Tips to Travel in Japan
You might be picturing the neon jungle of Tokyo, or the gleaming metropolises of Yokohama or Osaka. But what people tend to forget is the history and tradition of Japan, the rich culture that stretches back thousands of years. From Shinto shrines to manicured gardens to Buddhist monasteries and traditional ryokan hotels, there's plenty of the "old" that lives on in new Japan.
For all the respect that's paid to history and tradition, Japan is also mind-bogglingly modern, an almost cartoonish imagining of the distant future. Everything dings and flashes and beeps in modern Japan, from the vending machines to the toilet seats. It's a country of design and expediency, of futuristic fashion and at-times complex convenience. Everything in Japan can seem so brand-new and out-there that it takes a few days to get used to it all.
The locals are extremely helpful. Stand around at just about any train station or bus stop or restaurant or bar looking confused for more than a couple of seconds and it's inevitable that someone will approach you and offer to help out. This politeness and sense of civic duty is a strong element of Japanese culture, and as a foreigner you will benefit from it time and time again.
Foreigners aren't always welcome. As friendly and helpful as the Japanese are towards foreigners, there are still unfortunately incidences where you'll find you won't be welcomed. Most of these are small, exclusive venues: whiskey bars in Shinjuku, or certain high-end restaurants in Ginza. This isn't something that's widespread, but it exists.
Everything dings and flashes and beeps in modern Japan. Japan will never stop surprising you with its beautiful, creative weirdness. From the outlandish cosplay outfits of the "otaku", or manga comic nerds, to venues like the half-eatery half-performance-art Robot Restaurant, to niche-interest bars dedicated to plastic figurines from the 1980s, to an obsession with Hawaiian culture and a love for all things cute and fluffy, Japan is one strange and wonderful beast.
It's easy to get around. For a country that can seem so foreign and intimidating at first glance, Japan is actually a dream to get around. The train system is expensive, but it's also extremely reliable and user-friendly, as is the bus network and the subway systems in many cities. Most signage is in both Japanese and English, and ticket machines will also be able to help you out in your native tongue.
It's safe. Japan has one of the lowest rates of petty crime in the world, and that's something you very quickly come to appreciate. You never feel threatened in Japan, even in supposedly seedy Tokyo neighborhoods like Kabukicho and Roppongi. You get the feeling you could put a bag down just about anywhere and come back a few hours later and it would still be there, untouched. There's never anything to fear.
English isn't widely spoken (or written). You don't have to stray far from the tourist trail to find yourself in a world where you can no longer read any signs or speak to any people. There are plenty of restaurants, even in tourist-friendly cities such as Kyoto and Tokyo, that have no English menus and no English-speaking staff. This can make for a challenging experience, but it's one that's always tackled by the locals with good humor.
The food is incredibly good. It's almost impossible to get a bad meal in Japan – every dish in every restaurant is so meticulously thought-out and prepared. And the food is incredibly varied, from the expected sushi and ramen joints to restaurants that specialize in anything from yakitori to soba noodles, katsu cutlets to okonomiyaki. And then there are the Japanese takes on the cuisines of the likes of France, Italy, Spain and the US. It's all fresh, delicious and affordable.
You can buy almost anything from a vending machine. Want a can of soft drink? Get it from a vending machine. Want a tin of warm soup, or a packet of cigarettes, or a coffee, or a beer, or a new T-shirt, or a cup of instant noodles, or an ice-cream, or an umbrella, or a pair of gloves, or a hot dog? You can get all of those things, and many more weird and wonderful items, from Japanese vending machines.
The locals like a drink. The Japanese might seem straight-laced and hard-working, but wait until you head out for a night on the town. That's when the salarymen loosen their ties and hit the drinks hard, getting boozy at izakayas, pubs, bars and restaurants until the wee hours. Beer is eternally popular, but then again so is sake, and locally made whiskey, and classic American cocktails also have their place.
Most ATMs won't accept your bankcard. Travelers will be used to the ease of international banking by now, of being able to pop their card in just about any ATM around the world and take cash out. But that won't work in Japan. Only international banks such as HSBC, or ATMs at 7-Elevens or post offices, will accept foreign cards.
Japanese people can sleep anywhere, any time. You'll quickly come to admire this remarkable ability Japanese people possess to grab a nap in the most unlikely of places. Go to a ski resort and you'll see heads on tables in the cafeterias as tired skiers grab some lunchtime shut-eye. Ride on the train and you'll see commuters sound asleep, only to very impressively spring to life when they get to their station and need to get off.
The Japanese bar scene is the best in the world. Step aside, New York. Don't even think about it, Berlin. The world's best bar scene is in Japan, in particular Tokyo. This is a city in which you could visit a new bar every night for your entire life and never get bored. It's a city of hidden charms, of tiny whiskey bars that can only fit a few customers at a time, of karaoke bars where you can sing in a bathtub, of vinyl obsessives who leave more room for their music collection than their clientele, of underground bars down hidden stairways, and of charming places dedicated to every quirk and fetish you could ever imagine. Whatever you're into, there's a bar in Tokyo that caters for it.
Love hotels exist. When you live in a tiny apartment with paper-thin walls that you share with your parents, it can be difficult to find opportunities for a casual romantic tryst. Enter "love hotels", a series of short-stay hotels designed for anonymity – the check-in procedure is often done via vending machine – and amorousness. What makes these places even more interesting are the quirky designs: everything from Hello Kitty themes to dungeons.
Karaoke is awesome. If you're not already a fan of getting together with a bunch of friends and a microphone and belting out a few of your favorite tunes, then you will be after visiting Japan. The Japanese love karaoke, and you very quickly realize why: pretending you're a rock star, even if it's only for about four off-key minutes of your evening, is highly addictive.
Convenience stores are actually convenient. In a fit of drunken desperation, you might occasionally consider eating a corner store sausage roll in Australia – but that's about it. In Japan, however, the food sold at the likes of 7-Eleven, Lawson, FamilyMart and Circle K is legitimately good. It's fresh, and it's tasty. There's also plenty more on sale in the drink and snack department, making these some of the few convenience stores in the world that actually live up to their name.
Everything is tiny. Get used to it, because everything in Japan is built to make maximum use out of minimal space. The cars are tiny, the houses are tiny, the hotel rooms are tiny, the restaurants are tiny, the bars are tiny, the shops are tiny, and even the streets are tiny. Everything, however, is designed with care, made to be comfortable and harmonious despite the small size.
Japanese toilets are… interesting. What do all of those buttons do? What's the little fountain thing? What's the box with the speaker? What does the wavy thing do? Why are there plus and minus buttons? What's the difference between one fountain button and another? Given it's highly unlikely that there will be any English instructions to go with your Japanese toiletry experiences, the only way you'll be able to answer these questions is via a very interesting game of trial and error.
The address system is bonkers. You're probably used to the system of having one long street with numbered buildings on each side – and that's understandable, given it's a system used just about everywhere in the world. Everywhere, that is, except Japan, which instead uses a system based on numbered city blocks, rather than streets. Most addresses in Japan contain a prefecture, a city, a municipality, a district, and then three numbers: the number of the block, then the number of the building, then the number of the apartment.
Advice for you visit in Japan
1. Tipping is Not Required
Blast the trumpets and open the pearly gates—tipping is not big in Japan. Restaurants? No tipping. Bars, taxis, salons? No tip. And there’s no need to succumb to American guilt; in Japan, service-people are paid a living wage. So breathe a sigh of relief and save your yen for what’s really important: more dishes of chuo toro tuna at a kaiten sushi restaurant.
2. Shoes On, Shoes Off
In Japan, as in many Asian countries, it’s customary to take off one’s shoes when entering a carpeted room, certain areas of restaurants, and, above all, in someone’s home. Therefore, it is recommended to always wear nice socks…or at least a clean matching pair without holes in the toes. And if you think having to take off your shoes is obnoxious, just imagine how obnoxious you seem when you carelessly tramp all over someone’s tatami mats with your dirty sneakers.
3. Chopsticks Aren’t For Passing Food
Why? Because doing so equals death. Literally—over 99% of all Japanese funerals are cremations, and part of the cremation rite is kotsuage, the "bone-picking" ceremony. After the body has been cremated, the deceased’s relatives are given pairs of giant chopsticks with which to pick any remaining bones from their loved one’s ashes and pass them between family members before placing them in a funeral urn. Passing food at the restaurant table with chopsticks would inevitably recall unhappy memories, so watch where you put those things.
4. My Nose, Myself
If you don’t plan to learn basic Japanese for your trip, consider learning some Japanese hand gestures. When someone points at their nose, they’re referring to themselves, but pointing at objects and people is considered rude—gesture to menu items with your outstretched hand instead. A businessman passing through a crowd with the heel of his palm pressed against his chest like a shark fin is quietly telling you to get out of the freaking way. If you want to convey that you’ve had enough of something—services, drinks, or food—wave your hand in front of your nose, as though waving away something smelly. Admittedly, this gesture won’t be as useful as the others; as if you could ever have enough to eat in Japan.
5. Pass the Barbecued Tongue, Please
Unless you’re in Tokyo or visiting tourist attractions, it is very probable that your restaurant menu will be written in Japanese. Many restaurant owners cater to non-Japanese speaking customers by including photos of the food next to its name. Helpful, yes…except for the fact that Japanese cuisine often makes use of animal parts considered trash in the Western world. That delicious plate of fried "chicken"? Might be fried cartilage. Horumon (offal) is popular in yakitori houses, izakayas, and yakiniku restaurants, particularly in Osaka. Some of the most common offerings include chicken skin, heart, liver, gizzards, cartilage, beef tongue, and tripe. On the bright side? If you do take the gamble on a dish and discover that the meat you’re eating is not quite white, at least it will be delicious.
6. They’re Not Mad at You
Upon entering most restaurants and shops, you will notice that the staff shouts at you—a great, guttural wail: irasshaimaseeeeeeee! Relax; they’re not mad at you. Irrasshaimase is a shopkeeper’s welcome—translating to "come in!", alerting the other staff to your presence, and loosely meaning "I’m here, ready to serve you." There is no scripted response to irasshaimase, so no acknowledgement is strictly necessary, but you can never go wrong by being polite; smile or nod, and enjoy your meal.
7. Keep it Down
Japanese society places emphasis on the good of the group rather than the desires of individual. This is why, by Western standards, Japanese cities seem very clean and orderly—trash and panic cast a pall on everyone’s day. It is also why in Japan, eating while walking down the street is considered vulgar, as is talking on one’s cell phone. Furthermore, one of the most prevailing stereotypes about Westerners in Japan is that they speak very loudly. Take a second to note your surroundings when you’re in a public place. It’s very likely that your group is the loudest one there (except for the drunken salary-men. But don’t worry about them, they’ll sleep it off on the train).