Japan – the land of the rising sun, is an intriguing country with a strikingly different landscape, culture, trends, and habits. Yet it made us feel warm and homely in the one week that we spent in Japan this summer.
We were both pleasantly surprised by our varied experiences here. So we’ve compiled a list of our first impressions which will come handy for those visiting Japan for the first time. Even if you are not headed to Japan this is an interesting read giving you a perspective of what another culture feels like.
Japan is one of the safest countries to travel
It was our first time traveling in Japan, a culturally different country whose native language we did not speak. Yet we found it to be very trustworthy and safe. Everyone was very respectful of us and our belongings. We’d still be vigilant when we were out and about but never once did we feel unsafe here. Although natural disaster-wise, Earthquakes are quite common in Japan and that is a different level of safety you need to keep in mind.
Punctuality is a custom and not a choice in Japan
People in Japan are brought up in a time-conscious society where it is considered disrespectful to be late. Being on time is not a choice they make in life, it is a Japanese custom. You are considered late in the workplace if you do not arrive 10 minutes before a meeting starts. As travelers, we experienced their punctuality through the railway system. The trains arrived and departed sharply on time. One of our friends even got their ticket refunded once when their train was delayed by a few minutes. You snooze you lose, be ahead of time if you cannot be on time here.
Japanese people are some of the friendliest people
Let us just say we did not know what to expect from the people in Japan before we reached there. We were worried that the language would be a barrier. However, the locals went above and beyond to help us out when needed. On multiple occasions in various cities, we’ve had strangers stop and ask if we were doing okay or needed help. We were pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to make friends in Japan.
English is not widely spoken everywhere in Japan
Japanese being their first language not everyone learns English in school. Being an inclusive society, you will find them speaking in Japnese amongst themselves. However, in most big cities and popular destinations, locals manage to speak English with tourists. We were taken aback by how little English was spoken in a world famous metropolitan city like Tokyo. Signboards on the local streets are primarily in Japanese but we never had any issue with directions as all the important signs in railway stations and points of attractions were in English as well. Train stations even had a separate English information counter. Most people in hospitality i.e. hotels and restaurants also spoke good English. We would recommend you to learn to say thank you in Japanese – “Arigato-gozaimasu” at the very least, it will go long way 🙂
No trash cans on the streets, yet it’s so clean
This came as a huge surprise to us – how can a city not have trash cans in public places and be so clean at the same time?! To be honest, it was a struggle at first to keep hunting for one with no luck. We were told that it was considered rude to eat on the streets which we thought might have been the reason for no garbage disposal. But later we found out the real reason for removing trash cans from the streets was a terrorist attack. Way back in 1995, a gas bomb was placed in a public garbage bin. As an aftermath of that incident, all bins were removed from the streets. Limited bins found at the train stations are transparent. TIP: Be prepared to carry your own trash till you get back to your hotel or find a bin at a shop or restaurant.
Train Etiquettes – Silence is the golden rule
People are very well mannered in Japan and you will see an example of that in train and bus stations. A queue is formed on the platform in front of each coach’s entrance minutes before the train arrives. Same thing happens at all the bus stops. You are expected to mute your phone inside a bus or a train. It was interesting how quiet the trains were compared to the cities we come from.
Smoking is allowed in Izakayas, bars, and restaurants
We both don’t smoke but won’t mind others doing so unless someone is smoking on our faces. If you are a non-smoker or cannot handle smoke then be careful of going inside a bar or Izakaya.
You will have to ask for water and your check at restaurants
As in most other parts of the world, water is the first thing that you get asked in a restaurant. In Japan, however, we got asked for our drinks order but never specifically got asked for water. We thought it was a one-off incident but when it happened at multiple restaurants and izakayas we realized you just have to ask for it. Same goes for the check, they won’t bring it to you unless you are ready to leave and ask for it yourself. Anyone else experienced this as well?
Gaming Arcades are a big thing
And when I say gaming arcades I do not mean anything like the gaming arcades you see in the US. These are full-blown video game malls with multiple floors each hosting variety of games. Pachinkos are gaming arcades primarily used for gambling. We snuck ourselves into a regular arcade to experience it. TIP: Although you will find Pachinko parlors most everywhere in Japan, you must visit Akihabara neighborhood in Tokyo for the best of Arcades, Anime and Manga stores.
Japanese onsens (hot springs) and public baths
Public Baths and Onsens are very popular in Japan and something you must experience. They are segregated with different pools for men and women usually away from each other. TIP: Keep in mind that you are not allowed to wear a bathing suit inside public baths/onsens. This might come as a culture shock at first but it’s a very common thing in Japan.
Those famous Japanese vending machines – they are for real
Who doesn’t know about the famous Japanese vending machines?! Yes, it’s true. There are vending machines in every nook and corner. In the remotest of cities, in the middle of no-where, on a mountaintop to the most obvious places like airports and train stations. You will never be left thirsty in this country. TIP: Be careful about mineral water vs ionized water when picking bottled water from vending machines. There were multiple times we wanted to get water but ended up selecting ionized water since all the bottles looked the same. Ionized water is a solution of salt, sugar, and water, which although feels very refreshing in the heat but doesn’t do justice to simple H2O. Look for “Natural Mineral water” written on the bottle instead.
Carry your own handwash and sanitizer for public toilets
Yes, you heard that right! This was the other big thing I wish I knew before going to Japan. We still do not have a clear answer as to why they would leave such an important thing out of a bathroom. It was disappointing to not find handwash soap at most public toilets especially in some of the train stations. If you are a clean freak like me, then you will thank yourself for randomly carrying that travel size soap bottle in your purse. Well, on the brighter side at least they don’t charge for using public toilets like in Europe 😉
Western Style Toilets are futuristic while Japanese Style Toilets gets you a workout
The western toilets in Japan are hi-tech leaving you wanting to play with the different automated features. No kidding! Can I get some of those warm heated toilet seats here in the winters, please? On the other hand, at most public places you will find a mix of Japanese style toilets as well. The Japanese toilet is very similar to Indian toilets (maybe an Asian thing) where the toilet bowl is on the ground, so be prepared to squat if you find yourself using it. We tried our best to wait it out till a western loo became available.
Space is a luxury in Japanese houses especially in big cities
Finding spacious accommodation in Japan can be considered a luxury. Do not expect your hotel rooms or Airbnb apartments to be as spacious as their western counterparts. This is very much in line with the minimalistic Japanese lifestyle. All the Airbnb’s we stayed at were really tiny apartments. FACT: While we stayed at Airbnb’s this summer, unknowingly at the time, let us tell you now that renting your property as an individual on Airbnb is illegal in Japan. It won’t become legal until the new law that passed in June 2017 comes into effect. On the other hand, some Ryokans or traditional Japanese guesthouses we stayed at were really comfortable and spacious.
Leave your shoes at the door
It’s a Japanese custom to remove your shoes before entering the house so bear that in mind when checking in to your accommodation. All the Bnb’s and guesthouses will provide you with room slippers to walk inside the house. This didn’t come as a surprise to us being raised in India and something we still follow at our own house. Perhaps it’s another Asian thing.
Enjoy the local food with your taste palates and your eyes
You will find all kinds of interesting food items in local markets and restaurants, from vegetables to seafood.. mostly variety of seafood. If you don’t like to experiment with your food as was in my case, I stuck to the food I could eat. i.e. sushi, ramen, and tempura. Although my husband tried a few other delicacies. We also hopped in some local food markets to get an experience but none of us gathered enough courage to try the stuff there. For my vegetarian friends, although the choices for you are few there is hope. You will find Japanese curry at many places which is their take on Indian curry and they will have veggie options. You can also opt for any tofu based dish or vegetarian tempura or ramen, just make sure the ramen stock doesn’t have any meat.
These are just a few things we observed during our first trip to Japan. Some of these are quite different from any other place we have traveled before. If you have been here, do you have any other observations? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!
Hope these travel tips are helpful. If you enjoyed reading this then do share it with your friends and family 🙂