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Things Every Traveller Should Know Before Visiting Japan

Japan is a fascinating location to visit, encompassing both timeless traditions and modern marvels. If you’re considering a visit to this mountainous nation, here are some things every traveller should know before visiting Japan.

Carry cash with you

Japan is predominantly a cash-based society. It’s not uncommon to have tens of thousands of yen in your wallet in Japan — the country’s low crime rate means there’s little chance of losing it. Although most stores and hotels take credit cards, it will be tough to get by without cash, as many restaurants and businesses only accept cash. If you find yourself in a bind, go to the local 7-Eleven and utilize their cash machine, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Tap-to-pay travel cards, such as Suica and ICOCA, are also quite handy; however, keep in mind that you must pre-load them with cash before traveling.

Credit: Flickr

Take the train

For first-time visitors, Japan’s rail network might be intimidating, with 158 lines and 4,715km (2,930mi) of rails in Tokyo alone. However, because railroads are the most efficient mode of passenger transportation in Japan, with regular services, few delays, and exceptional value regional passes, catching the train is your best option when you’re on the run. Don’t pass up the opportunity to ride the Shinkansen (bullet train), which reduces the trip time between Osaka and Kyoto to only 15 minutes. Keep in mind that the metro does not operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Credit: Flickr

Count blocks, not streets

Prior to the advent of GPS, locating a Japanese address was like to searching for the Holy Grail. Instead of street names, city blocks are assigned numbers, leaving the roads in between unnamed. And, as if that wasn’t confusing enough, house numbers aren’t consecutive inside a block. As a result, mail workers frequently memorize their routes by family name rather than home number. However, all is not lost: in Tokyo, most light poles display the subdivision name, district number (chōme), and block number (ban).

Go out to eat

The Japanese word kuidaore (食い倒れ) implies to get bankrupt by overindulging in food. Food culture is important in Japan, which has more three-Michelin-starred restaurants than any other country. Long street queues at mealtimes are due to a good reputation for cheaper eats – so join the locals in the know. However, be aware that foreigners may be turned away from some restaurants – owners may desire to avoid unpleasant meetings with tourists unfamiliar with local norms, while others may only welcome those introduced by a trustworthy client.

Several people eating at a counter in an Asian café. Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Follow proper dining etiquette

Chopsticks should never be used to aim, stab, or stand vertically in sticky rice (as this resembles a funeral rite). Instead, when completed, arrange chopsticks across your bowl, or to the right of your dish if not – but make sure the tips do not lie on the table. When drinking with others, it is customary to refill each other’s glasses rather than filling your own. Wait for someone else to refill your glass and reciprocate — if you don’t want any more, simply leave your glass full.

Please do not tip

Tipping is not required in Japan. In fact, if you do, you may be pursued down the street and have the money returned to you as if you had left it behind by accident. As a result of the Japanese culture’s emphasis for hard work and dignity, good service is expected, and leaving a tip might be considered disrespectful. Remember that service workers are paid a living salary here, so don’t feel bad. If you have a nakai-san (private concierge) throughout your stay at a ryokan, this is an exception (traditional Japanese inn). At check-in, you’ll pay the tip (included in a special envelope) – the standard is 1,000 yen per person.

Take off your shoes

Entering someone’s home with your shoes on is a significant no-no in Japan. Removing your shoes at the entry of dwellings, certain restaurants, and most dressing rooms is mandatory – check for a different floor height at the entrance for the cue. Some restaurant toilets will supply you with bathroom slippers to wear while using them; just make sure you leave them inside and don’t stroll them back to your table by accident.

It is impolite to eat while walking

Although it may be common to walk along the street while eating a snack or sipping a cup of coffee, doing so in Japan is considered impolite. Most consumers will take the delicacy quickly after ordering it from a vending machine or convenience store to avoid strolling with it. The same is true with smoking; you should only do so in approved areas.

Wash before getting in an ‘onsen‘

An onsen is a natural hot spring spa, and because to Japan’s considerable volcanic activity, the country has numerous of them. If you visit, there are regulations to observe. No swimming suits are permitted — you must be nude as everyone else will be. Make care to wash in the showers supplied before going in and tie up long hair. Don’t be tempted to put your head under the water, either – this is all to avoid contaminating the therapeutic waters with outside pathogens.

Don’t flaunt your tattoos

Tattoos are often connected with the Yakuza group in Japan, and displaying them publicly – especially in an onsen – is frowned upon. However, if your tattoos are small and unobtrusive, some public pools and spas may supply waterproof stickers for you to wear while visiting to cover them up. In general, attitudes are shifting, particularly toward international guests – but you should still expect a few looks.

Keep your garbage

It’s amazing how few public dumpsters there are on the streets in such a clean nation. They can be available near convenience stores, vending machines, and some railway stations, but for the most part, you’ll have to keep your trash until you go home or back to your hotel. If you come across a bin, make sure you put your trash in the correct slot — combustible, non-combustible, and recyclable receptacles are normally side by side.

Learn some fundamental Japanese

It’s always worth making an effort with the local language, even if English is spoken by some in Japan. Here are some useful words and phrases worth knowing:

こんにちは [kon’nichiwa] – Hello

おはようございます [ohayou gozaimasu] – Good morning

おはよう [ohayou] – Good morning (informal)

こんばんは [konban wa] – Good evening

ありがとうございます [arigatō gozaimasu] – Thank you

ありがとうございました [arigatō gozaimashita] – Thank you very much

すみません [sumimasen] – Excuse me*

*Doubly useful as it can be used to get a person’s attention, and also to apologise.

はい [hai] – Yes

いいえ [iie] – No*

*You’ll find this is rarely used.

わかりません [wakarimasen] – I don’t understand

もしもし [moshi moshi] – Hello?*

*Mainly used when answering the phone.

おげんきですか [ogenki desu ka] – How are you?

さようなら [sayounara] – Goodbye

またね [matane] – See you

いただきます [itadakimasu] – I humbly receive

You can learn Japanese for free by following @gojapan_listone, this is a product of Kuro Chan, specializing in sharing Japanese knowledge.

If you say itadakimasu before you begin eating, you’ll impress people with your manners. This phrase expresses humility and gratitude for the meal you are about to enjoy.

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