Japan is an amazing country with a rich cultural heritage and one foot firmly in the future. But the unique culture, which is the reason so many tourists visit each year, can also often be the cause of a lot of memorable mishaps. Prepare for your first trip to Japan with these ten tips to make your trip go a little more smoothly.
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10 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Japan for the First Time
A Little Japanese Will Go a Long Way
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Japanese is, of course, the national language and few people can communicate well in English, while others are simply shy to speak it. Learning even a few of the most basic phrases in Japanese will make non-English speakers feel more at ease. However, multi-lingual signage is available on virtually all trains and buses, and restaurants in tourist areas compete for customers by providing English menus.
Medicine is Probably Not What You're Used to
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It might be a good idea to stock up on daily medicines before coming to Japan. Many products available over the counter in western countries require a prescription in Japan, or are simply not available. Even common medicines like painkillers are often only available in very low-dose pills and sometimes include caffeine in the formulation, which many people can't take.
The Rail System Can Be Confusing
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Japan benefits from an enormous, comprehensive railway network that connects the entire country. But navigating the different subway lines within the cities themselves can be confusing. This is especially true in Tokyo. The extensive subway, light rail, tram and monorail networks that go around the city can take you virtually anywhere you want to go, but even the locals use navigation apps to figure out the most efficient routes for their trip. Even downloading Google Maps to your phone is more than enough, it'll tell you the best way to get to your destination and even if trains are delayed or cancelled.
The same station for JR trains and the subway are often in different places are not connected, so be aware of this when transferring between lines. If in doubt of where to go, just ask one of the staff at the station, they're used to getting ask these kind of questions and are sure to help you out.
Tourist Spots Are Crowded
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Major tourist spots, particular those in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, can get extremely crowded. If you're really set on snapping that perfect shot, the best time to do so is in the very early morning (if the area is open at that time). Avoiding the trains at rush hour, which is generally around 8:30 a.m. on weekdays, is also a good idea, especially in Tokyo. Make time in your schedule to visit lesser-known parks, gardens, museums and shrines which are further away from tourism hotspots.
Also be aware that traveling during Golden Week can be particularly chaotic. Almost everyone in the country is on holiday for this short period at the end of April and start of May, hotels are often booked up much quicker than usual and airfares will be hiked up sometimes over three times the normal price.
Tattoos Can Get You Banned
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If you've got tattoos, be warned that most onsen, public baths and water parks will be off limits to you. While there are many places that now allow tattooed guests to enter, there are still many more which do not. These days, most Japanese know that tattoos are common overseas and don't necessarily indicate gang affiliation, but the general public attitude towards them remains chilly.
Public Toilets Might Take Some Time to Figure Out
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Just when you think you've got Japanese toilets figured out, you find yourself crouched down in the stall for five minutes trying to figure out how to flush it. Or you wait in line for the next available stall, only to find out that it's a traditional squat style toilet. Public restrooms in Japan are an adventure in and of themselves, but as long as you don't accidentally hit the emergency call button, everything should be fine.
Bring Plenty of Cash
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With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics looming on the horizon, more and more vendors are looking into ways to accept cashless payment. It's still good advice, however, to always keep a supply of cash on hand. There are still many shops and restaurants in Japan that will only accept the traditional payment. Also be aware that ATMs will often be closed after as early as 6pm, especially in rural areas. Luckily you can usually find them in convenience stores, that are open for 24 hours however.
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Vegetarian restaurants are becoming more and more common in large cities, but meals catered to more specific needs such as those that are vegan and halal will require more research and preparation. Many restaurants won't accommodate substitutions, while others will go the extra mile to cater to customers.
There is No Tipping Culture
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Tipping at restaurants and hotels is not expected in Japan, and no one will think you rude for not doing so. Instead of tips, many places add an 'otoshi' fee to the bill, which comes with a small appetizer. Some places add a table charge (no appetizer, though), and some fancier restaurants will simply add a service charge automatically to the bill. However, many smaller establishments would be happy to receive a tip, and some newer places even set out tip jars on the counters. Part-time restaurant workers make minimum wage in Japan, and might even appreciate the gesture.
Earthquakes are a Daily Occurrence
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It's said that there's an earthquake somewhere in Japan every single day. Most of these are so small you won't even notice it, but larger quakes do occur, and they can be quite scary. The safest place to be during an earthquake is under some kind of sturdy shelter like a desk. The only time it's safer to run outside (as most people in Japan tend to do) is if you're inside an un-reinforced structure that does not adhere to modern building codes.
Now that you know what to expect, there's no better time to visit Japan. While the culture might be vastly different to places in the west, don't worry too much about violating cultural norms, most people are used to tourists and understand that things are different to them here.