Mike Grindle is a digital nomad and culture writer sharing insights from his travels.
Japan is one of the most unique and wonderful places you could ever visit. It's a place where eastern traditions and high-tech culture have merged to create a country unlike any other. But the same things that make Japan so interesting can also present a culture shock for unprepared visitors.
Let's be honest, no one wants to be the fumbling tourist making a scene of themselves wherever they go, and the same is true in Japan. So here are 10 things you should know before travelling to Japan that will make your life much easier when you visit.
1. The Japanese Take Their Trash Home With Them
Walking around the streets of Japan, you'll quickly realize that trash cans are few and far between. That's because it's custom in Japan to take and dispose of any trash at home. If you're lucky, you might find one or two in the more touristy areas, but be aware that if you grab a bite to eat on the move, you might be holding onto your rubbish for a long while.
2. You Don’t Need to Tip
Tipping culture is not a thing in Japan. In fact, overpaying someone can be highly inappropriate and offensive in some circumstances. So, avoid any potential issues by just paying the price listed.
3. Always Wear Socks
Always wearing socks might seem like strange advice. But the thing is, at some point during your stay, you'll probably be asked to take your shoes off.
You may already be aware that it's customary in Japan to take your shoes off before you enter a home. But, many restaurants and the like also enforce this rule. So keep a good matching pair on at all times!
4. Tattoos Are Still Taboo
You might see your tattoos as a fun way to express yourself. But in Japan, tattoos still have some highly negative stigmas attached to them. That's because being inked was especially popular with criminal gangs such as the Yakuza.
While perceptions are slowly changing, showing off your tattoos will probably get you some funny looks. Also, certain places such as bath houses may deny you entry. outright if you've got a lot of ink. As a result, it can pay to bring a little skin-toned tape with you to cover up, especially if you're planning to visit more traditional and less-touristy areas.
5. You Must Respect The Subway's Rules
The subways in your home city might be noisy and chaotic places. But in Japan, the rules of the underground are taken very seriously. For example, activities such as talking on cell phones or eating and drinking are highly frowned upon. Also, be prepared to line up whenever you enter or leave the train and avoid sitting in seats reserved for the pregnant, the elderly, or those with disabilities.
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6. The Toilets Can Be a Challenge
The toilets in Japan are infamous for how high-tech they are. And yes, they really do come equipped with all sorts of gadgets, from music players to deodorizers.
On the other end of the spectrum are the more traditionally-styled squat toilets built into the floor. You'll often find these in older buildings, and they can take some getting used to if you've never used them before. But thankfully, most places do offer both options.
7. It Pays to Learn Basic Japanese Phrases and Letters
Quite a few Japanese people speak English, but this is still a minority. So don't assume you'll be able to strike up a conversation in English with everybody you meet.
It's also worth mentioning that not everything is likely to feature English labeling. As a result, it will be worthwhile to not only learn a few Japanese phrases before you go, but also to learn what a few basic symbols mean.
8. Stick To The Left
Like the British and Australians, the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, which can be a little jarring if you're from somewhere like the Americas.
This habit of keeping to the left is also carried over to human traffic and serves as an unspoken rule when taking escalators or getting on and off public transport.
9. The Metro Isn't Open 24/7
Considering Japan's obsession with convenience, you might think that the metro would always be open in major cities—or at least until very late. But in actuality, most metros in Japan are generally closed by 1 a.m. at the very latest.
Keep this in mind if you're planning a night out. Otherwise, you might get stuck with a long walk or an expensive cab back to the hotel.
10. Department Store Sushi is Really Good
You'll likely want to try some sushi while in Japan, after all, it's one of the most popular aspects of Japanese culture around the world. But restaurant sushi can get incredibly expensive.
Thankfully, if you haven't got the extra cash to splash, you can't go wrong with department store sushi. And while it might not be the same as getting the full restaurant experience, it's probably still better than anything you've tried elsewhere.
© 2022 Mike Grindle