A Beginner’s Reflections on Japan

When traveling to Japan for the first time, there are undoubtedly many new experiences. Japan is quite different from an American lifestyle; both in culture and in seemingly common day occurrences.

For first time travelers, or for those that want to know the top tips for what to expect about Japan during their first experience, this is my most-observed guide to 日本 after spending a couple months within the greater Honshu.

Walking

As a visitor to Japan you’ll certainly be walking around quite a bit. It’s not uncommon to trek 5+ miles a day between your place of rest, through stations, and to various destinations of the day. A funny thing about walking around Japan is that there is no right-side left-side as we know it in America when walking the sidewalks.

Japan has done an amazing job making sure the disabled can get around in most all public places, so the sidewalks and common paths are lined with yellow Braille-like tiles for the blind. Interestingly enough, it seems like this center “divide” creates a confusion as to where to walk for the majority of people. Additionally, most station stairways have “up” and “down” signage and way finding, but such suggestions are heeded in an inconsistent fashion.

I’ve felt myself in a left-right-left-left-right awkward moment with many-a-Japanese person struggling to simply get by. I can’t tell if this is an uncourteous moment on the part of myself, or on the part of a frantic station-goer who needs to swoop in front of me at that same time. Needless to say, walking in crowded places can be a tricky game in Japan!

American Cities

As you walk the shops and observe youthful Japanese culture, you’ll notice a lot of American-inspired hoodies, shirts, and hats. Most all of this apparel falls back to 3 places in America: New York City (Brooklyn), California (Los Angeles and San Francisco), and Las Vegas (for the bright lights and gaming culture, I would guess; much like the gaming venues commonly seen in Japan).

During my most recent visit, a handful of university students pulled us aside to practice their English as we walked through a popular shrine location in Tokyo. When I asked them where they wanted to visit, two young men told me Las Vegas and New York. Being from America I was amazed at the slim knowledge or understanding of the mainland, but I suppose many Americans would likely think “Tokyo” and “Hiroshima” as the high points of a Japanese visit in similar fashion.

That being said, be sure to share where you’re from. “Colorado shyuu” (“shoe” or しゅう in Hiragana), “Denver shi” (“she” or し in Hiragana). With well-known cities, the “shi” after the city is implied. In other words, most people knew Denver so it was immediately recognizable. “Ohh, Den-ba!” Smaller cities should still be noted with the し after it.

Toilets

Be prepared to squatty-potty yourself when nature calls in many of the small to mid-sized stations and establishments in Japan! You’ve probably heard of the incredible self-closing toilets, complete with a warm seat and personal water stream for a more sensitive cleanse when you’ve finished business, but you may not know about the in-ground toilets.

When I first visited Japan, nature called in a rough way, so (naturally) I ran off to the bathroom and was semi-horrified that I would need to squat over the floor to take care of things. To me it doesn’t feel as clean having never become familiar with the situation, but it’s absolutely commonplace in Japan.

You’ll need to get over any Western mental blocks and make it happen. I still tell myself to stop being such a baby about it myself, to be honest.

Trains

The public transit system in Japan is amazing. Even more amazing, it’s almost never late. Trains are the heartbeat of transit across the island, and as a foreigner you’re able to purchase a Japan Rail Pass before your trip that affords you unlimited access on most all JR express trains, JR local trains, and the Shinkansen (bullet) trains.

My most recent visit was a little more than 2 weeks total, so I opted for the 3 week rail pass which ran me around $500 USD. A quick glance when using HyperDia throughout a stay (to plan rail transit) will show just how much money you’re saving.

Criss-crossing the country would easily cost 4-5 times the pass amount, especially if you rely heavily on the Shinkansen lines, so I highly recommend the rail pass.

Coffee and Beer

For many Americans, we love a small batch cup of joe. Our culture has so many new artisan trades—coffee, beer, food—that it would be easy to travel to Japan thinking there are incredible cafes on every corner. But, in Japan I’ve found coffee (even Starbucks) varies drastically from American coffee. A latte is mostly milk; a black coffee is mostly flat in flavor. Think last resort “gas station” coffee.

That’s not to say Japan is incapable of amazing coffee, though. If you look hard enough and dig through Google searches for tasty spots, you’ll surely find cafes to seek out. There are even a few Blue Bottle locations in Tokyo. However, they’re not very frequent and typically don’t offer wifi; something we come to expect in America.

The same holds true for beer exploration. With names like Kirin and Asahi common on the island, you’ll usually be left with light beers reminding you of a keg party rather than the sleuth of offerings we’re spoiled with coming from the smaller breweries in America.

Like coffee, though, some craft inspired restaurants carry lesser known selections from local breweries that hold their own. In many ways the youthful generations are changing the face of Japan in examples like craft beer, but it’s taking time.

I would suggest seeking less of the familiar and aiming for teas, or other options within the roughly 5.5 million vending machines scattered around every corner.

Transactions vs. Conversations

Most conversation in public is transactional. What is expected of oneself, what is anticipated, etcetera. Rarely am I observing “Hey! How are you? How’s the day?” at a food establishment or station. The typical interaction is more in-and-out and less American (e.g. “How are you?” “I’m good, you?” “I’m good…”).

There’s an amazing quick food spot we visited quite often for breakfast called Matsuya that stands as the most transactional spot I’ve been to thus far.

It goes a little like this: approach a machine outside, throw in a few bucks, pick your meal (known as a “set” in Japan; no substitutions), and take the ticket to the counter where it will then be prepared and given you to without future wait staff banter. If you need further help, a firm “Sumimasen!” will do.

The caveat here, however, is bar conversation. Even if you only know a little bit of Japanese, warming conversations happen most often at the bar. At a sushi bar, an izakaya, and usually any drinking bar. Assuming the help is friendly enough you’ll find yourself in conversations about the food, where you live, and where you’re traveling during the trip.

Don’t let the “transactional” nature of the culture in the every day things throw you off. America isn’t all that different, really, but I think it’s our own misunderstanding of the culture, and our desire to compare it to our own, that causes the formerly mentioned transactions to feel cold.

Tattoos

In general, tattoos are misunderstood and unwelcome in Japan. With a full and half sleeve visible in warmer months—in the traditional Japanese style—the feeling of being watched has definitely been my biggest struggle with the culture despite my understanding of the “why” behind it.

A typical web search for the topic reveals a dark side of Japan; one that indicates an irony in the country’s concern over tattoos. With a ban first in place to present a clean image to the Western world in the late 19th century, the Yakuza and other counter-culture individuals that inked themselves during the 20th century were immediately labeled as purposely going against the grain. Tattoos were cemented as an unwarranted and unwelcome art form.

To be fair, such a homogenous culture had a very good reason to feel this way when, for such a long time, tattoos signaled danger. A lot has changed in the last 45 years surrounding tattoo perception worldwide, though, but it’s readily apparent this isn’t yet the case in Japan. What is beautiful art to many of us signals something very different to many Japanese people.

As the title of the link above so appropriately states, Loved abroad, hated at home.

For the youngest generations, or those in more progressive areas of Japan (Tokyo and other culturally “fresh” neighborhoods in larger cities), it’s becoming widely understood. In those same areas, too, I observed many tattooed Japanese people.

All that to say, the staring and the confusion comes from a lifetime of fright and misunderstanding, not to mention the fuel of a large tattoo being so anti-establishment in a legion of people that see comfort in conformity.

As a tattooed person in Japan, be aware of these things, and also be aware that you will likely not be allowed in a public onsen, the next on my beginners’ guide to the Japanese culture.

Onsen

If you like a hot bath or a warm jacuzzi soak, you’ll undoubtedly love visiting one of the hundreds of onsen spots in Japan. I definitely recommend a stopover or having a more formal stay at a ryokan over a few days to get a well-rounded experience.

Most onsen offer public hot spring baths for men and women, and some also offer private rooms for a more intimate experience. It’s not only relaxing and rejuvenating during a trip, but also an opportunity to experience a Japanese pastime. Most ryokan’s will have you stay in a traditional tatami room, complete with tasty green tea and at least one set meal included in the price.

If you have larger tattoos that are quite obvious (sleeves, full front or back pieces, larger coverage areas in general), you’ll need to be sure you’re visiting an onsen that has private rooms for use. It’s extremely likely you will not find an establishment that will allow for tattoos in public onsen areas.

Food and Sake

There’s a lot to love about Japanese food, especially if you’re up for adventure and you happen to like various kinds of seafood. Japan is well known for many foods and drinks, most of which you’ll see simply walking the streets of any city.

Sushi or sashimi are an obvious choice, and pay close attention to the freshness of these items on the island country. The lack of “fishiness” is a sign of freshness. You can take things a step further and visit a fish market for the freshest of catches, even building your own nokke don in many locations (during the most recent visit, Furukawa near Aomori was a big success).

You’ll see many varieties of street food, too. Takoyaki (octopus dumplings), yakitori (chicken skewers), gyoza (pan fired pot stickers), and ramen (noodles in broth, often with toppings) are often on the menus as you pass through city alleys and busy intersections alike. Shabu shabu is one more, often overlooked, treat of Japan. What’s better in the frigid winter months than a hot pot of meat and vegetables? Exactly.

In addition to food, be sure to try out the sake of different regions as you travel. Nihonshu, and especially hot varieties (called “atsukan”), are a great compliment to any meal. Ask for a recommendation if you are unsure, and definitely don’t forget to experience taking a One Cup or two on your Shinkansen travels for a little added relaxation! Locals laugh at its low brow status, but I find it just fine for a cheap and tasty sip of sake.

Finally, amazing French bakeries live in almost every station so be sure to stop in. It’s often impossible to have balanced meals all the time when traveling, so I let myself indulge in pastry treats when running through stations. Hard to say no to a chocolate treat on vacation; am I right?

All The Things

Of course there are many more things associated with such an interesting culture than one could cover in a simple article. As a beginner’s guide, though, this should get you started.

For those that have traveled to the island, what do you think? What have you noticed? What’s missing that new faces to Japan should be aware of? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

And of course, enjoy your first (or next) stay in Japan!

June 2015 Update: Cash

In my original post I inexplicably forgot to mention how currency is used in the country. It’s become so second nature that I completely overlooked it, but you must be aware that Japan is a mostly cash society. In fact, the only places I recall taking credit cards are within the airport, big malls, and larger establishments in (sizable) train stations.

Be sure you’re taking enough cash to not only cover expenses but also to cover any outstanding payments to hostels and hotels. It’s likely they, too, won’t accept credit card. When in doubt, cash it. And be sure to check the latest exchange rates at your arrival airport (here’s the link for Narita) to see how rates compare to the states. I haven’t seen an instance where it made sense to exchange prior to arrival.

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