Japan: Tricks, To Do's, To Don't's, and More!

Things to Know Before You Go to Japan

Japan is an awesome destination with a unique blend of modern convenience and ancient tradition. I’ve been lucky enough to visit twice! The country is surprisingly easy to get around and English signage is becoming more and more common. I’d definitely recommend it as an entry point into Asia.

Based on my experiences in Nippon (the Japanese word for “Japan”), here are a couple things to know before you go.

Before you go to Japan

  • Get a Japanese rail pass. Rail passes are only sold to tourists prior to their arrival in the country and provide unlimited fares. If you plan to travel to more than one city, you’ll save money by picking one of these up. I believe the rail pass also works on all the buses and subways as well. 

  • Japan is a cash-based society. While this is changing, credit cards aren’t commonly used and most places won’t take them (or the cashiers feign ignorance on how to use their credit card machines). While most Japanese ATMs won't work with your foreign ATM/debit card, the 7/11 convenience store ATMs will.  

  • If you want to take a tour of the royal palace in Kyoto, book it in advance. It's only open a few days a week, so plan in advance. I did hear a rumor that English speaking guests could show up for a tour at the scheduled time of the English tour and they would generally let you in.

  • If you have tattoos, you may not be able to go to an onsen (a traditional hotel with a hot spring). In Japanese culture, tattoos are usually associated with organized crime. Check the rules in advance so you know where you can go.

  • Get an international cell phone data plan with about 200 MB of data so you can use maps and the translate feature. This will come in handy when figuring out the bus/subway systems.

  • The subway system closes surprisingly early. Know when the last train departs for the night. However, if you do get stuck they have “capsule” hotels at reasonable rates.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove - Kyoto.jpg

While in Japan

  • Trains, subways, and buses are super easy to use with the Google Maps smartphone app.  The app will let you know where to be and when the next ride arrives. The app even helps you navigate through large subway stations! This is an essential tool for getting around. As of writing this, the Google Maps app did not support offline maps for Japan.

  • Book your train tickets several days in advance while in the country, as certain times sell out.

  • Most train stations have baggage check rooms and lockers, so you can stow your stuff if you don’t want to haul it around.  They are relatively inexpensive at ~$5 a day. Just make sure you know what the check rooms close.

  • Make sure you have the Japanese version of the address you're going to (in Japanese characters).  I had several moments where I entered the English version of the address into Google Maps and it brought me to the wrong location. I’d recommend creating a document with names of the locations you want to visit with their Japanese equivalent on your phone so you can cut and paste that info into your maps app.

  • Take in a Don Quixote convenience store.  They are the Japanese version of a Walmart - it's a crazy assortment of everything (sex toys to groceries to costumes for your cat - the essentials).  

  • There are shrines and other culturally important sites tucked around corners just about everywhere you go - just keep an eye out!

  • If in Tokyo, definitely check out the Shinjuku Golden Gai - it’s an amazing, historic section of town with dozens of tiny bar/restaurants that seat less than a dozen people each.

  • Get out of Tokyo!  The train system makes it easy to take day trips out of the city and the surrounding country is beautiful and tranquil.

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