Help me not re-enact Top Gear in Japan
March 2, 2012 4:38 PM   Subscribe

Help! I'm going to Japan (well, hopefully). What do I need to know?

Assuming the money works out, I'll be going to Nagoya this summer. I know next to nothing about Japan. Seriously, I watched Big Bird in Japan a bunch as a kid and that one Top Gear episode and that's about all I know.*

I know my initial question is hopelessly broad, but I feel very intimidated by the idea of this trip. My primary concerns are as follows:

-I don't speak a word of Japanese. It's been a long time since I've gone somewhere with absolutely zero knowledge of the language (and even then it was Italy, where I can guess at some things since it's a Romance language). Every time I think about this, I think about Richard Hammond and James May trying to change trains and getting lost. Assuming I'm a bit more competent than them, am I likely to have issues with basic navigation? How adrift should I be bracing myself to be? (Right now, I suspect I'm catastrophising.) Getting to Nagoya looks like it'll involve changing planes in Seoul, but I somehow don't doubt that I can get through an airport with no knowledge of Korean.

-I'm a vegetarian. I realise I'm probably going to get 'fished' inadvertently, but I'd rather be not eating around things that are obviously meat. What sort of things should I be looking to eat? Where might I find them?

What other stuff should I know? Past AskMe's have referred to things like buying doohickeys for wi-fi access. Should I be assuming that the university won't have wi-fi a visitor can access? (Whether I care, I don't know. I'm sure my parents can assume I'm not dead when they don't hear about a plane crash.) I don't have a smartphone, nor do I expect to need/want a SIM card for my phone.

*I'm being facetious, but it feels like that might as well be the sum total of my knowledge. Big Bird has taught me about display cases with plastic food. But they have those in Berkeley.
posted by hoyland to Travel & Transportation around Nagoya, Japan (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've never been to Japan but I've read this book a dozen times and it has a lot of information in it about Japanese culture (and it's fun to read too).
posted by davcoo at 4:51 PM on March 2, 2012

For vegetarian food in Japan:
posted by mild deer at 4:52 PM on March 2, 2012

The biggest problem with lacking language knowledge will indeed be trains and subways. (The airports will certainly have English) Major stations may have romanized signs, but don't count on it. If you are going from one train station to another, look it up beforehand and copy down the Japanese characters so you can figure out your stops. But still, it's not *that* hard, and you can probably find a station agent who speaks English if you're really lost.

Vegetarianism is pretty hard, and yes, you can basically guarantee that some fish broth will slip in here and there. That said, there are lots of tofu and noodle options without any other meat just about everywhere, and you will likely be able to find true vegetarian restaurants, which may also be referred to as "Buddhist" restaurants.
posted by tau_ceti at 4:56 PM on March 2, 2012

You'll be just fine. You should be able to, with practice, navigate public transportation. Ask the front desk (if you're staying at a hotel) for a map, directions, and advice.

Most Japanese people have studied English, and although they're often embarrassed about using it, I'm usually impressed with their skills. If you're desperate, many people on the street will be able to help.

Carry copies of your hotel's business card (or your university's address written down in Japanese) with you everywhere. When you get truly stuck, you can hand the card to a taxi driver.

At some point, head to the local Takashimaya (big, beautiful Japanese department store). They often have a fancy and fun food court in the basement. They display their veggies, baked goods, fruit, desserts, etc. at every stand, and you can just point to what you want. Yum.

posted by equipoise at 5:53 PM on March 2, 2012

There's a fair amount of English on signs and stuff. Learning Japanese well is a huge undertaking, but 10 words like "Please" and "Thank you" will go a long way.

I'm not a veggie here in Japan, but I have American friends who are. To put it plainly, it's hard.

Japanese people put meat in EVERYTHING. Order a vegetable salad, and it will usually come with pork. This is because meat was a luxury after the war, and so it became sort of a status thing. Now things without any meat at all have an aura of poorness about them, which is why they reflexively put meet in everything. All broths of course, always have some kind of meat as well. People are so blind to the presence of meat here that even if you specifically ask in a restaurant if something has meat in it, and the waiter says no, it often does. This happens frequently.

It's hard to tell if you don't want to eat fish, either, but if you are intent on avoiding fish as well it will be very difficult to find anything at all to eat.

(I see someone above mentions "Buddhist restaurants," but I can report that after living in Japan for 15 years, I've never seen a Buddhist restaurant. There is something called Shoujin Ryouri (精進料理), which is Buddhist-inspired, but A) it includes fish, and B) you gotta go to a temple, almost always, to get some.
posted by zachawry at 7:45 PM on March 2, 2012

Response by poster: It's hard to tell if you don't want to eat fish, either, but if you are intent on avoiding fish as well it will be very difficult to find anything at all to eat.

No, I don't eat fish. I think I would have a hard time knowingly eating fish (or meat), but I realise that actually avoiding fish (or fish products) is a losing battle. I guess I'm hoping someone will say dishes X, Y and Z are generally safe, but there might be some stray fish products, at which point I'll have to turn a blind eye.

Apparently, Nagoya has an Indian restaurant. Maybe it's not outrageously expensive.
posted by hoyland at 8:20 PM on March 2, 2012

I haven't been to Nagoya, but for me the fun in visiting Japan was precisely the adventure of being in a country where I can't speak or read the language, and they don't put English signs up everywhere for tourists. Its a great place for this kind of adventure because is a safe country full of polite, friendly people. You will be fine!

If you can't figure out where your platform is at the train station, just approach a station employee and say the name of the city or station you are traveling to. They will point you the right way. Give yourself plenty of time, as some of the big city stations are enormous.

I don't speak Japanese, but I made an effort beforehand to learn please, thank you, hi, bye, sorry, and some key tourist phrases. Just a few basic words of politeness shows you are making an effort, which is always appreciated.

Have a map, if you don't own a smartphone. Top Gear was over-dramatizing in order to make a spectacle. Don't worry, you will have tons of fun!
posted by Joh at 8:32 PM on March 2, 2012

The train maps are & station signs are written in Chinese, so prepare for being completely unable to read if you take the train (unless you speak Chinese?). (Surely there's an app or two out there that could help out with this?) Nonetheless, the trains system is clean, easy to use, and feels fairly safe. It's a great way to tour around in Japan.

Also, Indian food may be your go-to for vegetarian food in Japan. It's definitely available if you look around.
posted by Ys at 8:46 PM on March 2, 2012

Correction: NOT written in Chinese. But written using Chinese ideographs, for the most part, which get the point across (to the litterate) musch more concisely, which makes them useful on maps.
posted by Ys at 8:47 PM on March 2, 2012

Would it be unkind to say that there is no reason to assume that Indian restaurants don't use meat or fish ingredients, even for "veggie" dishes?

There is no conception here that an actual human being would voluntarily decide not to eat meat or, my god, meat and fish. Hence there is no reason not to put meat or fish ingredients into everything if it makes it taste better.
posted by zachawry at 8:54 PM on March 2, 2012

Going to Japan for my honeymoon in August. I tried teaching myself Japanese for about 2 years in college and can stammer out a few phrases and understand a little writing. That said, you'll be absolutely fine.

Of all the countries in the world where you could explore while not knowing the language, Japan is probably the best. From what I've heard, the people are EXTREMELY nice and polite (unlike what you will have experienced almost anywhere else), and it is incredibly safe there even if you do end up somewhere on the "wrong side of the tracks."

If you don't know any of the language (which you should at least make an effort to remedy), get some dictionaries, and also get one of those wallet-sized picture dictionaries for tourists. If you have a smart phone, consider getting one of the numerous translation apps out there, and one with a good offline detailed street map you can access.

Learn how to ask for a vegetarian meal in Japanese, or at least say no meat. Seriously, the language barrier doesn't need to be a problem if you make a little effort.
posted by Elminster24 at 9:23 PM on March 2, 2012

People in Japan expect foreign-looking people not to speak Japanese, so don't worry too much about that.
As above, many many Japanese people have studied some English. Carry a map, whip out the sign language, and you will be fine!

For trains, approach a station attendant and say "English map", and if you are in a reasonably large city (such as Nagoya) they will probably have one for you. At major stations, there are always maps near the ticket machines, so you can either count stations or compare the kanji (Chinese characters) to figure out which station you want.
posted by snorkmaiden at 10:24 PM on March 2, 2012

I went to Japan in 1994 not knowing anything about the country, and I ended up staying there for 10 years, and I still reside there for part of the year with my family. You should be fine.

Nagoya is an excellent place to land. It's often called a "country city", in that, although it's a large city, it has a slower pace of life. It's centrally located between the two other big urban areas of Kanto (Tokyo) and Kansai (Kyoto), and has a beautiful new airport (I was skeptical about the new airport, but it's actually relatively conveniently located, and is very easy to use).

The great thing about Nagoya is that it has a relatively strong economy, and there are fewer foreigners, which means greater labour mobility for you - assuming you're an English teacher, if you don't like your job, and can navigate the visa process, you can probably find a better job. English teaching jobs pay higher as well, and there is also a fair number of opportunities to work as an in-house editor or translator in the automotive industry, after you have paid your dues.

I was a vegetarian when I first went to Japan. It will be very difficult to be a vegetarian in Japan, but the magic words are niku nuki, or "hold the meat!!!".

One thing you should know is that in most situations outside of the home, Japanese people will practice gaman or endurance, and this means refraining from making special demands such as vegetarian meals. Japanese children are taught from early on by both parents and teachers to avoid having "likes and dislikes" when it comes to food, so it's not really common to make special requests in restaurants. My own pet peeve is the practice of serving beer with a large head of foam in a pub, but I have yet to ask the server to avoid the practice.

Try to understand what culture shock is, and try not to succumb to it. If you don't speak or read Japanese, you will never really understand what the hell is going on, and it will be tempting to make generalizations about robotic Japanese people etc. Don't do that.

Instead, if you feel like you're getting frustrated by Japanese culture, pour your energy into learning the language. For a long time you will be treated like a weirdo or an outsider, but Japanese culture is very formal, and unless you speak in a certain way, with a certain kind of body language, it will freak people out. It's kind of like trying to talk to someone back home who is mumbling non-sequitors and waving their arms around. So if people treat you strangely, it's not because you're foreign, it's because you may not be sending out the "correct" social queues.

Finally (but not finally), many people will go out of their way to help you. Do not forget their kindness in the future. Japanese people are very, very helpful, and during my first couple of years I had people drive my possessions to a different part of the country, take me to the doctor for a skin infection, teach me Japanese, teach me how to shop, help me get glasses, take me to the dentist... People were helpful. Japanese people make friends for life (unlike in western countries where friends come and go) and will be hurt if you do not stay in touch. So recognize kindness, be thankful, and express your thanks.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:01 AM on March 3, 2012

One last point about language barriers that I didn't see above: a lot of people can read English better than they can speak it, and know the words even if they cannot form a sentence. If you really need to get your point across, try writing some things down.

You can indeed get awesome Indian food in Japan, and in my experience they are more understanding of vegetarianism (though I haven't tried Nagoya), and you usually have a choice of many restaurants. The meals come with rice or naan, and I advise you to go with the naan because it is very large. The alternative is Japanese rice which, though delicious, is not a substitute for a good basmati.

If you're intimidated in general, my parting words would be that Japan is generally a safe place with patient and helpful people, even in stores, on buses, and in the street. I used to live there and miss Japan every day. It can really spoil a person!
posted by whatzit at 1:14 AM on March 3, 2012

Start at Japan Guide . It's a good, general Japan website. I've been on it for fourteen years!

For learning Japanese, although this series is OLD I'd recommend it. It's the best thing I've seen for beginning Japanese:

Read Surviving in Japan. It misses a lot of things but it's detailed and the person who runs the website is nice and responds to e-mails/comments: Surviving in Japan

If you want to learn how to cook Japanese food (it's cheaper than trying to find food from other countries) I'd recommend Just Hungry and Just Bento. Good, thorough recipes. Not always vegetarian but some useful info there none the less! Website author is very knowledgeable although busy. She's also written a book.

AccessJ is another helpful general website.

Reddit r/Japan is another good general place to have a look at things.

Gaijinpot has useful information BUT go at your own risk. It's buried under trolls, angry whiners, and general weirdness.

Learning kana (the simplified writing systems -- hiragana and katakana) would be useful. I taught myself by buying a Japanese comic (manga) for children and writing what they said in roman letters.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 2:17 AM on March 3, 2012

You have more than enough time before you leave to memorize katakana. Katakana is used for writing loan words, often from English, so knowing it is like having a secret decoder ring for Japanese signs. Use a browser tool like, or you can get apps for the iPhone, etc. You don't need to know how to write anything, just read it to decipher subway signs, menus, etc. Usually maps and location signs in cities have English text but knowing katakana was enough to save my butt a few times in more out of the way places.

To address the wi-fi question, you may be thinking of doo-hickeys to access the internet while travelling. Wi-fi in Japan isn't any different than anywhere else in the world - if you can see the signal on your device you can access it.
posted by Gortuk at 5:45 AM on March 3, 2012

Heidi Swanson, the vegetarian blogger behind 101 Cookbooks, spent two weeks in Japan in 2009. Here's her summary post, which lists a bunch of the restaurants she went to. She seems to have been able to find plenty to eat.
posted by jocelmeow at 12:25 PM on March 3, 2012

Don't worry about the signs. All train stations in Nagoya will have the romanized name, so that shouldn't be a problem. If you head to the sticks, the signage may or may not have romaji.

Do not expect any Japanese person to speak English. Of course, you will run across many people who do, but get it in your mind that English is not a lingua franca that you find in many foreign countries. Don't panic, but just have the right mindset.

Japanese is an incredibly difficult language, BUT pronunciation isn't part of that. Japanese pronunciation is quite easy (with a few exceptions). Get a "Japanese 101" phrasebook and study. Get to know your numbers, first off, on up to 1000. Learn your hiragana and katakana, the Japanese syllabaries. They are relatively easy to learn. Learning kanji is a beast that takes people years, but you can learn a hundred or so simple ones--again numbers, book, day, food, drink, etc.

Being a vegetarian in Japan is tough, especially if you don't eat fish. Vegetarianism exists here in Japan, but it's not as widespread as it is in the West. Your restaurant choices will be much more limited. All the vegetarians I know make most of their food at home. Check websites for vegetarian restaurants. Plan ahead.
posted by zardoz at 1:30 PM on March 3, 2012

If you want to be sure you're eating vegetarian food, onigiri are a pretty safe bet. Inarizushi is sushi rice wrapped in a skin of fried tofu. There are onigiri that are stuffed with kombu (a type of seaweed). You will be able to find vegetarian food, and Japan is a lot different than ten years ago.

Pick up a phrase book. I came here with the Lonely Planet Japanese phrase book, and it was pretty useful. If you can, read through it, then put some of the phrases on the inside cover so you have them ready to go.

Nagoya is a big city, with a pretty strong manufacturing industry. Lots of exporting. There will be signs and information in English. You will be okay. That, and part of the fun of getting here is trying to make sense of the new world around you. Definitely try to pick up a few phrases, but if you're going to be here long term, it will make more sense for you to sign up for a language class when you first get here. The headway you make simply by being immersed in the language will dwarf whatever progress you can make on your own at home.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:17 PM on March 3, 2012

Re: Onigiri, they are delicious and cheap and the most common veggie options will be kombu as Ghidorah mentioned (こんぶ 昆布) or ume, a salty pickled plum (うめ 梅). A lot of others are stuffed with fish (魚 turns up in a lot of the fish names because it is the general character for fish). Anyway, cheap, delicious, filling! Look for the easy 1-2-3 directions to open them, it is usually printed on the package.
posted by whatzit at 10:35 AM on March 4, 2012

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