50 things to know before traveling to Japan

Known as the country of the rising sun, Japan is a dream destination for many people (us included)! It is also a bit scary-to-visit destination due to the cultural and linguistic barriers, the size of the cities, and the intensity of day-to-day life.

Culturally, Japan is a destination like no other – it is different, eccentric, unique, and exotic. And that’s also why it’s so attractive to so many people. It’s only natural that it has become one of the most popular destinations to visit and try new things.

In this guide, we will help you plan an unforgettable trip to Japan by providing travel tips that allow you to travel freely, without stress, and make the most of what this country presents us… And believe me, it is a lot!

So, to make this information easy to understand, we created the 50 things you need to know before visiting Japan: looking at the best destinations, interaction with people, the best ways to travel, costs, ways to save, and a lot more…

What to know about Japan and the Japanese

Things to know about Japan

#1 Located in East Asia and bathed by the Pacific Ocean, Japan is made up of more than 14,000 islands, five of which are considered the main ones – Hokkaido, Honshu (the largest and most populated), Shikoku, Kyushu, and Okinawa.

In total, there are more than 377,975 km2, meaning that it is a little smaller than California. This is relatively small if we consider its high population and, above all, its world relevance.

#2 In addition to being an island nation, Japan is also very mountainous, with around 3/4 of its area made up of mountains.

Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan is also a region of high volcanic activity, including earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Some of the biggest and best-known natural disasters occurred in Japan, such as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami or the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake.

The highest point in Japan is Mount Fuji on Honshu Island, which is 3776 meters high. Mount Fuji is an active volcano that has not erupted for many years.

In addition to its high altitude, it is known for being one of the most symmetrical mountains in the world, creating a beautiful conical effect and, therefore, very photogenic. It is naturally one of the biggest attractions in the country.

50 things I need to know before traveling to Japan
The iconic Mount Fuji, the highest point in Japan

#3 Being an archipelago of so many islands, Japan extends over 3000 km from Northeast to Southwest.

Naturally, these distances imply some (many) climatic, geographic, and cultural differences. Hokkaido is very different from Okinawa.

Also, for this reason, Japan has one of the longest coastlines in the world (6th), and it is a very seaward country. This is extremely visible in the diet and typical Japanese food, which depends on fish and seafood.

Tuna auction at Kii Katsura fish market in Japan
Tuna auction at Kii Katsura fish market in Japan

Things to know about the Japanese people

#4 Despite the relatively small available area, Japan has a very high population. With more than 120 million inhabitants, it is the 11th most populous country in the world and has a very high population density.

The rough geography and high population density mean that most people are concentrated in cities, some of which are huge metropolises, with Tokyo at their head.

Tokyo is even considered the largest metropolis in the world, with its urban region including other large cities such as Yokohama (the second city in the country). In total, there are almost 50 million people – the equivalent of the entire population of South Korea or five times that of Portugal.

If Tokyo was a country, it would be among the top 30 most populous in the world.

The Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto metropolis is also massive, and with almost 20 million inhabitants, it is the second largest in the country. Given that it contains some of the best destinations in Japan (more on that below), it is also a place not to be missed on any itinerary to Japan.

Things to know before traveling to Japan
Impressive building in Japan – Umeda Sky Building in Osaka

#5 Another characteristic of the Japanese population is aging. Japan is one of the oldest societies in the world and a country whose population has been decreasing.

This happens for two main reasons. Firstly, the Japanese are one of the longest-living people, with the largest number of people exceeding 100 years of age. Then, young people have very few children, which does not allow for generational renewal.

These two factors create a severe social and economic problem for Japan – especially for the future. Pessimist people even say that Japan is dying.

Torii at Kumano Nachi Taisha Temple, Shinto Temple
Torii at Kumano Nachi Taisha Temple, Shinto Temple

#6 The Japanese have a curious relationship with religion. It is difficult to say whether it is a religious country or not, and even the percentage of the population who adheres to each religion. Why?

Firstly, there are two main religions, Shintoism and Buddhism. However, these religions mix, and it is common for a Japanese person to adhere to both depending on the situation, with some practices becoming part of culture more than being purely spiritual.

Shintoism is the traditional and oldest religion in Japan, but it is not a conventional and organized religion in the way we are used to. It is a set of beliefs linked to nature, people, and specific places. Shinto shrines are easily identifiable by the traditional Torii gates at the entrance.

Some statistics say that 70 to 80% of Japanese practice Shinto, but this does not mean that they are only Shinto, much less that they believe in all Shinto practices. They simply go to sanctuaries and practice some beliefs or prayers – whether for cultural reasons, tradition, or because they really believe in them.

everything about traveling in Japan
Shinto Temple in Kyoto

#7 The official language of Japan is naturally Japanese, being the only country in the world that speaks it and a language entirely different from all others.

The Japanese, like basically all East Asian people, have immense difficulty speaking Western languages, including English. Still, unless you speak Japanese, it’s your best chance to communicate with locals.

Japan travel guide
Street with traditional houses in Takayama

#8 Unfortunately, despite the high level of tourism and all the efforts to learn foreign languages, it is still immensely difficult to communicate with the Japanese, even to ask for relatively simple information.

In addition to the fact that most people speak very little (or none at all) English, there are also vast cultural differences and ways of thinking. Sometimes, the most straightforward questions that almost shouldn’t require language become problematic.

A solution to overcome this problem or at least to reduce it is to use a translation app like Papago or an automatic translator like FluenTalk. These allow the translation of conversations, text, and even images. Although extremely useful, they do not entirely solve the problem.

Ultimately, having a more meaningful conversation or forming friendships is almost impossible in a typical travel situation. Unless you know some Japanese people, or if you have a very specific situation where you find someone who speaks English, interactions will always be simple, direct, and short. At least, this has always been our experience.

Shinsekai at night in Osaka
Shinsekai in Osaka, Japan

What are the Japanese like?

#9 A book wouldn’t be enough to explain how the Japanese are, their culture, and above all, the social and mentality differences compared to Westerners. Since that is not the goal of this article either, we will focus on what the interaction with Japanese people is like, whether they are friendly, approachable, etc.

#10 All these peculiarities of Japanese culture and differences from our culture create a whole variety of uncomfortable situations and faux pax – some seriously to avoid, others not so much and end up being funny. Some things to keep in mind include:

  • All the etiquette of eating in Japan, especially sushi;
  • Not making noise (especially on public transport);
  • Queues – Japanese people love queues, and it is important to respect queues and beware of them, bearing in mind that you will probably have to wait in queues in many situations;
  • Dress conservatively, particularly when it comes to showing cleavage and shoulders.
  • Avoid wearing shoes inside. Slippers are usually given to wear inside.

It should be noted that although the Japanese are tolerant of foreigners and avoid conflict as much as possible. We should always try to respect their culture and habits, even if it is sometimes difficult to understand those on the outside.

Sensō-ji Temple in Tokyo, Japan
Sensō-ji Temple in Tokyo, Japan

#11 Japan is still a very traditionalist and conservative country today. It is a country with a very ancient culture that is very different from the West’s.

This traditionalism is reflected in many everyday things, from the way of dressing to the desire to please and even conformity. There is enormous social pressure not to be different and to belong to the collective.

At the same time and in parallel, there are the most modern, curious, unique, and sometimes even strange things like people dressed as manga/video game characters, themed trains (Hello Kitty, for example), or maid cafés.

Japan is also known for its rapid adoption of new technologies and innovation, particularly in video games, robots, and automobiles, among many other things.

These almost opposite characteristics coexist in a more or less harmonious way, contributing immensely to Japan’s distinctive and singular aura, and are yet another reason why the country is so attractive to Westerners.

Tokyo at night with neons and many people
Video game store in Tokyo, Japan

Climate in Japan

#12 As we initially mentioned, Japan is a large country that spreads across a huge area from north to south. So, it is natural for it to have a diversity of climates. The north is quite cold, the center is temperate, and the small islands in the south have almost tropical climates.

Rain is abundant almost everywhere, but especially in summer and early autumn when typhoons and torrential rains hit the country. In general, humidity is always high in Japan.

We can separate Japan into four climatic zones:

  • In the north (Hokkaido), there are mild summers and very cold winters, with heavy snow on the Sea of Japan side and in mountainous areas.
  • The eastern zone has hot, humid summers and cold winters, with abundant snow on the Sea of Japan side and in mountainous areas.
  • Western Japan has very hot and humid summers (with temperatures sometimes exceeding 35ºC) and moderately cold winters.
  • Okinawa and Amami have a subtropical oceanic climate. In these areas, summers are hot and humid (with temperatures rarely exceeding 35ºC), and winters are mild.
Kumano Kodo trail
Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route

When to travel to Japan?

#13 In our opinion, the best time of year to visit Japan is autumn, at the end of the rainy and typhoon season, and before winter comes. At this time, the temperatures are ideal, there is little rain, and relatively few tourists. This is also the time for autumn foliage, one of the most beautiful times in Japan.

Alternatively, Spring also presents good weather with mild temperatures and little rain. At this time (generally in April), we also have the famous cherry blossoms, making this the most beautiful time of the year in Japan. On the other hand, the golden week and the cherry blossoms make this time of year very popular, and the prices increase significantly.

If you are planning to travel to Japan, it is important to note that the high season for domestic tourism in Japan is famous for being extremely difficult to travel due to high prices and the large crowds that form at all attractions, making them an unpleasant experience for the foreigners. Therefore, we suggest that you avoid:

  • Golden week: consecutive holiday period that usually occurs in late April to early May, during which several national holidays are grouped together.
  • March and April: when the cherry trees are in bloom, they attract many local and foreign tourists.
  • New Year: This is a very busy time, especially problematic for transport, as many people travel to visit family, participate in traditional events, and carry out New Year activities.
  • Summer Holiday Season: This is a high holiday season for the Japanese, especially for family trips and trips with children as they are on vacation. It is also high season for foreigners as Europeans and Americans like to travel in the summer.
Everything you need to know before visiting Japan
Plum trees in bloom on the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, Japan

Is it safe to travel to Japan?

#14 Yes! Japan is exactly what you expect: one of the safest places in the world to travel. We never felt unsafe and traveled everywhere at all hours of the day. You see children and teens alone on the street, in the subway, and everywhere.

We would say that you have to be very unlucky to have a safety problem in Japan, let alone something related to violence. Still, we advise you to be careful with your belongings in busy areas.

Probably the biggest risk in Japan will have to do with natural events related to earthquakes and typhoons. Remember that during typhoon season, the rain can be very heavy and lead to huge floods.

If you travel during typhoon season, pay attention to the news and weather forecast, but it is also unlikely that you will be in danger. You may have to opt for activities inside or be limited by the closure of some infrastructure, including public transport.

Lake and lantern in japanese garden in Kanazawa
Beautiful Japanese garden in Kanazawa

Tourism in Japan

#15 Historically, Japan has a strong economy based on exports of material goods, and therefore, tourism was not essential for the country and the economy. However, during the 2010s, the number of tourists increased exponentially from 6.22 million in 2011 to over 30 million in 2019.

The country closed completely during COVID-19, so numbers fell in 2020-2022, but in 2023, it approached record values again, and there is increasing concern about excess tourism in some places. However, if you go a little off the beaten track and travel outside high season, you won’t have any problems.

As you would expect, most tourists to Japan come from its Asian neighbors, with China, South Korea, and Taiwan leading the way. Among Westerners, the majority of tourists come from the USA, with no European country standing out on its own.

Interestingly, in our experience, we saw many more Europeans (a lot of Spanish and French) than Americans, but this has to do with the destinations we go to and how we travel.

Shinjuku neighborhood in Tokyo, Japan
Shinjuku neighborhood in Tokyo, Japan

#16 Due to its long and troubled history, Japan is a cultural destination par excellence and naturally has several UNESCO heritage sites and activities.

In total, there are 25 UNESCO heritage sites, 20 cultural and five natural. You can check the complete list here, but the best-known and most popular are:

  • Mount Fuji
  • Kyoto’s palaces and temples
  • Himeji Castle
  • Shirakawa-go
  • Hiroshima Memorial
  • Nikko Temples.
White Himeji castle, one of the best preserved in Japan
Himeji Castle, an attraction not to be missed in Japan

Where to go in Japan?

#17 When planning a trip to Japan, most people immediately think of the huge and lively urban areas, the pop culture, the temples and shrines… and with good reason. All of this is essential for anyone visiting Japan!

But for us, what we liked the most about Japan was the nature. Both the most famous areas like Mount Fuji and less popular ones like the Kumano Kodo trails. If you plan to travel to Japan, don’t forget to take a few days to visit the natural parks and explore Japan’s trails, waterfalls, mountains, and volcanoes!

Even though we spent almost four weeks in Japan, we felt like we only got to see a very small part! We had to skip a few places we really wanted to visit, so we are already thinking about the next trip!

Still, below, we will explore some of our favorite places in Japan and the destinations not to be missed on your first visit!

Traditional Japanese houses in Shirakawa-go
Traditional Japanese houses in Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO heritage site

#18 Tokyo is the capital and largest city of Japan. It will probably be your entry point into the country and one of the main destinations. Famous for its size and population density, Tokyo is a world of its own.

The city is so big that it becomes impossible to capture it in its entirety and understand it. In our opinion, the best way to visit Tokyo is to do so in neighborhoods and treat them as cities in themselves. Each has its own characteristics, attractions, and things to do and see as if they were a city of their own.

Large buildings in Tokyo
Skyscrapers in Tokyo, Japan

Therefore, we suggest you take one day to each prominent neighborhood and visit them “at your leisure.” Some neighborhoods are more interesting at night, so if you’re short on time, you can try to visit them only during that time.

In our experience, the neighborhoods not to be missed in Tokyo are:

  • Shibuya: an area for shopping, entertainment and fashion. Famous for the Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest in the world.
  • Shinjuku: Known for its bustling shopping and entertainment district, it includes the Kabukicho district, famous for its neon lights and nightlife.
  • Harajuku: A center of youth culture and street fashion. Takeshita Street is especially known for extravagant shops and unique fashion trends.
  • Akihabara: A must-see for fans of Japanese pop culture, it is known as a paradise for electronics, anime, manga, and game stores.
  • Asakusa: a historic neighborhood that attracts visitors due to its traditional architecture, shopping streets and festivals. The oldest temple in Tokyo is here.
  • Roppongi: Known for its nightlife, Roppongi is an international entertainment area with many restaurants, bars, and clubs.
  • Ginza: An upscale shopping and entertainment area. It is a popular destination for high-end shopping and fine dining.
Shibuya crossing at night
Famous Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, one of the busiest in the world.

#19 Kyoto is the historic capital of Japan and a place not to be missed for anyone who wants to discover Japan’s ancient history and culture, such as geisha, ceremonies and tea houses, temples, Kaiseki dinners, and Zen gardens.

The city was spared by the bombings of the Second World War, and therefore, it is also where you can find more historical buildings, namely temples and old and traditional neighborhoods.

Kyoto has a lot to see, so we suggest you visit for 3 or 4 days. Some of the destinations not to be missed include:

  • Fushimi Inari Taisha: Known for its thousands of red torii that form an impressive path to the top of the mountain.
  • Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion): A temple covered in gold leaves, reflected in the waters of the mirrored lake.
  • Kiyomizu-dera: A wooden temple with a viewing platform offering spectacular views of Kyoto.
  • Gion: The district is famous for its historic streets, tea houses, and the possibility of meeting geishas.
  • Nijo Castle: Kyoto Castle, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its beautiful gardens.
  • Arashiyama Bamboo Grove: A bamboo forest that creates a very popular environment on Instagram.
  • Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion): Known for its beautiful gardens and the famous Philosopher’s Path.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and gardens in Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) one of the UNESCO heritage monuments in Japan

#20 Despite the proximity and being part of the same metropolitan area, Osaka is a modern city and completely different from Kyoto. If you are short on time, the proximity also allows you to easily visit Osaka in one day from Kyoto, as it is less than 1 hour by train.

Despite having far fewer attractions than Kyoto, Osaka is also a fascinating city, whether for the spectacular nightlife and neons in Dotombori, the Shinsekai neighborhood or simply because it is considered the street food capital of Japan!

Glico man in Dotombori Osaka
Neons in Dotombori light up the city of Osaka.

Despite being very famous, Osaka Castle is worth more for its outside views than its interior. The outside of the castle is very beautiful, but the interior is not that interesting. It’s just a new building with some exhibits, as it hasn’t been rebuilt to look like it used to be before the destruction.

If you have time, we suggest you stay in Osaka for a few days and also take the opportunity to visit some cities and attractions nearby, namely:

  • Nara is a city famous for its park, with wild deer. It is possible to buy food and give it to them. Without a doubt, it is one of the best attractions in Japan.
  • Kobe – port city, famous for being the origin of the best meat in the world… or at least the most expensive!
  • Himeji Castle – a fabulous castle in Japan that is worth visiting. One of the only original castles that survived the Second World War.
Deer in Nara city park
Sacred deer in Nara

#21 Mount Fuji is undoubtedly the most famous natural monument in Japan. This volcano is the highest point in the country and a symbol of the country known worldwide due to its almost perfect conical shape.

The best and easiest place to see Mount Fuji is in Fujikawaguchiko. The whole area is beautiful, with several lakes and endless views of the famous mountain. The most spectacular are from the Mt. Fuji Panoramic Ropeway and the Arakura Fuji Sengen sanctuary.

In addition to these viewpoints, we also recommend taking a bike ride around Lake Kawaguchi. It’s worth it both for the views of Fuji and the lake itself. Around 3 hours is enough without having to speed up too much.

Note: If you want and are physically well prepared, it is possible to climb Mount Fuji, but only during summer between the beginning of July and the beginning of September.

Japan points of interest
Fujikawaguchiko Lake, one of the best places to see Mount Fuji in Japan

#22 Hakone is another well-known destination to see Mount Fuji, but as it is further away, it is not so good to sightsee. On the other hand, Hakone has much more to offer than just Fuji views.

Hakone is perhaps the best-known and most popular Tokyo getaway among tourists and locals, as it allows you to do a huge range of activities in one day:

  • See Lake Ashi with Mount Fuji in the background
  • Go to Hakone Temple
  • Ride the famous pirate boat
  • Riding the cable car and elevator
  • See the fumaroles and volcanic landscape of Owakudan
Lake Ashi with a red torri gate and Mount Fuji in the background in Japan
Lake Ashi with Mount Fuji in the background in Japan

If you decide to spend the night in Hakone, this region is also famous for its hot springs, onsen, and Ryokan – the famous traditional Japanese accommodations. Spending the night in a Ryokan and going to an onsen are not to be missed in Japan, and it was undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip to Japan.

Best experiences to have in Japan
Onsen at a Ryokan near Hakone

#23 We try to go hiking in every country we visit, and when we heard about Kumano Kodo, we knew we had to try and do at least part of it.

The Kumano Kodo routes are recognized as one of the main pilgrimage routes in the world. Considered a UNESCO World Heritage site, they cover the paths followed by pilgrims for over a thousand years.

Travelers come to Wakayama, Nara, Osaka, and Mie prefectures in search of moments of contemplation, connection with nature, and immersing themselves in Japanese spiritual roots. We loved our experience and considered it one of the highlights of our trip.

See our dedicated article on everything you need to know to hike the Kumano Kodo.

Places to visit in Japan
Seiganto-ji Temple and Nachi Waterfall on Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage

#24 Kanazawa is a slightly less known destination, but it is well worth it. It is considered the second largest city in Japan that was spared the bombings and, therefore, still has some well-preserved historical parts, namely the districts of Nagamachi and Chaya.

Despite this, Kanazawa’s biggest attraction is undoubtedly the Kenrokuen Garden, considered one of the three best examples of traditional Japanese gardens and, by many, also the most beautiful. It’s a fabulous place, and it is not to be missed by anyone who likes traditional gardens.

Kanazawa is also known as the city of samurai due to their importance in its history, and there is a historic house called the samurai house. But despite being quite beautiful, it is a normal traditional house, with nothing related to samurai in it.

Japan top atractions
Kanazawa Castle in Japan

#25 Among the destinations we visited, these were our favorites, but there are a thousand other interesting destinations in Japan with enormous cultural and landscape diversity. Hokkaido, Okinawa, and Hiroshima are some of the most popular places on our list for an upcoming trip to Japan.

Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost island, offering unparalleled natural beauty with majestic mountains and fields of flowers. It is also famous for its great local cuisine, hot springs, and a slightly different culture from the rest of Japan.

Okinawa is in the far south and offers an opportunity to see a completely different side of Japan, with crystal clear sea waters and diving and snorkeling opportunities in the coral reefs. It’s a sun and sea destination in a country famous for everything else!

Hiroshima is an urban destination, but due to its history, it is completely different from the rest of the cities mentioned here. It is an impressive testament to the reconstruction and commitment to peace, and visiting Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and the iconic Atomic Bomb Dome is a unique and moving experience.

One of the things you need to know is where to go in Japan
Hiroshima Memorial in Japan | photo by Masterlu via Depositphotos

Food in Japan

#26 The food in Japan is fabulous. In our opinion, it is perhaps one of the best countries in the world to eat. The balance and depth of flavors, the variety of dishes, and the ease of finding good food are spectacular.

Rice is perhaps the main ingredient and the basis of almost all traditional Japanese food, but the food stands out above all for its natural flavors and fresh ingredients. Fish and seafood are elemental to the Japanese diet, but there are also delicious meats.

The artistic presentation of the dishes and the preparation technique are also highly valued. So, in addition to having delicious dishes, they are also often beautiful.

delicious ramen, one of the foods to try in Japan
Delicious ramen we had in Nara, Japan

#27 Kaiseki is the ultimate splendor of Japanese cuisine. It is a traditional Japanese multi-course dinner where the presentation and seasonality of the ingredients are fundamental. They are usually quite expensive, but it is a unique culinary experience.

Each dish in a Kaiseki meal displays a delicate harmony between flavors, textures, and colors. Every detail is carefully considered, from the choice of tableware to the final presentation of each delicacy. Each element is important and adds to the overall experience.

Kyoto is said to be the best place to try this type of meal, but there are Kaiseki restaurants in every major city, and many Ryokans also include it in the overall experience. We had our Kaiseki dinner at the Ryokan, and it was one of the best meals we’ve ever had, if not the best!

What to eat in Japan? Kaiseki meal
A Kaiseki meal with different dishes – Traditional Japanese food

#28 The most famous Japanese dish is undoubtedly Sushi, as in recent years, it has become internationally popular and is consumed in many countries worldwide.

Appreciated for its variety of flavors, textures, and artistic presentations, Sushi consists of rice seasoned with vinegar, sugar, and salt, combined with various ingredients, such as raw fish, seafood, vegetables, and seaweed.

Although raw fish is its most famous form, it is not at all mandatory for sushi to contain raw fish or even for it to contain fish. Vegetarian and cooked versions are available almost everywhere, as are meat versions.

Eating sushi is one of the culinary experiences that is not to be missed in Japan. The quality of the ingredients, textures, and flavors is incredible. The sushi we ate in Kii Katsura (especially tuna) and Kanazawa was incredible.

In Japan, you will also find many sushi belt restaurants, where dishes are ordered on a monitor and served on a mini conveyor belt. It’s fun, convenient, and usually cheap.

Traditional Japanese food - sushi
Tuna sushi we ate at Kii Katsura

#29 Ramen is another Japanese dish or set of extremely popular dishes worldwide. Although we loved sushi in Japan, the ramen dazzled us with an incredible depth of flavors.

Ramen is a meat or vegetable-based broth served with noodles (of different types) and often accompanied by ingredients such as meat, boiled eggs, nori seaweed, and chives. The variety of ingredients varies depending on the region and the specific style of ramen or simply the restaurant.

This is a versatile and popular dish with many regional variations and specific styles, and it is common to find restaurants specializing in ramen, where chefs dedicate themselves to perfecting the broth, noodles, and accompaniments to create a unique flavor experience.

Ramen is the best food to eat when visiting japa
Delicious pork ramen with a divine broth

#30 But Japanese cuisine goes far beyond sushi and ramen, it has an incredible variety that we strongly recommend exploring. Some of our favorite dishes in Japan were:

  • Udon – a thicker type of pasta made from wheat or buckwheat. It is often served with a broth but can be stir-fried or in a hot pot.
  • Tempura – Seafood or vegetables dipped in a thin batter and fried until crispy. It is said to have Portuguese origins.
  • Yakitori – chicken skewers seasoned with salt or different sauces.
  • Tamagoyaki – the well-known Japanese omelet.
  • Tonkatsu – Breaded and fried pork cutlet, usually served with tonkatsu or curry sauce and rice.
  • Sukiyaki – a type of hot pot made with various vegetables, noodles and meat.
  • Okonomiyaki – Japanese savory pancake made with cabbage, meat, seafood, and other ingredients, covered with okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, and dried bonito flakes.
  • Curry rice or kare raisu – the Japanese version of curry was introduced by the British and is quite different from the Indian original. It has a thicker texture and a sweeter flavor. Often served with Tonkatsu.
  • Onigiri – portions of Japanese rice with a filling in the middle (various flavors and sauces) were molded into triangular or cylindrical shapes before being wrapped in nori seaweed.
  • Takoyaki – a popular street food originating in Osaka. It is also known as octopus balls.
  • Yakisoba – a pasta dish in which a combination of pasta, sliced cabbage, pork, carrots and other vegetables are sautéed, and a sauce similar to barbecue.
What to know about Japan? Curry is a very popular dish
Tonkatsu Kare or Katsukare – Breaded and fried pork chop with curry

#31 In Japan, you can also find a wide variety of sweets. One of the most curious characteristics of Japanese sweets is that they mainly use two ingredients that, in Europe, we are much more accustomed to using for savory dishes: rice and beans.

Therefore, besides being delicious, they are also a curious experience and even a lesson in how different ingredients are used in other parts of the world. Some of the sweets not to be missed in Japan are:

  • Mochi: Glutinous rice balls filled with adzuki bean paste, fruit, or jelly.
  • Manju: Dumplings filled with bean paste, fruit, or cream, often steamed
  • Sesame Cookies
  • Japanese Cheesecake – The Japanese version of cheesecake is light, has a mild flavor, and melts in the mouth.
  • Castella – cake of Portuguese origin, it is the Japanese version of our sponge cake.
  • Dorayaki – pancakes stuffed with beans
  • Dango – Skewered rice balls, usually topped with sweet soy sauce, bean paste, or roasted soy seeds
  • Matcha ice cream or any other sweet with Matcha (green tea powder).
  • Taiyaki: A fish-shaped dumpling filled with bean paste, chocolate, cream or other sweets
Typical japanese sweets
Matcha with a Japanese sweet – Typical Japanese tea ceremony

But there are hundreds of other sweets to discover in Japan. Some are regional, others are local, and many are shared with other Asian countries.

So, if you see one that looks good, try it. The Japanese attach immense importance to the appearance of sweets, but the flavor usually accompanies their beauty.

We must also mention that the Japanese love European pastries, especially French ones. That’s why you’ll also find many Western sweets or interpretations of those same sweets. In our experience, they are very good! We even commented that you eat better French pastries in Japan than in France!

what to eat in Japan?
Fluffy pancakes from Japan

#32 One of the best ways to save on food and still try some local dishes is to eat in markets and on the street. Japan, like almost all Asian countries, has absolutely delicious street food.

However, one of the characteristics of markets and street food in Japan is that you should not walk down the street to eat. You must eat it by the seller. In our opinion, it ruins the concept of street food a bit, but it is what it is… Regardless, street food is usually very good and safe due to the high levels of hygiene in Japan.

In addition to the markets and the street, we must mention the convenience stores. Japanese convenience stores are spectacular and sell everything you need for breakfast, snacks, lunch, or dinner.

Since there are convenience stores everywhere, they are also very useful. They are also a great way to eat quickly and at a very low cost. As you would expect, most of the food is unhealthy, but you can also find salads and yogurts, for example.

The most popular convenience stores are 7-11, Lawson and Family Mart. They offer quite similar goods, but our favorites are 7-11.

Popular dishes in Japan
Street food in Osaka

Currency and Costs of Traveling to Japan

#33 One of the things you need to know before traveling to Japan is that the official currency is the Yen. In 2023, the Yen-USD exchange rate was around 130-150, which still is a considerable variation. That is, 1 USD is worth 130-150 Yen.

Our suggestion is that you do not need to bring yen with you. The ATM network in Japan is good; you can withdraw money anytime. In our experience, withdrawal costs are acceptable and almost always lower than exchanging before arriving in Japan.

Most stores and restaurants do not accept card payments (credit or debit), so always having cash with us is very important. In any case, take the opportunity to make as many payments as possible by card, as it is safer and reduces the number of withdrawals to be made.

One of the things you need to know when visiting Japan is the currency and exchange rate
Umeda Sky Building in Osaka, Japan

IC cards – Suica, Pasmo, Icoca

#34 IC cards, electronic wallets, or smart transport cards are among the first things we recommend you buy when you arrive in Japan. In fact, you can even order one and take it to the airport when you arrive to make it easier.

There are many different brands of these cards; from what we found out, the only fundamental difference is who issues it. In other words, if you arrive in Tokyo, you will find Suica and Pasmo for sale; if you arrive in Osaka, you will find Icoca.

It’s a bit confusing at first, but in practice, they cost the same, provide the same advantages and facilities, and work in the same places.

The great benefit of these cards is the ease of making payments on public transport. The card is validated upon entry and exit, and that’s it. There is no need to buy tickets or be in queues. They can also be used to make payments in vending machines, convenience stores, taxis, and many other places.

The card must always be loaded in cash at machines on the subway or in convenience stores.

One of the things to know before going to Japan is how to use the metro cards and train tickets
Tokyo Metro is one of the most complex and largest in Japan

Costs of Traveling to Japan

#35 The first thing most people think when considering traveling to Japan is that it will be very expensive. In reality, currently, Japan is far from being a costly destination! In fact, we find Japan cheaper than much of Western Europe, the United States, or Canada.

A few years ago, Japan was expensive, and you had to be careful not to blow your budget! Now, nearly all items are even cheaper in Japan than in Portugal. The only thing that is really expensive in Japan is transportation; everything else is either similar to Portugal or cheaper!

So, one of the main things you need to know before traveling to Japan is that Japan is no longer an expensive destination! And, considering that Japan is a developed, modern, wealthy, and extremely safe country, traveling in Japan is surprisingly cheap! Even more surprising considering the reputation.

Geisha district in Kanazawa, Japan
Geisha district in Kanazawa, Japan

#36 Excluding flights, as they depend a lot on where we depart, we spend an average of 100 Euros per day traveling as a couple, which gives an average of 50 Euros per person. This average cost per person makes Japan an incredible destination with an incredible cost/quality ratio.

Compared to recent trips, it’s only slightly more than what we spent in Mexico, similar to what we spent in South Korea, but more expensive than Taiwan and Vietnam, which are actually very cheap destinations!

It is important to note that we are backpackers, and we always try to keep our travel costs well controlled. Travel costs also depend on the time of year and even more on the type of traveler you are. If you stay in hotels, take a lot of tours, shop, and go to amusement parks, these values will increase exponentially.

Sumo is a popular sport in Japan
One of the most influential martial arts in Japan is Sumo | photo by Potyomkina via Depositphotos

#37 One of the most surprising costs of our trip was food. Food in Japan is quite cheap, making it possible and even easy for two people to eat for 15-20 Euros. A little more if it’s non-Japanese food or seafood and meat. In convenience stores, markets, and Izakayas, it is much less!

We like to try all the local specialties, so we mostly eat local food in local restaurants. On the other hand, we also enjoy street and market food, which further reduces costs.

One of the biggest secrets to keeping food costs low is to eat at Izakayas, small traditional restaurants that serve fast, cheap food. In addition to the cultural experience, the food is usually delicious!

Guia de como visitar o Japão
One of the best mochi shops in Nara – Nakatanidou

#38 In accommodation, there are options for all tastes and costs, starting at around 20-30 USD per night in double rooms in cheap hostels. Which in our opinion are very low prices. Even in Portugal, it is very difficult to find rooms at this price, regardless of quality.

This cost will always be a little more expensive in Tokyo, starting at 30-40 USD for places usually far from the center. These values also depend greatly on the time of year, as everywhere!

Tourist attractions are another source of expenses that sometimes weigh heavily on the travel budget, but in Japan, they are not too bad. There are hugely expensive attractions like Disney World (which we didn’t visit), but most of the things we suggest here are either free or extremely cheap, and of course, natural attractions are also rarely paid for.

Japan travel tips - mochi shops
Torii Fushimi Inari-Taisha in Kyoto, Japan

#39 As we said initially, transportation is the most expensive item in Japan. We only traveled by public transport, and we can say that they are all expensive. Whether urban, buses, or trains. Shinkansen is very expensive; we believe that they are usually more valuable because of the experience than the price ratio.

Some ways to save include day tickets in Tokyo, some night buses that are worth it, or some regional passes. But even using all these methods, it is still quite expensive.

Until 2023, the global JR pass was travelers’ preferred way to save in Japan, but after 2023’s huge price increase, it’s hardly worth it. By our calculations, making the current cost worth it is very difficult, and we chose not to buy. But there are online calculators to check if it’s worth it for your itinerary.

hello kitty train, a cute surprise when traveling in Japan
Hello Kitty bullet train in Japan

Is it necessary to tip in Japan?

#40 Tipping is not expected in Japan, it is simply not part of the local culture. In fact, we didn’t feel the need to give any type of tip, nor did we see anyone doing so, whether foreigners or Japanese, in restaurants or any other type of situation.

There may be exceptions, but we haven’t experienced them, and of course, if you want to reward spectacular service, you can always do so. However, please note that it is not at all customary or something that Japanese people expect, even when they provide excellent service.

volcanic fumaroles in Owakudani crater
Owakudani crater with fumaroles in Japan

How to Travel in Japan

#41 During our travels in Japan, we used a mix of trains, buses, and even boats, and it almost always worked well.

Trains in Japan have a stellar reputation; in our opinion, it is completely justified. Buses, you need a lot of attention when planning routes as sometimes there are limited timetables, and they are incredibly time-consuming.

Still, it’s perfectly possible to go almost everywhere using only public transport, and that’s what we did.

how to travel in travel
Lake Ashi in Hakone, Japan

Rent a car in Japan

#42 Naturally, traveling by car means greater speed and flexibility, especially if you want to hike or go to rarely visited places, but most visitors won’t need a car. Furthermore, renting a car also has some disadvantages.

To rent a car in Japan, we must have an international driving license, so don’t forget to get your international license before traveling. Driving by car in Tokyo and other large cities can be complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. There is a lot of traffic and very few places to park, even at night.

From what we have analyzed, the costs of renting a car are not cheap at all, but if you are traveling as a group, it can be worth it due to the high public transport costs.

#43 So, we chose not to rent a car, as we wanted a completely relaxed trip without worries about driving, parking, dealing with rent-a-car, or international driving licenses.

Thus, we can’t give you many tips when it comes to renting a car or driving, but note that in Japan, you drive on the Left! Furthermore, if you are used to driving in different countries, you shouldn’t have any major problems in rural Japan. The roads are also quite good, and the Japanese are very good at driving.

The main problem will be the cities, and we strongly advise you not to have a car in the most urban parts of your itinerary, especially in Tokyo, due to the size, traffic, and general chaos.

Baboo forest in Kyoto, Japan
Bamboo Forest in Kyoto Arashiyama, Japan

Public transportation

#44 Traveling by car can provide flexibility and be faster, but in Japan, you can travel to virtually any attraction by bus, train, or subway. At least we went everywhere we wanted, almost always without problems.

The best way we’ve found to navigate Japan’s transportation system is to use Google Maps. There are other apps, but none that we tried had major advantages over Google Maps as it works well and in real-time in Japan.

Combining Google Maps with the ease of using IC cards, you can easily plan how to go, how much it will cost, and how long it will take to get to your destination.

However, it is essential always to confirm the costs (sometimes they are very high), the times (sometimes it takes a long time to travel just a few km), and the timings (some transports only exist 2 or 3 times a day). In Japan, it is essential to plan well what you will do and not fill your days too much.

Furthermore, IC cards work on almost all forms of transport, but you need to be very careful and always confirm whether you can use them. Unlike in Korea, where they are always available everywhere, there are sometimes surprises in Japan.

How to travel to japan
Train station in Osaka, Japan

#45 Google Maps works well with trains for long-distance trips but not so well with buses. Therefore, it is important to see if buses also travel the route. We suggest the Willer bus website as it is quite comprehensive and is what we almost always use to book long-distance buses.

In addition, you will need to reserve seats on both trains and buses. Buying train tickets is usually done at the stations, and we had no problems with them being full, but it wasn’t high season either. Always try to book as far in advance as possible, preferably a few days.

In our experience, buses are cheaper than slower trains, but the difference is not large and depends greatly on the journey and whether there is a local pass. The Shinkansen are very expensive, and that’s why we don’t ride them, and we can’t give any great tips in this regard.

Cute red Japanese train
Japan trains

Other Japan Travel Tips

Japan souvenirs

#46 Japan is a destination like no other. It lives in our imagination and greatly influences Western culture, so you’ll want to bring back many memories and souvenirs.

Fortunately, there are many opportunities to shop and even more interesting things to bring. Your biggest problem won’t be finding souvenirs, but finding space and weight in your suitcase to bring everything!

Some of our suggestions are:

  • Mangas and products related to your favorite mangas/animes
  • Yukata and Kimono: Traditional Japanese clothing makes great souvenirs, and you can find more affordable options like cotton yukata.
  • Ingredient kits for typical Japanese dishes
  • Handicrafts and typical local products – they exist everywhere. Pay attention, and buy something you like when you see it.
  • Tea and Teaware: High-quality green tea and teaware sets to bring a piece of Japanese tradition.
  • Wagashi: traditional Japanese sweets. They are often designed to have beautiful shapes like flowers and plants. They include the well-known dango and mochi, for example.
Manga store in Japan
Japan Manga Store

Internet in Japan

#47 As in any developed country, any accommodation is expected to have free WIFI, so this should not be a major concern. Confirming the signal quality in the comments is always a good idea.

If you want to use mobile data, you must buy a local data card or an eSim. However, we must note that data cards in Japan are among the most expensive in the world, so purchasing an eSim can be an easy and cheap option.

We used an e-Sim card, which worked quite well for us. You can buy it here. You can also buy a Japanese SIM card on a website like Klook and pick it up at the airport. It’s very simple and guarantees that you have data as soon as it arrives.

Japan travel tips
Dotonbori shopping area in Osaka, Japan

Cleaning, pollution, and recycling

#48 Japan has a reputation for being one of the cleanest countries in the world. And it doesn’t disappoint. In fact, virtually everywhere in Japan is extraordinarily clean, and the Japanese pride themselves on keeping everything impeccably clean.

Occasionally, and in some neighborhoods, you may see some rubbish on the ground, but this is really an exception. And even the least clean places wouldn’t even attract attention anywhere else.

In this aspect, Japan is an example for the world!

Interestingly (and similar to South Korea), there are very few rubbish bins on the streets in Japan. Sometimes it’s really difficult to find one, so always carry a bag where you can store your own rubbish until you find a bin or recycling bin.

bulb on 50 things to know before traveling to Japan

Top Tip

If you are eating street food, you can give the trash back to the vendor, and they will keep it.

Regarding recycling, we have the same problem as rubbish bins. They are quite difficult to find, and when you do, it is a little difficult to understand what is supposed to go in each crate. Apparently, it differs, as we never conclude what it is supposed to do. Having difficulty understanding the language also makes it a bit problematic.

Our solution ended up being to look at the bins and try to place our rubbish where there was similar rubbish.

One situation where we would like to see an improvement in Japan is in the use of plastics and single-use products. There is still a lot of unnecessary plastic use, especially using cups, cutlery, and other disposable products. We often want to avoid it and can’t because there is no other option.

Important: there is a world of difference between Japan and Southeast Asia and even Mexico, but a lot can still be done in Japan and any other country.

How clean is Japan?
Trail in Hakone in Japan

Electrical outlets

#49 Electrical sockets in Japan are type A and B, with a voltage of 100V and a frequency of 50/60 Hz.

In other words, you will need an adapter if you come from Continental Europe or other countries with the same type of sockets. Therefore, we suggest this universal adapter, and if you need a frequency converter, we suggest this one.

Also, check if the voltage and frequency differ from those in your country. Normally, computers, cell phones, and the like work with any voltage as they have a converter, but household appliances and hairdryers will need a transformer.

Everything you need to know before visiting Japan
Staying at a Ryokan in Japan

Documents to enter Japan

#50 Most Westerners do not need a visa to enter Japan as long as they stay up to 90 days and they hold a common electronic passport.

Obviously, we are talking about tourist stays. If you go to work, the issue is completely different.

It is advisable always to have a ticket to leave the country and proof of means of subsistence as these can be requested upon entry.

Bonus: Japan Travel Guide

Finally, if you want to buy a travel guide, we suggest this guide from Lonely Planet, which has a lot of helpful information.

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50 Travel tips Japan

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