5 Top Tips on How NOT to Start Your First Visit to Japan (plus Bonus Tip!)

Bidet Toilet and Squat Toilet in Japan
Bidet Toilet and Squat Toilet in Japan

We were tired.  We were hungry.  We were lost in Tokyo Station. We had all of our luggage with us.  And we had minimal local money left.  All in all it was a less than glorious start to our long planned family holiday to Japan.

While I am an experienced international traveller this was my first ever trip to Japan and we were caught out by a few quirks.  Sure I had read some information about how to draw cash and how to use the train system but the first time you face anything new it usually takes you a bit longer to work out the system.

And doing it when you are tired after an overnight red eye flight (after having had a massive couple of weeks at work and finishing university assignments leading up to the trip) whilst also caring for our three young children had perhaps been somewhat optimistic.

So here are my top five tips for you first visit to Japan (including a bonus extra tip for when you return home again!).

1.   Expect to be Tired When You Arrive

I am guilty of having the ‘super-mum’ syndrome where I sometimes think I can still travel like I did when I was 20 years old.  When you get older and are juggling a family, work and study, maybe it is OK to pamper yourself when you travel.

While walking through the maze which is Tokyo Station I had the occasional thought that perhaps it would have been acceptable to pay a bit of extra money to book the airport to hotel transfer bus.  (Except we weren’t staying at a hotel – see my comments on how difficult it can be to find an AirBnB apartment further below)…

So the key message is to expect to be tired when you arrive and plan for it by booking easy options to get from the airport to your accommodation and give yourself some time to ease into the culture rather than have to work it all out immediately when you arrive.  #justsayin

2.   Expect to Experience Culture Shock When You Arrive

It has been a few years since we last visited an Asian country, and while in Japan there are lots of signs in English, you do experience culture shock and everything is a bit or a lot different to what you are used to.

We all had lots of fun playing with our first Japanese bidets at the airport (and I loved seeing the kids trying to work out what the squat toilet was…).  But culture shock certainly happens when you are just trying to get around and you can feel a bit overwhelmed by how many things you need to work out just to get started.

Bidet Toilet and Squat Toilet in Japan

Bidet Toilet and Squat Toilet in Japan

So the key message is to plan to take some extra time to get started and to work things out.

3.   Take Enough Cash to Last For the First Couple of Days

On past trips I have always have exchanged enough cash before I departed so that I could last the first few days without having to draw more cash.  In most countries this strategy works OK as Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) are usually plentiful and easy to use.

Japan is the first country I have been to where this is not the case.  If you have a credit or debit card which is not from Japan you are only able to draw cash from ATMs which are designated as International ATMs.  And the only International ATMs are at Post Offices and 7-11 Stores.  Oh, and as my husband finally worked out you need to draw from your Credit account – he tried to press ‘Savings’ and was denied…  when he rang the bank prior to departure they did tell him this piece of information but see point 1 – expect to be tired when you arrive!

In our case we finally thought to ask someone where to find a 7-11 at Tokyo Station and a helpful staff member pointed us in the right direction.  Once we worked out how to use the machine we felt rather relieved that we finally had some cash. And we promptly went to the Starbucks next door to get some well earned food and take a time out.

So the key message is to draw extra money before you depart (even at the usually ruinous airport exchange rates) so you don’t need to draw any cash for the first couple of days…

4.   Expect to Get Lost When You Use a New Public Transportation System (especially in Tokyo!)

Working out how to use a new public transportation system is always somewhat challenging the first time.  Particularly if you are tired (see point 1).  I must state that Tokyo has the most awesome (and complex) train system in the world that I have ever had the pleasure of using.  While I had read about the train system before I departed, I truly didn’t comprehend the sheer complexity of the train system until after we arrived.

In most places when you use the local trains you are dealing with a single company or government organisation to purchase tickets and use the train stations for each location.  In Tokyo there are multiple major train operators in Tokyo alone (not to mention on the inter-city routes), and the important fact to realise is that they each have separate train stations too.  Yep.  So when you plan to pass through ‘Tokyo Station’, what is really there is three separate train stations which are in close proximity.

There is the Japan Rail Station for the JR Yamanote Line and the separate Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line.  And the Tokyo Shinkansen (intercity Bullet Train) Station just to mix things up.  So imagine three separate stations which are surrounded by an underground multi level shopping centre which link to multiple underground shopping malls and you start to get the picture.

Tokyo Train Map

Tokyo Train Map

Each train station is separate and you need to either have separate paper tickets to use each train line, or you need to purchase a Suica card which enables you to tap on and tap off on every different train system.  (Top tip:  You can purchase adult Suica Cards from JR railway machines outside station entry – but to purchase a child Suica card you need to go to the JR customer service counter – you have to show the child’s passport before you can purchase these cards.)  Once you have your Suica cards then you can recharge the cards either outside or inside any station using the automatic machines – but just plan to use cash, not credit to recharge them… and be happy that they have a button so you can get the instructions in English)

As you can see by the train map above take my comments about Tokyo Station and multiply them across the whole Tokyo train network…

If you purchase a Japan Rail Pass and plan to use it on local Tokyo trains please be aware that they are only valid on JR trains – not on any of the others.  (We did not have a JR Pass so this wasn’t an issue for us…).

So what is the key message?  Plan to take extra time to work out how to use the new train system, particularly in Tokyo!  And also expect that you will need to walk between train stations and tap on and tap off every time you change train lines.

After a few days we became adept at working out how to enter and exit train stations so that we ended up in the right place to catch the train we wanted.  The process which worked for us consisted of ‘don’t start walking until you have checked the signs and worked out where to go’.

That meant before we entered a train station we checked if it was the right one for the train line we wanted, then we checked which platform to use, then we checked that the train was going in the right direction, then we checked that we were going to get off at the correct stop, then we checked which exit to use from the platform, then we kept on checking until we reached the next place we wanted to get to…

5.   If You Are Staying in an Apartment Expect to Have Trouble Finding It…

As a family with three young children we have previously learned that staying in accommodation with separate bedrooms is a real sanity saver.  You can put the younger children to bed and still stay up a bit later yourselves.

When I researched accommodation options for Tokyo I quickly realised that finding a hotel room to take five of us was going to be very expensive, and I was not keen on the option of taking adjoining rooms – our children are still a bit too young for this option.  So I decided to take the plunge and book an apartment through AirBnB for the first time.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a good range of multi-bedroom accommodation options and I subsequently booked and paid for a nice looking two bedroom apartment near Akihabara, which is north of Tokyo Station.  After we booked we were sent the instructions to find our accommodation which looked comprehensive, so I printed them off so we were ready when we arrived.

We arrived at the correct station, and our first mistake was not checking the station exits, so we just left via the first one we saw.  (see points 1 and 4).  After being somewhat traumatised by our experiences in Tokyo Station we just wanted to get in, drop off our luggage and then do some exploring around the local area.

We quickly realised that the instructions and photos looked nothing like what we were looking at outside the station.  We asked for help and a kind gentleman tried to help us to find our accommodation.  As it worked out we definitely went the long way around but we eventually managed to find our accommodation.  I subsequently learned that when you use the AirBnB Android app that you can click on the map in the accommodation information and get a GPS assist to find your accommodation, but we did not think to do that at the time (see point 1).

So the key message is to learn how to use your apps better to find your accommodation – and expect to be tired and disorientated and in culture shock when you arrive so it is likely to be harder to find than usual…

6.   Bonus!  Expect to be Tired When You Arrive Home

We had decided to use public transport to get home when we returned to Sydney – while we were at the airport I suggested to my husband that perhaps we could just catch a taxi and go straight home, but he thought we should be ok to take the train and bus like when we departed.

To cut a long story short we missed our connecting bus and had to wait for 30 minutes for the next bus option to arrive while sitting at a less than attractive bus stop, and then take a longer walk from a different bus stop to get home.  I was over it by then (see point 1 times 2-3 times over), so next time around I will plan to just take the taxi…

Conclusion

I think our first day in Tokyo was one that I mostly prefer to forget, but it certainly reinforced that you should plan to take the easy option on your first day in a new country.  We subsequently had a fantastic family holiday in Japan but I would definitely have preferred to get off to a better start.  Hopefully you can learn from our experiences and avoid making the same mistakes.

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Are you planning to visit Japan?  I will be sharing more experiences of our trip over the next few months so please subscribe to follow our journey.  Please leave a comment below if you have ever had any similar experiences when you travel.

55 Comments

  • Hi Anne,

    Well, you did it! I think these minor problems always seem worse when you’ve got kids with you and they’re whining and creating. Hope you had fun in the end!
    Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot recently posted…Catalunya Experience: Secret Travel Diary Day 1My Profile

  • We have spent the past three decades travelling the world. Our children are adults now but we started travelling before they were born. One of them was born overseas. Both of them travelled with us from the time they were babies. If there is such a thing as an expert at travelling, and coping with small children at the same time, we must be it. Japan is without doubt the most challenging country we have ever been to – mind you Tokyo is easy compared to travelling outside the capital. I will follow your posts with interest and thank my lucky stars each day that it is you facing these challenges and not me – lol. I hope you have a great time. Once you get the hang of it Japan is a fascinating country.
    Lyn aka TheTravellingLindfields recently posted…The Murray to the Mountains Rail TrailMy Profile

    • Lyn, thank you for your comment. After a difficult first day we then quickly got into the flow and managed to get around and explore with no major problems. And we all loved Japan – it is definitely a place we would love to go back to. Two weeks was definitely not enough.

      I agree that regional areas were also challenging, but overall we managed OK, and had some interesting visits where we were the only people around of Anglo-Saxon appearance, but we all took it in our stride and made the most of it!

  • Francesca says:

    thanks so much for sharing, a great read. Japan is certainly on my list for travel. I’ll definitely read up on your blog before I travel to Japan.

  • I think that it is a tricky city to visit as a tired newcomer. The first thing we did when we went to Tokyo for the 1st time was to get a volunteer tour guide, and that is how we go to know about the transport system, how to order food etc etc. He was so worthwhile, but as it turned out you got it sorted. I still love playing with the Japanese toilets and apparently I am not a child.
    Paula McInerney recently posted…A 10 Day Road Trip Around Tropical North QueenslandMy Profile

    • Paula, thank you for your comment. The volunteer tour guide sounds like a great idea! I am so used to travelling independently and working it out that that is just what I usually do, but in this case we obviously paid the price in terms of going through a period of confusion before we were able to work things out. My children loved playing with every bidet – and while I managed to get my daughter to have a turn of the squat toilet but the boys wouldn’t go any where near them…

  • I definitely experienced #1 of the list when I arrived in Japan. By the way, I am 25 and Japan is 7 hours by plane here from KL. I felt so tired on my first day especially that I came to KLIA straight from work.

    Gosh, if I could have rested on my first day, I could have enjoyed my Japan trip more.

    I also wrote about my Japan experience, I want to share it with you, Anne. Here is the link-> http://wanderlust.tripovo.com/stories/reflections-on-the-road-japan

  • Jo says:

    What a day Anne! I think your comment about considering spending a bit of extra money on arrival when you are traveling with children is so true. The first time we took our (only) child to Europe I decided to bite the bullet and pay for a hire car into central Paris rather than catch the bus as I would normally do. Yes, it was REALLY expensive but when we arrived with a screaming 6 year old who had barely slept I felt SO relieved to find that kind and understanding chauffeur ready to take us to our apartment. Sometimes it is important to spend money – to save everybody’s sanity!
    Jo recently posted…A 2 climate packing list for one bag travelMy Profile

  • Michelle H says:

    Your bidet pictures made me laugh. My husband lived in Japan for 2 years and still talks to me about how fantastic the bathrooms are.

  • Stefan says:

    OMG the Japanese toilets are kinda awesome right? They even SING to you! Did you try that? They’re so advanced they can literally play music for those people who prefer some noise to distract from, er, other sounds!!
    Stefan recently posted…Gay guide to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, MalaysiaMy Profile

    • Stefan, thank you for your comment. Yes, the toilets are amazing. Many of them had a ‘water and bird noise’ to cover the sounds of yourself and others… But sometimes it was so loud in its own right that I actually pressed the button to turn it off…

  • Good to know what to expect when we head to Japan! Hopefully in a 2-3 years time. I definitely feel that I get tired more now then when I travelled in my 20s. Kids or no kids!
    samiya selim recently posted…Off the beaten paths travels in Colombia, South America!My Profile

    • Samiya, thank you for your comment. Hopefully you can avoid making the same mistakes that we made! Japan is definitely a worthwhile destination and we loved it, but that first day wasn’t as much fun…

  • Interesting, for me there was only a surprise considering their fancy toilets, so many buttons to press with fancy functions. My first pictures from Japan, were from toilets 😀

    • Thank you for your comment. We all loved the toilets in Japan – the bidets were great, and I only managed to get my daughter to use a squat toilet one time, after I showed her how to use it…

  • Erica says:

    Great! I’ll definitely be keeping these in mind. As weird as it may get, I actually look forward to culture shocks when I’m traveling!
    Erica recently posted…6 Spooky Sites In The Philippines Guaranteed To Give You The CreepsMy Profile

  • I went to Japan but in Kyoto. I agree, I had to plan a lot and I had to make sure I had to screen shot all the train plans ( using the apps) in order for me to not get lost. I also took photos of the places in case we needed to ask. We got lost a lot but I love how Japanese people, even if they struggle with English, make an effort to help us out when we are lost. 🙂
    Karla | karlaroundtheworld recently posted…Must see in Siem Reap, CambodiaMy Profile

  • Eloise says:

    Wow… Sounds tricky!! I hope you enjoyed the rest of your trip! I’d love to go to Japan, and would love to see Mt Fuji. I guess planning with extra time is a luxury that can really make a trip less stressful and more smooth. And when you’re lacking time, the few extra dollars that can make you save time can be worth spending!!
    Eloise recently posted…Travels & Full-Time Job: 3 Steps To Find the Right BalanceMy Profile

    • Eloise, thank you for your comment. I agree that it is hard to find a balance. We had to save up so much money to even go on the trip that we economised in many areas, but there are definitely areas where it can be worthwhile to spend more money!

  • Tara says:

    Awwwww, I loved Japan. But yes, the ATM thing was a bit of a struggle in the beginning. Luckily when I went I was going with two people who had been before, so I had them as a buffer.
    Tara recently posted…How I afford to travel – 1 Girl, 1 year, 16 countriesMy Profile

  • Vlad says:

    Great tips, I think this can happen in every big city, especially when you visit for the first time and you’re tired. Glad you made it through though, that Tokyo Station sounds confusing as hell!
    Vlad recently posted…What To See In Malta – The Perfect ItineraryMy Profile

  • We are anything but newbies when it comes to traveling and, for the most part, have gotten most of it figured out. HOWEVER, it is no fail that whenever we arrive in a new Asian country, we are always reminded just how different and diverse our world really is! It is so important to take a step back, breathe and take it all moment by moment!
    Economical Excursionists recently posted…Paragliding Over Neuschwanstein CastleMy Profile

    • Thank you for your comment. I agree that it can be worse in Asian countries where as an English speaker I have almost no hope of understanding the local writing and language. Japan does have a reasonable amount of English translation of the signs but even so it just takes a bit of extra time to work out the system.

  • Kathrin (insidemyportmanteau) says:

    I so often feel exhausted and completely overhelmed when I arrive somewhere with aaaall my luggage and no idea where my hostel/hotel is. I try to take my time though – to not start a holiday with stress.
    Kathrin (insidemyportmanteau) recently posted…How Traveling Enhances Your Job SkillsMy Profile

  • zof says:

    Hi Anne, thanks for the tips. I’ve never been to Japan, but I kind of want to, and I always appreciate reading practical posts on traveling in this country as it seems to be a little complicated at times. This transportation system looks overwhelming too me.
    zof recently posted…Travel Flashback #30My Profile

    • Zof, thank you for your comment. I would definitely recommend japan as a travel destination, but you are correct that travelling around can be somewhat complicated. If you allow some extra time for when you get started you should be fine – after a couple of days to get the hang of it we had no major issues.

  • Wow, that subway map puts London to shame! Scary stuff.

    I’ve only used AirBnB in the UK, but one of my friends travelled to Japan recently and found it a great destination
    Fiona Maclean recently posted…Barrafina Drury Lane – Review:My Profile

    • Fiona, having also used the London Underground quite easily I can definitely confirm that Tokyo is a whole level more complicated! We also used AirBnB and stayed in some great places in Tokyo and Kyoto – we really liked being away from the tourism zones.

  • Have you ever visited India? A much BIGGER culture shock for everyone hehe.
    Cool tips!
    Sonal of Drifter Planet recently posted…HAMPI: 11 AWESOME Things to Do In This Land of MysteryMy Profile

  • Danik says:

    Amazing blog and I will use this when I get to Japan! Thanks for all the tips! 🙂

  • Mar says:

    So true. Japan ca be very overwhelming. We had to get someone to escort us to the right platform and we had issues withdrawing money as well, thank god for the 711! It’s a very different place and it pays to be prepared, these are great tips that will help anybody

  • When I hear Japan I always think about toilets with a lot of buttons and I am afraid I will get lost there 😉 Tokyo Metro looks also complicated. Thanks for all tips 🙂
    Oliwia | The Ollie recently posted…15 best pictures from IndonesiaMy Profile

    • Oliwa, thank you for your comment. The toilets are not too bad if you just want to use and go, but if you want to use the bidet functions it can get a bit more complicated! The train system IS complicated, but you get used to it once you have used it for a few days.

  • Deepti says:

    These are so similar to what one would face in India especially the squat toilet!

    • Deepti, thank you for your comment. We have confronted squat toilets in many places – in particular France and Italy when we travelled there a few years ago, but it was certainly a first time experience for our children in Japan, as they do not exist in Australia.

  • Vanessa says:

    The combination of jet lag and unusual toilets has gotten the better of me more than once!

  • Anne, I’m fascinated by the regional differences and similarities about which one might consider, going from one distant nation to another. Your six points could be equally valid no matter where one goes in the world.
    Henry | @fotoeins recently posted…Germany: back home again this fall (2015)My Profile

    • Henry, thank you for your comment. You are correct that my tips are equally valid for other destinations, but it was a lot of fun to give them a Tokyo spin and to tell the story of our first day in Tokyo.

  • Kristy Sharp says:

    I am going to visit Japan on business next week. I am really unprepared for this trip. Thanks to your article I have some impression now. Thank you for sharing it. Best regards!

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