21 Things to Know Before Going to Japan


21 things to know before going to japan

that may or may not be helpful


To my friends that are visiting Japan in the upcoming months - I am so, so extremely jealous and you all make me reconsider my spring break plans. Please have the time of your life and I hope I can provide some insight and tips on things to know before going to Japan!

I don't think any amount of photos or text can adequately prepare for the "culture shock", but I do think that going in with an open mind and a little mental prep can do wonders. Here are some bits that I find useful to know before heading out to the great land of Nippon!!! 

Bonus: If you read 'till the end, there's my favorite tip that tops all other 21! ;)

1. caSh rules everything

GET A COIN PURSE!!! Japan's pretty old school with handling money - most transactions are through bills and coins. Don't underestimate the power of the coin, because unlike America they have 100 yen and 500 yen (USD $1 and $5) coins that are usually overlooked. 7-11 will be your best friend - their ATMs will take your American cards and you can withdraw/deposit with ease. 

2. Plan like a boss 

Seriously, this one is actually pretty important!!! There's literally SO much to do in Japan it's overwhelming and you'll feel like an idiot if you underplan and realize you've missed x y and z. One of my favorite things about Japan (that I miss the most) are their accurate train schedules - trains are never late by a minute. That means you can really plan your trip down to a T and make sure you hit all the good stuff! Also depending on what time of the year you go, lots of ryokans, hotels, good airBnBs, and ticketed events get booked really quickly so be sure to be on top of your game. 

Hyperdia is a lifesaver and has all Japanese train time tables. Click here! 

Photo credit:  eastcoastgab

Photo credit: eastcoastgab

3. Pocket wifi will save your life

Do this. Please. Instead of buying a SIM card, consider renting a pocket wifi. They're essentially tiny, techy blocks the size of a portable charger that you carry around and connect to your phone via WiFi. No calls or SMS, but you'll have Internet access (most Japanese usually communicate through LINE anyway). I recommend reserving yours online and picking it up at the airport. There are tons of great pocket wifi companies. Price ranges from $10/day ~ $50/mo. 

3A. Download LINE (messenger app)

Just like Koreans use KaoKao, Europe uses WhatsApp, and China uses WeChat - Japan uses LINE! Especially if you're opting for the WiFi-no-SIM-card option, I highly reccommend using LINE as your main messenger. Japanese use LINE for everything - even group chats for work hehe. You'll receive an activation code to your phone #, so make sure to download before landing in Japan. Also "What's your LINE?" = "What's your number?" and everybody uses the QR code scanner to add friends.

Photocredit:  hippocketwifi

Photocredit: hippocketwifi

LINE friends

4. Buy a JR Pass

Can't stress this enough. It's about $250 for a 1-week JR pass, which means unlimited rides on any JR train including the shinkansen, bullet train (but not including the Nozomi). If you're smart and aren't spending your whole trip in central Tokyo, round trip shinkansen tickets from Tokyo to Osaka already make the JR pass worth it (about $150 one way). Plus you get free ferry ride access if you go to Hiroshima!

For this tip I was lucky enough to have a wonderful contributor who caught a small edit I overlooked. Read her contribution below. Thanks, Dianne!

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5. Don't overpack!! 

Depending on your taste, Japan can be pretty inexpensive. Make sure you leave lots of room for souvenirs, and don't forget that you can actually buy toiletries there! Unless you're like me and annoying and stubborn about certain things, don't be afraid to leave your towel/shampoo/qtips/etc at home because you can easily buy everything and more in Japan for cheap. There are a ton of pharmacies, 100 yen stores ($1 stores), convenient stores, and megastores (Don Quixote) to buy necessities.

6. Japan has no subtitles

Those 2.5 Japanese phrases you think you know but are afraid to say aloud because you think it'll expose your weird anime-obsession and reflect poorly on those Japanese classes in highschool?????? Now's the time to use them because, especially when you aren't in Tokyo, everything is Japanese. Main signs and train stations are in English... but beyond that, goodluck!
Here's a few handy phrases (parenthesis isn't necessary, but +1 for politeness):

  • "Arigato (Gozaimashita)" = Thank you

  • "Sumimasen (desihita)" = Excuse me/sorry/literally you can say this after anything even if its good

  • "Kore wa nan desuka" = What is this

  • "Koko wa doko desuka" = Where is this, assuming you're pointing at a map/image/something

Street in Osaka
Japanese food menu

7. Onsen etiquette 

Please enjoy Japan's amaaaazing hotsprings without being gross and terrible. If there's one thing Japanese people are pretty snooty about, I think this might be it. I'll write a more in-depth how-to sometime down the road, but just know the following!

  • Naked in the dressing room area, put your clothes in the lockers or open basket. You can bring your tiny towel into the bathing area with you, but not the big one.

  • WASH. YO. SELF. GOOD. Shower yourself because no one wants to bathe in American stink.

  • Long hair = tie it up.

  • Shampoo, conditioner, and soap are usually provided. Try the spa cleansers if they have any!

  • No tattoos - try covering them with towels or big wrap bandages or you might get kicked out

Kusatsu onsen sunset
Onsen etiquette

8. No shoes 

Just like all Asian households (even in America), no shoes in the house. But actually - no shoes in the house. Take your shoes off and point them nicely off to the side so they're (lengthwise) parallel to the door. Ultimate courtesy. Also sometimes no shoes in restaurants - just be careful.

no shoes in Japan

9. Foreigners are aliens

If you ask a Japanese person on the street any sort of question, 9/10 times they'll pretend like they can't understand you and won't be able to help you. Even if they speak native-level English. On the slight chance they do answer, they'll probably only look at the Asian person in the group so don't feel offended. 

10. Japanese are kinda racist

Being in NYC, sometimes you need to tip toe your way around things you say/do because of the 90% possibility it'll offend someone. Japan's population is 98.5% Japanese, meaning there's basically unlimited freedom to think however they want about the rest of the world... imagine that. 

11. Osaka + Kyoto + Kobe 

Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe (and Nara) are all actually pretty close to each other center-to-center. If you're on a tight schedule, I'd say station yourself at Osaka so you have a short commute to both Kobe and Kyoto. I always recommend taking the Hankyu train (not JR) from Osaka straight into Kyoto or Kobe. From Umeda Station (Osaka) to Kawaramachi Station (Kyoto) is about 30ish minutes. From Umeda Station (Osaka) to Sannomiya Station (Kobe) is also about 30ish minutes. 

Photocredit:  _y_o_s_h_i___

Photocredit: _y_o_s_h_i___

12. Toilet holes

Japan has great high-tech toilets I decided to leave off the list because everyone knows about 'em. But sometimes the toilet is a hole in the ground. Squatty hole. Make sure your pants don't get in your pee stream, and make sure you don't accidentally step into the hole! :)


13. Taxi doors open by themselves

So after you finish loading your luggage, wait for the door to open and close by itself. 

14. Osaka + tokyo differences

Osaka beats Tokyo. Infinitely. ;) I like comparing the Osaka/Tokyo relationship to the NYC/LA relationship - competitive but both great cities in their own ways. Osaka people are louder, definitely more obnoxious, and definitely more "human" than Tokyo. Osaka people stand on the right side (again, more human) and Tokyo stand on the left. Osaka has great food everywhere. Tokyo has more foreigners and ~wild 'nd crazy kawaii omg Mario gokart!" things to do.

15. Photography rule

General rule is no photography in temples or shrines, graveyards, etc. If you see a really neat alleyway or something, don't point your camera in peoples' face and take photos without asking. Lots of small shops also prohibit photography..... but if you ask nice enough, they might let you! 

16. It's tricky being vegetarian

And even trickier to be vegan. Everybody eats rice and fish. Fish and rice. Ramen using some sort of meat broth. There are definitely ways to get around this, but it limits the already limited food selection (especially coming from NYC). The safest option, or so I've heard, is soba and udon (that isn't pictured below, sorry!).


17.Convenience Store food is good

7-11 food doesn't taste like ass, and all convenience stores run out of good conbini food after 8pm. American Dogs (corndogs) are really good. If you buy a bento they'll usually give you the option to heat it up at the register - if not, you can just ask. (Also weird: in Sapporo they ask if you want your onigiri heated.)


18. very drunk salary men

Especially in Tokyo, you'll see a lot of drunk men that are properly dressed in full on suits completely plastered on the floor. This happens Friday - Sunday after 10:00pm, peak hour 12:15am right before the last train. They'll be on the floor, sprawled across the subway seats, etc etc. Don't be scared.

Photocredit: shibuyameltdown

Photocredit: shibuyameltdown

Photocredit: shibuyameltdown

Photocredit: shibuyameltdown

19. Don't wait for your waiter

At most restaurants after you sit down, your waiter will come over to you and give you oshibori, towels. That's basically your only window of opportunity to ask for a water, beer, etc. until you have to flag them down yourselves. Note: you usually need to ask for water or there's a self serve station. When you're ready to order, just shout (yes shout) "Su-mi-ma-sen" to grab someone's attention. Or just raise your hand and grab their attention. The eye contact thing has a 15% success rate.

20. vending machine restaurants

In some restaurants, especially ramen spots, you'll be greeted with a giant vending machine outside the door, or right when you step into the shop. That's where you order your food - insert your money, bring the ticket inside, then you hand it to the guy over the counter or a waiter will come collect it from you. Usually the latter. If you mess up, just go in and tell the guy and they'll help you.

Photocredit:  catieprendergast

Photocredit: catieprendergast

21. Food etiquette is important

!FOOD ETIQUETTE! Very important. Don't walk on the streets + eat. Don't eat on any mode of public transportation (unless it's a bullet train or airplane). Don't stick your chopsticks straight into your rice bowl and leave them there. Don't pass food with chopsticks. Don't stick chopsticks in your mouth and act like a walrus. The infinite debate of OK/not OK to leave food: I think it's OK to leave food on your plate if its a "fast" food or chain restaurant, NOT OK if you're at a fancy place where the chef preps in front of you. Do what you feel is right!


bonus. japanese people are human

Traveling by yourself to Japan can be scary - especially when you don't speak the language - but that shouldn't discourage you from enjoying yourself. You're in a new country surrounded by a new culture and language... embrace it! If you get frustrated, lost, and start to feel alone - don't worry, it's 500% normal. Don't let the language barrier set you that much apart from everybody because at the end of the day, emotions translate better than any words could ever. 

I hope these tips helped! You can find a bunch of other great tips through a quick "things to know before going to Japan" google search, but hopefully there's some stuff here that's a little more difficult to come across. Have fun!!

- Emilia Liu, Champloo