What to Expect When Visiting Japan for the First Time

What to Expect When Visiting Japan for the First Time

June 2023

What to Expect When Visiting Japan for the First Time

Congrats! If you are reading this, that means you are considering or booked a trip to Japan and you are going to love it. Planning a trip to Japan can be daunting and I will say, it was certainly the the most time consuming trip from a researching and planning a trip to date. Thankfully, I have everything you need to know here and we will go through each topic in this post so you know exactly what to expect when visiting Japan for the first time.

How to Get There

Getting to Japan can be the biggest hurdle for people since for most of the world, it is pretty far away. For us flying from the northeast part of the US, we flew 14 hours non-stop to Tokyo. I know some people cringe at a 14 hour flight but it was 100% our preference. If you also have to fly that far, consider layover options or even spend a day or two in California or Hawaii to break up the trip.

There are three airports you should look at when searching for flight routes – Haneda and Narita in Tokyo, and Osaka. Having three airport options increases flexibility and options for the itinerary that fits your trip best. We flew into Haneda and it was close to downtown Tokyo and easy to get there.

Get the Free DESKRIB Guide to learn how to use Google Flights to find the best flight deals – sign up here!

Arrival Information

As of writing this post, there are no COVID requirements when traveling to Japan. The Visit Japan Web is an app and website where you can upload your arrival information and it is a time saver to do this ahead of your trip. Completing the information will generate two QR codes – one for immigration and one for customs. I would definitely recommend taking care of this ahead of your travel and then take screen shots of the QR codes so you have access to them if you have issues with cell phone service or wifi when you arrive.

When to Visit

Japan experiences all four seasons so it is important to know what kind of trip you want and things you wish to do to find the most ideal time to visit.

  • Spring is very popular for the cherry blossoms – the famous sakura trees! There are also lots of festivals this time of year to celebrate the sakura blossoms. If you are chasing the perfect peak for cherry blossoms, use a tracker to follow the blossom to get the best timing.
  • Summers get hot and humid and while that is not everyone’s preference, it does have advantages like lower crowds and the most beautiful beaches in the south of the country. Did you know Japan has over 260 inhabited islands in the archipelago? This is also the only time of year to climb Mt Fuji so if that is on your bucket list, you will be visiting from July to September.
  • Fall is another popular time of year due to the fall foliage, especially if you want to visit the countryside.
  • Winter is cold and depending on where you visit, you can experience some of the world’s best winter sports such as skiing in Nagano.
  • Avoid major Japanese holidays and breaks, especially the end of April and beginning of May. This period is known as Golden Week where several holidays fall. Schools are closed and locals take this time off to travel the country. This is also cherry blossom season in certain parts of the country so it can be extremely crowded.
  • We visited at the end of May after the Golden Week crowd which is a shoulder season for Japan. It was fairly crowded at certain times due to pent up demand from pandemic but indicators – such as tickets to theme parks – did reflect it was generally a slower time. We did purchase as many tickets ahead of time as possible and when we went to use them, same day ticket purchases were not possible. 

Where to Stay

Japan offers typical accommodation options for visitors with a few unique options to be aware of. 

  • There are standard hotel rooms but on average, they are smaller than western hotel rooms so keep that in mind, especially if you are traveling in a group larger than two people.
  • There are Airbnbs which can offer more room and amenities for longer stays. Airbnbs are licensed here so they are legitimate rentals.
  • Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that feature beautiful wood features and hospitality. This accommodation is often accompanied by meals, including kansei style, yukata (casual kimonos), and onsens, which are hot springs.
  • Capsule hotels are a unique accommodation where you rent what is equivalent to a capsule – like a medication capsule. You have a bed that you climb into and some space in your tube for a light, outlet, and maybe a shelf. These are typically affordable options.

Japan is a large country so depending on where you are going will help dictate which options are best for you.

  • In Tokyo and Kyoto, we stayed in Airbnbs. This gave us a more affordable option for accommodations and we were able to stay in the less tourist areas which is how we like to travel. It also gave us an opportunity to ask a local for recommendations and advice. 
  • In Tokyo, we stayed in Okachimachi which is between Ueno and Akiharbara. It was significantly cheaper than staying in Shibuya or Shinkuju which is typically where tourists stay. Tokyo is so well connected with public transit so as long as you are close to a train station – ours was three blocks away – you can get anywhere you need. 
  • In Kyoto, we stayed in Shimogyo Ward on the west side of the Kamo River and the popular Gion district. The train station stop Karasuma was literally around the corner, as were bus stops.
  • We booked an overnight in Hakone to see Mt Fuji and this gave us the great opportunity to experience a Ryokan. One night was perfect to experience the onsen, dinner and breakfast. If you have time, I would highly recommend adding one night in a ryokan during your visit. 

It is important to book accommodations early, much earlier than you would for other trips. For the number of people plus the tourists – there are not enough accommodations during busy times of year. I found the Airbnbs with a generous cancellation policy and I booked them in December when we first started talking about taking this trip and I am so glad I grabbed them when I did.

To get the Free DESKRIB Guide “How to Find the Perfect Airbnb” – sign up here!

Currency – Credit Cards vs Cash

We had a few surprises when it came to currency. At the time of our visit, the conversion from USD to yen was in our favor and I felt that overall we spent less on meals and other items. Check the conversion rate for our visit but it was about 1 yen was 70 cents USD. The other is that Japan is still a cash heavy society. Post COVID, we did notice more credit cards accepted but you definitely still need to carry quite a bit of yen during your trip. 

  • We found that Tokyo was the most credit card friendly as were theme parks.
  • Convenience stores also always accept credit card and is reliable place for an ATM to get cash out. 
  • The biggest need to cash is the public transit. To refill your transit card, you need to use cash. This feels like the biggest area of opportunity to allow for credit cards to be used. 
  • With credit cards and debit cards, make sure you investigate which works best for international travel for fees. Make sure if you have a credit card with no foreign transaction fee – highly recommend getting one if not – that will be fine for your trip.


I read that as a whole, the level of English in Japan is likely less than you may expect. In our experience, English was not fluent for locals, a few people we interacted with were able to be conversational, and most had basic phrases down. On a few occasions, we used Google Translate to help facilitate the conversation or answer questions. But when someone mentions they only know “a little English”, it is probably true. But this did not hinder or dampen any of our interactions with locals – everyone we encountered was friendly, willing to help, or eager to chat. Learning a few Japanese phrases will definitely take you far. Japanese is super phonetic so I actually found it quite easy to learn. We used this Youtube video and memorized the following useful phrases:

  • Arigato Gozaimas – thank you (do not just say “arigato”, say the entire phrase)
  • Hai – yes
  • Daijoubu – polite no / it’s ok (saying “no” is not said and is harsh so this is the preferred way to say no / no thanks/ it’s ok / I’m good)
  • Onegaishimas – please
  • Konnichiwa – hi / hello
  • Sayounara – goodbye
  • Eego Wakarimaska – Do you speak / understand English?
  • Kurejito Kaado – credit card
  • (something)… Doko Deska – Where is… (something)?
  • Toire Doko Deska – where is the toilet?
  • (something)… Arimasuka – Is there… (something)?

How to Get Around

The transportation in Japan is absolutely incredible and impressive. It is the most ahead of its time or rather everywhere else in the world is behind. The country and cities are so well connected and everything is immaculate. Figuring out all the public transportation can be daunting – and it is something I spent a lot of time researching to ensure I really understood the options. Let’s break everything down. 

  • Public transportation such as trains, subways and buses are available and can get you everywhere
  • Shinkansen “Bullet Trains” move millions of people quickly across the entire country reaching speeds up to 300 km/hour.
  • Taxis and ride share options are available but are typically expensive compared to the public transportation routes.
  • As a tourist, there is little need to rent a car unless you are traveling to some distant spots in the countryside. If you are renting a car, you will need an international drivers license. They also drive on the left hand side so that is something to note if you are renting a car. 

I have so much information on using the public transportation and Shinkansen trains – I have another blog post for Navigating Japan’s Transportation with so many details that will make your trip go smoothly. But as a quick summary:

  • You will want an IC card to ride the public transportation. IC card is the general name for a metro card. There are several companies that issue IC cards but they all work the same. We went with Suica and it works in all the cities we visited.
  • IC cards work on the trains, subway, and buses – and even vending machines and convenience stores.
  • You will need to Shinkansen tickets separately, just as you would for any high speed rail.
  • Follow etiquette on all transit – there is no talking at all – you can hear a pin drop. It is a clear indicator you are a tourist if you are talking on transit. Be respectful of the place you are traveling to and follow their lead. Do not disturb the peace.

Check out all the details around navigating Japan’s transportation here!

Notes on Dining and Food

The food in Japan was amazing and I have an entire guide on food. There are so many options here and the goal on my trip was to try one of as many different types as possible. In addition to familiarizing yourself with all the delicious food, here area few things to know ahead of time:

  • If you make dining reservations, you must be on time – not early, not late but on time. We typically make reservations for every night of a trip and this trip was the complete opposite. For two weeks, I made only two dinner reservations! So why the change?
    • Many places either did not take reservations or it was difficult to figure out how to make a reservation. While I could find phone numbers, calling in English was not a viable option.
    • I was nervous about being late for reservations – I read that some places will give up your table if you are a few minutes late. I did not want to worry about being late for a reservation if we were exploring or having a good time elsewhere.
    • By not having reservations, it kept our options open and instead I created a list of restaurants I wanted to eat at and sorted them by area so depending on where we were, we could eat at one of the places on the list.  

I explain more in the food guide, but convenience stores are next level when it comes to snacks and food. Vending machines have drinks of all sorts – including hot and cold beverages. While we are on the topic of food, now is a good time to mention despite Japan being exceptionally clean, there are no trash cans to be found. So, if you purchase a drink or a wrapped food item, that trash is going on a journey with you for quite some time until the unicorn of a trash can appears.

PRO TIP: When searching for places to eat, look at reviews in Japanese to see how liked the restaurant is by locals. Also, search for key words in Japanese characters – look up the word in Google Translate before seraching in Google Maps.

Cell Phones and Wifi

There are many options for your cell phone and wifi needs in Japan. Having cell phone service will be essential for you trip. You can either pick a cell phone option, a wifi option, or both.

For cell phones, there are the traditional international options such as paying for an international plan with your current phone carrier (often the most expensive route) or purchasing a sim card. We have Google Fi which includes cell service internationally so we did not have to worry about this piece.

The unique option here is pocket wifi – a device that acts as a hot spot. Since we were going to need a lot of internet and already had cell service with Google Fi, we purchased a pocket wifi. We purchased one through Klook that included airport pick up and drop off, use for up to five devices, and 3 gb/day of high speed internet just just over five dollars a day. This was so helpful on our trip as there were many days – especially the theme park days – where we needed to use the phone constantly and the pocket wifi worked perfectly.

You are going to want a few apps downloaded on your phone as well.

  • Visit Japan Web also has an app which was convenient to pull up as oppose to searching for a web page when arriving at immigration and customs
  • Depending on which trains you use, there are specific apps for train lines. For example, we used smartEX for our Shinkansen tickets which allowed us to purchase tickets, access our tickets, and use our tickets. Depending on your trip, you should download any train apps you may need.
  • Google Maps is a life saver. Download an offline version of maps in the event you have issues with cell phone service. But the information on the entire train network in Google Maps was incredible. It has all the information you need for navigating public transportation and you will use it a lot. From which platform your train is on, to which car you should board for the quickest transfer, to which exit to take coming oof the train so you are closest to your final destination.
  • Google Translate is an app you used on this trip constantly to translate written Japanese by taking photos and having the app do the work of translating. On a handful of occasions, we used the app to translate when we were speaking to someone whose English was not strong and we were unable to communicate effectively.

A final note here that the plug outlets are the same as the ones used in the US – type A plugs. The voltage in Japan is slightly less than in the US so while you do not need a converter, things may charge a little slower.


Why is there a section dedicated to bathrooms? Because they are the most impressive bathroom experience we have ever had. It was like going to a car wash. The bidet system has more technology than some appliances. If you have never used one of these before, make sure to give it a try. We are talking so much more than a stream of water – we are talking heated seats, self-opening lids, music playing, and more.


Japan has risen to one of the safest places we have ever visited. There was not one moment in this trip that we had concerns for our safety in any way, including petty theft. We are on the most crowded trains and spaces I have ever experienced and we never had or experienced concerns. While we did not have this happen on our trip, we heard countless stories of people losing their purse, passport, wallet, etc and it being found exactly where they left it or was turned in to local authorities by someone. It was refreshing to feel so relaxed while walking around at any point of the day and feeling safe.

Ok! I know that is a lot of information but hopefully this post helped make all these new aspects of trip planning easier to understand. Doing the work up front makes the trip go so much more smoothly and it felt much more familiar and easier when we were there due to the work done before we left. Japan is a hot destination right now due to pent up demand. Things book up early – accommodations, transportation, dining, and experience – so when you think you have an idea of how your trip will look, book things ahead of time. 

Have the best trip! Enjoy the rest of my Japan content below.

Check out all my packing tips and tricks here!

To read all the details of our trip – here!

To see our full itinerary – here!

My complete packing list for Japan – here!

See all blog posts for Japan – here!

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