Things to Know Before You Go to Japan
“I’ve always wanted to go to Japan” is a sentence I’ve been hearing repeatedly since I got back from my recent trip. It was my second visit to Japan in a few years, and yet I was still surprised and delighted at every twist and turn. Japan is one of those places that is hard to put into words. I guess you could say if you put ancient Asian culture, modern American pop-culture and futuristic sci-fi and blended them in a nutri-bullet – Japan would be what you’re left with in your smoothie glass. But even that crazy metaphor doesn’t really do it justice.
Instead of trying to explain it to you, you really should just go there. Really, you won’t regret it. And before you go, you should read the below tips and tricks that have stayed with me since my trip.
Everyone is super friendly
Get ready to hear the phrase ‘sumimasen’ – Japanese for welcome – wherever you go. When you walk into a restaurant, a hotel, a shop, even just into a different aisle of a department store, sumimasen is constantly being enthusiastically yelled, sometimes at no one at all. The welcome phrase is also accompanied by a smile and a bow, an action that I found quite infectious and still accidentally continue to practise when I walk into restaurants in London.
Taxi doors open automatically
Nothing says the future like automatic doors right? At first I thought I was just seeing things in my jetlagged state but then I realised where I was – one of the most futuristic countries in the world – of course their taxis have automatically opening doors. Ironically though, the taxis are more reminiscent of a toy car made from a sardine can than a futuristic spaceship. Nevertheless I enjoyed the ride and not having to shut my door immensely. You can't get that magic with Uber!
You don’t need to bring your toothbrush...
...or toothpaste, or soap, or shampoo or conditioner. And this is coming from a girl who could easily fill her entire suitcase with cosmetics and uses about a litre of conditioner every night. But I literally didn’t touch the giant tubs of shampoo and conditioner I had unnecessary packed, nor my toothbrush and toothpaste. Every hotel I stayed at, from the lower to the higher end of the spectrum offered an incredible selection of complimentary cosmetics and toiletries, right down to cotton buds and even Shiseido body lotion. The travel size and packaged toothbrush and toothpaste were particularly useful and now I have a backlog to take with me on my upcoming trips.
Get ready to eat a lot of Miso soup
Before Japan, I enjoyed the pre-sushi sips of a warm bowl of miso. I didn’t love the soup at first, but I grew to love it as part of a beloved sushi routine. Once in Japan though, it became not just a part of a sushi routine, but every meal. And I grew to despise it. It was everywhere; even served alongside what I thought would be a ‘safe’ Italian pasta. I began to sip it loathingly as to not be rude, until I eventually started calling it ‘snot soup’. And once you call it ‘snot soup’ you never really want to drink it again.
You will get sick of Japanese food
See above. Miso or ‘snot soup’ as I now call it, are not the only things you will get sick of. No matter how excited you are to try the weird pickles that accompany every dish, by the 17th one you’ll be hiding them under your cold soba noodles so as not to offend. I also don’t want to eat cold soba noodles ever again.
You should eat sushi with your hands
While there are some foods I’m not going to be able to stomach for a while, I never tired of eating the sushi in Japan. I could have easily had it for all meals in place of miso. Interestingly, at a sushi bar in Kanazawa we watched as an old couple ate their sushi directly from the bar with their hands. Noticing our gaze, our waitress told us this is how the locals eat sushi and it is considered somewhat sophisticated to eat each piece with your hands.
It’s not as expensive as you think
Granted, getting your flight to Japan isn’t exactly easy on the wallet, but once you’ve booked your airfare Japan becomes a whole lot easier. Food is cheap, a bowl of ramen can be a fiver. Even Michelin Star restaurants offer great value – less popular lunch time sessions are significantly cheaper with five-course meals costing around £40. We budgeted for what we would spend for two weeks in London and had money left when we returned home.
Novelty cafés aren't really cafés
As I discovered when I visited the dog café in Osaka, don't expect to go to one of Japan's many novelty cafés (owl, maid, robot) and enjoy a good meal or a latte. Visiting the dog café was very much an excuse to play with puppies, with a token sugary drink on the side.
Prepare to get naked in public
It was a fear I had yet to face until I went to Japan, but when given the choice of being naked in an onsen (hot spring) and not being in an onsen, I chose the former. And I didn’t regret it. Onsens, Japan’s hot springs, are very much a part of traditional life in Japan and involve following a set of rules that the average westerner could find confronting. Firstly, you have to strip naked, walk into the onsen area, sit on a stool (which is usually facing a mirror) and wash yourself, then hop into the onsen. If you don’t follow these rules as according to plan the locals will usually point it out to you (as was the case with me and a room full of old naked ladies). Onsens are of course separated between sexes and often enjoy stunning views of snow-capped mountains or thick forests.
The toilets are hilarious
I found myself chuckling quite a few times when working out how to flush a toilet. Push a button and a puff of talcum powder appeared. Another button, and the sound of rushing water started playing. Another button, and the toilet seat closed. I wish I could tell you that there’s a definitive ‘flush’ button to look out for, but I never found one. All you can do is press all the buttons and see what happens.
High school kids will make you feel like a celebrity
If you find yourself at one of Japan’s tourist attractions and you don’t possess the looks of a serial killer, chances are you will be approached by school children who want to practise their English. If you say yes to them talking to you, you will then find yourself surrounded by a sweet group of friendly and polite high school children who will each take turns to ask you a question. Most groups will then ask if they can take a photo with you, while others will even give you a postcard of their school. Most questions usually entail "where are you from?" and "how long have you been in Japan?". My favourite question though, was: "Are you a movie star?". I said yes of course.
Everywhere is clean
And I mean literally everywhere. Even the most popular toilet in the most popular metro station is still a sparkling hygienic haven. I went to a dingy metal bar in the seedy area of Shinjuku in Tokyo and was blown away to find the unisex bathroom to be cleaner than you’d find in a SoHo restaurant.