Japan is unique. There are things you only see and experience in the land of the rising sun. Some things are a bit weird, some make perfect sense, some are mysterious and some are just great. When you plan your first time visit in Japan, you might want to read this Japan for beginners guide and find all the curiosities, do’s and don’ts, some Japanese words and must know facts to help you understand the country’s customs and make your first time in Japan easier and unforgettable.
Japan is unique. The language and writing are unique and different so that you do feel like an analphabet from time to time. To be honest, I was not once disturbed by the fact I cannot read anything in the streets, in shops or on signs. Quite the contrary, it felt a bit like a relief not to read everything that pops up in front of your eyes. The only buttons I wished to be able to understand were the ones on the air condition in order to turn the massive blow down.
The awesome unique things
The most amazing and one of the most loving aspects of Japan to me is the hygiene and cleanliness of the people, the streets and facilities. Everything is clean. Do you know the feeling when you come back to your hotel room after some sightseeing and moving around with public transportation? I feel, my hands are dirty and the first thing I need to do is wash them. I did not feel the urge to sanitize my hands in Japan.
Japanese people are super-friendly. Add another super. I did not encounter one unfriendly person in the whole country in two weeks. Neither a driver, a receptionist, a salesclerk, a waiter, nor a cleaning lady. Isn’t that fantastic? No grumpy faces around you! And even if some of the people I asked questions couldn’t understand English, they were still friendly and nice and didn’t rush away from me.
Japanese toilets are high tech and you might need a manual to operate them. It is a real new experience and I promise you will want to take one home with you. The toilets offer different „services“ such as bidet function, automatic flush, nozzles for washing your backside, flushing sounds (called Otohime) to cover other natural sounds or – my favorite – a heated seat. I found this hilarious video about Japan’s toilet culture. Perfect for first-time visitors.
Sarah from A Social Nomad has posted a great Ryokan etiquette guide you might want to read if you’re planning to stay in a traditional Japanese inn.
The weird unique things
On my second day in Japan, I took the train from Shinjuku to Hakone-Yamoto. Upon arrival in Hakone-Yamoto, I saw the cleaning staff of the train bowing low until the train has stopped. This was really weird for me to see. By now I know that the bowing is just another expression of the extreme friendliness of the Japanese people. When an airplane lands, the technicians and people on the ground bow to greet the arriving pilots.
Many Japanese people wear masks. Not only public officers or bus drivers but also many people on the streets. What’s strange for non-Japanese, for them it is an act of courtesy not wanting to infect other people and at the same time protect themselves. And again, it’s a sign of hygiene. Oh, in case you’ve got a cold. Under no circumstance use a handkerchief to clean your nose. Don’t even sneeze! It is considered as a lack of body control. If your nose is running and running, just snuffle. Yuck!
Do you have separate shoes to enter your bathroom when you go to the toilet? I bet you don’t. Well, each Japanese bathroom has its distinct shoes you wear when entering the toilet room. And you’ve got to take them off again before leaving the bathroom. Why’s that? The toilet used to be outside of the flat and was considered as impure. In case you’re invited to a private house in Japan, make sure to think about that and take the toilet shoes off again!
Manga! This is a really odd thing in Japan. The partly dingy comics are just everywhere and you see children and adults, male and female reading them. The comics for seniors are called silver-manga. In Akihabara in Tokyo, you can find hundreds of Manga and Anime stores selling related products. Some stores are really bizarre. See the masks in the picture? I can’t possibly imagine what you might need it for. The 18+ sign on the right irritates me in this context…
I am not sure if Hello Kitty falls into the Manga category, anyway, everything is Hello Kitty. My niece was crazy about the pinky cat when she was four years old, but in Japan, you see grown-up women with Hello Kitty accessories. And you will find thousands of stores selling all sorts of the cat’s merchandise.
Slurping! Jeez, I really hate two sounds: slurping and smacking. The Japanese eat their soups in vast sound intensity. And here’s my dilemma: I love Ramen. How can you possibly enjoy your favorite dish when everyone around you makes the most annoying sounds? On my last day in Tokyo, I had lunch in a restaurant. On the table on my left, there was a couple eating Japanese soups. On my right a family of four slurping Ramen. And hey, I am not exaggerating by saying the noise level of the slurping was so big that you couldn’t even have a conversation with someone.
Speaking automats and machines everywhere. Japan is a very quiet country and the Japanese people are very respectful and do not talk loudly in public. But the countless machines and automats all over the place in Tokyo make quite a noise. It seems all the automats are talking to you and if you stroll through the machine-dominated areas, you might get a little bit annoyed after a while.
Other (not so) unique things, but (important) facts
You hardly find rubbish bins anywhere. And with anywhere I really mean anywhere. Japan is so clean and the Japanese were educated to take their rubbish home with them. One morning I went to the Tokyo fish market with my coffee cup and after I’ve finished it, I carried it along with me for half of the morning because I couldn’t get rid of it.
Japan is driving on the left side. In case you’d like to rent a car, you should be aware of this tiny detail. I was wondering why, because Japan wasn’t under British colony. My research brought up two myths: 1) The Brits helped the Japanese with the road constructions 2) Samurai techniques should be responsible for it. What do you think? I’m not sure about both…
Japan is technically totally enhanced. But it is still a cash country. Hotels accept credit cards, some ticket offices do too, but close to everything else needs to be paid in cash. The ATMs in the 7 eleven shops worked out best since they accepted foreign credit and maestro cards. Before you fly into Japan, check the exchange rate. It might be cheaper to exchange money in Japan than bringing Yen from your home country. I’d say taking cash from the ATM is the most reasonable option.
No one in Japan is expecting a tip. Japanese believe that good service is standard and consider tipping as rude. However, people in tourist-related jobs like guides do appreciate a tip. Make sure to put it in an envelope and don’t hand over the cash directly.
If it’s your first time in Japan you will notice that your hotel room is quite small and tight. Even if you book a superior room, it might still be small. I will experience sleeping in a capsule hotel in Tokyo the next time.
And if you plan your first trip to Japan, you might want to check out some words and learn them. The most important word you have to know is Thank you! Here’s your Japan for beginners:
Thank you: arigatou (gozaimasu)
Excuse me: sumimasen
How much?: ikura?
I’m sorry: gomen nasai
Where is …: … wa doko desu ka?
Sayonara and oishii are my favorite most beautiful Japanese words 😉
Now you know the crazy and unique things to expect when you arrive in Japan and here’s your first time in Japan itinerary for 2 weeks. If you want some insights from people who live in Japan, you might want to read an interview with an expat. Also, check out Medha’s article including tips about planning your trip or some unusual experiences.
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