Seeing the world, one week at a time.
JAPAN TIPS & TRICKS
SO...MANY... PEOPLE!: Unless you're from New York City or Los Angeles, you may find the sheer number of people surrounding you in Tokyo or Osaka or in some of the key tourist spots to be... well, a little overwhelming. Japan is roughly the size of Montana, but has 127 million people (three times as many as California). In major train or subway stations, there are virtual rivers of moving people that are difficult to cross or go against, and if you're not absolutely sure which direction you should be going at a given moment, it can be a bit stressful. My go-to move in those situations was to find a post to hide behind or against and take a moment to figure things out before moving on.
IS IT EXPENSIVE?: Yes... and no. If you plan on staying in 'real hotels' in places like Tokyo and eat at Michelin-starred restaurants every night, then yes, you will spend a lot of money in Japan. But hostels, 'capsule hotels', and Air B&Bs can bring your lodging costs down significantly, and there are plenty of eateries in Japan where you can get a decent meal and a beer for 1000-1100 yen ($9-10). And, for those meals on-the-go, stop in at one of the konbinis (7-Eleven, Family Mart, or Lawson's) for quick quality food, drinks, and snacks at bargain basement prices. I wouldn't go as far as saying Japan is a 'budget destination', but it doesn't have to break the bank, either.
JAPAN RAIL PASSES & SUICA CARDS: If you're planning on exploring the country while you're in Japan, I highly recommend getting a Japan Rail pass (available only to foreigners, and you have to buy it before you arrive in Japan) that will pretty much allow you to freely move about the country, even on the high-speed shinkansen lines. I also recommend getting a Suica Card upon arriving. You can load it up with money at any train or subway station, and it prevents you from having to buy tickets for every individual subway ride. As an added benefit, you can use the card for vending machine purchases (more on those later) and to pay for items in the previously mentioned konbinis.
THE LANGUAGE BARRIER: While most Japanese people do know a few English words, most do not know how to actually speak English. Despite that, the language barrier is not all that difficult to overcome, as many restaurants will have English menus with pictures you can point to, and the trains and subways make their announcements in both Japanese and English (pro tip: grab an English subway map of systems in the major cities if you're planning to get around by train). Honestly, I got by really only memorizing three phrases during my stay: 'Arigato gozaimas' (Thank you) 'Hai' (Yes), and 'Sumimasen' (Excuse me).
POLITENESS RULES: The Japanese are extremely big on politeness in public places. Trains and subways are crowded but eerily silent, as talking on cell phones is strictly looked down upon. Don't eat or drink while walking. Cross the street only on a green light. Give up your seat to the infirm or elderly. Things your mama taught you as a kid are still high on the list of social rules in Japan.
HAVE CASH, WILL TRAVEL: Despite being among the most technologically advanced countries in the world, credit card acceptance is not as ubiquitous as it is in the U.S. It's a good idea to be prepared to pay cash at the small-to-medium sized accommodations and restaurants.
TIPPING: Don't do it! Your bill is your bill. Tips are not expected, and in some cases considered an insult in restaurants.
VENDING MACHINES: Perhaps because the Japanese always seem to be 'on the go', vending machines are pretty much everywhere in Japan, even in random places on the sidewalks. Most have hot & cold drinks and food items, but here and there you'll even find alcohol and personal items available from a machine.
PLAN YOUR BATHROOM BREAKS: Japan has the widest range of bathroom facilities that I've seen in any of my Walkabouts. In big cities and major accommodations, you'll find heated toilet seats that will have bidets and optional music/nature sounds to cover up embarrassing bodily noises. In the middle are more regular American-style toilets, but in some rural areas, you'll also find primitive 'pit toilets' that most people would shy away from using unless its an emergency. Plan accordingly!
Walkabout X: Lost In Translation