30 Things to Know Before Going to Japan – So You Don’t Look Like a Baka Gaijin!

things to know before visiting japan

If you don’t want to look like a baka gaijin (stupid foreigner), here are 30 things to know before going to Japan that will make your trip a smooth sailing one.

tips for travelling japan tips for going to japan

No time to read? Pin these Japan tips for later!

Crucial Things to Know Before Going to Japan

In case you’re new here… Hi, I’m Jas. I grew up in Taiwan just a three-hour flight away from Japan. In other words, I’ve really made this popular destination my own backyard.

When it comes to tips for visiting Japan, I think I’m pretty qualified to offer my two cents. Without further ado, let’s jump straight into today’s topic!

japan trip tips

1. You Don’t Need a Visa…

If you have a valid American or Canadian passport*. You can also stay up to 90 days for tourism purposes.

*Please note that my readers are predominantly North American. For those visiting from elsewhere, I suggest familiarizing yourself with Japan’s entry regulations.

2. Best Time to Visit Japan

In order to plan your Japan itinerary, you need to first determine the best time for visiting Japan.

traveling to japan tips

If you want to chase spring blooms, the end of March to the beginning of April is a beautiful time for enjoying mother nature’s best shows.

tips for travelling to japanCherry blossom season in Kyoto.

If you prefer less crowds, however, you might find January and February to be a quieter time to visit.

At the end of the day, how you plan your trip depends largely on your interests + traveling style. I’ll break everything down from seasonality to crowds in a separate guide. Stay tuned!

3. How Many Days to Spend Where

There’s so much to do in Japan that you won’t be able to check everything off your bucket list in one trip.

tips for japanFind a rental car for your trip.

One of my biggest tips for going to Japan is to not be too ambitious with your itinerary. If it’s your first time in Japan, here are the must-see cities:

  • 3 to 4 days to explore Tokyo‘s major attractions
  • 3 to 4 days to stroll the streets of Kyoto in a kimono
  • 2 days for a shopping spree in Osaka

things to know before traveling to japanNemophila field at Hitachi Seaside Park.

If you have extra time or want to venture outside of Tokyo, I recommend

  • 2 to 3 days in Fujikawaguchiko to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji
  • 1 to 2 days to enjoy Hakone‘s hot springs and museums
  • 1 day to tour Yokohama‘s Chinatown and Ramen Museum
  • 1 to 2 days for temple hopping around Kamakura and Enoshima
  • 2 to 3 days to explore Atami‘s beaches and the Izu Peninsula
  • 1 to 2 days to chase fall foliage and cafe hop around Karuizawa
  • Half to one full day to connect with nature at Hitachi Seaside Park in Ibaraki

4. Book Hotels Directly – and Early!

Compared to other Asian countries, Japan isn’t necessarily the most affordable.

travelling in japan tipsTokyo Tower seen from The Tokyo EDITION, Toranomon*.

One of the most important things to know before visiting Japan is that it is almost always cheaper to book directly on a hotel’s website.

things to know when traveling to japanPrivate onsen at Bosui*.

If you can, browse the hotel’s Japanese site.

I’ve noticed on multiple occasions with different hotels that there’d be no rooms available on the English website. BUT, if I were to search for the exact dates on the Japanese site, I’d suddenly get a list of all available rooms. (Even if you can’t read Japanese, you can do a quick copy + paste into Google Translate.)

*Not me telling you to book directly and linking you to Booking.com, lol! In my defence, you need to see actual guest photos + reviews first before you commit!

visiting japan for the first timeTraditional Japanese meal at BELLUSTAR TOKYO, A Pan Pacific Hotel.

Even though this is extra work, I’ve found hotels to be $50-100 cheaper with these Japan trip tips. If you have the time and patience, why not save money for more yummy food!

things to know before visiting japanBreakfast with a view at The Prince Park Tower Tokyo.

Oh and don’t forget to book well in advance. Not only can you unlock further savings, you have more options to choose from. Traveling is stressful enough, don’t burden yourself with having to find hotels last minute.

5. Pack Appropriate Shoes + Clothes

Wearing comfortable walking shoes might sound like common sense, but it’s one of the easiest Japan vacation tips to overlook. (I for one am guilty of torturing myself to look cute for the gram, oops.)

japan tourist advice

From touring historic temples to indulging in retail therapy, walking 10 to 30k+ steps a day is the norm. (Don’t forget too that there are stairs everywhere at train stations.)

Pack a good pair of sneakers and your feet will thank you!

Dress Modestly

Compared to North America, Japan is relatively conservative.

tips for traveling japan

For ladies, showing a lot of skin (particularly in the upper body area) is considered risqué.

Deep v necks, crop tees… You will rarely ever see these in the streets or being sold in stores. (Ironically, Japanese girls do love wearing short skirts and showing off their legs.)

first time visit to japanCertain activities (such as go-karting) may have specific dress codes. E.g. no open-toe shoes.

Leggings are never worn on their own either. Locals tend to pair these with shorts, skirts, or long tops that cover the crotch area.

Of course, there are exceptions in certain areas like Harajuku where younger generations are more liberal with their fashion style.

If you are visiting a temple or attending a formal event, it’s best to dress modestly.

how to be a good tourist in japan

You might also come across other tips for Japan travel that say men should not wear shorts.

While this might’ve been true a couple decades ago, this is outdated advice. As long as the shorts are not too crazy tight/short, no one will bat an eye at you.

6. Take Advantage of Luggage Forwarding Services

One of my least favorite things to do is switching hotels and lugging my suitcase all over town.

It’s the 21st century. We’re working smarter, not harder. Say goodbye to body aches and send your belongings with a luggage forwarding service like Yamato Transport.

first time japan travel tipsCertain hotels can ship your luggage through their concierge service desk.

Prices vary depending on the size and weight of your suitcase(s). You can ship your luggage

  • From the airport to your hotel or vice versa
  • From one hotel to another
  • To and from a convenience store

The downside is that same-day delivery is not always doable.

first time in japan

If you plan to ship your luggage, pack a small backpack, duffle bag, or tote bag to carry your necessities with you.

For reference, my friend and I recently (April 2024) paid 4,200 yen for one large check-in + one small carry-on from a Yamato Transport office in Kyoto > our hotel in Tokyo. We received them the next day.

7. Learn Basic Japanese

Despite Japan’s passport being so powerful, less than 20% of the population supposedly own one. And because Japan is an isolated island that doesn’t border other countries, locals are even less inclined to learn languages other than their native tongue.

things to not do in japan

While there are many English signs in major cities like Tokyo, you might find it difficult to track down English speakers.

Now you obviously don’t have to be fluent in Japanese to visit Japan. Regardless, it’s a good idea to keep these basic phrases in your back pocket:

  • Konnichiwa – hello
  • Onegai shimasu – please
    • When in a restaurant, point to the dish you want on the menu then add “onegai shimasu” to order
  • Sumimasen – I’m sorry/excuse me
    • You can say this before asking someone for directions or for help
  • Arigatou gozaimasu – thank you
  • Ikura desu ka – how much is it
  • Doko desu ka – where is it
  • Hai – yes
  • Iie – no

things not to do in japan“Shashin daijoubu?*” is another useful phrase for asking if you can take pictures.

*This literally translates into “Photo, okay?” Short and easy to remember, right? If you want to be grammatically correct, use “Shashin o tottemo ii desu ka?” (Can I take a photo?)

8. Purchase an eSIM

Forget carrying physical pocket Wi-Fi devices or switching between SIM cards and potentially losing one.

tips japanGet an eSIM so you can share fun spots (like the adorable Gotokuji Temple) with friends & family.

An eSIM is a digital SIM that allows you to activate a mobile plan.

Airalo is my absolute holy grail. I’ve used it in several countries and never had a problem with speed or connectivity. It’s user-friendly. It’s affordable. Best part is you don’t have to worry about misplacing your regular SIM!

More tips on traveling to Japan: Use “JASMIN2014” for $3 USD off your next purchase.

9. Carry Cash

We always hear about Japan’s crazy innovations and how they are living in the future. Believe it or not, one of the most shocking things to know before going to Japan is that the country is very cash heavy!

japan tips

Make sure you exchange extra money. (The official currency is the Japanese yen.)

Other than that, it’s a good idea to have a coin purse as well. (Their coins are issued in six denominations: 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500. That’s a lot!)

things to know about japanDaikiji (great blessing) omikuji at Asakusa Shrine.

Things you may need cash for:

  • Smaller restaurants, restaurants in less touristy areas, or street food vendors
  • Train station coin lockers* or luggage storage services
  • Vending machines*
  • Making a wish or drawing an omikuji (paper fortune) at a shrine

*Coin lockers and vending machines in big cities can usually take IC cards.

10. Do Thorough Research Before Purchasing a Japan Rail Pass

One of the most common tips for traveling in Japan is to get a Japan Rail (JR) Pass.

japan first timer guide

If you’re not traveling extensively around the country, however, you might actually be paying more with said pass.

To determine whether or not the JR Pass is truly worth it, I suggest using an online fare calculator. (There’s no official calculator. I personally calculate everything manually using Google Map’s fare estimates.)

11. Arrive Early for Your Shinkansen

Japan is extremely strict with punctuality. If your train is scheduled to depart at 11:42AM, it will leave the station at that exact time. Make sure you arrive at the platform early!

what do i need to know before going to japan

For big stations like Tokyo Station and Shinagawa Station, I would budget extra time in case you get lost and need to ask for directions.

what do i need to know when traveling to japanThere are shops + restaurants inside train stations! If you’re too early, grab some food or go window shopping.

Seat Reservation

Bullet trains come frequently and there are plenty of seats.

If you’re traveling with large suitcases, you have to reserve a seat with luggage storage. (These are seats at the end of the car with designated luggage space behind the chairs.)

The easiest way to do so is to head directly to a JR ticket office. Ask the staff book your ticket(s) for stress-free travel.

first time japan travel guide

Mt. Fuji from the Shinkansen

Great news! You can see Mt. Fuji from the shinkansen!

If you’re traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka, sit on the right (seats A for window, B for middle, or C for aisle). For Kyoto/Osaka to Tokyo, take the left D or E seat.

12. Utilize Public Transportation

Trains and buses are super convenient in major hubs. Plus, they are a lot cheaper than taxis. Just beware that service ends at around midnight so plan accordingly.

do and don'ts in japan

I recommend getting an IC card and loading it up. (I have both Suica and PASMO cards, and they work the same.) That way, you don’t need to purchase a ticket for every single trip.

Alternatively, you can set up a digital IC card on your phone. (I prefer physical cards and think they’re cute souvenirs. It’s up to you!)

13. Practice Proper Etiquette on Trains + Buses

Japan is known for being an introvert’s heaven and you’ll honestly never find quieter, cleaner trains or buses elsewhere.

Mind Your Volume & Don’t Talk on the Phone

Locals tend to keep to themselves and scroll on their phones.

You’re in a foreign country with friends or loved ones. It’s new. It’s exciting. Nonetheless, don’t get carried away and keep your voice down.

japan first time tips

Making phone calls is another a faux pas.

Respect Priority Seats

Priority seats are reserved for elders, pregnant women, and people with disabilities. You can sit in a priority seat if the train is not crowded, but be prepared to give it up.

As someone who has been to Japan countless times, I do have to say that I have never once seen a local give up their seat for those who need it more. (I’ve heard other foreigners make this same observation so I’m really not trying to throw shade.) However, that is not to say that you shouldn’t practice kindness.

Don’t Eat or Drink

Unless you are on the shinkansen, eating and drinking is heavily frowned upon. (Water is okay!)

what should i avoid in japan

For longer journeys on the bullet train, ekiben, or railway bento/lunchbox, can be purchased at the train station or on the train.

Women-Only Cars

It’s not unheard of for ladies to get groped on trains. As a result, women-only cars were introduced to reassure female passengers’ safety.

These are marked with a pink “Women Only” sign and will specify what times can only be used by women.

14. Taxi Doors Are Automatic

Should you choose to take a cab, do not open your own door!

what are things not to do in japan

It takes some getting used to and I’ve definitely made this mistake a few times.

Taxi drivers are generally quite relaxed about it, but try to remember this so you don’t damage their vehicles.

15. Don’t Take Pictures Without Asking

Due to obnoxious foreigners harassing geishas and maikos for photos, Kyoto has officially closed parts of Gion to tourists.

things to know about traveling to japan

Whether you are in a shop or restaurant, or you wish to take a picture of someone in their gorgeous kimono, always ask for permission first! You don’t wanna be that asshole!

As mentioned above, “Shashin daijoubu?” (“Photo, okay?”) is easy to remember. “Shashin o tottemo ii desu ka?” (“Can I take a photo?”) is more grammatically correct.

16. Book Tickets in Advance

best travel tips for japanTokyo from above at Shibuya Sky.

Iconic attractions like teamLab Borderless, teamLab Planets, and Shibuya Sky sell out fast.

Most have timed entries, meaning you purchase a ticket for a specific time slot and show up at said date/time. If you want the earliest time slot for avoiding crowds or the sunset slot for golden hour pics, plan in advance!

what to know before visiting japanLight Sculpture at teamLab Borderless.

In the event that tickets are sold out on their official sites, double check on Klook. You just might get lucky!

17. Be Respectful at Shrines & Temples

Everyone always says to be behave when visiting Japanese shrines and temples. But what exactly does that mean?

Dress Modestly

As stated in #5, it’s polite to dress modestly when visiting a shrine or temple. Cover up and avoid revealing clothes. Oh and no hats!

Purify Yourself Before Entering

Chozuya and temizuya are water basins placed at entrances for you to wash your hands and mouth before entering a shrine or temple.

japan tips for travellers

The proper way to purify yourself is to

  1. Use your right hand to scoop water out with the ladle provided
  2. Wash your left hand
  3. Switch the ladle to your left hand and wash your right hand
  4. Switch the ladle back to your right hand and scoop more water
  5. Use your left hand as a cup, pour the water in, and rinse your mouth with your hand
  6. Spit the water out onto the rocks below, never back in the basin!
  7. Scoop more water and wash the ladle by holding it upright to let water trickle down its handle
  8. Place the ladle back scoop side down

what to know about japanese culture

Bow & Walk on the Side of Torii Gates

A torii gate acts as a gateway to the sacred realm.

It is standard practice to bow first and you should never walk in the middle of the path. (The center is reserved for gods only.)

There are specific ways to pray as well, etc. As a foreigner, you’re obviously not expected to follow all these “rules.” Not to mention, everyone has different religious views. Feel free to do more research on your own.

18. Queuing Is a Common Etiquette

Asians love to queue. There! I said it!

what to know about japan before you goMy mom and I waited 45 minutes to rent a boat during cherry blossom season in 2019.

If you plan on trying viral restaurants, you’ll definitely want to budget extra time for waiting in line. (Many popular restaurants have limited seats and don’t take reservations.)

tokyo japan things to knowNot a fan of long lines? Some restaurants do takeout!

Generally speaking, Japan is very orderly as well. 

You line up to pay at a store, buy tickets, catch the train, go in an elevator, go on an escalator*, use the restroom… The list never ends because you literally line up for everything. Follow the crowd and be respectful!

*More tips for travelling in Japan: Stand on the left side of the escalator. Leave the right side open for those in a rush. (In Osaka, it’s the opposite. Stand on the right side.) When in doubt, mimic the locals.

19. Understand Japanese Table Manners

There are countless things not to do in Japan. The important things to know before going to Japan are…

Show Gratitude

If you are dining at someone’s house, it’s polite to say “itadakimasu” before you start eating.

what to know about japanese culture before visiting

This roughly translates into “I humbly receive,” and is meant to show appreciation towards everyone and everything involved in the preparation of your meal from the farmer and the produce to the cook. (If you are at a restaurant, there really isn’t a need to say this unless you are eating with a Japanese local.)

travel japan tipstravel tips japan

At the end of your meal, you can show gratitude by saying “gochisousama desu” or “gochisousama deshita” (more formal) – thank you for the meal. (I would also say this at an intimate restaurant or one that is family-owned.)

Use Chopsticks Properly

I’m Asian and I probably don’t even hold my chopsticks correctly. As long as you can eat without spilling, don’t sweat the details.

japanese rules for foreigners

What you should be careful of are things such as

  • Rubbing your chopsticks together
    • This is seen as an insult because you’re implying that the chopsticks are cheap
  • Grabbing food from shared plates with your own chopsticks
    • Use serving chopsticks when possible
    • If not, place the food in your plate/bowl, not directly in your mouth
  • Sticking your chopsticks upwards in a bowl of rice
    • This is only done at funerals and can bring bad luck
  • Passing food from chopsticks to chopsticks
    • This reminds people of passing bones between chopsticks at funerals
  • Stabbing your food with chopsticks
    • It’s as if you’re checking to see if the food is cooked properly, thus you’re disrespecting the chef/host

20. There’s No Such Thing as Tipping!

Like most Asian countries, tipping is not customary in Japan.

tips for japan travel

Again, you can thank the chefs and waiters with “gochisousama desu” (thanks for the meal) or “gochisousama deshita” (thank you for the meal).

For other services, a simple “arigatou” (thanks), “arigatou goazimasu” (thank you), or “arigatou gozaimashita” (thank you very much) will suffice.

21. Don’t Fall for the Cheap Drinks (or “Modeling” Gigs)

Theft and robbery are rare in Japan. You’re not likely to get scammed out of a kidney or anything of that sort either.

HOWEVER, you do need to be careful when walking down the streets of Shinjuku and Shibuya.

proper japanese etiquette

There are two types of people you should beware of: touts and scouts.

Touts are pushy salesmen who will try to lure you into a nearby bar (or restaurant) with the promise of cheap drinks. Do NOT follow them! If you think it’s too good to be true, it most likely is!

Scouts, on the other hand, are less aggressive and tend to target women walking alone.

They’ll shower you with compliments about how you’re fit to model. Or, they’ll sell you on the idea of working at a club. Do not be fooled! Their sole purpose is to push you into the adult entertainment industry and earn commission off of you.

tips on traveling to japan

I’ve been scouted twice in Kabukicho (when I was covered from head to toe). I simply said no then walked away.

Compared to the rest of the world, Japan’s red-light district is v safe and tame. (Hotels in this area are very convenient too with Shinjuku Station being steps away.) I especially wouldn’t worry if you don’t look Japanese or are not East Asian.

22. Refrain From Walking and Eating

Every single “things to know when traveling to Japan” social media post will tell you to not walk and eat. (To be fair, I’ve done so as well in my viral Japanese etiquette TikTok videos.)

While it’s typically considered rude, it’s not illegal. Frankly, you might even find Japanese salary men with a bottle of beer stumbling their way through Shinbashi.

dos and don ts in japan for touristsStreet food vendors will sometimes set up designated eating areas.

If you are starving, find a spot to stand or sit down to eat your emergency snack.

23. Take Your Trash with You

One of the most surprising things to know about traveling to Japan is that there are no garbage cans on the streets.

Locals bring their trash home so you can do the same by throwing yours away when you get back to your hotel.

10 things to know before going to japanTsukiji Outer Market and various seasonal festivals have trash cans/bags set up.

If you buy food from a street vendor, you can pass them your trash once you are done eating. And if it’s something small, you can also throw it away on your next conbini run.

24. There’s No Smoking in the Streets

A big reason why Japan is so clean is that you are not allowed to smoke in the streets.

Designated smoking zones are clearly marked. Smoking outside of these areas may result in a fine.

25. Avoid Blowing Your Nose in Public

Japan’s collectivistic culture means being thoughtful to those around you and trying not to inconvenience others.

Some minor things to not do in Japan include blowing your nose in public.

japan etiquette for tourists

This is why you can often times hear locals sniffling 50x instead of blowing their nose into a tissue.

If you’re sick or have allergies, find a nearby washroom to clear your nose in the stall.

26. Take Your Shoes Off Indoors

Taking your shoes off is common in Asian households.

things to know about japanese culture before visitingA relaxing morning at FUFU Kawaguchiko.

Certain Japanese hotels will require you to switch into slippers right in the lobby. Restaurants with tatami straw mats will also ask you to take off your shoes.

27. Bathroom Slippers Are a Thing

When visiting a Japanese home or staying at a local Airbnb, you will notice that there are slippers meant specifically for the bathroom. (Some restaurants have these too.)

Do not wear your outside shoes/slippers into the bathroom and don’t make the mistake of wearing bathroom slippers out of their intended areas.

28. Embrace the Bidet

Frankly speaking, I am terrified of using one. My boyfriend loves it though and it is more hygienic.

things to know about japanese cultureI don’t have a picture of a bidet. Here’s a photo of my private onsen experience at Yamadaya Hotel instead.

Other Things to Know Before Traveling to Japan

You need to memorize these kanji characters:

  • 流す大 (big flush)
  • 流す小 (small/eco flush)

I’m not kidding when I say there are a million buttons on a Japanese toilet. The last thing you want is to spend 30 minutes in the washroom because you can’t figure out how to flush.

Less fancy toilets will have the characters 大 (big) and 小 (small) printed on the toilet lever. Some even play music so you can do your business without scaring your next-door neighbor.

29. Understand Japan’s Onsen Culture

Onsen, or hot spring in English, is a must when in Japan.

japan 101Private onsen at Pearl Star Hotel Atami. The room I stayed in is called Premier Suite Ocean View “ROTEN”.

What I tell all my friends visiting Japan for the first time is that you absolutely need to treat yourself to a staycation at an onsen ryokan (hot springs inn).

japan first time travel tipsOnishiya Suishoen in Kinosaki.

As its name suggests, an onsen ryokan is a property with onsen facilities. Dinner and breakfast are usually included with dinner being served in a multi-course kaiseki style.

If your budget allows, definitely book a room with a private onsen*.

*Because tattoos are traditionally associated with yakuza gangsters, many public baths do not accept customers with tattoos. (Some will allow entry if you cover up with a special tattoo tape.) A private onsen is a fantastic alternative.

Onsen 101

Men and women are typically separated although there are mixed gender baths.

what not to do in japan

Other things to know about Japan onsens are that…

  • Onsens are enjoyed completely butt naked so leave all your belongings in a locker
    • Don’t panic, no one’s going to stare at you
  • You should always shower first! Heck nobody wants to bathe in some stranger’s poop water!
  • Make sure to get in slowly
    • Before you fully submerge yourself in the onsen, you can splash a little water on your body to better acclimate to the hot temperature
  • Once you are done, pat yourself dry and get dressed
    • There’s no need to shower because the minerals in the water are good for your body!

30. Know What to Do In Case of an Earthquake

tips for visiting japan

Earthquakes are a common occurrence in Japan.

If you’ve never experienced one, a small shake might send you into panic. Unless it’s a high magnitude earthquake, there’s really no need to be alarmed. Remember, drop, cover, and hold.

  • Drop down low to avoid falling
  • Cover and protect your head
  • Hold onto something to stabilize yourself

tips for travelling in japan japan vacation tips

There you have it! 30 things to know before going to Japan. (I can honestly go on and on about what not to do in Japan.)

At the end of the day, you are a foreigner. Locals can tell and will judge you regardless. (I’m sorry! It’s true!! It’s human nature.) If you make one tiny mistake, don’t stress about it. Be respectful when you can and have fun on your trip!

More on What to Know Before Visiting Japan?

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