With its glittering royal palaces, ancient temples and sacred shrines as well as sandy beaches, some of the world’s best skiing and beautiful national parks, Japan is a country you’ll want to return to again and again.
It’s also a very traditional place with a strict etiquette; if you’re visiting for the first time, follow our tips to make sure you don’t get caught out.
1. Make sure you’re wearing the right shoes
Always ensure that you take off your “outdoor” shoes before entering a temple or someone’s house, where you’ll find “indoor” shoes to change into.
You’ll need to take these off, though, to walk on tatami mats (often in temples and traditional houses).
And, if you go to the toilet in a temple, restaurant or home, make sure you switch into the toilet slippers.
2. Visit during cherry blossom season
You might be surprised to learn that the glorious cherry blossom, seen adorning postcards and tourist brochures from across Japan, actually only blooms in the country during sakura (cherry blossom) season.
Running roughly from the end of March to early May, it can be the most expensive time to visit, but it’s also when Japan is at its most enchanting and vibrant.
Sakura is so prized that there’s even a word for enjoying looking at it (and other flowers): hanami. Walking through parks, you’ll notice crowds gathered for hanami parties, picnicking under trees.
3. There’s no need to tip
In fact, it can be seen as rude, and if you do tip, you may find yourself being chased by a waiter, thinking you’ve left your change by mistake. An alternative, if you take a guided tour or cookery class for example, is to bring a small present from your country as a token of your appreciation.
4. Be polite
Foreigners have a reputation for being noisy in Japan, especially on public transport, so be respectful; it’s impolite to answer your phone, and, if you’re listening to music, turn the volume down low. It’s ruder in Japan to blow your nose in public than sniff, and avoid eating on the go.
5. Ride the shinkansen
Japan’s bullet trains are an experience in their own right. They glide smoothly through the country and, incredibly fast and always perfectly on time, they’re the best way to get around.
Organise a JR Pass before you go, which can be used on all Japan railways. Be aware that, while most people will be racing through the ticket barriers on prepaid cards, you’ll need to wait at ticket barriers for someone in the station to check your pass.
6. Buy a Suica or Pasmo card
These prepaid cards are similar to London’s Oyster card, and can be used on most metros and bus services and topped up in stations. You’ll have to pay a small deposit, but you’ll get most of it back if you hand your card in at the end of your trip.
The cards can prove cheaper than paper tickets, particularly on journeys involving a change of lines. Not to mention, with a card you won’t have to stop and queue to print a ticket every time you board a train.
7. Get used to the face masks
Japanese people often wear paper face masks, and while this might look odd to you, it’s perfectly logical. It’s to keep them, and you, healthy. During cherry blossom season they’re also worn to keep allergies away.
8. Check your drugs
If you need to take medication on your travels, you may also be required to take your prescription, a letter from your doctor, or even an import certificate (Yakkan Shoumei). To avoid getting caught out without your medication, check uk.emb-japan.go.jp.
9. If you’re visiting Tokyo, fly to Haneda airport
It’s likely to work out easier and cheaper to reach central Tokyo and your accommodation from Haneda airport than Narita airport.
10. Write down addresses, or print the kanji
Make sure you have any addresses you’ll need to locate written in Japanese. This will make it far easier for people to point you in the right direction, or for a taxi driver to understand where you want to go (although, be aware that taxis can be expensive).
Indeed, you may also want to download a map app that you can use offline, or buy a Japanese-English map.
11. Bring cash
It can prove fairly difficult to find ATMs in Japan, so it’s a good idea to exchange money before you go, or to take reasonably large amounts out at a time. When you do need to take more out, head to a post office, or to a 7-Eleven or Citibank ATM.
12. Make use of Konbinis
Konbinis, or convenience stores, tend to have many of the things that visitors will need, as well as delicious steamed buns. Familymart, 7-Eleven and Lawson are the big names, and you’ll find them everywhere you go.
13. Prepare to come back
From gadgets and gizmos for things you didn’t even realise you needed (a chopstick-held fan for your noodles, anyone?) to the bright, brash lights of Osaka and Tokyo, plus some of the most awe-inspiring architecture and peaceful temples you’ll find in the world – Japan will have you hooked.