1. People don't speak as much English as you'd Assume
I think one of the biggest mistakes that English speakers make when they're travelling is the assumption that everyone, around the world, will speak some form of English. This is definitely NOT the case. Even in a metropolis like Tokyo, there should be no assumptions that people will speak English to you. While learning English is becoming more and more popular in Japan, the older generations have yet to lean on this trend.
That being said, there are English menus and English speakers in many popular tourist areas so if you feel like you can't survive with Japanese alone then there are places you can seek out. If you do find someone who speaks English, speak slowly. It will help them understand as they might still be learning and talking slowly will allow them time to process each word.
But don't feel like just because you can't read or speak the language, you're out of luck. Japanese people are some of the kindest and most generous people I've ever met. Even if we couldn't communicate with language, they would take time and a considerable amount of effort to help me with whatever I needed. Rudimentary sign language works well, as does pointing and a kind smile. But what works even better is to try and learn a few phrases in Japanese before leaving for your trip. Put all that time on your long-haul flight to good use! Simple things like, "thank you", "excuse me" or "please" go a long way in showing gratitude and humility. People will respond to this and give it back to you in leaps and bounds.
Her are a few useful phrases:
Thank You | arigatou gozaimasu
Please | onegaishimasu
Excuse Me | sumimasen
Yes | hai
No | iie
I'm Sorry | gomen nasai
I Don't understand Japanese | nihongo ga wakarimasen
Can you speak English? | eigo o hanasemasu ka?
2. Convenience Stores are much more than Convenience Stores
In North America, Europe, Australia and other countries I've visited, conveniences stores sell little more than candy bars, magazines, chips and dreadfully reheated pizza and hot dogs. But in Japan, convenience stores will become your go-to spot for everything from breakfasts, quick snacks and even fantastic bento boxes perfect for picnics. Japanese convenience stores sell ready to eat MEALS which taste incredible! Breakfast in Japan is a savoury meal and the bento boxes sold in stores like 7/11, Lawsons and Family Mart were just as good as some fancy meals I've had in restaurants back in Canada. They will even reheat it up for you at the cash. Onigiri which is rice and fish wrapped in seaweed costs just over a dollar and is a delicious treat if you're on the go.
Don't miss out on the drinks either. In Japan, convenience stores sell alcohol as well as other beverages, so its the perfect place to stock up on new and exciting sake flavours, unique tea blends and even seasonal sodas.
But my favourite things to buy are the sweets. Various stores sell delicious packaged soft pancakes with maple syrups and butter sandwiched in between. While not traditionally Japanese, this treat is unforgettable. The sweet pastries, like melon bread, are also the perfect thing to grab for a mid-day snack. If it's a hot day, don't pass up one of the various ice cream flavours. Green tea is exceptionally favourable in Japan. And if you're looking for something more traditional, try the dango. Dango is a Japanese sweet dumpling made from mochiko (rice flour). They are often different colours and paired with a warm green tea (oh yeah, they also have hot tea in heated containers inside the store) it's the perfect thing to eat on a cold day.
3. Get A Wifi Hotspot
While Japan might be seen as the mecca of technology and innovation, there are still some areas where Japan is lagging behind. One of those things is public wifi. While in other countries you might be able to get by hopping into coffee shops and open wifi zones to get your dose of the internet, in Japan, this is EXTREMELY rare. I got so many weird looks when I would ask for the wifi password and not because of the language barrier. But there is an easy and relatively cheap solution, a wifi hotspot. There is a myriad of companies which offer these devices, and they can be shipped directly to your hotel, picked up at the airport or grabbed at your local convenience store. If you're apprehensive about getting to your hotel without wifi, then the terminal might be your best option, but we opted for the hotel delivery, and it was there waiting for us upon check-in. If you're staying in an Airbnb, they will often provide these for their guests as an additional incentive for staying at their spot.
The best advice when choosing from all the different companies offering this service is to get the fastest speed possible, and unlimited data. While the cheaper options might seem just as good, you'd be surprised how much you might use it. Sure, getting lost is all part of the fun of travelling, but when you're hungry and tired being able to navigate yourself to a hot bowl of ramen quickly is just what the doctor ordered. In Japan, they use a very different addressing system then is used in most Western countries. Rather than streets having names, they give blocks numbers and leave the space in between the blocks, streets, nameless. This can be EXTREMELY CONFUSING if you're trying to look for a particular restaurant or address, so using the feature on google maps where you can track your orientation to that little blue dot marking your destination was often our saving grace.
4. It's Not as Expensive as you Think
One thing I hear over and over again, especially from older people, is how expensive they think Japan was or is. While it is not like South East Asia where you can get an entire feast of a dinner for less a $10 and five-star hotels for under $100, Japan isn't as expensive as it's made out to be. I always say that "it's as expensive as you want it to be." If you want to eat at a Michelin star restaurant, you'll end up spending over $200, but there are also HUNDREDS of FANTASTIC restaurants where you can eat for under $10. Bowls of ramen almost never are over 1000 yen and are filling and delicious. As mentioned above, convenience stores are your best friend for quick meals which taste amazing. In places like Europe, you'd be hard-pressed to find the quality of food you can eat in Japan for a similar price.
Additionally, in Europe, most museums and attractions will run you easily 20 euros whereas most institutions in Japan are funded by the government and are free to enter. Temples and Shrines are also free to enter and are some of the most amazing cultural things to see and experience in Japan.
While the taxis are indeed costly, they are also the foolish option. The Metro system is astonishing and can get you anywhere you want to go at lightning speed. Unless you're hauling colossal luggage, take the metro. This isn't just true for big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Everywhere you go in Japan has a marvelous public transport system which is relatively inexpensive given the breadth of distance they cover
Accommodation can be the most expensive part of your trip (aside from your flight). But with a little research, you can find some great options. The Centurion, Washington and Remm brand hotels in Toyko offer spacious (in Japanese terms) rooms at reasonable prices. If you're looking for something even cheaper, stay in the novel "Capsule Hotels" which are unique to Japan. These literal capsules sleep one person, and while they might look like coffins, they are surprisingly comfortable with individual TVs, headsets and even pyjamas. The high-end capsule hotels will still only run you about $50/night. Some of the capsule hotels also have private onsens (spas) on site which can be a relaxing end to a busy day.
With the advent of Airbnb, you can find entire apartments for rent with private kitchens, city views and spectacular private gardens. These are indeed the way to feel like you're living like a local. If you're staying with a larger group, you can find some incredible options at inexpensive prices. For two people, the apartments can run just as much as a low-mid price hotel, but the larger houses which can hold up 6-8 people are where you find your dollar goes the farthest.
5. It's HUGE!
One thing people underestimate when travelling around Japan is its size. While it looks like a small little island, there is so much to see and do. Getting a rail pass is a great idea to help save money while taking the train all over the country. This way you pay one upfront cost but then have the freedom to travel as much as you want without having to worry about how much each trip will cost.
Tokyo itself is enormous. Although it's just one city, it is home to over nine million people and spans over 2,000 km². If you decide to stay in the western part of Tokyo, like Shibuya, travelling all the way to the eastern districts, like Asakusa, can take over an hour on the metro and perhaps even longer by car due to all the traffic. But don't like that deter you. If you take some time to plan out what you want to see, you can divide it up into areas and spend the day travelling around those sections, so you don't have to hop back and forth on the metro. For instance; Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku can be explored one day and then Ueno, Asakusa and Akihabara another day and so on.
6. Public Transport Can be Daunting but Once you Figure it Out it's INCREDIBLE!
When looking at the map of the metro systems around Japan, you might be overcome with fear and confusion. There are so many lines, so many colours and so little English. But don't let that get you down, there are lots of ways to make this daunting task as simple as pie. Firstly, ensure you have your portable wifi with you and download the Hyperdia app or even google maps will do. These apps will help plan your journey out. You may have to change lines, and adding additional levels of confusion, change trains brands on even a short journey. But there is a very easy way to avoid any fare confusion, upon arrival buy a metro pass. The metro passes in Tokyo are called "passmo" or "suica". If you have a rail pass, you can also use this to pay for your metro fares if it is on a "JR rail" car. Passmo and Suica cards can be loaded with money so all you have to do it tap your card on the way into the station and tap on the way out. And your fare will automatically be calculated for you when you do. Unlike some systems where there is a set fare no matter how far you go, in Japan the fares all depend on the length of your journey. While this is completely something, you can figure out, if you have pre-loaded cards it just makes it that much easier.
Unlike anywhere else in the world, the Japanese metro is always on time. A few years ago one of their trains was 20 SECONDS late, and they sent out a newsletter apologizing for the mess up. In Toronto, I've frequently had to wait over 20 MINUTES for a bus without the slightest bit of an explanation so suffice to say; this system was a dream come true for timely planners like myself. If you run into any problems, you can always press the "help" button on the kiosk where you buy your ticket. These always have an "English" option on the screen, and in a short period, a real person will come to help you. They might not speak a lot of English, but they will be able to help you figure it out despite that fact. Just point to where you want to go and they'll do the rest.
Be sure that when you're on the train, you keep your voice down and don't talk on the phone. Both these things are considered very rude and will get you some serious side eye from fellow passengers. Eating and drinking on the metro are also prohibited. On some train, during specific periods of the day, there are "female only" cars. My husband and I made the mistake of getting on one of these cars. I looked around and when I saw that there were only women in the car and they were giving my husband some weird looks I immediately knew there was something amiss. Luckily we were able to get off at the next stop and going forward was sure to check the cars identifications before we got on.
7. Smoking is Prevalent
Another somewhat dated characteristic of Japan is the prevalence of smokers. In the rest of the world, smoking has become such a taboo and you rarely, if ever, see people being allowed to smoke anywhere inside. But in Japan, this is not the case. Even in hotels, you need to make sure you get a "non-smoking room" because if not, you'll be staying in a musty, smoke-scented room for your entire visit.
Smoking in restaurants is typically isolated to certain areas, and cafes have walled in the room dedicated to smokers. Fewer and fewer people are smoking every year in Japan, so things are changing, but it is a shock for anyone from a western country to see. Recently some Japanese companies started giving their employees who don't smoke more vacations days, so perhaps this incentive will lead to more and more people giving up the nasty habit.
8. No Garbage Cans
If you decide to grab a drink from a convenience store and drink it on the road, you might be surprised to see that there won't be many places to put your garbage on your journey. The Japanese are dedicated to cleanliness, and even the smokers won't be seen throwing their cigarette butts on the street. The inclination not to litter is so strong that people carry around little baggies for their garbage in their knapsacks or purses and then dispose of the trash at home.
And when it comes to trash they are extremely diligent in sorting it. You might see three or even four different options for garbage when you finally find a refuse area. Most Japanese people don't eat or drink while walking. Instead, they stand outside the vending machine area or convenience store and finish their meal or drink there, then quickly dispose of their garbage in the cans beside the store. Try to be local and follow suit.
9. Cash is KING
Another eccentricity of Japan is the fact that you NEED cash here. Credit cards aren't the norm, and many many places you'll visit won't even have a machine. In Japan, printed money and coinage are viewed as pieces of art which someone took the time to produce whereas cards just don't have the same cultural value. We were shocked by this and had to take out cash a few times on our trip to ensure we didn't get stuck anywhere without money to pay for a meal or transit or even a drink.
In addition to not being able to use credit cards, taking money out of your bank account can be very difficult too since most ATMs only accept Japanese cards. But not to fear, 7-Eleven is here! ATMs at 7-Elevens will process foreign cards, so hit them up for cash whenever you're running low. If you're worried about taking too much money out at one time in the fear that it might be stolen, I would push those fears out of your mind. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world and pickpocketing is almost unheard of.
10. The Toilets are that AWESOME
If you know anyone who has ever been to Japan or ever been obsessed with Japanese culture, you'll know that the toilet situation is much talked about. Toilets in Japan are much more than just a plastic seat. The Japanese take cleanliness very seriously, and so it is no surprise that they would want any bathroom activities to be as clean as possible. Modern Japanese toilets are sleek, electronic devices with an array of functions which makes going to the washroom a life-changing experience. The standard Japanese toilet has a keypad featuring symbols indicating the following: raise the lid, raise the seat, large flush, small flush, rear and front bidet, dry, and stop.
If you've ever dreaded going to a public washroom, fear no more, public washrooms are cleaner here than some North American hospitals. There are still a few squat toilets left in Japan, but most larger cities have been updated to the modern versions. The one thing to be aware of is that on a few rare occasions you'll visit a bathroom where the toilet paper is not provided. Be sure to check the paper situation before entering the stall in case you need to purchase some from the vending machine before doing your business.
11. No Tipping
Finally, tipping. The conundrum many travels face when visiting a different city. When to tip, how much, how often etc. Well, in Japan it is very simple. Don't do it. Ever. It is considered very rude to tip in Japan so avoid doing it all together. Japanese people take service very seriously and good service should be a given, not something that is rewarded. If you are given change after your meal, don't leave it behind, chances are someone will chase you down the road to give it back to you because they thought you left it behind.