Though the primary purpose of blogging our trip to Japan was to share the voyage with family and friends, I also did it with the hope that it might be of help to people (westerners in particular) traveling there.
That said, I’m including, in no particular order, some observations and tips that might help you plan (and survive) your trip to Japan.
No conversation about Japan is complete without a word or two about toilets. Indeed, I think Japan might have the most sophisticated toilets in the world.
Toto is a name you will see quite often. They are manufacturers of toilets–and not just any old toilets (although they make those too)–these toilets have seat warmers, bidets, warm air dryers, and general "spray" functions.
The toilet pictured above was in our room at the ryokan. The buttons on the side displayed stick figure-like pictures showing what each one did.
Just when you begin to get used to toilets that do everything for you, including pick out an outfit and walk the dog, you enter a public restroom and find <GASP>, a squat toilet. Look, I try to be open-minded about such things, but I was not a fan of the Japanese-style toilet. I felt very vulnerable and self-conscious while using them, even though I had complete privacy. And now when I look at the link above, I see I was facing the wrong way when I was using them–though I doubt it would’ve been easier if I was doing it right.
It should be said that many tourist attractions we went to included Japanese and Western-style options, so I really didn’t have to use the squat toilets very often, but I never knew what I was going to find in some places. With the exception of hotel rooms, it was pretty much a crap shoot (no pun intended) as to what kind of toilet I’d find when I entered a restroom. I took to giving Mick the thumbs up sign when exiting a restroom that had a western-style toilet.
Something I should’ve known, but for some reason didn’t, is that Japanese public toilets often don’t have toilet paper. You will be a much happier camper if you carry some tissues with you, believe me.
When you get to Tokyo, you will almost immediately notice people on the streets trying to give you little packages. I never took one because I figured it was just promotional stuff written in Japanese so I wouldn’t be able to understand it. It turns out that while I was right about it being Japanese advertisements, they are wrapped around packets of tissues. So take one–you might be thankful later.
Words to Travel By
While it’s true you can get by in Japan without knowing a word of Japanese, there are a few words and phrases you might want to learn in order to make your visit a bit more comfortable:
sumimasen (excuse me)
domo arigato gozaimas (thank you very much)
nihongo ga hanasemasen (I don’t speak Japanese)
Numbers 1-10 (or at the very least, 1-5)
Basic food words for things you might need to ask for, like mizu (water), chicken, beef, beer, etc.
Without a doubt, the food/restaurant situation was the most stressful part of the trip for me. Mick and I would decide it was time to eat then spend the next hour trying to find a restaurant that didn’t intimidate us. Still, I managed to gain 5 pounds on the trip, so obviously I was able to feed myself.
I never heard anyone say sayonara (goodbye) in Japan, and the one time I used it I felt kind of silly–I’m not really sure when it would be used. I think shopkeepers and waitpersons generally say something like arigato gozaimas (thank you very much) or doitashimashte (you’re welcome) instead of sayonara. I took to saying arigato gozaimas when leaving since that generally seemed appropriate. I rarely heard konnichi-wa (hello), but occasionally heard ohayo gozaimas (good morning).
Trains and Taxis
For us, taxis were by far the easiest and stress-free means of transportation in both Tokyo and Kyoto. However, they are expensive. Trains are a little confusing at first, but don’t let that stop you from using them.
Japan-guide.com has a "tutorial" on taking the train in Japan. For the most part, you will be using #3 in the instructions, "Buying Tickets at a Vending Machine." Please note, however:
"Sometimes, the station names on the maps are written only in Japanese. If you are unable to find your destination and the corresponding fare, you can purchase a ticket for the lowest possible price, and pay the difference at the destination station."
This is good advice, since 9 times out of 10 the station names are only in Japanese. In fact, you might even want to skip the confusion of trying to figure out how much to pay by buying the lowest price ticket and paying the difference at your destination.
Most of the guide books we used gave very specific information about what train(s) to take to a certain destination. This made it pretty easy to get around on the train.
If you are planning on taking the shinkansen take the time to figure out in advance exactly what you want and write it down. The guy who sold us the tickets spoke not a word of English and had Mick not prepared what we needed in advance, I’m not sure we would’ve been successful.
Make sure you have a map that is easily carried because believe me you will use it. For example, don’t expect taxi drivers to know where you are going because they probably won’t, and don’t be afraid to show them your destination on the map. If you don’t, they may not be able to get you to where you want to go. They may or may not speak English, but overall it is easy to communicate with them, even if you just give the name of your destination and point it out on a map.
We never took the bus in Japan but friends have said it’s just as simple as the train.
Little Things That Make a Difference
— Wear socks when you have to remove your shoes at temples or restaurants or whereever. It’s not a faux pas if you don’t, but you’ll feel more comfortable if you do.
— Watch the locals and learn. This is especially useful in restaurants because sometimes you are served things and you’re not sure how to eat them.
— In restaurants, you will often find a small cup on the table. The waitperson will put your bill inside the cup and when you are done, simply take it up to the cash register at the front and pay. Whether or not they put the bill in a cup, in all but one place (and this was the fancy french restaurant in the hotel) we had to pay the bill at a cash register upon leaving the restaurant, Dennys-style, so I can safely say this appears to be the norm.
— You will surely read this elswhere, but it bears repeating: At any of the numerous drink vending machines in Japan, you will have both hot and cold options. The cold drinks have blue markings on the machine and the hot drinks have red. I mistakenly bought a hot beverage at a vending machine once so just keep this in mind.
— You will be complimented on your "good Japanese" simply by saying arigato (thank you) or sumimasen (excuse me). It is rude to accept a compliment in Japanese culture, but don’t worry, chances are you won’t know the words to accept it anyway.
— The bus (called Airport Limosine) from Narita Airport to your hotel in Tokyo takes forever, especially once you include the time spent waiting for the bus, travel time, and dropping people off at various spots. Still, it is far cheaper than taking a taxi and it is exceedingly well organized (as are most things in Japan). Unless you have money to burn, you will probably use it, just know it will take a very long time.
Japanese Guest Houses
Lonely Planet Tokyo
Lonely Planet Phrasebook: Japanese
Just Enough Japanese