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Japan: know before you go


Japan. A country where the wonderful and the weird cohabit happily; where dazzling modernity mingles with millennia of history, and ancient traditions meet futuristic buzz wherever you look. 21st century Japan is a paradise for the curious traveller. Expect to be blown away by the overwhelming urban frenzy, the gentle scenery of the countryside, and the hospitable, humble people. Here are a few practical pointers to take some of the sting out of the culture shock for first-time visitors to this enigmatic country.


Neon lights of Tokyo at nightDespite the ubiquitous gadgetry so beloved of the Japanese, this is still very much a cash society and cards are not widely accepted for payment. You therefore need to ensure you have a reliable way to access your funds while there. ATMs that take foreign cards are not as common as you might imagine. Head for an international bank, post office or 7-11 for international-friendly ATMs. It is also worth remembering that notes are only available from 1000 yen and upwards, so you are likely to need something to carry coinage.


One useful idea is to get a currency converter app to save doing complicated sums and eliminate confusion or mistakes. Google translate is another brilliant tool. Use the camera function to take a photo of Japanese kanji symbols and the English translation will pop up. A lifesaver!


Shinjuku Station, JapanPublic transport is fast, punctual (so punctual their rail service recently issued a apology for a train leaving 20 seconds early!), and user friendly. The train system is legendarily speedy and notoriously expensive, so if you plan to use the railways for more than a couple of trips make sure you invest in a Japan Rail pass (JR pass). You should purchase these before travelling to Japan and they offer good value when taking several journeys. In urban areas invest in a rechargeable travel card. Simply touch in and out and the fare will be deducted.


Convenience stores, especially in large cities, stock an enviable range of goods. If you find yourself in need of a clean shirt, a quality hot meal, or indeed almost anything else, this is where you need to go. Vending machines also sell anything and everything, from a bottle of beer to an umbrella, and can be a useful resource.

Being sociable

Busy streets of Tokyo, JapanThe Japanese are generally very deferential and considerate people. Everybody puts the feelings of others first – you won’t hear loud telephone conversations on public transport that’s for sure. This deferential nature can mean that it’s hard to get beyond formalities, and sometimes they can seem a little shy of us gaijin (foreigners).


Beware blowing your nose in public – this is bad form. Go to the bathroom. Unless totally unavoidable, try not to cough or sneeze in a crowded place either, as this will cause many anxious looks. It is also considered polite to cover your mouth when laughing. It is not usual to find soap in public toilets, and it is equally uncommon to find air dryers or paper towels – so make sure you carry hand sanitizer. Look out for ‘robot toilets’ which have warm seats, water jets, lots of buttons to press and even piped music.


Bring nice socks, and footwear that are easily slipped on and off, as you will be expected to remove your shoes in homes, temples, and pretty much anywhere carpeted. This includes fitting rooms in shops, and some areas in restaurants.


Fresh sushi from Tsukiji Market, TokyoMany restaurants specialise in just one type of meal, and do it to perfection. The food is a real highlight of Japan so make sure you sample plenty of different dishes. The excellent quality of ‘fast food’ from the convenience stores makes it a great standby if you are on a budget.


Tipping is not required in Japan. A sincere thanks is the best way to demonstrate that you are happy with service. Tips may actually cause confusion and embarrassment.

Make it happen

Prepare to be fascinated at every turn as you explore the meandering streets of this incredible country. Head to our destination pages for more information or send an enquiry to our lovely local experts – they can bring your dream trip to life!

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