Japan: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go

There is nothing like the rush of stepping off the plane in a country you’ve never been to. It’s a little scary and a lot of fun but more than anything, it can be addicting. International travel by U.S. citizens reached a record high in 2015 as more and more people are choosing to spend their money on experiences rather than stuff. In honor of this shift, we’re providing you with an inside look at some of the world’s top destinations. Our Travel Series provides you with a go-to guide of where to stay, what to eat, what to do, and any helpful insider tips that will help make your trip that much better.

Why you should go

ramen noodles

Ramen | Source: iStock

Something about Japan hooks people. It’s not uncommon to hear seasoned travelers rave about their “out of this world” experience in Japan. It’s clean, orderly, surprisingly quiet, and full of things that you’ve never seen before. Ever wanted to spend the day playing vintage 80s video games (ahem, Super Nintendo), pet hedgehogs while sipping on a matcha latte, or bathe in a giant bowl of ramen? These are just a few of the wild things that can be done in Japan.

Whether you’re a foodie, anime addict, or obsessed with all things technological, Japan offers a never-ending list of things to do, see, and eat. A day won’t go by where you’re not completely blown away by something, even if it’s just the local’s constant willingness to go out of their way to help you navigate the subway or find that tempura place you’ve been searching for.

Where to stay

capsule hotel

Capsule hotel | Source: Nine Hours

It’s less about the right neighborhood and more about the right type of lodging. Enter the capsule hotel, made famous by the Japanese salarymen who are known for working around the clock and utilizing the capsule hotel to sleep a few hours before returning to the office. A capsule hotel is literally what it sounds like. For about $30 a night you get your very own capsule, which is simply a  bed in enough space to accommodate one person laying down. You’ll sleep surrounded by hundreds of others and share a common bathroom and shower room. Try Nine Hours for an unbeatable outer space experience (think shiny white everything, modern, and clean) or for a great Tokyo location and sauna, check out Green Plaza Shinjuku.

Once you have your space age sleeping checked off the list, make sure to splurge for a night or two in Japan’s famous ryokans. A ryokan is a guesthouse where Japanese hospitality shines. You’ll be welcomed with hot tea and a small snack, given a pair of indoor slippers, and escorted to your room with traditional tatami mat flooring and a futon-style bed that gets laid out at night and stored in the closet by day. The cost can fluctuate from $60 to over $600 a night per person and often include an extensive Japanese-style breakfast and dinner.

What to eat

Extra spicy ramen

Extra spicy ramen | Source: Kikanbo

The amazing food options in Japan are so extensive that the real concern is having enough time to eat everything you want to try. If you’re in Tokyo go to the Tsukiji Fish Market for sushi made with what is probably the freshest caught seafood you’ll ever consume. Popular options are Daiwa Sushi and Sushi Dai, but almost any of the market’s tiny hole-in-the-wall sushi joints will serve up roll after roll of amazing sushi. If you love ramen don’t miss the spicy bowl of the goodness that Kikanbo serves up. Order your food through a vending machine out front and then let the staff know what spice level you can handle. Unless you’re trying to burn off your taste buds or genuinely like it hot, take it easy. They use chili and the mouth numbing spice of sansho pepper (closely related to the Sichuan pepper) to season their famous ramen. For other non-ramen noodle options try the homemade soba noodles paired with tempura at Kyotei Daikokuya or get udon noodles in the standing room only Kokuwagata.

What to do

nozawa

Skiing in the Japanese Alps | Source: Nozawa Onsen

For a fairly small string of islands, Japan has a lot going on. If you come in the winter, hop a bullet train to the Japanese Alps for a weekend of skiing and hot springs. Nozawa Onsen is easy to get to from Tokyo, has a great variety of terrain, and offers guests access to their 13 free onsens, or hot spring baths. If skiing and snowboarding isn’t your thing and you find yourself in Tokyo explore the historic neighborhood of Asakusa, immerse yourself in the crazy pop culture vibe of Akihabara, check out the latest fashion in Harajuku, and participate in the mad scramble across the famous Shibuya Crossing. In culturally rich Kyoto saunter through Gion in search of geishas, delve into local foods at the Nishiki Market, and take in the scenery on the Philosopher’s Path.

Insider tips

  • Japan is a cash-based society, so always carry plenty of Japanese Yen as most places don’t accept credit cards.
  • The Japanese are serious about their recycling, so pay attention to the signs and don’t throw your coke bottle in the same bin as your apple core.
  • When entering a home, ryokan, or some restaurants, temples, and castles you will need to remove your shoes. Shoe etiquette can be a major faux pas in Japan so make an effort to be mindful and respectful.
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