely spoken either except by younger Japanese people. People are very helpful and even being able to say ‘thank you’ in Japanese will get you a long way.
4. Don’t wear your outdoor shoes indoors
It is considered rude to wear outdoor shoes in a lot of indoor areas. Get used to changing into slippers/slip-on type shoes at the entrance of all homes and some restaurants and shops too - slippers will be provided for you. But if you are in Japan for a prolonged period, it might be worth buying your own pair of indoor slippers to carry around with you.
5. Stay in a capsule hotel or hostel
These fun accommodation types are well-known in Japan and other Asian countries and they give you all the budget-friendly benefits of staying in a hostel but with your own private capsule space, complete with bed, bedding, light, shelving, storage and sometimes more in luxury capsules. Also consider staying in a Ryokan - a traditional Japanese style accommodation.It’s worth bearing in mind that Airbnb is hugely unpopular with Japanese people and there have been several court cases attempting to rid the country of these properties which are deemed as rented out illegally. I would avoid using Airbnb all together and look for the traditional Ryokan or capsule hostels instead.
6. Don’t consume food while you’re out in public
It is not polite to eat in the streets in Japan. Eating and walking is bad etiquette unless you’re in a special situation such as at a food market. This is also partly why there are no rubbish bins anywhere. You will notice that Japanese cities are incredibly clean and it is rare to see litter. If you have any wrappers or waste just keep them in your bag and dispose of them when you get home.
7. Don’t blow your nose in public
It is bad etiquette to blow your nose in public. If you’re someone who hates the sound of sniffing, then unfortunately you’ll need to get used to it and probably do it yourself! Wait until you’re in private to blow your nose.
8. Slurping your food shows your appreciation!
Get used to slurping your food here – slurping is a sign that you’re enjoying your food, the louder the slurp the more satisfied you are. This applies for any noodles, soups or broth-based foods you’re enjoying.
9. Don’t tip in Japan
Great news for your budget, tipping is considered rude and bad etiquette in Japan. as the expectation for a high standard of service is already there. If you do feel the need to in certain situations like an exceptional hotel stay, put the money in an envelope.
10. Have cash with you
Take a suitable amount of cash with you to Japan. Either exchange it before you go or make sure you get enough out at ATMs at the airport or in big cities before you move on elsewhere. Paying by card is not common in Japan and there aren’t a huge number of ATMs either.
11. Consider if you need a JR Rail Pass
If you’re in Japan for any length of time and plan on taking more than 3 train journeys then you’re probably better off buying a JR Rail Pass. But make sure you do it before you arrive, buying in advance is cheaper. I did train journeys from Tokyo to Fuji, then Fuji to Kyoto and Kyoto to Osaka, already these three journeys meant I broke even on my Rail Pass. However, check which trains you plan to use on your trip, not all trains are covered by the pass, such as the fastest bullet trains or some privately owned regional train companies.
12. Buy a Suica Card in Tokyo
When you’re in Tokyo, consider buying a Suica card. This is a re-loadable travel card for the transport system and you can withdraw any leftover balance from the card before you leave Japan. There are equivalent cards to the Suica card all over Japan, these are called IC cards and again make the swipe in/swipe out process so much easier at train stations rather than having to queue and buy a new ticket every time.
13. Keep to the left!
As a British person I was thrilled to discover Japan also keeps to the left. This applies to cars, bikes and pedestrian traffic. Punctuality is important in Japan so don’t hold up someone’s day by standing on the wrong side of the escalator!
14. Jaywalking is illegal
Use the crossings provided!
15. Don’t open a taxi door yourself
Don’t try and open a taxi door - they’re automatic! A taxi door will open automatically for you as it pulls up and again when you are ready to exit. So don’t try and touch the doors yourself!
16. Get to grips with chopsticks (no pun intended!)
You’re very unlikely to find knives and forks in most places, especially once you leave cities so make sure you can at least kind of use chopsticks – and don’t use them to stab your food either, this is also rude.
17. Know how to place your chopsticks
When you put down chopsticks, always either rest them across your bowl or on the chopstick rest provided. Do not stick them upright in your rice or put them on the table directly.
18. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you get stuck
A lot of Japanese people are very willing to help you even if they can’t speak your language. On several occasions when I was obviously looking lost, people came over to help me and I was able to show them a place name I was trying to get to on my phone or map. What is really nice is to learn how to say ‘Please’ or ‘Thank you’ or ‘Where is…’ as it really shows you’ve made an effort as a visitor to their country.
19. Bow to greet someone
It is customary to bow in Japan to convey yourself in certain situations. Usually it is for greeting someone, thanking someone or to apologise. It’s often easiest to learn from the locals here, if someone bows at you, then return the bow.
20. Food at convenience stores is amazing
Make sure to buy snacks from the convenience stores, I found some of the best snacks in them to keep me fueled up during the day, they have an amazing variety and very fresh too. My favourites were Onigiri, pork buns and Mochi balls. The fresh sushi was better than some I’ve had in Japanese restaurants at home.
21. Put your money in the tray
When you pay for things there is a small tray to put your money in on the counter, don’t put your money directly into the hand of the person selling. Ignoring the tray is bad etiquette. Also don’t count the change to make sure it’s correct, Japan is a very polite culture and they would never rip you off as a tourist.
22. Accept items with both hands
If someone hands you something, accept it with both hands and palms laid flat. This is often the case with business cards which are significant in Japan and it would be insulting to not accept one and treat it with the respect you would the person handing it to you.
23. Carry your passport with you at all times
By law, foreign visitors are required to carry their passport on them at all times in Japan to show their ID and visa status. While I was never asked to show it, it’s a good idea to keep it with you and have a photocopy as a back up at your accommodation, just in case!
24. Cover up your tattoos
If you have obvious tattoos, it would be wise to cover them up. Japan has a long history with tattoos and they were illegal until after World War II. However there is still a strong association with criminals and tattoos, as well as being associated with the Yakuza - Japanese mob/organised crime gangs. Because of this, you still don’t see many tattoos in Japan today. If you want to use a traditional Onsen, you may be required to cover your tattoo with a bandage or you may be refused entry completely.
25. You won’t get caught short!
There are free public toilets everywhere! And like everywhere else in Japan, they are extremely clean. Although be prepared for a toilet like nothing you’ve seen before, with toilets having several buttons and functions such as heated seat, a massage, a wash and dry service. Going to the toilet becomes quite a fun event!
26. Vegetarians may struggle in Japan
If you are vegetarian, you will probably struggle in Japan! Vegetarianism is not a recognised concept in Japan and confusingly fish and chicken are generally not considered ‘meat’ so just saying ‘no meat’ still won’t always work. Your best option is to look at the side dishes and noodle soups although be aware that a lot of places will use meat to make the broths. Again, Google Translate is probably your best friend here!
Pin this to save it for later and help you plan your future trip!
Flights: I use Expedia to find great flights and the best deals all over the world, they have regular sales and offers so I always check their website. I also check CheapOair to find cheap deals on round trip flights.
Car Rental: I love the customer service I've always gotten and the variety of options with Rental Cars. But for short notice rentals, I've been using Expedia for the last year, they always seem to have great one-day rates or last-minute rates from the main rental companies.
Accommodation: I prefer the flexibility of booking accommodation with Booking.com so I can cancel or change my reservation without a fee or only pay on arrival for most properties. For longer or more unique stays I prefer AirBnB because you can get the long stay discount, you can also find more unique properties and book experiences with talented locals and businesses. For my budget trips, I always stay in hostels and book through Hostelworld because they have great guarantees if anything does go wrong. If you arrive and your booking is not at the property, they refund the full deposit AND give you $50 extra credit.
Tours and organised trips Although I don’t use tours that often, I do like to book local experiences or day trips once I reach my destination. For that I use GetYourGuide because it has the biggest selection and variety of tour and experience options.
Travel Insurance: For all my longer trips and for the entire year I’ve spent in Australia, my partner and I have always used World Nomads. They cover everything I need and I can buy coverage for a year at a time, they also allow you to purchase cover when you’re already outside your home country. Plus my camera gear and equipment is covered and they also have special cover for when I’m scuba diving too.
My camera gear and equipment: I use a Canon 77D with an 18-135mm lens or a 50mm lens. And a DJI Mavic Mini Drone. For all my gear including laptops, tripods and more camera accessories read my travel photography gear guide.