Japan has a reputation of being a destination where tourists are thrown out of their comfort zone, with reputations of frantic crowds, bizarre technologies and a total lack of English anywhere, but honestly, if you’re heading there for your first taste of Asia, there’s no need to panic. Compared to the reputation of India or my own personal experiences in China, I felt at ease in Japan, and the differences that do exist were more fun and fascinating than anything scary or jarring.
My trip was very much along the tourist trail, starting in Osaka and city hopping all the way to Tokyo (with a little rural respite to find Mount Fuji), which allowed me to experience hostels and hotels, street food and restaurants, plus all sorts of public transport. As someone who crammed as much exploring as possible in 13 days, here is a true beginner’s guide to your first trip to the Land of the Rising Sun:
Before you go
Japan is super easy to get to because as well as having numerous direct flights from London to Osaka and Tokyo, you don’t need a visa, saving you a big ol’ headache when prepping your trip. But the Japanese are known for their precision so as much as you could totally muddle through, there’s definitely some things you can do in advance before jetting off.
- Sort out your data – Despite there being free wifi in a whole heap of public areas pretty much everywhere in Japan, it’s obviously nice to have access to data whenever you want it. A couple of my friends hired a portable wifi device but it packed up pretty regularly, but I bought a SIM card beforehand from the Japan Rail site and had zero issues connecting to the internet the whole time I was there. Just make sure your handset is unlocked by your UK service provider before you go.
- Download Hyperdia app – whether you’re travelling within one city or going cross country, the train systems can be the most confusing thing about Japan. Hyperdia shows you which platform to be on, what sort of ticket to buy (in Tokyo you don’t pick a destination, you pick a price which I could not get my head around), and the easiest route. It’s Citymapper for Japan and I would have literally been lost without it.
- Book your bullet train pass – if you’re travelling between cities, the iconic Shinkansen on Japan Rail is the way to go. You can get a pass that lasts your whole trip but some passes are purely for tourists and you can’t get them when you’re in Japan. Buy the right one for you before you go and get it validated by the helpful staff at every station once you decide to do your first journey.
Food and eating out
If you’re allergy free and a ravenous omnivore like me, you won’t struggle for food in Japan. There isn’t huge amounts of street food like you’ll find in other areas of Asia, but there is somewhere to sit down and eat on every single corner of every place you visit and there’s a couple of things that they have nailed.
- You’re given cold water and cold towels in every restaurant – or at least that’s what I experienced, from down and dirty ramen joints to the stellar meal I had in Kobe and it was a great set up. I knew that even if I was feeling flustered, I’d get these two things to help me get settled before analysing a menu; a lovely little bit of routine to get into!
- 7/11 is magical – I’ve found this out in Hong Kong before too, but in Japan they take it one step further. 7/11 and the other major convenience store, Lawson, honestly stock absolutely everything you could ever want and the snack selection is INCREDIBLE. Before every long day out or cross-country train journey I stocked up and was in my element.
- Vending machines are everywhere – this is a massive stereotype of Japan and it’s 100% true. Although the weird and wonderful options are limited more to Tokyo specifically, if you want a hot or cold drink and quick snack, you’ll be spoilt for choice. If you’re there during warmer months, I heartily recommend the canned iced coffee you can get for just 100 Yen (the equivalent of about 70p!).
People and manners
I had two anticipations around the people in Japan: 1) there would be LOADS of them, cramming on to trains especially, and 2) they would be incredibly polite and I would be terrified of offending them. There was a semblance of truth in all of that, but it’s easy to pick up the unwritten rules.
- A small bow says a lot – when saying hello, goodbye and thank you, you’ll find yourself adding a small bow along with it, initially as a response to other people doing it to you, eventually as a habit. I found myself still doing it when I landed back in the UK at first, just through constant repetition over 2+ weeks!
- It’s not really clear if you are allowed to eat whilst walking – I was warned that on Osaka’s famous Dotonbori food street there are loudspeakers that tell you to stop if you’re munching on something as you walk along, and as a result, I sat down to eat my takoyaki despite the fact it would’ve been easy to eat on the go. However, eating black sesame ice cream in Himeji I had no idea what to do. Stand still? Walk and find somewhere to sit? In the end I just wandered slightly from the stall and stood leaning against a wall, where I was shortly followed by an American family who looked just as confused as I felt, soooooo I guess just play it safe?!
- Money is exchanged via a little tray – whether it’s in a convenience store or a high end restaurant, when you pay your bill there is a small tray you’re expected to put your cash into, rather than handing it straight to the cashier. They will return your change to you in the same tray and that’s that. Everywhere.
Out and about
Although Japan wasn’t anywhere near the culture shock I’d been warned about, it certainly had enough differences to know we weren’t in Europe. Technology is used in all manner of weird and wonderful ways, sometimes making things easier but I had my fair share of WTF moments too.
- Toilets sing – and they have a whole heap of butt cleaning functions that can take you by surprise when you’re idly pressing buttons trying to get the loo to make water feature noises to cover the sound of your bodily functions. It’s not just the toilets in hotels either, it’s pretty much every public toilet you come across, but if it’s not that, it’s a squat toilet. There’s no middle ground.
- There are no rubbish bins anywhere – you’ll have to carry your rubbish with you because honestly there are none at all. I bought an iced coffee outside Meiji Shrine in Harajuku, walked away whilst drinking it and tried to ask a woman in a nearby tourist centre if they had a bin I could use. I’ve never seen a look of such abject horror and she shuffled me out quicker than I could mutter a badly-pronounced apology. So I kept it with me for the rest of the day.
- You have to take your shoes off in people’s homes AND some businesses – socks or slippers will be provided for you, but I was a bit surprised when it was places beyond ryokans and temples. I climbed all the stairs of Himeji Castle barefoot and danced blissfully around a sweatbox of a karaoke room in Kawaguchiko in some snazzy pug socks. It was quite refreshing actually.
Japan has an air of mystery and adventure that invites oohs and aahs when you say you’ve been, but it is quirks and oddities rather than thrown-in-the-deep-end culture shock. Simple to access, fascinating to explore and, frankly, delicious, it’s the perfect introduction to Asia for first-timers, and a chilled out exploration for those who know the continent a little better.
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