Travelling To Japan For The First Time? Here’s What You Need To Know

Between Japan’s travel industry keen to see tourists again after the last three years of barred entry, and the favourability of currency exchange for incoming visitors, there’s never been a better time to tick Japan off your bucket list.

Travelling somewhere so culturally different, and for a lot of people, physically distant for the first time can be overwhelming and you might have many questions some of which can be found with a simple Google search, others which might not be so easily answerable without experience.

While there are people who have travelled to Japan many more times than I have – or who have way more dramatic and exciting stories to share – I did study abroad in Nagoya for a year in 2019 and I have also just returned from holidaying in Tokyo and Fukuoka so I do have some tips and advice on how you can enjoy your first of hopefully many trips to Japan!

Hot take, but the JR Pass is overrated

If this isn’t the first site you’ve stumbled across in your research on travelling to Japan, chances are you’ve been told to get the JR Pass (you might’ve even already put in your order). The JR Pass is a foreign traveller-only railway pass that allows you to travel freely on JR trains and buses, and as such you can only purchase one outside Japan, prior to entry.

However, starting at £187* for an adult’s 7-day pass, if you’re not certain you’ll be setting off to explore the entirety of Japan during your holiday, it’s frankly a waste of money – furthermore, the JR Pass doesn’t cover subways and metro travel (which are controlled independently by municipality). Regional passes are also a thing, but again, unless you plan on doing some heavy exploration of a prefecture, it’s not something I would personally recommend.

You can find out more about eligibility, covered routes and other details on the JR Pass website.

*word on the street is, there’s due to be a price increase of the JR Pass soon, if it hasn’t already happened at time of publication!

Make sure you submit your Visit Japan before your flight

Visit Japan is a post-pandemic measure by the Japanese government with the aim of speeding up the entry procedures and cutting lengthy queues at airports. Having just returned from my trip, I’d say it definitely made the process a lot faster than my last experience.

It’s an essential part of your journey, and it’s something you need to do with plenty of time ahead of your trip; while the form isn’t particularly time consuming to complete (mine was submitted and processed within two days), processing certain documents might take longer depending on how busy the season is.

For your application, you’ll need a few things:

  • Flight Ticket (outbound and return, if you’re not entering under a longer stay visa)
  • Passport
  • A Vaccine Certificate for Quarantine (evidence of 3 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine) OR a Negative Covid-19 Test Result prior to departure

You’ll also need to make sure you have the address of where you’ll be staying during your trip. If you are travelling to multiple cities, and therefore staying in multiple accommodations, just mention the address of the first place you’ll be at (the site only allows you to add one address). This means that if you are staying in an Airbnb, which is perfectly fine, make sure that it’s properly registered and licensed with the local government (there should be a registration number for each Airbnb listing in Japan) and ask the host for the address once you’ve made your booking.

Get an IC Card as soon as you can

Possibly one of the most convenient things you’ll use during your time in Japan, IC cards are contactless/swipe-and-go cards that you top up with money and can use on subways, trains and buses, as well as for some vending machines and stores.

There are many types of IC card, but the main ones you’ll need to know for now are the Suica, Pasmo and ICOCA which have different coverage operators. Generally, which card you pick up just depends on which area you start your journey in/plan to be doing the most travelling.

Even better, you can now add your IC card to your mobile/digital wallet, which is super convenient (keep in mind that once you do this, you can’t go between a physical and digital card – it’s one or the other!)


Suica cards are operated by JR East, primarily for use within the Tokyo Metropolitan area, though they can also be used across the country on certain buses, trains and the subway. You can see more specific details on the areas covered here

Typically, an IC card can be purchased at any major train station or ticket office with a deposit of around 500 yen included in the price, however, if you’re staying in Japan for 28 days or less you can purchase a short-stay Suica without the deposit.


A Pasmo card, also known as a Pasmo Passport can be used on trains and buses in the Kanto region and while they can be used across the country, you should check with the train/bus operators as they may not be valid in some areas.

Pasmo Passports are more suited to short-stay visitors as they’re valid for 28 days after purchase; they’re only available to overseas travellers, and can be purchased at several locations including Haneda and Narita Airport and at Tokyo metro stations (i.e., Ikebukuro station, Ebisu station, Shinjuku station). A full list of Pasmo vendors, along with their operating times can be found here.

It’s also possible to get shopping privileges with Pasmo cards, so it’s worth checking that out.


ICOCA cards are operated by JR West, and can be used on trains, buses and subways across the country as well as some stores. They can be purchased at JR West ticket offices or from JR West ticket vending machines, again with a 500 yen deposit, and can be topped up during your time in Japan.

These cards don’t have expiry dates, although if you return your ICOCA to a JR West ticket station, you can get your 500 yen deposit back. If you plan on making somewhat regular trips to Japan, it’s worth holding onto your card for your next trip back.

Also, there may be special offers and discounts available (for example, at the time of writing, ICOCA holders can get a discount on HARUKA tickets, which can be used on the Kansai Airport Express) so it’s a good idea to always check the region’s transport operator site before your trip.

E-Sims are a thing, use one – if you can!

I’ve heard it so many times , “There’s plenty of free Wi-Fi in Japan, so don’t worry about data”, and while there is free Wi-Fi in almost every store, data is an essential if you’re exploring new places, or want to be able to adapt and make last-minute changes to your route while on the go.

Now I haven’t personally used one of these E-Sims; I did plan on using one during my trip and hit a brick wall – my phone wasn’t compatible. In the end, I ended up purchasing a roaming data plan from my service provider (go VOXI!) but it was significantly more expensive than an E-SIM would’ve been. For comparison’s sake, an E-SIM for the length of my trip would’ve cost me less than $10, whereas I paid £25 for 15 days of texts, calls and data (4GB).

All this is to say, definitely look into purchasing an E-SIM before your trip and confirm your device compatibility beforehand, and if you can’t, ask your provider about any data plans they might have.

Learn some essential Japanese

It’s limiting to say that in order to travel to Japan you need to be fluent in the language, but I firmly believe that in order to enjoy Japan, you should have some grasp of the language.

If you’re wondering where to start, or you just don’t have that much time before your trip, your priorities should be greetings, how to ask for directions, how to ask about facilities (e.g., toilets, card payments, where to put your rubbish etc.,), how to order food, and finally, how to make reservations. There are plenty of sites where you can learn some Japanese, from Duolingo to LingoDeer – just make sure you also practice listening and speaking!

Most people you’ll meet will try to understand you, even with a language barrier, but when you need more immediate help or information, not being able to communicate would just be a frustrating experience.

Personally, I feel like some of the best experiences come from spontaneous interactions with people – it also just warms people up to you a little to have made an effort to speak their language as opposed to expecting them to handle the burden of communication!

Cash is no longer king…just prime minister

The cash versus card situation in Japan is significantly better compared to pre-Covid days. Nowadays, most stores and restaurants also take card payments, but cash isn’t going anywhere.

While you don’t need to buy most of your yen before you go (especially as the exchange rate is currently pretty good for incoming travellers!), I highly recommend holding at least 10,000 yen in cash on you just in case!

Hopefully, this article shed some light on what you might need to consider when planning your trip to Japan. Let me know in the comments any questions you might have – alternately, if you’ve holidayed or lived in Japan before, I’d love to hear your most interesting story about your time there!

I’ll also be posting some highlights from my trip on Instagram and TikTok, so make sure to check me out on social media!