All You Need to Know about Traveling to Japan for the First Time
Few destinations around the world draw the kind of inspiration and amazement Japan does. With a seemingly endless supply of cultural traditions, neon lights, and sights to experience, the Land of the Rising Sun remains one of the most coveted travel destinations.
Traveling to Japan for the first time will demand a good deal of research and planning to understand and embrace all it has to offer. Read on to learn about the country’s history and cultural traditions that make it the nation it is today, as well as practical information for planning your first trip to this wondrous destination.
- Overview of Japanese Culture
- How to Travel to Japan without Knowing Japanese
- Japanese Currency and Exchange Rates
- How Much Does it Cost to Go to Japan for a Week?
- Japan Visa Requirements and Travel Vaccinations
- The Best Time of Year to Visit Japan
- Choosing Where to Travel in Japan
- How to Get to Japan
- Where to Stay in Japan
- Transportation within Japan
- What to See and Do in Japan
- Japanese Cuisine
- Where to Eat in Japan
- Know Before You Go: Japanese History, Culture, and Traditions
Overview of Japanese Culture
Japanese culture is vastly different from most Western cultures, so you’ll likely experience some degree of culture shock when you visit Japan for the first time. Here are some helpful insights to mitigate the effects of culture shock you feel while visiting Japan.
How to Perform a Basic Greeting
Greetings are important in Japanese culture. Bowing is the main greeting in Japan. Perform a basic bow by bending from the waist with your back and neck straight and your eyes looking down.
Men: Keep your hands at your sides.
Women: Clasp your hands at your lap.
Most people will recognize that you are a foreigner and you may not know the proper way to bow. As a tourist in Japan for the first time, a nod of the head is sufficient. Business travelers to Japan, however, should practice their bowing technique.
What to Expect inside a Japanese Home
Being invited to a Japanese home is an honor. The Japanese people make a clear distinction between inside and outside, so you should remove your shoes at the entrance area (called the genkan) and replace them with slippers. These rules also apply to most traditional ryokan (Japanese-style inns) and sections of temples, castles, or other historic buildings.
Bare feet are not acceptable. You must wear socks or a pair of indoor slippers.
NOTE: You may be provided with a separate pair of slippers to use when you go to the bathroom inside someone’s home.
Most restaurants in Japan have low tables and cushions on a tatami floor (and/or Western-style chairs and tables). Just as you remove your shoes before entering someone’s home, you are expected to remove your shoes before stepping onto a tatami.
You’ll be provided with a wet towel to clean your hands at the beginning of your meal. Bring small bowls close to your mouth when eating but keep larger dishes on the table. Just as you wouldn’t serve yourself with your own fork, use the opposite end of your chopsticks or designated serving chopsticks to choose food from a shared dish.
At the end of your meal, replace the lids on dishes and put your chopsticks back on the chopstick rest or in their paper holder.
You’ll bring your bill up to the cashier to pay at most restaurants in Japan, and you’ll most likely need to pay cash.
A Quick Lesson in Using Chopsticks
Chopsticks alone can make any seasoned traveler wary of meals. But you should be fine if you follow these tips:
- Hold the upper chopstick like a pencil, leaving about one-third of the chopstick to the right of your fingers.
- Place the second chopstick against your ring finger and hold it with your thumb. Make sure it points in the same direction as the first chopstick.
- Use your thumb, index finger, and middle finger to move the upper chopstick.
- Do not stick chopsticks into your food or spear your food with them.
- Do not point with your chopsticks.
- Do not play with your chopsticks.
What to Expect from Bathrooms in Japan
We’ve all seen a T.V. show or movie where an unexpecting guest is tormented by the novelties of a Japanese toilet. Many Western toilets in Japan have unique features such as a heated seat or an automatic lid opener, but they’re far less complicated to understand than pop culture makes them out to be.
You’ll find two types of toilets when traveling in Japan: Japanese style and Western style. Public bathrooms are usually equipped with both. Keep in mind that toilet paper is not always provided in public bathrooms.
Both Western and Japanese style toilets usually have two flush modes: "small" (小) and "large" (大), differing in the amount of water used. Look for these symbols to avoid ending up like your favorite sitcom character.
If you're a Japan toilet enthusiast, visit the Toto Museum in Kitakyushu. The museum is dedicated to the history of toilets!
Proper Etiquette at Japanese Temples and Shrines
As a first-time visitor to Japan, you may have several temples and shrines on your itinerary. It's important to behave properly when visiting these ancient relics. Temples and shrines in Japan are places for reflection, meditation, and prayer, so be sure to behave in a calm and respectful manner. Also note that you should not visit a shrine if you are sick or in mourning.
When you arrive at a temple in Japan, show your respect by saying a short prayer in front of the sacred object and by throwing a coin into the offering box. You may be asked to take off your shoes when entering temple buildings, so remember to wear clean socks.
Most shrines in Japan have a purification fountain near the entrance. Fill one of the ladles provided and rinse both your hands. Do not transfer any of the water directly from the fountain to your person, and do not return any water in the ladle back into the fountain.
To make an offering at a shrine, place a coin in the offering box, bow twice, clap your hands twice, bow again, and pray.
How to Travel to Japan without Knowing Japanese
Traveling to any country without knowing the language is difficult. Learning some commonly-used phrase before you travel to Japan will make navigating this country a little bit easier.
Here are some common Japanese phrases you may use or hear on your first trip to Japan:
- Good morning – Ohayou gozaimasu (formal); Ohyayou (informal)
- Hello – Konnichiwa
- Good evening – Konbanwa
- Good night – Oyasuminasai
- Thank you – Arigatou gozaimasu (formal); Arigatou (informal)
- My name is [name] – Watashi no namae wa [name] desu
- This is my [wife/husband/child(ren)/parents/relative/friend/boyfriend/girlfriend] – Watashi no [tsuma/otto/kodomo/oya/shinseki/tomodachi/kareshi/kanojyo] desu
- Taxi – takushi
- I want to go to [location] – [location] e ikitai desu
- Where is [location] – [location] wa doko desuka
- Up – Ue
- Down – Shita
- Right – Migi
- Left – Hidari
- May I have [item] – [item] wo kudasai
- How much is it? – ikura desuka
- Do you have Wi-Fi? – Wi-Fi arimasuka
- I don’t feel well – Guai ga warui desu
Download the introductory Japanese course for English speakers on Duolingo a few weeks before your trip to help you learn phonetic pronunciations and gain a more robust vocabulary.
PRO TIP: Any attempt to communicate in Japanese will go a long way with the Japanese people. The Japanese are known for omotenashi, which translates into “selfless hospitality.”
Japanese Currency and Exchange Rates
Japan is considered a cash-based society even though most stores, restaurants, and hotels in major cities accept major credit cards. It is prudent to always carry a few thousand Japanese yen (abbreviated JPY or JP¥) just in case.
You can buy Japanese currency at physical or digital exchanges. Banks, post offices, and some hotels in Japan handle currency exchanges. Avoid airport-based exchanges – rates tend to be worse there than elsewhere. You can also make ATM withdrawals with foreign cards at over 10,000 7-Eleven convenience stores across the country.
Travelex offers a search feature to find the nearest store where you can buy Japanese currency. It also offers the option of purchasing yen online.
*Current Exchange Rate in 2019:
- $1 USD = about ¥110 JPY
- €1 EUR = about ¥126 JPY
*As of publish date.
Japan’s currency tends to fluctuate a bit, but you can use this currency converter to see how much you’re spending.
How Much Does It Cost to Go to Japan for a Week?
A one-week trip to Japan will allow you to explore the country without racking up crazy expenses. Assuming you keep your spending low, this is what your week in Japan could look like:
- Roundtrip international air ticket (Narita Airport) = $750 USD
- Shuttle bus (Narita Airport to Tokyo Station) = $9 USD
- Hostel in Tokyo: $50 USD/night x 3 days = $150 USD
- Hostel in Kyoto: $25 USD/night x 2 days = $50 USD
- Hostel in Osaka: $25 USD/night x 2 days = $50 USD
- Japan Railway Pass = $270 USD
- Food budget: $30 USD/day x 7 days = $210
- Drinks and other expenditures (souvenirs, experiences, etc.): $25 USD/day x 7 days = $175
- Travel medical insurance = $15 USD*
The total for a 7-night, 8-day trip to Japan adds up to a little under $1,700 USD. Not too bad for such an exciting destination!
PRO TIP: Air China consistently offers the best fares for visiting Japan on a whim. Roundtrip flights from the city of Los Angeles can be as little as $600 USD.
*The Atlas International policy from Tokio Marine HCC – MIS Group ranged from $3.08 - $88.55 for a full week of coverage in 2018. See more about how travel medical insurance costs are calculated here.
Japan Visa Requirements and Travel Vaccinations
An important part of planning your first trip to Japan is ensuring you have the proper documentation to enter the country.
U.S. citizens do not need a visa to enter Japan. A valid passport and onward/return tickets will allow you entry into the country for stays of up to 90 days.
Not a U.S. citizen? See our Japan visa page to determine whether or not you need a visa to travel to Japan. Plus, see visa requirements!
There are currency restrictions when traveling in Japan. Amounts equivalent or superior to ¥1 million JPY or above (roughly $9,000 USD) are subject to declaration upon arrival and/or departure.
Please note the visa exemption arrangement does not apply to:
- News and media-related activities
- Citizens attending depositions taken by U.S. Consul
- S. federal government employees on official business or transit to/from official mission
The Best Time of Year to Visit Japan
The islands that comprise Japan witness a variety of climates. The best time to visit Japan will be decided by what you wish to do and see while in the country.
As a first-time traveler to Japan, spring may be the best time to visit. The popular destinations of Tokyo and Hiroshima enjoy temperate climates, so fall and spring are pleasant times to visit.
Cherry blossom season is in April and is a must-see event on many first-time traveler’s bucket lists. Accommodations may be more expensive, but cherry blossom season gives visitors to Japan an authentic glimpse into Japanese tradition and culture.
May-August is the best time to visit Japan if you’re traveling on a budget. Temperatures rise in the summer, but hotel prices drop. The natural beauty of the many forests and gardens truly comes to life in the summer months. Be wary of typhoon season, however, if you plan to visit Okinawa during the summer.
The island of Hokkaido is a great destination for winter travelers to Japan. The mountains of Hokkaido enjoy robust amounts of snowfall, attracting local and foreign tourists alike to its mountain resorts and traditional onsen (Japanese hot springs).
Choosing Where to Travel in Japan
Japan is divided into four main islands:
- Honshu (further divided into Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kinki/Kansai, and Chugoku)
- Kyushu (which includes Okinawa)
The largest city on the island of Hokkaido is Sapporo.
The largest island in Japan, Honshu is home to five regions:
- Tohoku – Located in the northern area of Honshu, Tohoku is known for its beautiful countryside, mountains, lakes, and onsen (hot springs). Tohoku was hit by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima nuclear accident, but the area has mostly recovered. Sendai is the largest city in the Tohoku region.
- Kanto – Translated literally to “east of the border,” Kanto is perhaps most famous for being home to the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama.
- Chubu – Chubu is best known as the home of Mt. Fuji. This Japanese region borders the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan and houses popular destinations like Nagoya and Niigata.
- Kansai – The political and cultural center of Japan for centuries, the Kansai region includes the major cities and tourist destinations of Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Kobe.
- Chugoku – Chugoku makes up the western part of Honshu and is commonly subdivided into the urban/industrial area of Sanyo and the rural area of Sanin. You’ll find Hiroshima and Miyajima in the Chugoku region.
Shikoku, which translates to “four countries,” is Japan’s fourth largest island. It is divided into four prefectures: Ehime, Kagawa, Kōchi, and Tokushima.
Unlike the other three main islands of Japan, Shikoku has no volcanoes.
Kyushu is Japan’s third largest island. Kyushu was an early center of Japanese civilization and offers visitors natural beauty and many historical treasures.
Kyushu is home to several onsen, the city of Nagasaki, and the islands of Okinawa.
How to Get to Japan
Japan has four major international airports:
- Narita Airport – Located in Tokyo
- Haneda Airport – Located in Tokyo
- Kansai Airport – Located in Osaka
- Central Japan Airport – Located in Nagoya
Direct flights are available to Tokyo from major west coast American cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Honolulu. Flights with one stop (often in Hong Kong, China) also connect the U.S. with important Japanese cities, such as Osaka, Fukuoka, Nagoya, and Sapporo.
Many European and Asian destinations also offer direct flights to Japan. For example, travelers from the U.K. can get a direct flight on British Airways from London Heathrow to Narita Airport in Tokyo.
Where to Stay in Japan
Luxury, budget, and tradition-seeking travelers alike can find accommodation in Japan that meets their needs. Finding the right place to stay will depend on your wishes and expectations.
Those looking for immersive experiences should look at Airbnb lodgings and ryokan (traditional Japanese guesthouses). If comfort is most important, find solace at a luxury hotel. And for budget-travelers, there are tons of hostels available.
Take a peek at some of the top-ranked accommodations throughout Japan:
Top Accommodations in Tokyo:
- Luxury – Hotel Ryumeikan Ochanomizu Honten
This hotel has a 5-star rating based on 114 reviews on TripAdvisor. Founded in 1899, this hotel embodies Japanese tranquility with its simplistic décor. Walk a couple of blocks north to see the Kanda River or access the Ochanomizu train station.
- Budget – Tokyo Hotel Horidome Villa
At $66 USD per night – and with a 4-star rating on TripAdvisor – this Tokyo hotel is a steal. Located in the trendy area of Ginza, this downtown hotel allows guests to experience the vitality of Japanese nightlife.
- Traditional-Style – Ito Ryokan
Experience Japanese tradition and stay close to main tourist attractions like the Imperial Palace in this traditional Japanese inn.
Planning to visit Tokyo? Explore our Tokyo City Guide.
Top Accommodations in Sapporo:
This luxury hotel outside Sapporo is a true spa-lover’s dream. Discover traditional Japanese onsen and various spa treatments in this mountainous resort.
- Budget – Mercure Hotel Sapporo
Get easy access to the many ski resorts in Sapporo at this mid-range hotel. Each room comes equipped with complimentary internet access – a steal for $100 USD/night.
- Traditional-Style – Suizantei Club Jozankei
A bit on the pricier side, this traditional ryokan offers guests a luxury Japanese experience in the mountains on Hokkaido. Take a dip in the hotel onsen or enjoy the culinary delicacies included in your accommodation package. No wonder it has a 4.5-star rating on TripAdvisor!
Visiting Sapporo? Explore our Sapporo City Guide.
Top Accommodations in Kyoto:
- Luxury – Hotel Mume
First-class service and beautiful rooms earned this luxury hotel 825 reviews and a 5-star rating on TripAdvisor. Hotel Mume also has a prime location close to several shrines and temples in Kyoto.
- Budget – Toyoko Inn Kyoto Gojo-Karasuma
Only a three-minute walk from Gojo Station and the Karasuma subway line, this budget hotel offers easy access to downtown Kyoto. Rooms may be small at this chain hotel, but they’re packed with features ideal for budget travelers, including breakfast and free nationwide phone calls.
- Traditional-Style – Tawaraya
Recognized as one of the best ryokan in all of Japan, this traditional inn located in downtown Kyoto understands the importance of details. Rooms are sparsely decorated in true Japanese fashion, each one has a private garden attached, and the staff is incredibly knowledgeable.
Transportation within Japan
Japan is home to an impressive network of roads, railroad tracks, ferries, and air routes connecting the entire territory.
To get between islands, you’ll most likely have to take a short flight or ferry. In-country flights are both readily available and frequent between the nation’s main cities.
Key hubs include:
- Narita International Airport (NRT, Tokyo)
- Haneda Airport (HND, Tokyo)
- Kansai International Airport (KIX, Osaka)
- Chubu International Airport (NGO, Nagoya)
- Fukuoka Airport (FUK, Fukuoka)
Japan is heralded for its extensive rail network. Purchase a Japan Rail Pass for easy travel throughout any of the four main islands. It comes at a hefty price – $270 USD – but its ease of use and availability are well worth the cost.
What to See and Do in Japan
Japan is a land of attractions – the country has endless amounts of historical sites, acres of pristine forests, and a variety of vibrant cities to explore.
Here are some of the top tourist sites in Japan:
Top Tourist Sites in Tokyo
- Imperial Palace: The main residence of the Emperor of Japan is located in central Tokyo, a short walk away from the city’s Central Station. Buildings are not open to the public, but the gardens make the visit a true delight.
- Tsukiji Outer Market: This large seafood and produce market has hundreds of colorful stalls and restaurants. It is closed on Wednesdays and Sundays.
- Tsukishima: This is a man-made island in the Tokyo Bay. Travelers from all over the world come here searching for tsukudani - a kind of preserved topping that is served with rice - and monjayaki, a pancake-like dish that is popular in Japan.
- Shibuya: This popular entertainment area is packed with flashy neon signs, restaurants, and shops. It’s easily accessible through Shibuya Station.
- Meiji Jingu Shrine: Dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken, the Meiji Shrine sits in a 170-acre forest area in Shibuya. It is one of Tokyo’s most visited attractions. The shrine is in close proximity to Harajuku, Tokyo’s hotspot for youth and cosplay.
Top Tourist Sites in Kyoto
- Imperial Palace: This palace is the former residence of Japan’s Imperial family. Visitors can freely enter the palace grounds, but buildings are off-limits.
- Railway Museum: Japan is a railway powerhouse, and this museum concentrates its history like no other. It’s well worth the ¥1,200 JPY ($10.74 USD) price tag.
Top Tourist Sites in Osaka
- Osaka Castle: One of the most iconic buildings in Japan, Osaka Castle is a towering structure evocative of a different era in Japanese history.
- Nijo Castle: Recognized as one of the surviving buildings of Japan’s feudal era, Nijo Castle features a number of perfectly-conserved buildings and beautiful gardens. Visiting the castle is an immersive experience into Japan’s history and a must-see for anyone visiting Osaka.
Top Tourist Sites in Hiroshima
- Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park: The park’s Atomic Bomb Dome was the only structure left standing following the atomic bombing in 1945. For many visitors to Japan, the museum and its grounds are powerful places for reflection.
- Miyajima Island: This island is home to the Itsukushima shrine, also referred to as the “floating shrine.” One of the largest torii (traditional Japanese gate) in Japan, the Itsukushima shrine is a relic of Shinto-era Japan.
Read our Japan 14-day itinerary for even more help planning your first trip to Japan.
Japanese cuisine mainly consists of white rice, fish or beef, and vegetables often pickled or served in broth. Common dishes and preparations are sushi, udon noodles, miso soup, tempura, and grilled fish.
In addition to traditional cuisine, Japan offers innovation and diversity in fast food, coffee, and craft beer. Western food is available, but usually at a higher price.
Where to Eat in Japan
You can find food in a variety of places in Japan. Of course, restaurants are popular – and world-class in Japan – but the nation is also known for the high-quality food available in convenience stores and vending machines.
Sushi, ramen, and fast food options at small restaurants and street stalls start at $8 - $10 USD per serving, whereas nicer dinners are a bit pricier, starting at $20 - $25 USD.
Read through Eater’s list of essential Tokyo restaurants for a full guide to popular restaurants in Tokyo.
First-time visitors to supermarkets in Japan will notice it is much cheaper to purchase food at the market than to eat elsewhere, making Japan’s markets a great dining option for budget travelers.
Fast food is also a great option for an inexpensive meal and an authentic culinary experience. In fact, fast food is other-worldly for any first-time visitor to Japan. The nation puts its own spin on typical fast food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, adding the Japanese flavor profile to American dishes.
For example, McDonald’s Japanese menu heavily features shrimp, and classics like the Big Mac are elevated with the addition of bacon and egg. Burger King takes the sweet and savory approach, adding flame-grilled apple slices to the traditional Whopper Jr.
Know Before You Go: Japanese History, Culture, and Traditions
A large part of Japan’s cultural identity today is based on its history. On your first trip to Japan, you’ll find remnants and symbols of this country’s past in most of its historical sites.
Japan’s history can be traced back to the year 660 BCE. During the course of the following centuries, the nation experienced periods of feudalism, expansionism, and war, each leaving its mark on the burgeoning country.
Unification is a hallmark of Japanese society. During the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the government attempted to create a strong, centralized state with a singular national identity. Over the years, the cherry blossom, Japanese flag/rising sun, and Chrysanthemum flower have become powerful representations of Japanese identity.
Following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japanese culture changed. Economic growth and social stability became national priorities, resulting in a modernized society where ordinary people can experience middle-class urban lifestyles. In the 1980s Japan experienced unprecedented prosperity, catapulting it to superpower status.
In modern-day Japanese culture, local and regional identity is celebrated. Almost every town or city is famous for something, like a specific craft, culinary specialty, or song.