Tuesday, May 7, 2013

17 Tips for Visiting Japan

I went to Japan after and long absence and wanted to share a lot of cultural tidbits I forgot about or that are new. I was in both the rural areas and Tokyo.  Hopefully you will find them useful or interesting!

1.  You can smoke cigarettes anywhere.

While I’m sure they know about the harms of smoking, it’s such a part of the culture that you can pretty much smoke anywhere in Japan.  While you don’t see people smoking inside trains, smoking in restaurants, especially bars, is allowed.  They do have designated smoking section, areas, or covered greenhouse looking structures too (near train stations or in sections of buildings to contain all the smoke).  Cigarettes can be bought in vending machines, at train station kiosks, or at convenience stores.  

2.  No soap or paper towels in bathroom.

A majority of public restrooms (unless in a nice restaurant) in Japan do not have soap, paper towels, or even hand dryers.  Even bathrooms in homes do not have soap for guests, etc.  I’m not sure why, when germ theory was discovered decades ago.  I have seen people carry their own handkerchief or hand towel, so perhaps they also carry their own soap sheets, but I’ve never witnessed it.  Come prepared.  

3.  Lip everywhere.

For whatever reason, almost every door way, sliding glass door, entry point into a building has a lip in the floor/door frame that you have step over.  It’s only about an inch high, but when you’re not expecting it, one tends to trip or stub their toe a lot especially because it is not bevelled either.    

4.  Small water glasses and don't refill them.

While customer service is Japan is very good and attentive, when it comes to restaurants, it’s not often that they check on you through out the meal.  They serve water in very small glasses so you have to flag down the waitress on your own to get it refilled.  Most people order a soft drink (which is not free refills usually), beer, or coffee.  As a big water drinker, this annoyed me to no end.  

5.  Temperatures fluctuate.  

In the summer it's very humid and sometimes there is no A/C in the underground train stations/malls.  Or it could be a cold day, but once you get on a train it is so packed and crowded you start to sweat from the body heat alone.  Even if it’s a sunny day, with all the tall skyscrapers and a slight breeze shaded areas are much colder.  Oddly, people in Japan don’t always wear sunglasses though it is super bright out and to hide from the sun and to not get tan, you’ll see some holding umbrellas.  

6.  Mass transit isn’t everywhere.

While Japan has the best mass transit - buses, trains, and taxis - if you are not near a train station or more populated area, you will have a hard time flagging down a taxi or seeing a bus station.  Mass transit is so reliable that there is a saying in Japan.  If the train is late, the time is wrong.  You will see time tables for the bus and train that do arrive to the minute.  If you miss it, there is usually another one in a few minutes or 15 min at most.  Trains stop running around 11pm or midnight and start up again around 6am or 7am.

7.  Free umbrella bags and tissues.

When it rains, businesses usually put out clear plastic bags for your umbrellas so you don’t track water everywhere.  They sorta look like those cellphane cones sheets florists use on bouquets of flowers.  The ones at Trader Joe’s once you've chosen your bouquet.  

Free travel size tissues are handed out as a form of advertisement too.  They come in handy and you will see a lot of people passing them out near train stations, banks, or malls.  

8.  Exchange money at the airport.

Japan is the only country where you get a better exchange rate at the airport when you get Yen.  If you have a traveler’s check the rate is slightly better.  I’m not sure why.  

9.  People are really nice, but...

Japanese people are very nice and friendly, but you may be in Tokyo and see bars that say “No Americans/Foreigners” or if you are in the countryside, very very very rarely will you hear about the local police bugging foreigners even though they have proper passports and paperwork. 

10. The trains aren't as hard to catch as you think.

There are many train lines and speeds the trains travel.  Some stop at every stop, others are express and go to every 5th stop, or some are bullet trains that go between cities.  Some trains will get to a station, tho not the end of the line, and go back in reverse so watch out for that too.  At major stations in Tokyo, they do have English speaking customer service counters that can answer questions.  Japanese people are very friendly too so many are happy to help out.  

11. If you can't find it in Tokyo, it doesn't exist.

Tokyo has almost everything you can imagine.  The running joke when I was traveling was that if you couldn’t find it in Tokyo, it didn’t exist. Tokyo is getting a little more Americanized as they have Ikea, Costco, TGIFs, Starbucks, Coach, KFC, and 7-11.  However, there are a lot of uniquely Japanese cultural things to see or do, even while you want to check out the Japanese version of an American idea.  

12. Most Michelin rated restaurants and cheap good food too.

Japan has the most Michelin rated restaurants in the world.  Cuisine can be anywhere from $100-$600.  It also has really good cheap food too.  Because Japanese people eat mostly rice, when they do eat bread, it’s very soft and delicious. They have wonderful bakeries and even McDonald’s has different bread than the US.  

13. Incredibly safe.

Japan has almost zero crime, drugs, or guns.  It’s very safe and has the lowest crime of any first world country.  While crime has slowly increased over the years, it is still extremely safe.  

14. No tipping.

There is no tipping in restaurants or coffee shops in Japan.  You will not see it on your bill nor a tipping jar.  The only exception might be a high-end American restaurant in Japan that they will clearly state it on the menu or your bill.  For example, the Hyatt Tokyo restaurant (where they shot Lost in Translation).

15. You can use bathrooms at businesses.

Even if you aren’t a customer of a business, you can most likely use their bathroom.  The only exception might be a really, really, really nice restaurants.  However, most often, any restaurant or food type place is either is so crowded or they don’t have those “bathroom for customers” only sign, you should be fine.  

16. PCs aren’t common.

Because most people live in small homes or apartments, the desk top computer or laptop at home is very rare.  They either stay at the office all night or do a lot of personal computer stuff on their cell phone.  This also means that if you want to buy tickets to a concert or a sporting event, you don’t print your tickets at home.  You go to the local 7-11 or other convenience store which has a copy machine.  That copy machine is connected to the internet and the small touch screen connects to a Ticketmaster type program and you buy and print your tickets there once you’ve paid the cashier.    

17.  Hotel fees and rules are different.

Some Japanese hotels also have a weird rule where if you are not a guest in the hotel you can’t go up.  Even if you are visiting a friend, you have to wait for them in the lobby.  Hotels sometimes also charge per person staying in the room, not per room.  

***New “rule” - when you ask me a question for anonymous advice and I answer it, could you write an anonymous comment so I know you read the post?  You can just write “Thx!” or something!  :) 

As always, I usually tweet any new posts I have. And anyone can email me questions and I respond only via this blog, not to your personal address. It usually takes me 3-4 days to answer.

I also write over at Jobstr.com under Hollywood Executive Assistant.



  1. Great info thanks :-)

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Exec Asst.April 14, 2014 at 10:08 AM

      Anonymous - You are welcome!