Heading to Japan soon? Make the most out of your trip with these travel tips, including Japanese etiquette, commuting hacks and common practices.
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Ask anyone where they would want to travel to next, and there’s a high chance you’ll hear at least one mention of “Japan” in the mix.
Japan has been a highly popular travel destination for many, and for good reason. There are endless things to do there — admire cherry blossoms, indulge in the freshest sashimi, enjoy Japanese snacks, visit an onsen and much more.
But before you embark on your trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, here are some travel tips you should take note of. From purchasing your Shinkansen tickets earlier, to preparing yourself for mini tremors (yes, you read that right), be sure to familiarise yourself with these tips to make your trip as seamless as possible.
We even included the best places to visit in Japan at the end!
Table of contents:
- Travel tips to note before visiting Japan
- Transport punctuality
- Buy a JR Pass in advance
- Get a Suica/Pasmo card for commuting
- Avoid peak periods on public transport
- Get travel insurance
- Check out their convenience stores
- Prepare for mini tremors
- Bring cash
- Tattoos are considered taboo
- Catch cherry blossoms from late March to early April
- Be extra polite
- Bring along a plastic bag for trash
- Take note of addresses in Japan
- Best places to visit in Japan
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Travel tips to note before visiting Japan
First time travelling to Japan? Here are some tips before you head to the Land of the Rising Sun. From transport hacks to general ways of life in Japan and everything in between, here is everything you should know.
1. Transport punctuality is a whole other level
If you’ve never been to Japan before, you’ll be surprised to know that they take punctuality very seriously, especially for their high speed railway line, known as the Shinkansen. When the reported time of departure is 1.47pm, you’d better be at the platform by 1.35pm (or earlier to be safe) and get your luggage all ready for boarding.
They are almost never late and are always on time, down by the seconds. There was even a news article in 2017 that reported that the Japanese railway company publicly apologised to the public for departing 20 seconds early, and another article in 2018, yet again, for departing 25 seconds early!
So if you’re running late for your train and are praying that the train will be delayed, the chances of that is close to none.
Pro tip: Download the app on the App Store and Play Store Japan Travel by Navitime if you’re relying on trains and buses to get around. The app offers the most time-efficient routes, and it also informs you on which modes of transportation you’re eligible for based on the specific JR Pass you have.
2. Buy a Japan Rail Pass in advance
For the longest time, Japan Rail (JR) Passes can only be bought online, as they are not sold in Japan. But from now till 31 March 2024, Japan has since started selling tickets at certain train stations and airports. Whether or not they are planning to extend is not confirmed.
Despite this, it is much more affordable if you purchase one online instead. A 7-day Ordinary Pass and Green Pass will cost you S$277.65 and S$370.79 respectively on Klook, and S$280.80 and S$375.30 respectively on the JR Pass website. Both options also offer free delivery to your address in Singapore.
Before you board the train, be sure to make a seat reservation up to one month in advance. You can either book your seat physically at a JR Ticket Office or make your reservation online at JR East Train Reservation Service (Ekinet) (only available for certain trains).
Pro tip: Measure your luggage to ensure that height+length+width does not exceed 160cm, as you’ll be able to store at the overhead compartments. However, if it’s more than 160cm, you will have to reserve a seat that comes with oversized baggage storage for them. Failure to do so might result in a penalty fee of about ¥1,000.
3. Get a Suica or Pasmo card for easy commuting
For seamless commuting on trains and buses in Japan, you can get a reloadable — like a Suica or Pasmo card. They basically work the same, but are just offered by different companies, and can be purchased online and at JR stations.
Instead of purchasing one-way trip tickets when you commute, these life-savers are much more convenient to save time. Aside from that, they also offer discounts from S$0.01 to around S$0.09, depending on the route you take. Though they may seem little, these savings add up!
You can also use these cards for purchases at vending machines, lockers, and even convenience stores.
There are also Welcome Suica and Pasmo cards for short-term visitors that automatically expire after 28 days, and offer no refund when you return the card. This means that whatever balance you have on the card is forfeited. While the Welcome Suica doesn’t require any deposit, the Welcome Pasmo offer discounts for eligible businesses.
Pro tip: Add the Suica or Pasmo card directly in your Apple wallet for seamless commuting, and reduce the risk of misplacing or forgetting to bring your card! You can also top it up manually on your phone!
4. Avoid commuting on public transport during peak periods
You may have seen videos of Japan’s peak period public transport crowd where commuters are trying their very best to squeeze themselves onto an already filled-to-the-brim train. And sad to say, that is how reality is during peak periods.
Though post-COVID-19 times have allowed for more work from home arrangements, public transport can still be extremely crowded during peak periods like 8am to 9:30am, and 5:30pm to 7:30pm.
If you’re travelling from city to city or major cities like Tokyo or Osaka, be sure to avoid these timings if you can, so you won’t have your luggage squashed from the insane crowd.
5. Travel insurance is key
If there’s one takeaway you should get out of this article, it would be to purchase a travel insurance policy.
Regardless of where you go or how long your trip is, getting a travel insurance plan not only covers you for all unexpected needs but they also gives you a peace of mind knowing that you are insured.
Whether you fall sick during your trip, experience a flight delay, or lose your baggage while overseas, your travel insurance will be able to cover any inconveniences.
If you’re heading to Japan for a pre-wedding shoot, some travel insurance plans like Singlife travel insurance also cover damaged, stolen or misplaced wedding gowns and attire, and even excessive rainfall if it disrupts your outdoor plans and activities.
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6. Make sure you check out their convenience stores
If there’s anything you absolutely have to check out in Japan, it’s got to be their convenience stores, also known as konbinis. If you think Singapore’s Cheers or 7-11 already has a wide variety of food options, you’ll be surprised to know that Japan’s convenience stores are out of the world.
You can find an assortment of Japanese snacks, bento lunches, ready-to-eat meals onigiri, cup noodles, drinks, pastries, desserts and the list goes on. And the best part of it all is that they are all fresh and inexpensive!
Depending on the size of the konbini, they most have seats for you to enjoy your meal.
Besides food, they have a range of healthcare items, household goods and magazines.
There is also an array of services they provide like purchasing of concert tickets, withdrawing money and shipping your luggage to the airport.
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7. Prepare yourself for mini tremors
If it’s your first time in Japan, you may be shocked to know that Japan frequently experiences earthquakes, of up to 1,500 to 2,000 per year. It’s so common that all schools in Japan conduct earthquake drills twice a year to prepare all staff in case of an emergency.
But before you start panicking, rest assured that most of the earthquakes you’ll experience will just be mini tremors. That being said, being prepared for it will make you feel more equipped when it happens.
One thing you can do is download an earthquake notification on your phone, such as Yurekuru Call. All Japanese phones have built-in alarms that notify you a few seconds before an earthquake. The warning will give you extra time to prepare yourself, no matter how small the tremors may be.
When you enter a building, take a few seconds to familiarise yourself with the layout, evacuation route and emergency exits. There are only government websites that inform you of various shelters’ locations, evacuation routes in the city, and other useful information.
8. Bring along cash
As advanced as Japan may seem, cash is actually the preferred payment option in most places, as it is the most convenient and mitigates any risk of personal data being leaked. So it’s best if you change sufficient money for your whole trip, especially for food and other smaller shops.
It may be hard to find an ATM in Japan as well, so your best bet is any of their convenience stores, and some of them are open 24/7 and have ATMs for you to draw money.
If you would rather use a credit card (especially to earn rewards), most stores in Japan accept Visa, Mastercard and JCB. Do note that some merchants may not accept American Express because of the higher merchant fees.
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9. Tattoos are considered taboo
You might be surprised to know that Japan considers tattoos taboo, as tattoos are still commonly associated with criminal mafia-like organisations, namely the Yakuzas.
And why is this of significance? If you have any tattoos on your body, there’s a very high chance that you would be turned down at most onsens (hot springs), sento (public baths), ryokan (traditional inns), pools, gyms and even capsule hotels.
However, times have changed, and as society has become more modernised, a few places now allow for tattooed foreigners and tourists to enter, so you should do your research and enquire beforehand.
10. Catch the cherry blossoms during late March and early April
If you’re planning a trip down to Japan to see the beautiful cherry blossoms in full bloom, your best bet would be to book a flight during the period between late March and early April, if you’re going to places like Tokyo and Kyoto.
The weather is also not too cold during spring, ranging from 5 to 13 degree celsius.
Else, if you’re heading up north to cities like Sapporo, the flowers only come out from late April to the end of May.
Pro tip: If you aren’t super interested in cherry blossoms, plan a trip to Tokyo during their off-peak months like January, February, September and November. Those periods are when flight tickets are the cheapest, and they can be priced as low as S$600+ for a budget airline to Tokyo.
11. Be extra polite
Japanese are extremely polite and respectful people, which is why there are some conventional practices accepted in Singapore but are strictly frowned upon in Japan.
One example would be to avoid talking on public transport. Talking loudly on trains and buses is unacceptable — and the same goes for listening to loud music. If you must, keep your volume at a minimum.
On top of that, eating on-the-go while walking or standing is considered rude, but it’s fine if you are eating right beside a vending machine. Aside from long-distance express trains, eating and drinking on public transport is also not advisable.
Avoid blowing your nose in public as well. If you really need to, visit the washroom to do that. Other disrespectful things include pointing and things or people, greeting strangers on the street and taking pictures of people without their permission.
12. Carry around a plastic bag for your trash
It’s very rare to find a trash bin in Japan and for good reason. The Japanese government decided to remove most public trash bins as a counter-terrorism measure, as they were used as a place to stash explosives or other dangerous items in the past.
This is why bringing your own plastic bag to store your rubbish might be a better idea than carrying around your waste with your hands.
You’ll be able to dispose of your litter at bins located at public parks, some train stations, and public restrooms.
13. Addresses in Japan are complicated
Unlike in Singapore, where every address has a postal code that leads you to the exact spot you’re searching for, addresses in Japan are… complex, yet to call them complex is an understatement.
Their address system is based on geographical areas rather than street numbers or names. Aside from the addresses Kyoto and Sapporo, most of them in Japan don’t even have the street name included in the address, making it extremely difficult to navigate if you’re a tourist.
If possible, make sure you have all addresses written in Japanese so you can easily ask any locals for help, in case they don’t speak English. This goes the same for taxi drivers if you’re cabbing from place to place (but take note that taxis can be quite expensive).
Best places to visit in Japan
Have a specific travel itinerary in mind? Here are the best places to visit in Japan based on the type of traveller you are!
1. Best for shopaholics: Tokyo
As Japan's capital, Tokyo boasts rows and rows of bustling streets and vibrant landscapes. But beond that, get ready to shop till you drop! From Ginza's glitzy luxury boutique stores to Harajuku's fashion haven, Tokyo boasts an astonishing diversity of shopping districts for you to go crazy at.
You can find traditional markets like Asakusa's Nakamise-dori forunique souvenirs and knock knacks, or explore the diverse electronic stores of Akihabara for cutting-edge gadgets.
You can also head to Shibuya's Shibuya 109 and the historic Mitsukoshi in Nihonbashi which are department stores that offer a veriety of high quality products, from fashion to gourmet grub.
2. Best for extreme food enthusiasts: Osaka
Calling all foodies! If your main objective is to inhale all the gastronomic eats that Japan has to offer, you should definitely include Osaka into your itinerary! Often hailed as the gastronomic heart of Japan, Osaka offers a multitude of delicacies, from street vendors to high-end restaurants.
Osakan street food is something you shouldn't miss out on, with popular bites like takoyaki (octopus balls), okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), and kushikatsu (deep-fried skewers) readily available in bustling districts like Dotonbori.
Mix it up with some high-end dining as well in the city's array of top-notch sushi bars, teppanyaki grills, and Michelin-starred restaurants.
Osaka is also the birthplace of instant ramen and and boasts a plethora of izakayas, cosy pubs, where you can savour sake and indulge in a diverse array of mouthwatering dishes.
3. Best for nature-lovers: Hokkaido
If looking at snow-capped mountains or hiking across gorgeous landscapes is your thing, Hokkaido is the best place for nature enthusiasts.
Its breathtaking landscapes are a testament to its natural beauty, featuring vast wilderness, crystal clear lakes, and towering mountains.
Look forward to breathtaking sights, like the world-famous Shiretoko Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its untamed, rugged coastline and diverse wildlife.
During the winter, Hokkaido also transforms into a snow-covered wonderland straight out of a postcard, while also offering some of the country's best ski resorts. The island is also home to Daisetsuzan National Park, an unspoiled wilderness perfect for hiking and wildlife spotting.
4. Best for adrenaline junkies: Hakuba
As host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, Hakuba is a winter sports hub for all sports fanatics.
This picturesque alpine town is known for its world-class winter sports, making it an epicenter of excitement for winter sports. Boasting access to multiple ski resorts, including Happo-One and Hakuba 47, Hakuba offers an extensive array of skiing and snowboarding facilities for you to have a good sweat during winter.
The region also offers thrilling activities such as snowmobiling, ice climbing, and snowshoeing. During the summer months, the place is also great for hiking, mountain biking and paragliding. If you'd like something more challenging, you can also find more intense climbing routes and hiking trails to conquer.
5. Best for beach-goers: Okinawa
Renowned for its turqouise waters, pristine beaches and subtropical climate, Okinawa emerges as the top destination for a beach getaway.
One of the top beaches you have to visit is Kumejima's Eef Beach that sports emerald blue waters, and Ishigaki's Kabira Bay that is rich in vibrant corals
You can also go snorkelling and diving in Okinawa's crystal-clear waters, revealing its vibrant marine life and coral reefs.
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