Japan is a truly incredible place, but between the long flight, language barrier, and eastern culture, it can seem a bit daunting for Americans who might want to travel there. Here is a guide to help make that just a bit easier!
Most first trips to Japan center on Tokyo, the modern capital and huge metropolis, and Kyoto, the historic capital and cultural center. Even though I didn’t love Kyoto, this itinerary still makes a lot of sense. Both cities have a lot to do, and many options for day trips. Dividing your time fairly evenly between the two is a good way to go on a first trip. (Keep in mind that since flights from the US go in/out of one of the two Tokyo airports, you’ll need to give yourself time to get back from Kyoto if you end there.)
The transportation system in Japan is truly incredible! Trains run regularly and on-time, and can get you pretty much anywhere you want to go. Your best bet to take advantage of this is to pre-purchase a Japan Rail pass. While on rare occasions you might find yourself on a private rail line (like to Hakone – see Tokyo day trips below), the JR pass will pretty much cover every train you’ll take.
Tip: make sure you stay in a Kyoto hotel near the train station or that offers a free shuttle to/from, as JR is limited within the city itself. I stayed in the ANA Crowne Plaza and took advantage of the shuttle daily.
When you pre-order the pass, you will receive a voucher that you’ll exchange for your physical pass at the airport. It’s an easy process.
With your pass, you’ll simply show it at the JR ticket gates and walk on to local trains. If you want to take the Shinkansen (bullet train), you can go to an unreserved car, or show your pass at the Shinkansen ticket counter for reserved seats.
The pass truly opens up the country, as pretty much every day trip you’ll want to do is included, plus your airport transfers, intercity travel, and 90% of your local transportation.
English is not commonly spoken in Japan, but enough people have at least basic English skills that someone in your train car will be able to help if needed. For taxi drivers, have your hotel write down both your destination and hotel name/address for you in Japanese so you can show the driver.
The trains make most announcements in English as well as Japanese. You’ll still want to have an idea of how many stops it will be before you get on, just in case you can’t hear or miss them.
Many restaurants have English menus, though the translations are often exact, making things sound funny. You’re probably better off pointing at a picture of something that looks yummy!
There are a few cultural differences that stand out immediately when going to Japan.
First, everyone is polite. Please and thank you are used nearly 100% of the time, so make sure you learn those phrases in Japanese! A stranger who needs to sit in the seat next to you on the train will often bow as a way to say “excuse me” before sitting. You’ll find yourself bowing before long.
Second, people are quiet. On the train, nobody is on his/her phone. There are few loud conversations going on. There are always plenty of sounds in Japan, but few of them come from the millions of people around.
Third, the cities are impeccably clean. There is no trash anywhere. This is even more surprising when you realize that there are hardly any public trash cans. Japanese will take their trash with them until they find a suitable place to dispose of it. In most US cities, I see more litter in ten minutes than you will in two weeks in Japan.
Finally, when in the Kyoto area, some people still wear traditional dress. Many are nice about tourists taking photos if you ask,
Many restaurants and tourist sights, shockingly, do not take credit cards. Make sure to always have cash with you.
There is nearly zero violent crime in Japan. Always be aware of your surroundings, but don’t be afraid to walk around the main cities at night, or take late trains.
Many of the tourist sights, especially in Kyoto, can get really crowded. Pick your top choices to see first thing in the morning or last thing before they close.
For that matter, Japan is a crowded place. Realize that you will often be in the middle of a crowd, although people are generally too polite to push. It just seems to flow.
Japan is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited. While it might seem too foreign for many, for me that was part of the fun. It is great to immerse in a culture that is so different, to eat things I don’t know the name of, to try to communicate with people I don’t share a language with. The Japanese people and nation make it worthwhile!