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Temples, Tipping, and Train Rides: A Guide to Japan for First-Timers

By John Newton

05.01.19

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Expert tips can get you on the right path to a perfect vacation in Japan.

Photo by Sergii Rudiuk/Shutterstock

Expert tips can get you on the right path to a perfect vacation in Japan.

Planning a trip to Japan can be intimidating for the first-time visitor, so we’ve turned to a team of travel experts to learn the secrets to a successful vacation.

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Japan’s culture—complex enough to encompass samurai warriors and Hello Kitty—is one that begs exploration, ranking it high on the must-see lists of many travelers. But because of the language barrier, its unfamiliar rules of etiquette, and the off-putting expense of travel to Asia, visiting Japan can be intimidating.

We reached out to people we trust—travel advisors, hotel concierges and general managers, and writers and editors—for their recommendations on how to best navigate a trip to Japan. The result is this list of tips that will ensure a vacation that’s filled with memorable experiences—and short on unwelcome surprises.

Know when to go

The easy answer: Spring and autumn are the ideal times to visit. Summer in Japan is typically hot and humid, and winter can be gray, damp, and cold.

That said, a winter trip can mean attractive off-season airfares and hotel rates, so to take advantage of a more affordable Japan, pack accordingly with some extra layers for exploring. (You’ll also want to travel between December and March if your trip includes skiing the slopes of Hokkaido or Honshu.)

Our experts offered a couple of additional trip-scheduling tips:

- Avoid Golden Week, one of the most important public holidays in Japan, which spans late April into early May (the specific dates shift annually). Many Japanese take their spring vacations during Golden Week, so hotels often sell out.

- Don’t get fixated on cherry blossoms. While the blooming trees are justifiably legendary, you’ll be admiring them shoulder to shoulder with crowds. Expand your color palette: Almost every week of Japanese spring means a new and different floral celebration, from plum trees (which bloom as early as February, before the cherry trees) to wisteria (early May) and irises (June). And if fall’s your chosen season to visit, the vivid foliage in parts of Japan rival New England’s autumn colors. 

Find (slightly more) affordable flights

The expense of airfare to Japan from North America is one of the most daunting parts of deciding on a trip. Tokyo is an important international business destination, so many visitors are paying for tickets with expense accounts, even the ones in economy class. Leisure travelers can find cheaper fares by visiting during the off-peak winter months, as mentioned earlier, or by considering flying into airports other than Tokyo’s Narita International. If your trip includes plans to visit Osaka or Nagoya, check if there are better airfares into and out of those airports instead of Tokyo. (Alas, this trick is not guaranteed—sometimes Tokyo is the same price or means a direct flight.)

Get around as the locals do

Japan’s trains, a marvel of public transportation, were recommended by many of our experts as the best way to explore the country. Consider buying a Japan Rail Pass, which includes journeys on the Shinkansen (bullet trains) and, if you’re taking multiple trips, is a better value than buying individual tickets.

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You can make train travel even easier, too: Judy Perl of Judy Perl Worldwide Travel recommends using luggage delivery services (called takkyubin in Japanese). For a reasonable price (less than US$25 to ship a suitcase from Tokyo to Kyoto), the service will pick up your luggage at one hotel and deliver it to the next, so you won’t have to lug your bags through train stations. Hotel concierges or front desks can assist with making these arrangements.

Once you have settled at your hotel, David Lee of luxury tour operator Into Japan recommends forgoing taxis and exploring on foot instead. Walking in Japan, Lee says, “is always safe and will get you away from the crowds very easily. . . . You are sure to find some hidden gems, such as little-known temples or restaurants run by the same family for hundreds of years.”

Tokyo is a little spread out for you to rely solely on walking, however. When it comes to getting around the big city, AFAR’s deputy editor Jenn Flowers, a frequent traveler to Japan, recommends buying a refillable Suica card. “You’ll avoid long queues at subway ticket machines,” she explains. “Pay the $5 deposit, and you can refill it as many times as you like. You can use it on buses, too.” Flowers picks up a Suica card at the airport or train station, but you can also order ahead and get it delivered by mail.

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Carry cash

While much of the world—and especially much of Asia—has embraced credit cards and other digital transactions, Japan is the rare holdout. “Many shops, small businesses, and taxis don’t accept credit cards,” says Ross Cooper, the general manager of Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills. “Without cash, you won’t be able to enjoy the great little ramen shops where you buy your ticket from a machine and there isn’t even a cashier present!” Happily, finding cash is easy, with ATMs available everywhere from airports to train stations and convenience stores. 

Stay connected

You might not consider renting a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot for most trips, but it can be an invaluable investment for a visit to Japan. You’ll rely on your digital device to translate street signs, decipher menus, and to consult Google Maps to figure out where, exactly, you have ended up. A mobile Wi-Fi hot spot lets you stay online all day, wherever you go, for around $10 per day.

A number of companies offer mobile hot spots for rent, but the easiest option is to add one to your Japan Rail Pass order. You can arrange either to pick it up at the airport or have it delivered to your hotel. Simply return it at the end of your trip by sealing it in the self-addressed, stamped envelope that’s provided with the device and then putting it in any mailbox.

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Book a night to remember

Familiar upscale Western hotel brands have outposts in Japan’s major cities, and you can book a room at a Four Seasons in Tokyo or a Ritz-Carlton in Osaka—where your stay will probably be flawless.

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Consider, however, spending at least one night at a traditional ryokan. At these inns, guests stay in rooms with tatami mats and futons and have a chance to enjoy a Japanese bath and to relax in an atmosphere of quiet serenity unfamiliar to modern citizens. Even though ryokans can be more expensive than other hotels, breakfast and dinner are usually included in the rates. These multicourse meals will likely be among the highlights of your trip.

Leave no tip behind

Not only is tipping uncommon in Japan, but in many cases, tips will be outright rejected: A waiter may rush after you to return the change left on the table. You are truly not expected to leave a gratuity.

There are two exceptions to that general rule, however: Guides are accustomed to receiving small tips, so you may want to offer one at the end of a tour (though it is still not required). Second, if you are making an unusual or especially complicated request of the staff at a ryokan or a concierge at a hotel, you may want to leave a gratuity.

Observe simple etiquette

Use your indoor voice everywhere. You won’t be in Japan too long before the relative quiet reminds you how truly loud Americans can be. The Japanese tend to keep their voices low on trains and in other public places, and chatting away on a cell phone while walking down the street is not as common as it is in the United States.

And leave that hilarious T-shirt or revealing sundress at home because you’re probably going to tour some of Japan’s shrines and temples. While few have specific dress codes, modest attire conveys an appropriate respect for those who are there to worship, not sightsee. 

Meet the locals

Visitors can dip a toe into Japanese culture by sitting in the audience of a Kabuki performance or by admiring objects in a museum, but those activities can limit the depth of your understanding. For Scott Gilman of JapanQuest Journeys, the best part of visiting the country is getting to know the people who live there. “Make sure that you go out of your way to interact with Japanese people from all walks of life to soak up this amazingly kind, interesting, and eclectic culture,” he says. Outside of Tokyo, schoolkids may approach you in the hope of practicing a few English phrases, and everywhere you go, locals will do their best to get around language barriers to help you find your way and to share the best of their city or neighborhood with you. 

Travel deeper

A final tip for visitors to Japan is a universal truth of travel, and one that is important to remember in a destination where many visitors hesitate to venture beyond the major tourist sites. “Be adventurous and don’t be afraid to explore local areas and get off the beaten paths in Japan,” says Charles Jack, the general manager of the Westin Tokyo. “Ask a local, or your hotel concierge, for their favorite areas to hang out and you will be pleasantly surprised with your discoveries.”

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Japan

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