Greetings, everyone! Last summer I spent a month in Japan, definitely the best time of my life, ever! When I was there I noted, much in thanks to my half-Japanese travel partner, a few things of that greatly improved the quality of my stay in Japan. Since I've a great number of friends who are planning to travel to Japan, but have no idea what to expect or what's worth seeing, I've spent a fair amount of time handing out tips and recommendations as to what to see and where to see it, what to think about, what to buy, how to prepare, and so on - for trust me, there's a lot of things that can catch you unawares when traveling to a country with such a a vastly different culture.
So given this, and the fact that I found no such thread in a forum dedicated to all things Japanese, I've decided to compile a list of (sure, you have the culture thread, but it is by no means organized as a easy-to-browse list or anything). Now, I am by no means an expert on all things Japanese, far from, so if people want to contribute as well, that's great - actually, that's what I'm hoping for, so that if anyone here wants to travel to Japan, they'll have a lot of good tips on what to remember, what to see and what to experience :D
How to get around
Japan has a massive infrastructure, tons of trains, buses and metro lines for you to get about. This section will cover the essentials of this.
The JR Pass
If you want to travel to Japan as a foreigner, the JR Pass is your friend. The JR Pass is a 7/14/21-day pass which applies to ALL railways and metro lines operated by JR (Japan Railways). They operate a lot of them, so it's easy to get pretty much anyway. The cost is 28,300/45,100/57,700 yen, which you can convert to your local currency using google (type in "XXXX yen in USD/GBP/[insert valuta code]"). If the cost seems high, remember that yen value as are really high. In USD it's $342/$545/$697.
If that seems high to you, keep in mind that with this you can travel on most Shinkansen lines (except the most express ones), giving you the option to travel pretty much anywhere in Japan for that sum of money. Standard local trains are mostly operated by JR as well.
Ordering is quite simple, go to the page linked to below, and order on the right side. You may if you wish order 1st class for an extra sum of money (but the Shinkansen is quite comfortable on all classes). After ordering, a voucher will be sent via mail to you. You bring this with you to Japan, and exchange it for your pass
JR Pass home page
NOTE: You can only use the JR Pass if you are a non-Japanese citizen entering the country with a temporary visitor status (i.e. a tourist visa). Children under 6 can travel with you for free.
This FAQ provides a lot of details around anything you might want to know
This page provides a lot of tips such as how to get around in Toyko, how to behave in trains, navigate stations, etc.
I might add some more on useful resources for train routes, buses and such. There's a ton of useful things.
The traditional Japanese experience
Japan offers many types of accommodations and many activities that have an exotic and traditional air to them. Hot springs, traditional housing, dining, you name it! If you want a genuine Japanese experience, thus section has what you're looking for!
A ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, is an excellent way to experience a bit of the traditional Japan. Personally I feel going to Japan without experiencing at least some sort of traditional accommodations, is a waste of your trip. You'll often meet a friendly staff eager to talk and befriend, experience traditional Japanese bedding (the futon) and in general you'll feel much more like you are in a different country compared to just staying at some hotel. While not as common in urban areas as in, say, coastal, mountainous or otherwise scenic areas, you can still find some for your urban holidays. I stayed at one in Toyko, so I can't speak for the experience of living at one along the coast, or in a mountain, but I can only imagine it would be well worth it. You can find many ryokan along with hot springs (onsen), giving a combination of two of the finer things Japan can offer; the traditional Japanese way of living and hot springs. When not around a hot spring, most ryokan offer hot baths to its residents, a fair substitute.
Most of the time food is not included in the price, but orderable. Some however do not make food at all for you (among the urban ones, at least). It's not that much of a problem, Japan has tons of small restaurants and lunch sites where you can grab a filling bite of food for a very modest sum of money (I once ate a full fried rice dinner for the price of $3). However eating there at least once is recommended if possible; it's quite the experience. Me and my two travel companions ordered breakfast one morning. Guided by a traditionally clad waitress, we were brought into a neighboring room, where three tables and sitting mats were laid out for us. On the tables was the most elaborate breakfast I've ever seen. Fish, octopus, green tea, soup, rice, and some other things I don't even know the name of. Granted, it wasn't the best tasting breakfast experience ever, but boy, was it a great experience still!
The ryokan I stayed at was the Honkan, one of three ryokan operated by Homeikan (http://www.homeikan.com/). Situated in a very accessible location in Tokyo (albeit hidden away between some side streets and alleys), with excellent facilities and a really nice staff - who gave me a gift of real Japanese sandals (zori), simply because I was very friendly with them, chatting in the meditation garden, generally being polite and knowing my manners. They had one small private bath (room for a group of three or four), and one common bath for each gender, had a very nice staff and in general treated you very well.
Onsen and sento
Most people here probably know what an onsen (hot springs and associated bathing facilities) is, and many probably know what a sento is. For those who don't, a sento is basically a public bathhouse. That is, a bathhouse not built around an onsen.
When traveling to Japan, believe me, you do not want to miss the chance to experience a traditional Japanese bath. If you're there on an urban vacation and don't have the opportunity to visit an onsen, fret not, a sento offers an equally awesome experience, many also have outdoor baths that are quite reminiscent of an onsen. The main feature of these baths are the hot water, often heated to above 40 degrees celsius (40 C = 105 Fahrenheit), which along with perfumed oils often featured in the water, is extremely relaxing. Whether you've been out for a summer day of shopping, for a spring festival, for a walk in the autumn mountains, or a chilling winter's day of fun, entering a hot bath is a soul-soothing experience. The average sento also offer bubble baths and a cold pool, and if they have an outdoor area there is often a rock pool to simulate the expeirence of bathing in an onsen.
It should be noted that there exist both mixed-sex sento/onsen and separate-sex sento/onsen. If you are of the shy type, this might be worth noting before entering. Also, there are sento and onsen that do not permit children, and some onsen don't permit foreigners, even!
There are a few rules of etiquette that should always be followed when bathing. First of all, upon entering a sento, or onsen facilities, shoes must be removed, as is customary most places in Japan (shoe lockers are typically provided - NOTE: Some require that you put in a coin (e.g. 100 yen) which you get back upon leaving. Bring change! If you are in a hotel and are using their facilities, or a ryokan connected to an onsen, it is customary to equip the customary yukata and slippers provided before making the trip to the bath. In the dressing room before the bath, there's either locker or a basket provided for your clothing. While often unsecured, remember that crime rates are extremely low in Japan, so don't hesitate to leave your belongings even in an unsecured locker. Before entering the bath, one should always shower and clean one's body - the bath is to relax, not to clean the body (besides, who would want to bath in a pool filled with other people's sweat and germs?). There's always a separate room, or part of the main bathing room, where you find stools and showers. Shampoo and soap are typically provided for your convenience. Use it! I cannot stress the importance of this point.
Most baths provide a very small towel. This is for the purpose of covering your genitals. While not the strictest custom (especially in separate-gender baths), covering up is a customary act of modesty that should be followed. The towel must be removed, however, when entering a pool (preferably it should not touch the water at all). And that's about it, sit down and relax, enjoy your bath! Afterwards, you may want to grab a dinner (most sento and onsen have restaurants on the premises). The combination "soothing bath->dinner->go to sleep" is one of my fondest memories of Japan.
When are the various festivals? Where should I be? All you need to know, here.
From buddhist temples and castles to modern skyscrapers, sakura trees to urban centers, Japanese street fashion, this section is the guide to everything for the eye to enjoy.
Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan. What to see, when to see it, and where to see it! Coming soon.
Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area in the entire world. Unarguably a veritable ocean of urban terrain. Fashion, anime and manga, sightseeing, dining, there's simply no end to the potential experiences here! What are the best sights, and where do you see them? Coming soon.
What can I experience in spring that I can't during the rest of the year? Why would I want to experience autumn in Japan?
Manners and such
When do you bow? How do you order food? When do you say thank you? When do you apologize for the inconvenience? How to behave on trains? Do I tip? Manners and behavior in Japan can be quite intricate, and here's a short list of the most important things to remember as a foreigner in Japan. Coming soon.