5 Things You Need To Know Before Visiting Japan

Japan bucket list - Tokyo

Travelling in Japan reveals a new story every minute. I’ve never been anywhere that respects tradition as much as modernity; you can be praying for your fortune at a temple one minute and watching giant robots battle to save earth the next. We’re talking about a country that has 5.5 million vending machines and trains that move at 320 km/hour yet frowns about walking while you’re eating.

I’ve been to Japan 3 times in the last 2 months and I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface of its idiosyncrasies. For anyone planning a visit here’s 5 quirky things I think you might like to know before your first visit.

1. You’ll Need Cash

For a country that’s pretty good at making life cushty I was so surprised at how many places don’t accept card payments – not even the ticket machines at train stations. If you’re planning to take public transport as soon as you arrive it’s best to come armed with cash instead of flapping around the airport looking for an ATM. (I speak from experience.) Also be aware that not all ATM’s accept foreign cards and they don’t all have an English language button either. Your best bet is to head to a 7-11 whose machines tend to be foreigner friendly.

2. There’s A Form For That

Another element about travel in Japan that surprised me was the constant form-filling – for a country so forward-thinking and efficient you’ll be surprised at how many forms you’ll need to fill out. Aside from filling the usual arrivals card at the airport you’ll also need to fill out a form before you can exchange notes at the currency counter and you’ll be asked to fill another one in with all your life details if you’re looking to buy a rail pass. (On the upside foreigners do get discount tickets, including on the Narita Express, so keep your passport handy for proof of nationality.)

3. Eat Where You Buy

I made a rather embarrassing cultural gaff in Osaka when I purchased some (mighty fine) Japanese Fried Chicken from a take away stand in Dotobori and then walked off down the street while munching it. Although I’d like to think the announcement over the public speaker wasn’t just for my benefit, I was horrified to hear a broadcast asking that visitors not eat as you walk down the street, just as I tucked into another mayo covered morsel outside a souvenir shop. As the announcement went on to explain, you are requested to consume any take away food you buy directly in front of the stall where you buy it, not as you browse the merchandise. This explains why I saw so many people hanging around after they’d received their orders! Oops.

4. Play A Jingle When You Tinkle

The techy Toto toilets in Japan that will warm, wash and dry your bottom for you are pretty famous but did you know that many public toilets have an additional function that it’s polite to press too? The sound button (sometimes a jingle and sometimes the sound of gushing water) is designed to cover the noise of your excretions. It’s considered polite to use it in public toilets – especially if you’re going for a number twosies.

5. No Onsen For Tourists With Tats

I’ve written a fair bit about onsens lately as I find the Japanese concept of soaking naked with strangers in boiling hot water absolutely fascinating. (It’s actually a far more rewarding experience than this attempt at wit makes out – read all about it here.) What I didn’t know before my first soak in one though is that, especially in traditional onsen, you are not allowed to bathe if you have tattoos. (An ancient rule, apparently, due to the link between tattoos and gangsters). Even though the butterfly on your back you had inked aged 18 has nada to do with the Japanese mafia the rule still stands today that you need to cover (with a plaster if possible) any visible* tats or you may be refused entry to the bathhouse.

*I say visible but you’re naked so not sure what that leaves really

Have you been to Japan? Did any of the customs catch you out?

6 (More) Things To Know Before You Go To Japan


  1. Reply

    Angie Silver

    February 22, 2017

    One thing that surprised me was that I wasn’t as surprised as I thought I’d be!! I actually wrote a post on it (big apologies for link dropping but I hope you like it!) http://www.silverspoonlondon.co.uk/2016/06/why-japan-surprised-me.html

  2. Reply

    Charlie Elliott

    February 22, 2017

    This is so helpful! I’m going for the first time in September and normally I just take a credit card and minimal cash so now I’ll be more prepared!
    Charlie, Distracted

  3. Reply


    February 23, 2017

    Absolutely amazing photos! Japan has always been on top of my list, just need to take a month off and then I can explore the whole country…it still won’t be enough I know…

  4. Reply


    February 24, 2017

    I’m surprised the lack of ATMs is still a thing. It’s been nearly 10 years since my last trip to Japan and it was an issue then. I really would have thought that would have improved – but then Japan often doesn’t make sense at all 🙂

  5. Reply

    Camila @ AdventitiousViolet

    February 28, 2017

    This is so useful! Thank you! I never knew about the forms, or the cash!

  6. Reply


    March 25, 2017

    This is great info to know for when we plan our trip to Japan. It’s interesting to learn that you have to eat the food where you buy and can’t walk around eating. I had no idea that you couldn’t walk around and eat. It’s also good to know that I’ll need cash on me.

  7. Reply

    Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad

    May 6, 2017

    This is interesting, lots of things I’d never thought of! Particularly not being able to walk away with takeaway food.

    • Reply

      Jayne Gorman

      May 7, 2017

      Yep, it’s something I didn’t know about first time around!

  8. Reply

    Georgina Goodman

    May 8, 2017

    Great post! I would love to visit japan one day


  9. Reply

    Jade D'sa

    July 12, 2017

    Gosh this is so helpful! I didn’t know any of these had to be done (or not) in Japan!
    Not being able to walk with takeaway food is strange, but hey, laws of the land and all that!



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