Going to a country with an alien culture to that of your own can be unsettling and confusing, especially when the country has such a defined way of life as Japan does. On a trip there for two weeks, I came across a few things that nobody told me about before I arrived but will hopefully provide you with a head start if you’re preparing for a visit.
Note: I’m from Britain and so some of this post relates back to my own country.
I learnt a small amount of Japanese before I went and took a pocket book to help me. This was enough to get by, though a few times I struggled to get my message across.
Most people speak a bit of English so as long as you can indicate you speak English you won’t have much trouble. If you can learn a few set phrases at least you will show you made an effort and be looked a little more favourably on.
Japan Rail Pass
We saw Tokyo, Kyōto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Miyajima and Nara in two weeks. This was made much more affordable by having the Japan Rail Pass.
Just get it. It’s brilliant.
[Note] I should add a caveat. If you’re going to go to one city only, this might not be the best option. For example, going to Tokyo to go to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. You will probably just be based in a hotel very close to the Olympic Stadium and surrounding venues. There might be cheaper options that can be easily discovered with a bit of Googling on trips between your hotel and your destination.
Bullet Trains / Shinkansen
Yes, they are amazing. You can travel the length of Britain in about two hours. They’re always on time. They’re almost silent. There’s loads of room on them. They swivel the chairs around so you always face forwards.
That said, don’t think it’s going to be as entertaining as a roller-coaster or a trip to the cinema. Take a book or a pack of cards.
Cigarette smoking is surprisingly frequent. The rules on it are essentially the reverse of the U.K. There are designated places to smoke outside and you are not allowed to smoke whilst walking in most places. This is good for people who are fit and healthy and get around by walking and resolves a huge bugbear of mine in the UK.
However, inside is another matter. Most restaurants still operate smoking and non-smoking areas like the UK had up until the 1990s. Some restaurants we visited didn’t even have non-smoking areas and people generally aren’t considerate at all of other people’s desire to not second-hand-smoke, meaning when we were hugely hungry we just had to deal with it.
Crossing the road
I was begging for a Kevin Keegan video telling me how to cross the road safely.
Generally, crossing roads outside of designated crossings is a no-no when crossings are available. Crossing the road when the red man shows is generally frowned-upon. Basically, pedestrian-wise you just have to be patient and sensible and do whatever anyone else is doing.
Surprisingly, if only for British residents, you can wait for ages for a green man to show, then just as you cross the road a car appears from a side road. Initially you’ll doubt yourself because it seems so unusual. Then once it’s happened a few times you’ll realise it’s because cars are allowed to enter a main road from a side road when a pedestrian crossing is on green, as long as it’s safe to do so. Don’t worry, they won’t run you over. You’ll just feel like they’re about to.
Some of the taxis look like police cars. Specifically police cars from a 1970s American police show. I don’t know why.
Everyone is ridiculously helpful and lots of people will practice their English with you
I was in a train station looking like a tourist, with my map out, a huge rucksack on my back and a gormless look on my face. Suddenly a strange couple started approaching me and tried to say something. My immediate thought was to say “No, I don’t have any change.” Then I realised the woman was asking where I was going. She then proceeded to give me full directions then asked me where I was from and how I was finding the country. We exchanged a short conversation and then she wished me luck on my quest.
You can’t do everything
There are some seasonal-specific activities that you can’t do at all times of the year and even if you do try to do them you might get unlucky with the weather.
We had to weigh-up seeing the sakura (cherry blossoms to people outside Japan) with climbing Mt. Fuji. The former has a short window of opportunity that you can achieve best by visiting around the start of April. The latter is only permitted for three months a year, from early July to mid-September.
Outside that time you are only going to get to one of either the fourth or fifth stations at best, which are just essentially a café and bus stop halfway up a windy road that you can take a photo from. In hindsight the bus tour to Mt. Fuji, organised through JTB and Sunrise Tours, was very disappointing and we didn’t feel we got our money’s worth from it. It took a whole day out of our holiday and we spent almost the entire time on a bus, leaving with the feeling we could have spent the time in much better ways.
Be prepared to walk. A lot. The subways and overground trains are fantastic and the big cities all have phenomenal networks connecting them. However, they only take you so far and once you’re near it’s usually common sense to just walk the remainder, taking advantage of the safe, clean and beautiful surroundings.
I had my sports watch on a few days and we usually clocked up upwards of 5km on each day, with a peak of just over 7km.
People walk much faster than in the UK. I am a genuinely very fast walker and rarely get overtaken in the UK. In Japan people were zipping past me all the time.
There is one exception: when they are distracted by their mobile phones… Which is about 50% of the time. The number of people who don’t have the ability to walk from A to B without spending the entire time engrossed in their phones is unbelievable and quite funny.
The reason we can’t do this in the UK is the likely possibility of standing in some unattended dog excrement – an event so likely that we have to spend most of our walking time looking at the ground. This would never happen in Japan as the residents there are far too respectful of their own country and their surroundings. Just a difference of respect I guess.
If you’re someone from Britain you might hear the words “Nobody enjoys queuing like the Japanese” and think they’re not familiar with the British way of life. Well, I’m British and I’m telling you – nobody enjoys queuing like the Japanese. People queue for restaurants over an hour before they open. People queue for curried popcorn at Disney Land. People queue for the toilet to such an amount that on several occasions I saw a man whose job can only be described as Toilet Queue Co-ordinator.
Yet these are not disorderly queues. There have never been better organised queues than the queues in Japan. I sometimes wondered if people were just queueing for the sake of queuing, or maybe to join another queue.
You’ll immediately see the benefit of this when you get on your first train. Such is the efficiency of the trains, they stop at exactly the correct position on the station every time they arrive. As a result, there are designated queuing zones that people line up in before the train arrives. People getting off the train have space to exit, and there’s no chance of pushing and shoving when the time comes to board. In quiet times it is bliss.
Rush-hour Tokyo subways are a nightmare
Everything you have heard is true. You will be shoved into the train and just as you think there is no more room, ten more people will get on. If they don’t fit, a man will come along and shove them in with a brush-like tool and make damn sure they fit in.
People are as polite as they can be, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re so tightly-packed.
Everywhere you look you’ll see face masks. I read somewhere that it started as a fad with people trying to avoid hay fever. Then it caught on as people realised they could avoid getting illnesses on the subway (often people in Japan don’t get paid sick leave by their employers).
Nowadays you’ll probably see about 1 in 3 people wearing these on the subways. Don’t worry – you haven’t woken up in a zombie apocalypse. It’s just that they don’t want to breathe in your filthy germs.
Just try not to get annoyed at that one guy coughing and sneezing everywhere without a mask on.
Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo
As this is website is primarily a film blog, it is likely you are a fan of cinema in general. If you like films and are planning a trip to Japan then it’s likely you’ll want to take a visit to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka.
Your decision of when to visit with regards to Mt. Fuji or the sakura could be made if you want to visit the museum as it shuts in May for two months whilst the new exhibition is prepared. This was a priority for us so we opted for a March/April visit.
Massive fans of Ghibli who are here for a long time may wish to do two trips to the museum: once at the start of the holiday and once at the end. Going twice will mean you may see two different short films. It is recommended that you plan to visit it for around three hours. There is a lot to take in and it would be a shame to feel rushed whilst doing it.
Disney Theme Parks
The Disney theme parks are great for Disney fans but not so much for thrill-seekers
There are two Disney theme parks in Tokyo: Disneyland and DisneySea. If you have children then make sure you go for the former, which is essentially very similar to Magical Kingdom in America. If you’re looking for thrills then DisneySea is the better option. Contrary to most advice found online, it can be done in one day as long as you’re willing to go on a couple of rides with a single rider pass.
I wrote an expanded guide for DisneySea here as we got a lot out of it in a day.
Go and see some sumo
It’s extremely difficult to get hold of tickets to these if you don’t live in Japan. Check out BuySumoTickets.com to find the schedules for the biggest upcoming tournaments. There are six large tournaments every year: three in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Nagoya and one in Fukuoka. They’re quintessentially Japanese experiences and a must-do for anyone visiting Japan.