Travel Tips: Japan

Posted on 19.04.2012

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Now that I’m something of a seasoned regular, I feel the need to share things with my readers who might be planning a trip to Japan. I’ve compiled the things that were/are the most confusing or different to me (being from the west) in order to help anyone who might be going to Japan for the first time.

Bring a Lint-Roller with you. 
One of the first major shocks I experienced during my first visit to Japan was a lack of dryers. Everyone has a washer for clothes, but it appears that everyone air-dries their clothes. Because of this, there is no magical lint sheet to throw in the dryer and pick it all up, so it stays on the clothing post-wash, and it generally stays on EVERYTHING: the sheets, the towels, the pillow-cases. So unless you never have contact with those things, expect to see light lint on your dark jeans. Invest in the lint roller!

Bring clothing that doesn’t wrinkle easily. 
Why? Once again, a lack of dryers. And possibly a lack of an iron and ironing board. Be prepared to steam your clothes in the large showers or go wrinkly. So either bring clothing that doesn’t wrinkle (or looks good wrinkled), or invest in a travel iron.

Bring comfortable slip-on shoes (like loafers or vans) for walking around.
One of the things that a lot of people don’t remember (although we see it in ALL of the movies) is that you generally have to take your shoes off whenever you enter a building. This might not be true for the bank or your office, but when you enter homes, and some restaurants, you take your shoes off when you enter the main space. The same goes for fitting rooms and booths in most restaurants. Because of this, tying and untying your shoes every time you enter or leave a place gets RULL old, really effing fast. I was pissed by the second day. So get a cool pair of comfortable walking shoes (for sightseeing) that are easy to remove. Velcro, anyone?

Be prepared for the Japanese toilets! 
Thankfully, most places have at least one western ‘throne’ that we are used to.. but if you can’t find that, then here’s what’s in store: squatting over a hole in the floor. Literally. Note: this is the case for the ladies, it might not be so for the men! I can only speak from my experience, and I’m packing ovaries.

Also thankfully, most of these have a handle bar that you can hold on to while squatting. It’s a relatively big hole and hard to miss, but that doesn’t mean that some people don’t. Watch your step!

On the other side: a lot of places (like restaurants) have the heated bidet: definitely push the buttons and have your bottom cleaned. Um, excellent. It makes sitting on cold porcelain and wiping with toilet paper feel third-world by comparison.

Lack of paper towels.
Most bathrooms in Japan don’t have paper towels in them, rather very powerful hand dryers. If you’re lucky. If you’re not, then you were expected to bring your own hanky with you.

The hanky is the same as a bandana: a square of fabric (that you could fold up and wear on your head, but don’t) that you carry around with you (mine is forever in my purse) and dry your hands with after washing them. I bought a hanky last year for Japan while I was there (it’s leapoard print!) and it has since proven to be indispensable: I’ve used it at concerts to mop up beer, to dry my hands, and to dry seats after rain in order to sit down. You can get them for the equivalent of 1-Euro at the 100Yen shops. Or you can drop more and get a fancier one. But whatever.

American electrical plugs/cables work here. 
No need to bring a converter! Excellent!

Your European appliances (like your hair dryer) will suck here! Why? Because the voltage is American-style low compared to the European voltage which our electronics rely on. So your super-powerful Euro hairdryer totally sucks, and it takes like three times as long to blow dry your hair. This isn’t as terrible when we’re talking about the curling iron, which we know takes a while to heat up, but when it comes to blow drying, you might as well just drop 20-Euros on a cheap dryer at the store once you’re in Japan. Or borrow one if you can!

Since you won’t be able to read the labels (I think), bring anything ‘special needs’ that you can’t live without. 
If you need to take vitamins or drink special drinks, it’s best to just bring them with you and assume you might not find them in Japan. Because it’s not that you won’t, but you might not be able to find someone to speak to you in great English in order to help you find it.

If you have food allergies, bring a handy card or learn the appropriate words. Or, you know, do the research before you come.
If you’re allergic to soy, then stay away from the soy sauce! If you can write yourself a little sheet with the words of things you’re allergic to, it will come in handy in restaurants. Even if you just learn the Japanese word for the things you’re allergic to and draw a circle with a line through them, it will make all the difference in the world. Something that says: ‘Allergic: beans, milk, wheat’ will be very helpful to you!

Definitely visit an Onsen (public bath, hot spring) if you don’t have tattoos. 
You can’t visit them if you do have them, unless you find a private one like we did. Tattoos are still considered signs of the Yakuza (mafia), so people will shy away from you. It’s really best to walk around with them covered, if you can. But if you don’t have tattoos, then definitely visit the public baths. You’ll generally be nude in these (they are gender-segregated), so be prepared for that. But don’t pass it up, it’s an excellent experience and way to relax!

If you have any friends who live in Japan, ask them to take you around. 
You might have trouble even finding the street signs, so if you have friends who live in Japan (or have spent a lot of time there), then ask for a tour or suggestions. Guidebooks only ever give you half of the story, although the Lonely Planet Japan book is pretty excellent!

Try ALL the local foods.
I haven’t eaten a single terrible thing in Japan, and I’ve eaten a LOT. You’ll pay more to eat ‘international’ foods like spaghetti, so get used to Tempura and sushi 🙂 It’s excellent.

Stand to the left on escalators and sidewalks (rather than the right). 
In the same way that they drive on the ‘other’ side of the street from us, this means that when we step aside in Japan, we step to the ‘other’ side. As an example: in the US and Europe, we stand right and walk left on escalators and sidewalks, etc. In Japan, that’s reversed.

Also, don’t stand on the right, because people won’t ask you to move. They will stop behind you and just wait. So be polite and don’t abuse that!

Learn a bit about Japanese etiquette, so you don’t look like an asshole foreigner.
There are a lot of things that are normal for us, that are absolutely not good or nice to do in Japan. Here’s a helpful primer:)

Definitely learn a few basic phrases to make your life easier. 
Definitely learn ‘excuse me’/’sorry’ and ‘thank you’, if nothing else. These are the ones you’ll use every. single. day. There are a lot of free podcasts on iTunes for learning languages, and there are a TON of Japanese survival phrases that will come in handy on them! It’s free, you have no excuse!

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