Written by Alice McLeod on 14 / 11 / 2023
Gap Year Advice
Japan remains a popular travel destination for both backpackers and other travellers looking to visit this interesting and diverse country. From ancient traditions to high-tech gadgets, beautiful nature spots to busy cities, we're going to spill the beans on everything you need to know to make your trip to Japan super fun and easy. We'll talk about interesting customs you may not know, and share tips that you might not already be aware of. If you want a Japan travel itinerary the read our one written by Zoë, who recently returned from backpacking around there herself. So, get excited as we count down the top 7 things everyone should know before going to Japan.
Japan is notoriously expensive, so saving some pennies here or there is always a win. You don’t need to dine out every day, head to a convenience store 7eleven, Family Mart or Lawsons to try some of the most delicious foods. If you're thinking of a corner shop in the UK then don't because Japanese convenience stores are way nicer, with a much wider and higher-quality selection of food on offer. You could eat any meal of the day you wanted here – from pastries and fruit to wonderful savoury delights. It is super affordable and a great way to eat on the go without spending a fortune.
Japan is a wonderful place to feel welcomed into a new culture. From onsen etiquette (see below) to rules on crossing the street (you must cross at a crossing and only when the light is green. Jaywalking is frowned upon) – embrace it. Some guidance on public transport such as don’t talk loudly or answer phones is to be respectfully followed. The rules work and make it a pleasant, clean, and friendly place to explore. Another thing to note: tipping is pretty much unheard of in Japan, and if you do try to leave a tip then it will almost certainly be turned down, which might lead to awkwardness. It's also very normal to take your shoes off before entering homes, ryokan, temples, and some restaurant. Sometimes slippers will be provided, but not always so it's advisable to wear or carry with you a pair of decent (non-holey!) socks just in case.
An onsen is a thermal bath popular in Japan, some built around natural geothermic pools and some man-made. It sounds daunting at first – they are public or private baths where nudity is required (you are separated based on gender). They are hugely respected and are to provide a moment of peace and tranquillity. You are expected to shower before you get in and not to let your hair get in the water. It is a wonderful way to rest and quietly reflect on your day exploring. Some onsens, especially in rural areas, will not let you enter if you have visible tattoos as they are associated with the Japanese organised crime. Some will provide you with skin-coloured patches to stick over to cover them up, but if you're unsure then just ask.
Think of it like an oyster card used on buses, subways, and trains, most of which don't use contactless. It will save you having to fumble around for the right change to buy a paper ticket, and can also be used in convenience stores and vending machines. You can top it up in most stations, and if you're in Japan short-term then the Welcome Suica card is probably the best option. It expires after 28 days, and comes available preloaded with either JPY1000 (roughly £5.40) or JPY2000 (roughly £10.80). You don't have to return the card when you're done, but you won't get a refund on any money left on it when you're done. When you activate the Welcome Suica you're given a receipt with the expiration date on it, but you're meant to keep hold of this is case anyone asks to see it.
You will want to be able to explore without using up all your data. Google maps is also the most helpful in terms of telling you which trains and platforms to get to when you're out and about. If you're a fan of planning then you can research places you want to visit, restaurants you want to try, landmarks you want to see etc beforehand and use Maps to star and save them. Then when you're in-country you can either plan your day around the places you've researched and saved, or you can pull the map up when you're out and about to see if you happen to be close to any of the things you've saved.
Purchase tickets to the Sky Tower and other big attractions in advance online
rather than queuing up in person. It allows you to save time by skipping the queues, but popular attractions often sell out, especially if you're going in peak season. The same is true of accommodation, you don't want to turn up and not be able to find anywhere to stay! If you can then try to stay in a
ryokan- a traditional Japanese-style inn. The majority are located in the countryside, giving you the perfect excuse to step out of the big cities for some rest and rejuvenation. They often come complete with minimalist tatami mat rooms, yukata robes, kaiseki meals, and onsen baths, giving you an authentic experience like no other.
Japan is a foodie paradise, with so many delicious new foods to try. From the viral 7eleven strawberry sandwiches to some of the world's best ramen (try Ichiran restaurant), you're sure to find something delicious to enjoy. Did you know that there's chopstick etiquette? Some of the basics are to never point them at someone, wave them in the air, or spear food with them; also don't stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice or pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks as this is reminiscent of funeral rites. if you can't use chopsticks then don't worry, you can use a knife and fork.
Japan is an incredibly popular place to visit, and remains high on many backpackers travel bucket lists. You'll find a fascinating mix of ancient traditions and modern technology, and you can step out of the bustling cities to explore the lush forests (did you know Japan is 68% forested?) and mountains. It might feel like there's lots of etiquette rules to remember, but as long as you remain polite and try your best (as you should wherever you go!) then no one will mind if you accidentally keep your shoes on when you're meant to have taken them off. You can also easily link Japan with other Asian countries, for example Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, for a contrasting experience. Or hop further afield and down into Australia or New Zealand.
Do I need a visa to enter Japan? No, if you're a short-term visitor visiting for tourism purposes on a UK passport then you don't need to apply for a visa.
Is Japan an expensive country to backpack in? It can be, especially when compared to other Asian countries. There are ways you can save money whilst travelling in Japan though, for example staying in traditional accommodation rather than expensive hotels.
What Japanese airport is easiest to fly into? There are two airports in Tokyo, but Haneda (officially known as Tokyo International Airport) is generally the easiest to fly into and is only 23km out of central Tokyo.
How many days should I spend in Japan? At least 2 weeks in order to see the contrasting parts of the country, from the big cities to quiet forests.
How much should I budget for 2 weeks in Japan? If you stick to a strict budget then expect to spend around £650 for two weeks.
on 14 / 11 / 2023