Japan is a fascinating country! It is easily one of the top places I have visited to date (even if I only visited a teeny, tiny small fraction of one of the islands in a country comprised of 6,852 islands). The combination of culture, people, food, and scenery all contribute to the environment which makes it exponentially different than any other place I’ve traveled. Despite the crowd of tourists that flock to the country, there are no shortages of activities as Japan is incredibly unique.
Here are some simple unwritten (but now written) rules to keep in mind as you explore all that is Japan.
Carry cash and coins
While more and more businesses are accepting card payments, there are still a lot of restaurants and transportation kiosks that can only be paid with cash. Some of my favorite food establishments in Tokyo operate on vending machines which only accept cash and coins.
You might be used to coin denominations being just a fraction of the smallest bill, but in Japan (and many countries in Europe), coins are worth much more than just a few cents. Bring a small coin pouch to carry all of your change because you don’t want to be dropping yen equivalent to $1 and $5 on the floor. Although, don’t be surprised if someone runs after you to return it!
Coins range from 1 yen (1 cent) to 500 yen ($5 USD)
Tip: No need to worry if you run out of cash. Head to the nearest 7-11 and use their international ATM
Utilize tax-free shopping
This is an easy way to save money as a tourist. If you purchase over $50 USD worth of eligible items, your final total is exempt from Japan’s 8% sales tax (will be increased to 10% in 2019). Probably the best deal if you plan on bringing home souvenirs or even loading up on all the awesome snacks and sweets.
Tip: Everyone will tell you to shop at Don Quixote, which isn’t bad advice as it stocks everything you would want and serves as a tourist attraction, but if you’re willing to explore you can find the same items in lesser advertised drugstores (yes, drugstores) at a cheaper price. For example, I found good deals on sweets (exclusive Kit Kat flavors), beauty (Japanese sunscreens), and other pharmaceuticals at Matsumoto Kiyoshi.
Follow the Flow of Foot Traffic
People tend to be orderly and well-mannered so wait in a queue until it’s your turn! If you are not in a rush to get off of the escalator, you can stay on the right side. Those who want to keep moving have the right to do so on the left side. This helps to minimize the crowding of people.
On a transit platform: There are yellow lines and numbers painted on station platforms as a guideline. Sometimes numbers are also painted on the ground which correspond to the train so you can stand in the appropriate area as different numbers arrive on the same platform.
This is especially important during rush hour:
8-9:00 in the morning and again at 5-6:30 in the evening.
Try to organize your schedule so you won’t have to be stuck in the (orderly) chaos!
Learn Japanese words and phrases
English is not widely spoken in Japan, learning a few phrases will be helpful when interacting with others. Here are a few common phrases to get started with:
Arigatou gozaimasu (Thank you)
Sumimasen wakarimasen (Sorry, I don’t understand)
Eigo o hanashimasu ka? (Do you speak English?)
Try everything you get your hands on!
This is one of the most important “do’s”! Japan has so many interesting food items and quirky establishments, embrace the creative culture at one of the many themed cafes along with thousands of restaurants and stores.
This even includes popular convenience store chains such as 7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson. It’s very difficult to walk along a street and not see at least one convenience store. Don’t let their average appearance fool you! They are filled with unique drinks, snacks, hot foods, and toiletries at low prices!
Eat or drink while walking on the street
Locals will typically stand near shops and consume their food entirely before moving on. This doesn’t mean you can’t walk on the street with beverages or food, just try not actively eat or drink while you’re wandering around.
Exception: You can eat on the shinkansen (bullet train). There are bento boxes called ekiben for sale prior to reaching the platform specifically prepared for passengers to enjoy.
Tip: You should throw away your trash here too! See next.
Japan is remarkably clean for a country that does not always have a readily accessible trash bin at every corner. Do your part and be a model tourist by holding onto garbage and disposing of it when you do find a bin (inside a convenience store!)
Tip at restaurants
Those in the restaurant and retail industry take their work and service very seriously. Please don’t leave tip as it makes them very uncomfortable. They will appreciate a smile and your efforts to say arigatou instead of ‘thank you’ when you stand up to depart the restaurant.
Note: There may be a seating charge (otoshi) in some restaurants which varies from 300-600 yen per person. This is common and normal – not just for tourists.
Airbnb is not legal in Japan
Make sure you follow the host’s rules and don’t disturb their neighbors. As of June 2018, Japan is undergoing new rules for hosts so there will temporarily be limited Airbnb accommodations available. Make sure to book ahead!