For most of us, westerners, Japan is not like anything we have ever seen before. We called it “another planet”, not another country. And even if I read plenty of stuff about the Japanese culture, I still had surprises when we went there. In the end, that’s why we’re traveling, right? That’s why I have compiled this list of things to know before traveling to Japan for the first time.
Things to know about Japanese people
What you need to know, first of all, before going to Japan, is that people are very polite, and they always think about those around them. You can see this in the cleanliness around you, the way they interact, in how they try to not bother anyone, and to leave the place at least as good as they found it. But, apart from this, let’s get to the cool stuff!
1. The traditional religion in Japan is Shintoism. This is a polytheist religion and there are millions of gods to pray to. That’s why you’ll find plenty of Shinto shrines across the country, but keep in mind that they are dedicated to various gods, for example, rice, trees, beauty, health, rain.
2. This point is provided by one of my readers (thanks, Elisabeth). Japanese people are not very religious. Most of them don’t visit a Shrine every day, and most young people don’t discuss religious subjects anymore as there were some sad events created by an extremist group called Oumu Shinrikyo.
3. As you may expect, Mount Fuji has its own goddess, Sengen-sama. You also use “Sir” when you speak about Mount Fuji, so you say Fuji-san, if you want to be truly polite.
4. Students wear uniforms, exactly like you see in anime series (Sailor Moon anyone?). Still, most boys wear tennis shoes with that, so the outcome is, uhm, unexpected. Most students also have different stickers and other accessories on their backpacks, probably because they feel the need to be set apart from the crowd in one way or another.
5. Adults also look very elegant. Men wear dark suits and women also wear business attire, as well as very feminine clothes.
6. Still, what struck me the most is that lots of people wear white socks with black shoes. And this is a trend not only in Japan, but I saw it there the most. Again guys, match the socks with your shoes, please!
7. Also, I have never seen so many men purses anywhere else. And I don’t mean laptop bags, or document cases, I really mean men purses. This trend didn’t gain popularity in Europe (yet), but good for them to embrace it if they want to!
8. From time to time, people wear traditional outfits. It’s not uncommon to see people wearing kimonos in the middle of the city. And they’re not offended if a tourist does it either. In the end, it’s a way of showing respect for their culture.
9. People wear surgical masks if they have a cold, to not share it with people around. If this is not being amazingly polite and thoughtful, I don’t know what is!
10. In most cities, you can find arcade rooms everywhere, and people of all ages play here. I’m not the best person to provide information about this, as I avoid anything that can make me dependent on something (except for Nutella, of course), but this was like the most Japanese thing I have ever seen.
11. People love Christmas and “western” weddings (the Hollywood version at least), so they kind of celebrate them. This is what makes me think their religious affiliation is very fluid, and they’re very open to outside influence.
What you need to know about money in Japan
12. You will need cash for transportation and entry fees to various tourist places, but you’ll be able to use your card for restaurants and shops. The criminality rate is so low here, that people don’t feel uncomfortable carrying big amounts of cash with them.
13. The 10% tax is not always included in the shelf price in stores. Not sure if there’s a reason for this, but we noticed this while there.
14. As you can read everywhere, you can buy things tax-free, which can be pretty cool. But no one tells you this usually applies for amounts bigger than 5.000 Y. I don’t know how much shopping you plan to do, but don’t rely on this discount if you want to buy small things.
What you should know about transportation in Japan
Although I have created some very extensive guides about this, for which you can find the links below, I will also add some interesting facts here.
15. Trains, buses, and metros are sometimes pretty old, but most have start/stop buttons to pollute less. Now that’s what I call respect for nature!
16. People do lots of things while using public transportation. They eat in trains, sleep anywhere, and do plenty of stuff on their phones. They just don’t ever speak on the phone to not disturb others.
17. No matter how much everyone recommends the JR pass (me included), and I have to admit it is useful, you should know that it doesn’t cover everything. You WILL pay more for transportation while in Japan, so take that into account when making your trip budget.
Things I wish I knew about food before going to Japan
In full disclosure I must admit I am a picky eater, so read this section keeping in mind that I don’t find sushi amazing and have weird tastes in food anyway. I think I am the only person that didn’t go to Japan to stuff myself up. If you want to read more about food in Japan, head over to one of my fellow blogger’s post about where to eat in Dotonbori (Osaka).
18. We found it pretty difficult to find fruits. And even when we found some, they didn’t have many options and the ones available were very expensive. As a person that eats fruits daily, this was a big surprise.
19. Another surprise we had was that the sweets are not very sweet. They look beautiful, I must agree, but they’re not as sweet and savory as I expected them to be.
20. Buying stuff from grocery stores is like a “sweet or salty” lottery. Bought sticks? Think they’re salty? Think again, they may have a strawberry filling. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just unexpected.
21. Food is quite greasy, with lots of dishes being essentially deep-fried stuff. And I mean any type of meat, which is hard to believe when you know they were mostly vegetarian for thousands of years.
22. Almost all dishes contain eggs in one way or another. It can either be a boiled egg in a salad, or an omelet used as a wrap or even added to a bowl of ramen. If you have cholesterol issues, keep this in mind.
23. Matcha tea has an herby taste, and it is quite sour. The taste is pretty strong, and matcha flavored stuff look better than they taste.
Things to know when traveling to Japan
24. One of the things to know before going to Japan for the first time is that there are plenty of stairs and elevators or escalators are scarce and pretty hard to find. If you have a big trolley or a baby pram, you’ll have a tough time navigating Japan.
25. The weather is very different throughout the day. In November, there were 40°F (5°C) in the morning, which we didn’t quite expect.
26. The areas you’ll cover are pretty big, so you will need sturdy shoes, public transportation and plenty of patience.
27. There are thousands of vending machines across the country, and you can buy anything from them.
28. In the same area as the vending machines, all media exposure is very in-your-face. Commercials, announcements, posters: all of them have bright colors and some look like animes. While the people look very sober and they dress in neutral colors, all media around is like an explosion of colors and sounds.
29. The ground level is level 1. Some 100 years ago, people were also one year old when they were born, a common practice in a few East Asian countries. So keep this in mind the first time you get lost. Yes, it WILL happen.
30. Tap water is drinkable, but it smells intensively of chlorine. So you can either use a water filter or just put it in your bottle and leave the bottle uncovered overnight to let that evaporate.
31. They use LOTS of plastic. Huge amounts, I would say. We found bananas wrapped in plastic, candy that was in plastic and then individually wrapped in another layer of plastic. In grocery stores, they put each item in its plastic bag, and look surprised when you tell them not to.
32. While reading some maps on the subway, you’ll maybe notice some swastikas around. Don’t worry, you didn’t get to a Nazi or racist country. This sign is used to mark Buddhist temples, and it was used for this purpose before Hitler made it what it is today in Europe.
33. You need to be prepared for an emergency. When you get to your hotel, read the emergency instructions, see where you have the flashlight in the room, and look for at least two exits from the building which don’t include elevators. Considering the number of natural disasters that can happen here, you need to be prepared.
34. Speaking of hotels. When you look at rooms to book, keep in mind that the bathroom area is included in the specified room area. If you’re not willing to pay an arm and a leg for your room, you’ll probably have a tiny place anyway.
35. Some tourist places are closed on Mondays and/or after 5 PM. If possible, plan this day for a ryokan evening. You’ll get to relax without feeling you lost precious time that could have been invested in visiting places.
36. Japan is known for blade manufacturing. Here, you can buy high-quality knives, scissors, nail clippers, and kitchenware. There’s even a street dedicated to this in Tokyo.
37. Smoking on the streets is prohibited. There are only a few places where one can smoke, and those are marked as smoking places and can be easily avoided by non-smokers.
38. You’ll notice something pretty interesting while in Japan: everything modern is made out of straight lines and right angles (buildings, streets, clothes), and everything natural and traditional has only rounded lines (parks, bridges, lakes, kimono designs). The contrast is fantastic if you’re in a Japanese garden in the middle of Osaka.
39. All Japanese arts are very detailed oriented, which is very representative of the people. Origami is the art of paper folding, ikebana is the art of making special flower arrangements, blade manufacturing (which was considered an art for a long time) is also very strict and detailed. Patience and commitment are needed to perform any of these arts.
40. The literacy rate (number of people that can read and write) is close to 100%, one of the highest in the world. I don’t know how they do this, but please Japan, teach us your ways!
41. They have plenty of special cafes and bars. You can spend the night in a gaming room or a karaoke bar with private rooms, you can have your coffee while petting cats or owls (which doesn’t sound like a good thing for the owl, in my opinion), you can even get your dinner without exchanging a word with anyone, by using automated ways of ordering and paying.
42. You can find public toilets everywhere, and they’re clean and free. You may not have soap or a hand dryer, but you will have running water and some walls around you. This is better than any other country I have been in, and I appreciated this deeply.
43. Since we’re talking about toilets, here’s one more: after you use a Japanese toilet, it’s hard to come back. The warmed seat, the washing and drying options, the perfume spread or the music heard: all this makes you feel comfortable using a toilet anywhere you are, which I never realized was not the case anywhere else.
Fascinating facts about Japanese culture
44. They have a culture of cleanliness and beauty. I don’t remember where I read that they don’t even have different words and concepts for the words “clean” and “beautiful”. And if you read Shogun like I did (or cringe watched the movie), you’ll find out that they were like this when all of the “civilized” world was full of lice, bathing once in a lifetime and using streets as toilets.
45. For the sake of cleaning, they have a culture of public baths, the natural springs used being called onsens. It is not unnatural to find onsens where men and women bathe together (well, you bathe before you get in, you only soak in the onsen). The human body is not seen as such a taboo here.
46. About onsens, you should know you’re not allowed to enter one while wearing any clothes or having your hair down, and tattoos are also frowned upon or even forbidden.
47. When entering some areas, you will be required to take off your shoes. It’s part of the cleanliness culture to not bring the outside dirt inside. If you see a line of shoes outside a door or entry, put yours next in line. For this reason, don’t wear your ripped socks in Japan if you don’t want to embarrass yourself, and try to have shoes that are easy to take off.
48. In restaurants, you are not expected to tip. Or in any other place. They do their work based on honor and duty, two other principles that date back centuries ago. You can read more about the Bushido code here.
49. Also in a restaurant, you’ll receive a warm, wet towel upon arriving. This is for you to clean your hands before eating. While I saw some people also using this to clean their faces after a long and sweaty day, I find it a bit tacky, and I know it’s impolite to do this.
50. In Japanese culture, respect for the dead is a very important factor. You can do that by not putting your chopsticks vertically in your rice. If you’re not eating for the moment, you can either use the side of your bowl or plate or the holder you were provided with for specifically this reason.
51. Another sign of respect is to wear your kimono right if you decide to try this. And I don’t mean you should know everything about wearing it, because this is a major thing that requires lots of knowledge, but I mean at least not offending anyone. Thus you should fold your kimono with the left side over your right side, and not the other way around.
52. People bow to everyone, as a sign of respect. You don’t have to do it if you don’t feel comfortable, but you’ll see it done for you more often than you might expect.
53. Also as a sign of respect, they take and give important things (business cards, money, bills, room keys) using two hands. For money and bills, they will usually have a small plate where you should put them. And it’s polite to make eye contact when receiving or giving something, as it is to look at that thing for a few seconds before you put it in your pocket.
Key takeaway for things to know before traveling to Japan for the first time
Phew, this was a big one. Initially, I started with just a few facts, but once I got going, I couldn’t stop myself anymore. There’s plenty of interesting stuff to know before traveling to Japan for the first time, and I’m sure the next visits will show me some unexpected things as well. Because I can guarantee there will be a next time!