Japan travel guide

Navigate Nihon like a native.

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Temple with Mt. Fuji in background in Japan

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From anime to ancient shrines, Tokyo Midtown to Mt. Fuji, Japan’s historical richness and modern mindset invoke curiosity in travelers around the globe. Case in point: The nation expects over 35 million tourists in 2019 alone. Join the ranks of locals and foreign wanderers alike by participating in otsukimi (moon-viewing) or hanami (cherry blossom-viewing) in the Land of the Rising Sun.

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Tips for first time visitors to Japan

1. Keep cash on hand.

Japan is primarily a cash culture — even McDonalds won’t take cards. Plus, you won’t want to miss out on street food and handmade goods from local vendors. Having yen on-hand will help you purchase goods with ease.

2. Brush up on Japanese etiquette.

While most Japanese locals won’t expect you to know exact etiquette, exhibiting basic knowledge about traditional customs indicates respect. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Don’t stand chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice. Instead, lean them on the chopstick rest or lay them flat across the bowl. Also, don’t pass food to others with the chopstick end that touches your food. Use the back end to share a taste instead.
  • Don’t serve your own booze. Refilling your own glass of sake or other alcohol in Japan implies that your host is ungracious. Instead, wait for a friend to fill it up and clink cups with a hearty kampai, or cheers.
  • Don’t thrust your hand out for a shake. You don’t have to understand the complexities of Japanese bowing, but withhold a western-style handshake unless the other party offers one first. Instead, incline your head whenever you meet someone, say thanks or bid adieu.
  • Don’t talk on the phone on public transportation. Announcers encourage riders to switch mobile devices on silent mode while riding the bus or train. It’s considered rude to talk loudly in confined public spaces.

3. Eat like a local and embrace convenience stores.

Convenience stores in Japan are renowned for delicious eats, friendly staff and low prices. You’ll find thousands of items at a typical shop, from matcha Kit-Kats to Konnyaku Batake Jellies. You can even buy a boxed meal, or bento, for less than $10 and pick up some manga to read while you eat.

Get cash from an ATM and take advantage of usually-free Wi-Fi.

And no authentic experience is complete without trying street food in Japan — try meat or fish grilled shioyaki-style, yakitori hot off a charcoal stove and dango for something sweet.

4. Understand taboos about tattoos.

Japan has a long and harried history with tattoos, from branded punishment to filial piety. While the official ban against tattoos was lifted in 1948, they’re still a bit stigmatized because of association with the organized crime group Yakuza. Many onsen (natural spring baths) don’t allow tattooed individuals to use their facilities, so folks with body art might consider booking a private spa instead.

5. Remove your shoes when appropriate.

When you enter a building, look for a genkan, or entryway, with shelves containing shoes by the door. This indicates that you should remove your shoes. You should also take your shoes off at ryokans (traditional inns), temples and restaurants with woven straw matting, called tatami.

You’ll usually be given a pair of slippers after taking off your shoes — though tatami requires socks or bare feet.

Pro tip: Wear shoes you can easily slip on or off when visiting a private home.

6. Hold the tip.

Not only is leaving a tip at restaurants a faux pas, many establishments actually consider it rude. That applies to cab and bus rides too. Good service and hospitality is ingrained in Japanese culture and considered a given.

However, it’s acceptable to tip a guide after an excellent tour.

7. BYOHS (Bring your own hand sanitizer.)

Many public bathrooms in Japan don’t supply soap or paper towels. Hand sanitizer will help stave off germs. It also doesn’t hurt to keep a handkerchief handy in case you need to wipe away dirt on the go.

8. Take along a garbage bag.

US visitors might be surprised by the lack of public trash cans in Japan. An old shopping market tote or recycled plastic bag can be a great makeshift garbage to tote along. Most Tokyo dwellers do this out of habit, as it’s seen as good citizenship. You can usually dump trash for good in subway restaurants, convenience stores or department stores.

Speak the language (even if you butcher it)

Japanese people certainly won’t expect you to be fluent in their native tongue, but offering a few basic phrases can show good intentions. Keep these short-and-sweet translations handy:

  • Sumimasen. It means “excuse me” and can also be used as “sorry.”
  • Arigatō. Thank you.
  • Kōnnichiwa. Hello.
  • O-negai shimasu.Please.
  • Hai. Yes.
  • Lie. No.
  • Oishii. Delicious!

Bottom line

As Oscar Wilde once remarked, “The whole of Japan is a pure invention.” Get caught between towering mountains and neon lights by planning your own trip to Japan.

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