Things you might need to know before travelling to Japan.
I’m sorry to anyone who’s had to endure super-gushy-about-Japan Jen for the past few months, but she’s still here and probably won’t go away anytime soon.
I ain’t no expert in Japanese culture nor everything about the land, but here are a few things I wish I knew before wiggling my way into that tiny economy seat to travel Japan:
1. Learn Katakana.
Ok so I know I can’t just causally drop a ‘learn an writing system’ bomb in places usually, but this will make your life a lot easier. A lot of menus, signs etc will be in Katakana and this is, conveniently, an alphabet which is used for foreign words alongside a selection of other things, too. When you start to speak out the individual characters, you’ll eventually realise what it’s trying to sound like.
I wish I’d learnt this.
Yeah, Google Translate is great and the app is excellent, but I wish I’d taken the time to cover this so I could at least pretend I knew what was happening. Want to learn it? Tofugu has been an excellent little place to visit and you can learn it in a few days if you go ham.
2. You can’t just smoke where ever you please
Smoking used to be a HUGE thing in Japan. Even last year, you could smoke in a lot of bars and dedicated smoking spots would be everywhere on the streets. Swing forward a year and it’s completely differently story. A lot of those smoking spots have a gone and you cannot smoke anywhere you please. Get caught smoking in the street and it’s a ¥1,000 fine. Vape? Cool so you can’t do that anywhere either. You need to hop into those designated spots or rooms as well.
Want to buy cigarettes from a vending machine? You need a Taspo card which, unless you’re planning on moving to Japan, aren’t worth the hassle of trying to get.
3. Get a rail pass
Shinkansens (bullet trains) are amazing and the thing you need to be on if you’re travelling around Japan, BUT they are expensive as shit if you book them whilst you’re there. Heading to Osaka from Tokyo? Cool, that’ll be ¥13,620 (or £91.57 to you and I) each way.
The rail pass is the best thing you can buy but you need to buy it BEFORE you go.
Why you shouting?! Because for a one week, all you can travel around the country pass, it’ll cost you £198. One return trip to a nice city and you’ll have already covered the cost. Also skip on the green pass option – these trains are clean and roomy enough without stumping up extra cash.
One thing to know if you’re at a terminus: don’t try to get on the train once it pulls into the station. The carriages get a thorough clean and all the chairs get swooshed around before the next lot of humans will be let on board.
4. Get a Suica card
Like an Oyster card but these little gems can also be used in arcades, shops and vending machines. Top it up, scoot around the city and then waste the remainder of the cash trying to get a plush you really don’t need from a UFO catcher. Done.
You can get these from most ticket machines when you land.
5. Train stations in general
Give yourself plenty of time because I guarantee you’ll get lost. Head into one of the station entrances thinking you’ll wander straight to the platform and you’ll probably find it’s a good 5 minute walk before you get to where you need to be. There are signposts everywhere in English. You’ll be fine. Don’t panic.
Found your train? Excellent! So before you barge your way on, you’ll probably notice things are a little different from the UK. Stand in lines marked on the floor and once the train pulls up, walk to the side of the doors to let other passengers out. A novel idea, I know. Once you’re on, however, be prepared to be squashed especially if it’s a commuter route.
6. Leave your co-codamol at home
Japan has a super strict drug policy and this includes anti-stimulant (Vicks, inhalers, my beloved migraine killer is all on that list) and a lot of things you can get readily over the counter here. Ignorance isn’t a defense and I presume you don’t want to go to jail so you’re going to either need to check that stuff with your local Japanese Embassy or leave it at home.
7. No tipping
It’s the best. You pay for what you eat and then walk out the door. If you try to leave cash for the staff, they’ll probably run after you to hand it back.
8. All prices are usually before tax
Whilst we’re talking about cash, most of the prices you’ll see in shops will be before tax. In some cases, they’ll add the amount after tax on the label but, if they don’t (usually happens in wee independent shops) add 8% to the amount.
If you’re popping over on a tourist visa, you also get the extra nice benefit in some places of things being tax free. Spend over ¥5,000 on your stuff, hand over your passport, sign a little bit of paper and they’ll stamp/staple it into your passport. All you need to do is pull those bits of paper out your passport at the airport and hand the over to the customs person.
Obviously there’s a lot more to it than that, but clearly I ain’t no expert, so get yourself over to the Tax Free Japan site if you need more info.
9. Sweat (summer travel)
You will be a sweaty mess. Buy a sweat towel and make sure you drink a crap tone of water. You’ll need it.
10. Water bottles
Leading on from point 9, get a decent water bottle to take with you. I use Chilly’s because it keeps shit cold for, like, forever. Most hotels have ice machines and give you free water in the in-room fridge so it gets you started in the morning. Some shopping centers also have water points but it’s not always the coldest so I’d grab mineral water from vending machines and pour it into my bottle. If I didn’t decant it, it would be warm within 30 mins and I like my water to give me brain freeze.
Sadly these little fuckers exist and I am apparently delicious so if you’re heading over there during mosquito season, get repellent. If you’re like me and get chomped on 43 times, get this stuff. It stops you scratching (can cause infections and you probably don’t want that) and soothes it.
12. Size of shops
They are TINY in a lot of cases and stupidly narrow so watch your backpacks/bags. One wrong turn and you’ll have knocked over an entire row of Kitkats and taken out a display of expensive figures before you know it. Don Quijote is real bad for this, but it’s also one of the best shops in Japan so it’s a compromise you just need to make.
13. Shops open late
There’s asbolutely no point turning up to a shopping center before 10am because most of them will not be open. Catch a few hours kip or go explore first thing instead then pop back later – the shops tend to be open until around 10pm anyway 🤷
14. Getting across the damn roads
All of the roads look like they have zebra crossings but not all of them are in the traditional UK sense. Keep an eye out for traffic lights because if they’ve got them, you need to wait for the green man. If they’re not there, off you tot. Another thing to keep in mind – cars can often keep going over the crossing as long as no humans are on it even though it’s a green man. Pedestrians have right of way.
Another thing you’ll find is that bikes don’t always adhere to the road rules like you think. They’ll appear on pavements, weave in and out of crowds and charge across crossings when you least expect it.
15. Sumimasen (すみません) gets you a lot
If you just learn one word, this will probably come in handy a lot. Ultimately it can mean ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’ so if you bump into someone, this can be used as a causal apology to a stranger or if you need to ask someone to help, drop this one first.
The one thing I wasn’t used to was asking a waiter or waitresses over to the table in restaurants. They won’t interrupt until they’re called over so if you’re wanting your dinner, don’t be like me and sit in silence/be hungry.
16. Japanese toilets are a thing
You’ll have seen the fancy toilets with their butt skooshers and sound affects plastered everywhere and they are the most common poop eating device you’ll find in Japan BUT traditional toilets still exist. Usually they’ll be marked on the door, but in case you do accidentally find yourself in one of these cubicles and don’t want to nip back out, be prepared to do some serious squatting. Your thighs will love you after your trip.
17. Come here hand gestures are back to front
Discovered this purely by mistake, but it now makes so much sense. If it looks like someone is shooing you away, they’re probably meaning for you to come over. I was causually looking at some nice deer in Nara Park and a nice man started shaking his hand at me. I instantly started walking backwards like I was in the way, but all he wanted to do was get me over to show how to feed the deer. The more you know.
18. Get this stuff for your hangovers
Praise be to the convenience store Gods for this little number.
19. Rent WiFi
It comes in very handy if you’re like me and, say, play a lot of Pokemon Go…
Get an unlimited package and go ham. There will, naturally, be some restrictions on how much you can download, but as soon as you restrict yourself to a limit, I guarantee you’ll probably go over it and be internet-less. It comes in insanely handy for Google Maps, Google Translate or using review sites (shameless plug here) to find the best rated food in your area/things to do on a random day trip. We used Japan Wireless and they were pretty great.