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Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo

Imagine you are in a video game, now imagine yourself in mystical fog covered mountains, now imagine yourself in a karaoke bar. Finally imagine yourself taking those ideas and throwing them in the trash. “You know nothing, John Snow”. Japan is so much more than a stereotype.

To be completely honest, before I traveled to Japan, I knew very little about the culture. Sure I looked up etiquette on Lonely Planet, and had heard great things from friends that had been, but I came to Japan completely unprepared for what I would undertake. I saw a country with an incredible history, that which my teachers from high school rarely even touched on. I met people, who would stop on the street to help you find where you were going, just because you looked lost. I left, not knowing what had hit me, and only feeling like I had managed to get a fingernail of a grasp of what it is really like to be in Japan–

JAPAN

An evening stroll in Osaka

Simply put, Japan is an incredible country with incredible people. It’s also a place, that although none of us Westerners will understand without living there, it’s essential to try. The dark history between East and West has collided many times, and learning to not just tolerate, but understand each other is the way we need to move forward.

I spent just ten days in Japan, which is by no means long enough to see everything. I did get a taste though…

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If these pictures don’t make you hungry, it might be time to consider giving up. If you’re wondering why there are no pictures of sushi, that’s because the pieces didn’t have enough time on my plate.


ESSENTIAL INFORMATION

  • Greetings are very important in Japan. Casual greetings, as in “I just entered your shop and I want to be polite” kind of greeting is best with a slight bow of the head. A smile is nice too. This is also used for friends and family when traveling in Japan. If you’re in a work type setting or any other situation that requires the utmost respect, a full 90 degree bow is considered the norm. Tourists usually get a free pass at this one as most Japanese don’t expect foreigners to understand bowing in it’s entirety. However, it really doesn’t take much to give even the slightest of head bows and for a culture that deserves your respect, this is the least you can do.
  • The Japanese Yen is the currency, and many places, especially street vendors may not take your credit card. I highly recommend having a chip enabled card (Something the US has some catching up to do on) as many places not might take your magnetic card. Yen is really east to get from ATM’s, however, don’t expect you ATM/Debit card to work at many of the local banks. I found it was hit or miss, but I also don’t speak Japanese and was a little embarrassed to ask a local.
  • Basic phrases in Japanese are pretty simple. I would suggest learning the typical greetings, and “thank you” – arigatou, or arigatou gozaimasu or doumo arigatou gozaimasu (most formal), and “excuse me/I’m sorry” – sumimasen.
  • Japan is the safest country I’ve been to. That said, normal precautions from pick pocketing can’t hurt. My girlfriend and I walked around at all times of night, in areas that looked “dodgy” by American standards, but were completely safe. I say, judge by the locals around you. If you see every day people walking home on the dark street, you’re probably fine. There seriously was a sense of security everywhere I went.
  • Trash cans are hard to find! Which is amazing because the streets are really clean! Issues were raised after a bombing incident and trash cans where the public could leave thing were mostly taken away. However, with all of the tasty snacks on every corner you will need to find one of these elusive buckets. From what I found, convenience stores were the safest bet. Sometimes, I held onto a plastic bag from a store, and kept it in my day back, just in case I needed to hold onto the rubbish.
  • Public drinking is legal, however intoxication is not and can be punished. Drugs are also very taboo and laws regarding such are strictly enforced. You will be banned from Japan. No joke. If you choose to indulge in a local brew in the park (which I recommend you do) make sure to enjoy considerately.
  • Pushing on trains is normal, but only during rush hour. People will often nudge at your back. Be ready to be crammed inside of trains where you can barely move if you plan on using local/commuter trains (sometimes even the metro). In order to fit inside, people will often push at your back until seemingly there is no more room on the train… and then a few more people will squeeze in. I only ran into this once on my trip on a train between Kyoto and Arashiyama. Do not push during non-peak times. That’s rude.
  • Simple respect. It’s key to the culture and that’s the last thing you want to mess up. Japanese people can be very prideful, and can you blame them? They are some of greatest innovators, carry on some of the deepest traditions, and wield a history that would make the American Constitution cower in it’s bed. As with any culture, respect for the locals and their way of life is key. Please don’t damage that.

COSTS / MONEY SAVING

  • The sky really is the limit in Japan! You can turn your budget into a horrible gobbling monster if you’re not careful. However, I actually found Japan to be easily manageable on a budget. Sure, you’re in Japan so you need to splurge on a couple things, mainly food, but budget accommodations are accessible. You can even try staying in a pod hotel! Though that isn’t for me.
  • The Japan Rail Pass is great. The trains in Japan are super efficient and the pass streamlines the process of buying tickets for you. It you’re traveling around in Japan more than just a short distance it’s usually worth it. In fact, The round trip price from Tokyo to Kyoto is basically the same as the pass. Why not make the purchase and take a day trip down to Hiroshima, a “must-experience” while visiting Japan.
  • 7-11 is your friend. Stop there for meals on the go, snacks, and picking up breakfast. 7-11 is not the same as it is in the states.  where it’s a watered down version of one of the most amazing on-the-go stores around. One thing I did for almost every breakfast, was buy some pastries there the night before. They have these amazing pancakes that already have butter and syrup melted in between and you just put them in your hotel/hostel’s microwave and fall in love. There are plenty of other convenience stores that offer the same awesome selection. I think most are even owned by 7-11 or at least they carried the same 7-11 brand pastries…
  • Beer is cheap in convenience stores. You can find a decent beer for the equivalent of 1-2 US Dollars. This is important if you are even remotely like me and prioritize sampling local beers/microbrews when abroad.
  • Walk when you can. Although Tokyo has an incredible public transit system, the amount you have to carry by jumping between the public and private rail lines, buying different tickets and the sort can add up. It;s pretty easy to explore in Japan, and if you find yourself wandering into a random neighborhood, it’s likely that you’ll find a hidden gem.
  • Pasmo/Sucia Cards are of great help, and can save time especially in Tokyo. Some stores even accept them as currency! Although the cards don’t cover every train line or mode of transportation in Tokyo, they certainly cover most and are easy to reload at the machines just outside the turnstiles.