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What’s your single best tip for traveling in Japan? Here’s what frequent visitors said

Japan has long captivated travelers.

But many of its most famous qualities — from the cuisine to the country’s nationwide culture of civility — can initially be befuddling for outsiders too.

To help travelers bridge the cultural gap, CNBC Travel asked frequent visitors for their single best piece of advice when visiting Japan.

1. Speak softly and carry your trash

“Japanese culture is about respecting your environment and the people around you. Don’t talk on your phone on public transit and in confined areas around other people.

Also, savoring your food is an important show of respect, so don’t eat while walking. Instead, sit down and enjoy each bite.

Why travel interest in Japan has increased since the pandemic

And be prepared to hold onto your trash around the city while traveling and sightseeing — chances of finding a trash can are slim to none! Locals generally bring a small bag to carry the day’s trash until they get home. Japan is very clean, and you’ll find public bathrooms to be spotless compared to other countries. Basically, try to leave no trace.”

Tyler Monahan, New Jersey-based assistant golf caddie manager married to a Japanese citizen. He has made three trips to Japan totaling 155 days.

2. Punctuality is key (as are jazz clubs)

“Trains are exceedingly punctual, so two minutes is a big deal — if it’s not arriving at the exact time, it’s a different train! If you miss a train in a big city like Osaka or Tokyo, another will be there in minutes, so don’t sweat it. In the countryside though, it could be hours, or tomorrow!

Unlike trains in many cities that pull up and allow plenty of time for boarding, trains in Japan arrive and depart quickly. “Two minutes is a big deal,” said architect Henry Rose.

Source: Oliver Horovitz

Also, know the concept of “last train.” The whole train scene, both public and private, shuts down roughly between midnight and 5 a.m., which can seem a little early in big cities, so be warned. In rural areas, it can be much earlier. Be prepared to take a cab, or if you’re into it, explore this nocturnal world — perhaps at a jazz club that stays open until the first train starts — which in big cities is an entire economy unto itself.” 

Henry Rose, Seattle-based architect, who has made more than 10 trips to Japan.

3. To meet people, get Japanese business cards

“Exchanging ‘meishi’ is a glorious, and serious, tradition in Japan. Cards are presented with both hands and a deep bow. It is also one of the most unexpected and fun icebreakers you can use to meet new people.

The author, Oliver Horovitz (right), standing next to a man inspecting Horovitz’s meishi, or business card.

Source: Oliver Horovitz

Get cards printed entirely in Japanese — you can use Google Translate for the translation. The staff at Kinkos — located in all major cities in Japan — will walk you through the whole process. After this, locals will be shocked, and absolutely delighted, that you have meishi for them. During my last trip to Japan, I had 100 cards printed in Kyoto. I handed them out during the rest of the trip, always to smiles.”

— Oliver Horovitz, New York City-based travel writer who has visited Japan three times.

4. Bring fun socks

“Bare feet in Japan is a big no-no. Travelers should expect to remove their shoes often in Japan and should always have socks on when they do so. The removal of shoes might even happen in places that are unexpected, like a restaurant.

Travelers can consider tabi socks, a split-toe Japanese sock dating to the 1400s, that are worn with thonged shoes.

Tina Horne | Istock | Getty Images

Also, it is common to have slippers at the entrance to public bathrooms, with the expectation that restroom visitors use these slippers and return them promptly. Be sure to only pack and wear your best (clean and hole-free) socks while in Japan. If you have a collection of fun or interesting socks, wear them in Japan where they can actually be seen and admired!” 

Jolaine Pfeifer, Aspen, Colorado-based school administrator. She has made nine trips to Japan, on top of spending her middle and high school years in Yokosuka.

5. Don’t knock convenience stores

“Rest assured, the only resemblance these little oases have to their U.S. counterparts is in the name! Stores like 7-Eleven and Lawson are immaculately clean and have just about anything you might need, including a few go-to items that I seek out each time:

  • A great selection of onigiri, which are sandwich-sized rice triangles wrapped in seaweed and filled with things like salmon, tuna, eggs and pickled plum.

Participants taste onigiri at a product meeting for 7-Eleven Japan in Tokyo on Jan. 23, 2024. Staff and suppliers gathered to discuss flavors, textures and fillings for the Japanese riceballs, one of 7-Eleven’s most important products, with more than 2 billion sold each year.

Noriko Hayashi | Bloomberg | Getty Images

  • The coffee — especially at 7-Eleven. The automated state-of-the-art machines grind the beans and brew some of the best coffee I’ve had, with lots of preference options like temperature, brew strength, milk, sweeteners and flavors.
  • These little bottles of flavored vitamin C shots called You-C1000, which I greatly appreciated in the winter on Hokkaido backcountry ski adventures. They come in tasty flavors like apple, orange or lemon and are a handy way to get vitamin C daily.”

Jeffrey Cole, Colorado-based leadership coach, who has made four trips to Japan, spanning the northern island of Hokkaido to the southern island of Miyakojima.

6. Hire a guide – even if you think you don’t need one

“The language and culture barrier is real, and a local will show you things in places you’d never get to see on your own.

I did this at Tsukiji Fish Market. I’d been there maybe five times before, but finally took a guide with my grandfather, and it was a whole new world. I’ve also done this at Akihabara Electric Town and for lots of culinary tours.”

Miles Ashton, a Chicago-based entrepreneur who has made more than 10 trips to Japan, including a nine-month stint living in Tokyo.

7. Shop at Tokyu Hands

“Not only is the layout a blast, with a different department on every level — but the merchandise is extensive and unique. There are 60 stores around the country, and they focus on hobby, home improvement and lifestyle products.

It’s a great place to find affordable, non-touristy gifts. They have the best pens, papers, and organizers, as well as camping supplies — if it’s small, efficient, and practical, they have it! 

Tokyu Hands, which has been rebranded to Hands, is famous for selling themed household and beauty novelty items.

Source: Oliver Horovitz

Two of the coolest things I’ve purchased are a collapsible Shoji lamp, and a circular cooler carry case that holds a flower-shaped ice pack for under your hat plus a freezable U-shaped neck ring.”

Kris Beyer, New York-based owner of Destroyer Park Golf Course. She has made over 20 trips to Japan and lived there as a child and teenager. Kris’ father, Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer, was a famous wrestler in Japan.

Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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