Today’s question is, “What are the top five things to know before coming to Japan?”
At the end of each of our tours, we ask our guests what they wish they’d have known before coming to Japan, and this is a short list of that feedback.
5 Things to Know Before Coming to Japan
1. The Language
More than half of our guests have mentioned language as something they wish they would have known before coming to Japan. They said if they’d known about 100 words of Japanese, they would have been able to communicate better.
Unlike many other countries, there is a limited amount of English in Japan. You’ll find that not as many people speak English as you think, especially outside of Tokyo.
That means any amount of Japanese you learn will be useful and appreciated. We recommend knowing at least the basic greetings. To start learning Japanese, we recommend trying Japanesepod101.
Some people assume they don’t need to learn the language because they can just use translation apps. Unfortunately, Japanese does not translate very well into English.
Direct translations can be confusing. Understand that even if you show the translation to someone, they may not understand what you’re trying to say.
2. Cultural Etiquette
Japanese culture is very unique, and it has its own set of cultural etiquette dos and don’ts. We recommend learning as much about the culture as possible before leaving for your trip.
Cell Phone Usage
What is considered impolite may be different from your country. Any kind of noise coming from a cell phone is viewed as impolite in public, especially on public transportation.
You shouldn’t talk on your phone inside trains (including the bullet train), and your phone shouldn’t make any noise, such as when texting and playing music, games, or videos (without headphones).
Standing in Line
There is a lot of waiting and lining up in Japan. Be ready for it and practice patience!
The key point is if you are standing in line and someone joins you, you should exit the line and move to the back of the queue. It is considered cutting in line for a friend or family member to join you in line.
Make a straight line. Don’t stand clumped together because people around you might not know where to stand. Instead, line up single file, one behind the other.
Blocking the Path of Others
Japan is very crowded! While traveling, try to be aware of how you’re affecting the people around you. Always look around, check your surroundings, and make sure you’re not obstructing the path for someone.
For example, step to the side when you stop to look at your phone, search a map, or talk to a friend. Make sure you’re not in the middle of a street, alley, roadway, hallway, etc.
Also, backpacks are currently a hot topic. When you’re wearing a backpack, make sure you don’t hit other people when you move around, especially on trains. On trains, you should slide your backpack to the front or hold it down by your legs.
The concept of removing shoes is difficult for many people, because this is a not a custom we have in western countries.
In Japan, there is a clear entrance called a genkan at the front of any house, school, ryokan, temple, shrine, and even some restaurants. This is the area where you’re supposed to take your shoes off.
The floor of the genkan is seen as an extension of the outside, and is considered dirty. When you take off your shoes, your socks should not touch the same ground as your shoes. You should step up to the clean area once your shoes are off.
Many international visitors get anxious and want to take off their shoes as soon as possible, even if the place to step up is really far away. Then, they walk around the dirty area in their socks.
In fact, if you take off your shoes properly, your socks shouldn’t ever get dirty.
3. How to Use Chopsticks
You’re going to use chopsticks in Japan. If you’re not comfortable with using chopsticks, then start practicing now!
Even if you are comfortable with using chopsticks, there are some things to know before coming to Japan.
Dos and Don’ts
- Do pick up large pieces, take a bite, and set the piece back down
- Do hold your rice bowl up to your mouth
- Don’t stick your chopsticks up and down inside your rice or soup bowl
- Don’t stab your food with your chopsticks
- Don’t put a chopstick in each of your hands, to use like silverware
- Don’t rub your chopsticks together after you break them apart
4. What and How to Pack
Again, Japan is crowded! You’re going to be doing a lot of traveling in busy train stations, so you really need to think about your suitcase.
In Japan, you’ll notice that 99% of domestic travelers use four-wheel suitcases. They’re just easier to wheel through train stations because you can keep it right next to you. If you’re pulling a bag behind you, it takes up much more space and can be dangerous to the people around you.
Once you’ve decided on your suitcase, remember to leave enough room for shopping. Even people who aren’t big shoppers end up buying countless souvenirs in Japan. Actually, we’ve had to help many of our guests buy an extra suitcase at the end of the trip, because there are so many unique things to buy in Japan.
Another idea is to bring a foldable duffle bag. Then, if you need it, it’s there to carry some extra souvenirs.
Daypacks are also important to keep everything you need for the day of sightseeing, and they can also be used as an overnight bag.
Think backpack over shoulder bag. You will be doing a lot of walking, and a backpack distributes the weight better. A shoulder bag can get heavy when carried all day.
A large backpack is not necessary. A medium-sized backpack that is easy to take on and off is best.
5. The Currency and Money
Japan is a cash-based society, so be prepared to use cash. We’ve run across many shops and restaurants, especially outside the big cities, that are cash only.
Many restaurants don’t split checks. If you’re dining with other people, then it’s easier to split the bill when you have cash. Or, one person could use credit card to pay for the entire bill, while everyone else gives them cash. Using cash makes splitting checks a lot easier.
If you’re going to be using cash, which you should, we highly recommend that you exchange it all at the airport. The airport has the best exchange rates. You can exchange money at an actual bank that gives you the daily rate.
Once you leave the airport, there are exchange machines and private companies exchanging money at much worse rates.
You can always get cash at 7-Eleven ATMs, Post Bank ATMs, and AEON ATMs using your debit card or Wise Card.
The dollar yen exchange rate is easy to calculate if you use one dollar per 100 yen.
Just move the decimal point two places to the left to figure out the price in dollars. If the yen is weak, then you win!
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