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10 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Japan (with photos)

I must admit that I have not done a travel intensive trip in the longest time until Japan. We headed to Japan to catch the cherry blossoms in April 2016 and boy was it worth it. We travelled to Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto and Osaka, our trip was in total 14 days and it was more than enough time to travel those 4 cities. I decided to compile a list of 10 things that you should know before traveling to Japan.

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  1. Know your routes beforehand

Since we will be heading to 4 different cities in Japan, the first thing we researched on was how to travel to the different cities. There are numerous options but the easiest is by train and trust me when I say that Japan the king of convenient rail transport country-wide. The easiest option is the JR Pass, which is only available for use by foreigners, it allows you unlimited travel across Japan on rail, buses and ferries. You can purchase 7, 14 or 21 days pass but it’s not cheap. We didn’t opt for the JR Pass because our first stop after we arrived in Tokyo was Hakone and JR trains don’t go all the way to Hakone (this is why I always research in advance) so we decided to buy our tickets along the way. With that said, it doesn’t matter what form of transport you use to get to places, just make sure you plan your routes in advance because it saves you a lot of time and money if you already know the best option to get to your destination.

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2. Cash is king

Like any other Asian country, Japan is very cash orientated and it makes your traveling so much easier if you carry cash on you (or at least know where to get cash from). Sure there are shops and restaurants that have card machines but there are also lots of local restaurants and food stands that don’t so rather be safe than stranded somewhere hungry without cash.

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3. Learn how to say “thank you” in Japanese

I must admit that I was fairly surprised that people didn’t speak much English at all for the first few days we were in Japan. I eventually got over it and adjusted. I mean the amount of effort and hand signing it took me to explain to the lady at the counter that I required a sim card was ridiculous! The Japanese are very polite people, they certainly won’t be rude to you if you don’t speak their language but learning how to say “thank you” can make all the difference so make an effort. If you’re wondering what “thank you” is – Arigatō gozaimas – you’re welcome!

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4. Convenience stores are your best friends

Apart from Hakone, all the other cities we travelled to had convenience stores everywhere, which were mainly 7-11s. They sell everything, band-aids, cool drinks, magazines, makeup, sweets and food but not just any food, you can get wholesome and delicious meals from 7-11s in Japan and for cheap just incase you get stranded somewhere hungry AF.

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5. Check the cherry blossom forecasts before you book your flights

If your sole purpose is to go see cherry blossoms then make sure you check out the forecasts before you go because the last thing you want is to rock up and not even get a glimpse! The cherry blossoms bloom at different times every year but it generally falls between April and May and they only last for about 2 weeks (May is pushing it so April would be a safer bet). We traveled to Japan during the second week of April and it was in full bloom so basically by the end of our travels, the cherry blossoms have already fallen but they were a spectacular sight none-the-less.

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6. Japan is not a morning place

If you’re an early bird and hope to get things started in the morning, just know that majority of the shops and restaurants will not be opened. I remember one of the days we wanted to catch a bus somewhere quite early, like around 8am and we walked around and couldn’t find a place that served breakfast. Even Starbucks wasn’t open that early, we ended at a little cafe that was also a bakery and we had breakfast there.

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7. TIPPING in Japan

If you’re from South Africa or the United States, you’re probably very used to tipping by now that it is almost second nature to you, regardless of whether you actually like it. Just know that tipping is not customary in Japan (and most Asian countries) because all shops, restaurants and hotels who offer a service include service charge in the price. Everyone gets a salary for the work they put into it, so why add more as tip?

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8. Vending machines are everywhere

The one thing that caught our attention traveling around Japan was that there are vending machines everywhere! Those vending machines mostly sell drinks, all sorts of drinks, beers, coffees, teas, soft drinks, juices etc. You don’t only find these vending machines in malls or the lobby of the hotel but they are also everywhere on the streets, so if you are thirsty and wandering around somewhere, you should definitely make use of these vending machines when you see one, also the prices of these drinks are cheaper than the shops.

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9. It’s not easy buying a sim card

We really struggled finding a sim card or should I say a pre-paid sim card with just data in Japan. We wandered around the streets of Kyoto for aaaages before we finally found a cellular shop that sold pre-paid sim cards. Some of the other cellular shops we found didn’t sell pre-paid sims at all. Although most places had wifi, I always prefer buying a local simcard with data so I can at least search for destinations on Google Maps and do some quick research before heading somewhere.

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10. Know that Japan is not cheap

If you’re used to traveling around other parts of Asia, you probably know that food and transport are super cheap and you can probably score some bargains no matter where you go. Before you go to Japan, throw that thought out the window because Japan is NOT cheap! I would say it’s comparable to cities like New York and London, ok maybe a bit cheaper but not all that different (especially for South Africans). Our first stop after Tokyo was Hakone, and since Hakone is a small, touristy town, it was by far the most expensive city all the way from hotels to food. How do I judge this? I compared the prices of a Japanese staple across all 4 cities – ramen. The cheapest ramen was none other than Tokyo, which isn’t surprising because it’s the capital and competition is high, there are hundreds if not thousands of ramen shops spread across the city. A bowl of ramen at a basic lunch spot can cost anything between US$8-US$12 in Tokyo.

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I hope you find this post informative and share this with someone you would like to go to Japan with! Happy Traveling! 🙂

All photos belong to me and my friend Drew (IG: @toastedswimmer), please don’t use without permission. If you would like to check out more traveling photos, check out Drew’s Instagram.

With love…xxx