After stepping foot in Japan you’ll quickly notice that there are rules, both written and unwritten, that everyone seems to know and follow.
Don’t be caught out by surprise. Here are some top tips that will come in handy for anyone visiting for the first time.
1. Take plenty of cash
Japan is largely a cash-based society, so you’ll find that some places may not accept your credit card – especially outside of major cities. You’ll generally need to use cash in local restaurants, bars, markets, tourist sights and ryokans. I recommend changing up your pounds to yen before arriving in Japan. It’s an extremely safe place, so the biggest risk is probably losing or misplacing the cash.
2. Buy a Japan Rail Pass before arrival
Whether you stay for a week or two, I’d recommend getting a JR Pass. This handy pass will give you unlimited travel around Japan on the Shinkansen (bullet train), local JR commuter trains, JR buses and even JR ferries. I ordered mine online at the Japan Travel Centre (7-day pass £179) and collected from their London office – they post too. You can validate your pass once you arrive in Japan at one of the exchange offices. You’ll find them at most major train stations around the country, here is a full list.
P.S. Don’t forget to take your passport along with you.
3. Toilets can be confusing
You’ll stumble across plenty of luxury toilets in Japan and if you, like me, can’t resist a mysterious button then you may find your toilet spraying water, blowing hot air or playing music. Now, there’s one toilet sign that you must remember and keep in mind- it looks like this: 止. This tiny button will save you from embarrassment, as it stops every function and restores order to your bathroom. Phew!
4. You’ll see a lot of people wearing masks
Step foot out of your hotel in the morning and you’ll see dozens of commuters wearing surgical masks. Visit any convenience store and you’ll find shelves stocked full of vitamin C supplements. In Japan, unlike the UK, calling in sick for a common cold is completely unheard of. If you get sick in Japan, be respectful of the culture and grab a mask for yourself rather than coughing and sneezing on the train.
5. Do slurp
Visit any ramen restaurant and expect to find a room full of people hunched over huge bowls of noodles, slurping loudly and eating incredibly quickly. Enter British tourist (that’s me), I order what I hope to be chicken from the vending machine, grab a stool at the counter and within minutes, I’m presented with my lunch. But how do I attempt to eat this huge bowl of deliciousness? And why is everyone slurping so loudly? I twirl the noodles around like spaghetti, whilst trying not to splash the broth on the business man to the left of me and naturally try to be as quiet as possible while eating.
Little did I know that in Japan slurping noodles is considered a good thing. In fact, the louder the better! It shows that you are enjoying the meal and it enhances the gastronomic experience making it even more tasty. So, the lesson here is to throw out all the rules of noodle-eating etiquette as we know it and slurp away!
6. Take your shoes off
In Japan, it’s customary to slip off your shoes when entering a room, some restaurants, bars, and most importantly in someone’s home. I stayed in a traditional ryokan in Hakone where I managed to scrub up on my Japenese etiquette. On arrival, you’ll find an array of slippers which prompt you to take your shoes off at the door. These slippers can generally be worn anywhere indoors, except when entering rooms with tatami floor. You’ll often find that appropriate footwear has been strategically placed throughout the ryokan. I even stumbled across a pair of toilet slippers inside the bathrooms.
7. Go nude
There are several rules of etiquette to remember when you bathe in a public hot spring bath (known in Japan as an ‘onsen’). Number 1 being “Bathe nude”. In Japan it is customary to take off all your clothes when you visit an onsen. In fact, the only thing you can bring with you is a small wash cloth, which you balance upon your head while bathing.
8. More than just sushi
There is so much more than just sushi and sashimi to send your taste buds on a frenzy. You’ll find plenty of culinary specialities across the country and the great thing is, it’s pretty much impossible to get a bad meal in Japan! I’ve listed a few of my favourite finds below.
- Number one on a foodie’s agenda should be a visit to Dōtonbori in Osaka – a street full of the most amazing food vendors. While you’re here be sure to try the Takoyaki (octopus balls), grilled crab claw and fried Gyoza (meat dumplings).
- Try the local speciality Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. A Japanese savoury pancake layered with cabbage, yakisoba noodles, bacon, egg, topped with the most delicious sauce.
- Yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewers) can be found on streets in Tokyo.
- Visit Ichijōji, the famous Ramen Town in Kyoto for a big bowl of creamy chicken ramen.
9. Vending machines serve almost anything
Japan is a country like no other. It will never stop surprising you with its quirky and creative weirdness. Want a hot can of coffee? Get it from a vending machine. A cup of instant noodles? An umbrella? A hat for a cat? You name it, the list goes on.
10. There’s no need to tip
Nobody tips in Japan. Ever. In fact, tipping is seen as a rude gesture. Don’t be surprised if a taxi driver hands your tip back, or a waiter chases you down the street to return it. In Japanese culture, when you give extra money, it is essentially telling the employees that they need to improve their service.
11. Don’t litter
Being a regular snacker – especially in a country where I find myself getting super excited about anything edible that I pass – I soon realised that rubbish bins simply aren’t a thing here. The reason was explained to me later – the Japanese find it rude to eat on the go (oops). Be sure to take a backpack or tote bag around with you and keep hold of your rubbish until you return back to your hotel.
12. Fly into Haneda, not Narita
Haneda Airport for most travellers is a lot more convenient to fly into than Narita International Airport owing to the distance from Tokyo for both. A train ride from Haneda to Tokyo Station takes approximately 28 minutes and costs around ¥580 (approx. £3.60), while the train ride from Narita to Tokyo Station takes around 58 minutes and usually costs at least ¥2,600 (approx. £16).
13. It helps to know some basic phrases
Japan is very efficient and getting around as a tourist is easy, but you will have an advantage if you learn some basic phrases. You get a chance to interact with the locals and experience their culture. Here are five words and phrases that will help you a great deal in Japan.
Arigatou: Informal way of saying “Thank you”
Hai: “I’m satisfied/Yes”