5 things you should know before going to Japan

Your Guide to the sophisticated Japan

Japan is a land of ancient traditions and cutting-edge modernity, a place where serene temples coexist with bustling cities. As you prepare for your trip to this fascinating country, there are a few key things you should know to make your experience even more enjoyable. Here are five essential tips to help you navigate Japan like a pro.

1. Embrace the Etiquette

Politeness is Paramount

Japan is renowned for its politeness and meticulous manners. Respect and consideration for others are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, so it’s important to be aware of local customs and etiquette.

Basic Etiquette Tips

  • Bowing: A slight bow is the standard greeting in Japan, used instead of handshakes or hugs.
  • Shoes Off: Always remove your shoes when entering someone’s home, traditional inns (ryokan), and some temples and restaurants. You’ll typically be provided with indoor slippers.
  • Quiet Public Spaces: Speaking loudly or making noise in public places like trains and buses is considered impolite. Keep conversations at a low volume and set your phone to silent mode.

Dining Etiquette

When dining in Japan, there are a few specific customs to be aware of:

  • Chopstick Manners: Don’t stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, as this resembles a funeral ritual. Instead, place them across the bowl or on a chopstick rest.
  • Tipping: Tipping is not customary in Japan and can even be considered rude. Excellent service is expected as part of the experience.

2. Learn Basic Japanese Phrases

Language Barriers

While many Japanese people speak some English, especially in major cities, learning a few basic Japanese phrases can greatly enhance your travel experience. It shows respect for the local culture and can help you navigate daily interactions more smoothly.

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Essential Phrases

  • Hello: Konnichiwa (こんにちは)
  • Thank you: Arigatou gozaimasu (ありがとうございます)
  • Excuse me/Sorry: Sumimasen (すみません)
  • Yes/No: Hai (はい) / Iie (いいえ)
  • Please: Onegaishimasu (お願いします)
  • Where is…?: …wa doko desu ka? (…はどこですか?)

Useful Apps and Tools

Consider downloading translation apps like Google Translate, which offers real-time text and voice translation. Japanese-English dictionary apps can also be helpful for quick reference.

3. Navigating Public Transportation

Efficient and Punctual

Japan’s public transportation system is one of the most efficient and reliable in the world. Trains and buses run like clockwork, making it easy to get around even if you don’t speak the language.

Train System

The train system, including the famous Shinkansen (bullet trains), is extensive and covers most of the country. Here are a few tips to make the most of it:

  • JR Pass: If you plan to travel extensively by train, consider purchasing a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). It offers unlimited travel on JR trains for a set period and can save you a lot of money.
  • IC Cards: Prepaid IC cards like Suica and Pasmo can be used on trains, buses, and even for shopping. They are convenient and save you the hassle of buying tickets for each trip.
  • Navigation Apps: Apps like Hyperdia and Japan Transit Planner can help you plan your routes and check train schedules.

Respectful Behavior on Public Transport

Remember to be quiet and considerate on public transport. Speaking on the phone is frowned upon, and priority seats are reserved for the elderly, pregnant women, and people with disabilities.

4. Experience the Culture Respectfully

Temples and Shrines

Japan is home to countless temples and shrines, each with its own unique history and significance. When visiting these sacred sites, it’s important to be respectful:

  • Purification: Many shrines have a purification fountain where you should rinse your hands and mouth before entering.
  • Proper Attire: Dress modestly and avoid wearing revealing clothing when visiting religious sites.
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Onsen Etiquette

Bathing in an onsen (hot spring) is a quintessential Japanese experience. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Cleanliness: Thoroughly wash and rinse your body before entering the communal bath.
  • No Swimsuits: Onsen baths are typically enjoyed naked. Towels are used for modesty when walking around but should not be taken into the water.
  • Tattoos: Some onsens do not allow guests with tattoos due to their association with organized crime. Look for tattoo-friendly onsens or cover your tattoos with a waterproof bandage.

5. Cash is King

Limited Card Acceptance

While Japan is modern in many ways, it is still largely a cash-based society. Many small businesses, local restaurants, and even some accommodations prefer cash over credit cards.

ATMs and Currency Exchange

  • ATMs: Not all ATMs accept foreign cards, but those in post offices, 7-Eleven stores, and international banks usually do. It’s a good idea to withdraw cash as needed from these locations.
  • Currency Exchange: Major airports and banks offer currency exchange services. It’s wise to exchange some money upon arrival to ensure you have cash on hand.

Carrying Cash Safely

Japanese cities are generally very safe, but it’s always good practice to carry your cash securely. Use a money belt or a secure wallet, and avoid flashing large amounts of money in public.