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Japan Travel Tips: Everyday Advice

Having grown up in Canada and now residing in America, Elsie and I have all the typical western social norms drilled into us. We've visited parts of Europe and the Caribbean and in those other countries things really did not feel that different.

Japan is the first trip I have ever taken where culture shock really affected me. I had heard about it but being in a place where your language is spoken by a sliver of the population and the social norms differ so much it is a incredibly humbling and eye opening experience which makes you remember "oh yes the Earth is fucking huge and I've barely seen any of it".

So here is some advice for any would-be Japan travelers that we gathered after our first trip there.

Be super polite

Most people are going to think this is super obvious. If you are a tourist in another country you should always be on your best behavior right? In my opinion you should knock it up a notch when you visit Japan because it is a collectivist nation in many ways and it is very easy to do things that go against the social norms which will offend the Japanese people around you. Simple things like pay attention to who is talking around you and how loud you are being a public space. In the west, groups of people don't mind being loud or boisterous on trains because they are just having a good time but in Japan this can be considered very offensive and hammer home the stereotype of disrespectful foreigners (you may hear the pejorative term "gaijin" 外人).

The individualist nature of North America and Europe mean you can usually travel between those nations and the social norms expected are roughly the same but this is not true for Japan. While the rest of this article is going to touch on some of those faux pas I could easily write tens of thousands of words about all the differences. So my advice is just be hyperaware of your actions and compare yourself to the people around you. Let's do what we can to stop adding fuel to fire that all foreigners are loud, boorish, selfish people.

Expect people to be extremely helpful and subtly prejudice

This ties into the collectivist nature I mentioned above but in general we found Japanese people to be some of the most friendly and helpful people on the planet. I obviously stood out as a westerner and multiple times I had people walk up to me and offer to help me find my way or figure out something and this was with no prompting. One of the waitresses we had actually went and looked up how to greet us in English! I attempted to use Google Translate to thank her in Japanese which went horribly but it is the thought that counts. The bartender we found in Golden Gai tried to speak English while plying us with whisky and it was a delightful encounter. 95% of my memories of interacting with Japanese people are about how much they went out of their way to make me feel better.

Then there is the other 5% who really don't like foreigners. 98+% of the country is Japanese so foreigners are really unique in some parts of Japan and some Japanese people just have to quantify us as "other" and treat us differently. We got turned back from a couple bars because they said they didn't serve foreigners. We got "forgotten" about in some restaurants until we explicitly got the waiter's attention. Very subtle digs because it is not the Japanese way to make a scene so they do what they can to inconvenience you to either get you to give up or leave. Again this is not the majority of Japanese people but it is just something to be aware of while you are visiting because I am fairly certain you will experience it.

7-Eleven stores are crazy useful in Japan

When most people think of 7-Eleven they think of shitty convenience stores next to gas stations manned by a single teenager who wants to be anywhere but there.

In Japan it could not be more of the opposite. 7-Eleven's in Japan have almost everything you need. Standard convenience store fare of groceries and drinks? Of course. Medicine? Tons of it. ATMs that accept foreign debit cards? Check. Delicious hot food including fried chicken? No problem. Beer? You got it! Individually wrapped ongiri that are impeccably fresh? They got you fam. You can even pay off your bills, get mail delivered there or even buy tickets for concerts or baseball games. 7-Eleven has become a one stop shop for everything you would need to get by in your daily life.

On top of all of this the level of customer service you experience at 7-Eleven's in Japan is bonkers. Usually at convenience stores in the USA you get the feeling that the person behind the counter is barely standing your presence. In 7-Eleven they will go out of their way to help you. The Japanese concept of omotenashi (Japanese hospitality is a incredible oversimplification of it) is on full display at every 7-Eleven store.

The point is do not come to Japan with any preconceived notions of what Japanese 7-Eleven stores can do for you because you will undoubtedly be wrong. Accept that they could be the lifeblood of your time in Japan and you will be much happier.

Conbini's in general are outstanding

Japanese convenience stores (conbiniensu sutoa - コンビニエンスストア) are often referred to as conbini (コンビニ) for short and are worlds better than their counterparts in other countries.

The big name ones are 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart but don't be leery of any mom and pop convenience stores you come across because they all strive for a level of customer service that you thought only existed in the movies. No matter what store you walk in to you'll walk out happy.

They are clean and they are serving up great food that you shouldn't hesitate to eat it you are hungry. We would routinely hop into a conbini to grab a quick snack to keep our energy up.

Contactless Smart Cards

I mentioned in my planning your stay article that Japan is not very big on credit cards but that doesn't mean they prefer to use cash for everything. Japan is ahead of the western world in the adoption of a lot of technology and one of the coolest ones is contactless smart cards. These cards look similar to credit or debit cards but behave more like cash. In the western world they are typically used for public transportation in only the biggest cities but in Japan they are ubiquitous and used to purchase all sorts of goods and services.

In Tokyo they have the Suica Card system and we used it to pay for subway rides, get drinks from vending machines, get hot food from conbinis, play arcade games and much more. Wherever we saw the Suica logo we could just tap the card and be on our way. Since the cards behave more like cash (if you lose the card, you lose the money on it) they have a limit of ¥20,000 (approximately $180 USD) so they are not a replacement for using cash or credit cards for large purchases.

We got our Suica cards at one of the ticket vending machines inside Tokyo Station. It cost ¥2000 of which ¥500 was used as a "deposit" so people wouldn't request multiple cards. I would recommend watching a YouTube tutorial for how to get a Suica card from one of the machines but, to be honest, you can switch a large majority of the machines to English so we didn't have much difficulty. Just be aware of how busy the stations are when you go because you will end up manipulating a vending machine for several minutes and perhaps blocking some Japanese commuters from buying a ticket for their train home.

Suica cards are even compatible with the iPhone 8 and X. You can add it to your Apple Wallet and then just tap your phone wherever you see the Suica logo.

There is no tipping

I know this is going to be hard to believe for people coming from western cultures but tipping is not customary in Japan. The Japanese believe that good service is standard and tipping is not necessary. If you try to tip someone you will probably be met with confusion and most likely the tip will be rejected. If you tried to hand someone cash directly from your pocket it would be considered quite rude so if you absolutely wanted to try leaving a tip place it inside an envelope and hand that over instead. But again, the vast majority of people will not be expecting it.

No public garbage cans

Supposedly there used to be a lot of public garbage cans but after the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway there was a lot of political pressure to remove them. Also, cleanliness seems to be so ingrained into the Japanese culture that they all do their part to keep their garbage until they get home so that you aren't overflowing garbage cans in public places. Regardless, the point is that in Japan you will have a difficult time finding a place to dispose of your garbage.

The recommendation is to bring a plastic bag with you at all times as your portable garbage bag that you can either empty when you do finally find a garbage can or just wait until you get back home. Conbinis usually have garbage cans at their entrances (although they are intended for paying customers) and vending machines usually have recycling bins in front of them so you can drink and then dispose of the can. This actually segues perfectly into my next tip...

It is rude eat/drink while walking

In Japan it is considered rude to walk while eating or drinking something. While there are the obvious hygiene reasons of dropping crumbs, spilling something, the possible odors, chewing noises, there is another reason that is not so obvious. In Japan there is a large respect for food and how it is prepared. When you are walking and casually eating food you are not showing the food the proper deference and acknowledging who prepared it. You'll notice in restaurants Japanese people saying itadakimasu (いただきます, literally, "I humbly receive") and thanking the chef after they've finished their meal. This is all out of respect for the arduous process that went into making their meal.

This is also why you'll often hear slurping when someone is eating a dish like ramen. Making that noise is another show of respect.

Rice is another weird thing in Japan. In places like Canada people would eat the rice first because they love the taste. In a place like Japan rice is so common that it is used as an indicator that you are done your meal and eating rice is more to fill you up then for the taste. Also dipping rice from sushi into soy sauce is another faux pas. You are supposed to slightly dip the fish portion into the soy sauce and not let your rice soak it all up. That makes the rice and soy sauce overpower the taste of the fish which is sign of disrespect.

Don't rub your chopsticks together

This is another subtle sign of disrespect. The question to ask is why do you do this? It is to remove any splinters that may be on the chopsticks correct? So if the chopsticks were of high quality why would they have splinters? But doing this you are subtly indicating that you think these chopsticks are of poor quality.

Long distance trains can have reserved cars

Long distance commuter trains in Japan typically have reserved cars that require you to have a ticket. There are also some railway lines that are only have reserved seating.

During our first trip to Japan we had a Japan Rail Pass so there was always a train that we could hop on at no charge. However, when we started to look more closely about our travel options we realized that there were other trains we had access to for free with our JR Pass that we just had get a reserved seat ticket ahead of time.

So whenever you are planning a long distance trip on a train do a bit more digging and see if there is a reserved seat option. It shouldn't take much time to pickup and then you'll be certain you have access to a nice comfy seat for your stay. You may even be able to go and pickup your ticket a day or two in advance so you can be certain you'll have a seat.

Also there is a difference between city trains and commuter trains. As well as cars. So if you are going for a long ride you can usually find a car that has seating designed for long trips rather than the standard subway seating for people who are getting off soon.