Things to Know About Visiting Japan

10 Things to Know When Visiting Japan

Plus, tips for making your journey through Japan easier

Japan is a world unto itself, and for first-time travelers to the country, there’s a lot to understand prior to travel. With the dollar and euro pricing strongly against the yen, many travelers are taking the opportunity to make their long-awaited trip to Japan a reality and as a result it feels like everyone you know is sipping matcha in Kyoto, wandering the streets of Tokyo, and noshing on an omakase menu at a sushi bar. With travel to Japan seeing an uptick, it’s easy to think that travel there is, well, easy. The truth is that Japan can be a bit intimidating even for the most well-traveled in the bunch for a variety of reasons but with a bit of advanced prep, your trip can be focused on taking in an amazingly rich cultural locale without the stresses of navigating a new destination. Below, I’m sharing 10 things to know when visiting Japan as a first timer.

Transit Options are More Plentiful Than You May Think

Public transport in Japan

1I’ll be honest, despite planning travel to Japan in the past, I didn’t have a solid grasp of how difficult (or not) getting around within cities may be. There’s no doubt that the Shinkansen is a fantastic go-to for intracountry travel to zip between locales like Tokyo and Osaka quickly, but what about when you’re in Tokyo? It should come as no surprise that Tokyo is incredibly organized and efficient, and due to the ultra clean and well organized metro system, the traffic is really nonexistent (I’m not sure we heard one horn honked in our entire five days in Tokyo). This means two things for you as a traveler if you’re keen on exploring but need an alternative to walking:

1) The metro is a fantastic option for zipping around town and is very cost-effective. Most quick journeys range from ¥190 – ¥450 on normal routes ($1.20 – $3 per person, basically). The metro is family-friendly but only to an extent. We found elevators a bit elusive at times so families with babies in strollers may find need a little extra time to find access points. Also, allow yourself a bit of a buffer with purchasing tickets and find a machine that has an English option.

2) Since traffic isn’t bad, Ubers are a great option, too, and I’d suggest Uber over taxis when possible purely because you can insert your destination without needing to communicate it to the driver. If your hotel can organize the taxi for you that’s one thing, but if you’re relying on your own capacity to communicate with the drivers, it can be a challenge at times (more on that below) so Uber takes the guesswork out. Expect to spend 8 – 10x as much on an Uber as compared with public transport. On one route we traversed, the metro was ¥420 while our Uber ended up being ¥4000. Worth noting that the metro and our cab/Uber took roughly the same amount of time.

Luggage Forwarding Services are Life Savers

Luggage Forwarding in Japan, Things to Know When Visiting Japan

2If you’re planning on exploring Japan via the Shinkansen, and especially if you have kids in tow, don’t overlook luggage forwarding services in Japan! Yamato provides easy and affordable luggage forwarding between hotels in Japan and it’s a total breeze. This is not something that needs to be booked far in advance and you can chat with your hotel concierge on arrival about dropping off bags with them for onward transit. Generally speaking, you’ll give your prepared luggage to the concierge the day before you head to your next destination, and provide the name and address of your next hotel. Drop off times are usually around 12PM and 4PM and luggage takes around 24 hours to reach its next home (faster in some instances). We used this for virtually every stop along the way and it was a lifesaver! Traveling through train stations and up and down stairs with just a personal item is so much easier than luggage checked bags — not to mention space on the trains for storage (which often times need to be pre-booked).

It’s Family-Friendly

Things to Know When Visiting Japan

3I’d read many a post about how family-friendly Japan was but still questioned whether or not it would actually be. I mean, Japan is the paragon of efficiency, organization and discipline, and babies, well…. they’re basically the opposite. I should say that I feel like we took Kaia at the perfect age (16 months) because she was a bit more alert and engaged, and could participate a bit more.  Suffice it to say, everything I’d read was 1000% correct. We never had any issues taking her anywhere and she was so well received by Japanese people of all ages. We had young girls  wanting to play with her, older ladies saying kawaii with beaming smiles when they’d pass by, and even Japanese men stopping to smile at her (no doubt her massive blue eyes, which are not traditionally found in Japan, were part of the wonder). That all said, if you’re thinking of bringing your little one to Japan, it’s incredibly kid-friendly, and even more so for kids that are slightly older given things like TeamLabs Planet, the quirky cafés, and rainbow-colored treats everywhere. Check out my full forthcoming post on traveling Japan with a baby in tow!

Eating While Walking Is Not a Thing

Things to Know When Visiting Japan

4Leave it to the street food tour to teach me that walking whilst eating is not a thing in Japan. It’s impressive really. You’ll be shocked to see virtually zero garbage cans on the streets and not a single person eating while walking. Can you imagine walking around New York City, San Francisco, or London and not seeing someone eating a morning bagel or a croissant while strolling? Impossible. In Tokyo, even walking through Tsukiji Market (which is a must, by the way), you can’t buy street food and eat it while walking on the street. The Japanese are far more civilized than that. After purchasing your food, you must find a designated area (these can be sitting or standing areas) where you can nosh on your freshly-purchased snack before promptly discarding the waste and continuing on your way.

Good Guides Can Be Hard to Come By

Things to Know When Visiting Japan

5 While booking Japan for Compass & Vine clients over the past couple of years, the sentiment from my local partners was the same each time: we have to book early to get good guides. I believed them, of course, but I also kept raising my eyebrows a bit… surely this 9+ month advanced booking cycle is a bit excessive to get solid guides, right?

Guys, it’s true. It’s not that you can’t find a guide – they’re actually quite plentiful! – but finding a good guide is extremely difficult. We booked a range of tours through a number of different platforms, including through Context Tours, which is my go-to for one-off top-notch tours, and our experiences were mixed at best. Of 7 tours, I’d say 2 guides were great, one was good, and the rest were just bad. Bad to the point that we wished we could just leave half-way without offending anyone. Having a guide and pre-booking experiences does add a ton of color to what you’re seeing as Japan is so culturally rich and historic (and because language barriers can be challenging!) but the key really is to book ahead and work with a travel professional on help securing great guides, especially if you have particular interests to explore!

Plan on Queuing — for Everything

Things to Know When Visiting Japan

6The Japanese love a queue. If a spot is remotely beloved, there will be a line. This could be for anything: a rainbow-colored grilled cheese, an anime plush toy, a good bowl of ramen, or a newly-released Chanel bag. It’s impressive really and a testament to their patience but be prepared. There are many restaurants that don’t take reservations and do require that you simply wait for a table. Guess what? That queue ain’t scarin’ anyone away so just be prepared to wait in lines for some things!

Tipping Isn’t Really a Thing

Things to Know When Visiting Japan

7It’s a funny thing. No matter where we travel, every time we disembark a plane I feel like the first thing I do is search tipping practices. I sort of generally know global practices but never seem to know nuances, and I always seem to remember that fact right when I land and need a taxi. It’s one of those things that differs country to country and industry to industry, and something I’m always conscious about handling appropriately. On safari in Africa, for example, tipping is basically part of the budgeting process as it’s such an ingrained part of tourism there. In Japan, it’s quite the opposite. Tipping is really not a thing. We did find that our tour guides often were okay with tips and we’d usually tip somewhere in the 10 – 15% range, though tipping at restaurants, tipping taxi drivers, etc. is not expected and can sometimes cause awkward encounters. Scott tried to leave a bit extra for a taxi driver who seemed more confused than anything. For private guiding or for free walking tours, plan on leaving something for your guide but beyond that, tipping isn’t common practice.

Short story as an example: I had Compass & Vine clients who traveled to Japan and adored one of their guides so much that they wanted to send a gift of gratitude after they returned home. We had to first check with the guide and local team to verify that the guide would be ‘comfortable accepting a tip’ (which, he was, thankfully), but that serves as a short anecdote to highlight the cultural aspect of tipping.

It’s Worth Buying a Japanese SIM

Things to Know When Visiting Japan

 

8If you’re like me and work whilst traveling, don’t sleep on eSIMs! I have purchased eSIMS in nearly every non-EU destination that I’ve visited in 2024: Thailand, South Africa, and Japan, and found it the biggest game changer for being able to work on the go effectively. In Thailand, I purchased at the airport on arrival but for South Africa and Japan, I used Airalo to purchase in advance. They’re easy to purchase, easy to install, and super affordable. I opted for 30 day packages with 20GB+ for my destinations (longer than I needed but I wanted the largest data package available). Most times, that cost around $25 – $30 for the eSIM. It’s worth its weight in gold to not have to rely on Wifi while on the go. Generally speaking voice calls aren’t part of this but I find that many of my voice calls can be done via WhatsApp or similar anyway. I should also note that I had one down day in Japan with network issues and emailed Airalo to investigate. Their team responded immediately about the issue affecting the network and followed up on a resolution. I was majorly impressed with the customer service considering their scope!

English is Not Widely Spoken — & Don’t Expect English Menus

Things to Know When Visiting Japan

9Most travelers generally understand that when they’re visiting non-English speaking countries that there shouldn’t be an expectation that English is spoken. That said, we all sort of do expect some English… or at least we hope that there will be a basis for communication. One of the things to know when visiting Japan is that English is not widely spoken and menus and signage are often in Japanese kanji without English translations. Even in major tourist cities, English is quite limited, which is where having great guides also comes in handy. Referring to my point above about having data while traveling, that eSIM is extremely valuable just for the ability to use Google Translate while in Japan! We used the Google Translate camera daily to translate signage, menus, etc. and used the app in places to help communicate with folks in restaurants and shops. Many servers and shopkeepers have small translator devices they carry on them to dictate their message in Japanese and allow it to be translated in writing in English for patrons. We didn’t find the language barrier prohibitive but it is something to be aware of to allow yourself a bit of extra time navigating train stations or when looking at/discussing menus.

Tax Free is Super Quick

Things to Know When Visiting Japan

10Lastly, tax refunds in Japan! If you’ve ever traveled and leaned into the international tax refund offer, usually this involves a stop at the airport where you corral all of your receipts, show your physical purchases and then fill out documentation that initiates a process that takes somewhere from 3 weeks to eternity to get a refund. In Japan, it’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s done on the spot for any purchases above ¥5000. One of the things to know when visiting Japan is that you must carry your passport on you (something I never do normally). A copy or photo will not suffice – you must bring your physical passport for them to scan. The refund is done on the spot. In a shop, this may look like a portion (e.g. 10%) being removed from your total purchase, or in a shopping center, this could be gathering your receipts and purchases to go to a small internal counter where cash is physically given back to you. Often for specific goods (e.g. beauty products or liquor), they’ll wrap and seal the items as they are technically not to be consumed in country. I was astounded at how simple it was though, and the main thing was just carrying a passport with me at all times to be sure to get that discount along the way. For context, at the time of writing, ¥5000 is just over $30 so it’s a threshold that’s quite easy to meet.


Are you planning a visit to Japan? Are there any things to know when visiting Japan that you’d add to this list?

Shannon Kircher, The Wanderlust Effect

More about Shannon Kircher

Shannon Kircher is the founder and editor of The Wanderlust Effect. Founded in 2009, she has continued to document her international escapes as an expat in Europe and the Caribbean. Additionally, Shannon is the founder of Compass & Vine, a luxury boutique travel design firm, and is the Director of Marketing for the Frangipani Beach Resort. Shannon holds an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and is a current candidate for WSET Level 3 in Wines & Spirits.