12 tips for your first trip to Japan

Are you going to Japan for the first time? And aren't you certain about what you need to keep in mind? I've gathered a few tips for your first trip to Japan, and I want to tell you what you need to think about before going. In this guide I've included all the practical informations about visa, types of hotels, vaccinations, good manners, safety and much more. You'll also find a few phrases that are good to know.

Short about traveling in Japan

Before we get started, I'd like to shortly tell you about Japan. It's an island kingdom with around 3,000 islands, and the biggest one of these is Honshū (the main island), Kyūshū, Shikoku and Hokkaido. The scale of the country is the size of Norway and is about 73% mountains. The population is roughly 126 millions, who mainly live in the big cities. Because of Japan's size, the climate can vary a bit depending on where in the country you are - but you can travel in Japan all year around, and every season has its charms.

The climate is a bit different from here (Denmark), because the summers are hot and very humid. However, summers in Japan offers lovely Japanese summer festivals with food stalls, bon odori dancing and fireworks in the summer. The winters are, however, as cold as here in Denmark, but most homes are not isolated in the same way as Danish homes so it sometimes feels extra cold. During the winter, you can enjoy beautiful Christmas lights and holidays like setsubun, where beans are thrown at ogres, oni

As for the landscape and nature, spring and autumn are the most beautiful of the four seasons in Japan. Many tourists come to Japan to experience the cherry trees bloom in April or to see the stunning momiji autumn colours in November. In the country where old meets new, you'll get amazing experiences all year round, and you can pretty much pack the clothes that you wear at home (if that is Denmark anyways).

What do you need to pack for your trip?

Before you go to Japan, it's good to be up to date regarding papers, vaccines, transportation, WiFi, and hotel. A disclaimer here - this post does not take the current COVID-19 situation of the individual countries in mind. If you have any questions as to rules and so on, I recommend visiting the website of your country's foreign ministry or getting in touch with the Japanese Embassy. Anyways, let's continue and get to what this is all about - Japan!

(https://unsplash.com/photos/2cdvYh6ULCs)

1. Passport and plane ticket

First of all, you need to check the availability of your passport, because it should not expire while you're in Japan. It basically has to valid the whole time there. 

Second of all, you need a plane ticket. I usually get a round trip ticket about 6 months prior to the departure. Usually you can get a good price on pages like Momondo, if you buy it in time. There are several different airplane companies flying from Copenhagen to Tōkyō, and if you want to fly from Billund or other Danish airports you might have a bit longer travel time. Therefore I usually go from Jylland to Copenhagen about one day before my trip starts.

Personally, I love flying with Turkish Airlines and the Emirates from Copenhagen. Good service and not the worst airplane food. I don't mind the stop-over for a couple of hours in Istanbul, but it is totally up to you how you want to fly. I also know people who like flying with Finnair, where you land shortly in Helsinki. If you're willing to pay a little extra, you can fly directly to Japan with SAS. This is definitely the fastest and most pleasant route.

If you start your trip in Tōkyō, you can pick between the airports Haneda and Narita. Haneda is the closest to central Tōkyō and has a beautiful, modern airport with photo spots and activities. For that reason it is often a bit more expensive to fly to this one.

Narita Airport is further out in the countryside by the town Narita, and it takes a little over an hour to go to central Tōkyō, depending on the train. Narita is actually a cosy little town with souvenir shops and the stunning temple Naritasan Shinshōji, and I recommend staying in one of the hotels in town if you're getting up bright and early to fly back home.


2. Vaccination

Just like in the rest of the world, there are diseases that you can get while traveling, and here's a few vaccines to follow up on before your trip. I have tried to summon up what the Danish institution Statens Serum Institut (SSI) recommends here:

  • Tetanus and diphtheria for trip under 1 week trips (short business trips)
  • Tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis B and Japanese encephalitis for trips from 1 week or longer

Most Danes already have tetanus and diphtheria vaccines, and we're supposed to get it renewed every 10 years. It's a good idea to follow up at your doctor's to be sure when you last got yours.

You can get the hepatitis B and Japanese encephalitis vaccines done at a travel clinique. During my first three trips to Japan I didn't get these two and I was fine, even though I was in the countryside. I'd still recommend prioritising these if you're someone who worries easily. That way you can enjoy your holiday worry-free. The Japanese encephalitis vaccine is a bit pricey though. And I have to add, that if you get this vaccine it's still a good idea to protect yourself from mosquitos during your trip. Mosquito sprays can be purchased at most Japanese pharmacies.

As for COVID-19, it looks like everyone needs to present a negative test result when entering Japan. You can follow the situation as to entrance and vaccine passport on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here.


3. Visa

It is not necessary to purchase a visa to enter Japan if you're visiting as a tourist for 90 days or less (but always check the rules of your country first). As for trips for more than 90 days, you'll need to stop by The Japanese Embassy in your country. Make sure that you go apply early on (in case they're super busy), so that you'll get your visa before the trip. If you're in Japan for 90 days or less, you just need to go to the airport for your flight. 

When you're in the air, the cabin attendants hand out two formulas: 1) an immigration formula and 2) a customs declaration. It's super easy to fill out the little formulas and if you make a mistake, you can always get a new one. Just remember to write down, screenshot or print the address of your first accommodation in Japan, because you need it for the formula. If you don't have time to fill out the formulas on the plane, don't worry. You can fill them out in the airport, once you've landed too. So no panic, if you're one of the lucky ones who sleep during flights ;-)

When you enter the airport, you hand in the formula and declaration and you're get a "landing permission" in your passport. You'll also be asked why you're in Japan. Here, just simply say that you're there as a tourist (if that is the case, of course). All of this is actually very simple but good to know before going.


4. Japan Rail Pass

Before you pack your suitcase and get going, I'd recommend taking a look at a so-called Japan Rail Pass. It's a train pass produced by Japan Railways Group, and it gives its holder the chance to drive the bullet train (shinkansen), regular train, subway, ferries and busses owned by JR Group. The pass doesn't give access to private train and subway companies but just JR, which is the national, state owned transport company. There is a list of all transportation covered by the pass on their website here. You can go many places in Japan with the pass itself.

The pass can be purchased for 7, 14 or 21 days and exists in a regular version and a green version(a bit more fancy). A JRP costs a few pennies, but if you'd like to travel around Japan onboard the shinkansen, it'll quickly become cheaper than buying individual tickets. And besides that, it is SO much more comfortable to go from Tōkyō to Kyōto with shinkansen (which only takes a few hours), than sleeping on the night bus (been there, done that).

JRP has to be purchased from home before the trip. As far as I remember, mine was sent by post. It can be purchased online from different dealers.

Most Japanese get around Japan by train or subway, and in the cities those are the main means of transportation. You can also rent a car, but be aware that Japan has toll roads. Also, check the availability of your drivers license in advance. You can order an international drivers licence in Denmark at Borgerservice, if you want to drive in Japan. I believe it was only 4 USD.

shinkansen, bullet train, japan

(https://unsplash.com/photos/odYSxV0Dr_Q)


5. Travel cards

Once you finally arrive all jet lagged in Japan, I recommend going towards the airport's train station to make yourself a travel card. Instead of buying paper tickets for all of your train rides, you save money on your trips with a cool little Japanese travel card.

The card can be made on ticket machines in almost all of the bigger stations. In some stations there is also a helpful employee, but you can - with help from instructions in English - make the card yourself. It costs 500¥ (about 4,5 USD) in deposit, which you will get back once you give back the card at the end of your Japan trip. However, it makes a great souvenir, plus you can use it again next time you're in Japan.

It basically works just like a UK travel card, where you put money on the card and beep in and out at arrival and departure. Take good care of your card, because if you lose it, you lose the money on the card as well. In order to take good card of the card, you'll find many kinds of card holders with Pokémon, Hello Kitty and much more. These can be purchased in stores like the Japanese discount store Don Quijote.

There are different companies that make travel cards in Japan, but in Tōkyō, Suica and Pasmo are the most used travel cards. In Ōsaka, Icoca is the leading company, but all of the cards can be used nationwide. So, a travel card is essential when traveling in Japan. AND they can be used in most konbini, convenience stores! Just brilliant!

6. Safety and culture chock

In this section we will take a look at the general safety in Japan, the level of English, the chance of earthquake, jetlag, and culture shock happening. Japan is generally a very safe country to visit. During my solo trips I have never felt unsafe as a woman or been afraid of strangers. Of course there is always a chance that something might happen, but Japan is generally very safe. Perhaps it's because of the punishments regarding crimes (very hard ones). In the big cities there are also train cars only for women, so if you feel safer in one of these as a woman, go right ahead. If you're a man, don't get into one of those, if you wish to avoid strange looks.

Perhaps you already know that there are quite a few earthquakes in Japan every day. There is roughly 1,500 earthquakes every year, but they are very rarely as destroying as the Tōhoko earthquake in 2011. Personally I have only experienced earthquakes - that I know of - three times during my trips. If anything should happen, make sure you cover your head, open the door, don't go outside, but follow the locals and get away from shores. It might sound a bit dramatic, but there is only a tiny chance that there is a bigger earthquake during your trip, so don't let the fear keep you away from having a good time there. Modern Japanese homes are by the way built to withstand earthquakes, so it is pretty safe.

Whenever I'm in Japan, I ALWAYS get jetlagged after the trip from West to East, and I am usually super exhausted because of this. Take a refreshing shower and try to stay awake by going sightseeing on the day that you arrive. Don't challenge the fate and drink energy drinks, like I did on my very first day in Japan. Get out, explore Japan, and then you might feel tired at the end of the day.

Besides jetlag, it is completely normal to feel overwhelmed by the differences between Japanese culture and your own and get culture shock. Perhaps you'll feel overwhelmed by the technological toilets, neon signs and commercials everywhere as well as the shop assistants' "irasshaimaseee", new foods and neat lines on the escalators. I also get a minor culture shock when I get back home, because I've gotten used to the Japanese way of doing things. Luckily, it's very normal.

Being Danish, we're very used to being able to go far with our English. The Japanese are some of the most hospital and helpful people I've ever met, and even though they'd love to help, many don't have great English skills. They'll help the very best they can with signs, pictures and translation devices, so often one'll figure it out. Plus, with the preparations for the Olympics in Tōkyō, the capital has become much more tourist-friendly. It'll be a bigger challenge in the country side, but don't let that keep you from traveling around Japan :-)

(https://unsplash.com/photos/BCraX7OJsnI)


7. Accommodation

So where should you stay in Japan? I get asked that a lot, but it all comes down to budget and preferences. Here are five options to consider:

  • Hostel/guesthouse is fine, if you're a young backpacker who isn't bothered by noise and other people. And if you can sleep anywhere. I've stayed at hostels quite a lot during my trips to Japan, but I think I'll be staying somewhere else next time. But hey, you can stay for as little as 8 USD per night in dormitories found at Hostelworld.com. So you do save a lot of money, if you chose this one.
  • Vacation rental like Airbnb is a good option if you want more privacy than at a hostel for less money than a hotel. Remember to check the host's reviews, comments and so on before booking. 
  • Home stay is a super cosy way to learn more about Japanese culture. There are many websites out there, that offers home stay. Some places one can even exchange work with a place to sleep. It's definitely something that I'd like to try myself one day.
  • Capsule hotel is a fun hotel experience, where you live in tiny individual boxes with a mattress and TVs. It doesn't sound very comfy, but it's supposedly a fun thing to try - and it's a unique experience. It costs around 2,500 to 6,000¥ (around 23-55 USD) per night, and many halls/dormitories are separated in men and women.
  • Hotel, yes we know this one. It works pretty much just like in the rest of the world, but if I were you I'd try to find a room in one of the many theme hotels in Japan like Keio Plaza Hotel Tama (Hello Kitty theme), Henn na Hotel (robot theme) or Hotel Gracery Shinjuku (Godzilla theme). It will be an experience, for sure!
  • Ryokan is a traditional Japanese hotel, often with a tatami room, shared bath and kaiseki dinner. Get an authentic Japanese experience in Japanese slippers and yukata (a kind of thin kimono). A stay often costs between 15,000 and 25,000¥ (around 138-230 USD) per night. I recommend that you thy this at least once during your trip.

This is the most popular types of accommodation for turists in Japan. Which type of accommodation is your favourite?

ryokan, japan, japanese hotel

(https://unsplash.com/photos/58ApUELd3Ec)


8. WiFi

Many shops and cafés around Japan have free WiFi hotspots - especially in Tōkyō. At the bigger stations there is always WiFi at place like Starbucks, 7-Eleven, Family Mart, McDonald's and Don Quijote, so there's never far to the nearest WiFi in the big cities. In this way, Japan is very tourist-friendly. In my opinion, the WiFi at Starbucks is always good, plus there is time for a cup of coffee while you're there. Don't worry - it's not as expensive as in Denmark. If you need access to WiFi right away, I recommend going to one of these places. Almost all hotels have free WiFi, but it's often best in the lobby.

If you can't live without being online constantly, you can also purchase a mini pocket WiFi router or a prepaid sim card at the airport. They can be purchased cheaper at electronic stores such as BIG CAM, which can be found in all big cities.

Remember to set your phone on flight mode before leaving Denmark, if you don't want a giant phone bill. You can connect to WiFi even with your phone on airplane mode.

9. Navigation and maps

When navigating in Japan, it's good to take in mind that the streets don't have names like at home (in Denmark, that is). Therefore I would recommend marking destinations with pins on Google Maps or Apple's Maps.

Use Google Maps to check up on travel schedules, time tables, prices and so on. Besides being updated regarding public transportation, Google Maps is also good for navigating through Japan. Even without internet, you can use GPS tracking on the map and follow spots that you have previously marked with pins.

On many trips in Japan I have used the website and app Hyperdia, which I was introduced to by Japanese friends. It's good for trains and busses or if you need to change trains during your trip. The design is - like many Japanese websites - not super user friendly design-wise, but it's still very useful.

japanese man, japanese woman, train, travel japan

(https://unsplash.com/photos/vkKzl4KsKv8)


10. Remember cash

Japan is still a bit far behind regarding VISA and electronic payment cards in general. It's gradually becoming easier to pay with credit cards in most big cities, but if you're in the country side, inaka, cash is still necessary. 

Even if I've had my pockets full of cash during some trips, which I don't recommend, it's a good idea to have cash. You can take out money near a konbini at the machines at for example 7-Eleven, so it's a good idea to take out a bit of money when you're there. Your bank often requires around 4-5 USD (in Danish banks) every time you take out money.

If you want to bring cash from home, you can order Japanese yen in your bank. In Denmark, it often takes one or two weeks for most banks to get the money. So remember to place your order a while before the trip.

japanese restaurant, food

(https://unsplash.com/photos/jfZfdQtcH6k)


11. Japanese manners

I could write a book about this topic, because in Japan politeness and maintaining harmony is highly valued. In public, one doesn't show ones true feelings but maintain the facade (mostly). This has to do with the strong Japanese team spirit and the importance of unity.

In the following there are a few things about good manners in Japan and how to be considerate when traveling in Japan:

  • Don't eat and drink while walking
  • Take off your shoes at the genkan (entrance area of a house)
  • Take your rubbish with you (there aren't many public bins in Japan)
  • Don't be loud and try not to speak on your phone while riding trains
  • Don't tip at restaurants and bars (it's impolite)
  • Don't put your chopsticks into the bowl (this is done at funeral ceremonies in Japan)
  • Don't let your chopsticks touch other people's chopsticks or other plates than your own, when sharing food
  • Don't rub chopsticks against each other
  • Don't blow your nose in public, but if you have to do something about it, it is best to cough or sniff
  • Use a face mask, if you have a cold (we're all getting very used to this one)

If you forget to follow one of these rules, many Japanese will not say too much about it, because you're not Japanese. So don't worry if you make a mistake. Just try your best :-)


12. Japanese phrases

Last but not least, I have a few phrases that are good to know. The Japanese will appreciate it immensely, if you know a bit of Japanese, and they will tell you that you are practically fluent in Japanese, if you know these ;-)

  • Konnichi wa: Good day
  • Konban wa: Good evening
  • Oyasumi nasai: Good night
  • Arigatō: Thank you
  • Sumi masen: Sorry or excuse me
  • Onegai shimasu: Please
  • Hai and iie: Yes and no

(https://unsplash.com/photos/uBOCEV5RGzY)

There you go! You're ready for a trip to wonderful Japan. We hope you will have an amazing trip, and don't forget to leave some room for souvenirs in your suitcase. Perhaps you'll find beautiful ceramics or ukiyoe prints in different regions of Japan. 

It's a good idea to bring some Danish souvenirs like snacks to give to helpful Japanese people or friends. In Japan there's a gift giving culture where snacks or simple souvenirs are given to colleagues, friends and family after a trip abroad or to other Japanese prefectures. Anyone will love a bag of candy, but be careful with liquorish - most Japanese don't like this one ;-)

If you have any questions or comment, feel free to write it in the comment section. Mata ne!

Related: The ultimate guide to Tōkyō.

Merete Vangsgaard

Leave a comment

Please note that the comments must be approved before they are published