Whether you’re traveling to Japan for fun or to study the language, it’s important to prepare for your time away from home. It’s natural to experience some culture shock any time you travel to a new place, but proper preparation can make the difference between an uncomfortable trip and a life-changing experience.
So whether you’re traveling with a language or exchange program, with a small group, or flying solo, here are 29 tips from language and travel experts to help you have an unforgettable travel experience.
From what to pack in your suitcase to how to create the perfect travel itinerary, make sure you have your bases covered long before you head to the airport.
Immerse Yourself at Home
True language immersion is impossible if you don’t live in a Japanese-speaking city, but it’s important to expose yourself to the language (as much as possible) before you go.
Define Your Goal
Determine what you want to get out of your trip and then choose the best plan of action to achieve that goal.
Do Your Homework
If you don’t plan to stay in Japan for a long period of time and just want to get a taste of the culture and lifestyle, look into the different travel options and opportunities.
You want to know as much about the culture, climate, lifestyle, and language before you go.
Learn About Etiquette
Remember, you’re going to be a guest in another country, so it’s important that you’re courteous to the locals; you don’t want to accidentally offend anyone.
In Japan, it’s common to bow when you greet someone.
Plus, did you know that it’s considered polite to be as silent as possible on the train?
If you’re planning on studying in Japan, find a language program that is either a full immersion program or requires a language pact. GoAbroad is a great resource for this, there are various opportunities like study abroad programs, volunteer opportunities, internships, and more.
Read reviews and ask around. Try to get unbiased opinions from past participants, they can tell you what you need to know and the pros and cons of each program.
“The world is now a very well-connected place, you will be able to find people who have participated in any program and ask for their thoughts,” advises Amanda Rollins from The Japan Foundation, Los Angeles. “Be prepared to hear good and bad things, and use your judgement based on what matters to you.”
Do your homework and shop around for the program that suits your needs. Ask questions and make sure you have all the necessary information.
Partner schools are another option for language students, so make sure to look into those as well.
“Many partner langauge schools offer short-term study (as little as 1 – 2 weeks) and then the student is free to continue on his or her trip,” says Anthony Joh of GaijinPot. “Most people probably don’t think about starting their holiday in Japan at a school, but it’s a lot of fun and the language you learn will really come in handy later.”
This doesn’t just mean putting aside money for your trip, it means taking an honest look at your finances and determining what you can do.
Check out this travel budget calculator from Independent Traveler.
Also, plan ahead for accommodations, travel expenses, and meals.
Plus, you will probably want to buy some keepsakes to remember the trip and some souvenirs for your friends back home.
Check the Weather
Again, this may seem obvious, but what you bring on your trip will depend on the season. For example, summer is hot and humid, so lightweight, moisture-wicking clothes are best.
If you don’t plan ahead for the weather, you may have to buy new clothes in Japan, and this takes away from the money you have to use on your trip.
Also, bring a comfortable pair of shoes, you will be exploring and walking, a lot!
No you don’t need to be fluent in Japanese, but don’t underestimate the importance of being able to communicate.
Learn the essential phrases you need to get by. Learn to ask for directions and to greet people.
If you’re traveling to Japan with a group, you’ll have some guides to help you communicate, but wouldn’t you feel more confident armed with a basic knowledge of the language?
Ask your Japanese teacher to go over the most important aspects of the language that will help you communicate and navigate in Japan.
Once you’re in Japan you will have an opportunity to practice your Japanese skills, make sure you take advantage of this.
“Even if you don’t know much Japanese, the practice you get in Japan is worth twice as much as practice at home,” Tofugu editor Michael Richey says. “Take advantage of the time. Also, Japanese people are very patient listeners in general and usually have good attitudes towards foreigners who are trying out their language.”
Don’t Leave Your Study Materials Behind!
While traveling to Japan will allow you to have real-life experiences which will help you take your Japanese-language skills far beyond the classroom, don’t leave your resources behind.
Bring books and items you’re familiar with, so you will have materials to study from that you already know how to navigate. This will make it easier to look things up as necessary.
Make New Friends
Find a language-exchange buddy. This will help you learn and you will have a new friend!
“If you want to make friends, go do interesting things and invite many people along,” says Amanda Rollins from The Japan Foundation, Los Angeles. “Some of those people will go with you, and some of those people will make an effort to maintain the friendship. This is how you make friends (as opposed to sitting in your room, waiting for people to knock on your door).”
Exploring different parts of Japan will allow you to experience different dialects and cultures.
“Japan is unique in the world in that the train and public transport networks allow you to access practically everywhere in the country quickly,” says travel blogger Robert Schrader. “The high level of personal safety in Japan means that nowhere is off limits, even at night. So Wander! Get lost! Discover as many nooks and crannies as you can, because the more you get to know Japan, the more you’ll fall in love with it!”
Even if you’re traveling on a tight budget, you can still experience everything Japan has to offer. Zooming Japan writer Jasmine T. recommends getting the Seishun 18 Kippu,which will allow even the most budget-conscious travelers the opportunity to explore.
Find Local Events and Festivals
You may not be able to plan your trip around a big event, but that doesn’t mean you can’t experience some smaller, local festivals and celebrations.
Do your research before you go; you don’t want to miss out on an unforgettable experience.
Make a “Must-See” List
Has traveling to Japan been on your bucket list for years? If so, you’re probably already a step ahead in choosing your must-see destinations.
Creating a list and an action plan will help you accomplish your sightseeing goals.
Have a Plan (but be flexible)
Yes it’s important to plan ahead, but also understand that other options and interests will arise, and that’s OK.
“Pick out two to three neighborhoods you would like to visit each day and a few things you would like to see in each neighborhood,” says Lisa Ng, Editor-in-Chief of This Beautiful Day. “It’s great to have a loose, flexible plan that doesn’t have you rushing from place to place or criss-crossing all over the city. When I arrive at a new hotel, I like to ask the staff members where they like to go for lunch. This is how I found one of the best ramen places on my trip!”
Obviously, the length of your stay will affect how much you can see and do in Japan, but if you have a game plan before you go, you can make the most of your time.
Here is a great sample itinerary for a shorter trip to Japan.
Consider Visiting Lesser-Known Sites
Along with the hotspots on your must-see list, consider going off the beaten path and exploring lesser-known destinations.
You never know what you will find, and these hidden gems will be less crowded than the main tourist attractions.
You’re going to want to connect with family and friends back home so you can tell them all about your trip. Save some money; download skype and encourage them to do the same.
Don’t Rely on Street Addresses
You’re probably thinking, I’ll have my phone, I can use Google Maps. While your phone will come in handy, especially for translation apps, it may not help you navigate the city.
Buildings in Japan aren’t numbered by location, instead, they’re numbered by their size and history.
Jaunted.com recommends taking screenshots of places you want to visit, or ask for taxi cards which usually have a map and Japanese directions.
Learn to Read a Train Map
Much of Japan is accessible by train, so learning to read the map of the railway system will save you time and a lot of frustration.
“It’s a special rail pass only available to foreign visitors entering Japan, and it allows unlimited travel for either seven or 14 days,” Richey says. “The price tag may seem high, but if you take two Shinkansen trips, it pays for itself. Considering all the train riding you’ll be doing, it may save you money in the long run. Also, spending time on the trains is a joy, so there’s a bit of experience built into the travel.”
It’s pretty rare to carry cash these days, but it’s a great idea while you’re visiting Japan. Most Japanese ATMs don’t accept international cards.
You can exchange your local currency in airports; save yourself the headache and bring cash.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
With unfamiliar surroundings and a new language and culture, you will face some challenges while you’re in Japan. There will be times when you’ll need to ask for help.
You Don’t Need to Tip (for the most part)
In Japan, you generally don’t tip cab drivers and servers. If you go to a fancy restaurant, a service charge may be added to your bill.
Money gifts are acceptable for special services like a personal tour guide.
Mind Your Manners
Did you know that sticking your chopsticks up in a bowl symbolizes death in Japan?
While no one will expect a visitor to know every intricacy of Japanese culture, you can avoid awkward stares from the locals if you learn some customs and etiquette.
You Can Forget Your Toothbrush (if you’re staying at a hotel)
Just about all the hotels in Japan (fancy or not) provide a toothbrush and toothpaste for their guests.
Besides your toothbrush, there are a few things you may not need to worry about bringing from home. Here are some more great packing tips from JapanTravelMate.
Take off Your Shoes
It’s customary to take off your shoes when you enter a house. This is also true for most businesses.
There will usually be a rack to store your shoes, and in many cases, slippers will be provided.
Now that you know some essential things to feel comfortable in Japan, here are some tips to make sure you have the trip of a lifetime.
Step out of Your Comfort Zone
Who knows when you will have another opportunity to travel to Japan, so make this one count! Be adventurous (but be safe), try some new things.
Think of the epic stories you will have to tell your friends when you get back home.
Seize Every Opportunity to Learn
“Consider everywhere a classroom,” says Jessica of Notes of Nomads, an award-winning blog specializing in Japanese travel. “Japan has a unique language and culture; you can’t experience this kind of immersion anywhere else in the world! From eating out and shopping to taking trains and visiting shrines, each is an opportunity to learn something new and practice what you have studied in class in a real-life context. Lots of things won’t make sense in the beginning and you will make mistakes, but don’t be afraid of making them. Do your best, have a positive attitude and Japan will smile at you. Guaranteed.”
Keep a Journal
You will be creating lifelong memories on your trip so give yourself a way to document them. Write about your experiences and take photos of the places you see and people you meet.
Ask the Experts
With so many digital and online resources, you have an unlimited supply of information at your disposal. Connect with someone who has traveled to Japan, and ask him or her for their advice and recommendations for studying in Japan.
Read Japan travel blogs and take note of any and all relevant information.
Here are some additional sites you may want to bookmark and check frequently.
Most importantly, try to learn all the Japanese-language basics you can before you leave. Sign up for lessons with a private Japanese tutor, here.