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    30 things to know before traveling to Japan

    By Emiko

    April 20, 2022

    30 things to know before traveling to Japan

    Visiting Japan only once in your life will simply not be enough. With so much to do and see, we’re hoping that our ‘top thirty’ list will help you navigate this exhilarating East Asian country. 

    Offering the perfect blend of culture, history, modern comforts and a food scene to top all, Japan has something in store at every turn and if there’s one thing this country specializes in; it's the ability to keep the surprises coming. 

    General information

    General information

    1. Japan is a safe country

    Japan is safe in general. People often leave their bags and belongings on the tables in cafes and restaurants. 

    We suggest just taking a little extra care in the red-light districts, such as Kabukicho, Juso, and Susukino, as some bars in these areas tend to overcharge and conceal some opportunistic individuals touting their wares. However, apart from those areas, it’s very safe in Japan. 

    2. It is a spotless country

    Japanese people pride themselves on a country that is clean and orderly. You won’t find any trash on the streets, and you’ll soon discover there are also hardly any trash cans around either. Most Japanese people carry their waste with them until they find somewhere suitable to throw it away, even if that means taking it home. If you need a trash can, be sure to look out for convenience stores as they tend to house a bin inside for your disposal items.

    3. Get connected

    Public Wi-Fi is readily accessible and free in Japan. However, sometimes there's limited usage and registration requirements which might be complicated. So renting a ‘pocket Wi-Fi’ may be helpful as you arrive at the airport. You can also order it online in advance and get the tiny modem delivered to your hotel and then post it back as a return. Easy Peasy!

    4. If you are a smoker, beware... you can’t smoke everywhere

    In the main urban cities, such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, smoking on the street is forbidden in certain areas. Keep your eyes peeled for a smoking area, generally near the stations. It’s not all bad news for smokers visiting Japan though, as the tobacco is not very expensive and some izakayas (bars) and restaurants will allow you to happily puff away. 

    5. Learning a few words in Japanese is useful

    Even though most Japanese people can speak a bit of English, they can also be a little shy. Knowing a few local greeting words can be really useful to kickstart conversations, learn some insider tips or understand the always-necessary directions when lost. 

    The basics will help you get by! Here are a few phrases to get you started.

    Arigatou - Thank you

    Itadakimasu - hank for the food (usually we say it before eating)

    Daijobu - All right

    6. Climate

    Just remember Japan is spread over both the North and South and there's a huge difference in the climate geographically, especially taking the mountainous areas into consideration. We suggest doing your homework before you go, to check the climates of the cities you plan to visit.

    As humidity is also a factor here, you will find public transport and stores usually turn down the temperature with air conditioning, so if you’re out adventuring for a day, pack an extra layer just in case. 

    Restaurants, Izakaya

    Restaurants, Izakaya

    7. Get used to tech. Ordering via a tablet is really common

    It’s really common to have gadgets replace traditional menus in Japan, so look out for the ordering bell button or a tablet on your table. You’ll often need to use a tablet to order your food and drinks. When you go to the bathroom, you might not find ordinary flush levers and instead find several buttons attached to the wall. Be on the lookout for vending machines, scattered everywhere for your convenience and those essential daily purchases. Not all accept cash though so keep that travel IC card handy!

    8. There is no tip system in Japan

    This one’s a biggie... there is NO tip system in Japan, so for taxis, restaurants, bars, hotel porters, anywhere and everywhere in Japan - you don’t need to tip. It's not considered rude, it's just not part of how things work and typically tends to cause confusion when you do try to tip. The great news is that you’re guaranteed great customer service, even without tipping, all over this beautiful country. 

    9. When you go to an Izakaya (bar), expect a table charge 

    As mentioned, there is no tipping system in Japan. However, there are table charge systems at most of the izakayas or bars. They serve little 'welcome' nibbles called "Otoshi" as part of this charge. You can try to negotiate if you don't want them, but it will depend on the place. Find out what you'll be nibbling on by asking the waiter what the "otoshi" is and if you'd prefer to skip it, say, "Otoushi katto dekimasuka?" (Can you cut the table charge, please.) 

    10. 'Nomihoudai System(all-you-can-drink)

    This is common in Japanese chain izakayas and karaoke places, where there's a fixed price for 'all you can drink' over a certain period. Perfect for trying all the incredible alcohol (and soft drinks, of course) Japan has to offer. Be careful, many of them are super sweet! 

    11. If you are vegan, you may struggle to find places to eat

    If you are a very strict vegetarian or follow a vegan diet, we’ll be honest and say Japan will be tricky food-wise for you. Although many local dishes do not contain meat, they use fish stock often, sometimes even in vegetarian dishes and hidden in sauces. So if you are vegan, take some time to research vegan-friendly restaurants suitable for you.

    12. Try Japanese fast food 

    Your image of “fast food” will forever change once your taste buds arrive in Japan. Forget the ‘golden gates signs’; Ramen, for example, is actually classified as ‘fast food’ in Japan and there are many other types of delicious fast food. Kaitens, serving Gyudon (Rice with beef and onions simmered in a sweet sauce), Tendon (Rice topped with TempurKaiten Sushi (conveyor sushi chain restaurant) In short, there are countless options for cheap and ‘fast’ but really delicious dishes minus any of the usual junk food connotation. 

    Culture

    Culture

    13. Expect to take off your shoes 

    In Japan, there’s a tradition of removing your shoes before entering a home. Normally you’ll find a shoe box at the entrance or front door, where you will be required to take your shoes off to enter the house. This extends to temples or shrines, select hotels and even some izakayas as a sign of respect.

    14. Tattoos are not as taboo as people think, however you may find certain places that do not allow them

    Tattoos are traditionally taboo in Japan, but this usually only extends to locals and not to foreigners. It shouldn't affect your travels too much, but there are a few traditional places such as ryokan, public spas, some onsen and pools where you may have to check beforehand. This is due to the historical background of tattoos (irezumi) in Japan being linked to negative and symbolic icons or members of illegal organizations.

    15. Chopstick etiquette

    You may struggle to use chopsticks, and that’s fine. You can easily switch sticks for western cutlery at most places, so ask! If you are using chopsticks, try to keep these tips in mind to showcase your table manners. 

    Firstly, please do not leave your chopsticks standing upright in the middle of the rice bowl. This is reminiscent of Japanese funerals, where family members place their chopsticks this way, but it is a sign of bad luck on any other occasion. Chopsticks are called “Hashi,” which has the same pronunciation as bridge; in funerals, chopsticks symbolize the “world after death and the bridge between the two worlds.

    Also, try and avoid passing food from one chopstick to another. This also has connotations of death and funeral customs.

    16. Bowing

    Instead of shaking hands or saying 'hi' or thank you, Japanese people often bow as a greeting substitute. Bowing is called "Ojigi"- a Japanese custom to show your respect to others. 

    When you arrive at a restaurant, they bow and welcome you with "Irasshai mase," and when you leave, they bow and wish you well with "Arigatou gozaimasu."

    17. Be prepared to share - Onsen or public baths

    It's a great, unique experience to stay at a traditional ryokan instead of a hotel.

    Expect tatami mat floors and futons for something completely different from the usual run-of-the-mill hotel experience. However, Ryokan usually has a big onsen or communal bath shared with others. This is normal so just relax and enjoy.

    If this is really not something you are not comfortable with, you can reserve a room with a private bath. (This can be expensive though, so please check first)

    Trains

    Trains

    18. Be careful when you take a train during rush hour in Japan

    If you are going to a city with a very high population density in Japan, such as Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka, we suggest you try avoid the trains during the morning and evening rush hours.

    Also, if you’re carrying a massive suitcase or backpack, or are traveling with children and buggy travelers, you’re probably going to struggle to get on the train during these times too. It’s seriously busy between 7am to 9am! Try to avoid the unnecessary hustle and extra stress and rather enjoy a slight morning lie in.

    19. Trains/metros are not 24 hours

    The trains and metros of Japan are always clean and on time. Especially bullet trains, which operate down to the minute. However they don’t operate on a full 24 hour cycle so it’s always better to check the last train time if you are attempting to go for a late night out.

    20. Remember your mobile phone manners

    Japanese people tend to speak relatively quietly in public. With so many people on the trains, especially during peak times, you’ll still find it to be so quiet on the trains and those visiting for the first time, may find this quite strange. You’ll also note people don’t talk on their phones on the train and instead turn them to mute mode, in order to not disturb others. 

    21. Japan Rail Pass holders, may not be able to get every train. Best to check before

    21. Japan Rail Pass holders may not be able to get every train. Best to check before

    If you have a Japan Rail Pass and are trying to travel by bullet train, it's better to check which trains you can take beforehand. There may be certain trains, such as 'Nozomi' (one of the fastest ones), that you cannot book and also where you may need to book a seat pre-departure.

    Allow yourself some extra time at the platform and check your train times beforehand to avoid any stress or confusion. 

    22. Female-only train carriages exist in some cities for certain hours in the morning

    Like in any other highly-populous country, there can be some harassment of female passengers during peak times. Safety is a high priority for Japan, so they've cleverly countered this by creating women-only carriages over 'rush hour' peak times.

    23. Bullet train luggage reservation *New*

    23. Bullet train luggage reservation

    If you carry a massive suitcase between 160cm and 250cm, please reserve "seats with Extra Large Luggage Space" when purchasing your ticket. When buying tickets at the ticket counter, please inform the reception staff that you are bringing oversized luggage. (If you take oversized luggage into the train without a reservation, you will be charged a fee of 1,000 yen

    24. Public transport is always on time and without delay in Japan 

    If you're traveling to several cities and are planning to be in Japan for one or two weeks, we'd definitely suggest purchasing a JR pass as the easiest way to get around. However, if you're staying in just one city or region, the regional passes or a one-day city pass

    Cash, ATM, Payments

    Cash, ATM, Payments

    25. ATMs and where to find them

    You’ll be able to find both 24-hour convenience stores and ATMs all over Japan. On occasion, overseas cards may prove tricky with certain ATMs so best to check with your bank before you arrive. We recommend using the ATMs at the ‘7Eleven convenience stores as they tend to accept foreign cards with no problems.

    26. Carry some cash!

    Some places are ‘cash only’, especially small shops and certain restaurants so it’s useful to carry some cash with you, even if it’s just a small amount. 

    27. Get yourself a Welcome Suica

    IC cards or Suica are rechargeable cards that are used to pay for fares whilst using Japan’s public transport. The IC card also allows you to buy things in convenience stores, restaurants, and vending machines, making it super useful during your travels. Depending on the area you’re visiting, it may also be known as other card names so look out for ‘Suica’, ‘Pasmo’, and ‘pitapa’ cards. 

    Others

    Others

    28. The ‘100 Yen Shop' is begging for a visit!

    Japan is known to be expensive, but not when you go to the 100 yen shop! You won't believe the variety of things available for just one coin. From sushi magnets, toys, chopsticks, and every small good under the sun- this place is perfect for using up your holiday spare change.  

    29. Use the Takkyubin service

    Make use of a luggage delivery service such as Yamato that delivers your luggage to your hotel so you can explore freely without carrying all your bags everywhere. 

    30. Toilets may not be like you're used to

    You might not find ordinary flush levers but several buttons attached to the wall. Don't panic if you cannot find English on those buttons! Push either 大 or 小 to flush the toilet.

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