First thing you have to do when you visit Japan? Prepare yourself. Prepare yourself for an incredible experience in one of the weirdest and most wonderful places on Earth.
Prepare yourself to be amazed and confused, delighted and shocked, intimidated and embraced, impressed and disgusted.
Japan is so extraordinarily foreign and bizarre, and yet so welcoming and safe. It’s a place where everything seems different, and yet you’re always encouraged to give it a go.
As a first-time visitor, you will undoubtedly get lost in Japan. While the public transport system is probably the most efficient in the world, you won’t be able to navigate it without at some point having absolutely no idea where you’re supposed to be going.
The streets outside, meanwhile, are clean and orderly and safe, but with a system of addressing that will leave you constantly wandering around blindly, miles from where you’re supposed to be.
But the joy of Japan is that getting lost is OK. It’s how you make discoveries. And if you don’t find your way out of these situations yourself, someone will help you.
In fact if you ever look even slightly bewildered in Japan, there’s a good chance a kind citizen will offer to fix whatever problem it is you seem to be having.
Japan is like that. It seems intimidating, with its sprawling metropolises and foreign customs, but the people there will make it far less so.
That’s good news, because the best way to experience Japan is by jumping in and doing all of the things that seem so strange and foreign.
Order ramen noodles from a vending machine. Go to a café staffed by manga characters. Spend the night in a Shingon monastery. Get nude at an onsen. All of these things are possible.
Most people’s first journey to Japan will include much of what’s known as the “Golden Route”, a trio of the country’s best and most approachable cities: Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. This is an excellent place to start, giving you a hit of the old Japan and the new.
In Tokyo you can see the hyper-modernity of Shinjuku, go shopping in Shibuya and Harajuku, eat great food in Ebisu, experience the old “Edo” in Asakusa, and hang out with the hipsters in Shimokitazawa and Koenji.
There is far too much to see and experience in even these few cities to begin to talk about here, so let’s just stick with the logistics.
Travelling independently in Japan is relatively simple, particularly if you’re planning to use public transport. Trains always run on time. Buses are easy to figure out. The metro systems are busy but efficient.
You can book a Japan Rail pass online before you visit, meaning you won’t have to tangle with too many ticket counters once you’re there.
However, this may or may not work out cheaper than buying individual train fares, depending on how much travel you plan to do. You can definitely save, though, by buying a Tokyo Metro “Pasmo” card at a discounted rate from outside of Japan – see www.tokyometro.jp.
Hotels in Japan can be pricey, and the rooms tiny. As an alternative, there are plenty of Airbnb-style apartments available for rent in the big cities that might still be pretty small, but they get you into the areas you want to be in, and the prices are far more reasonable.
Another advantage of apartment rental in Japan is that many hosts will provide a Wi-Fi dongle that you can carry around with you to access the internet on the go.
Given the fiendish difficulty of buying a local SIM card in Japan, and the fiendish difficulty of finding your way around the big cities, this little device might just be the handiest thing you’ll acquire on your whole trip.
That said, however, every trip to Japan should include at least one night at a ryokan, the traditional inns that date back to the 1600s.
These small, often luxurious guesthouses have manicured gardens, onsen spas, rooms with tatami-mat floors and futon beds, and classical, exquisitely prepared meals. They’re expensive, but an amazing experience.
One of the facets of Japanese life that seems to worry some first-time visitors is the food, but really it should be the opposite. The food in Japan is one of the country’s true highlights – there’s no such thing as a bad meal.
If you stick to the tourist trail, most restaurants will have menus in English. However, some of the best experiences you’ll have will be in tiny joints with indecipherable foods. But don’t worry, this is Japan – walk in and someone will help you.
While there are plenty of walk-up restaurants in Japan, from casual ramen noodle bars to pub-style izakayas to sit-down restaurants, many of the most popular eateries will require bookings. This is almost impossible to do from outside of the country, and without a solid grasp of Japanese. The best way around this is to either have the concierge at your hotel make restaurant bookings for you, or if you’re staying in an Airbnb, ask your host to make a few calls on your behalf. Most will be happy to do so.
Just as the food culture thrives in Japan, so too does the drinking culture. The cities are filled with tiny little bars run by boozing obsessives who craft drinks with the same passion as the chefs craft meals. Some of the more upmarket bars, particularly in Tokyo, have a cover charge, so it’s best to settle in at one spot with a few great cocktails, or beers, or local whiskys, than to attempt a pub crawl. There is, without a word of exaggeration, at least one bar in Japan that caters to absolutely every taste, desire and even fetish.
And this leads us to probably the most important aspect of first-time travel in Japan: go in with a clear mind and an adventurous heart. Have no preconceptions. Be prepared to try things you never have before. The truly great thing about this country is that it’s so safe and welcoming that you can take risks, go into places you may not normally go, experience things you haven’t before, and not worry too much about the consequences.