With Japan in the public eye as this year’s delayed Olympics venue, thousands more people will be tempted to make plans to go there, so here’s some useful information, especially for those who venture off the beaten track.
By Myra Robinson, with original photos by the author
You’re in Tokyo about to catch your first bullet train. You have your ticket but the machine won’t accept it, and the control operator seems to be telling you to buy another ticket. What do you do?
Setting out on an adventure to the other side of the world, and doing it independently, is a challenge, especially when English is not widely spoken and the culture is so completely different. Guide books, as I discovered, are only the starting point for a trip to Japan. On my travels, I picked up a few tips which I wish I’d known about, so I’m passing them on.
First, and it’s true for any holiday near or far — do your homework. Make a list of where you want to go and what to see, then take advice. I suggest asking a reputable agent for a bit of help whilst respecting your wish to be totally independent. (In my case the superb Trailfinders took time and trouble to advise on anything and everything.)
On local trains such as the one to Obuse, birthplace of Hokusai, the station signs are only in Japanese: it’s difficult to know where to get off! My solution was to say “Obuse?” In an interrogative way, and they would either tut and shake their heads, or give me an enthusiastic thumbs up.
Bullet Trains (Shinkansen)
Getting about on sleek stylish bullet trains is easy – when you know how. You can get a discount by buying tickets in advance online, but they must be collected at the station and the special tourist offices can be difficult to find, on a different level from the trains. You need two tickets for a bullet train if you have onward travel, both to be inserted at the same time. Nobody told me this, and I nearly had to pay again, but luckily a man at the ticket office spoke English. You keep one ticket and the machine swallows the other, and that same ticket is then used with any other train tickets for onward journeys that day.
Bullet trains only wait for 2 minutes once the cleaners have got off and bowed to you. Some coaches have reserved seats, some are unreserved. Check your coach and stand in the right place on the platform, clearly marked.
Shoes and Socks
You’ll soon discover when you visit shrines, castles, museums and even some shops, that you’ll have to take your shoes off. Tatami mats must not be contaminated by outdoor wear, and even wooden polished floors must be respected. I wish I had known (a) to wear slip on shoes so that precious time wasn’t taken up with shoelaces, and (b) on a winter visit to have an extra pair of warm socks in my pocket. My feet got very cold, especially after a couple of castles with no heating. Even though I was only wearing socks, the ‘nightingale floors’ of Nino-jo Castle in Kyoto still squeaked as I walked along, to alert the warlord of an approaching enemy.
Japanese toilets are legendary. They are very confusing, with far more knobs, buttons and flashing lights than you could even guess a use for, and there is usually no way of understanding their functions, even with ‘helpful’ diagrams. Not only are the seats heated and you can have angled hot water spurts followed by blasts of hot air, but because of Japanese sensibilities, various buttons will give you pleasant sounds to cover embarrassing noises. My favourite was birdsong, but rivers and the sea are also options.
Everywhere you go, everyone will be wearing face masks. Their germ and air pollution phobia have become even more exaggerated with the coronavirus. Hand washing is necessary at the beginning of every meal in a restaurant: you’re provided with a hot rolled towel. A Zen Buddhist priest solemnly warned me about the necessity for frequent hand washing as he handed me sweets from the depths of one sleeve. (As a westerner I might be more susceptible to germs, he thought.)
If you choose to use the wonderful public hot baths (onsen) you must first have a shower and shampoo, and tip a bucket of water over yourself before getting in. Get in clean, emerge even cleaner! Don’t forget, you must be naked, even for communal bathing!
Most goods for sale, especially groceries, are beautifully packaged but only written in Japanese, so you have no idea of the contents. You might be lucky and find open boxes which display what’s inside, but even then what I took for jellied fruit sweets turned out to be slices of cured jelly fish.
Tax is usually added at the till: items may cost more than you think. This is true for department stores, but not market goods.
Look out for second-hand traditional Japanese clothes shops in the cities. Brightly coloured cotton happi jackets make great presents and are not expensive. Expect to pay from 1,000-2,000 yen.
Don’t go in! There’ll probably be seating outside the entrance, and if you wait there someone will collect you when a table is free. You’ll only be given chopsticks, but it gets easier. Even famous places serving tempura pork cutlets like Maisen in Tokyo expect you to eat this way – and as they are melt-in-the-mouth it’s not a problem.
Menus are often surprisingly easy to use, because despite the Japanese alphabet they are full of photos, so all you have to do is point. Bizarrely, many restaurants have displays of plates of plastic food outside, which can help you to see what’s on offer.
I wish I’d known at the beginning of my Japan tour that you can collect rubber stamps of places as souvenirs. They sell special books for the purpose, beautifully bound, or you can of course use your own travel book. The images and Japanese writing are really attractive, depicting a memorable building or something a town is famous for: an ornate float from Takayama, for instance; many views of Mount Fuji; a choice of a fat chestnut or a Hokusai figure from Obuse; a manga figure from the art island of Naoshima; and many, many more. It’s not obvious where to have your book stamped, but miming with a fist on the palm usually does the trick.
- At pedestrian crossings there is total obedience, even when the road is empty.
- Keep left on escalators and busy pavements in shopping areas.
- It is polite to bow in greeting; never shake hands or make physical contact.
- Assistants in a shop or restaurant will hurry with small steps to serve you. They are not under stress: just eager to please.
- Nose blowing is considered rude: you should sniff.
- Tattoos are frowned upon as a sign of criminality. (If you have a tattoo you will not be allowed in an onsen, but you could try covering it with a plaster.)
- Don’t be surprised by the apparent presence of birds everywhere in cities. Birdsong comes from loudspeakers, especially in stations. (My local subway had a cuckoo.)
- Take your litter with you. Streets are spotless and there are no bins.
- Never leave a tip. It’s not done, and might even be regarded as insulting.
- The Japanese are more formal than we are. Although you will encounter weirdly dressed teenagers, many women habitually wear kimonos. Generally people don’t tend to wear casual clothes (shorts etc) when out and about.
Japan is a bit of a culture shock, so you need a few extra tips to help you to navigate the different language, different customs, and traditions, different food…but that’s why you choose Japan.
Reader, it’s not just a holiday, it’s a life-changing experience.