My Guide to Visiting Japan
Updated: Feb 25
Nishiki Market 2016
Japan is a study in contrasts. Standing at the center of the latest technology and trends, you discover traditions that have been kept alive in Japan for hundreds of years. Being in Japan is like standing between the future and the past.
Japan has something for every type of traveler. I visited for the first time in 2016. After a month at sea, I stood under Hakone’s red tori gates and heard nothing but the birds. Japan holds something for everyone to discover.
Psst…Want more Japan travel tips? Check out these other posts:
Read on for my quick tips, concerns for socially responsible travel, and what were my favorite experiences.
Table of Contents
quick tips when visiting japan
learn how to say "WIFI mi ma"
My favorite Japanese phrase is "Wifi mi ma," which means "Wifi password." Internet in Japan is fast. No matter where you are, you can count on Wifi access. Many restaurants, guest houses, tourist attractions, and even religious sites like Nara will have free Wifi.
DON'T BE AFRAID TO EAT AT CONVENIENCE STORES
The last thing you'll have trouble with in Japan is finding something to eat. But when in doubt, the convenience stores and 7-11s have fresh food along with prepackaged snacks like green tea KitKats (so good!) and are very popular among travelers and locals alike. They're also the easiest places to find ATMs.
Nara Park 2016
SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE TRAVel in japan
Responsible travel in any country requires conversation, research, and a strong effort to understand the cultural norms and to adhere to them. Japan is a country steeped in tradition and ritual. As a country, the Japanese are proud of their unique cultural heritage, a heritage that backs the traditions and customs of behavioral norms. As a first-time tourist, it’s impossibly hard to remember everything, but trying to will make a world of difference, and goes a long way in feeling welcome in a foreign country.
understand cultural norms
Hierarchies of respect are an important part of Japanese society. Under this umbrella is everything from the bowing etiquette to the form of "thank you" you choose. Customs like not using shoes on tatami mats, and how you enter the baths have precise, specific behaviors associated with them. Elders are shown respect and it’s polite to allow them to enter before you on buses, businesses, and other locations.
Although the Japanese are polite and know their rules are complex and their behavioral secrets difficult to unlock, it's better memorize a few greetings and phrases of thanks, as it is appreciated. The phrase I memorized that I used the most was "Sumi masen," or "Excuse me." I remember stopping to take a photo in Kasuga Taisha, and gently repeating "Sumi masen," until a Japanese couple shuffled past me, saying "Arigato gozaimas."
MAKE ETHICAL FOOD CHOICES
Japan is one of just a few countries that still consumes whale and dolphin meat, though the global community dislikes the continued consumption of both these animals. As a responsible traveler, we avoid supporting this aspect of the country’s food industry and tradition. Check the Seafood Watch website for current lists of marine life in hot water.
AVOID ANIMAL TOURISM
Documentaries like Blackfish shed light on the cruel practices involved in keeping marine mammals like dolphins and orcas for tourism purpose. But Japan's animal tourism industry is still growing — many of these animals are still being caught from the wild. I wouldn't recommend visiting "owl cafes" or "cat cafes." These environments are unnatural and cause unhealthy lifestyles for the animals. Instead, visit Nara Park, where 2,000 to 3,000 tame deer roam happily.
LOWER YOUR ENVIROMENTAL IMPACT
The Japanese are eco-conscious and have implemented programs at every level to limit the negative impact of life on their beautiful natural environment. The country has every form of public transport imaginable. Use it. This is a cornerstone of any trip to Japan. Their public transport systems are among the best in the world; use the trains, buses, subways, funiculars, and more to visit all the nooks and crannies of this fascinating country. Also limit your waste and use the country’s recycling bins.
SUPPORT LOCAL ARTISANS
Buying from local artists in Japan supports cultural heritage, and ensures the preservation of the silk fans, calligraphy, and painting that are Japanese art icons. Japan has many beautiful arts, and artists throughout the country that are continuing traditional arts forms hundreds of years old.
Nijo Castle, Kyoto 2016
MY FAVORITE EXPERIENCES in japan
Japan is a relatively small country and the high-speed train system allows you to travel at lightning speed. Japan has a lot to offer, however, and each region has a different reason for you to visit. You can see all of the top destinations in just a one-week or two-week trip, but to really understand someone, you want to spend as much time with them as possible, and by knowing them intimately, you'll love them deeply. It's the same with visiting Japan or any other country.