Tips about travel to Japan?
February 14, 2005 9:58 AM   Subscribe

What do you wish someone had told you before you went to Japan (or, indeed, anywhere outside the United States) for the first time?
posted by jjg to Travel & Transportation around Japan (42 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
How to operate a Japanese toilet. [pdf]
posted by jeffmshaw at 10:00 AM on February 14, 2005

Be careful how you sit; there are different acceptable ways for men (Indian style) and women ("mermaid" style). Everyone should try to sit with their lower legs under them if possible, but it can make your legs go numb if you're not used to it.

Tipping is NOT part of the culture and will be considered weird or embarassing.

It's way easier to get around that you might have thought; lots of signs are in English. Announcements on trains and subways are in both Japanese and English.

People are really friendly and polite, and won't laugh at you even if it's obvious you're a dumb American tourist and have no idea what you're doing.

Tour guides will not take you to the statues/monuments dedicated to the Japanese WWII dead and will not mention what you're not seeing; you'll find out from the guidebooks later. Like I said, they're really polite.

The streets are ridiculously safe, even the red light district in Kyoto. You can thank the Yakuza for that.

Do not actually thank, or talk to, the Yakusa.
posted by Asparagirl at 10:11 AM on February 14, 2005

Oh, and the word "otaku" apparently means something very different in Japanese than it does in its slangy English meaning. Avoid saying it in front of your tour guide and then wondering why she starts laughing and acting embarassed.

And definitely spend a day in the Akihabara district in Tokyo if you're at all geeky, in either the electronics sense or the comic book/pop culture sense. Lots of neat stores.
posted by Asparagirl at 10:16 AM on February 14, 2005

Very few Japanese people can speak English well.

Be very careful about where you're allowed to walk around in shoes and where you aren't. Some of my faux pas made my Japanese companions scream in terror.

People well be quite friendly, but you generally have to initiate contact.

If you want to get away from other tourists and see beautiful scenery, go hiking in the mountains (Mt. Fuji not included).

In Kyoto, and other places in Japan, you can sometimes sleep in Buddhist temples instead of hotels.
posted by driveler at 10:22 AM on February 14, 2005

(or, indeed, anywhere outside the United States) for the first time?

Dublin. How difficult it would be to find a laundromat open on a Sunday (found one but it was quite a task).
posted by mlis at 10:23 AM on February 14, 2005

People sleeping everywhere, on trains, in meetings, you name it. The people I saw sleeping on trains all managed to get up at their stop. Amazing.

In business meetings, it's common for bosses and bosses-of-bosses to be invited simply out of courtesy. If they have no personal interest in the topics or don't speak English well, it's no problem for them to nod off. No one says a thing about it and you shouldn't either.

Another one is smoking. If smoke bothers you, you'll have an unpleasant time. I recall seeing one of the enormous ashtrays that are on the train platforms literally on fire. No one seemed to care.

And then there's advertising. It's everywhere. I mean that literally. For instance: on the trains, the handles you hold on to if you stand had tiny Asahi beer cans (Asahi Beer Water, to be exact) attached to them. If billboards offend you, you're in trouble.
posted by tommasz at 10:23 AM on February 14, 2005

Take the little packets of kleenex people will hand you in the street as an advertising gimmick as they will come in handy if you have to go to the restroom. Japanese toilets frequently don't have toilet paper or paper towels.
posted by gnat at 10:31 AM on February 14, 2005

My worst fear when taveling abroad was customs & immigration, and considering I was a business traveler, I was pretty boring to them. Just make sure you have your passport and other papers in order. For whatever country you may visit, try to know how to say hello, please and thank you. If if you speak no other words, most people appreciate the effort it takes to learn those few words.
posted by Doohickie at 10:36 AM on February 14, 2005

I wish somebody had explained to me the many secrets of the rail system (and the many ways you can save some money)
it's a wonderful country, though. you'll love it.

Very few Japanese people can speak English well.

as opposed to the vast number of Americans who can speak Japanese or, for that matter, any other foreign language
posted by matteo at 10:39 AM on February 14, 2005

I don't know about Japan, but in most places outside North America, you can't buy peanut butter. Tragic, really.
posted by borkingchikapa at 10:42 AM on February 14, 2005

In any non-English-speaking country, always ask people "Do you speak English?" before you actually start talking to them in English. It's amazing how much better people will treat you, whether they speak English or not.
posted by fuzz at 10:44 AM on February 14, 2005

Yeah, if you're going over for an extended period, make sure you bring along staples you may not be able to find there.

On the other hand, I've had pretty good success adapting to foreign food and even growing to like foods that I found patently unpleasant prior to traveling to the country (Korean kimchi isn't that bad, once you get used to it).
posted by Doohickie at 10:46 AM on February 14, 2005

YMMV, of course, but my dreams are always really intense when I visit Japan. I think it's because of the stimulus overdose - all the neon and noise.

It's an easy place to be a foreigner (gaijin) because you are not expected to know or observe the fine points of Japanese etiquette.

I thought I would hate the work ethic there, but I found I really enjoyed it. I never did get a handle on the 3PM calisthenics, though.

If you'll be there for a while, bottle-keep. You buy the whole bottle (whisky), put your name on it, drink what you want and just buy mixers.

Extra large isn't.
posted by sagwalla at 10:48 AM on February 14, 2005

as opposed to the vast number of Americans who can speak Japanese or, for that matter, any other foreign language

Matteo, I don't mean to be a dick, but I think that's an unnecessarily snide comment. If you are accustomed to traveling in Europe, where a great many people speak English, you may be forgiven for making the assumption that a similar percentage of people speak English in Japan, particularly given our very tight economic relationship. I think it is a useful thing to tell someone getting ready to travel in Japan.

I'd be willing to accept that I'm wrong, but I don't think I am.
posted by spicynuts at 10:54 AM on February 14, 2005

(or, indeed, anywhere outside the United States) for the first time?

Qu├ębec. That it would be impossible to find a copy of the IHT (circa 1990). Also this is an amusing (I don't know how accurate) comparison of life in NJ, Japan and China.
posted by mlis at 11:02 AM on February 14, 2005

Many people, in Tokyo especially, do speak English and will be eager to practice with you. Many of those who "don't" speak English actually have very good English comprehension and are just shy about speaking it.

It's worth investing a few hours learning the alphabets (hiragana and katakana) before you go. Katakana is the alphabet used for writing words borrowed from foreign langauges, often English. If you sound them out slowly you can probably guess what the original word is.
posted by zanni at 11:11 AM on February 14, 2005

Americans travelling to heavily touristed places like large cities in Europe can often expect people, particularly in service industries, to be able to speak a little English. In Japan, however, you might have to interact with people (in restaurants, stores, hotels, if you get lost, etc.) who won't be able to speak English at all. Every bit of Japanese you can learn will be helpful then. Sometimes writing down what you want to communicate can also help. Aside from learning Japanese, the best is having a friend who can speak both languages.
posted by driveler at 11:12 AM on February 14, 2005

In Japan, at least, the dynamics of gratitude and obligation can be pretty intense. If you're seeing people with children, bring along presents, little American things that you can give them (flavored jelly beans were a big hit at a Japanese school). If an adult is doing you a big favor, it seems acceptable to give them a present to express gratitude, but give it just as you are departing, or else they will have to give you a present, and on and on....

Don't stick your chopsticks in a bowl of rice and leave them there pointing up.

Bring lots of business-type cards. People in Japan love to exchange business cards.
posted by jasper411 at 11:18 AM on February 14, 2005

If you are accustomed to traveling in Europe, where a great many people speak English, you may be forgiven for making the assumption that a similar percentage of people speak English in Japan, particularly given our very tight economic relationship. I think it is a useful thing to tell someone getting ready to travel in Japan.

It's also an important point to be aware of in light of the fact that English is widely taught in Japanese schools as part of the standard curriculum. A traveller to Japan, aware of this fact, might be expecting plenty of English speakers. However, while many Japanese are perfectly competent readers of English, conversational fluency is rare. Which brings us to another tip: if you're having trouble making yourself understood, try writing it down!
posted by mr_roboto at 11:19 AM on February 14, 2005

Since this was stated as anywhere outside the U.S. some things that I found interesting about being in China since it is the most un-western place I have ever been:

Note: we were in very remote areas of China
- Every bird on the table is chicken. Even if you know it's pigeon or crow, it's chicken
- Public toilets are interesting and I feel for the women folk, especially after some of the marathon drinking we endured
- When using a urinal, you basically are inviting anyone to come and take a look at the goods. And in the rural areas, they will.
- Lots of people speak English, but it's usually pretty broken. You will make their day if you are patient and just have a conversation with them.
- If you have a cold when going through customs, don't tell them. It makes it much harder to get through.
- Stay away from the rice wine.
- The drivers know what they are doing, and it's best to not pay attention to how many times your life almost comes to an end.
- Haggle. None of the prices in shops are the set value.
- The Chinese seem to yell at each other a lot. This is normal conversation.
- Not so much for myself, but many people, especially when travelling to China for the first time are amazed at how the people are just like us, with jobs and families and not commies trying to take over the world. That might be an age thing though.
- China is a vegan/vegetarian paradise.
- Enjoy the architecture in the big cities. Lots of the buildings are products of the last 10 years and are very modern designs. Very cool stuff.
- One last thing, the big cities like Shanghai are very polluted. Don't be surprised if you have a hard time breathing and develop asthma from it. Lots of people do.
posted by chrisroberts at 11:21 AM on February 14, 2005

I'm very glad I saw this on Boing Boing today, as had I already been to Japan I would have regretted not seeing it earlier.
posted by Gortuk at 11:29 AM on February 14, 2005

Sometimes the prostitutes aren't really young women.
posted by dios at 11:33 AM on February 14, 2005

BRING COMFORTABLE WALKING SHOES. I went to Japan on vacation once and made the horrible mistake of only bringing a new pair of shoes with me. I quickly developed blisters, and to make matters worse it is apparently impossible to purchase men's size 13-14 shoes anywhere in the country.
posted by robbie01 at 11:35 AM on February 14, 2005

In tropical countries, jeans are not a good idea. Heavy to carry, retain sweat, take forever to dry, etc. etc. etc. Khaki-type pants or "Dockers" are a much better choice, lighter to wear, lighter to carry. Plus you look a little better than the average horribly-dressed tourist, will look more in place in a government office or bank, you'll just get better treatment overall.


Don't wear too much khaki or olive: people can interpret that as being military, moreso overseas than in the U.S.

Oh, and buy cheap leather slip-ons to wear for shoes, rather than sneakers.

(Not specifically Japan-based stuff here, just general experiences...)
posted by gimonca at 11:48 AM on February 14, 2005

Robbie01 raises a good point--prepare to walk, a lot.

Other tidbits

1. Japan is in the wrong time zone. The sun rises and sets about 2 hours before it should. On top of the jet lag, this will play hell with your sleeping patterns.

2. Never pass food from your chopsticks to another person's--this is considered shockingly bad table manners.

3. Vending machines are used in a lot of ways you'd never imagine. There are restaurants (usually cheap, but sometimes pretty good) where you buy a ticket for your meal on entering, and hand that to the waitress. Museum admissions, train fares, etc.

4. When someone says "yes," they don't necessarily mean "I agree," they often mean "I think I understand what you're saying." Conversely, the absence of a "no" does not mean you have their agreement (just about the only time you hear people say "no" flat out is when you offer a compliment).

There have been other Ask.Me threads on Japan travel--check 'em out.
posted by adamrice at 11:49 AM on February 14, 2005

I was quite surprised to discover, when I went to Japan two summers ago, that many places didn't take credit cards. Even places like a ferry terminal expected you to carry around hundreds of dollars in cash instead of accepting any type of card.

Of course, I was in a smaller town than Tokyo (Matsuyama, in Ehime prefecture), however it still surprised me and caught me unprepared.
posted by Meagan at 12:35 PM on February 14, 2005

Even in Tokyo, don't plan on relying on your credit card. Bring plenty (and I mean plenty!) of cash. Even ATM machines that are networked into the global system can be tricky to find. Look for a Citibank if you need one.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:39 PM on February 14, 2005

4. When someone says "yes," they don't necessarily mean "I agree," they often mean "I think I understand what you're saying."

I had that problem in Korea. I thought I had the whole room agreeing with me, and at the end of my presentation, when I asked if they liked my recommendations, they started shaking their heads vigorously- "No, no, no! We can't do that!" I think they felt it impolite to tell me no before I was finished presenting my case.
posted by Doohickie at 12:43 PM on February 14, 2005

1 - Summers in Tokyo can be almost unbearably hot and humid, so pick your wardrobe appropriately if you're going then.

2 - Minor earthquake tremors are a routine fact of life in Japan, and sometimes they aren't so minor - for such occasions, it helps to know what measures to take ahead of time. You aren't likely to need to use this knowledge, but you never know ...

3 - You absolutely must learn the katakana and hiragana if you don't plan to be stuck trailing other English-speakers around for the entirety of your stay; don't be lulled into thinking that English-language signs will be everywhere for your convenience. It also helps to learn, say, the most basic 100 kanji if you can help it, as well as other useful characters like ?? (Tokyo), ?? (Kyoto), ?? (Osaka), etc. if you plan on traveling around the country - or even just to find yourself around your city's neighborhoods.

4 - Many drinking establishments offer an "all you can can drink" option called "nomihodai" (????): it can work out to be a lot cheaper than buying individual drinks, depending on how much you plan to imbibe.

5 - Streets and houses in Tokyo are often without names or numbers! Expect to make heavy use of fax machines if you need to find your way to private residences and so forth.
posted by Goedel at 12:55 PM on February 14, 2005

Hey, what happened there? The missing characters from the above are ?? (Tokyo), ?? (Kyoto), ?? (Osaka) and ???? (nomihodai) - they showed up fine in the preview box, so I don't know why they were replaced by question marks in the final post.
posted by Goedel at 1:01 PM on February 14, 2005

Since this was stated as anywhere outside the U.S.

Information specific to places I am not going is not as valuable as general tips on international travel, which was what I meant when I said anywhere.
posted by jjg at 1:15 PM on February 14, 2005

Good call, matteo, on the transportation links. The big money-saver they don't mention, though, is the art of kiseru. A kiseru is an old-fashioned tobacco smoking pipe with a metal bowl and mouthpiece separated by a wooden stem. Only the extremely aged use them. Thanks to the blessings of etymological development, you, too, can kiseru, smoker or non-.

On arrival, figure out where will be your base of operations. Purchase a long-term (how long are you staying? Month-long? Three? Yearly?) pass between your nearest station (or the station you anticipate returning to most) and the next station on the line. If you work for a Japanese company, chances are you can get them to buy one for your commute.

Now, kiseru is a return-trip exercise. If your travels should take you outside of your base of operations, buy a ticket as usual for the away trip. On the return trip, however, you will not buy a full-trip ticket.

Instead, buy a ticket, for the cheapest fare, to the next station on the line. Once you pass the turnstile, you are inside the Japan Rail system. When you get to your home station, use your commuter pass to leave. Kiseru accomplished.

Since fares are graduated by distance, kiseru can save a heap of money. Unless you sit in reserved seating (often "green cars"), no conductor will ask for your ticket.

Metal at both ends, bamboo in the middle: kiseru.

It's illegal but unenforced, and a good way to save $30 on a trip to the onsens at Hakone. If you have hangups about bathing with others, lose them. Hot springs are great. Watch other bathers for the order of operations -- don't slide filthy into a hot pool full of bathers -- and be ready for curious or envious glances. And for being as relaxed as you've ever been.
posted by breezeway at 1:20 PM on February 14, 2005

Here are two other somewhat relevant threads.
posted by jjg at 1:28 PM on February 14, 2005

I must disagree with Goedel. Although I think it's a relatively (1970s) innovation, every building in Tokyo does have an address. However, the addresses are generally given in kanji (including kanji for the numbers), and the addressing system is completely counterintuitive (it works more like US zip codes; once you narrow down to the block level, houses are numbered more or less sequentially walking around that block). Address plaques are half the size of a business card, green metal with white raised text.
posted by adamrice at 2:39 PM on February 14, 2005

In any non-English-speaking country, always ask people "Do you speak English?" before you actually start talking to them in English.

And ask in the native tongue ("Eigo ga hanasemasu ka?" formally in Japanese). I just did this in Paris, and it's wondrous how much nicer people are for the fact that you literally try to speak their language. It is an acknowledgement that you're the awkward one, which makes it easier for them to gesticulate or use broken English without feeling awkward themselves.
posted by werty at 2:54 PM on February 14, 2005

jasper411's advice to bring business cards reminded me of an article in the NYT I read a few years ago. It deals with business card etiquette in Japan. If you think you will be accepting Japanese business cards during your trip be sure to read this article. Excerpt:

". . .something as seemingly inconsequential as the mishandling of a business card can be a deal killer in Japan. . .Arriving in Japan without an ample stock of business cards is akin to arriving barefoot, and central to card etiquette is giving and receiving the card with a proper level of solemnity. Cards should be studied, not shoved in a pocket without a glance."
posted by mlis at 5:16 PM on February 14, 2005

Do not use the word benjo, even if that's what you were taught. Use o-tearai instead, especially if you are an 11 year old girl.
posted by Soliloquy at 9:49 PM on February 14, 2005

Consider reading Confucius Lives Next Door, by T.R. Reid.

And for foreign travel in general:
--Learn as much of the language as you can before you set out. "Yes", "no", "please", "thank you", "beer", "wine", "toilet", "left", "right", "up", "down", and as many numbers as possible. (This will help, especially when you're pointing at things in a display case.)
--That said, don't be afraid to act dumb, use your hands, and smile a lot. Use international words -- don't say "My car seems to be broken" in Europe, say "auto kaput" and look dejected. Write things down if necessary.
--To that end, carry a small notebook and pen. It's good for confirming prices, sketching out directions, and a million other things.
--Don't assume other people speak English -- as someone else said, it's MUCH more polite to address them in their native tongue and ask for help.
--Be adventurous. There's not much point in traveling if your goal is to recreate the experiences you have at home.
--Marling Menu Masters are the single best menu translators available.
--Shoes matter in many other countries more than they do in the U.S. I wear leather walking shoes in Europe, for instance, where I'd wear sneakers at home. Same comfort, but they're much more accepted.

More when I think of them.
posted by Vidiot at 10:55 PM on February 14, 2005

Japan is cheap if you are wise about shopping. The 100 yen store is your new best friend.

If you want a western toilet, look for ones that are made wheel-chair accessible. But then again, I don't remember anywhere that didn't have at least one western toilet.

People are quiet on the train. I was an exchange student for a couple weeks, and my host sister and her friend laughed at me and the other exchange students for being "weird." How so? We were talking on the train!

When someone is motioning for you to come to them, for an American, it looks like they're waving for you to go away. Its hard to explain, but this completely confused me at first.

On the topic of trains, they do stop running at night, so find out the schedule and make sure you don't miss the last train to your station.

Japan is amazing. I never wanted to leave. I hope you love your trip as much as I loved mine.
posted by Amanda B at 11:44 PM on February 14, 2005

as opposed to the vast number of Americans who can speak Japanese or, for that matter, any other foreign language

matteo, driveler makes a good point about the lack of English speakers in Japan - it really is something to prepare for before you get to Japan (i.e. learn fundamental Japanese before you arrive). I struggled like hell in my first year there because I assumed it would be no problem.
Japan is one of the few countries I've visited where the locals struggle with English. Europe - no problem. South East Asia - no problem. The upshot is that most people leave Japan (after a lengthy stay) able to speak conversational Japanese - it's definitely a cloud with a silver lining.

Japan is cheap if you are wise about shopping

Yes it is - especially eating out (well I compare UK prices). You can get a good meal in a restaurant for 500 yen (2.5 pounds according to my currency converter).

Oh, and my thing to at least get mad about before you arrive : reikin. It's money you simply give to a landlord when you move into a flat. It's non-refundable and ISN'T the rent. It's just money you give to the landlord, like some kind of gift (it's normally at LEAST a months rent's worth, sometimes TWO months of rent!). Get mad about it now and be calm when your flat agent tells you about it in Japan.
posted by FieldingGoodney at 1:35 AM on February 15, 2005

A small thing, but I've found it really fantastically helpful when travelling in large, foreign cities: buy a small, cheap compass and attach it to something you'll have with you every day (keychain, bag, whatever). Helps especially when you're coming out from an underground train and trying to orient yourself.
posted by papercake at 9:23 AM on February 15, 2005

Don't put soy sauce on white rice.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 10:43 AM on February 15, 2005

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