Japan is a country a lot of people want to visit. I thought today I might share some quick and basic information about Japan if you are interested in visiting it.
Know Before You Go
Japan requires a visa for most passport holders to enter the country. Always check with your local consulate before you purchase your airline ticket. If you are a US passport holder, you do not need a visa unless you are intending to visit Japan for more than 90 days. In addition, your passport must be valid for the entire length of stay and you must have a round-trip or onward airline ticket.
If you don’t speak the language, don’t worry! You will be able to get by with some very basic Japanese. I would always encourage you to make some type of effort. Japanese people typically begin taking English classes from the age of middle school until high school. They should know some basic words of English at the very least, but may be too shy to use it. If you meet them halfway by attempting some Japanese, they will greatly appreciate it and may attempt some English. Have any addresses you need written down in Japanese or in English just in case you need to ask for directions.
Japan is a cash based economy. Major credit cards are accepted for train tickets, hotels and airline tickets, but vendors prefer cash! It is not uncommon to carry around large amounts of it. There is no need to worry about getting smaller bills when you first arrive. I would have some currency on hand before you leave the airport. Japan used the Yen. The Japanese yen comes in denominations of 1000-10000 in bills.
When you arrive in Japan, also keep in mind that they drive on right hand side of the road as they do in the U.K. If you plan on renting a car or driving at all, make sure you are comfortable with that and have your International Driving Permit (IDP) before you go.
Train Travel In Japan
Trains are absolutely the best way to get around the country. There are on time 99.9% of the time and are extremely cost efficient. With that being said, avoid rush hour at all costs. Japanese people prefer to use the train as their method of travel. Rush hour travel, especially with a suitcase or big bags, is asking for a miserable start to your trip. There are specific people who work on the train platforms whose job it is to ensure that people are packed into the trains so tightly the doors can barely close.
The JR Railpass (Japan Railways) is the best deal out there to foreigners. Always ensure you have an idea of where you might be traveling before you purchase your pass. You want to be able to maximize the value of the pass. There are several different options for passes. The Japan Guide has a nice layout over viewing your different options. If you only plan to stick around one city such as Tokyo, Kyoto or Sapporo, I would recommend buying tickets as you go with the exception of the Shinkansen, or Bullet Train tickets.
If you are purchasing any rail passes, always ensure they are from a credible seller and are valid for your dates of intended travel. If you are unsure, check with your local Japanese Consulate or Embassy office for contact information.
Japan experiences 4 distinct seasons each year. Be prepared for the various types of weather depending on when you are considering visiting. Summer is hot and very humid. There will be a lot of mosquitoes out and about, but at the same time, the long summer nights can be very picturesque. Fall sees the beautiful autumn leafs and cooler weather. It is a popular time of year to travel to Mr. Fuji and the forest areas of the country. Winter sees cold and snow! Storms can be pretty brutal so dress accordingly. Spring is my favorite time of year with mild weather. If can be very busy as the Cherry Blossoms come into bloom towards March and April.
Shoes in Japan
If you are staying in a Japanese style hotel, home, school, or even B and B, you might consider buying a pair of slippers for indoor use ahead of time. You can always buy slippers in Japan, but if you wear larger shoe sizes, it can be significantly more difficult to find a pair. Why would you need slippers? In Japanese culture, it is considered a sin to wear your outdoor shoes indoors. You will see outdoor shoes lined up outside of places that request you to change into slippers. Don’t worry, no one will walk away with your shoes.
The Japanese want to keep their homes clean. A traditional Japanese home may have bamboo tatami mats as their flooring. Tatami mats are difficult to clean. Since space is also tight in a traditional Japanese home, your living room space may also double as your sleeping space. You would want where you sleep to be clean as well. Slippers may be available to borrow, but I always prefer to have my own. With the slippers socks should be worn. You can get away with being barefoot, but it’s traditionally looked down upon.
Food In Japan
Food is a popular topic for those wishing to travel to Japan. I won’t cover too much here, but I want to point out that if you have any food allergies or specific dietary needs, I would highly encourage you to have that information translated into Japanese. Always carry your own Epipen with you in the event you have an attack. The Japanese diet is based largely around seaweed, rice and fish. Be proactive and do some research on what you can and can not eat. Restaurants in Japan are not as allergy friendly as those in say the US and Canada. You may have to show them your card to figure out what dishes you may be able to eat. I’m going to link Live Japan as a resource for info on how to read a Japanese food label.
When eating in Japan, it is considered an insult if you do not finish all of the food on your plate. The Japanese school of thought is that the cook went to a lot of trouble to prepare the meal for you. To show them honor you should finish it. They also consider it wasteful to through any food away. It is hard in public to find a garbage can. If you are eating a meal and have trouble with chopsticks (hashi), don’t be afraid to ask for a fork. Many eating locations may automatically hand you a fork if you are in a touristy location.
Tipping in a foreign country is always a source for debate. In Japan, it is not expected for you to leave a tip. Servers are paid a livable wage and are often happy to work at their job. If your server was exceptional, feel free to offer them a small tip, but don’t be surprised if they refuse it. It is just the Japanese way. You can always just leave it on the table. If possible, leave the tip in a small envelope. It’s best to be discreet.
My Connection to Japan
A long time ago I once thought I would be a high school Japanese language teacher. People would say, “you’re a natural” at the language. I believed them and continued my studies through college.The more and more time I put into it, however, the more disillusioned I became. I was the only non-native Japanese person in my graduate class. The Japanese language is a lot different from studying a Romantic based European language. I was never able to be on the same page as the native speakers (I could always understand them, but my vocabulary was not up to par).
The advising professor for my teaching credential program pulled me aside after the first week and strongly advised me to reconsider my career ambitions. This was one of the toughest moments of my life at the time. It’s true that there is absolutely noway to become fluent in a language until you live in that country for an extended period. I had studied abroad for a half year, but couldn’t afford to spend the full year there.I also applied to teach English there as part of the JET program. It was a rough time for JET, however, as there were suffering severe financial constraints and did not accept anyone from my university.
Sometimes no matter how hard you try, life decides to take you on another path. This was one of those defining moments for me. I felt like dirt and if the head of the program didn’t feel like I was worth her time, why should I. For the longest time I refused to acknowledge that I spoke Japanese, but that was stupid. If you have a skill, use it!
Fast forward 10 years to a girl who now seeks to travel the world. My Japanese has come in handy more times than can count in places I would never have imagined such as: Greece, London, LA. I’ve had time to reflect on everything and now I feel is the time for me to share some of the things I know about Japan. Hope this helps you! Until next time, happy travels.