Top things I learned when travelling to Japan
Yesterday I flew from Tokyo to Bangkok and on the flight spent some time thinking about the things I learned while traveling in Japan the past two (ish) weeks. Some fun, some practical advice for future Japan travelers, here they are!
1. This one should go without saying, but before traveling to any foreign country it's not only helpful but also respectful to educate yourself on their customs and learn a few key phrases in their language. For example, in Japan there is no tipping culture and it's actually seen as rude to leave extra change at a restaurant. And you can't bow enough--really, when in doubt bow more. And even though I got around decently well smiling and nodding while repeatedly muttering "arigatou," I'm glad I had "where is the bathroom?" I don't speak Japanese," and "do you speak English?" in my back pocket just in case. While you will find English--enough to help you get around most of the time--be aware that not everyone in Japan will be able to accommodate your English-speaking needs like other places in the world can.
2. Japan transportation is effective. And expensive. Their metro maze (phrase made up by me) is vast and expertly transports millions of people every day. Of course that efficiency comes at a cost and arriving as a tourist you will likely be unpleasantly surprised at how much money you can spend daily on the metro just trying to see the city. Fortunately there are some options to made it a little bit cheaper for tourists. The Japan Rail Pass is key as will save you tons of money. Take some time figuring out where in Japan you might want to go before you get there so you can buy the best pass. Just remember the pass can only be bought from outside Japan and the days noted on the pass are consecutive, not total. Another way to save money while in the country is to buy a metro day pass if you are going to be doing a ton of metro traveling/transferring any particular day. 500-1000 yen might seem expensive at first, but it's way cheaper than buying 5 or 6 individual tickets that usually cost between 220 and 440 yen a piece.
3. Another thing about traveling on Japan's public transportation: I feel very confident in saying that the Japanese are the most timely people on the planet. If a bus is scheduled to come at 7:37, it will be there are 7:37. For the metro trains, they come to often it's not really a big deal if you miss one...but if you are heading out of town, say on a night bus from Kyoto to Tokyo, that bus will also leave promptly at the specified time and not a minute later, so don't be late unless you want to deal with the headache of finding and paying for another way to where you are going.
4. In the words of a Tokyo resident, "if you go to Starbucks you're stupid." Tokyo has a fascination with French culture and as a result that are a seemingly unlimited number of different coffee shops, cafes and bakeries. There are plenty of Starbucks too--but why go there when there are so many awesome other places to try? One coffee shop I enjoyed was Blue Bottle Cafe--"the Apple of coffee shops" in Tokyo.
5. Metropolis Magazine is Japan's major English-language magazine and it's worth picking up a copy. It has a great list of events in the city that are worth checking out and the classifieds are fun to read.
6. You have to try Okonomiyaki for your Japan experience to be considered complete. For the real cultural foodies, there are two different kinds: Hiroshima-style and Osaka-style, both of which I enjoyed (but if I was going to do it again I would probably opt for Osaka style). When finding a place though, be aware that a lot of the main tourist spots will be a little pricey and it would be helpful to have a locally-aware person show you a less touristy spot. I had someone take me to Sakuratei in the Shibuya/Harajuku area and both the food and atmosphere were awesome!
7. One of the most important things I was told to remember while traveling in Japan is that judging everything from our Western-based way of thinking will only limit and frustrate the Japanese experience. There are a number of things in Japanese culture that can't be understood with Western logic (no spoilers here), but I found that I really came to enjoy Japan when I learned to just appreciate it for what it was--not as a Western tourist, just simply as someone interested in understanding more about the cultures of the world.