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Finally. After being closed to tourists for over two and a half years, Japan reopened to visa- and agent-free foreign tourism in October 2022. Americans can visit Japan without applying for a visa, needing to book a group tour or special agent, testing on arrival or having to quarantine. Fully vaccinated travelers don't even have to get a pre-departure test if they show a vaccination card on arrival.
Japan is one of my favorite countries in the world. I've spent over 50 nights in Japan over the past six years, visiting eight different cities.
Whether you're a first-time visitor or it's been a while since you've visited, here are my must-knows and must-do's now that Japan has reopened for tourism.
Things to know before visiting Japan
Japanese culture has more layers, rules and norms than any culture I've explored. However, the good news is that you don't need to know too much to start.
Japan is a very cash-based society
Bring your favorite travel credit card with you, but be prepared to pay for a lot of expenses in cash. A vast majority of Japanese consumers prefer to pay with cash, and cash may be the only way to pay at many places, such as vending machines, food stalls and many restaurants.
Hotel rooms are tiny
Prepare for culture shock when you open your hotel room door. Japanese hotels can be tiny — even by New York City standards. Hopefully, you won't spend too much time in your room. However, make sure to check the room size when searching for hotel rooms and factor that into your booking decision.
Although the Japanese have plenty of outlets for creative expression, typically, being loud or boisterous in public isn't one of them.
Be careful not to cut in lines. Don't spit or throw trash on the ground. Try to be thoughtful and considerate of others, even more than you would back home.
The advice for tipping in Japan is rather simple: Don't do it.
Japanese people who aren't familiar with visitors' tipping culture might be confused or even insulted by your well-meaning gesture. Instead, try to use your words and actions to communicate your appreciation.
Technology makes travel so much easier, and that's especially true in Japan. Use your tools throughout your visit to make the trip easier.
For example, Google Maps is incredibly useful in Japan — including recommending which subway car to board and which subway exit to use. And Google Translate is a critical tool for translating the complex Japanese language.
Must-do's in Japan
One of the best things about Japan is that there’s something for everyone. Enjoy exhibits? Japan offers incredibly diverse museums filled with antiquities. Are you a foodie? With fresh tuna from Tsukiji fish market and more types of ramen than you knew existed, Japan is a gastrophile's paradise.
Honestly, it doesn't matter what kind. Just find a noodle shop — preferably one with a line — and order something from the menu. I've yet to be disappointed when doing this.
Take a photo before you dig in so you can reference afterward to determine which kind you like best.
After plenty of experimentation, I'm an absolute sucker for tonkotsu ramen, particularly from Ichiran.
Go to a festival
It seems no one has dared to compile a list of all Japanese festivals, but estimates place the number over 100,000 per year. So, you should have no trouble finding one to attend.
Japanese festivals are generally unique, each providing a window into the culture it celebrates. Plus, festivals can be a great way to explore delicious food and interact with locals.
Visit a temple or shrine
Both of Japan's major religions — Shinto and Buddhism — feature ornate temples and shrines. Whether it's the famous Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa or a shrine you stumble across, make sure to visit at least one temple or shrine.
Pay attention to signs at temples and shrines advising visitors what to do (e.g., remove their shoes) and not do (e.g., take photos).
Ride the Shinkansen
Japan christened the Shinkansen in 1964, and the high-speed rail network still stands as one of the best in the world. Zipping across the Japanese landscape at around 200 mph is something you have to experience to really appreciate.
And you have plenty of opportunities to do so. Just the Tokaido Shinkansen line — which connects Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka — averages 373 trains per day, carrying an average of almost half a million passengers daily.
Visit an onsen
To really get a taste of Japanese culture, visit an onsen. These public baths are where many Japanese people go to communally bathe in the nude. You won’t find that in many spas in the U.S. Note that many onsens in Japan won't let you bathe if you have tattoos.
Best ways to fly to Japan on points and miles
Ready to book your trip to Japan? Many travelers are flocking back to Japan as it reopens to tourism, driving up the price of paid flights. But thankfully you can leverage points and miles to cut your out-of-pocket cost.
Here are some of the best sweet spots for booking award flights to Japan:
Use Virgin Atlantic points to book ANA business class from 75,000 to 90,000 points each way between the U.S. and Japan.
Transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to ANA Mileage Club to book business class award flights from 75,000 miles round-trip.
Redeem American Airlines AAdvantage miles for Japan Airlines business class for 60,000 miles each way, or splurge for first class for 80,000 miles each way.
Japan has reopened for tourism, recapped
Tourists are finally getting a chance to visit Japan after two and a half years of the country keeping its borders closed to tourism. Whether you've never been or can't wait to return, it's important to review the cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan.
Japan may feel intimidating to those who have never visited before. However, I've found from my travels that Japan can be a welcoming place in its own way. It's worth putting in a bit of effort to learn about the culture and things to do to enrich your experience there.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card