10 essential tips for a trip to Japan

Tip 1: Follow the (lots of) rules

“Failing to follow rules is big,” Rochelle Kopp told me. Kopp runs Japan Intercultural Consulting. “Especially as Americans we hate rules, but Japan has lots of them and they don’t always make sense. Such as please stand here, please fill out this form. Certain things need to be done in a certain order. Americans in particular tend to reflexively question rules, analyzing them to see if they make sense. But in Japan, if someone tells you to do it, you just do it.”

Tip 2: Learn to listen

Hiroshi Kagawa, a publisher and intercultural specialist based in Tokyo, told me, “When you ask a question, please listen silently without interruption until their speech is over. Just be patient. Don’t push. If you’re impatient, you may lose an important opportunity. And please don’t ask ‘why?’ questions so often.”

He added, “Even if the Japanese say ‘yes,’ it is always a good idea to listen for the deeper reaction: Is it really ‘yes’? Please expect that decision-making takes longer than in the States, as the individual may want to have a perfect preparation based on the perfect consensus.”

Tip 3: Enjoy omotenashi (Japanese hospitality)

Ryo Wakasugi, vice principal of the Tokyo Hotel, Tourism & Hospitality College, said, “I’ll tell you what would really help foreign guests: knowing about Japanese hospitality, what we call and teach ‘omotenashi.’ Totally different from the West, and based loosely on traditions from Shinto and Zen Buddhism.”

Wakasugi explained: “The five principles of omotenashi concern group harmony. The bottom line is anticipating another’s needs before that individual expresses them in words. When guests experience omotenashi, from taxi drivers whose cars open automatically to help strangers, it takes the edge off of traveling. It establishes trust. And usually without words.”

Kuuki o yomu (reading the air) is fundamental to omotenashi. Silently observing the other person. Applied to hospitality, this means that an illusion is created: You are often welcomed as a cherished family member at Japanese-managed hotels and hot springs inns. It’s a huge relief: You may not speak Japanese.

Tip 4: Stay at a Japanese-managed hotel to experience omotenashi

A stay at the Imperial Hotel, which faces the Imperial Palace and Hibiya Park, is a cultural experience. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the most famous hotel in Tokyo offers old-school service, and is a classic. The lobby is a reimagining of Wright’s passions for Art Deco and Mayan design, and somehow that all works.

Just down the street is the stylish Palace Hotel, renovated several years ago.

Try the Tokyo Station Hotel; you step off the Narita Express train from the airport, wade through the madness of Tokyo Station, and minutes later are inside a serene room.

You can also find many good hotels in Tokyo with rates below luxury level: among them are Nishitetsu Inn Shinjuku, Hotel Gracery Ginza, Mitsui Garden; and hotel chains such as the Richmond.

Leaving Tokyo, my wife and I stayed at the Hotel Okura Kyoto Okazaki Bettei, which opened last year; it’s halfway between a short walk to the gorgeous Philosopher’s Path leading past temples and shrines, and Torito, my favorite yakitori (grilled chicken) joint in town. Torito is filled with students from the nearby medical school, and the owner always plays a continual loop of Beatles music.

(Foregoing omotenashi, there are lots of hotels in points programs from Marriott to Hyatt to Hilton. We stayed a night at The Chapter Kyoto, a Marriott property, using points. Or go all in at a ryokan, a hot springs inn. Just know that they can be very expensive.

Hiromi Matsumoto serves a plate of karaage, a Japanese-style fried chicken, at an izakaya bar in Tokyo. PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images

Tip 5: Discover Japanese food that isn’t sushi

I love lunch at a counter in one of the many low-key restaurants inside train stations. For about $15 a person, including tax and service (tipping is always included everywhere), enjoy tempura, soba or udon noodles, karaage (fried chicken), or ramen. Key phrase, cold beer: “Biru, onegaishimasu!”

Nothing beat a bowl of kamo soba and a tall draft inside Tokyo Station after my recent flight: duck broth, slices of perfectly cooked and thinly sliced duck breast, buckwheat noodles, fresh green onions.

Tokyo and Kyoto have a ton of restaurants. Because most Japanese do not entertain at home, it costs far less to eat here than in Boston.

Most dinners cost us about $90 for two, including drinks, tax, and service. In Tokyo, the Ginza Corridor is lined with Japanese, French, and Italian restaurants.

Melinda Joe, a Tokyo-based journalist specializing in food and drinks, advised me: “Book restaurants well in advance. Your best bet is to book online; Omakase and Ikkyu services have a wide selection of restaurants and charge very low fees, while Tabelog is free.”

Tip 6: Use public transportation

Taxis are a big-ticket item. Short trips start at about $10 and longer trips run as much as $50. Instead, use the subway systems in Tokyo and Kyoto. They’re clean, safe, and quiet. Buy a Pasmo or Suica card at a machine in any big station; it’s the Japanese version of Boston’s Charlie Card. Caveat: As of Aug. 2, 2023, the sales of Suica and Pasmo cards “have been indefinitely suspended due to the ongoing global semiconductor shortage.” So unless you already have a card, you may not be able to get one in time for your visit; keep checking, and see if your hotel or travel agency has a supply.

Planning to travel extensively? Consider a Japan Rail Pass for about $340 for seven days.

Tip 7: Avoid the crowds

Kyoto is filled with tourists. The famous sites of Nishiki market, Kiyomizu Temple, Gion, and Pontocho are so popular I felt as if I was boxed inside a packed elevator.

When I asked a staff member from the Kyoto City Tourism Association what the city was doing about this, she said, “Check out our live cameras! To avoid congestion, you can see where the crowds are.” Ding them at www.youtube.com/@DMOKYOTO/featured.

Go to the Philosopher’s Path before 10 a.m. My favorite temple is Eikando Zenrin-Ji. Maybe you’ll be as lucky as us and witness a Zen Buddhist prayer ceremony. Just my wife and me and six chanting monks.

We also climbed Daimonji, a mountain that from the top provides panoramic views of Kyoto. We ran into the two high school teams that won the national baseball championships.

Tip 8: Shop for unique gifts

Japan makes some of the world’s best stationary, lacquerware, and fabrics.

For stationary, go to Itoya. The flagship store, in Ginza, “consists of two buildings and a total of 18 floors, and is a paradise of paper, pens, art supplies, and notebooks.” You can even have Japanese business cards made.

Major department stores have lacquerware priced from you’ve-got-to-be-kidding to reasonable.

Inside Matsuya is a satellite booth of Nuno (the main store is in Roppongi) with beautiful cotton clothing.

Tip 9: Restaurants and Viking

Japan gets weird press about oddball stuff, like people marrying virtual characters, but the more typical things people enjoy are far from that.

Like all-you-can-eat breakfast. My favorite is the Viking Sal on the 17th floor of the Imperial Hotel. Viking in Japan is synonymous with “all-you-can-eat” dining. A hotel representative explained: “Next door to the hotel is a theater district, and in the 1950s, the movie ‘The Vikings,’ was showing there. The hotel president saw it and decided to call the place a Viking salon where you could have a smorgasbord.”

Other hotels offer Viking, and one of the most interesting is at Tokyo Station Hotel. During the pandemic, the kitchen did away with large presentations and instead offers Japanese and Western dishes in tiny servings, so you can sample lots of new things.

Dinner may surprise you: Kyoto is famous for its first-rate Italian restaurants. Tokyo has great French. Some are pricey: about $150 a couple, tax and service included. New spots are emerging.

Tip 10: Know the nitty gritty

  • Your ATM card will not work in a Japanese bank. Look for ATMs inside convenience stores or foreign banks.
  • Lots of places are cash only. Be prepared.
  • My friend Rie Oshima, a Tokyoite who works in marketing, said, “Wear clean socks without holes. People often need to take off shoes when visiting temples for sightseeing or in restaurants.”
  • Tadamasa Saito, owner of Tobira Onsen Myojinkan, a ryokan in Matsumoto, advised, “Few people speak English: it’s a good idea to bring a portable Wi-Fi router to use a translator app.”
  • Bento boxes, called ekiben, are sold inside train stations for picnics on board, and there are delicious choices of sushi, fried chicken, grilled beef, etc., with pickled and fresh vegetables.
  • For dining suggestions, check out bento.com, a free online guide run by Robb Satterwhite, an expat who has lived in Tokyo for many decades.
  • Tell the hotel or restaurant your allergies and preferences before you arrive. They will accommodate you, but only if you tell them in advance.
  • Learn one word: sumimasen. It conveys lots of things in this most contextual of cultures, but generally means “I’m sorry.”
  • Wear black, gray, or white. Don’t dress as if you’re going to the beach.
  • The best overall advice came from Kazumi Matsuyama, assistant to her husband, Takeshi, an artisan of kintsugi and maki-e art in the hot springs village of Yamanaka Onsen. “Coming to Japan could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she told me. “What we Japanese call ichi-go-ichie. So appreciate being here — how lucky we are all to be together. Be thankful.”