Tips for Travelers, How to Get the Most from Japan

Maybe it’s just that it’s so well organized. The trains run on time, it’s denizens follow rules, and there seem to be contingencies in place for every possible hiccup, even drunken tourists . Perhaps this leaves a small space, beyond the perils of modernity, for something that resembles grace.

Here are some tips.

1: Plan.

2: Plan some more.

3: If you are an iPhone user, purchase a block of international data so you can use Google maps. It won’t affect your grandfathered status and it will save you time, money, and sanity.

Addresses in Japan, especially Tokyo are nearly impossible to decipher.

Don’t expect any map application to guide you right to your destination. Just use it to get as close to your destination as possible. Once you find yourself at a virtual dead end, get over your social disorder and ask someone who looks Japanese if they know where it is. “Sumimasen. (…) wa doko desu ka”?

People will help you if they can. And, they will tell you if they can’t, unlike in Mexico where you might find yourself in Uruguay while searching for that café with decent coffee that you read about in your Lonely Planet guide. The path to Uruguay is paved with very good intentions.

4: There are really just three essential words that you need to know. Learning them will open many doors.

Sumimasen, which means excuse me but also serves as a general apology if you step on someone’s foot or do something really stupid, Kudasai (please) and Arigato (thank you).

Learn all the various ways to say thank you. You will be thanking people a lot. “Arigato” will suffice as will “Domo” for an informal thank you and “Arigato Gozaimase” for more formal encounters. To really show that you were not raised by wolves, you could say, “Domo Arigato Gozaimase” and bow from the waist.

Don’t worry about nailing a perfect accent. Unlike in France, people will not pretend to not understand you despite all your years of high school French.

5: Vegetarian in Japan usually means you eat fish. Kind of like it means you eat chicken in France. If you are a really strict vegetarian, look for restaurants specializing in Shojin Ryori, temple food, where at worst, they might serve you a tempura bumblebee with your rice. Or, look for modern cafés that cater to vegetarians and vegans.

You can also smile and, while forming a cross over your chest with your arms, say all the things you can’t or won’t eat. If the list is really long, you probably shouldn’t eat out, especially in busy restaurants at rush hour. This is not because the Japanese won’t try to accommodate you but because they will try to accommodate you. I’m sure you don’t want to test the limits of kindness and patience in a place where it seems bottomless. Don’t be that vegan.

6: Travel light but bring a really big suitcase. You will shop. Even if you are “not a shopper.” Japan, every region, still produces unique and high-quality traditional goods and food products. And, even the most remote stops on the Shinkansen will yield a Louis Vuitton boutique.

7: Get a rail pass if you are going to be moving around by train. A Green Pass is considerably more expensive than a Normal Pass but is worth the money if traveling long distances by train. The normal train cars are also very comfortable if you need to save some yen for all that shopping you are not going to do.

8: Bring something from home, preferably a local artisanal product, to offer as small gifts to everyone who helps you. A small gift is easily accepted and deeply appreciated. An extravagant or ostentatious one is not. Small wrapped squares of Tcho chocolate, made right here in San Francisco, are perfect. Or, purchase a box of individually wrapped cookies or candies, a special treat of some sort, and use those to show your appreciation.

9: Don’t be afraid to tip. Never tipping in Japan is a beard for cheapskates. You can even tip your taxi driver. It’s not expected but a small gratuity is always deeply appreciated. Just make sure you leave it on the tray provided for payment of your fare.

You can leave a tip for just about any hospitality worker if done properly, which simply means putting it in an envelope so money isn’t touching hands when exchanged. It helps to use humor and say things like, “an after work round of biru (that’s Japanese for beer…) on me!” You should always tip at expensive ryokan.

Don’t worry. You will not corrupt centuries of hospitality with your small gesture of generosity. One hundred yen coins (approx. $1) just do not wield that kind of power, especially in first world countries with a very high standard of living. Get over yourself.

10: Finally, don’t think of yourself as a tourist. Think of yourself as an ambassador, leaving behind the best possible impression of wherever you are from. You also hail from a great country, unless you are from Las Vegas, full of people you love and admire. Show a little pride and some self-respect.

6 thoughts on “Tips for Travelers, How to Get the Most from Japan

  1. This is a very useful list! I especially relate to #6. But there have been a couple of occasions when even when we brought an empty suitcase for souvenirs we ended up having to buy an extra one anyways!

    • Oh, we were total shopping weenies. I did have to buy another suitcase.

      Tip #11: Do not pack katsuobushi into a suitcase full of newly purchased sweaters if you don’t want them to smell like dried bonito.

  2. I like #10. I think the Japanese locals understand if you are being a tourist being their culture is completely different. I got me shisa displays, kokeshi dolls, more Hello Kitty for my nice and a nice tea set so far. Navigation in Japan is so so hard. You gonna need a map, a physical map.

    • I bet you are a pretty awesome “ambassador”, wherever you go. I agree that Japanese locals are very forgiving and kind, never expecting outsiders to understand their ways. They do seem to appreciate any earnest attempt to speak a few words of Japanese, however poorly, or to behave according to custom.

      I wish I had thought to bring home a kokeshi for my downstairs neighbor, a 3 year old. She would have loved that.

      Sounds like you are going to need to buy a suitcase.

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