Recently, I had the absolute pleasure of visiting Japan for the first time. I flew directly from Newark Airport to Narita International Airport — I recommend Hanada, as it is closer but either is great — which was 14.5 hours. Then, flew to San Francisco for a work trip, then back to New York City.
Below, I am including some tips I wish I knew — or knew — before visiting that I think will help ease the stress of travel and enhance your trip.
Day 1: Land in Tokyo and Spend Time in Tokyo
Day 2: Tokyo + Robot Cafe in Shinjuku
Day 3: Mt. Fuji and Hakone Area
Day 4: Tokyo + Akihabara
Day 5: Kyoto + Illumination Shrines
Day 6: Kyoto + More Shrines
Day 7: Kyoto, Monkey Park, and Bamboo Forest
Day 8: Ito + Onsen
Day 9: Tokyo + Iwaki
Day 10: Iwaki + Tokyo
Day 11: Tokyo + Shibuya Crossing
Day 12: Tokyo + Flight to San Francisco
In the U.S. I was able to go to the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) in New York City, but you can also have it FedEx’d to your house. It is more expensive if you buy the JR pass in Japan. There is no need for First Class seats. If you buy the ordinary pass you can go literally anywhere in Japan. You can show up on any train in the unreserved seats, or you can book a reserved seat before your trip at the station. The Shinkansen is incredible and can reach speeds as high as 200 MPH (300 KM/H). Food and drinks available for sale.
You also have access to the local trains. As long as the line starts with JR, JY, JT, JO, etc., you can show your pass at the gate and get on. However, you get your JR passes monies worth when you take the Shinkansen to places like Kyoto or Odawara (Hakone area) since it can be $100+ round trip.
Some people have anxiety and fear about traveling abroad due to safety. Japan was easily one of the safest places I have ever visited. There’s order, little to no violence, and you should not have to worry about anything being stolen. A friend once told a story of losing his wallet and the Japanese police calling him tomorrow to return it. The only major warning I would give is to women traveling on the train during rush hour. There have been incidences of “Groping” by men. To combat this, trains have “Women Only” cars during rush hour to help eradicate this terrible act.
You are not allowed to tip in Japan. I repeat you are not allowed to tip in Japan. This is painful because it’s the best service I have ever had in my entire life. When I walked into a Ryokan hotel three men ran out from behind the counter. One person took my bag, another took my shoes and gave me slippers, while another prepared to check us in. And I can’t tip. In the US someone could throw water in your face, cook a burger that gives you food poisoning, and you still have to tip 20%. I am exaggerating but the service is night and day.
You know you want to tip but it is actually rude so please refrain. Respect Japanese culture and please do not make someone serving you feel uncomfortable because you tipped. The Japanese believe in providing the best experience and service, and trust me, they succeed. The dark side is the level of anxiety and stress that comes with perfection and insanely good service. I appreciate the level of respect the Japanese have for service, but I also am saddened by what they must feel on the inside.
You would suspect that one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world would be cashless, BUT the majority of stores ONLY accept cash. There are US chains such as Starbucks and Krispy Kreme (yum) that accept credit card, but plan to buy Japanese Yen at your local bank before traveling — or pay a fee at the airport or in Japan.
Outside of Tokyo, Kyoto, and maybe Osaka, plan to only use cash. Small, family-owned stores especially so. We bought $600 USD worth of Japanese Yen in the US and it lasted us 12 days, but we are also smart with our spending so that helped. I would get between $300-$500 per person per 7–10 days. If worst comes to worst buy some Yen in Japan.
If you do not want to carry cash buy a Pasmo or Suica card. It is used mostly for the train — so if you have a JR pass, no need — but is often used as food marts and other places. It helps alleviate the pain of carrying cash if that is a pain to you.
Eating and drinking while walking is considered rude in Japan. You will get dirty looks and for the most part, no one will say anything to you — but you will be passive-aggressively judged if you can live with that.
If you are vegetarian you probably picked the wrong country. Japan is a maritime nation and there is fish in just about everything. Maybe even in the oxygen you breathe. Well, I am vegetarian so it was difficult at times. I ate a lot of udon, vegetable tempura, soup, rice, and cream puffs for breakfast. In later blogs, I will highlight exactly what I ate and do my best to help with recommendations!
However, at food markets, you can acceptably eat or drink while walking. It is not illegal but again, is considered rude and locals will not be pleased with you.
You have a better chance of finding Waldo or Vegetarian Ramen in Japan than a trash can. Despite little to no public trash cans, Japan is incredibly clean. During my trip, I only saw public trash can twice — not counting the malls. The Japanese and foreigners — tourist — typically keep their trash with them and then distribute the trash at home among rubbish, recyclables, and compostables. Please DO NOT litter. The Japanese go to great lengths to keep their home country clean and you should respect it. After the 2018 World Cup games, some Japanese fans even cleaned the stadium in Russia. Wow. Overall, there are fewer trash cans but also less litter. Cleanliness is definitely a part of Japanese culture.
Believe it or not, the convenience stores in Japan are incredible. The two I used the most was Lawson’s and FamilyMart, but 7/11 was frequently found in Japan too. Surprising enough, their quality was great and people actually ordered food from convenience stores. Every morning I would eat cream puffs and enjoy a fruit smoothie. Convenience stores are everywhere and accept credit cards, so you are in luck.
In the US trust for quality for convenience stores is low, but I highly recommend you try food from Lawson’s or FamilyMart.
I have nothing against tattoos, but many Japanese believe tattoos to be taboo. The reasoning is that tattoos were commonly associated with the yakuza, which are underground crime organizations.
Per InsideJapanTours, here are a few places where your tattoos may well be an issue: in hot springs (onsen), on beaches, at theme parks, at water parks, and in swimming pools. It is still the norm at these establishments to ban tattoos entirely, and where a ban exists you will see prominent signs informing you of it.
Being invited to someone’s home in Japan is considered an honor. When entering someone’s home you must leave your shoes and the entrance, whereas, you often have slippers to wear around the home. The Japanese do not want the floor to be stained by soil, sand, or the dust on your shoes, which makes a ton of sense. It is also recommended you wear socks for hygiene reasons.
Back in the day, the Japanese had meals while sitting on the floor. Therefore, it would be unhygienic to sit where your dirty shoes have been. There are traditional Ryokan hotels where this type of arrangement exists.
All in all, please take your shoes off at the door and place them facing the door. This makes it easy for you to slip them on and head out as well — efficiency is key in Japan. If I had to emphasize one rule that would get you yelled at it, it is to please take your shoes off at the door. Then earn cultural bonus points by pointing your shoes towards the door.
Ryokan traditional hotels are located all over Japan. You sleep on a futon, eat on the floor, wear a robe, and there are often public onsens located within the hotel. Up until staying in a Ryokan, I stayed with friends, in AirBnBs and other hotels. This was the first authentic Japanese hotel I stayed at before later staying in an Onsen — later in the blog series. I highly recommend you give it a try. I actually enjoyed sleeping on the futon more than my bed in the US.
Part of the experience is having a traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner served throughout the day. I will share more information later as this experience is incredible. The food is prepared upon arrival and more courses are brought out as you eat. Eating in a robe is one of the best ways to eat and I need to make it part of my daily routine.
When in a public space please keep the noise down. Especially on the bus and train. You should always be mindful of the collective and conscientious. Other people come before you and you must take cooperation and what is seen as an inconvenience into mind before acting. Respect is held in the highest regard. You can talk to one another quietly, but please do not take any phone calls or talk loudly in public spaces. I only experienced this once but it was a group of high schoolers visiting from Australia and thankfully the guides helped quiet the crowd because it was uncomfortable seeing how uncomfortable the Japanese riders were.
If you do not speak Japanese, like me, you should at least make an effort when visiting to know a few key phrases. It is also important to bow out of respect, just as you should hand a business card with two hands then bow — but let’s save that for a blog when one day I can hopefully do business in Japan!
Japan was one of the best — if not the best — countries I have visited and I am really hoping to go back for the 2020 Summer Olympics. I loved the culture, people, history, tourist spots, and how well-run the country is. Japan is incredible and I HIGHLYrecommend everyone visits at some point.
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About the author: Northeast Marketing Manager at Lime, took a small family business from $50k to $1m in revenue in 3 years, have a failed startup under my belt (lot’s of lessons), winner of the MIT Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp, Babson College ’17 graduate who lived in eTower (houses top 21 entrepreneurs on campus, alumni have raised $500m), partnered my startup with Microsoft while in school, Kairos and Forbes fellow, and played competitive Call of Duty in high school and led my team to six championships.
Brendan is the Co-Founder and CEO of Shelfie Challenge, a sports fan engagement platform where fans complete challenges at live events and can win prizes. He is also the CTO of Helping Hearts of America, and sits on various startup advisory boards. He has a large area of interests, and, overall, loves helping others and working on social impact projects to build and empower communities around a common cause. Brendan holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in Business with a concentration in Entrepreneurship from Babson College.