Ultimate Guide: Japan
Welcome to my ultimate guide to everything you need to know for planning your next trip to Japan. I will include marked maps to all the Shinkansen stations and their respective train lines, maps to local city hotspots, pointers on Japanese etiquette, and other useful tips and tricks. If you have anything you would like to personally recommend or if I have missed/misinterpreted something, please feel free to drop me a message!
In this guide, you will find the following contents. *Note: This post will be updated accordingly on a regular basis as new information become available and existing information that will need updating.
Before Heading to Japan…
JR Pass — This is your ticket to travelling on the shinkansen (bullet train). Although you can pay with cash, it is much cheaper to buy a JR Pass, especially if you are travelling long distances and a lot. JR Passes are only available for visitors to Japan on a Tourist visa for up to 90 consecutive days. Those that are Japanese nationals, working in Japan, military service, diplomatic, educational, research, or anything other than holding a tourist visa is not eligible. It comes in 7-, 14-, and 21-day passes, and can only be obtained before entering Japan, so be sure to book in advance. Once you book the JR Pass, you will receive an exchange voucher in your mail or delivered to your temporary residence in Japan. You will need to exchange the voucher for the JR Pass within 3 months from the date of which it was issued. You can book your JR Pass from sites like jrailpass.com or other similar sites.
¥ en — Make sure to exchange some cash to Japanese Yen ( ¥ ), which is around $1 USD to ¥100 (depending on market rate).
Travel Insurance — It’s not a requirement, but it’s a good idea to have some sort of insurance for any trip for any sort of emergencies, if something gets stolen, etc. as you may never know what will happen.
Tourist Visa — Many countries are exempt (i.e. free) 90-day tourist visa when visiting Japan while others get 15 days or less. Generally speaking, you should be fine, but be sure to double-check online. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan’s website regarding visa applications can be found here: https://www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/visa/index.html.
Packing — Depending on what you are interested in doing, your packing list may range from little to no things to pack, to packing a suitcase. For example, if you’re planning to do lots of shopping for clothes, you may consider packing minimal clothing and using a small backpack, then buying a luggage there to hold all your goods on the return trip. However, here are some standard items you should consider:
a) Universal adapter/converter — Depending on which part of the world you are in, there are different outlets, so having a universal adapter will cover you in most/all scenarios. A standard universal adapter can be found on Amazon.com.
b) Compact camera — Your smartphone camera may not be as great at photos, so it’ll be a bummer if all those photos you’ve taken turn out as poor quality.
c) Portable battery pack — Backup battery charger for your phone in case you run out of battery, especially for emergencies.
d) Packing cubes — Helps organize your luggage packing.
e) Sweat-wicking clothing — It gets hot at times, so garments similar to the ones made by Under Armour, Adidas, etc. helps keep you cool while moving around or in areas with limited air conditioning.
JR Exchange Voucher / JR Pass — Remember to exchange your JR voucher for the actual JR Pass and have it activated at one of the offices, which can usually be found at the airport. Just follow the signs.
IC Card — There are a number of IC cards you can get, which can be used for shopping, local transit, and others. Below is a list of which areas each specific card can be used in. Note that you cannot use IC cards to travel between certain regions or on highways. However, the policy travelling between regions with IC cards is starting to change.
You can get an IC card at most train stations before passing through the gates. Each IC card costs ¥2000, with ¥500 being refundable. That means you can use ¥1500. Once you run low or have insufficient funds to pass back out through the gates, you can refill/recharge them at any of the terminals. Any unused credit plus the ¥500 deposit can be refunded by bringing your card to the ticket counter, but most companies will subtract a ¥220 administration fee. Cards will become invalid if unused for 10 years straight.
a) ICOCA by JR West — Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka, Okayama
b) PiTaPa by non-JR companies — Same as the ICOCA
c) PASMO by non-JR companies— non-JR trains, i.e. Tokyo railway, Tokyo Metro subway, city buses purchased at Tokyo Metro stations
d) SUICA by JR East — JR trains in Tokyo, Sendai, and Niigata, including train, subway, monorail and bus, but no shinkansen (bullet trains)
e) Toica by JR Central — JR trains in Greater Nagoya and select parts of Shizuoka
f) Manaca — Nagoya trains, subways, and bus; NOT for JR or Kintetsu
g) Kitaca by JR Hokkaido — JR trains in Greater Sapporo region; also for Sapporo subways, buses, and tram
h) Sugoca by JR Kyushu — JR trains in Greater Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Kagoshima, Oita and Nagasaki regions
i) Nimoca — Nishitetsu trains and buses in Greater Fukuoka and select transport on Kyushu and in Hakodate
j) Hayakaken — Fukuoka City and Fukuoka subway
Note 1* Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen — It is now possible to use IC cards, including Suica, Pasmo and Icoca, on the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen. In order to do so, an IC card and a credit card have to be registered on an English app or a Japanese website. Afterwards, it is possible to purchase shinkansen tickets online and use the registered IC card to pass through the shinkansen ticket gates. Fares are discounted by 200 yen when using this service and are charged to the registered credit card rather than subtracted from the IC card's balance. Unfortunately, the English app is currently available only in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States. Note also that Japan Rail Pass users will not be able to use this system to make seat reservations.
Note 2* Tohoku/Joetsu/Hokuriku Shinkansen near Tokyo — In April 2018, it became possible to use regular IC cards, including Suica, Pasmo and Icoca, on non-reserved seats of shinkansen trains between Tokyo and as far as Nasu-Shiobara on the Tohoku Shinkansen, Jomo Kogen on the Joetsu Shinkansen and Annaka Haruna on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. Before you can use an IC card on these shinkansen trains, the card has to be registered at a ticket machine for this service, which is known as the "Touch de Go" service. Fares will be subtracted from the IC card's balance.
Note 3* Other Shinkansen trains — Regular IC cards can generally not be used on shinkansen trains other than the ones mentioned above. The "Mobile Suica" app can be used on mobile phones to ride the shinkansen in eastern and northern Japan; however, the app is only available in Japanese and on phones that support the Osaifu Keitai functionality.
Note 4* Highway Buses — Most highway buses cannot be paid by IC cards. Opt for cash instead.
Below are marked Google Maps to all of the Shinkansen lines (bullet trains) throughout Japan, which cover main Japan. Other smaller islands such as Okinawa are not covered since it is not feasible to build high-speed rails for a “small” land area.
- Blue Train: All shinkansen stop at this station
- Orange Train: Limited shinkansen stop at this station
- Gray Train: Shinkansen station only serviced during winter
Mid to North Japan
Mid to South Japan
Useful Japanese Terms / Phrases
General Terms / Phrases
(domo) arigato / arigato (gozimasu): “thank you (very much)” — politeness when someone gives you something, provides you service, etc.;
itadakimasu: “I gratefully receive” — usually used before eating
Eating / Dining Phrases & Terms
irasshaimase: “welcome, please come in” — used by restaurant staff to greet customers entering the restaurant
sumimasen: “excuse me” — used to call the waiter/waitress over for ordering food
itadakimasu: “I gratefully receive” — usually used before eating
osaki ni dōzo: “please go ahead” — used when eating if the food may potentially taste worse after waiting for everyone’s food to arrive
osaki ni itadakimasu: “allow me to start before you” — used when eating similar to above “osaka ni dōzo”
gochisosama deshita: “thank you for the meal” — used when you have finished your meal and ready to pay / leaving the restaurant or host
san — Usually used in most situations or casually with friends, when you bump into someone on the street, etc.
sama — A more formal version of san, usually when addressing customers in a restaurant or in a business context.
kun — Informally used for men and boys younger than you.
chan — Informally used for young children and close friends/family.
sensei — Used to address teachers, doctors, and others with high education such as a karate teacher, similar to using Dr. for addressing those with a PhD.
1 — 3 [Japan]: O-Shogatsu (Annual New Year’s Festival)
15 [Nagano]: Nozawa Fire Festival
3 [Japan]: Setsubun
5 — 12 [Sapporo, Hokkaido]: Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival)
1 — 28 (29) [Sounkyo]: Sounkyo Ice Festival
3 [Kyoto]: Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day)
Late March [Osaka]: Sumo Spring Basho
1st Sunday [Kanayama Shrine, Kawasaki]: Kanamara Matsuri
4 [Shizouka]: Ose Matsuri
13 — 15 [Asakusa, Tokyo]: Sanja Matsuri
1 — 2 [Yokohama]: The Kaiko Kinenbi
Early June [Yokohoma Port]: The Kaiko Kinenbi
Early — Mid June [Sapporo]: Yosakoi Soran Festival
4 — 8 [Hiratsuka]: Shounan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri
30 — 1 [Osaka]: Sumiyoshi Matsuri
Late July [Okaka]: Tenjin Matsuri
2 — 7 [Aomori]: Nebuta Matsuri
6 — 8 [Sendagi, Tokyo]: Tanabata Matsuri
14 — 16 [Kamakura]: Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Festival
30 — 1 [Yokohoma]: Kokkeisetusu
8 [Wakayama]: Warai Fetival
22 [Kurama, Kyoto]: Hi Matsuri (Kurama Fire Festival)
3 [Hiroshima]: Betchya Festival
9 [Gifu]: Misogi Matsuri
31 [Akita]: Namahage
Japanese etiquette of high importance. As a foreigner, especially when visiting Japan, it would be a good idea to familiarize yourself with their customs and traditions. Here is a list of things to note.
Greetings, Names, & Titles
Greeting — Bowing in Japan is like shaking hands and can range from a small nod to bending at the waist. If bowing takes place on the tatami floor, then people kneel before bowing.
Name — When calling someone by name, their family name comes first, then their first name. For example, their first name may be Bob and last name is Smith, so you would call them Smith Bob.
Title — When addressing someone, you would usually address them by last name, followed by one of the following:
a) san — Usually used in most situations or casually with friends, when you bump into someone on the street, etc.
b) sama — A more formal version of san, usually when addressing customers in a restaurant or in a business context.
c) kun — Informally used for men and boys younger than you.
d) chan — Informally used for young children and close friends/family.
e) sensei — Used to address teachers, doctors, and others with high education such as a karate teacher, similar to using Dr. for addressing those with a PhD.
Shrines & Temples
Shrine — Similar to many other religious spaces, remain calm and respect other people’s space. Do not visit if you are sick, injured (especially if you have an open wound), or mourning/grieving as it’s considered impure.
At the purification fountain near the entrance, use a ladle to retrieve water and wash your hands, then rinse your mouth beside the fountain.
Do not transfer water directly from the ladle to your mouth, and do not replace the water back into the fountain as it will contaminate the clean water.
At the offering hall, drop a coin in the offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow again once more, and use use the gong/bell before making your prayer.
Photography is allowed except for inside the shrine. As usual, watch for signs or ask someone when in doubt.
Temple — Similarly to shrines, remain calm and respectful. Throw a coin into the offering box, the make a short prayer.
Certain temples allow burning of incense in specific incense burners. You can purchase some incense in a bundle to burn for a few seconds, then extinguish it by waving your hand instead of blowing with your mouth. Then put the incense into the incense burner.
Some temples may require you to take off your shoes to leave at a shoe shelf or take with you in a bag. Be sure to wear socks and remove hats.
Photography is allowed, but prohibited inside the buildings. As usual, watch for signs and ask if in doubt.
Shoes — When you enter personal buildings and spaces like someone’s house, you will need to take off your shoes. This area is called the “Genkan”. Make sure that when you are taking off your shoes, do not step onto the Genkan but the inside space. It’s pretty easy to differentiate as the Genkan is usually made of a different type of flooring compared to the rest of the inside where you can walk. Once your shoes are removed, turn your shoes and point them towards the door.
Slippers — Tatami floor, also known as the area with thick woven straw mats, are the areas which you can step on with bare feet or socks. Slippers are usually provided by the host for you to wear when stepping in spaces without tatami floor. Additionally, there are separate slippers for toilet areas.
Luggage — You can wheel luggage around until you reach the genkan, in which case you will need to carry them (especially in the tatami floor rooms) to keep the floors clean. Additionally, be careful when moving luggage around on tatami and wooden floors to not damage the material. Some hotels/ryokan (traditional inns)/Airbnb prefer that you not put luggage on tatami floors.
Photography — This is somewhat difficult to judge as rules for indoor photography differ from place to place. As a rule of thumb, assume that you cannot take a photo, especially flash photography, unless otherwise specified. Many temples/shrines prohibit photography within the temple/shrine itself (i.e. the worship area). As for museums and other similar buildings, to each their own. Also, take note of prohibited tripod/monopod areas. Always look for signs to tell you whether photography and/or tripod/monopods are allowed. When in doubt, ask staff or others that are are familiar with the area.
Bathroom / Sento, Onsen, & Toilets
Bathroom / Sento — There are 2 sections of a bathroom: 1) where you undress, which is usually equipped with a sink; 2) the bath tub and show area. The toilet is usually in a separate room. Similar to an onsen (hot spring) or sento (public bath), rinse off in the shower and washbowl first before taking a bath, which is soaking only (not for washing). Think of it as almost like a soaker tub for the end of a tiring day. Once finished, clean up with soap, but do not get any soap into the bath tub water. Then enter the bath tub once more for a final soaking. When leaving, leave the water for the next member of the house (tradition).
Onsen — Wash before entering and you must be completely naked. This is because a person is generally considered “dirty”, including the garmets. However, modesty is expected, so you can use a towel to cover up when moving between shower to onsen. However, do not dip your towel into the onsen. While in the onsen, do not dunk your head under the water. And most importantly, no tatoos as this is usually associated with the Japanese mafia (the Yakuza). If you are tatooed, your best bet is to book and visit a private onsen, usually at a ryokan (private inn) geared towards foreigners that are more relaxed about tatoos.
Toilet — Washrooms in Japan are usually equipped with both Western style toilets (where you can sit) in addition to Japanese toilets (where you have to squat). You may see two types of Japanese toilets: 1) flush to the ground; 2) on a raised platform. For both types, you will need to face the front before squatting, just like on a Western type toilet. For toilets on a raised platform, you will also need to be on the raised platform before using it.
Table Manners, Chopsticks, Dining Out, & Sitting Techniques
Table Manners & How to Sit — Many tables, especially in restaurants, have low tables in addition to higher Western tables/chairs. These low tables are usually on tatami floors, in which shoes and slippers must be removed. At these low tables, there are cushions. Avoid stepping on the cushions other than your own. When sitting in formal situations, regardless of gender, everyone will be kneeling. In casual situations, ladies can sit with their legs to one side, while men sit cross-legged. The most honored guest(s) sit furthest away from the entrance, and if there is an alcove (called a tokonoma), they should sit in front of it.
Chopsticks — Chopstick rules are simple, yet there are quite a number of them to remember.
a) Hold your chopsticks near the end, not in the middle or front.
b) When not in use or finished eating, lay them down in front of you with the tips pointing to the left.
c) Do not leave them stuck in your food, especially in rice, as this is only done at funerals with rice on the altar.
d) Do not pass food using your set of chopsticks to another’s, as this is also only done at funerals.
e) Do not poke or spear food with your chopsticks.
f) Similar to “Don’t play with your food”, you should not wave or play with your chopsticks.
g) Do not move plates, bowls, or dishware with your chopsticks.
h) To separate food, exert controlled pressure while moving the chopstick to tear them apart. Alternatively, you can pick up the whole piece and take a bite.
i) If you already used your chopsticks, use the opposite end (the “butt” end) to pick up food from a shared plate.
j) Knives and forks are for Western food only.
k) Spoons are only used with certain dishes such as soups and curry rice.
Dining Out — Restaurants usually have plastic/wax replicas of their dishes at the entrance as a visual representation of what they have on their menu. At most restaurants, the waiter or waitress will ask how many people are in your party and will guide you to your seat. In some cases, you are expected to seat yourself. Take note that some restaurants are fully smoking (kitsuen), non-smoking (kinen), or a mix of both with designated sections. Depending on restaurant, water and/or tea will be served, and if not, there usually is a self-serve area. Everyone will also receive a wet towel for cleaning your hands before eating. Chopsticks should already be set on your table. Else, they should be in a box on the table.
Many restaurants provide illustrated menus while others only have Japanese text, yet others have menus posted on the walls. Once ready to order, signal the waiter/waitress, or press the call button at the table. At casual restaurants, you can order shared dishes, but some other restaurants may require each person to order their individual meal.
The bill will be presented face down when your meal arrives or after you are finished. Most restaurants require you to bring the bill to the counter to pay when exiting as paying at the table is uncommon. Paying cash is most common, but some accept credit cards or IC cards such as Suica. Some cheaper restaurants require you to pay up front like a vending machine, whereby you choose your meal at the machine, pay for it, then receive a ticket in which you present to the chef.