What to Expect for Your Trip to Japan

Japan Travel Expectations

Japan is a really fun and exciting place!  It’s home to an ancient culture that also has one foot firmly planted in the future.  Just like traveling to any other new country, there will be things that seem familiar and things that seem very different and strange, but that is all part of the fun and the adventure!  The key to enjoying these new experiences is having an open mind.  Greet new experiences with reverence, respect, and open curiosity.  If you go with the flow and try to have fun at all times, you will have a great trip! Here is more about what to expect for your trip to Japan:


Japan is a fairly conservative country.  There are many formalities and social expectations in daily life, but that shouldn’t keep you from making friends and interacting with locals.  Luckily for us, most Japanese do not expect foreigners to really know all the ins and outs of Japanese customs and manners, so we get a bit of a pass for many situations.  However, knowing a little bit and being respectful of Japanese culture can go a long way.  Remember that we are guests in this country, at these businesses, and at these peoples homes.  It is important for us to be respectful tea travelers so that we can keep coming back.  Have fun and enjoy yourself, but remember that you are representing your country and culture as well.

Bowing – Japanese people bow as a greeting and as a sign of respect.  You should bow when introduced to someone or if someone bows to you.  It can be complicated as to who bows more or lower than the other, but as a foreigner, a simple bending at the waist to mirror the other person is acceptable.

Shoes – At most homes, hotels, and businesses, it is considered polite to remove your shoes before entering.  You will often see a shoe rack near the door to leave your shoes on.  Often there will be slippers that you can use while inside.  If you’d like, you are encouraged to bring your own slippers.  There will also often be another pair of slippers for the bathroom.  Use the bathroom slippers for the bathroom ONLY.  It is considered dirty to wear the bathroom slippers outside of the bathroom.

Tipping – There is no tipping in Japan.  Paying extra is often considered rude.  Japan, however, is a gift giving culture.  If you feel like bringing some small gifts from your home town (local or artisanal consumables like candy, chocolate, or unique snacks are best), it is a great way to thanks those who have been helpful or friendly during your trip.

Blowing your nose – Blowing your nose in public is considered extremely rude.  Try to excuse yourself first, but if you absolutely have to blow your nose in public, try to be discreet.

Try not to stand out – This is hard because, as foreigners, we will stand out regardless of what we do, but as guests we can try not to be too outrageous with our individuality.  Be aware of your surroundings when in public and especially on public transportation.  If you are using a phone or talking to your travel companions, try to do it quietly so that you don’t disturb others around you.  When in doubt, look around and see what everyone else is doing and try to follow their lead.

Language – Most Japanese people will not speak English; however, some may know a little.  When speaking to someone in English, speak slowly, be patient, and don’t get frustrated if they don’t understand you.  If you are interested, learning a few words in Japanese will go a long way in helping you communicate with locals.


Tea is a very important part of Japanese culture and society.  You will see lots of tea being served, sold, and consumed all over Japan.  During our Japan tour, we will be trying many different types of tea and learning about their varied production.  Most tea in Japan is green tea, meaning that the tea leaves are un-oxidized.  In other words, they are processed in such a way that the leaves retain their green color and fresh flavor.  This simple and important process will be explained in detail (and you will get to see it for yourself) on our trip.  Here are some of the major types of tea you will encounter on our tea tour.

Matcha – The first type of tea brought to Japan from China in the 9th century was powdered green tea.  Over time, this kind of powdered tea disappeared from China, but it still remains popular in Japan today.  Matcha is most famously used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony where it is whisked with water to make a frothy tea.  Now a days, you will find Matcha casually served in restaurants and homes as well as fancy teahouses.  It has even become popular in cooking and lattes!

Sencha – Sencha basically the standard type of loose leaf Japanese green tea.  It is usually characterized by bright green, needle shaped, medium size leaves.  It literally means decocted tea and was named so to distinguish it from powdered Matcha.  With Matcha, the powdered tea leaves are mixed with and drank with the water.  With Sencha, however, the leaves are strained away from the water leaving just the infusion.

Gyokuro – Gyokuro is one of the highest grades of Japanese green tea.  It is a loose leaf, sencha type green tea, but the tea bushes are grown in the shade for a certain period of time before plucking (usually around 3 weeks).  This technique makes the tea plant produce certain amino acids that give the tea a rich, savory flavor.

Kabusecha – Kabusecha literally means “covered tea”.  Like gyokuro, Kabusecha is also shade grown, but only for about 1 week before harvest.  This gives the tea some of that rich, umami flavor but not quite as much as gyokuro.

Bancha – Bancha is a standard grade of Japanese green tea.  It is comprised of larger, broader leaves than sencha and may contain some stems.

Kyobancha – Kyobancha is a roasted bancha tea.  It has a strong nutty and smokey flavor.

Kukicha – Kukicha is Japanese green tea made from the stems of the tea plant.  During the processing of sencha, gyokuro, or other green teas, the stems are sorted out from the leaves.  These stem pieces are collected and processed just like other green teas making a delicious twig tea.

Hojicha – Hojicha is roasted twig tea.  It has a satisfyingly nutty and savory flavor.


We will be eating 3 meals a day during our tour.  We will be eating almost exclusively Japanese food.  It is important to have an open mind and a flexible diet.  If you have specific dietary needs, we will try our best to meet them.  We will try to provide a diverse array of popular and traditional Japanese foods.  Eating is an important part of any culture and it’s a great way to really experience a place.  Here are a few tips on dining in Japan and a few examples of restaurants we might visit.

The wash cloth – At many restaurants, you will be served a wet towel before the meal.  This is for cleaning your hands before the meal.  After wiping your hands, simply fold the towel and place it back down.  It may be seen as rude to use this towel to wipe your face or clean food off your hands during the meal.

Drinking – When dining in Japan, it is important to wait for a toast before taking a drink.  Also, when someone does make a toast, it is polite to drink with them.  You will notice that the Japanese will make several toasts throughout the meal.

Slurping – You will notice that it is okay to slurp your noodles or your soup.  This is the polite way to eat noodles and is actually considered to be a compliment to the chef.  Also, don’t be afraid to pick up your bowl or plate from the table and bring it closer to your mouth, especially if you are eating with chopsticks.

Chopsticks – You will most definitely encounter chop sticks.  If you are comfortable using them, great!  If not, well, try your best.  You are welcome to ask for a knife and fork, but in some situations, they may not be available.  If you are concerned about your chopstick skills, you may want to pack your own fork.  Most Japanese don’t expect Westerners to be competent with chopsticks so don’t worry of you are not an expert. It also won’t hurt to practice before you get to Japan.  Also, remember that chopsticks are not toys.  Don’t use them to stab your food and don’t stand them up in your rice (this is a ritual associated with funerals, so it may make some Japanese uncomfortable).  When you are not using your chopsticks, place them on the special holder provided.

Kaiseki – This is a formal, multi-course meal.  It is often served as part of the Japanese tea ceremony or included as part of a Ryoken stay.  A kaiseki meals focuses on seasonality and beautiful presentation.

Izakaya – This is a type of establishment as well as a cuisine.  An Izakaya is a casual Japanese pub that serves food meant to be eaten along with drinks.  Usually patrons order many small plates to be shared over the course of their stay.  Some dishes might include grilled fish or meat, rice bowls with various toppings, tofu, soup, and pickled vegetables.

Bento Box – A bento box is a pre-made Japanese meal to go.  They can be simple, disposable lunch boxes available at train stations or convenient stores or complexly arranged meals that are elaborately presented in lacquered boxes.

Sukiyaki – Sukiyaki is a type of Japanese hot pot meal.  Raw meat and veggies are served to the table with a boiling pot of water or broth.  Guests cook the ingredients at the table, dip in sauce, and eat over rice.  Similar to fondue, each guest is responsible for choosing what they would like to eat and cooking it for themselves.


We will be staying at mid-range traditional Japanese lodgings and western style hotels.  The western style hotels will seem familiar to most travelers.  They will always have ensuite bathrooms and will most likely provide wifi, air-conditioning, televisions, and a telephone.  Some hotels may have limited non-smoking rooms.  If you need a non-smoking room, please let us know at the time of your booking and we will do our best to accommodate you.

Ryoken – A ryoken is a traditional Japanese style inn.  Rooms typically have tatami mat floors with futon mattresses that lie simply on the floor.  Rooms may also have a low table for dining.  Your room may or may not include ensuite bathroom and there will often be a communal Japanese style bath in the building.  Ryokans will usually include breakfast and dinner with your stay.

Minshuku – A minshuku is similar to a ryoken, but it is typically family run, smaller, and has fewer amenities.  These are most akin to bed and breakfasts found in the US or Europe.  You can get a real sense of typical Japanese life when staying in a minshuku.  Like a ryoken, the rooms here will have tatami floors and futon mattresses.  The toilets and bath facilities will always be shared with other guests.  Some meals will also be provided in a minshuku.


Japan’s transportation infrastructure is modern.  Cities have extensive subway systems and most of the country is accessible by high speed and regular trains.  Japanese taxis are clean and efficient.  Public transport can sometimes be a bit crowded.  If you are caught trying to board a train or bus during rush hour, consider waiting for the next train.  Your sense of personal space might not be the same as a Japanese business person during rush hour.  Also note, that most Japanese are very quiet while riding public transportation.  Try to follow their lead and keep your conversation to yourself.  Everyone else will appreciate your courtesy.  During our trip you will have the chance to ride a public bus and a high speed train, but most of the time we will use our own private transportation.

Shinkansen – This is Japan’s High Speed Rail system.  Japan’s Shinkansen was the first major high speed rail line in the world.  It reaches a top speed of 200 mph (320 kmph).  The Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Osaka is the busiest high speed rail line in the world with a ridership of 151 million passengers per year.  This train system is extremely efficient and very safe.

Public Baths

Bathing is an important ritual in Japan.  There are several different types of public baths.  Onsen, the term for “hot spring” in Japanese, is a bath filled with natural hot, mineral water.  Sento is a bath that is filled with heated tap water.  These are great places to relax and enjoy a good soak, but there are some important things to remember before jumping in:

Nudity required – For most baths, no clothes are allowed.  There will be a locker to store your clothes and a towel will be provided. The only baths that break this rule and allow swim suits are coed baths.

Use the lockers – You will first be lead to an area with lockers.  Use them to store your clothes and other belongings. You should be entering the bath with only the towel provided.

Wash first – Before you enter the bath, you must be very clean.  The bath is not for getting clean, it is for soaking and relaxing.  Also, the bath water is communal, so everyone needs to be clean before getting in.  There will be wash stations available for you to clean up before entering the bath, and you must use them.  Each wash station will have a stool and a faucet. First sit on the stool and use the water to get your body completely wet. Then use lots of soap and a washcloth to thoroughly wash. Next, rinse off all the soap, rinse your stool and return the area to its previous condition. Use your towel to cover your privates while you enter the bath if that is more comfortable. Once in the bath you may place your towel on your head to keep your head cool.

Red=Female, Blue=Male – Most baths are separated by sex.  The red side is for females and the blue side is for males.

Relax – Japanese baths are for calm relaxation.  Don’t splash or play in the bath.  As fun as it may be, splashing and playing in the bath is rude and will disrupt other bathers.  Just sit back, relax, and enjoy a good soak!

What to bring

Japan is a modern country, so if you forget something, chances are you will be able to find it in Japan.  That being said, here are a few things to remember.

Passport – You will need a valid passport to travel to Japan.  Remember that your passport must have at least 6 months of validity beyond your departure date.  If not, you will be turned away at the airport, so double check!

Clothes – For our tour, you will want to bring casual and comfortable clothes.  It will be late spring during our tour, so you will not need heavy winter clothes; however, when traveling to some of the mountain tea gardens, the temperature might be a bit cooler, so additional layers and a light jacket might be helpful.  You will not need any formal ware, but after a long day in the tea fields, you may want another outfit for dinner.

Shoes – We will be doing a lot of walking, so bring comfortable shoes.  Hiking boots or trail shoes are recommended for tea garden tours.

Rain coat and/or umbrella – Weather is always unpredictable, so it is recommended that you bring a raincoat or an umbrella.

Camera – Japan is a beautiful place. We highly recommend that you bring a camera.

Positive attitude – This tour is a great opportunity to learn about a new culture and have some once in a lifetime experiences.  We will be traveling to some rural areas that do not get a lot of tourists, so flexibility and a positive attitude are essential.  You will have a great time if you let yourself!