May 18, 2022

Japan travel tips for beginners: what you need to know


The first thing you must do when visiting Japan? Get ready. Prepare to have an incredible experience in one of the strangest and most wonderful places on the planet.

Prepare to be amazed and confused, thrilled and shocked, intimidated and embraced, impressed and disgusted.

Japan is so extraordinarily foreign and bizarre, yet so welcoming and safe. It’s a place where everything looks different, and yet you are always encouraged to give it a try.

A cherry tree in full bloom in Ueno Park.

Chris McGrath

A cherry tree in full bloom in Ueno Park.

As a first-time visitor, you will undoubtedly get lost in Japan. Although the public transport system is probably the most efficient in the world, you won’t be able to navigate it without having at some point no idea where you are supposed to go.

The streets outside, meanwhile, are clean, tidy, and safe, but with an addressing system that will constantly leave you wandering around blindly, miles from where you are meant to be.

But the joy of Japan is that getting lost is OK. This is how we make discoveries. And if you can’t do it yourself, someone will help you.

People share dishes at a traditional Japanese "Izakaya" pub named Saiki in Tokyo.

Reuters

People share food in a traditional Japanese “Izakaya” pub named Saiki in Tokyo.

In fact, if you ever seem a little bewildered in Japan, there’s a good chance that a kind citizen will offer to solve the problem you seem to be having.

Japan is like that. It sounds intimidating, with its sprawling metropolises and foreign customs, but the people there will do it a lot less.

This is good news, because the best way to experience Japan is to go out there and do all the things that seem so weird and foreign.

Singer May J poses next to cherry blossoms before an evening of cherry blossom viewing.

TORU HANAI

Singer May J poses next to cherry blossoms before an evening of cherry blossom viewing.

Order ramen noodles from a vending machine. Go to a cafe with manga characters. Spend the night at a Shingon monastery. Get naked at an onsen. All of these things are possible.

Most people’s first trip to Japan will include much of what’s known as the “Golden Route,” a trio of the country’s best and most accessible cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. It’s a great starting point, giving you a glimpse into old Japan and new.

In Tokyo, you can see the hyper-modernity of Shinjuku, shop in Shibuya and Harajuku, eat good food in Ebisu, experience old “Edo” in Asakusa, and hang out with the hipsters of Shimokitazawa and Koenji.

Tourists take a traditional boat ride at Himeji Castle Lake in Himeji, Japan.

GETTY IMAGES

Tourists take a traditional boat ride at Himeji Castle Lake in Himeji, Japan.

In Kyoto you get one of the most beautiful cities in the world. In Osaka, you’ll find a bustling hub filled with people obsessed with good food.

There is way too much to see and experience even in these few cities to start talking about here, so let’s stick to the logistics.

Traveling independently in Japan is relatively straightforward, especially if you plan to use public transportation. Trains always run on time. The buses are easy to understand. Metro systems are busy but efficient.

A view of the Shinjuku skyscrapers with Mount Fuji in the background.

GETTY IMAGES

A view of the Shinjuku skyscrapers with Mount Fuji in the background.

You can book a Japan Rail pass online before your visit, which means you won’t have to mess around with too many ticket counters once you’re there.

However, this may or may not be cheaper than buying individual train tickets, depending on how many trips you plan to make. You can certainly save money, however, by purchasing a Tokyo Metro “Pasmo” card at a discounted rate outside of Japan – see www.tokyometro.jp.

Hotels in Japan can be expensive and the rooms tiny. As an alternative, there are plenty of Airbnb-style apartments available for rent in major cities that may still be quite small, but they get you to areas where you want to be and the prices are much more reasonable.

A woman shows off her cans of pink beer as she participates in

Chris McGrath

A woman shows off her pink-colored beer cans as she participates in “Hanami” or a flower viewing party under the blossoming cherry blossoms in Nakameguro.

Another advantage of renting an apartment in Japan is that many hosts provide a Wi-Fi dongle that you can take with you to access the internet on the go.

Considering how devilish it is to buy a local SIM card in Japan, and how devilish it is to find your way around big cities, this little device just might be the most convenient thing you’ll acquire on your entire trip.

That said, however, every trip to Japan should include at least one night in a ryokan, the traditional inns that date back to the 1600s.

    Women sit in 'robots' outside the Robot Restaurant in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, Japan.

Getty Images

Women sit in ‘robots’ outside the Robot Restaurant in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, Japan.

These small, often luxurious guesthouses have manicured gardens, onsen spas, rooms with tatami floors and futon beds, and deliciously prepared classic meals. They are expensive, but an amazing experience.

One of the facets of Japanese life that seems to worry some first-time visitors is the food, but in reality it should be the opposite. The food in Japan is one of the country’s real strengths – there are no bad meals.

If you stick to the tourist trail, most restaurants will have menus in English. However, some of the best experiences you’ll have will be in tiny joints with indecipherable foods. But don’t worry, it’s Japan – come in and someone will help you.

    During cherry blossom season, thousands of people gather across Japan to practice “Hanami,” picnicking under a blossoming sakura tree to enjoy food and drink.

Taro Karibe

During cherry blossom season, thousands of people gather across Japan to practice “Hanami,” picnicking under a blossoming Sakura tree to enjoy food and drink.

While there are plenty of walk-in restaurants in Japan, from casual ramen noodle bars to pub-style izakayas to sit-down restaurants, most of the more popular restaurants require reservations. It’s almost impossible to do from outside the country and without a solid knowledge of Japanese. Your best bet is to either ask your hotel concierge to book restaurants for you, or, if you’re staying at an Airbnb, have your host make a few calls on your behalf. Most will be happy to do so.

Just as the food culture thrives in Japan, so does the drinking culture. Cities are filled with tiny little bars run by alcohol freaks who craft drinks with the same passion chefs cook meals. Some of the more upscale bars, especially in Tokyo, have a cover charge, so it’s better to settle down somewhere with a few good cocktails, or local beers, or whiskeys, than to attempt a tour. ads. There is, without a word of exaggeration, at least one bar in Japan that caters to absolutely every taste, desire and even fetish.

And that brings us probably to the most important aspect of a first trip to Japan: going there with a clear mind and an adventurous heart. Don’t have any preconceived ideas. Be prepared to try things you’ve never done before. What’s really great about this country is that it is so safe and welcoming that you can take risks, go places you don’t normally go, experience things that you have never experienced before and not worry too much about the consequences.

Guests attend a cherry blossom viewing party hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Shinjuku Gyoen Park in Tokyo, Japan

TORU HANAI

Guests attend a cherry blossom viewing party hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Shinjuku Gyoen Park in Tokyo, Japan

Japan has its difficulties and its differences with the rest of the world, but that’s what makes it so amazing. Get ready.

Have you been to Japan? What would be your advice to first-time visitors?

Traveller.com.au