EDITOR: After 4 trips to Japan, my friend Kat Clancy has come up with some great tips that foreigners (gaijin) should keep in mind before travelling to Japan.
Japan Rail Pass
GUEST ARTICLE: If you are going to venture outside of Tokyo, you will very likely benefit from a Japan Rail Pass. The JR pass has to be bought by foreigners from their home country before they travel.
The JR pass enables you unlimited travel on all JR lines throughout Japan, with some exceptions. It even includes the ferry trip to Miyajima from Hiroshima.
The only downside to the pass is that you are not allowed to travel on the Nozumi Shinkansen trains (super express bullet trains). However, you can still travel on the Hikari or Kodoma Shinkansen trains (limited express/local bullet trains).
If you do purchase a JR pass, try to book accommodation near JR lines, as it will save you a lot of money!
Slip on shoes
Throughout Japan you will need to take off your shoes when entering accommodation, restaurants, temples, shrines and other places. To make this as efficient as possible, wear slip on shoes or Velcro strapped shoes. It becomes a hassle having to untie and tie up shoelaces throughout the day.
If you want to stay at western style hotels and eat western style food then your trip is going to be expensive! An urban myth is that Japan is an expensive place to visit, however it costs just as much as any other developed country such as the USA, UK and other European countries.
Don’t expect to eat a lot of beef, and stick to eating lots of noodles (ramen), rice and other Japanese style foods to keep costs at a minimum! Most restaurants, and even a lot of fast food places offer free water or green tea refills so you may not even need to purchase a drink with your meal.
Japan has some of the best-rated hostels in the world. Chains such as K’s house offer better accommodation than 3 and even some 4-star hotels in Australia. Most hostels have free wi-fi and computers with Internet access available for free or at a minimum cost.
Also, hostels in Japan are frequented by all ages! I’ve come across a couple in their 70’s in one and a high school tour group in another. The facilities may be brilliant, but don’t expect a lot of space for accommodation in Tokyo! The city is so big, that space is used in the most efficient way possible! There’s so much to do in Tokyo that you shouldn’t be spending much time in your hostel room anyway.
Also try and experience at least a night in traditional accommodation called a ryokan. This includes sharing a bath with members of the same sex. Most ryokans display English instructions on how to use the shared baths.
One of the most popular websites in the world is ratuken.co.jp. Book your accommodation through here if you are after a hotel or ryokan. Just try and stay away from the Business hotels, as they are usually full of businessmen and contain mostly smoking rooms.
If you are worried about your limited Japanese knowledge, don’t panic! If you stick to Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto you will be fine. All trains in Tokyo announce the next train stop in English and most train stations throughout Japan display information in English.
Another great feature of Japan is the plastic food! If you can’t read a menu, just point to the plastic food on display at the entrance of the restaurant!
Basic words and phrases
I am not fluent in Japanese, but have loosely translated some common phrases below that you will definitely use! The Japanese may not be perfect but they understood me!
- Eigo no chizu onegaishimas (Can I please have an English map)
- Arigatou (Thank you)
- Insert word here onegaishimasu (insert word here please)
- Eigo onegaishimasu (English please)
Japanese people are the most polite people in the world.
Most Japanese people know a little English, so if you are lost or want to ask a question, just approach someone and ask! Especially at train stations. One time I was standing in front of a map looking completely lost and a man approached asking in perfect english where I wanted to go. He then walked 30 minutes out of his way and showed me to the door of where I wanted to go.
This guest article has been written by my friend Kat Clancy. Having studied Japanese all through high school and going on a student exchange for 8 weeks, she’s always wanted to go back to Japan and explore the variety of temples, castles, food and technology. After delaying the return trip for several years due to ill health she’s since been back twice in the last year and would love to work and live there
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact her via @traveljapanaus on Twitter.
10 thoughts on “Top Tips for Foreigners (Gaijin) Travelling to Japan”
I enjoyed reading your article. Like you I am a bit of a Nipponophile and have visited Japan four times, visiting the four main islands. I agree that it is a fascinating place.
On my last trip, we went from southern Honshu up to northern Hokkaido. We stopped at many fascinating places, but thought that I would very briefly mention one of them, seeing as how you mentioned staying in ryokan. The place is Shibu Onsen, in Yudanaka, in the Japan alps – the place famous for the monkeys that sit in the hot spring, but that’s another story.
An onsen, as you know, but others many not, is a hot spring. Shibu Onsen is an onsen retreat that is frequented largely by wealthy Japanese visitors. To our knowledge, my wife and I were the only gaijin there over the two days of our visit.
The place is incredible. You arrive and change into your yukata (light gown) and then spend time visiting as many of the onsen as you wish. It is a very strange experience the first time you get your gear off and sit on a little wooden or plastic stool and soap up and wash off before slipping into the hot water with other people of your sex.
And speaking of hot. Some onsen are so hot, the individual wooden baths each have a cold tap that you can use to lower the temperature. At one particularly hot one, I kept asking myself why Agatha Christie never wove a lobster-red body and an onsen into one of her whodunnits.
There are all sorts of onsen. Shibu Onsen has 9? public onsen and each reputedly is good for certain ailments. The first one that I visited was the colour of muddy water, the second was clear. In addition there are also many private onsen, some of which you can book and visit with a parter if you wish. For me and my wife, this is a good way to break into the whole onsen experience.
From what I understand, many Japanese people who enjoy visiting onsen do so for the ‘skinship’, that they feel with fellow bathers.
So, my message to people who are visiting Japan for the first time is to put your modesty aside and give it a go. It really is a great experience.
Learn to tie/untie your shoelaces, it’s not that difficult or a hassle. Most, if all, restaurants you’ll be going to, will probably be public spaces where you keep yours shoes on.
Accomodations may be expensive but the food is not and people don’t necessarily speak any english.
Nice tips. I used some of them while traveling to Japan. you are right about the shoes stuff. It was kind of strange.
When you arrive in Japan, before you buy your first ticket, find the appropriate JR counter to turn in your pass. The location of the counter will be different in every major train station, so check the station map or ask for help. When you go to turn in the exchange order, you’ll be given a short form to fill out and you’ll be asked for your passport. Your passport MUST have the temporary visitor stamp for you to use the pass. Assuming everything is in order, you’ll get your pass within a few minutes.
Hi! I’ve been to Japan and I’m going back!! look at how cute my visa is: http://ureshiidesu.blogspot.com/2010/04/dream-come-true-japan-im-coming-back-to.html
I really loved Japan after going there and I’m so glad I’m going back! i can relate to some of the things you wrote above. ^_^
Wow,i want travel to Japan in the future.Your blog post help anyone who do not have any experience to visit in the various places.Thanks.
Excellent tips. These tips are really helpful for foreigners, who are planning to travel to Japan. Thanks for this stuff.
I spent a year in a Okayama University and a lot of this brings back happy memories. I don’t know if they still do it but during the uni holidays you could buy a Jyu – Hachi Kippu ticket, which gives 18 tickets for a ridiculously cheap amount. The conditions are 1 ticket for one train and you can’t take the Shinkansen. We went all the way from Okayama to Tokyo on them and it took about 12 hours but was cheap!
Also if you’re a man, I’d recommend the capsule hotels for cheap places to stay. They’re comfortable enough, usually with spa facilities, but don’t go if you’re covered in tatoos. They won’t let you in due to the connection in Japan between tatoos and Japanese organized crime.
Say could you tell me, do hostels usually have a computer or do you need a touch ipod, etc for the wifi?