10 Things I wish I knew before visiting Japan
I’ve been an avid lover of Japan all my life, so when I finally had the chance to visit in 2014, I thought I was SO ready. After all, I’d been preparing for this all my life. But engaging with something from afar can only teach you so much, and no matter how much I binge watched Pokémon and Sailor Moon, there was no way it could prepare me for the culture shock I experienced when I arrived.
Looking back, my problem was a mix of naivete, a lack of general travel experience, a hugely busy university schedule and a heavily overinflated Australian “you’ll be right” attitude (“I mean, the university planned the itinerary, so it’ll be fiiiiiiine”). The worst part was not being able to experience Japan to the fullest because I didn’t do my research.
Five years later, I’m getting my second chance. For 6 months of 2019, I am travelling through Japan to do a deep dive into some of the country’s most coveted travel destinations. Not only am I now armed with so much more information about what to do and where to go, but I also have a secret weapon, which I’ll tell you more about at the end (so stay tuned!)
So what are all the insights, tips and tricks I wish I knew before I visited Japan for the first time? Let’s break it down, top 10 style.
1. Plan your trip with the golden duo: Hyperdia and Google
While Google Maps is an incredible tool for travellers, I actually use it the least out of all of the resources I use to get around Japan. To plan my trips, I use a combination of three things (in this order); Google My Places, Hyperdia and Google Maps.
Google My Places is THE BEST way to plan your itinerary while you are travelling, period. If you have never used this feature, it is a part of Google Maps that allows you to create your own maps, plotting, saving and organising different locations all in one place.
Not only is it a fantastic way to plot all the places you are planning to see, stay and travel to, but it also helps you develop a step by step itinerary as you can visually see where each item is located. You are able to group by layers and colour code your items, so for example, I use layers to separate between cities, and will use different colours to differentiate between where I am staying, where I am travelling to, where I plan to eat, where the closest public transport is, and so on.
I can’t say enough how useful it is to have a full list of everything I want to see and do in an area all mapped out in my phone. The best part is that it also uses location services, so you can always see where you are in real time in relation to all of the places you have pinned.
There’s only one drawback – it currently doesn’t work on Google Maps on your mobile (at least on an iPhone. Andriod users, let me know in the comments if it works for you!), so you will need to download and use Chrome to access your maps.
For most of your public transport needs, Hyperdia has you covered. The site allows you to search the timetables for trains, planes and highway buses, giving you all the information you need about the departure and arrival times, how much it costs, which lines and stations you need to transfer at, what different options you have to get to your desired destination and more. While Google Maps still does a pretty good job, Hyperdia provides so much more information so you can make a more educated decision on how you travel.
It also comes in super handy when you are trying to purchase tickets. If I ever need to get somewhere that’s a little bit out of the way or complicated, I simply show the station staff my search results on Hyperdia and they instantly know how to help me get there – no Japanese required!
2. Basic sayings
While it is pretty easy to get around Japan without knowing Japanese, I still recommend getting your head around the most basic and common phrases. It is a good idea to learn how to say “yes”, “thank you”, “please”, “excuse me”, “I do/don’t understand” and “English” in Japanese before you go, simply so you can show respect the people you interact with and are able to seem like a somewhat functioning human being while you travel.
3. Onsens and sentos
Experiencing the relaxation and serenity of an onsen is an absolute must, but bathing is such a different experience in Japan that it’s better to prepare for what you need to do before you go.
Firstly, there are two different kinds of bath houses in Japan; onsens and sentos. Onsens use the water of actual hot springs (meaning they are heated naturally and already have natural minerals mixed in the water), whilst sentos use normal water that is heated and mixed with minerals manually.
Secondly, when recommending onsens, usually travel blogs and tourism websites will refer to the hot spring itself rather than the actual hotel or bath house you should go to. For example, in this post about “Things to Do in Hokkaido”, I recommend visiting Jozankei Onsen, but the name of the bath house I went to at Jozankei was called Hoheikyo Onsen.
Lastly, the etiquette. It is required that you are naked for all onsens, sentos and general baths in Japan – including those available at Western-style hotels. If this makes you uncomfortable, don’t worry, there are onsens out there that offer private rooms, and if you go to the smaller ones at off-peak times, it is likely that you will be able to bathe alone. You need to thoroughly wash yourself with shampoo and bath wash before you enter the onsen, so make sure to look for the washing station as soon as you arrive. And while there are some places that allow it, for the most part, you will not be allowed into an onsen if you have a tattoo. They are slowly relaxing on these rules, especially for women, but it is best to do your research on this and cover your tattoos with skin-coloured bandages before you go.
4. City jumping and the JR Pass
When I first mentioned to other people that I would be visiting Japan for the first time, everyone told me that I “needed to buy the JR Pass”, like it was absolutely essential for getting around Japan. This confused the hell out of me, as I couldn’t justify the $300+ price for the amount of travel I was doing on their trains.
It’s only in the last few months that I have figured it out – when a lot of people travel Japan, they city hop, never spending more than a few days in any one city. The JR Pass only begins to be worth it if you plan to use the shinkansen (bullet train) more than twice over a two-week period, so of course city hoppers see this as an essential!
Just make sure that you take advice from people who understand what kind of traveller you are.
It’s absolutely true – Japan is one of the safest countries with an incredibly low crime rate and super polite culture.
But don’t let this lull you into a false sense of security. When in Japan, usual safety rules still apply; don’t go walking the streets alone late at night, always meet people you don’t know very well in public places, don’t follow anybody to a weird and out of the way area, and don’t get caught out by hecklers trying to convince you to come to their clubs or shops.
That last point is especially relevant in Japan’s big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. There are a lot of men who will stand on the streets and shout at you to come to their clubs/stores – they are very persistent and will sometimes remember you if you walk past more than once. If you see clubs with all Japanese/Chinese writing and no pictures, DON’T GO IN! Similarly, I don’t recommend going into a Pachinko parlour alone as some of these establishments are owned by the yakuza.
Japan has a strong identity as being a tech-forward country, so I was shocked to find that the country runs mostly on cash transactions. Whether you are buying a train ticket, grocery shopping, at a fancy restaurant or clothes shopping, most places will require you to pay in cash. This is also the case in some hostels as well, so make sure you check your booking before you arrive.
Thankfully, you can find international ATMs at all of the major convenience stores (7/11, Lawsons, Family Mart, etc), and most of them don’t charge you a transfer fee. Some places also give you the option to pay via your Pasmo/Suica card, which are reloadable cards generally used for public transport around Japan. I’ve seen some vending machines, temporary lockers and even temples allow you to pay via these cards, which is super convenient.
7. Recommended travel destinations
There are only so many “Top X things to do” lists you can scroll through online before you find that a lot of these places list very similar destinations (and hey, I’ll say that even as a travel blogger who writes these kinds of articles!)
Like with anything, diversity in your research is the best way to find the best things to do. The introvert in me would like to tell you that you can find everything you need in travel books and online, but the best gems will be recommended by other people who have visited Japan, especially those who are not from the same country or cultural background as you (enter my secret weapon – don’t forget to read about it below!)
Personally, I have found that people from China, Europe and South America have the most interesting tips to share as they are from such a different part of the world than me. What is interesting and popular to a Chinese tourist is so different than what is interesting to an Australian tourist, so it’s fascinating to learn what these places are and to experience them for yourself.
I don’t mean to scare you with this point; 99.9% of the time, you will be fine. But you should know that before Western-style toilets were introduced, Japan mostly used squatting toilets. Thankfully, with the boost in tourism, the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics all happening, Japan has done an incredible job of upping their game when it comes to accommodating different cultures. The only issue may face now is a lack of soap or hand dryers.
Just make sure to go to the bathroom in more established/tourist friendly areas. If you are venturing out to a more obscure area not usually seen by tourists, prepare yourself for what you might face!
On the other side of the spectrum, you will come into contact with a LOT of fancy toilets with more buttons than on a TV remote. Finding the flush button is a bit tricky in some of them, but it just makes it all the more exciting/hilarious when you finally find it!
9. WIFI/sim card
Again, Japan’s reputation as a tech-forward country steers us wrong!
While there are a lot of places in the main cities that offer free WIFI, it’s generally not very good and not very reliable. Unless you are willing to hop from Starbucks to Starbucks along your trip, I highly recommend renting a portable WIFI dongle or a mobile SIM card.
If you will need to use your laptop while in Japan, or are travelling with a group, then a WIFI dongle will be a good solution for you. Otherwise, if you just need Google Maps, a SIM card should do you just fine.
10. Luggage forwarding services
Last but certainly not least, I WISH I had known about Japan’s incredible Takuhaibin (luggage forwarding) services.
I think we can all agree that one of the worst parts of travelling is lugging our heavy suitcases around trying to get from A to B. This is especially true in Japan, as you find that their trains and buses, while freakishly on time and super clean, do not have the space for you to store all of your heavy luggage.
With Takuhaibin, you are able to ship your luggage to your next destination in just one night, meaning you get to skip the awful processes of wheeling your heavy bags around the streets, searching desperately for elevators and escalators or (even worse!) carrying your bags up and down staircases of the quieter subway stations.
This is also especially handy if you are travelling to smaller destinations in between large cities. If you finish up in Tokyo and are on your way to Kyoto next, why not send your luggage ahead and visit Hakone or Kanagawa on your way there?
Not only is it super convenient and reliable, but it really does take a huge weight off your shoulders when you’re navigating around Japan.
My secret weapon
While these are just some of the main lessons I have learned so far from travelling around Japan, I am constantly learning new things each time I visit a different part of the country. It’s impossible to fully prepare for every challenge you may face, and honestly, it’s not worth your time.
Thankfully, whenever you may be caught in a situation that you were absolutely not prepared for, there’s my secret weapon I mentioned earlier: the Jeenie app. This app is the latest buzz and must have in the international travel world. It is essentially an on-demand video chat app, providing real-time language, cultural or translation assistance from live human experts.
No matter if you need help or simply need some cultural or travel advice, you can get an English-and-Japanese speaking cultural expert on the phone instantly to get your issue solved or questions answered! Sounds great, right?
The best part is, that in celebration of your grand plans to travel Japan, Jeenie are offering you the chance to talk to one of their cultural experts for 30 minutes for FREE (using promo code LEARN2019) by simply being one of the first 100 people to download their app here: