Being the (ever so slightly over) organised person I am, I always like to research and prepare myself as much as I can when visiting a country for the first time. Worrying about cultural differences is one thing, but often it’s the miscellaneous tips and pointers from other fellow travellers that come in most useful.
Here are some of my tips on Japan you might find useful..
1. Wear shoes that are easy to take off. Traditional Japanese restaurants require you to take your shoes off when entering.
2. The subways and train systems look manic… but they really aren’t as bad as you think. In fact, they are pretty easy to navigate your way around.
3. The language barrier was harder than I thought, despite having studied Japanese at school, I still struggled a little. Naively I thought a lot of the younger ones would openly speak English or be able to understand. Instead, try downloading the google translate app and use it to translate what you want to say on the spot – it is super handy!
4. Japanese are incredibly friendly people and manners are important. Bowing is highly respectful – the lower you bow the more respectful.
5. Tipping isn’t necessary in Japan. In fact, tipping is actually considered unacceptable and even offensive..
6. Atm’s can be difficult to use and/or get cash out. I personally had some real troubles getting money out which may have been because it was a MasterCard. I found MasterCard wasn’t as widely accepted as Visa was, but in saying that, it can be surprisingly difficult to find ATM’s that do accept foreign cards. Find any 7-eleven ATM’s or Citibank ATM’s for better luck. Alternatively, try to carry more cash on you then relying on your card.
7. Carry tissues in your bag everywhere you go, especially when you are going to the bathroom. Some public toilets you have to pay a small fee for toilet paper while others don’t supply any, which I did learn the hard way. Alas, tissues are always just a handy travel accessory to keep with you in your bag anyway..
8. Don’t dawdle in the subways, particularly in the busier cities such as Tokyo. Business men and other public users are generally in a rush to get to places as quickly as possible and if you are walking slow or blocking the escalator or worse, standing on the wrong side of the escalator, you will get stamped over and cursed at. Japanese separate their escalators into two sides; the right and the left. To make things ever more confusing, in Tokyo people stand to the left side and leave the right to let other users pass by while in Osaka, Kyoto and Nara (and maybe some others) it is reversed. To master the escalator etiquette, just take not what others around you are doing if you aren’t sure!
9. If you are spending a few weeks in Japan and plan on using the train system as your main form of transport, I recommend purchasing a JR Rail Pass. Trains are cheap in general for shorter trips, but a rail pass will save you some serious dollars for the longer trips between cities (i.e. if you plan on travelling from Osaka to Tokyo).You will have to purchase the Rail Pass prior to departing for Japan as you cannot purchase once you are there.
10. Japan has a very unique food culture! Get out and indulge in it and try different restaurants and food cafes. Try to venture away from places you would find back home i.e. Starbucks! Oh, and don’t just eat sushi, get out there and be adventurous.
11. Keep a notepad with you or at least the name of where you are staying written somewhere for handy reference in case you ever need it/get lost. On another note, I found it handy to buy a map that indicates the names of destinations in both Japanese and in English.