We’ve just returned from two weeks in Japan: a stunning, exciting, and at times, surprising country. Below is my list of 10 things you should know before visiting Japan for the first time.
1. The toilet seats are warm
Japanese toilets are an experience in themselves (and no doubt, I’ll write a whole post just about them), but what I found very surprising (and a little disconcerting the first time I encountered one on arrival) is that many (most?) of the toilet seats are warm. Yes, even in summer. They are kept constantly heated, in readiness for the next visitor.
2. It’s difficult to find rubbish bins on the streets
You’re walking along a main shopping street in Tokyo, and you’ve just finished the takeaway Starbucks coffee you sipped on as you strolled. You look around for a rubbish bin to put the empty cup into. Where the heck are they? It is really hard to find one.
First up, you broke a cardinal rule of Japanese etiquette – it is not the done thing to walk and eat or drink. Even when a place offers a takeaway option, you should remain at that outlet, consume your items and leave the rubbish in their bin. The same applies for the thousands of vending machines which dot the country. Buy your beer, water, iced coffee, iced tea or soda, stand and drink it, leave the empty in the bin next to the machine. Or take your items, find somewhere relatively private to sit down, and consume your food or drinks there.
The Japanese philosophy on rubbish, is that it is your personal responsibility, and therefore you should take it home with you and dispose of there. In former times, guests at a traditional tea ceremony would bring their own rice paper for the sweets and for wiping the tea bowl, and then when a piece was used, fold it up and put into the kimono sleeve (which acts like a giant pocket) to take home with them. I wouldn’t recommend kimono sleeves as a solution to empty coffee cups. Nowadays, I noticed many Japanese people carried small plastic bags that they used to hold their own waste items.
This is not to say that there are not rubbish bins, it’s just that they are very scarce. When you see one, empty your pockets/bags/hands/kimono sleeves of the bits and pieces you’ve been carrying around.
3. Slip-on shoes are a must
There are many times a day when you will be removing your shoes. Entering homes, tatami-matted restaurants, temples/shrines, ryoken, onsen…if there is a wooden step-up just inside the front door, you will generally be required to remove your shoes.
The last thing you need are tight fitting shoes that require rows of laces to be loosened and tightened each time you do so.
I took only slip-on shoes to Japan, except for one pair of heeled sandals which had a single buckle, and I managed to kick my shoes off and on with ease.
Sometimes, you’ll be given slippers to wear on the hard floors (but not on the tatami mats) …and then, if you visit the bathroom, you’re expected to change again into the ‘toilet slippers’.
4. You don’t wipe your face with the hot towel
In every restaurant we ate at, as soon as we sat down, we were given a moist hand towel of sorts. In some restaurants, it was a heated, rolled cloth towel, in more down-market places a disposable towelette in a packet. The rolled hand towel is called oshibori and it is used to wipe your hands…but NOT your face, neck, chest, or any other body parts you think are a bit sweaty with the summer humidity. And when you’ve finished with it, don’t leave it in a messy heap on the table…fold it or roll it up and place back on the tray.
5. Meals come with lots of bowls
Japanese meals seem to involve a LOT of pieces of crockery. Order a dish of fried chicken in a restaurant for lunch, and when it arrives you’ll also get a small bowl of pickles, a bowl of miso and perhaps a bowl of rice. The dinner we had in our ryokan in Hakone included so many bowls and plates we lost count.
6. Public nudity may be required
An essential part of the Japanese experience is visiting an onsen. Onsen is the word to describe Japanese hot spring bathing facilities and, as a volcanically active county, you’ll find onsen dotted all over Japan. Many hotels and ryokan feature onsen facilities, and in the case of some ryokan, the onsen are the only means to shower or bathe while you stay there.
The thing is, bathing in an onsen requires communal nudity. There’s no ‘I’ll just wear my swimsuit‘ option. The signage at the entry to each onsen we visited was quite clear – REMOVE ALL CLOTHING.
Onsen are segregated by gender, and after the first time…it’s really not such a big deal. There’s a small towel provided (about the size of an elongated tea towel) which allows just a small degree of modesty when walking between the washing area and the hot spring baths, but the towel should not touch the hot spring water. It sits folded on your head, or hung up to the side. So there’s no getting away from it. At some point in the onsen experience you’re going to be totally starkers. And yes, it may well be in the presence of total strangers.
7. If travelling by train, you really, really need to travel light
Apart from one notable occasion when we were trapped for about three hours in an immobile Shinkansen (bullet train) in the middle of the tracks at Odawara station (I’ll probably write a post about this too), Japanese trains run like clockwork. If the display says that your train departs at 8.46am, that’s exactly when it will depart. Stops at each station en route are super-quick, so you need to be ready to embark, or disembark in a very speedy fashion.
A one minute stop in a train station is not much time to unload three pieces of luggage per person, not to mention that there is nowhere on board to store such large amounts of baggage. Shinkansen have overhead luggage racks (which can fit medium-sized suitcases), and there is a just a small area at the rear of each carriage where you could leave a larger suitcase. But even if you can store a large suitcase on board…when you get to the station at the other end, you’ll need to drag it up and down escalators and through connecting corridors. Travel light – you’ll enjoy the experience so much more.
8. There’s a lot of steps
Goodness knows, we like a stairmaster challenge when we travel…but I don’t think our leg muscles were *quite* ready for exactly how many steps and stairs we would go up and down in two weeks in Japan. After the first couple of days, my calves were screaming and the sight of steps (particularly ones going down) was enough to make me wince.
9. Disposable umbrellas are actually quite hardy.
Travelling in the rainy season, it was inevitable that we would get caught out in a rain shower. But have no fear…on every street corner, at every convenience store, you can buy clear plastic umbrellas for around 500 yen (about AUD$5.50). The benefit of these uniquely-Japanese clear plastic umbrellas is that you can see where you are going, and can look up from under the umbrella while remaining dry. And although they are intended to be ‘disposable’, they are actually quite hardy. We used the same ones on several rainy days.
10. It’s okay to look lost
In most countries around the world, consulting maps in a public place and looking lost is a giant, flashing, red-neon-sign to would-be thieves/muggers/con men/scam artists: here’s some naive tourists to prey on.
In Japan, if you get out a map, or consult a ‘you are here’ floorplan, within seconds someone will stop to help you and offer advice. We found the Japanese people to be incredibly polite and helpful. When we were trapped in the Shinkansen mentioned above, another passenger sought us out and said in English, “You probably don’t know what is going on?” (all the announcements had been in Japanese), then he explained what the conductor had told him, and what he had found out via his friends texting him.
Are you going to be visiting Japan for the first time? Or have you already been?
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