We were in Japan for the first time last November, and it was one of the best trips we have ever done. Japan is a beautiful country, and it was interesting to see this totally different kind of culture. I noticed a few things during our trip that are good to know if you are planning to travel to Japan, and what I wished I would have known before our trip. Here are some of them:
1. THE JAPANESE LOVE THE SILENCE
As coming from Finland where we also are used to the silence, this is actually not a problem, but I did have to ask my husband to speak quieter a few times during our trip. You especially notice the silence on the trains. People speak very quietly and mute their phones and tablets. There were also signs about this in the hotel rooms and AirBnB rooms.
2. REMOVE YOUR SHOES WHEN INSIDE
Japanese people don't wear shoes inside, so it is usually expected that you remove your shoes in hotel rooms and many other places. Also in some restaurants it is polite to remove your shoes. Many places offer some slippers that you can wear and sometimes even keep for yourself. Even the old castles that we visited required people to leave their shoes by the door or carry them in a plastic bag during the tour.
3. MANY PEOPLE WEAR FACE MASKS. WHY?
You will see people with paper face masks everywhere but don't worry, it doesn't mean that every one of them is sick. Some people wear masks to protect themselves from germs and some wear them during the allergy season to prevent pollen getting into their nose. The Japanese also think that it is polite to protect other people when you get sick by using a mask.
4. DON'T TAKE PICTURES OF JAPANESE PEOPLE
People in Japan are not happy about tourists photographing them and especially without asking permission first. And it is not very polite anyway. However, in many places, especially at famous sites, it is impossible to take pictures without having some strange people in it. At those places people know there is a chance they will end up in someone's home album, so you don't worry too much about it.
If you visit Kyoto and it's famous Geisha district in Gion, you should know that photographing geishas with their customers is a big NO NO!
5. THE JAPAN RAIL PASS CAN SAVE YOU A LOT OF MONEY
If you are planning to travel from one city to another, you should consider buying a Japan Rail Pass. Train tickets are not very cheap, and already the price of a couple tickets will make the JR Pass worthwhile. With the pass, you can travel as much as you want, and you can even use JR trains in Tokyo instead of the metro. Just don't forget that you have to purchase the pass before entering the country. You can read more about the JR Pass from here.
6. THE GHIBLI MUSEUM IS ALWAYS SOLD OUT
In case you are interested in anime and are dreaming about a visit to the famous Ghibli museum, you should buy the tickets early. They only sell a certain amount of tickets for each day and they have to be purchased beforehand. There are no ticket sales at the museum. The tickets usually sell out months before. We tried to get ours two months ahead and they were already all gone. You can always ask for last minute tickets from the local convenient store Lawson, which seems to have also opened an online sales site since we were there.
7. THE FAMOUS JAPANESE TOILETS
We had some Japanese toilets at work, and there were all kinds of features in them from integrated bidet to warming seat. One interesting feature was the noise button; either music or water sounds that will make sure other people won't hear you on the toilet. And you don't really need toilet paper for these toilets, since there are many different bidet options on them.
When we travelled to Japan, I was thinking that all the "Japanese toilets" were that sophisticated, but there were also "western toilets" which we are used to in the US. But then there were also the traditional squat toilets known as an "Asian toilet". So when going to the restroom, you might have several choices to choose from.
8. WHY JAPANESE WOMEN CARRY A TOWEL WITH THEM
There usually aren't any paper towels in Japanese restrooms. So if you don't want to walk out with wet hands, do what Japanese women do; carry a small towel in your purse. In case you forgot to bring one from home, no need to worry, almost every store sells some.
9. PEOPLE LOVE KIDS IN JAPAN - ALSO IN RESTAURANTS
We were traveling with our 4 year old daughter and got a lot of extra attention because of her. Compared to local people, she is a blond with sandy blond hair and hazel eyes, which might be why people wanted to talk to her, but also in general everyone seemed to like kids. Our daughter got little gifts and origamis from people on the street, and lots of smiles when we were out.
We wondered how we would cope at the local restaurants since our daughter didn't know how to use chopsticks yet. But no need to worry! In almost every restaurant they brought her a kids plastic plate with spoon and fork.
10. DON'T EXPECT EVERYONE TO SPEAK ENGLISH
Even though you will find most signs and instructions in English, many people don't speak English or do so with difficulty. It is always a good idea to learn some common phrases in Japanese which will be helpful in restaurants and stores. And it is of course polite to know how to say "hello" and "thank you" in the local language. Language was pretty much the only thing giving us trouble on our trip, and especially buying the train tickets in Japanese. But people there are extremely friendly and helpful, and always ready to guide you.
Do you have some good tips for people who travel to Japan for the first time?