Visiting Japan for the first time? 5 Things you should know
Every time one of my friends or family plan their future holidays in Japan, i get asked the same questions: What should i know when visiting Japan for the first time? Which cities should i go to? What should i see? What should i be careful with? And of course, what should i Eat?
To answer most of these questions, i have decided to create a series of blog posts and cover most of these topics.
The first blog post i want to start with is the 5 Things you should absolutely know when visiting Japan for the first time. Most of these things are already common knowledge if you are a Japan enthusiast or if you have discussed with people who visited this country before. However, if Japan is completely new to you, you must absolutely read the 5 points below.
1 – IT IS SUPERSAFE
The first thing to mention when travelling in Japan is that it is super safe. I have never felt more comfortable and at ease in any country other than Japan. It is a tourist paradise and it is especially true for solo travellers and women. You can rest assured that there is a 0.001% chance that bad something might happen to you. I have been travelling in Japan for years and I have never noticed anything suspicious. I have never even seen a fight broke out, and i had my lot of night out and drinks in all kind of places across Japan. Same for robbery, aggression or abusive behaviours. Nothing worrying, really. The only time you will see cops in action is usually when they annoy street performers who had nothing to do there. In fact, it is common knowledge in Japan that the Koban (Police station found all across the country) are often used as Guide for directions when people are lost or looking for something more than reporting any type of crime.
credit – Dick Thomas Johnson
Another shocking example is the cash in transit services and cash transportation officer. Yes, those big armoured vehicles (think of Brinks, G4S or Loomis). In Japan, the officers are only carrying a wooden stick instead of an automatic rifle for self-defense. Crazy right?
There might be a few exceptions to this rule. Some places such as Kabukicho in Tokyo (Don’t follow these African touts in hostess club) or well-known “dodgy” areas in Japan such as Kamagasaki in Osaka.
More than safety, we are also talking about the honesty of Japanese people in Japan. One of the best example to illustrate my say is that no one will try to rob you from your personal valuables if you leave them unattended. You can be seated blogging in a cafe, then leave your expensive laptop on your table to do something else and come back an hour later (why would you do that? I don’t know…) and yes, you will be pleased to see that no one touched your stuff. Same if you forget or lose something in a public place, you have a 99.9% chance that someone will return it to the staff for you to pick it up later. Be careful though, even if in general Japanese people are super honest you might have a 0.1% exception of being the unlucky one (i don’t want you to write to me saying, but you said everything was fine…).
2- CARRY CASH AT ALL TIME
In our digital era, this second point is super important. It is even more critical if like me, you don’t know what the concept of cash means anymore and you are relying exclusively on your contactless credit card or your smartphone (Apple pay, android pay,…). My father used to tell me in French l’argent te brule les doigts meaning that you spend all your money way too quickly. He is probably right, and it is one of the reasons why i usually don’t carry cash around (“Oh a note of a hundred, let’s just spend it asap!”). If carrying your card-only is fine in most of the developed countries around the world, Japan remains one of the few exceptions where carrying cash is still necessary.
This rule is especially true if you are eating out. I still remember that day when i queued for two hours in front of a famous Sushi restaurant to realise at the end of the two hours wait that yes,… they had a cash-only policy…and obviously i only took my credit card with me. Lesson learned the hard way. National restaurant chains will usually allow you card payment. However, you can still face the issue in many restaurants in Japan. I would say predominantly to be careful with small traditional joint or Izakaya. Don’t expect the eighty years old Obaasa who runs her small restaurant alone to bring you a card payment device when you ask for the addition.
It is also the same for some accommodations. Especially traditional Ryokan, guest houses or Hostel in the countryside. You can have the unpleasant surprise to hear that they don’t accept payment by card. I’d recommend you to always check first on their website or the online reviews. Even though they will probably let you know where to withdraw cash, it can sometimes get more complicated (example of a Small town with no atm around the accommodation,…)
Street food stalls or small confectionary shops are also places to be careful with. My personal rule is simple, i always carry approximately 10 000 yen in cash with me, just in case. If i know i am visiting an expensive restaurant or my next accommodation, i will do my research beforehand or simply withdraw what i intend to pay in advance.
On a geeky note, It is funny to see that, in a country that has been a so early adopter of cryptocurrency you can still be struggling to pay by card on many occasions.
3- 7 ELEVEN FOR ALL YOUR NEEDS
I wanted to name this third point Konbini For All Your Needs but the 7 Eleven franchise is referred to as the king of Konbini in Japan (We have Japanese 7-Eleven enthusiasts all over the world. In fact, i probably have my club membership card stored somewhere as well).
The Konbini aka Convenience Store is the best thing that has ever happened to Humanity after Netflix and UberEats. The concept of 7-Eleven was born in the US in 1927 however, Japan has more 7-Eleven locations than anywhere else in the world. Their concept and range of goods are also far more elaborated. The first thing to mention when talking about 7-Eleven and other Konbini in Japan (Lawson, Family Mart, Daily Yamazaki, just to name a few) is that you can find them absolutely everywhere in Japan. In big cities, you will come across a Konbini every hundred meters.
The beauty of these shops is that you can find everything that you might be looking for, at every hour of the day, every day of the week. From delicious food, medication, household goods, cigarette and alcohol to socks they have everything covered.
Let’s talk about the food first. You need to know that there is a secret cult in the world, something far more influencial than the Illuminati and it is called the cult of 7-Eleven food enthusiast. You will probably join them after your first time visiting the food section of a 7-Eleven. They have so many things to try: From the fresh section with delicious Japanese specialities (Onigiri, yakisoba, bento,..), The bakery with fresh preparation such as the now-famous Melon Pan; To the hot section with fried food (Kaarage, yakitori,…) and Oden (hot pot simmered dish).
Food aside you will find everything you need in a Konbini: All the health and beauty products you might need, the household products, tobacco and alcohol, battery, USB cables,… You need to withdraw cash? No problem, each 7-eleven has an ATM. You had a long night out and need to be ready for the day ahead? You can also find a new pair of underwear, shirt, socks and t-shirt.
7-Eleven are not only a place to buy items. In some of them, you can also use a dedicated area to relax, have a coffee, microwave your food and have your lunch quietly. One last thing, if you do not have data on your phone while visiting Japan, you can also benefit from free wifi in all of the 7-Eleven obviously! It is a traveller’s paradise.
4- CLEAN AND WELL ORGANISED
In overall, Japan is a country that is super clean and well organised. It sounds super cliché, yes i know. I don’t know where you are travelling from, but if you are coming from a European city such as London or Paris you should be impressed. It is easily noticeable, you won’t find much junk on the street, people behave in a respectful manner and service is often impeccable. You will love it even more if, like me, you have some type of OCD when it comes to cleanliness and organisation.
I wanted to highly cleanliness because i know that a lot of you might intend to travel to Japan on a budget. You will see hostel accommodations listed for $10 (yes it does exist!) and wonder if it is worth it, or if they will just throw your futon near the garbage for you to sleep with the rats. I was impressed the first time i visited a super cheap hostel in Japan. Everything was so clean and well organised. People were respectful and it was the same every time i booked a low-cost accommodation. They set the bar really high so don’t be blocked by the stigma we might have in our societies. Another example is the public restroom, yes that hideous place where you wish you never had to stop. Well, in Japan they are most of the time super clean and well maintained, this should restore your faith in humanity (nothing less!).
Fun Fact: Retired Elderly and Neighbour usually gather to community clean-ups to maintain and clean their neighbourhood. In the countryside especially you can see a lot of elderly people walking down the street to collect junk and littering.
Cleanliness asides, Japan is a country that is super well organised. Transportation is a perfect example, subway and trains are never late. Everything is well indicated, which means that even if you don’t speak or read Japanese you should be able to find your way. People are respectful and follow the rules and you can see that at every metro stations. Japanese are patiently waiting in queue perfectly aligned until the train arrives. Then, they are still patiently waiting on the side of each door to let the passengers out before boarding in order. We are far away from the chaos of my dear Parisian metro where only the strong survive.
From a service perspective also. Wherever you are and especially in public institution, it is impeccable and everything works efficiently. The agents are friendly, patient and always helpful.
There is something in Japan about the way people behave in public. It is all about respect to ensure things run smoothly and in harmony for everyone within the society.
5- WATCH YOUR BEHAVIOUR:
The fifth and final point comes as a complement of the previous point. Watching your behaviour is something really important in Japan. The Japanese society is different from our western societies in so many aspects that you should be aware of some rules before going there. The first rule would be to simply follow the rules. In our western countries, we tend to be flexible in regards to the social rules in general, bending the rules a bit won’t hurt anybody… We put the individual at the centre of everything (what if I want to cross this street while cars are driving?) whereas in Japan the greater good is usually above individualities. It sounds super cliche and it probably is, but this implies a lot of things to be careful with while in Japan. In fact, it is simple things that we wouldn’t consider relevant in Occident but are considered rude and offensive in Japan. Don’t be that Gaijin.
Watching your behaviour is key in Japan. Some accepted behaviour in our Occidental countries reflects negatively in the eyes of Japanese people. Here a few of them: Crossing at the red light, answering the phone or eating/drinking in public transportation. Smoking in the street (forbidden), littering and dropping your junk in the street, not respecting the queuing system or shouting in public for the ordinary ones. For the most uncommon ones, it can also be said that blowing your nose in public, pointing fingers at people and touching strangers in the street is a big No-No. Also, always ask permission for taking pictures of people. Mobile sold in Japan have by default the shutter sound on so people know when you are taking a picture. It is probably not the case with your phone, Locals won’t like you taking their picture without them knowing.
I realise that it can be super frustrating and sometimes difficult to understand and follow all these rules. However, behaving properly in Japan will 1) avoid you any kind of troubles (who wants to be fined for smoking in the street?), 2) improve your immersion in Japan. Afterall, while in Rome do as the Romans do.
That’s it for the 5 things i wanted to share with you regarding your first visit in Japan. There are many more points i wish i could have covered but i will probably write them down in a follow-up article.
I really hope that you have found this article useful. Let me know if it has helped you during your stay in Japan. Also, I’d be curious to hear what have been for you the key things you wish you had known during your first stay in Japan?