10 Tips for your first trip to Japan

July 2, 2009 by  
Filed under Latest Articles

Your first time in Japan will blow you away! It’s an absolutely jaw dropping wonderland. The size and scale of Japan can quickly become overwhelming. Here are a few quick tips we’ve found essential while living/traveling around Japan.

1. Nobody speaks English and don’t bother learning Japanese!

About as English as English gets in Japan

About as English as English gets in Japan

Those 2 hours you spent laughing at the funny things you can say out of the Lonely Planet phrase book will be good for a few laughs but that’s about it! Don’t bother trying to speak Japanese to a Japanese person, they will assume you SPEAK Japanese and reel off at you as if you can understand them. The only things you should bother to learn are “Where are the toilets?” and “Where is the nearest train station?”
Nobody, let me make this clear, NOBODY speaks English! Those who do are usually too afraid to point you in the wrong direction so they will apologize and scuttle away, then there are the people that have no idea what you are saying but will point you in any direction just to get rid of you.
Having said that, you quickly get used to the fact that your communications skills are reduced to that of a couple of pre-schoolers watching Dora the Explorer. Many restaurants have English menus, or at the very least, picture menus.
Trains and train stations will have English signs, generally they are electronic and part of a loop, so keep an eye out for those.

2. Prepare to become a smoker

The only way to escape the smoke! In style!

The only way to escape the smoke! In style!

Japan is extremely smoker friendly, if you are sensitive to smoke then make sure you come prepared! Make sure you book your hotel room on a non-smoking floor, and if you take the Shinkansen make sure you sit at least two cars away from the smoking car.

3. Bring Cash, Don’t rely on Plastic

Make sure you take enough cash with you, as a lot of Japanese ATMs do not accept international cards. If you do run low, most major banks will allow you to withdraw, and all 7/11s have international ATMs with English instructions.

4. 99 yen shops will rock your world

shop 99 Famous and awesome 99 yen shop in japan

Look out for the Blue and Orange!! Great for sneaky discount gifts ;)

Forget the seedy bargain basement shops in the western world. 99¥ shops in Japan are almost identical to the other convenience stores, you can get almost anything there for 99 yen most even have fresh baked goods, you can even grab yourself a 99Y umbrella if you get caught in the rain!

5. Bring comfortable shoes

Choose your footwear wisely! You're feet will suffer in Japan

Choose your footwear wisely! You're feet will suffer in Japan

Leave your Converse All Stars at home and invest in some high quality well fitted walking shoes, Public transport in Japan is great but it’s huge and you will more than likely walk more in the first day than you have all month!

6. Nightlife

A common site on the first train home in the morning

A common site on the first train home in the morning

If you’re struggling to find somewhere to go, don’t be afraid to do a bit of exploring and ask the locals. If you’re not having much luck, try and meet other tourists or expats, chances are they will know the happening places that wont leave a hole in your pocket.

Before you go out drinking, break your ¥10,000 notes into ¥1000 notes before a night on the Saki, after a few drinks you’re likely to stop double checking the notes for the extra 0.

The Japanese rail service generally does not run between 2am and 5am, Most people stay out all night and catch the first train home as taxis are super expensive, It can be a fun experience taking the first train home, they are packed full of party goers.

7. Watch out for scammers

This caught me completely off guard, if I hadn’t been warned it would have been easy to get sucked in by these guys. Hustlers will work solo and in teams to get you into their “bars”. They appear quite nice and friendly, offer you free drinks and come across pretty legitimate, but once they get you in their bar those free drinks come with a hefty price tag which you will have trouble disputing with 5 6’4″ illegal immigrant scammers.
When you get hustled by one, just look straight through them as if they don’t exist. If they start walking next to you just say, “no thank you”, It is very tempting to get angry at these guys but that is the worst thing you could do, 1 dude will turn into 10 before you can say onigiri!

8 Hire A Bike

Travel in style! See the sights and save your souls

Travel in style! See the sights and save your souls

As they say ” When In Rome”! Find and information booth and find out where you can hire a bike! Dirt cheap, it will be one of the best things you do in Japan and it will provide some much needed relief to your feet. Try to get someone with local knowledge to ride with you if you can, although there’ll be no dramas if you just stick to the city areas. Mark on your map where you hired the bikes from though!

Do not be tempted to steal a bike, someone once told me the majority of police time in Japan is spent investigating bike theft. They do take it quite seriously and all bikes are fitted with tags to identify them.

9 All you can drink fun

A lot of karaoke places and Japanese bars will have deals where you can drink as much as you can for 2 hours for as little as ¥1000.

10 Go to a “Gaijin Bar” on your first night

Go to an information counter at any of the larger train stations and there should be some English language mini newspapers or magazines full of foreign owned and staffed bars and pubs. These are the best places to meet locals (who can speak English, re: #1) and other foreigners (gaikokujin or gaijin) who will be more than happy to suggest more places to see or things to do. Be prepared for familiar surroundings with little Japanese culture because these establishments are generally in business to offer Japanese people a western style experience.

That’s it for now, we hope you find this useful! If you have any other questions, hit us up in the comments and we will do our best to answer them!

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  • http://www.7tune.com Peter Horniak

    Steve has put up some great information there.

    Hes also very right about the walking and bicycle thing.

    If you’re used to driving around everywhere, be prepared to ditch that and get cracking on your legs. The public transport system is super efficient, especially in Tokyo, and you’ll find you’ll be able to get almost anywhere faster by train than car. This means you will do a lot of walking!
    Also, don’t bother even trying to steal a bike. 99% of them have ‘built in’ locks, bolted to the bikes. On top of that, if you get pulled over riding someone elses bike, the police will ask you whos it is, check the registration number on the bottom of the frame and if the address and owner of the bike doesn’t match the one you tell them, you’ll be spending the rest of the night at the local lock up.

    On the upside, if you do get lost, don’t be afraid to ask the police. 90% of their job (exlcuding finding stolen bikes) is giving directions to places.

    Also, remember to keep a few hundred yen coins on hand to feed the vending machines if you want a drink, anywhere. Oh and don’t forget the beer vending machines! :D

  • SteveTX

    Did I miss something here? I only counted 9 tips–I thought it was supposed to be 10!??

    Regarding ATMs, at least with American cards you can use them to withdraw money from any post office and, if you’re lucky to have one near you, Citibank location. Also it’s important to note that many ATMs do not operate 24 hours like many of us are accustomed to. Because of that, and since many shops and restaurants do not accept credit cards anyway, it’s absolutely necessary to have cash on you at all times.

    BTW- One other thing I’d recommend if you’re planning to take public transport in metro areas are the IC cards that can be used to store your train fare on.

    In the Tokyo Metro area, you can either use the Suica or Pasmo card (which is a credit-card sized and costs, I believe, around a 500 yen deposit that is refundable). These cards are extremely useful since once you’ve charged the card for a certain amount, you won’t have to purchase individual tickets at stations anymore–you simply recharge the card for whatever yen amount you want. These cards are especially useful if you’re visiting popular tourists spots (Harajuku, etc.) or large stations during peak times (Shibuya, Shinjuku, etc.) where the task of buying a ticket from ticket machines can be hectic and troublesome.

    Additionaly, both the Suica and Pasmo are extremely versitile. Not only can you purchase train fare, they also work on most metro buses and can even be used for vending machine and station kiosks purchases!

  • http://naontherun.blogspot.com N/Aontherun

    HUH! Your right there are only 9 tips. I guess tip # 9 got to’em

    Thanks for the tips!

  • http://www.7tune.com Justin Karow

    Number 10 added! We can count, Steve was pretty hung over when he typed it all out… :)

  • http://www.7tune.com Steve Neumann

    LOL… a last minute edit left out the last my last tip.. So here it is:

    10. Shibuya 109

    Trust me, find it (It’s in Shibuya) and allow at least 3 hours for it!

  • justin

    A lot of japanese speak passable english, the younger they are the more likely this. Especially in the gaijin infested areas of tokyo. Just learn “sorry” and “no problem” and then use that for the people you ask then detect don’t speak english because they may pretend they do and waste a lot of your (and their) time. And if they look disgusted and walk away don’t be offended they are covering their embarrassment at having just written not verbal english skills.

  • http://www.7tune.com Steve Neumann

    I was told Alot of people speak English the first time I went over.. I assumed that it ment ALOT of people speak English.. e.g. Alot of people speak English in Malaysia.. The difference is they actually DO speak english.

    If Japanese can speak english, but choose not to, then they don’t speak english.. right?

    Passable, I guess.. It’s not a reason to avoid trying to talk to people you will get by just fine!

  • http://www.7tune.com Justin Karow

    As far as Japanese people speaking English goes, all schools teach English through junior High and Highschool, and since 2003 (I think) English to some extent has been introduced from the 3rd grade.

    As Justin pointed out above, a lot of younger Japanese people speak “passable” English but are very hesitant to do so, and many like to test out your Japanese ability before they try to speak English. Nerves have a lot to do with their performance, which IS NOT an indication of their competence. A Japanese speaker of English may score quite high on the TOEIC test (which they’ve studied hard for) but have mediocre “on the spot” speaking skills in comparison.

    Of course what Steve wrote is more like a general rule of thumb, its better to expect that no one in Japan can speak English than to come here expecting that everyone can, thereby end being disappointed and /or held back by the communication gap. That said, some people have mentioned to me that the communication games they play in Japan are half the fun… ;)

  • http://www.omgtom.net Tom

    Nice post! Thanks :D Been following this site for a while :)

  • http://www.7tune.com Steve Neumann

    I was quite surprised when i had to file a police report at Kansai International (lost camera) I had 3 Police officers all trying to help, none of who could speak English, They had a phrase book and an translator on the phone, It took almost an hour to explain to them that i needed a Police report. Which turned out to be as easy as filling out a couple forms and takes about 15 mins, unfortunately I had to board my flight so I missed out!

  • http://www.pacificcoastjdm.com Derek

    Writing this was a great idea. You guys are awesome. Keep up the good work and give m a discount on advertising.

    If you can’t swing that I could go for hanging out some time.


  • importpunch

    Exactly what I was hoping for from 7Tune. More information about what is going round Japan would do good.

  • SteveTX

    Since we’re on the subject of visiting Japan for the first time, how about some of the best car-related attractions (both seasonal and non)?

    Three places I really enjoyed seeing in the Tokyo area were…

    -Toyota Amlux in Ikebukuro. This showroom displays every new model from Toyota over three or four floors. I believe this is Toyota’s biggest showroom in Japan, but feel free and correct me if I’m wrong. If you want to see new models, this is the place for you.

    -Toyota MEGA WEB/museum in Odaiba. The museum reveals some of Toyota’s most important sports cars over the years and motorsports accomplishments. The most amazing collection of Toyota diecast cars are available for sale here as well. The MEGA WEB is more of an interactive showroom with new cars on display, a test drive facility, various driving simulators, etc.

    -Tomica store in Tokyo Station (near Yaesu exit). Tons of new, and limited edition, 1/64 scale diecast cars from Tomica. Coolest thing about the shop, though, is that you can actually have your own Tomica diecast built for you and watch while they do it!

    Justin? Pete? Steve? Anyone else care to list a few more? I know I’ve only scratched the surface!

  • http://www.7tune.com Justin Karow

    Steve I’m doing a Japanese Car Museum article as we speak… good timing :)

  • lance

    Great general tips. I HIGHLY recommend picking up a Metropolis Magazine at the airport as well. full of useful information and upcoming events. Helped me greatly with restaurants and car events like D1GP Odaiba. Speaking of Odaiba, you have to take a 2-day trip there. Theres a lot of car events on weekends (especially Sunday) in the empty parking lots.

    Be ready to spend a lot of dough though for the nightlife in tokyo. If you want to save money and drink a lot, 300bar in Ginza will do the trick as well.

  • http://damnjdm.webs.com KoguchiPower

    You guys are awsome!
    If everything works out Im gonna study/work (combined) in Japan for a few months but have absolutly no idea what to expect. :D

    Is it true that Japan doesnt allow forgeirn- (or any other international-) driverslicense at all? And that you’ll have to order a Japanese drivers license at your local (home country) Japanese Ambadsy???

    (Might want to buy a something cheap RWD to play a bit with it ^^ but can you license a car in japan when not being a japanese citicen?)

    Any info would be more that welcome :)
    Thumbs up for 7Tune!

  • http://www.7tune.com Justin Karow

    KoguchiPower: You can drive in Japan with an international drivers licence. The only time you need to get a Japanese drivers licence is if you stay in Japan longer than the time allocated on the international licence and still want to/need to drive. Some people have stayed in Japan for many years and just gone home to renew their internationl licence every time they needed to (and visit the folks).

    Lance: Good points, I don’t live in Tokyo and was wondering what the local magazines were titled over there.

  • fmws

    that was fun, thx for the info.. I like the 1st one lol, Dora the Explorer was funny

  • http://www.7tune.com Steve Neumann

    Tom, Derek, importpunch, Thanks for the feedback!! We’ve got tons of ideas for lifestyle related articles!

    Thanks fmws, I enjoyed writing it!

    KoguchiPower, We’re working on a similar article focussing on How to relocate to Japan, find a job, etc

    lance, thanks for the tip, i wasn’t aware of that mag!! I’ll be sure to grab a copy on my next trip

  • Kevin

    wow, those vans chukkas are expensive. LOL.

    thanks for this one 7tune!

  • Leo

    Haha great article! It will really help the people who have never been there. Although, getting around Japan and finding things to do isn’t all that hard. One place to go to in Tokyo has to be Harajuku. Tons of stuff to see and do. Also, there are other cities in Japan besides Tokyo; like Kyoto, Osaka, Yokohama and other places that arent so dense like the big cities. I guess they would be the suburbs of Japan, but are still just as fun.

  • lance

    No problem Steve. I’ve lived in Tokyo, Japan for about a year studying Japanese and teaching english, and i plan to work there again after graduation. If anyone needs recommendations for bars/nightclubs/restaurants/hotspots, just ask!

    For example, one tabehoudai (buffet) you cant miss out is Carne Station in Ginza. It’s run by Hanamasa, the largest meat provider in Japan. 1098 Yen (around 11 bucks) will get you unlimited meat and a HUGE array of other foods and vegetables. just look it up and see for yourself ;)

    btw, club ageha is also a sick venue, including outdoor pool. biggest and most poppin club ive ever been to. i think it fits over 10,000 if all the rooms are opened.

  • lance

    another tip for job-seekers in japan. use gaijinpot.com at first. useful site and lots of helpful friendly expats on the forums. just dont feed the trolls.

  • William

    Some great points, bikes really are the best way around, however I have to disagree with point 1. After traveling in other parts of Asia, I found Japanese pretty good at English. Anyone under the age of 40 should have had a good education of English with most young people having better grammar and writing skills than many Australians. However, some Japanese may be quite shy to reveal their ability.

    Learning a few basic Japanese words will earn you a lot more respect, and people will often open up a lot more after hearing a few Japanese words. Im not saying you need to be fluent, however, knowing how to say 10 or so words can make or break your experience.

  • http://www.7tune.com Justin Karow

    “Anyone under the age of 40 should have had a good education of English with most young people having better grammar and writing skills than many Australians.”

    Who are these “many Australians” that you speak about? How can you make such a claim?

    Also, you say “a good education of English” yet I can walk out of my apartment right now and expect to succeed in only having a *very* basic conversation with any young Japanese person. Anything more than that would be the exception rather than the rule because of shyness, inexperience, low confidence and dare I say – inability – as was pointed out previously. I’m talking about random young people on the street here, not kids who have just left and English class or on their way to one.

  • William

    Well when ever I have had difficulty in Japan, I have always had someone help me. Most tourist places like Hotels, and other places have English speaking staff. Even in UniQlo the clothing store, we have staff that have a badge that says English speaker.

    I wasn’t really referring to people in the street, but more about touristy places. But I guess it all depends of the area of Japan.

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