Blending In: Tips for Traveling in Japan

Traveling abroad is fun but can be stressful at times, with figuring out how to navigate the city, and the language and cultural barriers. For this reason, there is value in having some information about the country before you visit.

Here are some tips to make your life a little easier before and during your trip to the land of the rising sun.

Language

If you don’t speak Japanese or have never studied it, getting around and interacting with others might be difficult. Though you can’t learn a language in a day, it’s always good and a polite thing to learn a few helpful phrases in the language of the country you’re visiting.

Hi – Konichiwa

See you later – Jaa mata ne / Mata ne (informal, implies you want to meet again)

Bye – Jaa, genki de (informal, implies not seeing the person for a while after)

Please – Onegai (shimasu) (with the parenthesis is more formal)

Thank You – Arigatou (gozaimasu) (with the parenthesis is more formal)

You’re welcome – Dou itashimashite

Sorry – Gomen nasai (formal)

Excuse me – Sumimasen

Where is …? – … wa doko desuka?

Please give me… – … wo kudasai.

How much is this? – Kore wa ikura desuka?

My name is… – Watashi no namae wa … desu.

*Note: When introducing yourself for the first time, you can say hajimemashite, usually followed by “my name is…” unless you have already been introduced by someone else. In that case, just say hajimemashite.

Things to Bring

One thing that everyone in Japan has on their person, always, that you don’t know about: a handkerchief. Many public restrooms are without a way to dry your hands. Some restrooms will have a hand dryer, even fewer will have paper towels. Japanese people are used to carrying around a handkerchief to wipe their hands after washing their hands in the restroom, and it comes in handy for various situations. Bring one if you don’t like having wet hands (you can also purchase one in Japan).

Depending on where you live, check out what kind of plugs you have versus Japan’s electrical plugs. Buy a convertor or two depending on how many devices you plan on using. This saves you the hassle of seeking out an electronics store and trying to charade your way to a converter at the store.

Another thing to throw in your suitcase: shoes that are comfortable, can stand the rain, and can be easily taken off. Japanese people are used to walking long distances frequently, and in Japan can rain a lot, also you will find yourself taking your shoes off and putting them on more than you ever have in your life. When visiting someone’s home, shoes are taken off at the entrance. Some restaurants also require you to take off your shoes.

Another thing to bring (but check the weather): an umbrella or windbreaker.

Things to Buy

If you’re used to having Wifi, Japan is somewhere you won’t find it. Mainly in Tokyo/Yokohama, it’s difficult to find an open wifi connection, which is especially problematic when you need to find directions or look up some helpful Japanese phrases. One thing to buy in Japan is a SIM card for your phone, which you can buy at the airport or at a store.

Depending on the season, I’d consider buying an umbrella in Japan. Even if you have your own, Japan has stores with umbrellas that have an extra skeleton on the inside that prevents it from flipping over in harsh winds and rain.

If you don’t own comfortable/rain-sturdy shoes, you can find them in Japan. For women, it’s also possible to find fashionable heels and cute shoes that are comfortable, because walking a lot is normal in Japan. And because of how normal rain is in Japan, it’s easier to find shoes with thicker soles to prevent water from getting in.

Food

Waiting for you in Japan is one of the best culinary experiences of your life, especially if you love noodles, broth, rice, seafood and rich desserts.

To enhance your Japanese culinary experience, one of the first words of advice: learn how to use chopsticks, or at least, practice before you order your first bowl of noodles (accompanied with chopsticks). Learning how to use them isn’t hard, but it requires practice. Many Japanese dishes will come with chopsticks, but there are some restaurants that, by default, serve their food with forks. If you can’t get it down or it slips your mind, chances are that you could ask for a spoon or a fork.

As for beverages, depending on the type of restaurant, you will either get a glass of water and/or a cup of tea. If you’re out walking in the scorching sun or just want a beverage, don’t worry; Japan has beverage vending machines sprinkled all over the place with cold tea, iced coffee, water, juice, etc.

Portion-wise for your food, Japan has smaller portion sizes than in the United States. Another warning, Japan doesn’t usually have the custom of boxing up your leftover food from the restaurant to take home, unless you are specifically ordering take-out.

Also: slurp your noodles. It’s the custom in Japan.

Some helpful Japanese food terms (mainly seafood and noodles):

Sushi – Vinegar rice and raw fish mixed, wrapped, laid over, etc.

Sashimi – Raw sliced fish

Anago – Salt water eel

Unagi – Fresh water eel

Ebi – Shrimp

Fugu – Blowfish (can be poisonous if not prepared correctly, beware!)

Hamachi – Yellowtail tuna

Ika – Squid

Tako – Octopus

Ikura – Salmon roe

Maguro – Tuna

Shake – Salmon

Uni – Sea urchin

Ramen – Wheat noodles, soft and chewy, thinner than udon, served in broth

Soba – Buckwheat noodles, served in broth

Udon – Wheat noodles, soft and thicker than ramen, served in broth

Pan – Bread

Omusubi – Rice ball

Cooked rice – Gohan

Uncooked rice – Okome

Kohi – Coffee

Ocha – Tea

Mizu – Water

Jusu – Juice

Biru – Beer

Transportation

Japan is a country that relies heavily on their public transportation system: buses and trains. Some residents even see owning a car as a burden. You can use this to your advantage and skip having to rent a car and getting used to driving on the other side of the road (depending on where you live). You can pay with change after boarding buses, buy tickets at the train station or find a rail pass online before your trip.

Taxis also tend to be a widespread, convenient mean of transportation for travelers, however, they can get expensive if going long distances in Japan. Although a long distance ride that might cost a pretty penny, some taxi drivers look down on short distance ride requests. Just a warning!

And even after all the buses, trains, and possibly taxis, expect to walk a lot. That’s what the comfortable shoes are for! Though walking a lot may not seem like a big deal, if you’re doing a lot of shopping and sightseeing, you might end the day with tired legs if you’re not used to walking frequently.

If at the train station, the mall, or anywhere that has an escalator as a rest for your tired legs, one last tip: whether it’s going up or down, stand on the left side if you want the escalator to carry you, but if you want to get to your destination faster and walk up the escalator, use the right side.

After having traveled to Japan a handful of times, these are some of the things that stood out to me as being subtly different. I hope they will help you as you prepare for your trip. For fellow Japan travelers, do you have any other tips/advice you would add?

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