Before setting out to Japan, it is important to remember that Japan is basically an entirely different world from all Western countries.
The language is considered one of the most difficult for an English-speaker to learn, the culture is worlds apart from my American culture, and they have an entirely different transportation system.
Fortunately, if you have time before heading to Japan, you can do some preparation before heading over to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Research local customs and manners.
Japanese society is community-focused. It stands in stark contrast to American culture which values individualism.
As a result, the Japanese follow rules more than most other countries. Whether there are cars coming or not, they will wait at a cross-walk until it is their time to go.
This strict rule following extends to social interactions. While the Japanese are too polite to yell at you for your faux paus’, it wouldn’t hurt to try to avoid causing them undue stress and coming across as a loud, rude foreigner (gaijin).
Be sure to always remove your shoes before entering a household. You will see slippers placed near a platform in the front of the building where you remove your shoes and leave them in a cubby.
This rule doesn’t seem to extend to stores and many public places, but be aware of this.
The same is especially true for bathrooms in homes and hotels. Bathrooms have their own separate pair of slippers that are meant to be used only in the bathroom.
Bowing comes with its own elaborate set of subtle rules that, thankfully, the Japanese do not expect foreigners to know.
However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bow out of respect to the people you encounter. A safe rule is to do a 45-degree bow in pretty much any situation you encounter: at a cash register, after thanking someone at the train station for helping, after someone let’s you through a door, etc.
Pretty much anytime you say hello, goodbye, or thank you, extend the other person a polite bow. They will appreciate your attempts.
Expect people to attempt speaking English with you.
I can only speak from a white person’s perspective. It doesn’t matter which country you hail from, if you’re the slightest bit white, locals will assume you are American and can speak English.
The United States has a closely shared history with Japan ever since World War II, and as a result, there are many Americans stationed in military bases in Japan or visiting as tourists.
If you’re an English speaker (and I assume you are if you’re reading this post), it may be cute to have school children run up to you and say “Nice to meet you. My name is _____. What is your name?” I imagine if you don’t speak any English, it must be very confusing why they would run up to you and try practicing their English lessons on you.
In the below photo, the girl on the far right walked up to me and asked if she could practice her English with me as part of a class assignment. I agreed and we commenced having a very formulaic conversation that was basically exchanging introductions. She then asked for a photo with me, passed her camera to the teacher, and the entire class unexpectedly gathered around me for a photo.
If only I had known they were all posing, I would have done the same!
One thing I noticed was that outside of Tokyo, and the train station attendants, most people who came up to me to practice English, only seemed to have a few phrases memorized, such as the one I quoted above. Don’t expect too deep of a conversation in these situations.
Look into staying at a Ryokan at least once.
Ryokan are basically Japanese spas/resorts where the Japanese go for weekend getaways.
Ryokan are often decorated in traditional tatami mat floors and the sliding Shōji doors and walls. Usually the rooms have modern amenities built in as well.
Being over an active fault line, Japan has more geothermal hot springs over such a small geographic space than anywhere else in the world. These hot springs are called Onsen and there is an entire culture around these.
Do yourself a favor and read up on Onsen and consider visiting one. Many Ryokan have their own Onsen…some more expensive places come with a private Onsen in the room, but that’s a different experience from the public ones.
Rent a pocket WIFI.
Having a pocket WIFI saved us in Japan. It helped us navigate in a country that speaks very little English. We relied on it for maps, for translations, for train schedules, and pretty much anything one could think of. It was definitely our lifeline.
We showed up without one because we met our friend Ray who lived there at the time teaching English and had his own pocket WIFI. While we were with him, we looked up rentals and picked one up down the street from us in a busy neighborhood of Tokyo.
I would advise renting one before you leave for Japan or else contacting your phone service provider to ensure you have connection to the internet at all times while in Japan.
Download the Hyperdia app.
The Hyperdia app is amazing. We have nothing that comes close to it in the United States (sorry Metro North but your app is sad in comparison).
This app allows you to look up stations (usually I would enter in a city and it would have the main stations or else I’d know which station I needed from checking google maps) and it will give you times that trains are arriving, which platforms to be on in the massive Japanese train stations, how long each ride will be, what it will cost, and if you have the JR Pass, it will factor in the cost for those. I can’t remember if it works for subways or not.
Be sure that you don’t download it until right before you head to Japan because it is only free for a certain amount of time. I logged into it about a week after returning home and I was locked out of using it.
Last but definitely not least, purchase a Japan Rail Pass.
Japanese cities center around their train stations. Many cities have most of their businesses right inside the station, which is often a massive building. Any trip to Japan will involve a lot of time spent riding trains. Factor that into your trip planning or else you won’t have much time for anything else.
The Japan Rail Pass is basically a train pass you buy in advance that has unlimited rides on any trains run by Japan Rail. While some routes may have you transfer to non-JR lines in the rural areas, (the Hyperdia app factors this into trip costs), Japan Rail runs almost all of the trains you will need to use. This pass is expensive, but it is worth it if you plan on travelling outside of Japan. The nice thing is that it lets you ride the expensive bullet train (Shinkansen) for free.
Buying one, however, can be a little confusing.
Passes are only available in two options based on number of days you want one for. We got one for 7 days, so we had to go 2 days of our trip without the pass. It can only be purchased outside of the country, so you have to go online to one of the approved JR Pass vendors and purchase one. They send you a voucher in the mail that you need to bring to Japan with you to redeem for the pass.
We got ours redeemed right inside the airport. That’s the best place to redeem it because they speak very good English and you can ask them any questions you have about how to use it and how it works there.
The best place to get information about this pass is on the Japan Rail Pass website as they spell everything out for you. The price will seem lofty for the rail pass, but believe me, the trains are much more expensive without it, and if you’re riding from Tokyo to Kyoto, you’ll be glad you caught the bullet train instead of spending your entire trip to Japan riding on a slow train.