Japan First-Timer: Things You Need to Know
If you know me and my love for traveling, then you know that Japan is one of my favorite countries to visit. In fact, Japan has always been my favorite topic to talk about. The short trip to Tokyo for the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 media junket is my first-time visit, but Japan quickly climbed the ranks as my most favorite country after Australia. I've visited Japan twice now, yet I still feel that I barely explore even the littlest part of the country.
To be honest, the first time I planned a family trip to Japan, I was stressed out. It's not because I was handling a group of people for the trip. It's because I found everything to be overwhelming, especially the public transportation system a.k.a. train. Understanding the train system is important because it heavily correlates to the rest of your planning and itinerary. But after hours of researching and times of learning the hard way, I found my way to arrive confidently in Japan.
Whenever I think about Japan, I always be reminded of my fond memories there. Up until now, I'm still planning to return and experience more of the beautiful and inspiring country. And I know there are a lot of people out there who hasn't had the chance to visit Japan and is planning to go somewhere in the future—so this post is for you. Stop sweating over your fears about traveling to Japan for the first time and read out my tips...
Season & Weather
For the best picturesque experience in Japan, the cherry blossom ("sakura" in Japanese) season is the best time to go. It's because cherry blossoms simply make anything look good and insta-worthy, trust me. But, there are many things to consider for when to visit Japan because everyone surely has their own priorities. Other people might prefer it not to rain, so they do the trip during winter. I'd rather be willing to risk the rain and a little extra degrees for the picturesque Japan.
Weather-wise, it's fairly good to visit the country in (1) spring—late March to mid April—due to the cherry blossom viewing season, (2) autumn—mid October to early November, and (3) winter—early December to January—due to the snow and new years festivals and celebrations.
If you're like me and thinking a little rain is fine, just make sure that you'll always check the weather before you go out, or even before you fly to the country. Umbrellas in Japan often priced as high as 1.000 JPY (Rp 130 k). So if it's raining season and you do mind to spend extra money for an umbrella, do bring one or a rain coat from your home country.
It's important to stay around the heart of the city, but the thing is it would be better if you stay near any public transportation access—best if it's a train station. That way it will be easier for you to reach the public transportation. In Tokyo, the best opt for lodgings are around the Yamanote Line, because it's already circling the heart of Tokyo. Also, the Yamanote Line serves great access to the main tourist destinations, like Shibuya, Harajuku, Akihabara, etc.
AirBnB is the most recommended lodging for budget travelers who plan to stay without really breaking the bank—especially those who come in a group. In big and modern cities like Tokyo, the unit types offered are mostly apartments, while in more traditional cities like Kyoto, it's mostly traditional houses or ryokan. But if you love to try something unusual, you can always go for its unique capsule hotels.
If hotels would be more than happy to keep your luggage when you arrive before check-in time, it's a bit tricky for AirBnB hosts. The last time I visit Japan, my hosts in both Tokyo and Kyoto refused to let me store my luggage in their units before 4pm because they said it was cleaning time. Luckily, there were luggage lockers to the rescue. Train stations usually offer storage facility in various sizes, which can be paid only with coins or rechargeable cards like Suica or Pasmo.
The local currency is yen (JPY or ¥) and coins are largely used throughout the country. So don't be surprised if you'd get so many coins in exchange for your fresh banknotes. One tip: have a dedicated coin purse for your little yens with you. If possible, sort and organize your coins based on the values—it'll save wasted minutes of reaching the right coins.
Although credit cards are still widely accepted in some cities, Japan is to a great extent a cash society. And don't worry, thanks to the widely usage of coins, people here rarely have any problem making change, even for the smallest value. Another tip: when you pay something at a shop or restaurant, look for a little tray on the counter and put your money there, instead of giving the money straight to the cashier person. Sometimes they just refuse to take it from our hands.
If you'd like to arrive in Tokyo—whether it's Haneda or Narita International Airport—you can opt for the airport rail transportation to go to the city and vice versa, like Tokyo Monorail and Narita Express. It's free of charge for Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) holders, while for non-holders it's 490 JPY (Rp 63 k) for a trip. Absolutely more reasonable than taking a cab.
And yes, taking cabs in Tokyo would literally blow up your wallet. Although generally taxi drivers in the country will be honest with the meter, instead of trying to scam passengers, the rates would still unbelievably expensive—especially in Tokyo. I often found my taxi drivers had difficulties in understanding English, so a written name of place or address in Japanese would help. You can also just show your destination on a map to the driver.
Traveling by train is the most efficient way to go around Japan. The country has a very reliable and efficient rail network, mostly operated by Japan Railways Group (JR Group), with private subway lines linking more specific areas. The map might be intimidating, but once you read it carefully, it would be very easy. You can purchase the tickets from the ticket machines in the station (mostly only accept payments with coins). But if you're planning to use the train more for your trip, purchasing a JR Pass is a great option (read my post about JR Pass HERE)
Buses, however, can be an alternative to the rail network. In traditional cities or smaller areas, buses are the main transportation. When you get on a bus, take a ticket from the machine near the door, and pay the fare to the bus driver or the machine when you get off. The ticket you'd be holding has a number on it and pay with the exact change (coins and 1,000 JPY notes only) based on the fare of your number, displayed on the bus screen.
But despite the wide variety of Japan public transportation, people in the country do walk a lot. Walking is the thing people do to get to their destination after taking the train or the subway. And, if I must say, they're really serious about it. They walk fast and right on their lane. That's why even though there were big crowds in Japan, things were never go chaos. There is always a sense of order, so it's really important to always move in tune with it.
Food & Drink
Noodles/ramen, rice-bowls, sushi, and matcha ice cream are the most popular and recommended delicacies in Japan (and by all means TRY THEM). Ocha (Japanese green tea) is often offered as a free complimentary drink (sometimes including the refills). In some ramen shops, customers are required to empty their table after they finished eating. In stations, you'll likely to find standing-only soba shops, serving cheap and warm soba for a quick slurp-and-go.
In street shops, a bowl of noodle or rice-bowl can cost around 300-600 JPY, while in shopping malls it can go as high as 700-1.000 JPY. Tipping isn't necessary when you're dining out. Sometimes they don't even understand the concept of tipping that they would run to give the money back to you just because they think you accidentally left the money on the table. In some cases, they would feel offended. So no matter how nice they are, just bow and say "arigatou".
And, yes, it is very tricky to find halal dishes in Japan. I once traveled to the country with some of my muslim friends and we have difficulties on figuring out whether pork is included in their cooking. Ingredients on almost all packaged foods are scribbled in Japanese, that's why. And the people in ramen shops don't always understand English. So when we asked whether the food is halal or contains pork, they just don't understand what the hell we're talking about.
Vending machines are typically everywhere in Japan, mostly selling drinks—from tea, coffee, juice, and beer. The thing that I couldn't stop doing when I was in Japan is spending my coins to try everything from the machines. Because most of them are actually delicious!
Japan has some notable shopping districts you shouldn't miss, like Shibuya (Tokyo) or Dotonbori (Osaka). Many of them are specifically known for particular goods, such as Harajuku (Tokyo) for unique and affordable fashion, Akihabara (Tokyo) for electronics and anime, or Ginza (Tokyo) for high-end branded goods. The country is also famous for its flea markets, usually offer secondhand items from kimonos to souvenirs at a bargain price. Takeshita Street is Tokyo's top market.
100-yen shops are one of the things that you should add to your bucket list too. It's similar too the American dollar stores, but better. Daiso, Can Do, and Seria are some of the shops where a wide range of products—from clothing to stationery—are priced under 1 dollar! Items sold here are in better quality than any dollar stores I've ever been to, IMO.
Things to Do
If you want to experience the real modern and fast-paced life of the Japanese, you might wanna start with Tokyo first. If you prefer the rather traditional Japan, then Kyoto it is. But for starters, I would suggest Tokyo as the first destination, since there are lots of things offered there. To make the most of your 24 hours in Tokyo, check out my itinerary HERE.
Beside strolling around the city, temple visit is also the most recommended thing to do in Japan generally. Like churches in western countries or mosques in the middle-east, Japanese temples offer great view, cultural and historical stories, and even spiritual experience. Some popular temples you have to visit including Meiji Jingu (Tokyo) and Fushimi Inari (Kyoto).
And since I said that there are some notable shopping districts you shouldn't miss while in Japan, market visit is the next thing you have to do. Head back to the 'Shopping' part to check out the recommended shopping destinations in Japan! If you're curious about other markets or shopping centers, by all means Google it.
In Tokyo, most parts of the city provide free Wi-Fi—from airports to hotels, restaurants to railway stations. Most AirBnB hosts in the city even offer free portable Wi-Fi for their guests, so traveling without the local SIM card or international roaming is possible. However, you can buy local SIM card at any airports or convenience stores. For Indonesian travelers, you can get one from both offline and online local travel agencies.
Basically, people in Japan aren't too familiar with English, especially those in small towns. Even in train stations, officers that understand English are very rare. But, people often understand simple phrases or name of places in English (i.e. "train to Shibuya Station?", "this two for 100 yen?"). And if they think that they don't really understand what you mean or know how to give the right response to you, they would kindly just try to do anything to help you. Whether they would speak to someone else to assist you, or just walk you out to the place you intend to go!
However, from what I've experienced, trying to greet and communicate with the local people in Japanese is just a great way to show that you respect them and that you're just being friendly with them. It's because Japanese people are very friendly and polite! You would often see local people greet each other (even to strangers!) and do a lot of bowing. It makes me think that it would be rude to not to even try to exchange greetings with them in their respectful way. Here are some basic Japanese phrases and greetings you can learn, which also can be very helpful while traveling in Japan:
- Hello - Konnichiwa
- Good morning - Ohayou gozaimasu (formal), ohayou (informal)
- Good evening - Konbanwa
- Goodbye - Sayonara
- Excuse me - Sumimasen
- Thank you / Thank you very much - Arigatou / Arigatou gozaimashita
- You're welcome - Do itashimashite (formal, although for this expression, I often found that people tend to just exchanging "Arigatou gozaimashita")
- Yes / No - Hai / Iie
- Please / (Water, spoon ...), please - Onegai shimasu / (Mizu, supun, ...) o kudasai
- Where is the (toilet, Shibuya Station, ...) ? - (Toire, Shibuya eki, ...) wa doko desu ka?
In other sides of the world, we have hugging, kissing, and handshaking as friendly or respective gestures. In this country, expect a lot of bowing. Phrases and greetings like "arigatou", "konnichiwa", or "sumimasen" are usually followed with bowing. But if you're not really accustomed to bow, just nod politely.
Always take off your shoes whenever you step inside a temple or a shrine (usually for some spots considered sacred), a house, and a ryokan (Japanese guestroom)—especially on the tatami mats. Sometimes it's also required to keep your socks on, if you're wearing one. There are no necessary dresscodes for temples or shrines.
From what I experienced, I see that Japanese highly respect others' personal space. People walk accordingly and right on their lane. Never have I encountered difficulties while taking photos, because they wouldn't even dare to step in front of me and ruin my photo. And queuing isn't just a mandatory but HABIT to them—especially while waiting for train or bus.
Almost every corner in Japan is clean, although rubbish bin often rarely seen. It's because people aren't really accustomed to eat on the go. In public transportation, passengers aren't allowed to eat and drink. Probably to keep the environments clean. But no excuses—do not litter. Just keep the trash with you until you find a rubbish bin. One tip to find it: there's always one near a drink vending machine.