I’ve been recently reminded that immersing yourself in a foreign culture is an act of bravery. It may not seem like it to the seasoned traveller, but leaving the familiar for the unknown where you don’t peak the language or read the signage can be scary, overwhelming, and panic inducing for the best of us. It’s why I recommend travelling with friends, or travelling to meet friends where they live. Having someone else to panic with helps a lot, and if one of you stuffs up and the other doesn’t it can help a lot. Having someone who’s at least familiar with the lingo and can recommend a few places can also help you relax, enjoy your new surroundings, and hopefully boost your confidence to where you believe you can do things yourself. Local friends are also a good source of up to date local knowledge, which you might otherwise never uncover.
It’s easy to get the usual tips about Japan and Tokyo – it’s hot during the summer, cold during the winter and your best bet is to take the train everywhere, but here’s the top ten things I discovered that you may not find via Internet searches – or may get conflicting advice about depending on what site you visit and how old the forum threads are that you end up looking at.
1) Don’t blow your nose in public. It’s considered rude.
Admittedly, no one will call you on it—the Japanese are largely too polite—but it’s not a done thing. Polite people run to a bathroom, enter a toilet stall and blow their noses there. Possibly with the sound effect option playing if it’s a high end loo—the one that masks embarrassing bodily function sounds. Also, while it’s recommended to carry a handkerchief for mopping sweat of your brow in the heat and drying your hands if you get them sticky or messy after a meal (even Burger King has a sink to wash your hands outside the bathroom, but drying your dripping digits is your problem), don’t use your handkerchief for blowing your nose. That’s what tissue packs are for.
And what, I hear you ask, do you do if you’re stuck on a train with a runny nose? Sniff. It’s what polite people do.
2) You can use your own phone, you just can’t make phone calls.
Once upon a time, Japan used its own phone network technology hat was completely incompatible with handsets from most other countries (possibly with the exception of Korea and America, I’m a bit hazy on that one), but now thanks to the forces of Globalisation making more phone models standard across multiple markets, your modern smartphone is going to work both at home, and in Japan. That said, unless you’re a resident in Japan with a fixed adress, you’re not going to be able to get a prepaid SIM card with a phone number to make and receive calls. What you can get is one with data, so ensure you and any friends you want to keep up with have a messenger or VOIP app like Facebook Messenger, SkyPE or Whatsapp to keep in touch. To chat with your local friends, you can also use email. Japanese email each other rather than text, so even if your local mates don’t have data, they should still be able to send and receive email. They’ll be weirdos with very good, specific reasons for not having data, but that’s why you love them, right?
Anyway, get a SIM with data and use it. Google Maps is your friend for getting around, especially given it’ll tell you specific directions like “take the zebra crossing” when walking from wherever you are to where you’re going. You can get a tourist SIM card from convenience stores at the airport, or in vending machines in the arrivals hall. You can also hire and use pocket wifi, but that’s cumbersome, requires charging and returning once you’re leaving. To me, a SIM card is the easier option.
3) Vending Machines are strictly money in first.
In western countries, we’re used to selecting what we want, and then offering payment to the machine, whereas in Japan it’s strictly insert your money first, select your product(s) second, and then pull the lever requesting change once you’re done ordering. This is important because many restaurants use vending machines to take orders—you put in your money, select your meal item(s) and hand in your order to the waitstaff. They then seat you and bring over your food and you’re not hassled with the bill at the end of the meal. I’m guessing this in turn allows them to turn seats over much more quickly than other countries’ restaurants, which is sort of a necessity when a restaurant has limited space, or is operating in a 24 hour environment and aggro tourists or dining and dashing can be risks.
4) Cash really is king.
You’ll need Yen to access the vending machines. None that I saw took credit cards, and I don’t think many took the commuter rail cards either (more on that later). Personally, I load up a travel card to avoid carrying stacks of cash around. My Qantas Frequent Flyer card handily acts as a travel card, and I understand Virgin’s Velocity card does too, but if yours doesn’t you can usually get one from your bank. Sometimes post offices sell them too. Anyway, once overseas, find an ATM at the airport and withdraw local currency, and you can often use the card as a Mastercard or Visa debit card. However, card isn’t accepted everywhere in Japan—and almost never at vending machines—and you’ll need cash. Sometimes the local ATMS won’t recognise non-Japanese issued cards though, so make sure you get out enough to cover your day to day expenses when you can. You may also want to exchange enough money for a SIM Card and a train ticket into the city before you leave your home country. About 10,000 Yen should cover the initial expenses if you’re taking the express train, but you can get away with less—and the express train ticketing office does accept credit card.
5) Get a Smart Card for train travel. No it doesn’t matter which one.
Tokyo has two major rail operators, and they have competing smart card systems. There’s JR Rail’s Suica and the competing Pasmo card, although I don’t know who owns that one. I strongly advise you to get one. It costs 500 Yen and you get (slightly) discounted travel across the Tokyo rail network. More importantly it saves you time as you won’t have to purchase a single use ticket before each trip.
Here’s the really important part of this tip: you can recharge either card at either card’s branded recharge kiosks. I repeat: you can recharge either card and either card’s branded recharge kiosks. They don’t look like you can based on available signage, but you can. Just pretend your Pasmo is Suica (or vice versa), march up to the machine, press the button for English instructions (it’ll be the one saying ‘English’ in, well, English) and charge up your card. The system will refer to your card as the brand of the kiosk, because no brand wants to recognise their competitor, but it’ll do the job and you can be on your way through the train network. If you really get stuck, ask the staff at the information desk or hanging around the ticket machines. They’re genuinely there to help you, up to and including pushing the buttons on the machines it’s too confusing or overwhelming for you—or if you’re feeling harried by the growing line of locals behind you pointedly being too polite to say anything about how slow you’re being. Okay, I made that last bit up. Someone would probably have offered you assistance before it got that bad.
There’s a rumour you can return cards at the airport for a refund, but if so, I missed it completely. According to some netizens, you’re supposedly able to return Suica cards at Narita airport and Pasmo cards at Haneda, and based on that I got a Pasmo card. Of course, now I have a small souvenir to add to my collection of travel cards. If anyone can verify or bust this rumour, I’d like to hear from you.
Regarding taxis: don’t bother. The roads in Tokyo are busy, windy, small and often overtaken by pedestrians anyway. Trains are typically faster, as well as cheaper.
6) Bring your passport when you go shopping.
Tokyo is a shopping Mecca. Maybe I arrived just in time for summer sales, but everything was discounted. As a tourist, however, you can avoid paying the 8% sales tax at certain ‘tax free’ shops if you bring your passport. It’s a lot of paperwork, so there’s usually a minimum spend, but many places will waive or refund the tax on items for tourists. Just expect to hang around for a good five minutes while they sort it out and staple a little form into your passport. The form and its staples will be removed by customs when you leave—be sure to approach the desk after they scan your hand luggage for all the illicit items you’re not meant to take on planes, but before you head through immigration.
Speaking of sales tax, all items in Japan are listed as Price+Tax, even if the shop doesn’t offer a tourist tax-free discount. Expect to pay an additional 8% at the till in more stores and restaurants compared to the price you may be looking at on a price tag.
7) Eat where the locals eat.
The best food I had in Tokyo was at local haunts where foreigners were virtually unknown whether they had English menus or not. My friends and I were certainly welcome wherever we went, but unless someone had shown me where to go, I’d probably never have looked twice at the places I ended up eating at. Even if you subscribe to the ‘pick a place at random’ theory of eating, you’re likely to end up somewhere with a ground floor entrance, and sometimes the best places are up one or more flights of stairs.
Apps like TripAdvisor are mostly for tourists and ignored by the locals in Japan. The two best meals I had were at places barely ranked on the app. One was listed at a ranking of 5000 sometime out of 6000 in Shinjuku, and the other wasn’t on the app at all – I just added it. Google is a bit better, but not all places will be listed on a non-Japanese language search. I’ve said it about Hong Kong and it remains true for Tokyo—you can’t beat local knowledge. If you have or happen to make friends with someone who knows the area, ask them for advice. You’ll be glad you did.
Note that it’s still legal and acceptable to smoke in many businesses over in Japan. You’ll find some places have smoking and non-smoking sections, but you may also find it’s the next table lighting up, or the smell lingering in the stairwell, or at your hotel. You can seek out non-smoking places (I don’t know how to identify them, but you can try) and with hotels you can request a non-smoking room, but if you’re a non-smoker like me, you may just have to deal.
8) Don’t Tip
In Japan, good service is a matter of being polite and a cultural imperative. Tipping isn’t expected and you could find a rather perplexed cashier attempting to return your money because you’ve overpaid, and they couldn’t possibly charge you more than your bill. Some of the more refined establishments will expect a service charge, but that’ll be added to your bill when you receive it—apparently. Clearly I never went to any places like that. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say tipping is an insult, but I got the distinct impression that to the Japanese, amazing and courteous service is the baseline expectation, not the exception. Just treat them with the same courtesy and respect and you’ll be fine.
9) Don’t walk and eat. Or drink
One of my Japanese friends used to do this thing in Australia where she’d happily walk along with a water bottle, but when she wanted to take a drink, she’d stop, take a swig and then start walking again. This is not that. It’s a bit more subtle and easy to miss unless you know about it, but I can’t write this without thinking of her. If you get a snack or a bottle or can of drink, don’t keep walking and eat or drink. Food and beverages are to be consumed in one place—typically the place of purchase if not at home and disposed of thoughtfully. You’ll notice there’s very little litter, and very few bins around Tokyo for exactly this reason. Even where there’s a vending machine, the expectation is that you drink or eat there, dispose of any garbage at the bins provided nearby, and then move on.
If you do see someone walking and eating (or drinking) chances are they’re a tourist.
On the subject on bins, Japan recycles and you’ll usually need to sort your trash into ‘paper/burnable items’, ‘bottles and cans’ and ‘other’. Some restaurants also have receptacles for uningested liquid to help with the recycling process.
10) Tokyo really isn’t that crazy
There’s a story about Japanese people who romanticise Paris, expecting the city to be charming, picturesque and the people warm and friendly and wonderful. The reality when they arrive hits rather hard, and while we can all giggle at silly people expecting a city to be like it’s portrayal in the media, my friend Brendan has reported similar disillusion amongst Anime and Manga nerds arriving in Japan and expecting the heightened reality of Anime to be the reality of the city. In Harajuku I saw two people in crazy, over the top outfits, and a lot of people with specific styles in very well put together outfits, complimented by carefully applied make up and hair product. Tokyo definitely has subcultures and some of those have specific fashion styles. But it’s full of normal, everyday people going about their business with a slightly different cultural flavour to what you may be used to. Just don’t expect it to be the city of Anime. Or a city of Anime nerds. While you’re gushing over Anime, please remember that for the majority of Anime, fangirling and fanboying over a series is the equivalent of someone being obsessed with Captain Planet, Scooby Do or Inspector Gadget. That’s not to say don’t do it—just don’t come in with the expectation that everyone in the country is going to be like that, or that they’re somehow representative of everyone in Japan, and you’ll be fine. I also didn’t witness multiple bows before exiting a room, or men shoving people onto trains, but that last one is because I came and left during a long weekend. I’ve been assured it really does happen.
My best advice is to come in with an open mind and try to leave your expectations of what Japan is behind. You’ll find out what it is when you arrive. And after all, isn’t that the point of travel?