Culture

9 Tips For First-Timers Going To Japan

Make your visit even better.

If you are planning a trip to Japan, there’s no doubt you will be bombarded with recommendations from friends who have already been.

There really is no other country like it, and with so much to do it’s a holiday destination that demands multiple visits. Here are few things it helps to know before making your first visit to Japan even better.

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It’s kind of rude to eat and walk

It is very rare for Japanese people to consume food or drink while walking. Culturally, it’s considered rude to do so, and even though coffee shops offer “take away” most locals will sit in a café/Starbucks rather than slurping it down on the run. It’s also not uncommon to see someone buy a can of soda from a vending machine, drink it on the spot and then dispose of it in the bin provided. The same goes for food. It’s okay to grab a snack and sit and eat it in a park or on a bench, but it’s best to avoid running for a train while trying to down the last of your morning muffin. Which brings us to the next point.

Photo: Flickr/David Woo

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There are VERY few bins

It’s a great idea to carry a plastic bag with you whenever you are out and about in Japan, as there are very few bins in public. And practically none in train stations and public parks. This is, in part, because many of them were removed following the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attack, but also because the Japanese are really, really good at recycling. People are encouraged to take their rubbish home and sort it out, so the public bins that do exist are often split into various recycling categories. Because of this Japan now has a plastic recycling rate of roughly 77% – twice that of the UK.

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PT is your best friend (once you nail the system)

Yes, the train stations in Japan can be a little confusing but their public transport system is also extremely efficient and much cheaper than taxis. Trains run on two lines – Metro and JR – and it’s worth downloading Google Maps to help navigate them, which is synched with the public transport system around the country. This way you can simply type in your destination and Google will offer you the quickest route via PT.

The bigger stations can feel like labyrinths so it is best to allow at least half an hour from arriving at the station until the time you need to board a train to factor in “getting lost time”. And when in doubt, just ask for help. There is plenty of English signage and train stations are really well staffed. Despite the language barrier, ticket officers are used to helping confused tourists and are very accommodating. It’s also worth noting that in Japan, the train system is set up to help you rather than fine you. As such, if you arrive at your destination only to find you didn’t purchase the right ticket you can simply pay the difference at a special “top-up” machine.

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Suica cards are a breeze

While the ticket machines at train stations offer an English option, the amount you pay varies dependant on your intended destination, making it a little time-consuming trying to work out the exact amount for each trip. So if you’re staying in the one city for more than a few days it’s worth buying a Pasmo or Suica card which can be used on most public transport around Japan. It allows you to simply “tap on” and “tap off” and can also be used to purchase goods at some convenience stores and vending machines.

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Consider a JR pass

If travelling on a bullet train between cities, it’s worth considering the purchase of a JR pass. It’s best to check price guides, but a seven-day pass is worth roughly the same as a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. They can also be used to ride on any of the JR lines around the country. There are 7, 14 and 21-day passes available and they must be ordered before you arrive in the country. When you do so, you’ll receive a coupon in the mail that can be exchanged for a JR pass at various outlets. There’s often a long line at the airport JR counters, so wherever possible delay the activation of the pass until you reach a JR desk at one of the major train stations instead. And don’t forget to take your passport!

Photo: Flickr/Antonio Tajuelo

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It helps to speak just a little Japanese

It’s pretty easy to get around Japan knowing very little Japanese. There’s a lot of English signage and there are often pictures (or plastic replicas) of meals in restaurants, so you can see what you are ordering. Plus most Japanese people are very patient with English speakers and will try and help you regardless of the language barrier. But it really is polite to know at least the most basic niceties, so when you do need help you can thank someone appropriately. The two most useful (and commonly heard) phrases are: Arigatou gozaimasu [ah-ree-ga-toe go-za-ee-mas], which means “thankyou very much”; and Sumimasen [sue-mee-mah-sen], which can be used to say “excuse me” or “I’m sorry”.

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No tipping

There are some exceptions to the rule, but for the most part there is no tipping in Japan. In fact, in many cases it would be considered rude to leave extra money after service.

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Leave extra luggage room for your return flight

It is almost impossible to visit Japan and not buy something, so it’s best to factor in a few extra kilos for your return flight. Their vintage shops and record stores are world famous for good reason, and in Tokyo you can visit entire districts dedicated to selling musical equipment and technology alone. Japan also excels at cute-as-hell souvenirs. Loft is a Myer-sized department store chain that has entire levels dedicated to the stuff: one whole floor is stocked with stationary, another Japanese kitchenware, and another Japanese art. Whatever your preference, you’ll be returning home with a lot more than a fridge magnet.

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Take off your shoes

There are a number of instances where you will be required to take off your shoes. These include: when entering a change room to try on clothes; when frequenting a traditional Japanese teahouse or restaurant – especially where there is zashiki (floor seating); when entering someone’s house; and when going to an onsen (bath house). On some occasions you’ll be provided with slippers to wear and most always there will be a sign and/or the host will indicate that you need to remove your shoes, so there’s no need to worry about it too much.

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You will never fit it all in

There is simply so much to do (and eat) in Tokyo alone, that you’ll never fit in everything you want to do on your first visit. While some people like to keep their holidays jam-packed, Japan is a really beautiful place to get a little lost. If you’re visiting Kyoto, pick just a couple of the best shrines and leave time to wander the beautiful streets in the evening. And, yes, the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo is awesome but if you can’t make it just grab some delicious snacks from a 7-Eleven and spend the afternoon getting lost with the artists and crows in Yoyogi park instead. You won’t regret it.

Still looking for more inspiration? We got you:

Check out Qantas flights to Japan.