Traveling through Japan: is it easy and comfortable or tricky? It’s actually a bit of both. On the one hand, traveling in Japan is easy. This is due to the fact that the country is well organized and consists mostly of cities interspersed by mountains and has great train connections. But on the other hand, the language barrier also means it can be tricky; many Japanese people don’t speak English and all road signs, menus and other written things are in Japanese. However, it makes a big difference that the Japanese are extremely friendly and, despite the language barrier, will always be willing to help, even though they don’t speak English. A little creativity and gesturing will get you there in the end, but gaining some prior knowledge certainly doesn’t hurt. Therefore: our beginners tips for Japan in no particular order!
Taking a crash course in Japanese before you depart would be really convenient, of course. But if you don’t get around to it, then at least try to remember these four important Japanese phrases:
Hello – Kon’nichiwa
Goodbye – Sayōnara
Thank you – Arigato
Excuse me / sorry (and the Japanese say this a lot) – Sumimasen
HO(S)TEL ROOMS: WESTERN OR JAPANASE STYLE
When you book a hotel room or a bed in a dorm, you can often choose between a western style or Japanese style room. The western style room is a room as we know it, with a regular bed. Japanese style means the room will have tatami mats on the floor. The size of the room is often indicated by the number of mats it has. The room will also have a futon bed that you have to make up yourself. Making the bed probably speaks for itself, but the order is; possibly a bottom sheet, futon mat, – sheet (folded around the futon mat) – sheet– duvet (folded around the duvet). A futon bed is probably slightly firmer than you’re used to, but it’s really comfortable!
TRAVELING BY TRAIN – SUPERFAST AND EASY
Japan has an excellent rail system; traveling by train is comfortable, fast and they always run on time. The Shinkansen, a high-speed train, is particularly comfortable and fast. This superfast train takes you right across the country in just a few hours. Expensive? It normally is, but you can save a lot of money by using the Japan Railway pass, meant especially for tourists, You can only buy this pass outside of Japan and it will hurt your budget temporarily, but it will enable you to effortlessly fly through all of Japan for ‘free’, during a set period (14 or 21 days, for example). Buying this pass is a definite must on a trip to Japan! You can choose to combine your Railway pass with individual tickets if you want to spend the first few days in Tokyo, for example. You can just buy regular tickets and start using your Railway pass later.
TRAVELING BY TRAIN – PRACTICAL TIPS
So how does this work? You buy your Japan Railway pass before you depart and exchange the obtained voucher for an actual pass at a station in Japan. You can then simply show your pass at the check-in points at all stations instead of having to go through the gates with a paper ticket. All aboard! You can reserve a seat on the high-speed trains, the Shinkansens. You can do this at the station, at the ‘JR ticket office’. They will give you a printout of an itinerary too, which helps a lot when trying to locate the correct trains! You can make a reservation a few days in advance or on the day itself. There’s also a non-reserved part of the train, so you could just sit down here. Of course you run the risk of your train being full, which means you’ll have to wait for the next one. Making a reservation is easier.
SUICA PASS & THE SUBWAY
Individual train tickets, subway access, as well as shopping in various stores can all be paid using the Suica pass. You buy this pass with a one-time payment of 500 Yen, which you’ll get back when you eventually hand it in at any random train station (the place where you also reserve your tickets). After purchase, you can put any chosen amount onto the pass. The pass is especially useful on Tokyo’s subways, because you can just check-in with your Suica pass without buying a ticket. You can buy the Suica pass at a Suica ticket machine at the station.
Traveling through Tokyo by subway is great, by the way. The subway map seems complicated at first, but you will figure it out quickly. This way, your Suica pass will get you anywhere, fast.
The Japanese bow for practically everything. Whether it’s when you buy something in a store or when the train departs. And sometimes they do it more than once. We actually don’t quite know what the rules for this are, but in our experience, returning the bow is appreciated.
You can find vending machines on every street corner in Japan, a cheap way to get a drink on the go. You’ll soon grow accustomed to starting your day with a coffee from a vending machine. The vending machines offer warm (red label) and cold (blue label) drinks. You can pay by cash or use your Suica pass.
Besides the machines with drinks on the streets, you’ll also see vending machines in certain food shops. These consist of loads of buttons with Japanese symbols on them. These machines are meant for ordering food. This is how it works: you’ll find a menu with photos and numbers lying or hanging somewhere. These dishes correspond to the vending machine. You choose a dish, press the matching button on the machine and pay the requested amount. The machine gives you a ticket. You then hand the ticket to the person behind the counter. They will then prepare the dish and present it to you when it’s ready. Bon appetit!
A unique but delicious phenomenon is the Japanese onsen. It’s comparable to a sauna, but instead, they are hot springs. Sometimes the onsen is accompanied by a sauna, which may or may not include the option of watching television in the sauna. Onsen come in indoor and outdoor versions, can be small or large, and are usually open to the general public. Sometimes they are part of a hotel, but you can use the hotel’s onsen (for a fee) even if you’re not a hotel guest. You can recognize an onsen by the special symbol, a kind of bowl with three vertical rings above it (representing a hot spring). There are usually separate onsen for men and women. Bathing in onsen is a true part of Japanese culture, so you shouldn’t miss out on it during your trip to Japan. But because there are quite a few customs involved, let’s just list a few things so you can enter as a true onsen regular:
Onsens are almost always naked, so you don’t need a bikini or swimming trunks.
You get undressed in the changing room first and put your clothes in one of the baskets you find there. You can put valuables in a locker and wear the key around your arm.
Soap or shampoo is usually provided, sometimes you need to bring your own.
Japanese people bring a mini-towel when they visit the onsen. They wrap this around their head during their visit to the onsen or place it on top of their head. They also use it to dry themselves after their visit to the onsen, even though the towel is sometimes wet at this point.
You are required to wash yourself before entering the bath. There’s often soap provided for this purpose as well as a bowl and some water, so you can toss a few of these over yourself. When in doubt, wash yourself a few more times; better too much washing than too little. You can also wash yourself in the shower. There’s a stool in front of the showers for you to sit on. Showering is done seated. You fill the bowl that’s next to the stool with water and toss it over your head.
The baths often vary in temperature. Have a look and see which one you prefer.
Try to observe how the Japanese do things, though this may vary from onsen to onsen too, depending on its features.
Finally: Enjoy the superhot water, it’s a treat for your muscles, especially after a long day of walking!
You’ll find the ultimate in comfort in almost every Japanese toilet. A nice warm seat and all kinds of buttons to make your life on ‘the john’ as nice as possible ;-). You’ll find buttons with a bidet feature, or sometimes even a button with a ‘flushing sound’ so people next door won’t here what’s going on in your toilet stall. Hilarious right?
Just like the rest of Japan, the toilets are squeaky clean, even the public ones. And in case you didn’t already know, there are sometimes even signs next to the toilets showing how to sit on them. 😉
It’s customary to take off your shoes before entering most buildings in Japan. This is often the case in hotels, hostels, houses and onsen. It’s easy to tell whether you’re expected to take off your shoes if you see a row of shoes and/or slippers by the door. If you see slippers, you’re meant to take off your shoes and wear slippers. But you can also choose to just walk around in your socks. Bathrooms or toilets often provide different slippers, because using the same slippers is seen as unhygienic.
GOING OUT FOR DINNER
You can have delicious food anywhere in Japan and you don’t need to worry about kitchen hygiene, it’s all perfectly fine. A lot of times, you’ll get a warm cloth before dinner which is meant for washing your hands and/or face before eating. Eating on the streets of Japan is also really safe. This is even easier, just point at what you want!
And of course you’ll eat with chopsticks! Not very skilled at using chopsticks yet? No problem, practice makes perfect!
Don’t feel like going out for dinner or want to save money on your budget? Buy a bentobox for lunch/dinner from time to time. You can buy these boxes at every station and sometimes even on the street. You can choose which one you want from the plastic examples. It comes with chopsticks and soy sauce.
A bentobox includes several different things, consisting of vegetables, meat, rice and/or fish.
Are you as crazy about sushi as we are and wondering where you can eat the best sushi in Japan? We can definitely recommend the sushi from the snack bars around the fish market in Tokyo. These tiny snack bars offer the freshest sushi ever, while you stand at the bar..It’s made on the spot Ordering isn’t difficult, because you can just point at a picture on a plateau of sushi. The sushi bar will often serve green tea for free.
Another type of sushi bar you’ll find a lot in Japan is the conveyer belt. When you enter, you get assigned a seat at the conveyer belt and you can take what you like. The color of the plate the sushi is served on tells you its price. When you’ve finished your piece of sushi you stack the plate onto your stack. When you’ve finished eating, all your plates are added up. Green tea is often free here too; you can tap your own from a tap located at various locations next to the conveyer belt. The green tea is a powder, located next to the soy sauce. Put a scoop of green tea powder in your cup and add water.
Finally: a few apps that’ll make traveling through Japan a lot easier:
Tripadvisor cityguides Tokyo & Kyoto
Google translate app
STAYING OVERNIGHT IN JAPAN: TIPS ON ACCOMMODATIONS
Are you going to Japan and looking for tips to stay overnight in Japan? Naturally, your choice of accommodation depends on your budget and wishes, that’s why we’ve listed a few accommodations in Japan.
BUDGET ACCOMMODATIONS OR HOSTELS IN JAPAN
In Japan, a hostel is a good choice for a budget traveler or solo traveler, as you can find them everywhere. A beautiful hostel in Tokyo is Unplan Kagurazaka and Piece Hostel Kyoto is a good choice in Kyoto. Our personal favorite budget accommodation in Japan is located at Mount Aso and is called Aso Base Backpackers. It’s a squeaky clean, beautiful hostel with a cozy common area and nice food. The private rooms in this hostel are also very pretty.
Aso base backpackers hostel
HOTELS OR SMALL ACCOMMODATIONS IN JAPAN
Traveling together and prefer a double room in Japan? An accommodation with good reviews at a reasonable price is hard to find in Tokyo and depends on your own wishes, because you’ll either have to pay more or compromise on space or quality. It’s best to have a look at all the options for accommodations in Tokyo yourself and make a choice. We thought the Schmied Nishinotoin apartments in Kyoto had a good price-quality ratio. It’s also nice to have access to a washing machine, especially when traveling for a long time. Our personal favorite accommodation in Japan is on the beautiful island Miyajima. This small island off the Hiroshima coast is most known for the image of the red shrine in the azure blue water. Our favorite accommodation in Miyajima is called Miyajima Guest House Mikuniya. It’s a beautifully situated guesthouse with really friendly owners. A Japanese room with a view is especially gorgeous. Reserve this accommodation on time, or it might be full.
Guest House Mikuniya in Miyajima
LUXURY ACCOMMODATIONS IN JAPAN
The best option for a luxurious overnight stay in Japan is to spend the night in a ryokan. As always: book your accommodation on time!