Springtime, in Japan! (Tips)
We had done quite a bit of research before going to Japan, and we decided that Springtime would be the best time to visit. Not only for the magical cherry blossom season ...
But also for the cooler early Spring weather. We were very happy with our choice. Where to begin. This 17-day journey had so many magical moments, it is hard to decide where to get started!
It would probably be useful to start with a lot of the tips that we read and pick out what we feel would be most useful to you. Text in red will explain what we found to be different.
Tips found to be useful
Japan is on JST (Japanese Standard Time) which is +9 ahead of GMT and has no daylight savings time. All of Japan is in one-time zone. Some time differences between Japan and other major international cities: New York: -14 hours, Los Angeles: -17 hours, Sydney: +1 hour, Hong Kong: -1 hour, Dubai: -5 hours and London: -9 hours.
Japan has four distinct seasons: Spring (March to May), Summer (June to August), Autumn (September to November) and Winter (December to February). Climate and temperature vary depending on season and area, and also each season has different attractions and sightseeing spots. Northern Japan is very snowy with many areas receiving over 250" per year! Even during the early cherry blossom season which for Northern Japan is late April, there can still be some snow in the air! Certainly a chill.
Japan is one of those countries where having pocketwifi could be beneficial However free public wi-fi is expanding now with the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics here. We found plenty of public wi-fi available, but not in more remote areas.
Traveling Japan can be difficult with the language barrier, especially on the outskirts. So the internet could be a big help with your trip to Japan. Eggo hanasi maska (Aygo-hun-ahsee-moksa) is the only phrase we learned in Japanese for our trip. This means: Do you speak English! It was quite helpful on several occasions. Anywhere the language barrier could be an issue for you, no worries! The people of Japan will do everything in their power to assist you. It is truly inspiring!
Japan Rail Pass
If you are planning to travel to multiple cities in Japan, Japanrailpass (JR Pass) is a must-have item, and it can only be purchased outside of Japan which means you should place your order before coming to Japan. This “exclusive to foreigners” rail pass allows you to travel with any JR lines across the country including bullet trains (can be pricey!). But, if you are only visiting Tokyo, this is not a necessary item. Since we started in Tokyo, then to Northern Japan to Aomori, and Hirosaki castle. Then back to Tokyo, before heading to Kyoto. Then back to Tokyo!! The rail pass was invaluable to us! For more in-depth see our post about Japan rail travel on our home page under Japan!
Exchange Money / Money
Exchange rates vary, however you will need yen during your travels since many smaller places of business only accept cash. The two major airports Narita, and Haneda have places to easily do this when you land. Their rates are very competitive. After extensive research, we found that the airport exchanges had as good or better rates than anywhere else in the country. In our case, the American dollar is quite coveted in Japan, and the exchange rate here in the states is terrible for Yen. We just waited until we landed. Easy peasy!
Japan has its own very unique culture which is hard to understand for many and is very interesting. While you are in Japan, it’s highly recommended to try a cultural activity, such as a kimono, tea ceremony or samurai training. These experiences can be done only in Japan and don’t miss a chance for the “once in your lifetime” kind of moment. We ended up with several "once in a lifetime" experiences in Japan. More on that in another section!
Some apps can massively ease your trip like Google map & street view are a must. Also, transportation apps can be very useful, which can tell you the nearest station and how to get to your destination, as Tokyo’s (especially) Metro is like a spider web. Two apps we put on our phones were Japan official travel app, and Japan travel by Navitime. All you need! Well, and of course good old google, and google maps.
Must carry your own garbage!
Most foreign tourists complain about a lack of trash bins on the street in Japan. Japanese streets are extremely clean, but you can rarely find a place to throw your garbage away!. Bins can only be spotted at convenience stores or at stations. My recommendation would be carrying a small plastic bag with you at all times, like the one you get from a 7-11 store. Believe me, you are going to find it strange, but this could not be truer! You will rarely see a garbage can anywhere, other than mentioned above. You get used to it. The insanely clean streets everywhere make it worthwhile. You most likely will never encounter anywhere else on Earth as clean as Japan!
Never Leave a Tip! It is very offensive to leave a tip and it would most often be refused. It implies that the person you are tipping doesn’t earn very much in Japan. It is a no-no everywhere! Enjoy the extra savings, we saw tipping happen nowhere in Japan. Not once. I spoke to several locals about it and they confirmed.
Take off Shoes
Always look for shoes in the entrances of buildings. If you see them, be sure to remove your shoes before entering. Wearing shoes indoors, especially in homes and some businesses, is seen as very rude and dirty. However, this is not necessary everywhere. Just look around. We read a lot about this, but really this only occurred once or twice our entire trip.
Bowing in Japanese culture is extremely important, and the ritual is filled with rules and etiquette most travelers will not be expected to know or understand. As a general point, you should keep your back and neck straight and bow at the same angle as the person in front of you, this will be warmly welcomed! We also found that the deeper the bow, the greater magnitude of gratitude you are showing. Bowing will happen with virtually every encounter you have in Japan. It becomes second nature and something we thoroughly enjoyed! The level of respect shown to one another in Japan is so special.
Stand on the Left
Always stand on the left when using an escalator. Everyone does this, no exceptions. Make sure you pick the correct side of the escalator. If you can’t remember which side that is, just follow the others. Believe me, on a train station escalator you will find out why! Took us at least a week to remember this. Just too used to the right side. Walking around Tokyo we kept changing the flow on sidewalks ... by accident of course!
Don’t Blow Your Nose
Never use tissues to blow your nose in public, it’s highly offensive to the Japanese, just sniff. You will often hear sniffing! This tip is spot on. While on the packed trains in Tokyo you will often hear and see people sniffing, you will not spot anyone blowing. It just does not happen in Japan.
If you are a smoker and visiting Japan, be aware that in most big cities you will not be allowed to smoke in the street (and could risk a pretty heavy fine if you do). Instead, you will have to smoke in designated areas, which can be pretty hard to find. Clean air! Being non-smokers our entire life, this was a real treat. And is followed by everyone. However, do be aware that there are still some restaurants in rural Japan that still allow smoking in their restaurants.
When visiting a shrine, learn the purification ritual. Use the ladle to wash each of your hands with fresh water, then put some water in your cupped hand and rinse your mouth and spit out the water beside the fountain. When you see this for the first time you're going to wonder
what in the world is going on. Quite interesting to watch this, especially the first few times.
Many ATM's in Japan do not accept foreign cards. ATM's that work with foreign cards can be found at post offices, banks, 7-11 stores, and a few other convenience stores. We exchanged plenty of cash for Yen so never had the need. We did see a LOT of them however just about everywhere.
Toilets are kind of a complicated deal in Japan, although in more rural areas you will also come across some squat toilets. For the high-tech toilets though, you’ll want to figure out in advance the basics of how to flush, which isn’t always obvious from the outset, and is usually a lever or button separate from the sci-fi control panel you might initially be presented with! You will get used to the controls after a few tries. However, I'm not so sure that we will ever get over having to use a squat toilet a few times ... (We'll let you discover this one on your own!)
Food and drink
Download google translate. The best way to decode menus in Japanese and communicate when you’re having difficulties is to have Google translate downloaded for offline use, with Japanese language installed. We found that even taking a photo of something and showing it to your server will be the only thing you will need to do. Contrary to what you may think a vegetarian diet will be quite difficult to adhere to in Japan. Vegan "close" to impossible but we did find a few great restaurants with Vegan options. More on that later. Gluten-free quite difficult as well, but possible.
Vending machines are plentiful in Japan. Shockingly plentiful. They are literally everywhere! Some restaurants have what looks like a vending machine with pictures of the various dishes to order. This is where you pay and collect a ticket for your order, which you hand over the counter. When your order is ready they will call out your number in Japanese! And with so many, you will have no worries about being far away from that next bottle of water or snack.
If there is a specific restaurant you’re looking to visit in a tourist area, check hours in advance and make reservations. The biggest issue here is that many restaurants have only 10 or 12 seat tops! So if somewhere is on your must-go list, be sure to look into this. We are early eaters, so this was of no issue for us except for one time. More on where we dined later in our other section of Japan.
Slurping when eating soups and noodles are not only okay but is considered polite! It’s a sign you’re enjoying the food, so don’t be put off or grossed out if you encounter it. We still could not bring ourselves to slurp, lol! But we heard a lot of slurping!
Join the line
If you see a line outside a restaurant, get in it – chances are you’re in for a delicious meal. Don’t worry, they’re efficient and the lines move quickly. Lines (queue's) in Japan are taken very seriously. They are very organized and incredibly adhered to everywhere. You will learn to enjoy it, trust me!
Many Japanese taxis have automatically opening/closing doors that shut once you are inside. It can be a bit disconcerting the first time it happens! You will get used to it. Keep your fingers and bags inside!
Let us know if you have visited Japan and have any tips you think may be good to add here!