Japan is one of the most attractive spot to travel. It’s exotic but yet urban features keep attracting many people around the world. However, as a Japanese I always feel quite awkward about how information about Japan is spread to the world. In this article, I will introduce few things that you might want to be aware of when planning your first time travel to Japan.
1. Be aware of the seasonal characteristics to decide when to go to Japan
You might have seen picture of Japan with beautiful cherry blossoms, and colorful leaves, and Japanese garden covered with white snow. Yes, even Japan is a small country, there are about 5 distinct seasons, and you will have to plan when you want to come to Japan, depending on what scenery you want to see. Also because Japan’s country shaped rather vertically long, climate varies between northern and southern part of Japan very much. Let’s look closer.
WINTER (MID-DECEMBER – EARLY MARCH)
The winter in Japan’s Kyushu, Honshu and Shikoku islands is typically moderately cold, with mountains on the east receiving large amounts of fresh snow. Every 5 years or so the cities of Osaka and Tokyo may be blanketed with a week’s worth of snow. In the southern and western parts of Japan it is typically dry and often sunny, with temperatures ranging from 32 to 59 degrees (note that all temperatures are shown as Fahrenheit). In northern Japan and in the mountains winters are just that, with snow and the cold weather typically lasting until the end of April. The quality of the snowfall in the Nagano area, which hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, and the north island of Hokkaido, is consistently among the best in the world – dry, light, powdery and in mass quantities. Niseko is especially worldly known as a skiing spot and lots of visitors from all around the world comes for high quality snow.
SPRING (MARCH TO EARLY JUNE)
In the spring, southern and western Japan can be quite warm and sunny, from 59 to 77 degrees. Northern Japan ranges from 50 to 68 degrees. Snow remains on the hills into April or May in northern areas. And like Spring in much of the U.S., weather can range significantly from mild, to warm, to cold, on a daily basis. This is the most popular time to visit as the cherry blossoms emerge, temperatures warm, and humidity is low.
RAINY SEASON (MID-JUNE TO MID-JULY)
Basically, think Seattle or Belgium in the spring or early summer. The temperatures are usually quite pleasant, and the rain often drizzly rather than heavy, but there can be a few stretches of days without seeing much of the sun. The rainy season called “Tsuyu” in Japan spreads slowly from the south, and reaches north of Tokyo, but doesn’t usually affect Tohoku or Hokkaido. Temperatures range from 68 to 86 F in the south-west and 59 to 77 F in the north. It may be chilly when it is raining. Although rain can be very prevalent, there is little wind, and popular sites can be a lot quieter. Hydrangea is a symbol of rainy season and can be viewed pretty much everywhere. There are some temples that are famous for viewing Ajisai such as Meigetsuin in Kamakura and Hondoji in Chiba.
SUMMER (MID-JULY TO LATE SEPTEMBER)
Hot fun in the summertime! Think the East Coast or the South of the United States and you’ve got a feel for how summer can be in Japan. Typically it is quite warm in July but not yet particularly humid. However, the humidity level tends to increase over the summer with August being particularly humid. Temperatures in most of Kyushu and Honshu range from 77 to 95 F. The north of Japan escapes the heat a little but still has high humidity.
Traveling to Japan in the summer is fine if you pack light, quick-drying clothes (not jeans!), a hat, and travel light. It’s a popular time for the Japanese to visit their home towns, and there are many festivals and fireworks displays. Often locals of both sexes wear summer Yukata, which is essentially a light robe but is very comfortable in the summer months. The men may also wear a Jimbe, which provides greater ease of movement and is essentially a very lightweight pair of shorts and a loose top that ties across your torso and again, provides nice airflow to keep you cool in the summer. I recommend trying both and they make great (and useful) souvenirs of your trip as well as good gifts.
AUTUMN (OCTOBER TO EARLY-DECEMBER)
I personally think this is a great time to visit Japan from a weather (and food) perspective. Southern and western Japan are typically warm and sunny, with less rainy days. Temperatures range from 68 to 77 F, with the possibility of typhoons (Pacific hurricanes) affecting southern Japan (typhoons usually hit Japan from July to early October). Northern Japan is cooler, with temperatures from 59 to 77 F, but winter and much cooler temperatures start earlier, around November. Autumn is a great time to view beautifully colored leaves.
2. Tipping is not Required
Blast the trumpets and open the pearly gates—tipping is not big in Japan. Restaurants? No tipping. Bars, taxis, salons? No tip. And there’s no need to succumb to American guilt; in Japan, service-people are paid a living wage. So breathe a sigh of relief and save your yen for what’s really important: more dishes of sushi restaurant!
3. Shoes on, shoes off. Wear nice socks!
In Japan, as in many Asian countries, it’s customary to take off one’s shoes when entering a carpeted room, certain areas of restaurants, and, above all, in someone’s home. Therefore, it is recommended to always wear nice socks…or at least a clean matching pair without holes in the toes. And if you think having to take off your shoes is obnoxious, just imagine how obnoxious you seem when you carelessly tramp all over someone’s tatami mats with your dirty sneakers.
4. Don’t freak out by robot toilet
What could be better than drinking your weight in sake at a shot bar and staggering to the bathroom… only to be greeted by a hole in the ground? The stark juxtaposition of the ancient and the ultra modern in Japan is never so apparent as when visiting a public bathroom. Often, you’ll find a sleek robot toilet with a heated seat, bidet, and musical accompaniment in one stall and a gaping porcelain maw in the next.
5. Be aware of leaning Japanese gesture language
If you don’t plan to learn basic Japanese for your trip, consider learning some Japanese hand gestures. When someone points at their nose, they’re referring to themselves, but pointing at people is considered rude. A businessman passing through a crowd with the heel of his palm pressed against his chest like a shark fin is quietly telling you to get out of the freaking way. If you want to convey that you’ve had enough of something—services, drinks, or food—wave your hand in front of your nose, as though waving away something smelly. Admittedly, this gesture won’t be as useful as the others; as if you could ever have enough to eat in Japan.
6. Pass the barbecued tongue, please
Unless you’re in Tokyo or visiting tourist attractions, it is very probable that your restaurant menu will be written in Japanese. Many restaurant owners cater to non-Japanese speaking customers by including photos of the food next to its name. Helpful, yes…except for the fact that Japanese cuisine often makes use of animal parts considered trash in the Western world. That delicious plate of fried “chicken”? Might be fried cartilage. Horumon (offal) is popular in yakitori houses, izakayas, and yakiniku restaurants, particularly in Osaka. Some of the most common offerings include chicken skin, heart, liver, gizzards, cartilage, beef tongue, and tripe. On the bright side? If you do take the gamble on a dish and discover that the meat you’re eating is not quite white, at least it will be delicious.
7. They are not mad at you
Upon entering most restaurants and shops, you will notice that the staff shouts at you—a great, guttural wail: “ irasshaimaseeeeeeee!” Relax; they’re not mad at you.
“ Irrasshaimase” is a shopkeeper’s welcome—translating to “come in!”, alerting the other staff to your presence, and loosely meaning “I’m here, ready to serve you.” There is no scripted response to “ irasshaimase”, so no acknowledgement is strictly necessary, but you can never go wrong by being polite; smile or nod, and enjoy your meal.
8. Keep your voice down in public
Japanese society places emphasis on the good of the group rather than the desires of individual. This is why, by Western standards, Japanese cities seem very clean and orderly —trash and panic cast a pall on everyone’s day. It is also why in Japan, eating while walking down the street is considered vulgar, as is talking on one’s cell phone. Furthermore, one of the most prevailing stereotypes about Westerners in Japan is that they speak very loudly. Take a second to note your surroundings when you’re in a public place. It’s very likely that your group is the loudest one there (except for the drunken salary-men).
9. What’s with all the masks?
The Japanese are famous for their work ethic; tardiness is not tolerated, and calling in sick for a common cold is unheard of. What’s a germ-susceptible human being to do? Prevent, prevent, prevent. Visit any convenience store and you’ll find shelves full of Vitamin C products. Set foot out of your hotel room and find dozens of commuters in dental masks. Take care to avoid coughing and sneezing openly in public, unless you want to give someone a heart attack.
10. Cherry blossom season is only couple of weeks long
Ohanami, viewing cherry blossom season is one of the most wonderful times of year to be in Japan. But the canopies of frosty white cherry blossoms move up through the archipelago over a period of precious few weeks; lasting merely a week in each region of the country. If you dream of taking a romantic stroll underneath the cherry blossom groves in Kyoto, make sure to check one of the many online cherry blossom calendars while planning your trip to avoid disappointment.
To find out more about cherry blossoms, see this article: The Sakura Blossom and its Cultural Significance in Japan
11. Tips about eating in Japan
Japanese cuisine offers an abundance of gastronomical delights with a boundless variety of regional and seasonal dishes as well as international cuisine. Restaurants range from mobile food stands to centuries old ryotei, atmospheric drinking places, seasonally erected terraces over rivers, cheap chain shops and unique theme restaurants about ninja and robots. Many restaurants are specialized in a single type of dish, while others offer a variety of dishes.
Lunch: Lunch at restaurants is often MUCH cheaper than dinner, so when I was visiting Tokyo, I made it my priority to have lunch be our main meal – sometimes I even ate two or three lunches – and then had a budget dinner.
Lines: Lines outside of restaurants are typical, something you’ll quickly discover is the norm in Tokyo. Some restaurants have a line no matter what time you go there, others just have a line during meal rush hours. To avoid lines, I would often show up at a restaurant about 15 – 30 minutes before the restaurant would open. For lunch, most restaurants in Tokyo open at 11 am or 11:30 am, and you better be sure, I was in line 15 minutes before opening. After all, food is the reason I travel!
Bar Seating: Many Japanese restaurants include bar seating, some even have only bar seating. It’s a great wary for a restaurant to use a limited amount of space, and it also provides a pretty cool dining experience – being able to watch the chef at work, and being served directly from the chef. I have never had such limited dining space as in Tokyo, which was very cool and enjoyed it.
Names of restaurants: One thing that’s tough with finding restaurants in Tokyo is that most places only have signs written in Japanese (even though they might have an English menu). So if you’re out to hunt for a restaurant, make sure you find the outside picture and take a good mental note or it (or I sometimes even take a photo of my computer screen with my phone).
Chopsticks are not for passing food: Why? Because doing so equals death. Literally—over 99% of all Japanese funerals are cremations, and part of the cremation rite is kotsuage, the “bone-picking” ceremony. After the body has been cremated, the deceased’s relatives are given pairs of giant chopsticks with which to pick any remaining bones from their loved one’s ashes and pass them between family members before placing them in a funeral urn. Passing food at the restaurant table with chopsticks would inevitably recall unhappy memories, so watch where you put those things.
For people with dietary requirements, here are some tips for eating in Japan: How to Enjoy Japanese Food with Dietary Requirements – Vegetarians, Pescatarians and More
12. You can totally get around the city without Japanese
Japanese is one of the most difficult language in the world to learn, with unique characters hiragana and katakana and also Chinese character kanji. But don’t worry. Learning Japanese is not a must to travel Japan.
Station signs in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka is also written in alphabets. Many restaurants have menus with pictures, some of them have English menus. Most of Japanese understand simple English.
However, for rural areas this is not the case. It is a better idea to learn few basic words and phrases, and carry around phrasebook or dictionary with you.
To learn basic phrases for traveling: List of Basic Words and Phrases For Travelers to Japan
I hope this is a useful list for first time travel to Japan. To learn more about Japan, here we have introduced useful resources: How to Prepare Travel to Japan for First Time Travelers – 6 Books and Videos