Japan Travel Q&A + Useful Tips
Japan is a fascinating country with a unique culture, food, and language like no other but often confusing to travelers. Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions and useful tips that will help you navigate through the process of planning and so you will have the best experience while in japan.
What is the best time of the year to travel?
Japan is a country with four distinct seasons, which are defined by a long tradition of holidays and celebrations: in the spring, there are the cherry blossoms (sakura) and the start of the new year at school and work; festivals in the summer; autumn colors and “leaf peeping” in the fall; and in the winter, celebrations centered around the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year (spring).
In terms of climate and weather, spring and autumn are the best times of the year for traveling in Japan. However, many travelers, both domestic and international, visit tourist attractions while the sakura are in bloom in the spring and it can get extremely crowded. The same can be said about the fall, especially October and November.
If you are planning to visit Japan during a peak season, you must make reservations ahead of time, be ready to pay a bit extra for accommodations, and not be bothered by large numbers of tourists.
It is worth mentioning that sakura blossoms and red maple leaves can be seen outside such well-known places as Kyoto and Nara. Be adventurous, and visit small towns and villages to avoid large crowds and over-tourism.
Times not recommended for traveling in Japan:
“Golden Week” (from April 29 into early May) contains a number of Japanese holidays and is considered one of Japan’s three busiest travel seasons.
Tsuyu/Rainy season-is the rainy season or monsoon. It’s no fun traveling during the rainy season. In Japan, the rainy season can last for up to a month, starting in mid-June to July, and it can result in delays and other problems for travelers.
Obon Festival– called the lantern festival, is in mid-August, and everyone travels, to be together with family. However, this is a good time to catch amazing local summer festivals, if you do not have to actually travel during this time and can avoid the rush.
New Year-Before and after the new year are the busiest times of the year for Japanese travelers. (Think Thanksgiving!) Avoid visiting the countryside from January 1–7, as most businesses will be closed.
The best advice is to plan and make reservations ahead, do your research, and have alternative plans (for example, coming up with places you can still visit during bad weather, or visiting rural areas to avoid crowds).
Do I need a VISA to enter Japan?
Japan allows “visa-free” entry for up to 90 days to tourists of 67 countries, including the United States. Make sure your passport is valid, and be advised that immigration and customs will deny your entry if your passport expires during the duration of your stay. (Note: You may need to confirm this, because of the ongoing effects of COVID-19.)
What is a JR Pass, and how does it work?
A JR Pass is a cost-effective way to travel if you are a foreign visitor planning to travel around Japan. There are 7-day and 14-day passes, and there are local passes for some regions of Japan. These passes must be purchased and obtained before your arrival in Japan, and exchanged for actual tickets after your arrival. It is worth knowing that these passes can be used on most Shinkansen trains (except Nozomi) between larger cities as well as on local trains; however, they can only be used on Japan National Railway lines (and some JR ferries), but cannot be used on private railway lines. If you are taking a private railway, expect to pay the full fare. Private railways include many subways, and trains in some regions, including Kyoto, Osaka, and some rural areas served only by private railways. https://japanrailpass.net/en/https://japanrailpass.net/en/
Cash vs. Credit Card?
Although most hotels and larger restaurants and shops accept major credit cards, Japan is still mostly a cash society, so carrying some cash is highly recommended. Try to pay for large purchases using a credit card, and bring cash for food, beverages, and souvenirs. Consider carrying a coin purse for quick and easy payment for small purchases, especially when using vending machines, at convenience stores, and paying for a taxi. There are coins for roughly $1 (100 yen) and $5 (500 yen), so it’s useful to carry them.
Bring one or two credit cards, a debit card, and some cash that you can exchange for Japanese yen at the airport upon arrival (or you can withdraw yen directly from an ATM [See below]). Currency exchange can be done at the airport and at large banks, and you may find currency exchange machines located at major train stations.
There are over 26,000 post offices, and all 7-Eleven convenience stores across Japan have ATM machines, where you can withdraw money using a debit card. Make sure to contact your bank or credit card company in advance and let them know that you will be withdrawing money from ATMs in Japan, in order to avoid unnecessary suspicion and denial of withdrawals by the bank. It’s also a good idea to find a card that doesn’t charge fees for foreign transactions.
To tip or not to tip?
Tipping is not customary in Japan. If you decide to leave a tip anyway, chances are that they will chase after you and give back your tip. Read more about tipping in Japan here.
Tax-Free shopping for the international traveler
Many international travelers overlook the fact that numerous stores across Japan offer duty-free pricing. If you are spending more than 5,000 yen on clothing, electronics, art pieces, and other gift items, consider asking for duty-free pricing. You must present a valid passport to qualify.
To see a full list of tax-free items and read more on how this works, click here.
Can I use my phone and the internet in Japan?
This depends on your phone carrier. Before departure, contact your phone carrier to see if you will be able to use your phone in Japan, and ask about any additional fees for phone calls, texting, data, and wifi. Some carriers may not charge roaming fees.
Other options include renting a phone, purchasing a SIM card, and using a “pocket wifi” (personal hotspot). Kiosks selling these services can be found at international airports and in major towns. A SIM card providing wifi and phone for up to 2 weeks can be purchased for about $50-$75.00
If you do not want to pay for wifi services, take advantage of free wifi at airports and hotels, on Shinkansen bullet trains, and in restaurants and cafes.
Japan is a country where one travels on public transportation, walks up and down stairs, and in some instances walks on a gravel or stepping-stone type of walkway. We recommend you leave your large four-wheeled suitcase behind and travel with a smaller suitcase, a bag, and a purse. If you choose to travel with a backpack, make sure to carry it in front of you on busy trains and in stations.
Use the “luggage forward” system
If you are traveling with multiple suitcases, or more luggage than you can easily handle, take advantage of a parcel courier service for your luggage. The luggage forward system is a reliable and affordable way to ship your luggage between your hotels: It only takes a day or two for your luggage to get to your destination for a small fee of around $20.00 (depending on the size of your luggage). You can find many such services, including Kuroneko Yamato, Sagawa Express, and Nittsu Express, at airports, hotels, train stations, and even convenience stores.
Manners and Etiquette
People in Japan take manners and etiquette seriously, and it only helps if you know some significant cultural differences in advance to avoid embarrassment, unnecessary (and unintentional) confrontations, and avoidable trouble.
Take off your shoes
The basic rule is that if it is an entrance with a step (or steps) up and if you can see tatami mats, take your shoes off. Look for a no-shoes sign or ask if you are not sure.
Respect people and things
It seems obvious to respect people, but based on Shinto beliefs, Japanese people believe that there are spirits in every object, including those in nature (such as mountains, rivers, and trees). Therefore, it is customary in Japanese culture to show respect towards things and nature. As a basic rule of thumb, do not litter, spit, or take souvenirs from parks and public places.
Japanese people are very polite. If people bow to you, it is a silent greeting and shows respect, so go ahead and bow back.
Be on time
Everything is dead-on time, so if you are meeting someone, make sure you arrive on time. Likewise, if you are planning to stay at a Ryokan or a small inn, let them know your arrival time. Dinner is usually served at a specific time to ensure the quality of the meal.
Rules are meant to be followed and may be enforced
Although people in Japan are kind and polite, they do not bend when it comes to rules and enforcement. Let’s respect cultural differences, rules, and regulations to stay out of trouble.
- Keep your voice down in trains and other public transportation. Don’t talk on your cell phone on the train!
- Eating while walking is taboo.
- Take home your trash, mostly because there are no trash cans.
- Sort your trash and recycling.
- There are useful directional signs at your feet in busy train stations; follow the signs so as not to run head-on into crowds.
Hot Spring Etiquettes
When entering a public bath or hot spring, make sure to wash and clean yourself before entering the tub. No bathing suits are allowed in hot springs and public baths, birthday suits only.
Tattoos are associated with the yakuza gangs in Japan, and most hot springs, hotels, and ryokan ban yakuza members from using their facilities. However, if you are a foreign traveler and have a small tattoo, most places will allow you to cover it when entering a hot spring. Also, you might be able to take advantage of an uchiyu, a private bath. In any case, it is a good idea to check with the Ryokan before you make your reservations. Read more here: https://tanpopojourneys.com/visiting-an-onsen-ryokan/
Be a sustainable traveler
When traveling, be mindful of how your journey can affect the environment and the local economy. Here are some small ways in which you can become a sustainable traveler.
- Carry a reusable water bottle: water is safe to drink in Japan
- Carry a bag when shopping to reduce the use of plastic bags
- Carry tissues and a handkerchief or a small hand towel
- Use public transportation
- Use hotel room cleaning services only when needed. Some hotels offer free drinks, snacks, or points if you do not use cleaning services.
- Visit rural areas and the country-side to help offset over-tourism. Join Edible Japan to experience the mountainous area of the Shinshu region.
Consider joining WWOOF Japan. Read more on WWOOF Japan here.