Traveling to Japan

Photo by another of our group, Morgan
Touring Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto

In May, Kevin and I spent the first two weeks of the month visiting Japan.  (Since we live in Hawaii right now it made sense to go- we’re never going to have a shorter flight there.)

Planning for this trip was pretty stressful for me.  For one thing, Japan has been on my list of ‘places to visit’ since high school, when I discovered anime and manga (essentially, Japanese cartoons and comic books).  For another, the culture is different enough from my own that the risk of doing something unintentionally offensive was greatly increased.  And finally, neither of us spoke more than a handful of words in Japanese.

As a result, I obsessively read every article and blog post on visiting Japan that I could find. (Louise Hung became my favorite writer for a while there.)  Most of them did very little to reassure me.  Post after post insisted that the locals would look down on my because I have giant holes in my sneakers, make fun of me behind my back because I’m American, and that I was almost certainly going to be a disgrace to the good name of travelers everywhere.

Well, I survived the trip and let me tell you- most travel articles on Japan are shenanigans.  Shenanigans, I say!

Here are some things that I would have appreciated people telling me before we went:

  1.  The vending machines are LIES.  Technically, they’re just exaggerated.  While drink machines are way more common than they are in the US (like every few blocks common, which is great when you’re roaming a city) and cigarette machines aren’t a surprising sight, the ‘weird’ ones don’t exist.  I asked a friend who teaches in Osaka and they said that while you might find a machine selling something unusual deep in the wilds of a city, but they’ve never seen one.
  2. Public restrooms rarely have paper towels.  As a result, you can tell who the tourists are because they’re either lining up for the air drying machine things or wiping their hands on their pants.  Lots of shops in Japan sell these little towels that look like they’re too small to be useful.  They’re for your pocket!  You carry a little towel to use when you have to go in public.  I was so enamored with the idea and the adorable towels that I came home with six or seven and a pencil-case to carry them all in.  This is one of those ideas I wish we’d implement in the US.
  3. Lady fashion is the opposite of the US.  Here, mainstream style doesn’t care if your shirt is strapless so long as your legs are covered in some form.  (This is a loose explanation, I know our shorts can also get tiny.)  In Japan, you’ll get some odd looks if your shirt doesn’t completely cover your bra strap, but your skirt can be as minuscule as you like.  Luckily, being a tourist tends to exempt you from strict rules, but you might get some odd looks.
    1. Shoes.  There are lots of places you can’t wear your shoes, particularly in temples and other religious places, so be sure to watch what your fellow visitors are doing.  If they’re making a beeline for a big box that holds a bunch of slippers and plastic bags, then follow along.  Honestly, this is the easiest way to figure out how to do anything; just watch what everyone else does.
  4. Know some basic phrases.  As with anywhere, making an effort will get you into people’s good graces.  Kevin and I used “sumimasen” a lot, which means ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me.’  “Arigato,” of course, is thank you.  “Ohayo” for ‘good morning,’ and “konichiwa” for ‘good day,’ got us through pretty much anywhere. Oh, and if you have dietary restrictions, I highly, highly recommend these cards.  I’m an ovo-lacto vegetarian and they were invaluable.  They’re not 100% guaranteed, since (despite having Buddhists everywhere) restricted eating is something of a foreign concept, but I found them extremely useful.
  5. Everyone is helpful.  Obviously that’s an exaggeration, but if you’re making an effort people will do their very best to help you out.  Any time we stopped to look at a map a stranger would pop up and ask if they could help us.  In shops other browsers would come and help translate if we were struggling with a cashier.  English is a required subject for several years in most Japanese schools, so most people in the cities have a far, far superior grasp of English than I did of Japanese.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  6. The public transit is designed with English speakers in mind.  Every train or metro line has signs in both Japanese and English, and if you’re listening to the announcements, they are dual-language as well.  English maps are available everywhere.   Even the card machines have English options.
  7. Check out your travel options before you go.  Japan has something called a Japan Rail Pass that non-Japanese residents can get if they’re visiting the country.  Basically, you pay a bunch of money before you go and then you get a free ride on almost any Japan Rail line.  If you’re doing a lot of between cities travel or are going to be there for a while, it’s a really good deal.  Also, look at IC cards once you’re in-country.  They’ll get you onto most of the metro lines that the JR Pass won’t.
  8. Travel light.  Like most public transportation, Japan’s rails aren’t set up for big suitcases.  Kevin and I managed to fit two weeks worth of clothing and supplies into carry on luggage.  Packing a compactable backpack will help you haul everything around while you’re in-country if you really need the extra space, but you don’t want to try carrying a massive bag up three flights of stairs.

Have any of you been anywhere that surprised you?  What travel tips do you wish someone had told you?

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