If I got a pound for every time, I hear the sentence “I would love to go to Japan” I would have enough money to travel to Japan and back every four months. Then the usual flood of questions starts, now I have done a blog answering most of the questions that I get asked. But once in a blue moon, I get asked what's my tips to travel in Japan.
1. Fly to Haneda or Narita sir? Haneda please.
Before you start packing or planning a trip, you have to pick a flight, and this is where the first tip comes in. Tokyo has two airports, Narita and Haneda. So, which one do you pick? Well as I said "Haneda please", but why? Well let's compare the two airports:
If the table doesn't show the difference enough then let's compare them with google maps. Narita Airport to Shinjuku Train station:
Haneda Airport to Shinjuku Train station:
So, you can see why I say Haneda but what do you do when you can't fly to Haneda, well still fly to Narita. Most USA airlines only fly there but I believe they will start flying to Haneda soon. Now one thing, that most people point out is Haneda can cost more than Narita. But think about the costs of getting to Tokyo after you land!
2. Be weather and fashion smart.
When it comes to actually packing, what clothes should you take? Well, you can basically wear what you want to a degree. Japan is one of the few places where you could wear most things and you won’t be laughed at. Although I am not saying you should dress up like a Harajuku girl unless you are into that. So, if you are like me and you just want to blend in, my advice is to wear smart casual attire. Now you also must be weather smart with Japan, Japan is one of the few countries that has four distinct seasons so, therefore, pack for the season. Things like jeans, a decent pair of trainers and a coat for cooler seasons and then shorts, short dresses, blouses, t-shirts, a decent pair of trainers and a coat also in the summer. Japan's summers can be quite hot! Coats and trainers are key for travelling to Japan as you will be doing a lot of walking and coats are needed for all seasons even in the summer as there is a typhoon season.
3. Rent a pocket Wi-Fi.
So, you got off your flight, you are in Japan but what do you do now? Well, my advice is rent a pocket Wi-Fi for your trip, it will be a lifesaver! But why? Well unless you get a sim card or have a map on you, you are going to struggle to navigate without google maps. So, it is always really helpful to have a mobile hotspot available that can allow you to use google maps. It is also useful when you need to translate something!
4. Trains are the best transport
When it comes to travelling in Japan, trains are the best option especially with one of the best metros being in Tokyo. Now rail travel in Japan sometimes can be expensive so how can you get around it? Well if you are travelling around Japan over a week or so instead of just staying in Tokyo, the best option is getting a 7-day Japan Rail Pass. It's £213.00. That is still a lot of money but if you work out the cost of individual rail tickets between each of the popular destinations, it works out to be over £380 which is more than a 14-day unlimited ticket.
In terms of purchasing a railcard, you have three options:
- Through a travel agent outside of Japan.
- On the internet, as many websites are authorized to sell the rail pass on behalf of JR.
With these two options, you get a voucher that you must redeem in Japan within three months of buying the rail pass.
- At selected major stations inside Japan until March 31, 2021, and possibly beyond that date if JR keeps it going. You can also buy them at an increased cost at selected major stations and airports inside Japan, including Narita Airport, Haneda Airport and Kansai Airport.
Now if you just staying in Tokyo, then get a Suica or Pasmo card. They are like an oyster card on steroids, you can use it on more than transport. You can use them on vending machines, and in stores too. I personally have a Pasmo. To get a Pasmo, you go to a ticket machine in any Tokyo station and buy one. There are two kinds, a general user, and a personal user. With a personal user, you must enter some details like name, address, telephone number as these cards can be reissued if you lose it. But with a general user card, you just go on the next stage of selecting how much you want to put on the card. Now let's say you choose ¥1000; you will be charged ¥1500 as they involve a ¥500 deposit. But don't worry, you can get that back when you leave by returning it to a private line ticket office. (they can found in airports for example). If you plan to visit Japan again within 10 years, then you can keep your Pasmo as they last for 10 years.
5. Don't be scared of the maze known as the Tokyo Metro.
When you first look at the Tokyo Metro Map, you might feel like fainting.
But Tokyo's metro system is much easier to navigate than you think. In Tokyo, there are three main rail companies: Japan Rail, Metro and Toei Subway with several smaller lines that will take you to some sights. Now there is one little thing you need to watch out for.
6. Check the carriages.
When you get on the train platform for the first time, you might notice pink squares at ends of the platform, these are signs about women-only carriages. There is an issue with the Japanese metro system which is there have been cases of women being groped during rush hour. So to counter this issue, the Japanese metro trains have special carriages for just women and children at specific times (rush hour).
7. The metro system doesn't run for 24 hours.
It might seem odd that the city of convenience does not have a 24-hour train system, but that's the truth. So, make sure you plan your nights out or you will be making mad dashes. Especially as missing the train can cost you quite a bit as you might have to rely on a pricey taxi to get back to your accommodation. But that is not recommended at all to the point that Japanese people who miss their trains will stay over in a capsule hotel or stay out partying until morning. Now if all the capsule hotels are filled up then don't be scared of going into a love hotel. I know it sounds like a weird recommendation to go into a hotel designed around being a place to make love, but they are a decent price compared to other hotels. A little warning to LGBTQ+ community when it comes to Love hotels, some love hotels might not allow you in but generally, Japan is quite good around LGBTQ+ community so don't let that put you off from visiting Japan.
8. Be ready to remove your shoes
You might have heard about places in Japan where you are expected to remove your shoes. If I am honest, it is not common but there could be many times a day when you will be removing your shoes. Tatami-matted restaurants, temples, shrines, ryokan (traditional inn), onsens, and when entering someone's house. The common sign to take off your shoes is if there is a wooden step-up just inside the front door when you enter. So where do you put your shoes? Well, your shoes can either be left at the step or put in a box or put under your table. Now there are times when you will have to take your shoes off when you are already in somewhere like a restaurant. Toilets are the main case of this where you will be expected to change into toilet slippers that are provided so you don't make the toilet floor dirty with mud and other things that could have been on your shoes. Now, this is not the only time, you will be given slipper to wear, the other main case of this is with hard floors that aren't tatami mats.
So, my advice is wearing trainers or shoes that you can take off quickly and are comfortable to wear when walking lots.
9. You do not wipe your face with the hot towel
One thing you can guarantee on getting from Japanese restaurant is a moist hand towel called oshibori. Some oshibori you will come across will be heated and rolled cloth towel. Other oshibori will be a disposable towelette in a packet. So, what is an oshibori used for? It is used to wipe your hands but not anywhere else, not your face, neck, chest, etc. Well now you cleaned your hands, what do you do with it? Well, you should fold it or roll it up and leave it on the table as you should not leave it in a messy heap on the table.
10. Slurp whenever you can.
In the UK, slurping or any other grotesque sounds while eating a meal, will guarantee you get met with stares by those sitting around you. But not in Japan, slurping is not only openly accepted, it’s expected. It has two "purposes" in Japan, firstly, slurping noodles is the way to cool down the noodles, but secondly, it tells the chef that you are enjoying the meal.
11. No more "A few more minutes please"
I was recently in a restaurant, and as usual, the waiter kept coming over to check on us. But that is not the norm when in Japan, you will never catch a Japanese server quietly observing you for a sign that you need them. This is because restaurants do not assign employees to each table so therefore every waiter is responsible for every customer’s needs and well-being. Although it might seem like an ineffective system at first for the waiters and customers, it is effective for both as waiters can do other tasks and not stand idle waiting for their table to be ready and it means the customers can look over the menu in peace without the panic of not being ready for when the waiter comes over. But then how do you get their attention? Well, there are two ways, one way to calling out "Sumimasen" (excuse me) or ring the doorbell button that is provided next to your table.
12. Specialized diets are hard to navigate with.
Japan can be difficult to navigate for people who have a specialised diet like vegetarians. As most restaurants do not always offer filling, meat-free dishes so it is best that you research restaurants in the place you are visiting before you arrive. In terms of food allergies, sensitivities, or other medical restrictions, my advice is to have a card or piece of paper where you have listed the food that can affect you in Japanese so you can let your waiter know as soon as you enter. Japanese staff are always willing to help with issues but having something in Japanese can help them a lot in terms of suggesting other things you should have or alter the dishes to suit your needs.
13. Don’t accidentally make your meal a funeral.
Chopsticks will be a major part of your trip and you cannot always ask for forks. But you don’t need to have a perfect form, but never put your chopsticks in your rice upright…. Japanese people only do this during a funeral, and every other guest will notice. Apart from that, no one will judge your chopstick skills so if you are having a lot of trouble, it is perfectly acceptable to hold your small plate or rice bowl close to your mouth.
14. Don't forget the cash!
One of the biggest tips I can give, have cash! Who has cash nowadays, especially now with COVID-19? Well, Japan still is mostly cash-based, so make sure that you arrange to have some Yen before you arrive or if you can't get some before landing then get some money changed over at the airport, although I highly do not recommend this as the exchange rate at airports is generally not that good anywhere. But do not leave your cards at home, as you can still use them at some ATMs. Especially as you might run out of cash so the best shout in that situation is to head to a 7-11 whose machines are foreigner-friendly and are open 24/7 unlike most ATMs in Japan. I do recommend using cards from banks like Monzo, over banks like Santander as Monzo don't charge for oversea transitions in Japan.
Let me be clear, I am saying you can't use a card to pay for things in shops and restaurants, but you will find things hard if you are relying just on it to pay for things. So have a decent amount of cash on you. Now having a lot of cash in a wallet could make you anxious but don't worry, most Japanese people carry large amounts of cash on them at all times.
15. Wait, you left a tip!
Now you might have heard the stories of restaurant staff chasing after people because they left a tip. And I can tell you from personal experience that, being chased down by a quite elderly man was very shocking. (That’s another story, I will save for another time). As much as you might want to leave a tip for their great service, they will insist harder than you could ever insist, that you take it back. In Japan, restaurant employees usually get paid by the hour and don't depend on tips like the UK. And that’s the same for taxi drivers, hairdressers, massage therapists, and so on unlike in the UK where I have been taught to tip There are only two exceptions to this tip, which are would be if you have a Nakai-san (private concierge) at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). In this case, you pay the tip wrapped in a special envelope at check-in. The rule of thumb is 1,000 ($10/£7.17) per person. Another exception is a tour guide who you feel provided exceptional service. In this case, you can determine how much to give at the end of the tour.
16. Which is the right direction? Right or left
While you are walking around Japan, you might notice there is a flow to the foot traffic, this is because Japanese people walk on the left side as they drive on the left side of the road. Now, this is not a hard-stuck rule, but most Japanese people will gravitate towards the left side and not the right. The main place you will see this in indoor malls or stations and crowded areas like festivals and markets.
17. Learn a few Japanese phrases and how to recognize keywords.
I always recommend learning most of the basic phrases in the local language whenever you travel. The key ones that come to mind are "hello" “thank you,” and “excuse me”.
· Good Afternoon/Hello = Konnichiwa
· Thank You = Arigatou gozaimasu
· Yes = Hai
· No = Iie
· Excuse me/Sorry = Sumimasen
18. How to survive the attack of the toilets?
When it comes to Japanese toilets, there are two kinds. The high-tech "washes your bum" toilets and the traditional squatty potties! In terms of high-tech ones, don't be scared! When you first walk into a cubicle with one, it might move! But don't worry, they do not bite, they are just western-style toilets without the traditional flush handle or button that we are used but they have a control panel. Push one button, and you will feel like you are in a rainforest suddenly as you hear the sound of rushing water started and chirps of birds playing. Push another one, and suddenly you have a water gun fired at either your front or backend. Another button and the toilet decides to eat you alive by closing the toilet seat. So which button is the flush button? Well, I found normally there are two buttons to flush. One for light flush and another one for heavy flush which are labelled with the kanji of small "小 " and big "大 ". Now when visiting more older buildings or shrines, you may come across a traditional squat toilet which is built into the floor. A little warning with the traditional toilets sometimes, they don't have toilet paper so keeping a packet of tissues close by can be a lifesaver. Don't worry, you won't be squatting all the time as most public restrooms will have both options available. Oh, one more thing before we go to next tip when you sit down on the high tech toilets, don't be surprised if you feel like someone else has been sitting on it because the toilet seats are heated.
19. Where are the trash bins?
After wandering around for a bit, you might have a load of empty snack packs and water bottles in your bag. This is because you must find the proper bin depending on the type of garbage you're carrying but the other main issue is there are very few public trash cans on the street, you could lose twenty minutes trying to find any garbage cans at all! I will be doing a blog on why there are so very few bins soon.
20. The etiquette of drinking and smoking in Japan
Compared to other countries, Japanese people drink and smoke a lot. But there are rules around drinking and smoking. Unlike the UK, drinking in public is normal in Japan, to the point where you can buy alcohol from some vending machines. It is still rare to see someone drinking on the go though, apart from events, like seasonal festivals, include drinking outside because Japanese people generally do not drink publicly. But when they do, it is normal to just stand outside of the store where the drink was brought.
For smoking, many restaurants have smoking and non-smoking sections. Some restaurants and most bars, however, do not have this separation and every table provides an ashtray. More and more shops, though, are trying to phase out these practices and become completely non-smoking. Though smoking inside of shops doesn’t have heavy regulations, for now, smoking outside can only be done in designated areas. So hardly anyone smokes as they walk through the streets.
21. Taboo Tattoo
Now you might have heard this one before. Many establishments in Japan have policies about tattoos. Mainly onsens are the one known for not allowing guests with tattoos to enter. But why is this? Well traditionally, the only Japanese people with tattoos were the Yakuza so a lot of public places didn’t like the idea of having the mafia making their customers uncomfortable. But don’t worry, now some public onsens have started to provide waterproof, band-aid-like stickers for customers to cover their smaller tattoos. My advice is to cover your tattoos as much as you can when walking around because it can cause a problem. But in terms of onsen, my advice is to visit a private one, so when you get naked, no one sees them.
22. Watch out, it's the police
This last tip is quite a serious one. The Japanese are nice and friendly but don't mess with the police. The best way to do is to go along with them. Because it could get very messy for you. For example, the Japanese police have the right to stop you, check your ID which by law, all foreigners need to have their passport or a good copy of it on them at all time and they can ask you questions, just because you look suspicious. So how could that get messy? Well if they think you have committed a crime, they can hold you for up to 48 hours in custody. Now that might not seem that bad but this is the thing about the Japanese justice system, it is too good. The system is good at charging people and therefore save tons of time and manpower that could have been spent on solving minor crimes. So therefore if the police still think you have committed a crime by 48 hours, they can get a public prosecutor involved and that means you can be held up to a maximum of 23 days without a charge. Now compare that to the UK, where the maximum amount of time, they can hold you for is 14 days under the terrorism act! And for a minor crime, it's up to 24 hours. That's a 22 day difference!
There are a lot more tips that I could add, to be honest, but the website is saying this blog is about 15 minutes long! So I will think I should stop at 22 tips for now. So, it's time to say a big thank you to everyone reading this week's blog. In terms of next week, I am looking at maybe doing another Japanese 101 blog about greeting. But that might change depending on if I get any news about Japan in the next few weeks which might change the schedule of the blogs coming out. So, until next week, arigatou gozaimasu and sayōnara!