A few days ago, I arrived in Japan to complete some errands before turning in my residence card. The entry procedures for returning residents are demanding. Casual tourists are not yet welcome. Still, I hear from blog readers and friends that Japan is their number one travel destination. To them, I dedicate this post. Eventually, Japan will open to tourists again. As I have recently re-arrived, these travel pointers are fresh in my mind.
The Golden Rule
There are many layers to visiting Japan. Most important for a traveler is the understanding that this is a high-context culture. It is a conservative society; people are reserved, and personal lives are pretty private. Keep this in mind while you move about here. Realize that your actions have repercussions on future travelers. The internet is full of people being assholes in Japan. I hope you are NOT a cringe-worthy westerner; we need no more Aaron Paul’s walking through Tokyo traffic. Essentially, think of the golden rule: don’t be an asshole.
I initially came here on the JET program. The position carries with it the goal of forging bonds with foreign countries. Of course, this speaks to my attitude towards travel. I see meaningful travel as part of growing bridges across cultures. The way I see it, people in different parts of the world are simply brothers and sisters from another mother. See your visit as an opportunity to be a cultured traveler and an ambassador. To better understand how to interact in social situations, I recommend this excellent Etiquette guide for Japan.
For more specific tips, here is my list below:
1. Prepare to Love Public Transportation
After working your way through the airport, you will choose to take a cab or public ground transportation. Sooner than later, you will need to take a train. Japanese trains are unlike their American counterpart; they are clean, punctual, and pleasant to ride. I recommend getting a chargeable IC or Pasmo card on your first opportunity. It requires a 500-yen deposit, and then you can charge it as needed. I would go ahead and load it with at least 5,000 yen (about USD 50). Pasmo also works with Apple Pay.
You will want to keep your card easily accessible as you need it to swipe into and out of the turnstile each time you change train lines. Also, even if you have a JR pass (see below), having credit on your card will make getting through non-JR train stations much more manageable. Finally, your vacation time is precious; avoid missing a connecting train because you had to buy an individual train ticket during rush hour (and had to wait in line behind a family of five foreigners who wanted to use exact change). Keep your card charged, and you should be good to go.
Being car-free was one of my favorite things about living here, and it is a fabulous way to get a natural feel for Japanese life. Lastly, along with the public transport note, a good pair of walking shoes are worth their weight in gold. Even with train journeys, a day of sightseeing can easily climb past the 10,000+ step mark. So make sure your feet are ready for the adventure.
2. Do your research
Early in my stay here, an American couple came to visit Tokyo. To help them plan, I asked Anne (name changed to hide embarrassment) what she wanted to do. She said, “Can’t we just do the touristy stuff?” Ugh, I am not sure what constitutes the “touristy stuff.” I would not choose to travel like that. However, if you value your time, make an effort to do some research. The city of Tokyo is akin to an enormous adult playground: red-light districts, temples & shrines, amusement parks, aquariums, shopping malls, and gardens and historical sites are spread out over 2,194.07 km.2 (Some estimates suggest it would take seven days to walk across the city. The breadth of options is no joke. Do the basics and know which rides you would like to take.
How will you decide whether to get the JR pass or which phone service to get? Depending on the purpose and length of your trip, the best option will vary. For sorting out logistics, like which Wi-Fi plan to choose or good day trips into the countryside, I recommend the articles at Tokyo Cheapo. Don’t let the name dissuade you; it is not about being cheap. It is about finding value. Their pieces help you make good decisions through well-researched and thought-out information. For a calendar of shows and events, I would suggest TimeOut. Their knowledge of music, special exhibitions, and culture is spot on.
3. Stay a Few Beats Off-Center
Many people are very eager to get right into the thick of the Tokyo hubbub. I find myself overwhelmed by the intense urbanization of Tokyo. Although there’s so much excitement in inner Tokyo, some areas are almost too busy. If you are in Shinjuku, Kabuki-cho, or Harajuku, plan on constantly having noise and traffic around you.
Since transportation is excellent, you can easily stay a neighborhood away and have a great time. So I would pick an off-center place to stay while you explore. For example, slightly off the center of Tokyo, I like the neighborhood of Nishihara or Yoyogi-Koen. Even further west is my old stomping ground around Kichijoji, with Inokashira park next to it. For me, that is a perfect balance of liveliness and a touch of nature. These residential areas have restaurants and nightlife. As a bonus, you will see children playing in the park and hear birds in the foreground during daylight hours.
4. Pay attention
The one way to be a douchebag in Japan is to be oblivious to the world around you. The Japanese love organization and procedures. There is a “right way” to do everything, from the tea ceremony steps to boarding the train, or standing in line. It would do you good to pay attention to those around you. When you sit down to eat a meal, notice how others around you are paying, ordering, and even behaving. If something comes off as disturbing other diners, it is not unheard of to be gently informed by the staff. For another example, you’ll notice that there aren’t many trash cans on the streets of Tokyo. However, if you buy something at the convenience store and consume it there or right outside, it’s easy to dispose of trash at that same convenience store. There are trash cans there just for that very purpose. Avoid throwing your trash on the street or shoving it into a shop’s window display. That is just douchebaggery.
If you are coming to visit Japan, these few pointers will help you make the best of your time here and avoid big faux pas. Enjoy the overwhelming and all-encompassing experience of this unique place. Your trip will leave you in awe and could even inspire a shift in your worldview.