We can all admit that Japan is like a whole different world. The way things are run around the country might be foreign to most people. Just like any other trip to a different country, getting to know the basic ropes of the culture and customs can do wonders for one’s experience.
Not only will you know a thing or two about Japanese culture from the advanced prep before your travel, but you’ll also be able to make necessary arrangements according to your findings that will ensure a smooth travel experience.
So read on for your sneak peek into Japanese culture through a few travelling tips I put together myself.
1. Japanese First, English Second
Japan’s first language isn’t English. Their native language is — surprise, surprise! — Japanese. Everyone communicates in Japanese in the country. Even though the Japanese have English as one of their subjects in elementary and high school, the lack of usage and exposure to the language has led the community of people to have very limited English speaking ability. They may know basic and some intermediate vocabulary in written form, but it’s rather difficult for them to follow a conversation except when spoken slowly.
Because of that, your best chance at communicating in English with the Japanese staff at stores and restaurants is to use extremely simple and basic language accompanied by hand gestures and miming, if possible. Usually, just out of context, the Japanese will be able to grasp what it is you’re trying to communicate.
Another method of communicating with the Japanese on your trip to Japan that is proven to be more effective as well as making your trip smoother is learning a few simple phrases and words in the Japanese language! A few pointer words like “this” and “that” alongside “please” and “thank you” will definitely add a bit of fun to your Japan travel! The Japanese are extremely encouraging when they encounter a foreigner who’s attempting to speak their native language, so why not impress them with a whole sentence of “this is my first time in Japan!”
2. No Cash-less, but Cash More
Source: Japanexperterna.se from Flickr
Japan has quite a reputation to be one of the most high-tech countries in the world. While that may be true, the country is still a bit behind in some ways. One of them is how cash seems to be the most popular method of payment than anything else. Japan is the highest in the world when it comes to the circulation of banknotes in relation to its economy.
Even to this very day, some shops and restaurants only accept cash as payment — no credit cards or touchless payment methods, only cash. While bigger cities like Tokyo and Osaka are opening up to cashless payment methods like credit cards, don’t expect the rest of the country to function just like them. For some of us, it might feel extremely unusual to carry quite an amount of cash around, but in Japan, it’s extremely normal.
3. Polite but…
They say the Japanese are extremely friendly and polite. Customer service is always top-notch and you’ll never leave a store or restaurant without at least a thousand and one smiles and thank yous from the staff. Even though it may be true, that’s not always the case.
Brace yourself for the “gaijin” treatment. “Gaijin” is a Japanese term to refer to foreigners in Japan, and more often than not, it’s used in a negative sense. Sometimes, you’ll be turned away from a restaurant or store just because you’re a foreigner. Strange, right?
Don’t jump to the quickest conclusion in your mind. There are a couple of reasons why this can happen, even though it’s now becoming less and less frequent. It may be because of the Japanese mindset when it comes to mistakes — they hate making them, and would prefer not to risk a situation where the (foreign) guest is unsatisfied with the restaurant service or setting.
There’s also the possibility of the restaurant not welcoming any stranger in general, regardless of whether or not you’re a Japanese or foreigner. Some restaurants require an introduction or invite from an existing customer. Another reason, which is probably the most common one and not a pleasant one either, is that the Japanese would prefer not to have a table of foreigners that will possibly disrupt the regular crowd due to their actions and behaviour.
Most of the time, you’ll get turned down at the door without a clear explanation of why. Don’t be disheartened. To avoid this, simply bring along a Japanese pal or request your hotel concierge or any online concierge to make bookings in advance.
4. Prepare For Zero Bins!
Source: tokyoform from Flickr
This is one thing that almost every visitor who has been to Japan has noticed: there aren’t that many bins in Japan! You can walk down a few streets, and even a few more, without encountering one on your whole journey. With Japan being one of the cleanest countries in the world, you’d expect to see a few on every street — how else is the country able to be so spotless?
You’ll often hear stories of the locals carrying their trash all the way back home because they haven’t encountered any bins along the way. This is extremely common, so don’t be surprised. You might even have the same experience on one of your days here!
5. The JR Pass Isn’t Everything
Source: Danny Choo from Flickr
On every travelling site and blog, everyone is telling you to get a JR Pass — promoting this “all-in” travel card because of the money-saving perks and other benefits. For a first-timer to Japan, you might end up buying into this and believing it all since there are so many different people talking about it, making the statement reliable. However, if you did a bit more digging, you’ll realise that the JR Pass might not be that worth it in the first place.
Japan is full of various train lines by different companies. Some of these lines cover the major areas, and then there are smaller lines like the subway ones. One might think that you can rely on just the main lines to get around Japan — this is true to an extent, but then you’d have to do a ton of walking if you want to get to certain places. That’ll cost you extra time, and you know what they say about time — it is priceless.
Depending on your itinerary for your trip, the JR Pass is actually not money-saving at all. If you do the math right, the JR Pass might be a colossal waste of money if anything. If you’re jumping from city to city in a full crash-course method and only seeing the main highlight of each city within a week, then maybe the JR Pass is for you. However, if you’re planning to see the best every city has to offer, give the JR Pass a pass — a Suica or Pasmo card is just as sufficient.
While there are more than a few other things that should be included but wasn’t, don’t worry — these top five things are more than sufficient to start you off. I mean, I’m not going to spoil the whole Japan experience for you, either! So take down these notes and enjoy the ride after!