So you’ve decided to visit Japan for the first time, and you want to know what to expect. Maybe you’ve read up on Japan, but aren’t sure what’s fact and what’s fiction. Or maybe you’ve been there before and could use a few tips to make subsequent visits easier. You’re in luck! With my limited expertise, I can make your first/next visit go more smoothly.
Before You Leave:
This should go without saying for any international trip, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it: Call your bank and tell them you’ll be out of the country. Include dates. Nothing puts a damper on an international trip like a credit card freeze.
Second, be aware that, like in many countries, the stores don’t all carry the same things. Bring anything you think you might need: antacid, stick deodorant, any OTC meds you use, etc. There’s no guarantee you can find the same products here.
You’ll also want a portable battery charger. There are all kinds, but slimmer ones are best because they fit better in a pocket. Test it to make sure it works. Also remember that Apple and Nintendo products use different adapters than everyone else.
Finally — and I know this one is difficult — pack light. Take what you need, add something to keep you busy (e.g. a paperback, a handheld game system, a tablet) and that should be it. The less you take, the less weight you have to lug around and the less you have to keep track of.
Not just while in Japan, but when traveling anywhere, you want to travel light but smart. Get a backpack that’s not too big or a messenger bag — something that lets your shoulders do the work and leaves your hands free. Carry anything you think you might need, but don’t overpack! A small pill case with basic meds, a pocket pack of tissues, sun- or reading glasses, etc. There should be plenty of empty space which can be used to store anything you acquire along the way. If the backpack has space for a bottle or two, even better.
If you find yourself overburdened, you can often find banks of pay lockers (“coin lockers”) in and around train stations, as well as a handful of other spots. Their sizes and prices vary, they tend to only accept cash, and you usually have a day or so to use them. It’s convenient to be able to drop things off, but remember that you’ll eventually have to go back for it. (Don’t forget where you left it!) Additionally, some lockers seem to prefer IC cards; if you’re unsure how to use one, ask.
If you’re only visiting Japan, it’s unlikely you’re going to be making any phone calls, but you’ll probably want wi-fi for your phone or tablet. Free wi-fi exists in Japan, though it can be hard to find. Coffee shops and restaurants sometimes have it available, and JR stations often offer it, but convenience stores are the most reliable places for free wi-fi.
There are a few important things to note while walking around in Japan. First off, while you can shoot pictures of nearly anything, taking pictures of people without their permission is potentially troublesome. Incidental crowd shots are expected, but I don’t recommend taking pictures of specific people without asking first. Conversely, there are no open container laws in Japan; you can drink alcohol in public to your heart’s content.
Don’t assume people walk or stand on the same side as your home country. The best thing is to watch what the locals do and follow suit. Escalators, for example. In Tokyo, you stand on the left and walk on the right. The same seems to be true in Nagoya, though almost no one actually walks up the escalators. In Osaka, the standing/walking sides are reversed. (Meanwhile, you’re technically not supposed to walk on escalators at all. Welcome to Japan.)
As for crime, it’s often said that Japan is a safe country. This is true, though it’s not entirely crime-free. Organized crime does exist, though it’s unlikely you’ll encounter it. There are generally places in cities that are considered unsafe. Even if the Japanese aren’t likely to steal or pickpocket, there are plenty of foreigners, especially in major cities. There’s no need for high-awareness paranoia; practice simple wariness and basic precautions.
Trains: While trains aren’t always on time, they’re pretty reliable. Trains come in several speeds, from Local (普通) to Limited Express (特急). The faster the train, the fewer stations it actually stops at. When taking the train, be aware of two things: last stop and last train. Last stop means the train isn’t going any further with passengers. In general, all that’s required is to get off the train and wait for the next one. (When in doubt, check the schedule.) Last train is just that: the last train to run on that train line for the night. The cutoff time is most often around midnight, though some trains might finish a little earlier or a little later. Finally, there are times where the station manager will announce a mandatory train change (generally evident if you see everyone get up and move to the opposite platform to wait).
Trains also have what they call “Priority Seats” (優先席). These are clearly marked, sometimes with different-colored seat covers, and are located at the ends of each car. These seats are reserved for people with disabilities, passengers with small children, injured or pregnant people, and the elderly. If no one fits that description, you’re free to sit down, but it’s expected that you’ll vacate the seat if someone from the above categories comes along. Note that not all seats at the end of a car are priority seats. Outside of those, there’s no actual obligation to give up your seat to anyone. You’re free to do so, but you don’t have to.
The Shinkansen: There’s a lot that can be said about the Shinkansen: different car speeds, different kinds of seats, and the money-saving JR Pass. So much so, in fact, that I recommend looking elsewhere for more comprehensive and detailed information. What I will say is that I recommend taking the fastest train you’re allowed to and riding in a non-reserved seat (which is cheaper and more flexible than a reserved or Green seat) unless you’re traveling in a large group.
Taxis: Taxis are common in Japan, and while they can go anywhere, they’re not cheap. You can book one in advance or flag one down. The drivers will usually help you with your luggage as best they can. Note that Japanese taxis have auto-open doors — don’t try to open or close them yourself; it’s rude — and passengers are expected to ride in the back. Finally, taxi fares go up at night; for example, after 11:00 pm, Tokyo taxis charge double. You have been warned.
The cost of food in Japan is generally high, if for no other reason than they don’t have a “breadbasket” and are forced to import much of their food from other countries. This means that your average lunch or dinner out will cost you roughly 1000円, give or take. There are low-cost alternatives, like McDonald’s or one of the many beef-bowl shops. I advise against eating too much at these places, though, or you:ll miss out on some truly delicious food. Remember that many restaurants, bars, and izakaya will serve お通し, which may or may not be optional.
Food in Japan tends to be made to order, meaning warming lamps and such are usually only found in fast-food joints, and even then the food’s pretty fresh. You might have to wait slightly longer, but even your cheeseburger will be freshly-made. Because of this, you may want to wait an extra minute or two before diving into your meal to avoid burning your tongue. Finally, many restaurants and bars will give you a plastic-wrapped wet towel to wipe your hands (called おしぼり). If you don’t need it, take it with you! These are very useful for wiping your face in warm weather or doing minor cleaning (e.g. children’s faces, greasy hands).
Familiar fare might also have some differences. While soft drink refills are free in some countries, this is not a common practice in Japan. (I’ve only seen it at Carl’s, Jr. in Akihabara.) You can pay for a “drink bar” in non-fast-food places, which gives you free refills, but it’s often not worth it unless you’re going to be drinking mass amounts of tea or soda. Also remember that pizza in Japan doesn’t have the same level of competition as in the U.S., meaning pizzas are about one size smaller and cost roughly double what you’d pay in America. Not only that, but the Japanese have modified pizza for their own tastes, so you’ll often find squid, potatoes, corn, and mayonnaise on your pizza if you’re not careful.
Don’t rule out convenience stores as places to eat. They sell pretty much anything you might want: snacks and drinks, sure, but also cold sandwiches, onigiri, beef bowls, pasta, salads, curry, soup, cup noodles (with a hot-water machine to prepare them in-store), and a selection of hot food (fried chicken, yakitori, croquettes, and more). Any microwaveable food can be heated in-store by the staff. It may not be the best food you’ll have here, but they’re open 24 hours a day, and are easily found. A very few even have a small area for people to eat in.
Of course you’re gonna want to go shopping. Make sure to check at every store to see if they offer tax-free shopping (there’ll be a sign). That 8% adds up, and all you need is your passport.
Cash is King in Japan. While larger stores will take credit cards, small places and independent stores often don’t. When in doubt, carry cash.
Returns in Japan are tricky. For the most part, you can only return things if they’re defective, and then it’ll be an exchange. “I didn’t like it” isn’t really a valid reason in the eyes of most store managers. Regardless, keep your receipt, because without it, you’re out of luck.
Meanwhile, if you run short on cash and need to get more, you’re free to try any number of bank ATMs, but most of them won’t work. The most accepting ATMs are 7-11 branded, and can often be found in businesses not directly affiliated with 7-11. It’s safe to assume that you’ll almost certainly pay a surcharge somewhere, possibly more than one. Still, emergencies are emergencies.
If you remember nothing else, remember this: Don’t assume that Japanese people can speak English, but don’t expect that they can’t speak it, either. Be polite and they’ll bend over backwards to accomodate you.
In closing, I hope you found this helpful. If you decide to come back to Japan and stay longer, you may want to read this.