Everything about Japan is Japanese and that's what makes this country so unique but it also means that there are things that you must know before you travel, otherwise you will struggle. So, here are my top MUST-KNOWs so take note!
1. CASH IS KING
Japan is still a cash-based society where many high-end restaurants (especially in Kyoto) and little shops do not accept credit cards!! So make sure you arrive to Japan with Yen! You can of course exchange at the airport, or withdraw from 7-11 (the only convenient store that accepts foreign cards!). Also, I highly recommend you to carry a coin case as there are coins up to 500 yen (about $5) and you will be using and receiving lots of them.
2. GET YOUR POCKET WIFI or JAPANESE SIM CARD
Japan is a country where you'll need internet for Google Map, Google Translate and research on things on the go. Unfortunately, the public wifi hasn't been well-spread so you really want your own solution! My husband always rents a Japanese SIM card from SoftBank (Japanese mobile carrier) at the airport and it comes with enough GBs so you don't have to worry about roaming and it also gives you a local number in case you want to call restaurants etc. Even if you rent the SIM card in Tokyo Airport, you can return in Osaka Airport (in case you are traveling out from different airport). An alternative is to rent a pocket wifi at the airport, or you can pre-order here.
3. GET YOUR IC CARD
Purchasing a train ticket every time you take a train can be painful. The convenient solution is to get an IC card (Suica from JR East or PASMO from Tokyo Metro or ICOCA from Osaka). Doesn't matter which one as all of them works like an Oyster card in London but only better because not only can you pay for your train & bus rides, but you can also use it to pay at convenient stores, vending machines, coin-operated lockers, taxis, shops, and even some restaurants! So make sure you get this at the first train station (doesn't matter which one) you go to in Japan, from the ticket machine (First click ENGLISH). Before you leave Japan, you can return the IC card to the station attendant and get your 500 yen deposit and the remaining balance. Or you can just pass it to your family or your friends who plan to visit Japan after you ;)
3. PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION IS AMAZING & TAXIS ARE EXPENSIVE
When you arrive in Osaka Kansai airport or Tokyo Narita airport, do NOT take a taxi into the city. They are both far and it's going to cost you more than $200! Instead, take a train or a bus! It's quicker, cheaper, and hassle-free! Also, do use the train for your move within the city - it's clean and convenient. If you are planning to move from one city to another, definitely get a JAPAN RAIL PASS, only available for foreigners. With this you can use any JR lines, including several different Shinkansen (high-speed) trains, which is usually quite expensive. Also, remember the following etiquette in public transportation - no talking on the phone, nor eating or drinking.
A side note - if you have the choice to land in Narita or Haneda, choose HANEDA! It's only 30 mins from the city, whereas Narita is around 1.5 hrs away!
4. DO NOT TIP
Money is considered dirty so it's considered very rude to leave extra cash at restaurants and taxis. The only place you can TIP is Ryokan - to the lady responsible for your room. You can put tip in an envelop (usually more than 3000 yen) and give it to her as a thank you at the end.
5. SMOKING ETIQUETTE
In Japan, you cannot walk and smoke. There are designated smoking areas by train stations or in places within the city. Please go there to smoke and use the provided ashtrays. Surprisingly you can still smoke in some restaurants and most bars and clubs. Just ask before you light your cigarette :) although this law is supposedly going to change soon in view of Olympics in 2020.
6. HOLD YOUR GARBAGE
Japan is shockingly clean, yet there are not many bins out and about. This is because the government removed many of the public bins after the terrorist attack in 1995. So please hold your trash with you until you find your next convenient store (there is one in every corner) and use the garbage there!
7. CONVENIENT STORES SELL EVERYTHING
Talking about convenient stores, they are TRULY convenient. They are open everyday 24 hours a day and they sell everything from food and drinks to T-shirts, envelops, and face-masks. If you need anything in Japan, your go-to place is a convenient store! And pay with your IC card ;) They also almost always have a bathroom which is clean and open to public! If you are lost in the maize of a train station, don't worry, there is also very clean toilets in every station too!
8. LUGGAGES DO NOT NEED TO BE DRAGGED AROUND THE CITY
Why? Because there are coin-lockers (500-700yen per day) in almost every station, which again you can pay with your IC card. If you need to move your suitcase or boxes from one city to another, consider using Takyubin! Any hotels or convenient stores will accept your bag for Takkyubin - you need to fill out a form and pay not much (few 1000 yen depending on the size of your bag) and it will be delivered to your destination hotel next day or the day after depending on how far you are sending within Japan. I personally use it all the time to transport my ski bag - which is bigger than me so I can barely move it, let alone carry it! So I organise a takkyubin to come pick it up, and I get it delivered to Niseko for about 3500 yen! Another good example is when I was shopping in Tokyo and bought some books and souvenirs which I didn't want to carry around all day long. So I stopped at a convenient store and takkyubined it to my home in Osaka:) Convenient stores staff are nice and they will give you tapes and things you may need to package your shopping.
9. THERE IS NO NEED TO BOOK THE MOST EXPENSIVE RESTAURANTS
Japan is home to many Michelin-starred restaurants that can often break your wallet. They may be tempting but honestly, there is no need to go to the most expensive restaurants in Japan. There are so many quaint little restaurants at affordable prices that are serving EXCELLENT food. When it comes to sushi restaurants, I personally prefer to avoid those super luxury high-end ones, but instead go to the smaller ones where you sit at the counter and order the sushi that you want rather than having omakase (degustation!).
10. ANY TIME IS GOOD TIME TO VISIT JAPAN EXCEPT...
In case you are wondering when is the best time to go, honestly anytime is good except I would personally avoid the summer unless you are going to Okinawa or Hokkaido. Summer in Japan is excruciatingly hot and humid, especially in Kyoto! The heat can really destroy your experience. So if you can only go in the summer, be prepared for the heat or go to Hokkaido where it's much cooler. Any other time is great in Japan : Spring is a magical season with the blossom of cherry blossoms painting the entire country pink! The weather is neither too hot or cold. The only issue with spring is that it's probably more expensive, as it's the high season. Fall is a great season too with mild weather and with the foliage changing colours from green to red to yellow to brown. Kyoto is especially beautiful in autumn. Winter - well it's of course THE season to visit for powder loving skiers & boarders! It snows like you wouldn't believe up in the mountains and the cities are cold but with very little rain so it's beautiful too!