Travelling to Japan as a first timer is a daunting experience. Going to a city where they don't use the Roman alphabet, let alone speak the language, is just one more hurdle which can make those first few hours in the city all that more confusing and intimidating. But trust me, Japan is one of the most incredible cities in the world and the kind people you'll find there are always more than happy to help you out with any pickle you might find yourself in. That being said, after many "first times" in Japan, I've plotted my top tips to ensure your first few hours there go as smoothly as possible, and you've set yourself up for success for the rest of your trip in Japan!
Things to Bring Just for Japan!
Travelling to Japan, for the most part, requires the regular selection of things to pack. But there are a few items that I wished I had had with me the first time I arrived and was sure to pack the next time I travelled there. Here are a few of them!
a Coin Purse
I'm not much of a purse person to begin with, I travel everywhere with a backpack and wallet. But in Japan, there are so many coins you'll need at all times! You'll need coins for vending machines, temple donations, arcade games and more! Fumbling through your wallet or bag to find the exact change can be a pain and I found that with the addition of a small coin purse I was always able to easily find just the right amount I needed at a moments notice.
Make sure you pack a good pair of slip-on walking shoes. Many restaurants and hotels will require you to remove your shoes who you come inside and anything with complicated laces is really going to slow this process down and can become quite irritating when you're still tired from the long flight.
Hand Sanitizer and Kleenex
Many of the bathrooms in Japan don't have soap or paper towels so I made sure to pack a few bottles of hand sanitizer and a couple of packs of kleenex in case I needed to dry my hands. You'll see many old Japanese women with elegant hand embroidered handkerchiefs they use for the same reason and these make great souvenirs if you want an authentic one.
Downloading some offline maps will definitely help you with navigating your way around the notoriously complex street systems in Japan. Even if you have access to pocket wifi on your trip, maps often load slowly and take up a lot of data. Downloading offline maps before you leave for the various cities you're visiting will save you a ton of data and time. Also, be sure to download the Navitime app which will give you transit directions in English for any train and metro journeys you might take while in Japan.
Pick the Right Seat for the Plane
Depending on where you're setting off from, you're most likely looking at a 13-hour flight to Japan. Be sure you start off your trip right and make sure you've packed everything you need to keep comfortable on the flight. Tips on how to pack the perfect carry-on for a long haul flight are over on this post! If you don't have the cash to splurge for first class - and let's face it basically no one does - see if your airline has the ability to upgrade your seats to the exit row. It was only a few hundred dollars between the two of us to book the exit row, and it was some of the best money we ever spent. We had ample leg room, lots of space to get up and stretch and no one in front of us to smash their chair down on our legs! I slept so peacefully throughout most of the flight, something that almost never happens. The exit rows do tend to be a little more colder, being beside the door, so always pack a light scarf with you and use your coat as a blanket. Some airlines even provide blankets free of charge on long-haul flights so never be shy to ask for an extra one if you need it. Make friends with the flight staff and you’ll have all the more of an enjoyable flight.
Get Some Sleep
If you're planning on getting any sleep on the plane (which hopefully you are), there are a few essential items to ensure you're giving yourself the best chance of getting some shuteye. The flights usually are good about turning off the lights when it's time to readjust your sleep schedule but in case the person next to you is reading, or the lights have been kept on, it's important to make sure you have a good eye mask to block out the sun. I always bring a little travel sized bottle of lavender spray. This is the Lush Twilight spray which I just transferred to a travel sized bottle. I put a little bit of this spray on my neck pillow, and scarf and the gentle scent helps calm me down during any turbulence and puts me to sleep once I'm nice and relaxed. In Japan, you can also buy these heated lavender-scented eye masks which are incredible for relaxing your eyes and putting you to sleep. If you need an extra bit of help, take melatonin. While I don't recommend this for the long term, it is a great way to help readjust your sleep pattern. I don't love the way ear plugs feel, but if you don't mind them, they're a great way to keep out the sound of a crying baby.
Use the In-Flight Time Wisely
Whenever you aren’t sleeping, spend this time going over your Japanese phrase book. If you have some time to learn Japanese before you go on free platforms like Duolingo this is even better, but during the long flights it’s great to have a little crash course in the language. I downloaded this handy free app with pictures to go along with the text to help me learn all the key phrases and words I might need. Japanese is such a beautiful language and I only just grazed the surface but its so important to at least make an effort to learn please, thank you, hello and goodbye. I was thrilled with how much I was able to retain and even how even speaking a few words would bring huge smiles to people's faces. It was definitely worth the time I put into it.
What to do at Immigration
Once you land in Japan, despite your best efforts to get some sleep, you'll most likely be a bit jet lagged and tired but luckily for you, Japanese airports have some of the best signage in the world and making your way to immigration and baggage claim is as easy as it is everywhere else in the world even with the language barrier. Signage from the plane to get to immigration are all in Japanese and English. Before you land you'll be given an incoming passenger card to complete and give to the immigration officer. It's a very simple card with how long you'll be there and where you'll be staying. Once you arrive at the immigration desk they'll check your card (make sure you didn't miss any information) and take your picture and index your fingerprints. Don’t worry, this happens with everyone, you’re not being singled out. And that's all. Unless you're staying for a hugely extended period of time the process is super fast and efficient.
Pick Up Your Wifi-Hotspot
Before leaving the airport, make sure you pick up your pocket wifi! Pocket wifi is essential for travel in Japan since it allows you access to the internet on your phone at all times. This is essential for directions, translations and even just posting your stunning photos on Instagram. Pocket wifi devices can be ordered in advance and sent either directly to your hotel or you can opt to pick them up at the airport. Picking them up at the airport is a great option since you'll have your devices right away and if there's any confusion about transportation from the airport to your accommodation you'll have these on hand to help you out in a jam! The best option we found for pocket wifi was with Ninja Wifi, their speed is great and it costs about $30 US for five days. The more time you rent the device for the cheaper it gets per day. I would never travel in Japan without one of these since free wifi is really hard to come by in Japan. Definitely don't rely on that being your main method of access to the internet. When you’re done using it, they come with a pre-paid envelope to mail them back to the company. So just place it inside and find the nearest mailbox to throw it into.
Get some Cash
Before leaving the airport, but sure to hit up the ATM to take out a bunch of case. You can also get some money ordered to your local bank in your home country to bring with you but it's just as easy to take it out when you arrive. Despite Japan being thought of as such a modern country, there are different ways in which it feels much more old-fashioned. One of these ways is the fact that most places only accept cash and credit cards are only generally accepted for large purchases. Those little ramen shops won't even know what to do with your card. Cash is king in Japan and you always want to make sure you don't run out! You don't want to miss out on a unique street snack that's only available seasonally at this one location and you find yourself out of cash! If you’re worried about carrying around so much cash for fear of being robbed, don’t be. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world.
If you're arriving in Tokyo, one of the best methods of transportation to make your way into the city is on the Airport Limousine Bus. The Airport Limousine Bus service takes passengers from the arrivals terminal to hundreds of drop off locations around Tokyo. Pretty much no matter where you're staying, you'll find a drop-off locations minutes away. I like the bus service better than the trains from the airport because it's a lot less stressful. The train system in Japan can be overwhelming at the best of times and post-long-haul flight the airport limousine bus is a breeze! You just go up to any of the orange kiosks in the arrivals terminal and select your destination. It's good to do a bit of research on their site in advance since there are A LOT of different options for destinations. If your hotel is in Akihabara, there are multiple drops off locations in that area alone. Tickets cost around ¥1000 ($10 US) and maybe a little more or less depending on the distance from the airport. The airport limousine buses have free wifi on board, and I loved being able to get a good first look at the city as we drove in. The underground trains just don't give you this amazing viewpoint as you enter the city.
Visit Your First Japanese Vending Machine
While waiting for your bus to arrive at the airport, pass the time by exploring the myriad of different Japanese vending machines they have all over the place. It might seem silly, especially to Japanese people for whom these are ubiquitous, but I'm obsessed with these. Japan is the mecca of vending machines. I am fascinated with the way they work, the look of them, and especially the unique ones. Old, new, big and small and full of all sorts of goodies. The ones we found at the airport were relatively standard compared to the ones you'll find in the hub of the city, but it was still exciting to see the selection of drinks I'd never even heard of before. For the most part, you can surmise what kind of drink it is from the images on the packaging, but you'd be amazed at how many different flavours and varieties there are! The buttons which are coloured blue mean the drink is cold and the ones with red buttons indicate the drink will be hot. That's right, hot beverages out of a vending machine! Grab yourself a warm can of coffee and give that a try for the first time. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how delicious these are. Coffee is just the thing to keep you from crashing when you get to your hotel. And being able to stay awake a little bit longer is key to preventing jet lag. The worst thing you can do is fall asleep as soon as you see that bed and find yourself wide away at 2 am.
Checking into your Accommodation
There are multiple options for accommodation in Japan. Airbnb listings have been significantly reduced since some new legislation in Japan but is still a great option option for a more homely experience. Ryokans are the traditional Japanese style inns with rooms where you have a futon on the ground to sleep on. My recommendation for first timers is a hotel, and while perhaps that might sound a little boring, hotels are often a great place to stay that's both slightly familiar as well as a new experience. The staff in many of these hotels don't speak much English but are all incredibly helpful with the use of a little bit of non-verbal communication. Prepare yourself in advance the size of a Japanese hotel room. The rumours are true, and most hotel rooms are shockingly tiny in big cities like Tokyo. There is often not even room for your luggage without it being in the middle of the room. Be sure when booking your hotel room you ask for "western style bed" since traditional Japanese beds are hard as a rock. Also, if you book a room with a "double bed" expect it to be tiny. All the bed sizing in Japan is smaller than in North America, so it's always advisable to size up. The best option for the price is to book a room with two singles and push them together! This is actually what most Japanese travellers do. Most hotels also provide a pair of pyjamas for you which are wonderfully comfortable and are washed daily. Despite how comfy and cosy your room might look, drop your bags and head out the door right away, don't give yourself the chance to get comfy and lulled into sleep.
Go for a Walk
One of the best things to wake you up and keep that jet lag at bay is a walk around the bright neon lights and visual sensations that is Japan. By this time of the day, most businesses will be closed , and the sidewalks are clamouring with young teens playing arcade games, giggling nervously at the women dressed in maid costumes advertising their maid cafes. Dozens of Salarymen in white button-ups and black slacks are just getting their night started and gregariously piling themselves into bars, singing along loudly to whatever K-Pop is blaring on the radio inside. There is truly nothing like your first time walking down the streets of Tokyo, especially if you’re in a busy neighbourhood. Soak it all in but don’t worry if you feel a bit overwhelmed. That’s natural, particularly if this is your first time in a huge city. If you’re looking for a break from the crowd, duck down a small side street or alley and you’ll be immediately met with peace and quiet as even the loudest Japanese partier is also always very respectful of their residential neighbours.
Get Something to Eat
No doubt after a long day and nothing but airline food you'll be excited to dive into Japanese cuisine. My advice for the perfect first-time meal is a bowl of ramen. Ramen shops are all over the place, and there really is no such thing as a bad bowl of ramen. So you don't need to worry about researching where to do, just find a shop that catches your eye and head inside. Most ramen shops operate with a vending machine kiosk. At the front of the restaurant, you'll see a huge vending machine with different coloured buttons, each with pictures of ramen and perhaps a few side dishes. The buttons will also display the price of the meal. Put your money into the slot at the top and press the button of the meal item that catches your fancy. Out a small slot at the base of the vending machine comes a little paper ticket with your order printed on it, in Japanese of course, and any change from the bill you put it. If there is a line, get in the queue to wait your turn to be seated. If there's no line, head right inside and take a seat. Then all you need to do is give your ticket to the chef, and he will prepare the meal as indicated. This might seem strange, but it's an ingenious way to cut down on staff and allow the chefs, who also act as the waiter and server, to get your order without ever having to touch dirty money. One of the best parts of a ramen shop is to be seated at the counter and watch the cooks at work. They effortlessly perform this dance, filling bowl after bowl with hot broth and whipping around the bar grabbing stacks of toppings with deft movements to create your food fantasy!
Buy your Suica or Pasmo Card
After filling up on some food, head over to the closest train station to grab your Suica or Pasmo Card. A Suica or Pasmo card is a metro passes that you load up with money to use on the train. This means you can simply swipe your card when entering and exiting any train station and your fare will automatically be calculated and deducted from your card. This makes it so simple to travel on the metro since the Japanese subway system requires you to pay different fares for different distances. If you don't have a Suica or Pasmo card, you'll have to figure out which fare price you'll need to pay for every trip you take based on the distance. Armed with these cards, you'll be ready to hop on the metro the next day without fighting the morning crush of people. Just be sure to check the balance every so often to ensure you have enough money on the card. To purchase a new card you just head to any machines in the station with the words “buy a new card” on it. The signage is in English as well as Japanese and the machines themselves have English menus making it easy to buy or refill your card.
Visit an Arcade
After picking up your Suica cards, seek out an arcade! These behemoth arcade buildings are sometimes up to six floors of fun, each one offering up something different. Taito and Sega are reliably the best options for arcades. The first floor of most consists of UFO catcher machines while the upper floors each have different sets of video games to play with friends or just on your own. Some levels felt more like casinos, full of smokers playing digital slots or the Japanese gambling obsession Pachinko. The machines all costs a few hundreds yen to play and you can either pay with coins or tap your suica card to have the money deducted from there!
In the basement of these arcades, you'll find dozens of these Purikura photo cubicles, each one from a different company offering a unique experience. Purikura is where you can get those classic Japanese printed photos where you can add text, stickers and give your face the "anime" treatment. The Purikura experience costs 500 yen ($5 US). Once you drop the coins inside the payment machine, the screen will direct you to your starting photo booth. Unlike photo booths you find in North America, where you step in and just take your picture, these use a green screens. The camera will direct you (almost always in English as well as Japanese) as to how to pose and take a bunch of pictures. The camera moves around so you get a bunch of different options from portrait mode to full body and even sometimes animated GIFs. Once you finish your photoshoot, you'll be directed into another booth where you'll get to decorate, alter, add filters and text to all the photos you took. Often this process is timed so keep an eye on the clock. Afterwards, your photos will be arranged into a collage (often picked by you) and printed out at the same station where you initially put your coins inside. It was great fun trying out different poses and spending as much time as we were allowed decorating the photos into something absolutely ridiculous. Trust me, this will make for an incredible first Instagram of your trip!
Find some Gachapon
Gachapon refers to little vending machine capsule toys. The word 'Gachapon' is onomatopoeia for the sound the crank makes when you use the machine. These devices each contain different sets of toys, and you never know which item from the set you're going to receive. It's totally random. Most sets include some rare items which become sought-after collector treasures. The toys sets change pretty often, so there's always something new to buy. My inner child (and let us face it, current adult) was immediately drawn to all the 'Sailor Moon' sets. I decided to go for the most expensive machine where you could get one of 5 different Sailor scout wands. I got Sailor Jupiter's - my favourite Sailor Scout - and had a lot of fun back at the hotel putting the wand display together. There were toy sets of little cats sitting on rice cookers, tiny replicas of vintage buckets, Pokemon cookie toys and lots of different Japanese characters often themed along with the next holiday. These make for small, cheap souvenirs to bring home for friends and family as they are wonderfully weird and always unexpected.
Prepare for Breakfast at the Conbini
By this time of night, if you've managed to stay awake, it's time to head back to the hotel. But before you do, stop into a 'conbini' (Japanese convenience store) to grab a few items for breakfast. 7-Eleven, Circle K, Lawsons and FamilyMart are the most common stores you'll find on every single corner in Japan. Breakfast in Japan is taken on the go so you won't find many restaurants open early in the morning so picking up some items for a little in-hotel picnic is a great idea to help take it easy on your first morning. My favourite treats to buy for the morning are an egg salad sandwich (honestly one of the best things you can eat in Japan, sounds weird but TRUST ME), a baked sweet treat filled with matcha, a can of coffee or latte to crack open in the morning for instant caffeine, and a ball of onigiri. This array of treats is sure to give you a reason to get up in the morning no matter how tired you might feel.
And with that, your first day in Japan comes to a close. Hopefully with all these tips you’ll manage to have an incredible first few hours that will result in minimal jet lag and leave you excited for the rest of your time in Japan! Below I’ve listed a few important customs to keep in mind which might surprise you as you experience Japan for the first time. Culture shock is part of travel but don’t let it over take you. Embrace it and even try to see if you can follow along with the culture and customs while you’re visiting this absolutely incredible country!
Customs to Keep in Mind
Tipping isn't something that is part of Japan's consumer culture. They believe good service should be something you always should be provided and not something that is earned through money. If you leave money on the table, don't be surprised if the waiter cases you down the street thinking you might have left it there on accident. A great way to showing your appreciation for excellent service is to learn a few phrases in Japanese to tell either your waiter, chef or receptionist how much you appreciate their service.
Be ready to bow
Bowing is a sign of respect in Japan so don't be surprised to have people bow to you at your hotel, coming onto the bus or even just on the street if you've had a particularly lovely interaction. Can foreigners bow you ask? Most Japanese people don't expect foreigners to bow, but I found them whenever I simply mimic exact what their bow was like they seemed to respond very positively and loved I made an effort.
Don't Forget to Bring a Plastic Bag
Garbage cans are one of the most challenging things to find in Japan. The only public place where you can reliably find these is outside of convenience stores. But don't let that make you think they'll be garbage all over the place. No, Japan is the cleanest country I've ever visited. Locals carry their trash with them until they can find a trash can or often until they get home so they can adequately sort it. Play along with the locals and make sure you always have a plastic bag with you to carry your garage and ensure you're not ruining their clean streets.
Learn to Line Up
Line ups in Japan are a way the city manages its deluge of people. Everyone is very respectful of the line. There is never any budding or large random groups, everyone takes the idea of lining up really seriously and you should too. Large masses of people taking the subway every day are efficiently organised into two or three lines making even the busiest commute very coordinated. Keep your eye out for lines as they often signify something popular that you wanna jump into. Most often is related to food and you'll never be disappointed in that.
Slurping is Key
In North America, the idea of slurping might sound rude or low class, but in Japan, it is a sign of your appreciation for the food. Slurp loud enough that the chef in the back can hear you are going at it!
Ladies only subway cars
During certain times of the day, there are designated carriage for women on the subway. This is to keep them safe in full vehicles. The signs identifying these cars are in pink paint on the floors of the metro so keep your eye out in case you're a male traveller and don't wanna get on these by accident, an embarrassing affair which we might have experienced once or twice.
Pay your bus fare when you get off
Japan is one of the only places I've visited where you have to pay your bus far when you get off, not when you get on. When you get on the bus, you'll enter through the back doors, and when you get off, you'll exit through the front where you can either pay the ash fare or swipe your Suica or pasmo card.
Don't be scared of the mouth masks
If you see people wearing mouth masks, don't be scared. They're not an Ebola patient or a hypochondriac. These masks are worn if you're coming down with a cold or flu or even just allergies to prevent other people from getting sick. Even if you're the slightest bit under the weather the Japanese plop one of these masks on, more for your protection and out of respect for others. They sell these everywhere so if you feel like you're getting sick, you should don one as well.
Have you travelled to Japan before? How did you manage your first few hours in the country? Did jet lag get the better of you? Leave me your experiences in the comments or let me know if you’re planning in visiting Japan and what other tips and tricks you’d like to learn!