The 8 Worst Japan Travel Tips
A great way to prepare for your upcoming trip to Japan is to talk with those who’ve been there. Most people are happy to offer tons of Japan travel tips and advice. And sometimes that information is great. But other times it’s just plain awful. In most cases, the person giving the advice isn’t intending to be malicious—they just don’t know Japan that well! As someone who’s lived in Japan for many years, I want to warn you of the bad advice people give first-time Japan travelers. Below are 8 of the worst Japan travel tips I’ve come across.
Wear whatever is comfortable
“What’s the weather like? Will it be raining/snowing/etc.? What should I bring?”
These questions are asked all the time. And while they’re phrased differently, everyone wants to know the same thing: what should they wear? Some people respond with thoughtful recommendations based on what they saw locals wearing, but others say to just wear what’s comfortable.
Locals don’t walk around town in things like pajama pants, sweats, leggings, midriff tops, short shorts, low-cut tops, flip-flops. Aside from some fashionistas in Harajuku who pair oversized sports gear with a primped ‘do, athleisure is not a thing. People dress up. Also, people in Japan dress more conservatively. Even in the middle of the hot and humid Japanese summertime, you’ll see most men wearing pants and women covering their arms.
Locals dress for the occasion. This means you wear your hiking shoes when you’re hiking, your sandals when you’re at the beach, and your leggings when you’re at the gym. When you’re in town, you look presentable. Will you be arrested if you don’t? No. Will someone confront you? Maybe, maybe not. But regardless if you’re called out or not, you should dress with respect to the local customs.
Better advice: Dress appropriately for the situation. Don’t wear athletic wear if you’re not going to the gym. And remember, the Japanese dress more conservatively, so avoid anything too revealing.
Rent a car to get around
“I’m thinking of renting a car…”
In most cases, this sentence ends with me just shaking my head. Japan has possibly the best public transportation system in the world—it’s clean, it’s extensive, and it’s largely on time. While with cars traffic can be bad (especially in Tokyo), plus parking is difficult to find and is often expensive.
Even locals choose public transportation over driving. In fact, many don’t even have a driver’s license. This is partially because the process costs several hundred-thousand yen and partially because it’s largely unnecessary with the public transportation system. And of those that do have a license, even fewer own a car. While cars are relatively affordable, related expenses like gas and parking add up over time. Parking in our building, for example, is the cost of some people’s rent.
Better advice: Public transportation and taxis will take you to most of the popular destinations in Japan more efficiently and economically. Consider renting a car when traveling to Okinawa or very remote locations.
Hand out souvenirs instead of tipping
“Are we really not supposed to tip? I feel bad if I don’t.”
Really, don’t tip. And don’t feel bad. In other places, people do their job well in hopes of getting a good tip. In Japan, you do your job well because, well, it’s your job. The Japanese are a proud people—proud of their country, proud of their culture, proud of what they do. From an early age, the Japanese are taught to take pride in their work. So, tipping is often seen as an insult. But you still might feel bad. So you might think:
“What if I give something small (like a keychain) from my home country?”
And when visiting someone’s home, you should bring something. But for most everyday scenarios, it’s completely unnecessary. The taxi driver, the ryokan, the tour guide, the person who gave you directions to the temple—you don’t need to give a gift or a tip to any of these people. Show appreciation by being polite, following the rules, and not making a mess.
Better advice: Do not tip. If your taxi bill is an odd number, you can let the driver keep the change. When visiting someone’s house, bring some snacks or a small gift.
Buy iPhones/Nintendos/hairdryers/etc. in Japan
“Where can I buy the latest iPhone/Nintendo/etc. in Japan?”
This isn’t an outright terrible idea, but in some cases it’s clear that the person hasn’t done their research. Were you aware your new Japanese Nintendo will only play Japanese games because it’s region-locked? Or that your new hair tool or kitchen appliance won’t work at home without a bulky step-down transformer?
Did you know that all phones in Japan (iPhones included) are required to make a very loud shutter sound when taking photos due to privacy laws? Save for jailbreaking, that sound cannot be muted or silenced even if you have headphones plugged into your phone.
In some cases, you might decide that the pros outweigh the cons. But you need to research. Issues like voltage differences and international and domestic laws can make using your new gadget at home a pain or even impossible.
Better advice: Research before assuming it’s better to buy certain electronics in Japan.
You can book most things last-minute
“I haven’t booked anything…”
While it’s technically possible to book things last-minute, this doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing to do. As I mentioned in a previous post on 11 things to know about expat life in Tokyo, locals make reservations in advance. And many of the best places are booked months out, including luxury ryokan and fine dining restaurants.
You don’t need to have everything planned and booked in advance—that would spoil some of the fun of discovering the natural beauty of this country! But, I do recommend you have key activities and accommodations booked early. Popular attractions can sell out almost immediately after tickets go on sale (think teamLAB, Ghibli, etc.), and you can only get a seat at some Michelin star restaurants via a concierge. That’s the situation year-round.
And good accommodations, like high-end ryokan with private and/or charter onsen, are also reserved early. These luxurious Japanese inns don’t have last-minute deals because they don’t need them; the quality of the ryokan, the service, and the amenities are well-worth JPY 50,000 or more per night for many locals and travelers.
Better advice: Book accommodations and key activities early to secure your space and avoid last-minute price hikes.
Stay at an ‘adult’s only’ hotel for a great deal
“What do you think about someone staying at ‘adult’s only’ hotel for a week? I’ve found one that’s super cheap!”
What do I think? I’ll tell you what I think.
I never thought I’d have to say this…but that’s a terrible idea. Truly, it’s one of the most disgusting suggestions I’ve heard. Ever.
Let me clarify; an ‘adult’s only’ hotel is a love hotel. Love hotels are short-stay accommodations—as short as a half-hour—where a man and a woman (many do not allow same-gender couples) go to have sex. Now, not all love hotels are bad. Some are nicer than a standard three-star hotel and cost over JPY 20,000 a night. Some have even expanded their business into less-risqué industries. For example, to avoid disturbing the neighbors, many locals do not hold house parties. So, some larger resort-style love hotels offer party plans and serve as a venue for women’s get-togethers.
But you won’t find the ‘great deals’ at these luxury or resort-style love hotels. The ‘great deals’ are at the small, shady love hotels. The hotels where the average stay is an hour or two and not even a full night. The hotels that are just not cleaned as thoroughly. Love hotels can be a great experience—but not for your whole trip.
Better advice: Stay at a business hotel or a capsule hotel if you want to save on accommodations. Try an ‘adult’s only’ love hotel for the experience.
Leave your passport at the hotel
“Can I just bring a copy of my passport?”
Don’t do that. It’s the law that everyone who is not a Japanese national carry proper identification. For foreign residents, that means your residence card (zairyuu card 在留カード), and for tourists, that means your passport. If you are caught without it, you can face criminal penalties including a fine of up to JPY 200,000.
Now, how do the police find out if you’re not carrying your ID? They can ask. And while they are legally supposed to have a reason for asking you to show your ID, that’s not always the case. Many people—including some I personally know—have been randomly stopped and asked to show identification.
Besides, there are many times you’ll need your passport while in Japan. If you want to claim any tax-free incentives at stores, you will need your passport. If you’ve purchased a JR Pass and need to activate it, you’ll need your passport.
Better advice: Carry your passport with you at all times.
Being vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free is easy
“I’m vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free. How easy will it be for me to find things to eat?”
Not impossible, but certainly not easy. I have friends who reluctantly gave up veganism while living in Japan, and I’ve had to help others search for gluten-free alternatives. So when we talk about dietary restrictions, you need to understand Japan isn’t the most accommodating. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to even find a Starbucks in Japan that’ll make a cup of coffee to your specifications. And most people living in Japan who have dietary restrictions end up having to make food at home.
Do you have to give up being vegetarian or vegan? No. For a week- or two-long trip, you should be fine. Most ramen broth is made with animal product. Most sushi is made with fish. A seemingly vegetarian dish can end up having bonito (dried fish flakes) sprinkled on top. But you can find some vegan ramen. You can find vegetarian sushi. Some vegetarian and vegan-friendly options include Indian, pizza, and Japanese Buddhist cuisine shojin ryori.
Gluten-free diets can also be accommodated if you research. Most Japanese noodles are made with wheat, so celiacs have to be careful of noodle dishes including ramen and udon. But buckwheat noodles, often used in soba, are safe. Shoyu (soy sauce) is made with fermented wheat, and most restaurants do not have gluten-free soy sauce. Consider bringing your own from home in a travel-sized container.
Better advice: Make a list of restaurants that can accommodate your dietary restrictions before arriving. Look online for a printable card that describes what you can and cannot eat and bring it with you.