First Time to Japan: The Guide for Curious Travelers
Byōdōin temple in Uji, Kyoto, Japan
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If this will be your first time to Japan, we have the perfect guide for you! As one of the top travel destinations in 2019, Japan welcomed 31.9 million foreign visitors and was expected to see even more tourism this year. When international travel resumes, I’m sure Japan will be back at the top of many traveller’s bucket lists, so why not get a head start to make sure you have a truly unforgettable trip?
It’s always beneficial to research your destination, but with its rich culture, complex etiquette, and fascinating history, Japan is a country that rewards a little extra homework. Read on and discover what you can do from home to get the most out of your first time to Japan.
Plan your first time in Japan
Learn about Japanese etiquette before your first time to Japan
As guests in another country, one of the best ways to ingratiate ourselves with locals is to learn what is considered polite and impolite in their culture.
Before Covid-19 brought international travel to a grinding halt, Japan was suffering from the negative effects of overtourism; so much so that the Japanese media coined the phrase kankō kōgai, meaning tourism pollution. There were reports of maiko (trainee geishas) being harassed in Kyoto, sacred sights being overrun with cruise passengers, and tourists trespassing on agricultural land in Hokkaido.
Covid may have pressed pause on this worrying trend for now, but tourists will return. When travel restarts, it will be more important than ever for tourists to learn about etiquette when planning a trip to Japan.
Japanese etiquette is fairly complex, but no one expects you to know everything. Below I have highlighted the most important aspects of etiquette to remember when traveling to Japan for the first time.
Wear your nicest socks because you will need to take your shoes off
You must always take your shoes off when entering someone’s home but you also need to take your shoes off in some restaurants. If you do need to take your shoes off, make sure you step out of your shoes directly onto the clean area (usually a raised step), and then place your shoes into a small locker. Most of the time there will be slippers for you to wear, but these can sometimes be too small for westerners. It may seem odd to be walking around a restaurant in your socks or a pair of slippers, but you soon get used to it. It’s also important to note that there are separate slippers to use in the bathroom.
Don’t play with your chopsticks
Chopsticks are an important feature of Japanese funeral rituals and there are a couple of things that are therefore considered very rude at mealtimes. The first is passing food from one pair of chopsticks to another. If you’re sharing food, you should place the food straight onto the other person’s plate, and it is good manners to use the other end of your chopsticks to do this. The second is leaving your chopsticks upright in your rice. Instead, place your chopsticks on the chopstick rest or lay them side by side on the top of your bowl or plate.
Stay still when eating outside
While there are many tasty and affordable options for grabbing food on the go, such as convenience stores and food stalls, the Japanese tend to frown upon eating while walking. To avoid this common tourist blunder, you can eat your food inside the convenience store if there’s seating, eat standing outside the food stall, or find a bench or park and eat there.
If you are ever unsure about what is considered impolite, keep a close eye on the locals and do what they do!
Train travel is a quiet affair
Japan is my favourite country to travel by train and that is due in no small part to how clean, quiet and peaceful they are. Passengers have their phones on silent (or manner mode, as it’s called in Japan), do not take phone calls, and keep conversations to a low volume. While Japanese people are not generally confrontational, talking loudly or answering your phone on the train is a sure-fire way to get you at least a mildly aggressive stare. If you take the shinkansen (bullet train), you are allowed to talk on the phone, but only in the space between carriages.
Learn a few phrases
Japanese people are generally very gracious when it comes to travellers struggling to speak Japanese, and a few polite phrases will go a long way.
Let’s face it though, speaking another language can be a daunting and nerve-wracking experience. I always feel more comfortable and less self-conscious when I have some familiarity with pronunciation and intonation. Luckily there’s a fun way to do this: watch films and TV shows! There are tons of Japanese series and films on Netflix and travelers in the UK and Ireland can subscribe to Screen Anime’s online film festival. Another great way to practice your pronunciation and learn useful phrases ahead of your trip is with YouTube videos such as Obaachan’s Class, JapanesePod101 and Yuko Sensei.
English isn’t widely spoken in Japan, especially outside of the main tourist hubs, so having a handful of everyday phrases under your belt will be incredibly helpful. It also shows the people you interact with that you’ve made the effort to learn about their culture and language. Read my article, How to Learn a Language Before You Travel for more ideas to help you learn Japanese before your first time to Japan.
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The Curious Traveler’s 5 Step Guide to More Meaningful Trips
Join a virtual experience or take a virtual tour before your first time in Japan
For obvious reasons, virtual tours and experiences have become particularly popular in 2020. While we may associate them with escapism and armchair travel at the moment, virtual tours are also a great way to do some research and planning for a future trip to Japan.
Virtual tours of large museums like Tokyo National Museum can help you prioritise what you would like to see when you’re able to visit in person. Tohoku X Tokyo has created a series of videos comparing Tokyo and the Tohoku region which might inspire you to add some less famous destinations to your itinerary. If you’re excited to take the train in Japan (and you should be!), you can watch this surprisingly mesmerising live feed of the train tracks at Hamamatsuchō station in Tokyo. For those who plan to travel with children, Kids Web Japan is an excellent resource with manga depicting seasonal events, basic language lessons, quizzes, and simple recipes.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is a must-visit for anyone who wants to learn more about the horrific events of August 1945, and travellers can start learning from home through the museum’s Peace Database. The database includes photographs of artefacts, drawings by survivors, and fascinating but harrowing survivor testimonies.
All the above suggestions are free, but if you would like to get a little more hands-on, try origami lessons and a virtual Mt Fuji climb with Airbnb’s knowledgeable hosts. This is a great way to immerse yourself in Japanese culture whilst also supporting instructors and guides whose businesses have suffered due to lack of tourism.
Explore through TV shows, films, and books before your first time in Japan
Two of my favourite Japanese shows on Netflix are Midnight Diner and Aggretsuko. Midnight Diner is a quirky series following the lives of various colourful characters who frequent a late-night izakaya (Japanese pub/bar) run by the enigmatic “master.” As well as being highly entertaining, this is a great show for learning about Japanese cuisine, as each episode is centred around a different Japanese dish. At first glance, Aggretsuko might seem like a cutesy anime (all the characters are animals, after all!), but in actual fact, this cartoon is a humorous and heartfelt portrayal of contemporary Japanese society and the pressure it puts on women in particular.
For documentaries that focus on specific aspects of Japanese culture, check out Little Miss Sumo (Netflix), Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Prime Video), and The Birth of Sake (Prime Video).
For the bookworms amongst you, Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei tells the fascinating story of the first woman to climb the Seven Summits. Strange Weather in Tokyo is a charming novel that will have you booking an izakaya food tour after reading the mouthwatering descriptions of these atmospheric Japanese bars.
Consider buying a JR Pass for your first time to Japan
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, experiencing the iconic bullet train is probably high up on your list of things to do. The shinkansen is certainly a marvel of engineering, but it is expensive, with a return trip from Tokyo to Osaka coming to a hefty $280. The JR Pass is an excellent way to save money and a convenient way to travel as you don’t have to buy multiple tickets and can even use it on some buses.
The most popular destinations to visit with a JR Pass are Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima, but you could also consider adding Nagoya or Kobe to your itinerary. Or, to get even further off the beaten path, you could purchase a regional JR Pass and explore destinations such as Okayama in the west or Aomori in the north.
The JR pass doesn’t allow you to ride the Nozomi, Japan’s fastest bullet train, but with speeds of up to 178 mph, the Hikari is a more than acceptable substitute.
Get organised if you’re a Totoro fan
For any Studio Ghibli fans, a visit to the enchanting Ghibli museum in a quiet Tokyo suburb is a must. Tickets are surprisingly cheap at $10 for adults, but you need to be organised as you cannot buy tickets at the museum itself. Fortunately, it’s easy to purchase tickets online up to three months in advance. Be sure and plan ahead for the day you would like to visit as the tickets are not flexible.
This may seem like a lot of effort for a museum, but trust me, it’s worth it! The attention to detail throughout the museum is astounding. Your ticket grants you entrance to an exclusive short film in the beautiful theatre, and the gift shop has got to be one of the best museum gift shops on the planet, selling only Studio Ghibli approved merchandise.
Develop a taste for Japanese cuisine
First-time visitors to Japan may be nervous about eating with chopsticks so it’s a good idea to get some practice at home (make sure you avoid the faux pas I mentioned above!), and it’s also a great excuse to eat some Japanese food. If there are any Japanese restaurants in your area, see if they deliver, or try your hand at some simple Japanese recipes. Dishes that don’t require special ingredients include omurice and fruit sandwiches. If you’re able to access an Asian supermarket, you could try making something like Japanese curry or yaki onigiri.
Get a head start from home
As you can see, there are many things you can do from home to ensure that you have the best possible experience in Japan. Not only will these activities add to your understanding of Japanese culture, but they also add to the anticipation of what will undoubtedly be a life-changing trip. Explore these resources from home and you’ll get the most out of your trip to Japan.
32 thoughts on “First Time to Japan: the Guide for Curious Travelers”
This is such helpful information! Some of these things aren’t things I would think to find out ahead of time. I will bookmark this for when we travel to Japan. Thanks!
I’m glad you found it helpful, Julie! @desserthighway included such useful information in this post!
this is superrrrr helpful & i actually hope to see more people writing blogs like this. i think taking some time, pre-trip, to understand a bit of the culture, customs & language, only means a better trip for you!
Thank you very much, Shelley! I agree completely, that is precisely what inspired this whole website. 🙂 I am grateful to each of our guest writers for sharing their personal expertise since it can take months (or years!) of research to discover the most important gems to pass along.
It would be so neat to visit Japan, but not knowing the language is terrifying to me. I like that you mentioned watching movies to learn a few key phrases. My son and I watch Peppa Pig in Spanish to help us with learning. The story line is so simple that we can usually follow along ok.
What a great way to learn Spanish with your son! Language learning is hard, finding good tips can make a big difference. There are many enjoyable ways to learn a new language, and this same guest author, @desserthighway, wrote a whole post for us about language learning for travel! I think you’ll love her suggestions!
I’d love to visit Japan one day so this is such a handy guide. I had no idea about not walking while eating. I love learning about these kinds of cultural differences. I think I’m definitely going to have to check out some of those virtual tours until I can get to Japan
We are hoping to go in a couple of years too. In the meantime, we have been enjoying many of the suggestions in this article. It is packed with such fantastic ideas to explore!
So so lovely! Prior to 2020 we had all these aspirations to get to Japan ASAP. I’m dying to see the cherry blossoms and we love the culture. Lol good sock tip! That’s always a worry of mine anywhere we go hahaha. There is so much to learn about etiquette so I guess I have some brushing up to do! Great advice!
I hope you get to go once things open up, Sarah! And that you can enjoy some of these suggestions from home before then!
I wholeheartedly believe in preparing yourself before any trip, since understanding the culture will give you a much fulfilling trip. These tips are amazing! I’m definitely saving the post for when I start researching for Japan
Me too Coni, a deeper understanding truly enhances the entire trip! I am really glad that you also found the suggestions from @desserthighway helpful and inspiring.
Wow a few of these are things I wouldn’t even have thought about. Thank you for the useful information! It’s so important to be aware of the etiquette in a location before traveling! Very useful post!
I agree, Lily! Learning etiquette is essential. I’m so pleased that you also found the post helpful!
My husband has been talking about wanting to visit Japan lately, but he’s a little worried about the language barrier and accidentally offending someone. So your etiquette part of this guide is awesome for us. Thank you
Thanks Katherine, that is great news! I hope you can travel to Japan soon and utilize some of this excellent advice.
So much of the etiquette that I did not know. I always try to be a conscientious tourist, so these tips are helpful.
I also always try to be a conscientious tourist and am so grateful that Shannon shared her expertise is this guest post. I’m glad you learned a lot, so did I!
Yep!! Will definitely save for future use! Planning to go to Japan and it helped me a lot to plan better.
I am so glad it is helpful with your Japan trip planning and hope you get to go soon!
omg, i love midnight diner too! it’s a bummer that there are only 3+2 seasons of them. I wished there would be more!
It is an excellent show, I wish there were more seasons too!
Seriously helpful tips! Japan is definitely on my Bucket list now
I’m happy you found them helpful, Shannon shared so many great ideas!
I can tell I would be very happy in Japan with their mobile phone etiquette on trains. My pet hate is people having conversations on their phone in public.
I would have learned the hard way about making sure I am wearing socks that don’t have my big toe poking through.
Great tips. I have saved this post for future reference and will be sure to share with friends when we can travel again.
I am happy you found these tips helpful, there are a lot of subtleties and it’s so useful to get an insider’s suggestions. I hope you someday enjoy a trip to Japan, including peaceful rides on the trains!
I don’t know if I’ll get to Japan anytime soon but will save these tips. Now I have some great ideas for books to read and I will for sure check out Midnight Diner on Netflix!
Enjoy the trip planning Melinda! I am a big fan of extending the joy of trips for for months or years– so now is the perfect time to start Midnight Diner!
Definitely need to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum! And would love to do a sushi making class if there’s ever a vegan version! 🙂
We have similar tastes! The Studio Ghibli Museum is on our family’s list and we just had a big vegan sushi dinner last night. 🙂 Happy travel planning!
Its my dream to travel to Japan. You shared some amazing things here I didint know about. Really enjoyed reading your blog
Thanks a lot, I am so happy you enjoyed it! This was a guest post by a @desserthighway and I agree, she shared a lot of excellent ideas.