Before coming to Japan, our guests ask us about all sorts of things. From what to pack to hot spring etiquette, travelers to Japan seem uniquely concerned with making sure their vacation goes smoothly. Guests also ask us for any unconventional travel wisdom we can share with them before they arrive. So in the spirit of sharing, here's a couple of great tips. In fact, we're gonna go so far as to proclaim these the Two Most Important Japan Travel Tips... of all time!
Tip #1 Book Early
As the busy autumn travel season comes to an end, KyoTours Japan is counting up all the successful tours that we've provided to hundreds of satisfied guests in 2016. Despite this, we wish that we had the availability to accommodate every potential guest that contacted us. You would not believe how many tour requests we receive that we have to turn down. And many of these are for next day or even same day tours! In the tourism business where schedules fill up months in advance, it breaks our heart that we can't provide experiences for everyone.
The general rule for booking tours and experiences in Japan seems to be to book at least two months early. This allows you to get a spot on a schedule, and then make adjustments as necessary. Many activities in Kyoto like cooking classes or craft workshops only accept a small number of visitors each day, so things fill up fast. Walk ins for these sorts of workshops are usually impossible, as supplies and preparation by the staff are required and cannot be done last minute.
This goes for restaurants as well. Many of the most sought after dining spots in Kyoto are small, with maybe only a dozen seats, or a set number of meals served each day. In situations like this, early booking is a must. Avoid disappointment by making a reservation before you leave your home country (if the restaurant offers an English reservation service), or ask your hotel to arrange a reservation for you before traveling.
Hotels are a little more tricky, as many Japanese hotels don't always follow the same reservation schedules that we're used to in the west. Sometimes, Japanese-owned hotels will only open up their schedule for reservations 3 months early, while western-run hotels like Hyatt and Hilton will allow reservations a year in advance. Still, attempt to book early. If the hotel you want is listed as unavailable on a western website like booking.com, try an English language Japanese travel site like Jalan or Agoda. These sites often list rooms before they hit the western hotel websites. For peak travel seasons like spring and autumn, it goes without saying that you need to book very early if you want a good room at a reasonable price... especially in Kyoto!
Another aspect of the early booking culture in Japan is don't expect walk-in availability. If you get turned away at a restaurant or business, don't let it get to you! Insisting on a table at a restaurant or demanding admission to an activity and losing your cool is a huge faux-pas in Japan. There will always be other opportunities down the road. As we say in Japanese: "Shikata ga nai" or "Nothing can be done about it." Accept it and move on having learned a lesson about booking early.
And if you want to explore Kyoto with KyoTours Japan, please book early so we can secure you a spot on our schedule before it fills up!
Tip #2 Arrive, And Arrive Early.
Here's some great wisdom for you: "On time in Japan is 10 minutes early." This is one that we stress to all of our guests when making dinner reservations for them. To most westerners, on time means just that... exactly on time. But in Japanese culture, you can show your eagerness to participate and respect for the work that your host put into the preparation by showing up 10 minutes early. This applies not only to restaurants, but to activity workshops, tours, kimono rental shops, and everyday appointments as well. No one will begrudge you showing up a bit early, and at worst a restaurant might have you wait a few moments so as not to rush you. For many hosts, the transition from the outside to the interior space is not meant to be rushed, and I've had restaurants sit us down in a waiting room for a few minutes even though our table is visibly ready. Enjoy the transition!
The converse of this tip is obvious: Don't be late. For a visitor from abroad, perhaps showing up a few minutes late is no big deal if they were busy or had a lot to do before dining. In the west, a 5 minute delay is almost expected nowadays with our busy lives. This doesn't go over well in Japan. Especially at upscale traditional kaiseki restaurants, your meal is expected to start at a precise time, and missing that reservation time could jam up the whole kitchen. Japanese chefs pride themselves on freshness, not only the quality of the ingredients but of how fast food is prepared and brought to your table. A good example of this is tempura. If the kitchen is doing a batch of tempura to go out to the tables and your meal didn't start on time, you may not get the freshest pieces. And trust me, you don't want to ruin a chance to eat fresh crispy tempura by arriving late.
And to state the extremely obvious: Show up. Travelers have such a variety of food to sample in Japan, and maybe that ramen place you just passed looks better than the sushi dinner you have a reservation for in 30 minutes. I see guests make these tough calls almost weekly. If you need to cancel a reservation, try to do so 24 hours before the meal time, or at the latest by the morning of the reserved day. Many traditional Japanese restaurants go shopping for their ingredients every morning and even start preparing food in the early afternoon, so a last minute cancellation leaves them with uneaten portions that go to waste. Some places may even expect or require you to pay for your meal even if you don't show up to eat it. I know that sounds harsh to westerners, but in a society that's all about following through with commitment and saving face, it's just part of expected manners.
These two tips could save you from some major disappointment and embarrassment, and will help make your time in Japan that much more enjoyable. With a little planning ahead and some common courtesy, you'll have a great vacation and the Japanese will show you why their hospitality is legendary.