Tips for an Enjoyable First Visit to Japan

These are things I either learned before we went, got told by other people, or wish I'd known before we went. In no particular order, here we are...

1. Money matters

People who tend to rely on cards are going to have to wean themselves off that habit, in Japan. It is very much a cash society. In hotels, big department stores etc, yes, they will accept cards. Smaller places might only accept Japanese issued cards. But restaurants, small shops, temples etc only accept yen in cash form.


If you're one of those people who pulls out a banknote to pay for small items, and doesn't really worry about the coins, then you'll burn through money very, very quickly in Japan, where the smallest banknote is worth £6.91 / US$8.80 at time of writing, and the largest coin is worth £3.45 / US$4.40. Additionally, small coins, which these days really only have nuisance value in most countries, are still used in everyday purchases to make up change. It's worth having a rough idea of how much change you've got with you, unless you enjoy having pockets full of coins.

Japanese currency
Japanese currency

The other fact, which every visitor should be aware of, is that with two exceptions, Japanese ATMs do not accept cards which have been issued outside Japan. The good news is that every branch of 7-11, and every post office, carries a cash machine which DOES accept foreign issued cards. There is a small fee, one levied for amounts up to 10,000 yen (the minimum withdrawal amount) and the other levied for amounts above 20,000 yen, so get as much cash as you can out, to minimise the number of times you need to make withdrawals.

2. Getting around in Japan

Unless you're planning to stay in one place, pretty much, it will save you money to buy a Japan Rail Pass, which is only available outside Japan to non-residents of Japan. This gives you unlimited travel on Japan Rail's very extensive network, which is not limited to ordinary trains, but also includes ferry routes, buses run by JR and some local transport networks. It is available for one, two or three weeks. Shop around for it, online, in your own country, because different places charge slightly different amounts for it. You can always rely on Japanese trains leaving and arriving on time, too.

Japanese map
Japanese map

When you arrive, you should also buy a store card for the travel not covered by the JR pass. This won't save you money, but will save you a significant amount of time, as you don't need to worry about finding the change for the metro lines, buses etc which aren't covered by the JR pass. Several different companies, which operate regionally, sell these passes (Tokyo's is either Pasmo or Suica), but all companies recognise each other's cards. You pay a deposit of 500 yen for the card, which is refundable only at the office of the company which issued the card, so unless you're leaving from a different place to the one you came in, it makes sense to buy this as soon as you arrive.

Japanese Pasmo card
Japanese Pasmo card

3. Tax refunds

Unlike many other places I've visited, and claimed back the sales tax, Japan makes it very easy for you to do so. All you need is your passport, and the sales tax will be deducted at the point of sale, so you don't need to mess about at the airport, showing stuff to customs officials when you leave. The shop will complete all of the documentation, fix the receipt into your passport, and then you can remove it once you get home. That's all there is to it.

Tax refund in Japan
Tax refund in Japan

4. Where to stay in Japan

Whatever your budget is, make sure you stay close to a train station, especially if you are using a JR Pass. Unlike most other countries, the best accommodation in Japan is located close to train stations, which have none of the issues with undesirable characters sleeping rough there that seem to be the norm, in other places.

Kanazawa station
Kanazawa station

I would also emphasise to trust the Japanese hotel brands, and not to stay in trusted western hotel chains, which tend to be more expensive, and which give you fewer amenities. For example, Japanese hotels often provide complimentary transfers, free laundry facilities, free phones and tablets etc, whereas the western brands either don't provide them at all, or charge handsomely for them.

5. Eating in Japan

Most restaurants have an English menu available. If they do not, the waiters are usually happy to provide translation services via apps on their phones. Having photographs on the menu, in my part of the world, at least, tends to correlate with poor quality, but this was not a problem in Japan.

Japanese restaurant menu
Japanese restaurant menu

6. Costs

I had a preconceived idea that Japan was extremely expensive, but this was not necessarily the case. On average, taking hotels and transport out of the equation, we were spending 10,000 yen a day, as a couple, which handled food, entrance fees, anything else we bought etc. If I'd have been alone, this would have been less than half that sum, as my gal isn't as adventurous as I am about eating in local dives etc. If you really wanted to keep food costs low, I think you could get change from 1,500 yen per person.

7. Communications

If you're the sort of person who feels the need to be constantly online, rent a Japanese SIM card when you arrive. If you only need to get on occasionally, hotels all have free wifi, and there is also a free app (Japan Wifi) which allows you to connect to the many free wifi outlets around the country. Set this up before you leave, as you can then get online when you arrive. Otherwise, to connect requires you to provide your email address and you'll be sent a link etc - Japan Wifi does this for you.

wi-fi in Japan
wi-fi in Japan

8. Japanese Castles

Remember you don't need to go inside every castle you see. Japanese castles are quite awe-inspiring - from the outside, that is. They tend to be empty on the inside. See one, and you've seen them all. So save yourself the time and bother, and just enjoy the exterior views. The same often applies to some of the other period buildings.

Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle

9. Things you DON'T need to worry about in Japan

Petty theft, being assaulted, and crime in general being amongst them. You'll see unattended bikes left unlocked in big cities. Nobody is aggressive towards you, and your interactions with locals are more likely to involve them asking you if you're lost, or would like some other help.

Japanese police
Japanese police

10. Kyoto

If you're going to Kyoto, work out how many days you want to spend there, and then add another couple of days. There's much more to see than you'll think.

Kyoto
Kyoto

I'd definitely recommend going to Japan, if you have an interest, and not getting intimidated by language, concepts that you won't be able to cope with transport, and other things such as that. It's a country that's unusually well organised and very friendly to tourists. The vast majority of visitors enjoy themselves thoroughly, as we did.


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Most Helpful Girls

  • Thanks for this take. I'm from Japan and love seeing people promote my country. I'd say the first thing people should do when they get to Japan is to get a Pasmo. :)

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  • I went to Japan a couple of months ago, and it was lovely. I'd also recommend learning some basic phrases and words, so that you're not completely lost when someone asks or tells you something in a store, at a restaurant or even in the street. I'd also recommend going to 7-eleven, since they have incredible snacks, really good coffee and food that you could totally eat for a quick lunch, or even dinner.
    One thing I regret, though, is that we had literally every single day completely booked. I wish we would have left at least a day or two for just exploring and wandering around. We did end up doing some random exploring here and there when there was a small gap in-between activities, but not nearly enough for a place as exciting as Japan.
    I also really do recommend visiting the countryside, and not just the big cities. We went to both Hakone and Tokyo, and Hakone was absolutely beautiful.

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    • I agree with absolutely all of that.

      It can feel relentless, unless you've have some free time, as you say, just to wander.

Most Helpful Guys

  • There were one or two banks that accepted US cards in their ATM; don't remember which, they might have been foreign (to Japan) banks.

    But yeah, definitely still largely a cash society. Not unusual for people to carry around $1,000 worth of yen. As opposed to 1,000 yen which would be about $10.

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    • I think, given the 2020 Olympics, this situation may change, and more banks may allow international withdrawals. I have no idea why it's like that at the moment.

      But yeah, I was carrying 75,000 yen at one stage, and then paused to consider how much that was worth, and was amazed that I had no concerns about having that much in cash on me...

    • Yeah, it occurred to me when I was wandering around Tokyo lost at 2 AM after a few drinks, where else in the world would I do this with no worries?

    • It's an amazing feeling, isn't it? :)

  • Great advice. I love the country and I especially love Akiba. I could stay forever in Nakano Broadway eating those crazy ice cream cones. I might consider moving there, but I can't handle the Japanese work ethic. People work overtime not because they have to or because they make more money, but because it's expected. I've seen guys staying past midnight at their office and when I asked "What will happen if you leave? Will your boss get mad?" they just said "No, nothing will happen". And they were just working to work. Also, the women are the best, but it would be difficult for me to marry again because of the weird work ethic.
    Jim's Tips for an Enjoyable First Visit to Japan

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    • Agreed. The work ethic is profoundly unhealthy, and damaging to family life. No wonder the population is dropping.

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What Girls Said 12

  • Awesome thanks I'll try to remember that in 10 years time when our kids are all grown up and we are finally free to do as we please 😜

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  • Cool, I want to go to Japan, I'll make sure to read this guide again when I go in a year or so.

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  • If I wasn't scared someone would kill me then maybe I would go to Japan, and also I hate language barriers.

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  • Nice take. I couldn't have said it any better.

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  • These coins have holes😳😳

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    • They do indeed. Makes it easy for the blind. Or they can be worn on a string round your neck! ;p

    • Precisely my thoughts! I know what to do with that coin now...😂

  • Great take, going to be very useful! 😊

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    • Are you planning on going? I'd definitely recommend it highly.

    • Show All
    • Another thing to consider... at the moment, they are doing quite a lot of renovation of old temples and similar places, probably due to wanting everything ready for the Tokyo Olympics in summer 2020. I think they'll probably have finished all of that by November 2019, but definitely by April 2020.

    • Oooh, that sounds perfect, thank you for the information <3

  • Thanks :) this is great!

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  • Awesome

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  • Please stay away from Aokigahara forest.

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  • Nice take

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  • Cool cool

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  • Sounds cool thanks

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What Guys Said 25

  • Great Take with some really practical advice (some of the most practical I have ever seen online). The Japanese are renowned for their polite helpfulness to foreign visitors, so I have gone out of my way to give it to them as well when they've been visitors to my cities.

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  • You should've written a section on etiquette.
    How to behave in restaurants and elsewhere.

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  • My friends who visited Japan always come back with interesting stories and compliments to the helpfulness of the Japanese people.

    It's definitely a country that I want to visit, their traditional culture, festivals and cuisine (and people are used to know only the sushi, there's much more) are great. I regret for not finding a time to extend my travel to Japan when I visited China some years ago.

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  • Thanks for the post. I've wanted to see Japan for a long time now. Shibuya and Akihabara are on my bucket list.

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    • If you want a great view of the famous pedestrian crossing near Shibuya station, I'd recommend the window seats at Cafe L'Occitane.

      The first floor can get crowded, but few people seem to use the next floor up (ask for the toilets), and you should be able to get a prime window seat up there. Great people watching, for the price of a cup of coffee.

    • Thanks for the tip. I'll try to keep it in mind if I ever get there. But yes, the pedestrian crossing is what I want to go to Shibuya for, and the 109. See them or a fictionalized version in several games, now I want to see the real thing.

  • Usually it's simple, when you travel, there a 3 things you always have to do.
    Respect the people there, it's not a zoo and they're not here for your entertainement.
    Learn the basics of the language, what you need to ask for directions and stuff. People will appreciate it, even if it's not perfect, but you're at least trying.
    Respect the country as a whole. Don't take, break, steal things, leave the place you go clean, respect the culture and the customs.

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  • Would never go to japan. Soo many better places then one of the most polluted countries with some of the highest populated drug gangs and don’t get me started on food not sure I can call someone human if they eat tarantula or insects for food disgusting.

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  • Cool. I've never really had the interest in going but it is a cool place to learn about.

    I have some further advice however. Don't take pictures of bodies in forests.

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  • This is one of the few actually good takes I've seen on this website. Nice job. The cash thing is especially important.

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  • You didn't mention time of year. What time of year is best to go to Japan? The cherry blossoms are only in bloom during one season, but is that season a good time to go for anything but cherry blossoms?

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  • Great article. Not much of a help in my coming trip to Spitsbergen but definitely puts Japan higher up on my to do/go list. Thanks

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  • That was a good mytake and very interesting, my sister is planning on going there soon so maybe I’ll tell her about some of those things

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  • Great take.

    I wish I had know of this before I went there.

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  • If you know anyone in the military, you can get invade to withdraw money for free. Also, there are bars exclusive to locals only.

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  • I hate traveling by trains. Last week I had a train connection nightmare in Germany/ Are the trains in Japan bad?

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  • Any recomnended audio learning courses other than pimsleurs? Like something i can listen to without the need if a visual

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  • Where can I buy the used school girl panties and is traffic light or heavy in the urban areas?

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  • Nice take l love japan

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  • Thank you for sharing this.

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  • A fascinating people.

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  • Thanks.

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  • Nice information about Japan

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  • Interesting take

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  • Would rather visit Uganda than Japan.

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  • Nice take

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  • Very interesting

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