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11 Useful Tips When Travelling In Japan

tokyo skyline Tokyo skyline

I’m just coming off a 12-day vacation in Japan (Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo & a few places in between) and cannot stop thinking about the kind people, the rich culture and the food, oh the food was delicious. This was my first trip to Japan and I learned some handy tips when travelling in Japan.

Here’s a list to help you along on your journeys (and if Japan isn’t on your list, I’d seriously consider it).

No Tipping: Tipping isn’t a custom in Japan – pay whatever is on the bill. Even though there’s no tipping, you’ll experience some of the best customer service in the world.

Carry Cash: Not to worry – you can definitely use your credit card when buying clothes, but it’s very convenient to use cash for food, with many places being cash only. And if they do take cards, you’ll want to use cash so you don’t hold up the line! It’s much more efficient.

Department Store Discounts For Tourists: Lots of department stores offer special discounts for tourists including my favourite department store, Takashimaya (which offers 5%). Pop by the information booth before you roam the store for your special discount card (don’t forge to bring your passport).

Stand On The Left: Yup, instead of right! Stand to the left when heading up or down the escalators. You don’t want to be a blocking the right side of the escalator during a busy commute.

Women’s Only Subway Cars: I didn’t experience any subway rides where I was packed like a sardine, but it can get insanely busy during rush hour. On some subway lines, there are cars designated for women-only – you’ll see pink signs on the subway floor and pillars.

English Is NOT A Common Language: Keep this in mind when trying to navigate your way through the cities. English is not a common language, and if you need to ask a question – keep language simple. For example, you’ll want to say “cheque” for the bill at a restaurant instead of saying “I want to pay”. Also learning a few words in the language are appreciated, like ‘Excuse Me’ is ‘Sumimasen’. I also had Google Translate on my phone – this came in handy at the subway when I typed a message in the app and showed the subway attendant, who then typed in a message on the Google Translate app on her iPad.

Buy A SIM: I used a Docomo SIM card for my phone, as you’ll use your phone a lot for searching subway routes and making sure you’re going in the right direction on Google Maps. SIM cards can be purchased at convenience stores like Family Mart, Lawson and even the airport (I saw them at Narita in Tokyo). Renting a Pocket Wifi is also an option (it’ll be a tad pricier), but good if you have a tablet or laptop you’re using during the trip. Pocket Wifi’s have a battery life of about 8 hours.

Rent A Locker: It’s likely that you’ll be out and about for hours on end and may accumulate a few (or a lot) of shopping bags. All of the subways have lockers that you can rent (small to large), store your bags or suitcase. Depending on the size of the locker, they cost 200-700 Yen.

Turn Off Your Ringer: On the subway – it’s busy on the trains and you want to respect others. You’ll notice that there aren’t any loud people yapping away on their phone.

Haneda Over Narita Airport: If you’re travelling in and out of Tokyo, you may want to consider Haneda Airport over Narita. Haneda is significantly closer to the city centre. A bus to Haneda from the Shinjuku district takes about 35 minutes, while a bus to Narita takes 120 minutes. The greater distance also means it’s more expensive (more than double the price) to get to Narita. If you have a choice, choose Haneda over Narita.

Buy Treats At The Airport: It’s a given that you’ll take home Japanese snacks, you really can’t help it. Remember the airport is great place to buy these snacks. Going through Narita airport, I saw four exclusive flavours of Kit Kat bars and tonnes of snacks. This saves you from lugging treats to the airport, which take up precious space in your luggage. And make note, you need to buy chocolates from Royce and grab “fries” from Potato Farm.

If you’ve been to Japan, let me know your favourite places in the comments – I can’t wait to go back!

Stay tuned for my guide to Japan – places to visit, things to eat and where to shop.

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Reader's Comments

  1. Another tip that many may not know is when exchanging your cash to yen, be sure the bills are clean without rips/tears and marks. Most forex and banks will refuse those and only accept clean and new bills.

  2. Oh good tip! Thanks Andrew.

  3. Signage in Japan really helps the non-Japanese travellers on the amazing public transportation system. Just watch and learn how the locals navigate the system. As for escalators, stand on the left and walk on the right in Tokyo but remember it’s the opposite when you’re in Osaka and Kyoto.

  4. Thanks for the tips!! Looking forward to your Japan guide as I will be heading there in 2 weeks! 😀

  5. This is great, keep them coming – I’ll be heading to Japan in T minus 8 days! ????

  6. Great tips 🙂
    One I’ve had to grow accustomed to since being in Japan: if you head to a little ramen joint with not many seats (which you definitely should – mmmm!), be sure to leave as soon as you’re done. You don’t need to eat fast or anything, but once you are finished with your meal it’s generally favoured upon to start getting ready to leave within a minute or so, usually because there’s a queue to get in! Obviously, if it’s quiet, less pressure 🙂

  7. Thanks Katrina. Good tip about not lingering too long when there’s a queue! LOVE ramen there. The food in Japan, soooooo good.

  8. Rich – YAY! Such a wonderful place. You’re going to have such a good time.

  9. Another tip – when you’re trying on clothes in a store, you’ll need to take off your shoes BEFORE you go into the changing room. The rooms will have these bags (they’re like see-through nets) that you put over your head. This is to prevent you from getting makeup onto the clothing when you’re trying it on. Yup – it’s pretty odd, but very common. I saw them everywhere.

  10. When you’re using the subway, purchase a SUICA card (deposit 500 Yen – about $6 – it’s refundable at the end of your trip) – it’ll be much easier than purchasing a subway ticket each time. The card will deduct the cost of the ride automatically when you exit a station. The challenge with purchasing a ticket for each ride is you’ll need to calculate the cost of the trip based on distance. If you mis-calculate and are short, you must top up the fair before you exit the station.

  11. My cousin lives in Japan and we are going to visit her. Thanks for the advice about not tipping while in Japan. Hopefully, we can find a nice company to use to help us ship our belongings both to and from Japan so that we don’t have to worry about them on the airplane.

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