Essential Things to Know Before You Go to Japan
Visiting a new country with a different culture is always a large undertaking. It can be difficult to navigate language, culture, etiquette, and customs. Japan has its own eccentricities and quirks which can make this confusing or difficult to travelers.
These twelve tips should help you to sail smoothly through some of these issues.
Japan has clung to being a ‘cash only’ society for a long time. It has long been known that some shops and restaurants in Japan only accept cash. In recent years there has been an increase in credit cards being accepted in stores, and a number of cashless payment apps have been introduced. However, a lot of these require Japanese residency so for those visiting Japan, cash is still the number one choice. In case you need cash, Currency Exchange are available in most cities and hotels. ATM Machines are also widely available for cash withdrawals.
When visiting Japan, it is very likely that you will need to use the internet often, perhaps more than usual. Using maps, translation apps, transport planning apps (and the occasional social media photo upload) all use a lot of data and it is likely you will need these services multiple times throughout the day.
The best way to manage this is by renting a pocket wi-fi, a small portable wi-fi that you can carry with you, and connect to whenever necessary. There are a number of companies which offer this service and they can often be collected from the airport or sent to your hotel.
The Japan Rail Pass is often considered an essential of visiting Japan. JR (Japan Railways) offers a rail pass that provides free access to JR trains and the shinkansen (bullet train). It is available in blocks of 7 days, 14 days, and 21 days. The true value of the JR Pass comes with travel between cities.
When traveling around Tokyo or around Osaka, the train fares are quite low. But when it comes to traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka to Hiroshima, the costs add up quickly. The JR Pass, while seeming expensive at first, often ends up being cheaper than buying the individual tickets for each leg of your journey.
In Japan, most traveling is done by public transport. Whether this is workers commuting to the office or families on holiday, one of the main modes of transport is train. The public transportation network in Japan has been well-designed and easy to use. This includes the bus, subway, and train networks. While visiting Japan, it is very likely that travel between sightseeing locations will be done by the neat, efficient public transport of Japan.
Something that comes hand-in-hand with the huge amount of public transport travel is the amount of walking. There is often a short walk to or from the train station, if you need to change trains, there may be another short walk and these can start to add up. It is also important to take into consideration the size of the Japanese train stations. The main city stations are enormous, often with connected underground shopping centers and a lot of stairs. Most days that involve sightseeing will also involve a lot of walking.
Japan has a number of rules when it comes to public transport, especially the train. This is largely because everyone has to take the train, it can often be crowded, and a few guidelines make the experience easier for everyone. Eating and drinking on the trains is highly frowned upon in Japan. It’s ok to have a drink from a water bottle or eat a mint, but anything that requires more time and could potentially annoy the people around you is best to avoid. This is also true when it comes to noise. It’s important to be quiet on the trains in Japan. This means no phone calls and very quiet conversations when you are with friends or family.
If it’s late, you’re tired and just want to get home, you might find yourself taking a taxi. It is easy to hail a taxi in most cities in Japan, but there are some differences. One of the things to keep in mind is to not touch the doors. The doors are automatic and operated by the driver. When the taxi stops, wait and the door will open for you. The same is true when you leave the taxi.
Vegetarianism and Veganism
Vegetarianism and veganism have been slow to take hold in Japan and there is still a lot of misunderstanding. If you are vegetarian or vegan, simply asking staff if an item will be suitable might not work. The bases for a lot of Japanese foods are animal-based, even if the final product appears not to be. One of the main culprits is dashi, a soup stock used to give the rich taste in a lot of Japanese foods. It’s often not thought of as an animal product but it does contain fish.
If you are strictly vegetarian or vegan it is important to do some extra research into what foods are and aren’t ok for you to eat or ask more specific questions of staff (Rather than “Is this vegan?”, questions like “Does this have eggs or milk in it?” might be more helpful.)
We all have our preferences when it comes to food and often restaurants are willing to make adjustments to suit food intolerances, allergies, and preferences. However, in Japan, asking a restaurant to change a meal for you will result in confusion.
It is not common to ask for your food to adjusted and so restaurants, cafes and even fast food places are not used to doing so.
Supermarket vs Convenience store
Everyone has talked about the wonder of Japanese conveniences stores, but an often skipped alternative is the supermarket. In most areas, there will be a supermarket fairly close by, they are often open until midnight and they have everything the convenience store has and more. A lot of people love the instant on-the-go food from convenience stores, the supermarket has the same thing but with more variety. It’s often cheaper also.
There are almost no public bins in Japan. However, littering is also a huge taboo. So it is important to carry your rubbish with you until you get home or to a train station with a bin. The best way to manage this is by keeping a plastic bag with you that you can use for any rubbish that you accumulate.
As of July 2020, Japan requires a number of retail outlets including supermarkets, conveniences stores, drugstores, and more to charge for plastic bags. This is in an attempt to cut down on plastic wastage in Japan. Stores have been able to set their own prices, but most are around ¥3. It’s not expensive but it can add up so carrying an eco-friendly bag or re-using a previous plastic bag can help avoid searching for coins at every stop.
Visiting Japan often involves a number of surprises and hiccups along the way. Whether it’s navigating transport or arranging food, hopefully, these twelve tips will save you from some of those issues.