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Traveling to Japan For the First Time (Top Tips for Places to Visit, What to See and More)

Are you traveling to Japan for the first time? Here are top tips for where to go in Japan, what to see, what you need to pack and so much more

If you’re traveling to Japan for the first time, then you might have some questions in mind for your trip—just a few…? Either you might not have enough prepped, or worse, you have are getting anxious from information overload! Let’s keep it sweet and simple.

From the top five best places to visit in Japan to the top five things you should always have on you while traveling, here’s your top tips for traveling to Japan for the first time.

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Top Five Best Places to Visit in Japan

For traveling to Japan for the first time, you’ll definitely want to hit up some places to visit in Tokyo as it’s the most popular city to visit but don’t rule out lesser-known places to get a better feel of Japan’s culture. These five places to visit in Japan will give you a full taste of Japan.

Tokyo

Between the fashion, nightlife, food, temples, culture, and so much more, Tokyo is by far the most popular place to visit in Japan. Most international flights fly into Tokyo International Airport so there’s really no way you’ll miss this futuristic city nor should you want to.

There’s a little bit of something for foodies, fashionistas, and sub-culture seeking fanatics alike in this fascinating city.

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Kyoto

Kyoto is full of traditional wooden homes, Buddhist temples, gardens, shinto shrines, and formal traditions like kaiseki dining and geisha.

It’s home to the world renowned Fushimi Inari-taisha Shinto Shrine (feature image above), which you’ll have to visit at the crack of dawn if you want to get a photo of it without people around.

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Mt. Fuji and Hakone

Hakone is a mountainous town part of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. It’s best known for its hot springs resorts and iconic view of Mt. Fuji.

For a full experience here, head to Mt. Fuji’s 5th station at an elevation of 2,300 meters, enjoy a cruise on Lake Ashi, and go on a ride to Komagatake Popeway to see sweeping views of Hakone National Park.

Nara

Nara, once Japan’s capital, is full of temples and artwork dating back to the 8th century. It’s one of the places to visit for first timers if you like deer!

Nara Park has over 1,200 friendly deer roaming free and eagerly awaiting for you to feed them! Easily get to Nara by train from Kyoto.

Osaka

Osaka is a port city best known for its modern architecture, nightlife, and oishi (tasty) street food!

One of its most famous sites is the 16th-century Himeji Castle. It’s one of the best places to go in Japan for beautiful cherry blossoms in late March/early April.


You might like: 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan


Top Five Japanese Norms to Be Aware Of

Japan has slightly different norms than what you’re used to. These are my top five tips on important stuff to know before traveling to Japan.

Don’t Tip

The Japanese believe that good service should be standard; therefore, tipping in Japan is not necessary nor customary.

If you try to tip someone, they may refuse it or be confused by the action.

However, as an exception, some tourist companies may be used to tips so if you’re with a tour group or company, feel free to ask beforehand if tipping is customary if you’re not sure.

Also, if you tip, generally you’re supposed to put the tip in an envelope before handing it over, but at the very least, hand over the tip with two hands.

For full insight on tipping in Japan, check out this post.

Carry Around a Plastic Bag

There’s not many garbage cans in Tokyo because locals carry their garbage with them until they can dispense it somewhere like at a convenience store or at home.

To take part in their social responsibility, carry around a sealable gallon zip-loc bag so you have someplace to throw your garbage out in that won’t smell or get all over your belongings.

If a lot of your trash ends up being snack wrappers or empty bottles, then you’ve got it all wrong!

Eat your snack and drink your drink right where you get it, then throw away your trash there.

Eating and drinking as you walk around is not common.

Don’t Smoke Wherever You Please

smoking in japan is not common on the streets. this is good stuff to know before traveling to japan

The big cities like Tokyo don’t allow smoking on the streets. Yes, that means if you’re a smoker, you can’t smoke anywhere you please, and if you’re a non-smoker who can’t stand being surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke, then rejoice in smoke-free sidewalks.

If you want to smoke a cigarette, you’ll have to go specifically to smoking areas, which are in public areas like streets, train stations, and even on trains. To be extra stringent about not littering, you can also carry around apocket ashtray.

Wear Slip-On Shoes

A lot of places like restaurants and hotels ask you to take your shoes off before entering their premises. If you have slip-on sneakers, then it’ll make this process much easier.

Most of the time, places give you slippers or special socks, but aside from the slip-on shoes, it’s a good idea to have hole-free socks.

Cozy Up With Convenience Stores

Convenience stores like 7-Eleven, Circle K, and FamilyMart are REALLY convenient. You’ll want to get cozy with them asap.

They’re everywhere and has lots of good and services that you’ll find handy. Just to name a few, you can:

  • Have a hot meal
  • Buy and drink cheap alcohol
  • Get toiletries
  • Use an ATM
  • Drink coffee
  • Buy SIM cards

Most convenience stores have a kettle (for hot drinks or instant cup ramen) and microwaves for heating up food and a place where you can eat. They accept all types of payment too.

Try It Out! Hit up a convenience store to pre-game before going to a bar or club.


Want more local tips for Japan?

Meet a local from Japan to help you plan your trip and give you insight!


Top Five Tips for Getting Around Japan

japanese woman waiting for the train and learning how to prepare for a trip to japan

Take Trains From City to City

The best way to get around from city to city is by train. Japan has one of the best rail services in the world. Their trains are fast, affordable, and very clean!

You can buy tickets for the trains at the touch-screen vending machines, at kiosks, at travel agencies, and ahead online.

Wondering how to prepare for a trip to Japan in advance? Get a multi-use discounted ticket valid on all Japan Rail national trains if you’re going to be traveling between cities often.

Note: If you get a flight and accommodation package deal to Japan, then train travel from city to city is included!

Get a Pasmo or Suica Card

Even though there are many train operators throughout Japan, it can be a hassle to get tickets for them all. Get a reloadable Pasmo or Suica train card, which works on most, if not all, trains.

This handy card also works on vending machines for snacks or on arcade games!

Learn a Few Japanese Words

Learning a few Japanese words will go a long way in Japan, or at the very least, show the locals you respect their culture by saying ‘Thank You’ in Japanese.

Get a Pocket Wi-Fi or Local SIM Card

Your phone company might charge you an arm and a leg to have your existing phone plan work in Japan so it’s best to get a pocket wifi router that multiple devices can use or a local SIM card that fits into your existing unlocked phone or pocket wi-fi.

You can get this pocket wifi or this SIM card mailed to the airport or your hotel for convenience.

I wouldn’t recommend not having either data or wi-fi because wi-fi is not freely available in Japan (like it is in South Korea).

Resources:

Download Navitime Map in English

Although I love Google Maps, especially the offline version of it to save money on data while traveling, the app shows you directions in Japanese. Therefore, it’s best to download a transit app that’s in English. Navitime’s app is accurate and easy-to-read.


Top Five Things to Always Travel Around With

While you’re gallivanting around the best places to go in Japan, make sure to have these items on you. It is not the most intuitive stuff to know before going to Japan so prep your packing list with the following:

passport is something you should pack for Japan

Passport

I don’t usually recommend carrying around your passport; just a copy of it. But in Japan, if you want to shop and get purchases over $50 tax-free, then you’ll need your real passport on you, not a copy.

Smartphone

Just in case you’re the type of person to leave their phone back at the hotel so you can unplug the world, Japan might not be the best place to do it.

You’ll use your phone quite often for directions, train times, and of course, translating words from English to Japanese and vice versa.

Make sure to have a local SIM card in it, or get a pocket wifi router that multiple devices can use.

Resources:

Handkerchief + Hand Sanitizer

A lot of public bathrooms don’t have paper towels or soap. Restaurants don’t even have normal napkins, but instead only tissue.

Keep a reusable, washable handkerchief with you at all times in addition to hand sanitizer.

If you don’t have a handkerchief from home, you can buy a beautifully made one in Japan. They’re everywhere.

Cash

Despite being such a modern country, many places in Japan won’t take your credit card. It’s best to keep cash on you so you can buy ramen in alleyways and handmade goods from tiny shops at a whim.

Japan is a very safe country so don’t worry about having lots of cash on you. You’ll need it!

Coin Purse

As you spend your cash, you’ll soon find yourself with lots of coins as they have coins ranging from 1 yen to 500 yen!

It’ll be easier to keep all your coins in one place instead of having them roll around in your pocket or purse.


Top Five Foods to Try in Japan

jaapnese sushi dinner restaurant fromlusttilldawn.com traveling to japan for the first time from lust till dawn

If you’re traveling to Japan for the first time, then you’re in for a real treat when it comes to food. Japanese cuisine is quite tasty and the options are endless. Here are a few dishes to start you off with.

Tonkatsu

Tonkatsu has been one of my all-time childhood favorite foods. It’s breaded pork or chicken cutlet deep-fried served with rice and cabbage and topped with a Japanese worcestershire-type sauce, but it’s not the the Western breaded meats you might be familiar with. Tonkatsu is breaded with panko crumbs, which makes the cutlet really crispy and flaky.

Ramen

Ramen is a slurp-worthy, lip-smacking noodle dish served in flavorful broth, meats, and veggies. You’ll basically find ramen everywhere such as at food carts, restaurants in back alleyways, tourist sites like the Ramen Museum, and 7 elevens in Tokyo.

Sushi

Sushi is the ever-so popular raw fish dish of Japan. You might’ve had plenty of sushi in your life, unless you’ve had an authentic omakase tasting, you might be surprised to find out that sushi in Japan is unlike sushi from America. It is usually not bombarded and overloaded with ingredients like spicy mayo, avocado, and cream cheese.

If you’re used to Western sushi and want to be inspired by true Japanese sushi, you must watch the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which highlights the passion of the sushi chef behind the only 3-Star Michelin sushi restaurant in the world. This movie inspired Mike, my husband, to only eat sushi like the Japanese do.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is the Japanese version of a pancake, but it’s really unlike the pancakes we’re used in the West. It’s a made with flour, eggs, and shredded cabbage and has meats and veggies mixed into it. You can also choose from a variety of condiments like dried seaweed or bonito flakes to put on top.

Yakiniku

Yankiniku is essentially grilled meat. Going to a yakiniku restaurant can be quite fun and a new experience for those who have never barbecued at their own table while dining out.

Don’t be surprised when you order meat, and it all comes raw to your table. That’s the point! Put those delicious meats on the grill, and cook it to your liking.


Think ordering food in Japan might be a bit daunting?

Or perhaps you won’t be getting the full experience that you’d like? Then have a local from Japan help you plan your trip, especially with the foodie part!


Top Five Culturally Unique Things to Do in Japan

women in kimono in tokyo which is one of the places to visit in japan for first timers

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tuskiji Fish Market is by far one of the most exciting fish markets in the world. You either go really early to watch the tuna auctions happening, or go later to look around and have sushi for breakfast.

It’s all up to whether you’re a morning person or not, but if you’re not, it may be worth giving yourself a push to wake up early while you’re in Japan. However, trains don’t run 24 hours so if you want to get here by 4AM, you’ll have to stay at a hotel nearby.

If you want more context at the market though, it’s wise to go with a tour group so your local tour guide can explain what’s happening and show you the best stands to sample tuna, omelets, sake and more from.

Animal Cafes

A lot of Japanese apartments such as in Tokyo are quite small so a lot of people can’t own pets. To solve this issue, animal cafes started popping up so that the Japanese can play with pets as they grab coffee and cake. Check out our favorite animal cafes in Japan where you can pet an owl, hedgehog, and of course, cats!

If you opt to go to only one animal cafe and want to make it a truly unique experience, go to the owl cafe!

Sumo Wrestling Match

If you’re curious about this Japanese sport, you can watch a sumo wrestling match! This is a highly popular activity so book your tickets asap before they sell out.

Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony

Take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony dating back to the 9th century and witness a choreographic ritual of Matcha tea preparation and presentation. At the end, you’ll be served this traditionally prepared Matcha tea, which done right, has a balanced mix of sweet and bitter flavors.

We recommend this traditional Japanese tea ceremony in Kyoto.

Pachinko

Pachinko is a type of “arcade game” only local to Japan. It’s kind of like a vertical pin ball machine where you shoot steel balls into a maze of pin that hopefully gets captured in the center hole and release more steel balls into your winnings basket. At the end, you can exchange any of your steel balls leftover or gained (aka your winnings) for tokens and prizes, which can then be swapped out for yen. This is a loophole in Japan’s no-gambling laws.


Top Five Things to Pack for Japan

map to figure out where to go in Japan

Dual-Voltage Hair Straightener

dual voltage hair straightener that yu can bring to Japan when visiting for the first time

If you’re from the US, which is 110 volts, then for most of your electronics, you won’t need a converter since the voltage difference is minimal. You also won’t need an adapter since the US and Japan use the same plug types.

However, when it comes to appliances that heat up such as a hair straightener, you want to be safe, not sorry. Bring a dual-voltage hair straightener that’ll straighten your hair beautifully regardless of the voltage.

The one I’ve been using since 2014 is this HSI Dual-Voltage Ceramic Flat Iron. I’ve used it in the US, Italy, South Korea, France, and even weekly in the Netherlands (where I live now). It has a US plug so whenever I travel to a country with a different plug, I make sure to bring the appropriate adapter.

If you’re from outside the US, use this chart to see whether or not your electronics will work in Japan with or without adapters.

Portable Battery Charger

When you’re out and about in a new city, it’s only natural that your phone might die from getting directions and taking photos. Keep a portable battery charger on you so you can charge your phone all day long and not worry about having to ask strangers for directions with your lack of Japanese.

I’ve used this Anker portable charger about three times a week since 2015, and it’s still working like a charm. It’s great for trips since it’s so compact. It’s essentially the size of a lipstick and can charge your iPhone approximately 1.5x.

Compact But Powerful Camera

Of course you’re going to want to take tons of photos of this beautiful country and its cities when you’re traveling to Japan for the first time. Opt for a camera that takes high-quality photos but doesn’t weigh you down.

I got the Sony A6000 because my Nikon DSLR was too heavy to travel with frequently. I’ve been incredibly happy with its quality, especially in low-lighting settings.

See my post on why the Sony A6000 is great for traveling.

Travel Adapter

If you’re coming from the U.S., you don’t need a travel adapter, but anywhere else, you’ll want to check this volts and plug type chart to see what type of travel adapter you need for your trip.

Minimal and Modest Clothing

Although there’s a wide range of style in Japan, most Japanese dress modestly by covering their shoulders and not wearing super short shorts.

Minimal street style clothes with neutral colors are always a safe bet in Japan, but don’t be afraid to stand out either like Harajuku girls do.


Top Five Tips for Traveling in Japan Amidst Coronavirus

Japan has always had a high level of hygiene throughout its country, which may be one of the reasons why its mortality rate is quite low compared to other countries. Nonetheless, you should travel at your own risk and be aware of these Japan coronavirus tips.

  • Always carry hand sanitizer on you.
  • Wear a face mask in public.
  • Be flexible with your travels. Sights might close or travel plans can change easily.
  • Buy tickets with good return/exchange policies.
  • Be aware of local doctors and hospitals just in case.

I hope you enjoyed these tips for traveling to Japan for the first time!

Comment below if you have any Japan travel tips for other travelers!

Thanks for stopping by! See you soon.
~Sarah
@sarchetrit (Instagram, TikTok)


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