If you ever get the chance to go to Japan: fantastic! It is one of my favorite destinations, maybe even the favorite. Japan is a very diverse country with regards to food, landscape and culture and the people are super friendly and will make you feel welcome. I’ve had the chance to visit Japan twice now in recent years and here I share a few of my tips and observations, hoping it will help you if you’re a first-time visitor, or if you want to reminisce about how wonderful and quirky Japan and its inhabitants are.
When you first arrive in Japan, it may seem daunting to navigate the country. Believe me, it all makes perfect sense once you start understanding the system! For trains, it’s important to be aware of the different railway companies. There’s Japan Rail (JR), but also numerous other private companies. If you’re traveling on a JR pass, you’ll have to take the JR trains from the JR stations. They can be recognized by the letters ‘JR’ popping up everywhere, in English characters. There’s also one JR ferry you can take: from Hiroshima to Miyajima. It can’t be missed, as there are tons of signs and arrows pointing to the JR ferry.
On buses you get a ticket first (from the driver or the ticket inspector) and pay for your fare when you get off at the stop based on the distance you’ve traveled.
Don’t worry if you can’t figure it out: the Japanese are extraordinarily friendly and helpful. Even without speaking each other’s language you will surely get there.
Japan is a shopper’s paradise! You will find a gazillion shopping malls and shopping streets in the cities. In Tokyo I like Cat Street (with an avocado restaurant just around the corner) and in Kyoto I love Nishiki food market, which is connected to two covered shopping streets: Teramachi and Shin Kyogoku. Shops open until late in the evening. Many stores offer a tax-free buying option for foreigners: you’ll have to show your passport at the check-out and keep the receipts in case you get checked by the airport customs officer.
Convenience stores (7 Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson) can literally be found on each street corner. 7 Eleven ATM’s accept foreign bank cards for withdrawals and you can also go to the toilet in the convenience store.
In lieu of placing bags on the floor in restaurants and cafes, ladies put their handbags behind them on their seat and often a basket is provided for your purse or backpack.
Japanese people are exceptionally courteous. For me, this is one of several reasons that makes me love traveling in Japan. I’m not accustomed to people being so polite; I live in Amsterdam where people can be rude, agitated and hurried, especially in traffic. Even though Japan is densely populated, people seem to respect each other’s personal space and really make an effort to be kind.
Public toilets are everywhere! Plus, they are clean and free to use. Since there are many malls, it’s always easy to find a toilet, and there are also public toilets on the street and in convenience stores. In some posh department stores you have rest areas near the ladies’ toilets, where you can have a seat and touch up your make up.
Oh my, where to start? Food is a huge part of life in Japan. I’m going to have to write a separate blog post on the different types of food to try in Japan. I will say this: I have never had one bad meal there. Okay, the microwaved rice burger in Miyajima was not so great, but that’s the only less-than-wonderful food item that comes to mind.
Tattoos are traditionally associated with the yakuza (maffia) and therefore not widely accepted. I do have the impression that the younger generation may be more open to tattoos these days, but I can’t say this for sure. It is best to cover up any tattoos if you can, and be cautious when going to an onsen (public bath). You may be refused entrance. This can be a problem if your accommodation only has shared bath facilities.
You will find warning signs for various possible mishaps everywhere. These can be amusing for an outsider, but I find them mostly endearing. Usually the warnings carry a drawing that’s easy to understand without being able to read Japanese (or English) too.
Japan has some remarkable rules around smoking. In cities, you can find designated smoking areas, usually close to stations. You can’t walk and smoke at the same time, but if you stand still in an alley without bothering anyone with your smoke, it’s fine. Also, you should be careful around kids, because you may hold your cigarette at child’s hight. In some restaurants and bars you can smoke without worries, some may have designated smoking areas and in some smoking is not allowed at all. This all depends on the owner’s preferences.
Tip: take a portable ashtray with you. You can buy them at convenience stores. The Japanese will thank you!
Many people in Japan carry transparant umbrellas. You can buy them everywhere. Upon entering a shop, a plastic umbrella-shaped bag may be provided to put your umbrella in, so you don’t drip all over the store. Otherwise you can put your umbrella in a bucket at the entrance. Or put your umbrella in a ´locker´, like I did in Nara.
Another reason I love Japan is that people takes naps everywhere. On public transport, in restaurants: the Japanese just don’t sweat it. Lovely!