Being a Tourist in Japan: Things to Know Before You Go


If you happen to be familiar with my Stories from Abroad series, you may know that I am no stranger to travel. While I wish I could afford to go to more countries than I do, I am still eternally grateful that I have had the opportunities to experience numerous countries and cultures outside of my own. (I, for the record, live in the surrounding suburbs of Detroit, Michigan – known here as Metro Detroit – in the United States.)

Recently, I had the extremely exciting opportunity to pay a quick visit to Tokyo, Japan, the city that has been #1 on my bucket list for years and years. However, because the plans came together so last minute (at least for me and my need-to-know-everything-six-months-in-advance anxiety-ridden brain), I only really put together a rough sketch of what I wanted to do and ultimately did very little research on what to expect.

Also, as just a side-note/fun fact about me, if I don’t have time to properly prepare for something, my mindset immediately reverts to “just wing it!” which is sort of the approach I took for this trip. It’s not the most effective way to accomplish things you want to get done, but a pretty good way to stay relaxed as you travel.

Thinking back on my trip now, I’ve come up with a few things that I would go back and tell myself if I had the opportunity – just to make the entire trip even more seamless and comfortable.

For the record, I absolutely LOVED my time in Japan. I was only there for four full days and two half days, but I dreaded going home. I’m hoping to have another post up in the coming week that will go more in-depth about the things I loved and observed, but for now, I want to provide you with a list of the five things I wish I had known before I left.

#1. Familiarize yourself with the Yen. 

This will be a familiar recommendation to you if you’ve read my Stories from Abroad series because I made this mistake once before when studying abroad in England. It may sound a bit strange at first, but you’re always going to need cash for something – side tip: using primarily cash as your form of payment makes it really simple to keep up with how much money you’re spending – and knowing how to distinguish the various coins and paper Yen is a real asset, especially if you’re only going to Japan for a short period of time.

You’re also going to want to make sure you know the exchange rate between your home currency and Japanese Yen. I nearly pulled $500 in cash out of the ATM instead of $50 – a total rookie move, I know. But you definitely don’t want to be immersed in a completely new environment and then immediately begin holding up the ATM line because you forgot to look up this information before you left home.

And, for those of your North Americans out there who aren’t used to having coins for anything at or above $1, keep in mind that the Japanese Yen is only available in paper money starting at $10, which means that there are coins for both $1 and $5.

#2. Don’t sweat about the language. 

If the number one reason you haven’t gone to Japan yet is that you’re worried about the language barrier, then I’m here to let you know you shouldn’t be. Don’t get me wrong, if you don’t speak any Japanese (which was – and still is – the case for me), there will be some language hiccups, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how easy it was to get around Tokyo without speaking any Japanese.

First of all, nearly all of the signage is printed in both Japanese and English. This was especially helpful when navigating the subway system because there were English names for all of the lines printed out and every ticket kiosk had a button that said “English,” so we were able to buy our tickets without ever worrying we were going to be getting on the wrong train.

However, it is helpful to know basic Japanese greetings and social pleasantries. Even if all you learn is “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and “I’m sorry,” your efforts will be very much appreciated by the locals. And, if all else fails, pointing and/or gesturing always works. Still, the more you can show that you appreciate the Japanese culture and language, the faster and more easily people will warm up to you and be willing to help. Not to mention, just about everyone in Japan has a baseline understanding of English, so if you’re in a real pickle, there is almost always someone who can point you in the right direction.

#3. Bring a neck pillow and a four-wheel suitcase.

Suitcases are expensive, so if you don’t want to shell out the extra money for a four-wheel suitcase (in the off chance that you, like me, don’t have one already) it’s not the end of the world. However, I really do wish I had had one with me. The two other people I traveled with had them and I was pretty jealous of that fact any time I had to wheel my suitcase around with me.

The benefit of the four-wheeled suitcase is that you can keep it very close to your side, unlike the two-wheeled suitcase that you have to lean on a diagonal and pull it behind you. Tokyo is a crowded city which is part of its appeal and what makes it so interesting and exciting. However, it is not very conducive for pulling a suitcase along behind you. Not only did I find myself taking up a lot of space, but it also made it much more difficult for me to navigate my luggage around curves and away from other pedestrians on the sidewalk. So, yes, busy city = four-wheel suitcase for sure.

As for the neck pillow, I can’t sleep on planes (I swear that it must be some kind of superpower!) but even so, it would have been really nice to have something to support my neck even as I watched movies or read my book. Occasionally on a plane, I’m able to lightly dose for a few minutes, so having a neck pillow for that would have also be nice. For me, the flight was between 10 and 14 hours (it took longer to get there then to come home) and I found myself looking at the other passengers who did have the neck pillows with thinly-veiled jealousy.

I highly recommend the ones that can snap or tie together at the ends so you can clasp it to your carry-on handle and it doesn’t get lost mid-travel.

#4. Create a list of souvenirs you want to buy in advance. 

I love bringing gifts back to friends and family when I travel abroad; I’ve always been a fan of buying gifts, and being able to get people things that they normally wouldn’t be able to get for themselves is really rewarding to me. That being said, trying to cram everything in last-minute and crossing your fingers that you didn’t forget someone is maybe not the most effective, stress-free way to souvenir shop.

If you’re like me and you want to bring back gifts from friends, family, or even just yourself, then I highly recommend putting together a list of people you want to purchase things for and what you may want to get them. This way, you can be organized, make sure you don’t forget anyone, stick to a budget, and look for the best deals as you shop instead of just impulsively buying the first thing you see. It also ensures that you have enough room to pack all of your souvenirs when it’s time to go home because you’ve planned ahead.

And, remember, just because you’ve written it down doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. Maybe you’ll see something different that you want to get people as you go, but at least you have a general idea of what to expect.

#5. Plan your travel-day sleep schedule.

Flying to a destination far away, one that had a completely different time zone than your hometown, can do some massive damage to your internal clock. If you know that you are going to be facing a pretty brutal day of travel on your way to Tokyo, I highly recommend planning your sleep schedule in advance. For me, someone who – as I’ve stated – cannot sleep on planes to save my life, I wanted to make sure I was able to get a sufficient night’s sleep (7-8 hours) before I left in order to save up some much-needed energy.

However, if you’re someone who can sleep well on planes and you’re landing in Japan in the morning, you may want to hold off on sleeping until you get on the plane in order to maintain as normal of a sleep schedule as possible.

Bottom line, if you don’t want to suffer days of jet lag, then planning how you’ll sleep when it comes time to travel is extremely important. And this is the case for any international travel you may do where you’ll be crossing time zones.


So those are it; my five big tips for traveling to Tokyo, Japan. Like I said, I absolutely loved my time there and I’m already planning my trip back. I hope you’ll find these tips useful or, at the least, just interesting bits of information that you’ll now be able to carry around in the back of your brain.

If not, oh well, I hope I’ve at least entertained you for a little bit.

Anyway, thanks for reading until the end – I will hopefully have more Japan-related posts up over the course of the next couple of weeks, so keep your eyes peeled for those.

Until then,

– KP


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