First Time to Japan: The Guide for Curious Travelers
Byōdōin temple in Uji, Kyoto, Japan
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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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 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.