1: Book ahead
We have tried where ever possible to let this trip develop as it will, not planning further than a week or two concretely. This is not really feasible in Japan unfortunately, especially when it comes to hostels. Most of the good ones get booked up months in advance. We reserved all our stays about a month before we arrived and had to drastically alter our plans a couple of times because towns we wanted to visit were simply full.
Incredibly for a country that has a reputation for being at the forefront of technology, most restaurants and shops in Japan still only accept cash. This was a real surprise for us. The good news is that Japan is so safe that you can carry large amounts of cash around without any real worry – indeed this is what the japanese do. It’s not a rare sight to see someone pull their wallet out literally overflowing with large denomination notes.
3: Hitch hiking
It’s so easy to get picked up for short journeys. Even for longer ones it is totally doable we’ve heard. The Japanese are so polite and courteous to visitors so we never had to wait longer than 15 minutes to get picked up. Once a woman was walking her dog and came home to see us hitch-hiking on the road outside her house – she put her dog inside and then came back out and drove us to where we wanted to go, it’s incredible.
4: Complex toilets
This really is not an unfounded stereotype. There’s a little arm that extends along the side of the toilet with such a large variety of controls that you’d think it was borrowed from the bridge of the starship Enterprise. Of course they do still have a traditional flush so if you are shy you can just use the toilet as normal but be warned, their toilet paper is the worst in the world, hands down, so you might want to investigate some of the advanced washing functions. I don’t know why they don’t get more flack for their toilet paper to be honest, the whole country just uses single ply, raspy, low-grade paper and it’s a disgrace. Step up your TP game Japan.
5: Chopsticks are only used for japanese food
At our workaway one of the volunteers made curry for dinner one night and we put out the chopsticks as normal. The staff members went back in the kitchen to fetch the other cutlery, they wouldn’t eat it with chopsticks. Curry and rice is a really popular dish in Japan, it’s a rich sauce combined with rice, you can see why they like it. But it’s eaten with a fork and a spoon, never chopsticks. I think it has something to do with the strict separation they keep between imported and native Japanese culture.
6: Learn Katakana
Japan has three ‘alphabets’ and between them they have thousands of characters. However if you are a fluent english speaker you can help yourself out massively by learning just one of these, Katakana. This is the one that they use exclusively for loan words, the majority of which come from english. So if you can recognise it somewhere, chances are if you sound out what is written it will make sense to you. When we arrived in Fukuoka I was enjoying myself just trying to sound anything I could see – I’d taken the time to learn both the ‘kana syllabaries – and ended up stumbling across what we were after when I mumbled “Basu terminaru”.
7: Beer flavoured beer
Regular beer is heavily taxed. I think so far Japanese supermarkets have the most expensive lager I’ve seen, with standard brands frequently costing over £2 for a single can. You can get around this by drinking what they call “tier 3 beer” which is rice alcohol that has been flavoured to taste like beer. The cans look exactly like their true counterparts, with the same brands available, but they will never mention the word ビル (‘biru’ – see how useful learning katakana can be?) anywhere on the can. It actually tastes fine. Anecdotally the hangover from the beer flavoured beer is worse than real beer but as someone who has never excessively consumed alcoholic beverages I couldn’t possibly say.
8: Rice is their favourite food
Most japanese people we asked said that rice was their favourite food. Not fresh sashimi or kobe beef or even Hokkaido cheese. Rice. Don’t misinterpret this as ‘they like to eat rice with everything’, we did clarify this with them, if they could choose one thing to eat over anything else they said it would be plain rice. They do have very sophisticated pallets though so maybe there are subtleties that are undetectable to our brutish, seasoning overloaded taste buds.
There are lots of lessons to be learned about onsen. I could write an entire post about the various codes of conduct to follow, what you need to bring and which pools are best, many people have done just that. The most important ones are covered on this poster which is put up in most onsen (or a variation thereof). In my opinion the main lesson we learned is that they are fantastic and really should not be missed. I almost wish we had something like them in the UK, but then I’m not sure that a bathing room full of british men would have the same relaxing and serene feeling.
10: AirBnB is cheap and prevalent
This is the best saving money in Japan tip I can offer, use AirBnB where you can. It’s significantly cheaper than hotels, similar to hostels and you often get an entire apartment to yourself. Quite often hostels will put some of their private rooms on AirBnB for a cheaper price as well so you can get the best of both worlds by using it. The only downside is that some private residences are not doing it in a strictly legal manner which can lead to them being forced to remove their property from the site with no warning. It didn’t happen to us and I don’t think it is particular common but I heard stories of people hearing the day before they arrived (or not having any warning) that their booking was no longer possible. Given what I said in point 1 this can put you in a bind. Again, I don’t think this is common but just be aware and confirm with your host before you arrive.
11: Vending machine menus
Fast food restaurants (including most ramen and tonkatsu places) have replaced menus with a vending machine at the entrance of the restaurant. It will typically have a display with all the dishes on (or older ones just have an array of buttons with a small picture of the food on each button) and you chose what you would like and pay at the machine. It then spits out a ticket which you take to the kitchen counter or to a member of staff and that is how you place your order. In the perfectly efficient japanese world it’s a good system. When gaijin get their hands on it and either don’t now how it works, don’t have the right money or haven’t decided what they want before they get to the front of the queue and proceed to ‘browse’ the vending machine, it leads to horrific delays. Hopefully by reading this you won’t be one of those tourists.
12: Get out of the cities
I feel like this lesson has been learned in every country we’ve visited but Japan especially so because most people’s mental picture of the country is of the neon lit Tokyo high rises (possibly being destroyed by a large green monster). The truth is that the countryside is so much more unique and beautiful. In feudal Japan they justified living through earthquakes and tsunamis because “that is the price you pay to live in the land of the gods”. And it really is that stunning, from the mountains of Hokkaido to the forests of Shikoku, the nature is perfect. They have preserved it all so well too, and there are plenty of busses out into nature so you’ve got no excuse to avoid it!
13: Anime has different names
This is specifically for people who have watched a few anime series like us and think it will make a good conversation topic with Japanese friends. Most famous shows have very different names in Japan, they are not literal translations. For example ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is known as ‘Mobile Armoured Riot Police’, ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ literally translates to ‘The Gospel for a New Generation’. Once you get over the initial translation issue it is a good topic of conversation though, with most classic anime being fairly universally popular.
14: Dietary fibre is scarce, also eating veggie is tough
The pervasiveness of white rice and noodles combined with a meat based sauce means that dietary fibre can be hard to get hold of. Common cheap dishes like tonkatsu, ramen and curry have basically no fibre in them at all. They are also largely meat based and the veggie/vegan protein favourite, beans, don’t really exist outside of edamame. Buying fresh vegetables is quite expensive and when you do find them the options for green leafies (the ultimate in all around nutrition) are almost non existent. My best advice is to get hold of small bags of salad from the convenience stores which tend to be pretty affordable, mix them with fresh edamame and add a dressing for those times when you just feel like you haven’t eaten a vitamin in days.
15: People beckon by shooing you away
Throughout asia, people beckon with their palm down, not up. This was explained to us in Japan which is why it’s in this post. Before that we’d spent a month in China and Korea (and a month in Japan) presumably interpreting any attempts to ask us to approach as the exact opposite. The look of perplexity on our workaway hosts face when he beckoned to us from the van and we dejectedly turned and walked away must have been hilarious.
16: Conveyor Sushi, cheap and good
In the UK, conveyor belt sushi places are seen as a novelty and are therefore quite expensive and have a reputation for substandard food. In Japan this is quite the opposite. The efficiencies awarded by not having to hire waiting staff mean that the sushi is significantly cheaper (indeed it is one of the few ‘value for money’ dining experiences we had in Japan) and they still maintain Japanese quality standards so it is delicious. One popular chain serves sushi for ¥100 per plate (about 70p) and each plate will have 2-6 pieces of sushi on it, depending on the dish. One place we went to had a little train track running above the conveyor, so when you ordered a specific dish from the touchscreen on your table it was delivered direct to you, the carriage announcing its arrival with a small trumpet sound.