When I think of Japan, so many striking images come to mind. I imagine kimono-clad, white-faced women; snow-capped Mt Fuji swathed in dusty-pink cherry blossoms; enormous sumo wrestlers wearing nothing more than a loin cloth as they charge at each other in a ring. While these images are certainly representative of some aspects of Japan, there is so much more to offer those who dare to delve below the surface.
Travelling in Japan is not for everyone, especially if you want to go beyond the tourist trails in Tokyo and Kyoto. There are many things about this country that can unexpectedly challenge even the most avid of travellers. However, with a few tips, insights and a realistic expectation of what you may experience, you will be able to navigate your way through these challenges and hopefully have an incredible journey in this fascinating, beautiful and culturally unique part of the world.
Culturally-speaking, there are many noticeable differences between Japanese culture and western culture. Getting certain customs right won’t make you blend in, but you won’t completely stand out as a clumsy foreigner either. Here are some of the most common cultural faux pas:
Shoes. Shoes are strictly for outdoors. Whenever you enter a room, a home, a temple, a castle, and often even a restaurant, be prepared to remove your shoes. Here are some hints:
- If you see a line of slippers at the entrance, remove your shoes and put on the slippers.
- If a room has tatami (straw) matting – shoes off! You never wear shoes or slippers on tatami mats. Socks/stockings are OK.
- Bathrooms/Toilets with slippers at the doorway – these are special slippers only to be worn in the bathroom or toilet. This is particularly common in Japanese inns and hotels.
- If there are cubby holes at the entrance, you should put your shoes in here before entering the building. Again, there may be slippers for you to wear her too.
- Plastic bags (often found at historical building entrances) – take off your shoes, pop them in the bag and then carry them with you through the building.
- Within some Japanese hotels, “house slippers” are provided for you to wear throughout the hotel. Remember to take these off as you enter your room, as well as in bathrooms and when you go outside!
- If there is a step or steps up in to an entrance, this suggests that shoes are to be removed.
- Due to frequent shoe on/shoe off scenarios, I strongly recommend wearing slip-on shoes or boots – anything that you can get on and off easily and with limited fuss.
Bathing. Having a true Japanese bath experience is one of those cultural must-do’s, however it can be intimidating and uncomfortable if you don’t know the rules. The bath itself isn’t about cleanliness – they aren’t for washing, they are for soaking. From the minerals of the hot springs to relaxing at home in the tub, bathing is therapeutic and part of daily life for the Japanese. So what are the rules? How do you “take a bath” in Japan?
- Wear Yukata (Japanese Robe). If the guest house, inn or hotel has provided a yukata for you, then you are very welcome to wear that gown to and from their baths. It isn’t mandatory, but it makes for a more authentic experience.
- No Shoes. Remember, no shoes in the bathroom – leave your slippers at the door.
- Get naked. No swimwear allowed in the baths – it’s nude or nothing. Public baths are separated into “men” and “women”, so don’t be prudish. There are no large towels allowed in the bathing areas either – they must be left in the change room.
- Scrub first. When you first enter the bath house, you’ll find it a series of low-set, open showers. Grab a stool and sit down at a shower – there will be soaps, shampoo and conditioner there for you to get nice and clean. Make sure you are all rinsed off and there’s no soap left on you before you leave the shower area.
- The modesty towel. It’s a bit smaller and thinner than a hand towel and you can take it into the bathing area, but whatever you do don’t put it in the bath water. You’ll see some Japanese wrap it around their head or put it around their shoulders to wipe off perspiration.
- The bath. As I said, these are places for relaxation and soaking in the minerals of the hot spring. It’s not a place for idle chit-chat, so keep talk to a minimum and let the hot water work its magic. If there are multiple baths, that generally means they are different temperatures or depths, so make sure you try them all out.
- Tattoos. Tattoos in Japan are associated with Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Because of this, some bath houses don’t permit anyone with tattoos to use them. You can opt to cover up your tattoo if you can with a plaster or tape, but generally if you see a sign that shows a tattoo and a line through it, forget about having a bath.
- Bath swap. Just because the bath on the left was for women last night doesn’t mean it’s the same the next morning. Many public baths swap over the male and female signs – so make sure you check the sign before you enter!
There’s no tipping in Japan – maybe that’s why Australians love it! In lieu of tips, the Japanese offer omiyage – a kind of gift or souvenir. These are often edible – like biscuits, sweets or some kind of snack food. If you have room in your suitcase, you can always bring something from home to give to your guides – like packets of Tim Tams, chocolate macadamias etc. However, nothing is expected so it is completely over to you.
Nothing stands out or upsets the Japanese more than a cranky or disorderly foreigner. Settle disagreements quietly so as not to cause the other person to “lose face” – you may have to concede and let your issue slide in Japan if a resolution isn’t easily forthcoming. Rules are to be respected – for example, lining up in the designated area for trains, crossing at the lights, taking off your shoes, following the protocol for the hot spring baths etc.
Here are some other tips for travelling in Japan which may make your experience more enjoyable and easier to navigate:
There is a wide range of accommodation experiences available in Japan to suit any budget.
- Ryokan & Minshuku. I am a huge advocate for spending at least one or two nights in traditional Japanese accommodation on any trip to Japan. However, be mindful when you’re planning not to have too many nights in ryokan (Japanese inns) or minshuku (guest houses) in a row if you’re not used to them. The bedding is on the floor and the food is generally traditional Japanese delicacies. Some Ryokan offer western rooms if you want the Japanese experience but need a mattress.
- Japanese hotels. There are numerous 2-3 star basic Japanese hotels which offer good budget options but are not overly foreign-traveller friendly. Bathrooms are tiny as most guests will opt to use the communal baths in the hotel; smoking is common throughout the hotel – smoking rooms can become non-smoking by removing an ashtray and using some air freshener; wifi may not be available in the rooms; breakfast options are generally heavily Japanese in style – so no toast, cereal etc.
- Western hotels. Generally 3-5 star in standard but more in line with what the foreign tourist expects. The smoking thing can still be an issue, as can the bathroom size, but they are generally a safer option for the first-time traveller to Japan.
- Bedding. As mentioned with the traditional accommodation, bedding is on the floor. This consists of a futon mat, a pillow (often filled with wheat or rice) and a thick doona on top. Tip: If you find the futon mat too thin, ask for another one. The bedding will be kept in the cupboard but housekeeping will make it up while you are at dinner. Some inns will also put the bedding away after breakfast – this isn’t always the case.
Japan is a cash-based society. Foreign credit cards are not readily accepted.
- Take cash. Japan is very safe, so carrying plenty of cash on you is not as scary as it sounds.
- Travel money cards. These will work at selected ATMs for you to be able to withdraw cash – head to foreign banks like HSBC and Citibank. Alternatively 7-11 convenience stores often have foreign-card ATMs inside where you can withdraw cash. Post offices also have ATM tellers inside – but these are not 100% reliable for withdrawing money from.
- EFTPOS/Paywave. Not very common at all – don’t rely on being able to use your credit card or travel money card in a store. Major hotels and department stores will accept credit card, but that local restaurant or little pottery place may not.
- I can’t say it enough – make sure you have cash on you!
Travelling by trains is the most efficient, reliable and economic way to get around Japan.
- JR Pass. Most visitors to Japan will be travelling on a JR Pass. Make sure you have your exchange voucher and passport with you and exchange your rail pass prior to using it for your first rail journey. Once you have your pass, you can use it to travel on the JR network (but not on privately own train lines such as Meitetsu or Kintetsu trains). The passes also don’t guarantee you a seat on a specific train and have some restrictions as to which trains you can travel on.
- Seat Reservations. Once you have your passes, you can make seat reservations free of charge at a JR Ticket office. Note that some offices will only make one or two reservations for you at a time, so be prepared to make several visits for an extended trip or multiple rail journeys. You will need your rail passes with you in order to make these reservations.
- Point to Point tickets. If your trip has been arranged to include individual tickets instead of a pass, these tickets will be delivered to your first hotel in Japan for you to collect. These details will be included in your itinerary. These are reserved seats set for specific trains.
- Subways. Subway tickets can be purchased locally (most are not covered on the JR pass) however I recommend the use of an IC Card for using on subways around Japan. These can be used around the country and act like a “Go Card” – simply tag on and off as you go through the turnstiles. IC cards can be pre-purchased here and then topped up easily at any station if you find your credit is running low.
You can spend a lot in Japan, but you can get away with it on a shoestring – it is just about finding that balance that is right for you. Tips for saving a few dollars on everyday expenses while travelling in Japan include:
- Convenience stores. They are everywhere – Lawson, Family Mart, 7Eleven, Circle K, Sunkus… the list is endless! A great spot for an easy lunch on the go, with sandwiches, hot snacks, noodle boxes, sushi, rice balls, chips, a huge range of drinks – you name it, you can get it here. You can feed a family for less than JPY2000 ($23) – plus you get to taste a range of Japanese food and drinks.
- Lunch sets. Many Japanese restaurants offer beautiful set meals for lunch at a substantially reduced cost when compared to dinner.
- Eat local. Small, hole-in-the-wall style eateries that may only have a dozen seats are often serving cheap, fresh and delicious local fare. Ramen, soba, udon and rice bowls are common local style meals that you’ll find readily around Japan. Also look out for okonomiyaki in Hiroshima and Osaka too.
- Vending machines. Drinks vending machines are the most common, with drinks costing between JPY110-150 ($1.35-$1.80). They often serve both hot and cold drinks – check for the red (hot) or blue (cold) label or you may get a surprise!
- Combination tickets. Keep an eye out for combination entry tickets – often two or three monuments/gardens in one area or city may offer combination entry tickets which naturally work out cheaper than buying all the individual tickets.
- 100 Yen Shops. These are great places to pick up souvenirs and quirky Japanese items for JPY100 ($1.20) each. Bargain!
Most major tourist places, cities and train stations will have dual Japanese/English signs. Many restaurants and hotels also have signs in English – this doesn’t mean that the staff speak English though! It may be worth investing in a translation app or small phrase book to get you through some trickier language barriers. If in doubt, tourist information and train stations often have a designated English speaker or English speaking line, so look out for that.
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