japan travel guide

29 surprising travel tips for first-time visitors to Japan

Are you thinking about traveling to Japan soon?

Worried about its crime?

Concerned it is too expensive to visit?

Believe it or not, many of these concerns about Japan are a myth.

I love visiting Japan. It is one of my favorite places to travel.

Listed below are 29 tips, tricks and surprises I have picked up from visiting Japan over the years:

What form of currency is used in Japan?

The Japanese currency is called the yen (a.k.a. JPY).

One yen corresponds to 100 sen. (But sen is no longer used in most everyday life.)

Bills come in 1,000 yen, 2,000 yen (rare), 5,000 yen and 10,000 yen denominations.

Coins come in 1 yen, 5 yen, 10 yen, 50 yen, 100 yen and 500 yen denominations.

Counterfeit money is not an issue in Japan.

Converting money for travel to Japan

Yes, we can bring US dollars and convert them to yen. Typically, hotels have exchange machines for this.

When we do not have US dollars, I find it is best to use ATM withdrawals in Japan. It gives us a slightly better exchange rate than other options.

ATMs are pronounced as “Ei-Tee-Emu”.

Make sure to alert your bank of your travel plans to Japan or they might think your card is stolen.

Post office ATMs in Japan often give us the lowest fees to withdraw yen. The downside is post offices carry limited amounts of foreign currency notes. Both terminals at Narita International Airport have a post office.

Always check credit card and debit card fees in advance. For example, my debit card charges 1%, yet credit cards charge 3%.

I avoid exchange currency booths – this is usually the most expensive option.

Japan is mainly a cash-carrying economy (although they are slowly moving to a cashless society like the rest of us). Small shops and restaurants are slow to accept our credit cards. Plus, paying for goods with a credit card usually carries at least a 3% fee.

Typically, buying yen is cheaper than selling yen…

The best place to exchange back yen to dollars is (once again) at a post office.

For large amounts, we might convert the remaining yen into an International Postal Money Order (a.k.a. IPMO). Each money order has an upper limit of $700 per check. And yes, we can draft many checks at once.

By US law, we can bring back up to $6,000 USD to the States.

WARNING: avoid exchanging money from yen to dollars in the States. This is a surefire way to lose a significant percent of the money.

This Japanese money converter tells us how many yen we can get for each US dollar:

Remember, when the yen is “weak” (less than 100 yen per US dollar), we get to buy more stuff after exchanging US dollars to yen.

The safe way to carry money to Japan

I have tried cheap wallets.

And I have carried expensive wallets.

But my wallet of choice these days is this one – and it is awesome.

Even better, it is less than $15.

I bought this last year. And today, it still looks brand new.

I brag about this wallet to everyone I know. I still cannot believe I have a genuine leather wallet for less than $15.

For the ladies, a cross-body travel bag is the way to go.

This bag gets lots of thumbs up – and the price cannot be beat. Many people say this is the perfect travel bag.

The “secret” pocket in the back holds our passport. Five other pockets securely hold our phone, wallet, sunglasses, pens, cords, thumb drives and keys. The front zippered compartment is great for loose change – even gum.

List of the busiest airports in Japan

list busiest airports in japan
Nearly all major airlines and airports offer flights to Japan.

The country’s own two leading airlines, Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA), serve a broad range of destinations.

Japan’s busiest international airport is Tokyo’s Narita Airport, followed by Osaka’s Kansai Airport. Tokyo’s busiest airport is Haneda Airport and Nagoya’s Central Japan Airport.

Japan’s next largest airport is Fukuoka Airport. It links the city with several Asian destinations. Many other Japanese airports have a small number of international flights, mainly to Korea and China.

Almost all Japan’s airports are modern, efficient and clean.

There are clocks EVERYWHERE the eye can see. But make sure to get good at subtracting 12 – all clocks display in military time.

Surprisingly, there are few places for recharging screens and devices.

And airport stores and restaurants all close at the same time. After that, we have to wait until the morning for them to reopen.

Japan’s high tech shines in their airports. Instant-read scanners even verify carry-on liquids on the fly. (Unfortunately, we have to pour all liquids out for inspection here in the States.)

Since weather delays are common in Japan, airport employees go the extra mile to accommodate travelers during delays.

They even proactively look for damaged travel gear before we even notice ourselves. We had a replacement suitcase in minutes – paperwork already filled out and a smile on her face.

Japan’s airports feature LOTS of food… especially seafood.

And they are good at wrapping things to go. In fact, they wrap it so well, it was still cold hours later.

Ramen is the food of choice – choose from over 50 types.

Unlike the States, Japan’s airports feature local, independent eats – no corporate chain food in sight.

How to ride the JR Yamanote Rail Line

The easiest train to travel in Tokyo is the JR Yamanote Rail Line.

It is an oval shape that loops around all the stops in the city of Tokyo. It is impossible to get lost – hop on the wrong direction and we end up where we started.

With that said, it is best to remember how to get to the hotel from one of these rail line stops.

One-way fares on bullet trains are expensive…

But a JR Pass gets us unlimited train travel and saves us a ton of money. It is available as a Single, Day and Weekly rail pass.

Trains are almost always on time in Japan. In the rare times it is not, a “time delay slip” is given to passengers as proof the train was late.

Travelers can take advantage of color-coordinated floor tiles (or foot prints) to be guided to the next train platform.

Taxi tips in Japan

After midnight, the rail system shuts down. This makes taxis in high demand early in the morning.

Look for taxi stands near train stations or a major venue.

A red sign means the taxi is vacant. Green or yellow text means the taxi is occupied.

It is proper etiquette to have the taxi driver open and close the doors.

Have the final destination written on a piece of paper (or pointed out on a map).

All passengers in taxis are expected to wear a seat belt.

Taxi drivers in Japan are (mostly) honest. When we forget stuff, we often get it back. (So make sure to include a phone number on everything.)

Japan’s lost and found department is great

The people of Japan respect other people’s property.

If we lose something in Japan, odds are good it will get returned to us.

My wife and her brother (children at the time) forgot their portable game on a ferry boat. After a while, they realized they left it and came to find it sitting exactly where they left it.

Every day, more than 5,000 items find their way into the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Lost and Found Center.

Even money is returned. More than 72 percent was given back to their owners.

If property is left unclaimed for more than 6 months, the finders get to keep it.

How do we say lost and found in Japanese? It is “Ushinawareta to hakken”.

Weather in Japan

Japan has a moderate, comfortable climate year round.

It is like weather in Washington, D.C.

June thru August is hot averaging 86°. July is Japan’s rainy season.

December thru February can get as cold as 29°. And much like here in the States, the shortest day of the year ends with a sunset at 5 o’clock.

Be careful booking a trip to Japan in the winter as it is typhoon season and can delay flights.

Japan’s earthquake and volcano facts

Japan has lots of ground activity:

There are over 200 volcano eruptions and over 1,500 earthquakes in Japan every year.

Deconstructing basic Japanese languages

Japanese writing has 3 different writing scripts:

– Hiragana
– Katakana
– Kanji

Hiragana is the most basic language used in Japan.

Katakana is used for sounds, actions, and foreign things.

Kanji is the biggest and most complex of the three (originating from Chinese characters).

Japanese writing is so complex it is fully learned by the time the person is out of high school. Despite the challenging languages, the literacy in rate is practically 100%.

Useful Japanese words for travel

A big city like Tokyo have some understanding of English…

But for everywhere else, it is good to know these common Japanese words:

Hai – Yes
Ie – No
Sumimasen – Excuse me
Gomennasai – Sorry
Domo Arigato Gozaimas – polite “thank you very much” (Domo alone is used as thank you as well)
Eigo – English
Nihongo – Japanese
Wakarimas/Wakarimasen – Understand (Adding “sen” at the end means to not understand)
Doko Deska – Where is it?
Otearai – Bathroom or the easier Toire – Toilet

Is shopping in Japan expensive?

Japan has a reputation as being an expensive place to shop.

It is true: movie tickets, fruit and skin-care products are indeed expensive in Japan.

Products in Japan are usually better made than here in the States. And as a result, the prices are a bit higher.

On the flip side, meat, pizza and almost anything takeout are value priced.

And the customer service is far superior than here in the States. When walking into a store, we will hear “Irasshaimase” which translates to “welcome to the store” or “come on in”. This is not just a formality… employees make us feel welcome to be there.

Buying a souvenir in Japan is an incredible experience. Store employees meticulously wrap our gifts – making the item look neat and well protected.

The price of food in Japan

A common misconception is food is expensive in Japan.

It is no different than eating here in the States.

We can eat 30-dollar dishes. But we can find a quick 5-dollar meal, too.

Tokyo offers a lot of familiar fast food and chains as well. Everything from Outback Steakhouse (and of course McDonald’s).

Save a lot of money at Japan’s 100 yen shops

100 yen shops (a.k.a. hyaku en shop) are just like the dollar stores we have here in the States.

They sell meals, groceries, water, toiletries and household items.

While visiting Japan, ask a hotel receptionist for the closest/best 100 yen shop.

What are public bathrooms like in Japan?

Public bathrooms in Japan are common and well taken care of.

There are two styles to choose from: a traditional Japanese toilet (floor level and requires squatting) and Western-style (what we use here in the States).

Most modern facilities like department stores, larger train stations and hotels will have western-style toilets.

Roads often have rest stops, with at least a couple of restrooms.

When using a toilet in a convenience store, gas station, or government building, it is considered good manners to ask permission to use their bathroom: “Toire kashite kudasai” should suffice.

Hong Kong tends to have better public bathrooms than Tokyo.

And bathrooms tend to be modern in design…

Japanese high tech toilet seat

These “washlets” have options for jets of water and temperature, like a bidet.

Some have temperature controlled jets.

I even tried out toilets that had seat warmers.

Some even had sound effects like running water.

Vending machines are everywhere in Japan

I saw a LOT of vending machines during my visit to Japan.

Most had cigarettes and drinks…

But there are lots of unusual vending items including:

– rice
– batteries
– crepes (chocolate, chocolate banana with whip cream, peach, rare cheese, etc.)
– flowers
– green tea
– pantyhose
– eggs
– eye glasses
– beer & liquor
– pocket books
– fried junk food
– umbrellas
– milk
– mineral iced cubes
– cars (yes, cars)
– sushi
– fishing bait
– All flavors of Cup Noodles
– ramen in a can
– udon and soba noodles
– energy drinks
– condoms
– fermented soy beans (only open 3 hours a day)

Japan is one of the safest places on Earth

Japan has been the ranked one of the most peaceful countries in the world.

Osaka and Tokyo are also often in the top 10 safest cities.

In fact, Japan is so safe, we regularly saw 6-year olds riding the trains without an adult.

Why is crime in Japan so low?

It has to do with the Japanese concept of the Insider vs. the Outsider. This concept puts the group’s well-being above that of the individual. If a person did something criminal, that person was cast out of the village and would become an Outsider.

As a result…

No one is disruptive in Japan

We almost never see fights or disruptive behavior on the street.

Bicycles are safe in Japan

Besides low crime, bike theft is virtually nonexistent.

In fact, when a bike gets stolen, it often makes the news.

Cook your own food in Japan

Hostels include kitchens where we can cook and cut our food expenses to less than 745 JPY per day.

Combining this with shopping at the 100 Yen Stores drastically cuts the cost to live in Japan.

Eat traditional Japanese meals to save money on food

Cheap eats can be found when eating food in a bowl in Japan.

This includes curry, ramen, and donburi.

Curry bowls cost as little as 370 JPY per plate.

Donburi (bowls of meat and rice) cost as little as 830 JPY.

Ramen is never more than 870 JPY.

Where to eat Fugu in Japan

Fugu is blowfish (a.k.a. puffer fish).

Chefs are required to invest up to 10 years of training to properly prepare it.

Because blowfish livers, ovaries and skin contain “Tetrodotoxin”. This is a substance that is 100 times more lethal than cyanide.

These days, chefs are now prohibited from serving fugu liver.

With that said, the death toll is low…

On average, 6 people die each year from eating Fugu. And dozens of people get food poisoning from eating it. That is not so bad considering Japan’s population is well over 100,000,000 people.

But, its “dangerous” reputation makes Fugu expensive to consume – costing up to $450.00 per serving.

Still interested in eating this highly toxic fish?

If so, Fukunoie Tanaka is regarded as the finest Fugu restaurant. It is in Sapporo. They serve only the finest Tora Fugu (which is delivered alive daily to the restaurant).

Surprising Japanese dining etiquette

In Japan, it is not rude to make noises when they eat.

For example, slurping noodles in a loud way is taken as a compliment to the chef.

Fast food restaurants in Japan

Japan loves their fast food as much as we do here in the States.

Believe it or not, Kentucky Fried Chicken is a common Christmas dinner in Japan.

And it serves beer, too!

Americans love their sugary sodas, but in Japan they love their tea and juices.

Japan’s 7-11 food is great

Get quick, good food from a familiar Logo.

7-11s are all around Japan.

And it features good meals on the cheap like Yakisoba (noodle stir fry), rice – even sushi.

Trust me, if you are in Japan and are hungry, stop at a 7-11 and enjoy.

Drinking alcohol is common in Japan

In Japan, when the boss invites workers for drinks, it is respectful to tag along.

Many businessmen litter the streets in failed attempts at making it back home.

Funny Japanese English translations

For example, t-shirts often display English backwards, misspelled, or grammatically incorrect.

Comics are popular in Japan

Manga is a Japanese word referring both to comics (or cartooning).

Anime is animated comics.

And manga is read by almost everyone in Japan. It is one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Manga is an integral part of modern Japanese life and culture.

Why is there no tipping in Japan?

Believe it or not, it is rude to tip servers in Japan.

If you insist on tipping, it should be in an envelope (as it is considered rude to give cash directly from your pocket).

The people of Japan are politically correct

Kotobagar is a Japanese word referring to the reluctance to use words that are considered politically incorrect.

In simple speak, the people of Japan do not judge.

People keep their opinions to themselves…

For example, men can wear a schoolgirl uniform and makeup (or anything else they want).

Also, censorship is rare in Japan.

The people of Japan wear surgical masks

The most common reason people in Japan wear surgical masks out in public is because they are sick.

Chances are it is not some life threatening, dangerous or debilitating illness. They are just wearing the mask to be considerate of others and to help contain the spread of germs.

Some masks are even trendy – emblazoned with cute designs on them.

Japan has cute stuff

Japan’s entire society is in love with cute things.

Even simple barricades have cute smiley faces or animal shapes.

“Kawaii” means “cute” and is said to be the highest compliment we can give anything.

Japan loves umbrellas

If there is even a slight chance of rain, the people in Japan take an umbrella on their travels.

Japanese work ethics vs. American ethics

The one biggest difference between the people of Japan and America is the work ethic.

The people of Japan work so much, they regularly die from overwork.

This is so common that there is a phrase for it: “Karoshi” which literally means “Death from overwork”.

Japanese punctuality and professionalism

The people of Japan have been trained from birth to be punctual.

In fact, people who show up to work on time are considered late. Because showing up as early as possible is common practice.

The #1 secret of Japanese longevity

There are more centenarians (people living over 100) living in Okinawa, Japan than anywhere else in the world.

Over 50,000 Japanese residents live well beyond age 100.

What is so special about Okinawa? Some say there is a possible link in Okinawa’s coral calcium. Other researchers believe people live longer there because of the high amounts of sea weed consumed that is high in natural iodine.

Published by

Robert Lego

Robert Lego is the editor and publisher of RobertLego.org.


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