9 Things to know before you visit Japan

Harajuku girls

Last year I visited Japan for the first time and had such an amazing time, Tokyo has become one of my favourite places I’ve ever visited. That’s a pretty big call, you guys! Being my first visit, I had absolutely no idea what to expect and there were a lot of things I learned along the way. Today I wanted to share with you some tips for anyone visiting Japan for the first time, these are things everyone needs to know before they visit Japan.

1. Speaking the language

There’s no such thing as a language barrier. We’re all human and have ways of communicating beyond words, if you want to connect with another human you can do that without needing to speak the same language. We met and connected with so many cool locals, including a shared love of bulk-size chocolates with one super-cool local, and we never had a moment where speaking different languages was something we couldn’t get past. Even in remote back streets, we were able to get help from locals and communicate with them, it was awesome! Everyone was so approachable, friendly and helpful.

Before we went, I printed out a few pages of key phrases and things I may need to say, like ‘I’m vegetarian’. This came in handy quite a few times when I needed to communicate with the locals about directions, food or just wanted to try out my Japanese language skills and say hello and thank you. Learning some basic phrases goes a long way to being polite in a new country and you get a chance to interact with the locals and experience their culture.

I printed out keywords that included the English translation (for me), Japanese Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana symbols (for locals) and Japanese Romaji (Japanese words written using English lettering, so I could pronounce them). This meant I could point to the symbols for locals to read when I needed help.

Train Spotting Tokyo

Train Spotting Tokyo

2. What’s with all the masks?

When you visit Japan, you’ll see quite a few people wearing medical masks across their mouth and nose. At first, it’s a little strange and you really notice them, wondering why they have them on. There are a few reasons why some people are concerned about pollution and catching a cold so use it as a way to prevent nasties from entering their system. Others use it as a way to respect their fellow humans by quarantine-ing themselves and their cold! Yup, if they have a cold they wear a mask, especially in public places like on the train, to stop the spread of their germs. I wish this would catch on in workplaces and public transport in Brisbane! If you get sick in Japan, be respectful of the culture and grab a mask for yourself rather than sniffing and wiping on the train.

3. The train system looks crazy, but it’s easy to work out

When you look at the railway map in Tokyo, you can’t help but freak out. It looks like someone has made a big bowl of multi-coloured spaghetti, thrown it on a piece of paper and labelled it ‘train map’. Here’s the thing, if you’ve lived or travelled in London before, you’ll be able to work out the Tokyo maps without any trouble. Even if you haven’t done that, you’ll be able to wrap your head around it if you study the map for a little bit to wrap your head around the system.

So, how does Tokyo’s railway system work? There are competing railway lines, which means you catch different lines that belong to different companies. There may be times when you have to exit the gates when travelling so you can enter the gates of another line. It’s all really well signed and colour-coded though so it’s easy. The network is run by Japan Rail (JR) who own the above-ground Yamanote and Chuo lines. Tokyo Metro and Toei operate the subway lines and there are some smaller private lines that service suburban areas.

How do you buy tickets? Yea, this is the slightly trickier part. There are ticket vending machines at the train station and they’re equipped with English, to make it easy. The cost of a fare is determined by the distance you’re going and you select the fare amount for your destination, which is noted on a big map/chart above the ticket machine. What this means is, instead of putting in your money and asking for a ticket to Shinjuku, you select the fare cost (i.e. ¥170) then put your money in. You’ll get a small ticket back that is about the same size as a ticket from Timezone.

If you plan on doing a lot of travel within in Japan then it may be worth getting a Japan Rail Pass in Australia before you leave.

Shrine at a garden near the Tokyo Sky Tree

Shrine at a garden near the Tokyo Sky Tree

4. Train travel tips
  • Don’t try to catch the train system during rush-hour, it’s absolutely hectic and you’ll get squished in and regret doing it.
  • The trains are a quiet, peaceful place so it’s important to respect the Japanese culture and be quiet and respectful too.
  • Observe seats that are designated for the elderly, disabled and pregnant and give up your seat to someone who needs it more than you.
  • It’s not polite to eat and drink on the train, listen to your music up loud, talk loudly on the phone or to the person next to you or cause a scene.
  • The Japanese queue politely, waiting for the train to arrive so they can get on in an orderly manner. Don’t jump the queue.
5. Don’t be a litterbug

You’ll notice Japan is a clean and tidy place because the locals and Government work hard to keep it this way. It’s not okay to throw your empty wrappers or rubbish on the ground, so don’t be a litterbug! Litterers are given detention after school.

6. Tipping isn’t necessary

People in Japan take great pride in the work they do and believe the reward is seeing a happy customer and knowing they’ve done their job well. It’s not customary to tip in Japan and you may find people looking very confused, possibly offended or trying to chase you to return the money you accidentally left behind on the table.

Matt in Tokyo

Matt in Tokyo

7. Manners matter

If can encourage you to do one thing when you visit Japan, it’s to be very polite. Learn how to ask for things, so please and thank you and excuse me. When you’re talking to locals, hotel staff, shop assistants or anyone really, give them a big smile and use polite phrases to convey your gratitude and appreciation. It will go a long way and is a way of observing the Japanese culture and being respectful.

8. Getting money from an ATM can be hard

While there are a large number of ATMs around, it can be difficult to find the ‘right one’ that accepts your bank card. When you find an ATM that does, I would suggest taking out a larger sum of money to cover you for a few days. Stash what you don’t need in your hotel safe or carry it on you in a discreet way if you feel more secure doing so. Remember where the ATM you visited is and make note of it so you can go back when you run out of cash after spending it all on amazing sushi and tempura.

9. Wear shoes you can take off easily

You have to take your shoes off before getting on the train. No, no you don’t, I’m just joking. BUT you will need to remove your shoes before entering some places, like cat cafes and rabbit cafes and other similar places. This means it’s not an appropriate time to start wearing your knee-high lace-up boots and you should consider packing footwear that is really easy to slip on and off.

Planning a trip to Japan?

Based on my visit, I put together some really helpful and practical guides that will help you decide where to go, where to stay and what to do!

Watch: Our video ‘6 cool things to do in Tokyo’


Do you follow?Phoebe Lee is a travel writer and award-winning blogger with a love for storytelling. Phoebe creates practical, fun and engaging written content designed to inspire and energise travel-lovers and dreamers. Follow her and Matt’s adventures at home and around the world, right here on Little Grey Box and through InstagramFacebook and YouTube.

6 Comments on 9 Things to know before you visit Japan

  1. Thank you, this is very helpful 🙂

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  2. I travelled to Tokyo in Nov with my family and LOVED it. I would add that the SUICA card made train travel around Tokyo an absolute breeze. And with the littering thing: the recycling is intense – there’s a different bin for everything! Would recommend Japan to anyone and everyone

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  3. I’ll be spending the holidays this year and I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning. Thanks for this entry. Hope to share my own experience these upcoming entries.

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  4. I was in Tokyo in 2013 on holiday. Your write-up brought back many memories 🙂

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