Travelling in Japan reveals a new story every minute. I’ve never been anywhere that respects tradition as much as modernity; you can be praying for your fortune at a temple one minute and watching giant robots battle to save earth the next. We’re talking about a country that has 5.5 million vending machines and trains that move at 320 km/hour yet frowns about walking while you’re eating.
I’ve been to Japan 3 times in the last 2 months and I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface of its idiosyncrasies. For anyone planning a visit here’s 5 quirky things I think you might like to know before your first visit.
1. You’ll Need Cash
For a country that’s pretty good at making life cushty I was so surprised at how many places don’t accept card payments – not even the ticket machines at train stations. If you’re planning to take public transport as soon as you arrive it’s best to come armed with cash instead of flapping around the airport looking for an ATM. (I speak from experience.) Also be aware that not all ATM’s accept foreign cards and they don’t all have an English language button either. Your best bet is to head to a 7-11 whose machines tend to be foreigner friendly.
2. There’s A Form For That
Another element about travel in Japan that surprised me was the constant form-filling – for a country so forward-thinking and efficient you’ll be surprised at how many forms you’ll need to fill out. Aside from filling the usual arrivals card at the airport you’ll also need to fill out a form before you can exchange notes at the currency counter and you’ll be asked to fill another one in with all your life details if you’re looking to buy a rail pass.
(On the upside tourists do get discounted tickets, including on the Narita Express, so keep your passport handy for proof of nationality. See Easiest Options To Get From Narita Airport To Shinjuku, Shibuya And Shinagawa for more information.
3. Eat Where You Buy
I made a rather embarrassing cultural gaff in Osaka when I purchased some (mighty fine) Japanese Fried Chicken from a take away stand in Dotobori and then walked off down the street while munching it. Although I’d like to think the announcement over the public speaker wasn’t just for my benefit, I was horrified to hear a broadcast asking that visitors not eat as you walk down the street, just as I tucked into another mayo covered morsel outside a souvenir shop. As the announcement went on to explain, you are requested to consume any take away food you buy directly in front of the stall where you buy it, not as you browse the merchandise. This explains why I saw so many people hanging around after they’d received their orders! Oops.
4. Play A Jingle When You Tinkle
The techy Toto toilets in Japan that will warm, wash and dry your bottom for you are pretty famous but did you know that many public toilets have an additional function that it’s polite to press too? The sound button (sometimes a jingle and sometimes the sound of gushing water) is designed to cover the noise of your excretions. It’s considered polite to use it in public toilets – especially if you’re going for a number twosies.
5. No Onsen For Tourists With Tats
I’ve written a fair bit about onsens lately as I find the Japanese concept of soaking naked with strangers in boiling hot water absolutely fascinating. (It’s actually a far more rewarding experience than this attempt at wit makes out – read all about it here.) What I didn’t know before my first soak in one though is that, especially in traditional onsen, you are not allowed to bathe if you have tattoos. (An ancient rule, apparently, due to the link between tattoos and gangsters). Even though the butterfly on your back you had inked aged 18 has nada to do with the Japanese mafia the rule still stands today that you need to cover (with a plaster if possible) any visible* tats or you may be refused entry to the bathhouse.
*I say visible but you’re naked so not sure what that leaves really
Have you been to Japan? Did any of the customs catch you out?