The advice I would give first-time visitors to Japan would be to go outside your comfort zone and be adventurous. There are many unique experiences that you can have in Japan, whether they are cultural activities and events, or food and drink, and many of them are really fun and nice. However, you can only do some of them if you are willing to expand your horizons.
One piece of advice is to bring cash with you. Japan is becoming more open to cashless payment options, but many places in Japan are still cash only. Convenience stores, train stations, and some of the larger restaurants have cashless options but smaller places, and many other stores and restaurants in more rural places are much less likely to be cashless. I would recommend getting a Suica card, though, and downloading a train app for your phone. It will make public transit much easier to deal with. When you buy a Suica card at a JR kiosk, it costs 2000 yen, but then the card has 1500 yen on it to use for travel. If you turn it in at a JR station before you leave, you will get a 500 return fee, so it is basically free. You can also use it all over Japan on public transit, and you can use it to pay for cashless payments.
I think that one of the biggest things that first-timers to Japan should do is to be willing to try new foods. I found, personally, that many people from the United States, where I’m from, are not adventurous with food. Many people do not want to eat unfamiliar foods or are unwilling to try new flavors. I have become so used to eating Japanese food that none of it really seems out of the ordinary for me and I don’t think twice about eating almost everything. I went home to the US a few years ago and went to a Japanese ramen restaurant with friends of mine. They invited friends, and at the restaurant they had takoyaki, which my friends had never tried. My friends were up for the adventure of trying it, but their friends were grossed out at the thought of eating ‘octopus balls’ so they didn’t even want to taste them. It reminded me that for many people Japanese food could be totally outside their comfort zone. It is good to keep in mind that adding or subtracting ingredients or changing the way a food is prepared is not at all that common in Japan and so you should be prepared to just order what is on the menu as it is. Be willing to try food and willing to try it as the cook seasons it.
One of the more fun aspects of Japanese culture that a lot of first-time visitors don’t take part in is public bathing in hot spings (onsen) or public baths (sento). Many people, especially from the United States, are embarrassed about nudity, and are too nervous to bathe in front of other people. However, public baths and hot springs are really fun and relaxing and they are a really unique part of Japanese culture. There are a lot of resources for people to find out the manners for bathing properly, and that will tell you how to behave in the bath. If you research that before you come you can feel less anxious about it. Most public baths and hot springs also have informative, illustrated posters to help you remember the rules of bathing so that is also helpful for newbies. Even people who have tattoos can find public baths and hot springs that allow customers with tattoos. If you prepare well enough beforehand you can participate in a really fun, relaxing part of Japanese culture.
Bring cash, step out of your comfort zone, and order things as they are. Try and experience things as they are and as they come. You are bound to have a fun and interesting vacation if you do that.
comfort zone (noun) - a situation where one feels safe or at ease
expand your horizons (idiom) – to gain experiences, and to learn about different cultures and ways of living
out of the ordinary (idiom) - something that is unusual or different
gross out (phrasal verb) – to offend, insult, or disgust with something unpleasant
newbie (noun) - an inexperienced newcomer to a particular activity