Japan has been the receiver of much interest from travel bugs for decades, and there’s no surprise why - from its famous tourist attraction like Sky Tree and the Shibuya Crossing (the busiest crossing in the world), Japan is bursting with activities, must-see places and mouth-watering food to try. If you find yourself finally going on that much-awaited trip to Japan for the first time, here are some tips for you!
1. Pack for the weather, but only bring what you need
Depending on when you booked your trip, Japan’s weather can range from very very cold (we’re talking lower than 10 degrees celsius [50 °F]) to warm but comfortable at around 24 - 26 degrees celsius (75 - 78 °F). To be absolutely sure, you can check online for weather updates from sites like accuweather.com, then plan your wardrobe accordingly. If you’re traveling during the fall, I suggest you pack for at least two to three layers of clothing - heat tech leotards, cotton shirts or tops, and a thick coat. During summers, temperatures can get as hot as 38 degrees celsius (100 °F) so bring breathable clothing and hats to keep you cool.
On the other hand, only bring what you need. You wouldn’t want to be lugging around 2 suitcases from the airport to your hotel and back. Japan has a number of welcoming hostels and Airbnb listings that have laundry services too, so you can just mix and match your clothes as you wish - no hassle!
The Japanese really value being on time and being efficient, so you can be sure that convenient transportation systems will be there for you - anywhere you go, there’s almost always a nearby train station or bus (or in the case of Hiroshima, a cable car!). However, what’s a little tough to deal with is navigating through those systems. All these modes of transportation follow a strict timetable so if you miss your train by a few minutes, you need to wait for the next one or book a new one. They’re also interconnected so there is a strong chance that if you don’t pay attention, you’ll be on your next train to another province altogether.
Plan your transportation arrangements before heading out of your hotel. Not only will this save you a lot of time, it will save you headaches too. When you know exactly which trains or buses to take and at which times, you can save yourself the trouble of getting lost inside Japan’s train stations (and save yourself the trouble of hopping on the wrong train even).
Check to see if you’re eligible for the JR pass. You pay a fixed price for unlimited train journeys around Japan (there are specific packages as well for certain regions or length of travel). To learn more about the JR Pass, read our comprehensive guide on it, it covers the different types of passes, costs, where to buy it and how to use it.
JR Pass for Whole Japan (7, 14, or 21 Days)
3. Learn common Japanese phrases
Editor's Note: There's no photo available at the time of writing
Based on personal experience, Japanese people are extremely accommodating - they make sure that even if you don’t read or speak Japanese, you can still find your way and get around. When you ask for directions, they do their best to communicate back in English. But while they are accommodating, it would also go a long way when you meet them halfway and put in the same effort to understand them. Learning simple greetings like “Ohayou Gozaimasu” (“Good Morning”) to the cashier or phrases like “sumimasen” (“excuse me”) and “arigatou gozaimasu” (“thank you very much”) to the person you’re asking directions from can instantly put a smile on their face.
4. Comfortable (and durable) shoes are a must-bring
When I first went to Japan, I brought with me a pair of almost worn-out rubber shoes. I come from the Philippines, so there’s usually no need to walk so much (with all the jeeps, and tricycles and everything), and I honestly thought that “we’ll be walking a lot in Japan” was code for “expect 5-minute walks from place to place.” Long story short, I ended up having to buy a new pair of shoes with more comfortable soles.
Japan may have a lot of trains and buses, but these are usually reserved for longer-distance travel. If you’re sightseeing inside a district or town, you can most likely expect that you’ll be walking for at least 15-20 minutes when going from place to place. Remember to bring comfortable shoes that won’t easily wear out!
5. There are many beautiful sights in Japan, so prioritize
There are so many shrines, parks, restaurants, districts, museums, picturesque views, shops, and markets that you’d almost expect to leave Japan heartbroken over not being able to visit them all. But you can only fit so many items on the itinerary after all, so if you want to make the most out of your trip, you’re better off prioritizing what exactly you want to experience or see.
You can start by listing down specific experiences you want to go through while in Japan. For example, if it’s always been on your bucket list to attend a sumo wrestling event, write it down. If you want to try out a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, write it down as well. List all of your “hit list” items down, number them according to which ones are absolutely important to you, and only then start researching on the best places where you can get these experiences.
6. Prepare more money than you think you need
Japan’s train and bus stations are convenient enough that they have a lot of money changers for you, but if you’ll be going places far from these stations (like your hotel or the destinations in your itinerary), make sure to bring more than enough Yen. Of course, having a clear budget covering transportation costs, food, souvenirs, and emergencies is greatly helpful. But you never know what would happen (whether it’s spotting a great souvenir item or ending up on the wrong train), so it’s better to be on the safe side of things and bring about 30% more money than what you budgeted for emergencies.
7. Rented Wi-Fi comes in handy
Right when you arrive at the airport, you’ll see stalls offering pocket Wi-Fi renting services. You might think that availing of it is a bit of a luxury - and I honestly thought so too - but renting one for the entire week we were there was probably one of the best decisions we made. The investment really pays off, especially if and when you get lost while walking. Google Maps becomes your best friend throughout this trip, and you’ll thank yourself later for being able to access the internet on-the-fly when you need to confirm the train’s timetables.
8. For the best shopping deals, head to Don Quijote
Throughout your travel in Japan, you will most likely come across shops selling food, clothes, jewelry, toys or other items that you just want to take home with you and give to your friends or family. While it’s tempting to buy from whatever store that’s nearest you, your wallet will thank you later if you went to Don Quijote instead. There are a lot of Don Quijote branches dispersed across Japan, and each one is a building filled with different kinds of goods - from toys, to makeup, to shoes and food and everything in between - all marked down from typical store prices! If you’re a fan of getting a great bargain, Don Quijote needs to be in your travel plan.
Lastly: keep calm and enjoy Japan
Traveling to anywhere for the first time can truly be nerve-racking, but it doesn’t have to be. Japan is especially an easy place to travel around in, and people here are quite accommodating, so don’t be afraid to ask for help! Keep these 8 things in mind, and don’t forget to have fun while you’re at it!
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