Top Travel Tips for Tokyo, Japan
The question that I get asked the most is ‘what are your top travel tips for Tokyo?’ Visiting Tokyo is like visiting another dimension: the same rules don’t apply. Whatever you may think is the ‘norm’ in your country is probably not the norm here. To prepare yourself completely for the total Tokyo experience, and to avoid any confusion and frustration, here are my top tips!
It’s a cash-based society.
When I lived in Melbourne I never had cash on me. Paypass was my best friend. But here in Tokyo it’s the exact opposite. I’ve got a wallet full of yen and I’ve become pretty quick at counting out my coins.
Cash is absolutely the primary form of payment exchange in Tokyo and wider Japan. Cards are certainly rising in popularity, but don’t expect everywhere to accept card. Always have cash on you.
You might be worried about keeping too much cash on hand, which is totally understandable. Tokyo is one of the safest cities in the world with an incredible low crime rate, so it’s okay to carry around a few hundred dollars worth of yen.
Tip: 7Eleven ATM’s have an English option and are very traveller-friendly. They’re also everywhere in inner-city Tokyo.
Know when to take off your shoes (and wear matching socks!)
Expect to take your shoes off if you’re entering someone’s home, at the entrance of a traditional ryokan/hostel, when entering a shrine or temple, when walking onto tatami mats, and even when you’re entering a change room (to name just a few!)
Taking your shoes off is very important in Japanese culture. Every Japanese home has an entryway (genkan) where you take off your shoes and enter the home. The best way to know if you need to take your shoes off is by being aware of a few key things:
Is there a shoebox full of shoes? This one’s a big giveaway. If there is - take your shoes off, or ask!
Is there are change in the colour or style of flooring? For example, are there tiles that lead to carpet? This means you’ll need to take your shoes off on the tiles and then wear slippers or socks on the carpet.
Is there are change in the height of the floor? For example, is there a step up or down? If so, it might indicate that you need to remove shoes.
Are there communal slippers on the ground?
Is there a tatami mat? If so - shoes off!
If you’re ever unsure, err on the side of caution and ask for help. And make sure to wear matching socks or you’ll get laughed at (I learnt that the hard way, heh).
Learn the train etiquette (or prepare to be fiercely judged!)
In Japan, one of the most fundamental aspects of society is ensuring that you are not a nuisance to others. I personally love this aspect to living in Japan, because it means I can get on with my day without the risk of somebody bothering me.
Especially on the trains, which can get incredible busy, be aware of the following:
Don’t talk loud. In fact, avoiding talking at anything above a whisper. There are even signs on trains basically telling people to shut up!
Don’t eat on the train. At all.
If you’re wearing a backpack, wear it on your front (nothing more annoying that someone’s backpack bumping you and they’re not aware of it!)
Taxis are awesome and Uber is unpopular.
Uber didn’t really catch on in Japan, so taxis are the predominant form of car transport. Taxis in Japan are so cute: the cars are always in tip-top condition, the drivers are lovely, and the trip involves no awkward taxi conversation. Yay!
Catching taxis in Japan can be daunting without speaking Japanese. Here’s some tips:
The taxi door will open for you when getting in and out.You don’t need to touch a taxi door. Ever. I know it’s muscle memory, but try not to close the door when you’re getting out of the taxi or it kind of breaks the door!
Know some key words. When you get in the taxi, state your destination + onegaishimasu (please). It’s pronounced like ‘oh-ne-gai-shi-mus’. Right is migi (mi-gi), left is hidari (hi-da-ri). Keep going straight is massugu (mah-su-gu). When you want the taxi to stop somewhere, say koko de onegaishimasu which is like saying ‘here please’. Don’t forget to say thank you! Arigatou gozaimasu!
There are hardly any public bins. And when you find one, don’t forget to separate your rubbish.
To reduce the risk of terrorism attacks (after the awful sarin gas attack in 1995), there are hardly any bins around. Most bins can be found near food courts or convenience stores, but on the whole, you’ll probably have to carry your trash around with you.
Bring a plastic bag everywhere you go, and when you find a bin, don’t forget to sort your rubbish correctly. Many places sort their trash differently, so follow the instructions. The most common are burnables (general trash), PET bottles (plastic bottles usually with the plastic branding and cap taken off and put in the burnables bin), cans, and non-burnable (metal things, things that have held chemicals in them like deodorant cans, electronics etc).
Tipping is considered rude.
In many western societies it’s rude not to tip. But in Japan, it’s not part of the culture and it’s actually a little bit insulting. If you do, the waiter or waitress will probably run after you thinking that you’d accidentally left some change behind! And if you insist (even with all good intentions!) most Japanese people will feel incredibly uncomfortable.
Japanese people get paid a reasonable hourly rate to perform their duties and tipping is seen as looking down on them — kind of like saying that they need the money more than you do. Be careful!
Convenience stores (conbinis) are truly amazing.
When I think about convenience stores in Australia I think about overpriced muesli bars, oily sausage rolls and disgusting bathrooms.
In Japan, conbinis are heavenly. Firstly, the toilets are lovely. But you can also get anything and everything you can imagine: inexpensive bento boxes, well-cooked chicken pieces (called Famichiki), health foods, makeup, phone chargers, stationary, socks, all the ramen you can imagine, interesting pastries, more varieties of water and soda than you can poke a stick at, and heaps of tasty chocolate treats! Oh, and the alcohol! You can literally buy 4-litre bottles of sake. Incredible!
You can even get your Amazon delivery sent to your local conbini, and I pay my health insurance and internet bills there. I love conbinis!