There is a reason why Japan figures so highly on many people's travel wish lists: the culture, history, food and technology scenes all make it a truly fascinating and varied place to visit. It also makes a great first introduction to Asia, with an easier level of travel than many countries in the region.
Here are some things you need to know to make sure your first visit to Japan goes as smoothly as possible.
Where to Go
Japan isn't that large geographically, but there are a ton of options for would-be visitors. A city like Kyoto can easily take weeks to see properly. Don't try to cram too much into one visit, instead pick a few major cities to base yourself in and then take day trips from there.
Tokyo is one of the biggest and most interesting cities in the world, with many diverse neighborhoods to explore and a seemingly endless supply of restaurants, museums and attractions. Kyoto is considered the historic capital of Japan and has hundreds of beautiful old temples and shrines. These two cities form the base of most trips to Japan, but other destinations like Osaka, Hiroshima and Nara are easy to reach in a couple of hours.
For something a little bit different, head up to Hokkaido for hiking or skiing, or down to Okinawa to check out the beaches.
The easiest way to travel Japan is by train. There is an extensive rail network that is very easy for non-Japanese speakers to navigate. If you are planning more than one or two train journeys you should look into purchasing a Japan Rail (JR) Pass. They allow for travel on nearly all major trains as well as some local ones. This is usually a better deal than buying individual tickets. JR Passes need to be purchased before your arrival, so plan ahead.
Japanese food is so much more than just sushi. The country has an extremely varied and rich regional cuisine ranging from ramen noodle soups to tempura fried vegetables to perfectly cooked Japanese steak. There is also a wide range of Western food available in all major cities.
Most food in Japan is served with chopsticks, although some restaurants may have forks available on request. Many restaurants have picture menus, which aids in ordering, or you can point to the model foods that are often displayed in the window. Lunch specials are usually the best bang for your buck.
A surprising amount of restaurants and shops in Japan do not accept credit cards, so it's wise to always have cash on hand. Most ATMs found in banks are not compatible with foreign cards, so seek out a ubiquitous 7-11, where the ATMs accept most cards.
Do not be intimidated by the language barrier in Japan. Many, but by no means all, Japanese people speak at least a little bit of English and even those who do not are often eager to help as much as possible. Most signs in train stations and on the streets are displayed in both languages.
Culturally Japan is quite different from the United States. Try to observe and emulate other people's behavior. Keep your voice down in public, particularly on trains and in enclosed spaces. Never, ever, litter on the street.
Japanese people tend to dress nicely when out in public. Shorts are not widely worn in Japan and skimpy outfits are frowned upon. Make sure to dress appropriately in religious environments (covered shoulders and knees) and be prepared to remove your shoes at certain temples, restaurants and in private homes.
Have you been to Japan? What other advice would you offer?
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