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Observations from my time in Japan (+ Travel tips)

This is a travel guide for Japan which mainly focuses on little observations I made during my first trip to the Far East. For the full Japan guide and itinerary, check out my article: A Unique 3-Week Itinerary for Japan.



CONTENTS




 


Visiting Japan


Japan is an extremely popular choice for tourists, with some 30 million people visiting this far-flung island chain every year.


I would go as far to say that Japanese culture has been somewhat fetishised by the West, whether it’s the cuisine, the traditions, the mod-cons, or the little bizzarrities, people over here really just dig Japanese stuff.


I feel like because of this, and the fact that it’s safe, affordable, and not to mention beautiful, Japan itineraries have been blogged to death, so I am going to switch up the format for this post and I am just writing about little things that I observed whilst on my three-week trip around Japan.


I went to the usual haunts of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, with short stops in Kobe and Hiroshima. I also veered off the beaten path and spent some time in Kyushu, in the area of Beppu and Mt. Aso, and in the mountains of Shikoku, where I admittedly spent most of the time in bed with tonsillitis (the drive to the Airbnb was pretty though!)


The Cherry Blossoms in Kyushu
The Cherry Blossoms in Kyushu
 

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Observations from my time in Japan - Travel Tips & Curiosities



TOILETS


Let’s do this first because I think it’s the most talked about subject when visiting Japan for the first time, and maybe the part I will miss the most! Toilet technology has gone to a whole new level here. In some, when you open the bathroom door, the seat lifts up automatically, almost as if to say ‘Hello there, you’.


They all have a kind of sidebar remote, which has music buttons to make waterfall-like tunes to cover up your toilet sounds. Then you have a butt sprayer, a front-butt sprayer, a blow dryer, an aromatic air freshener (this is all for downstairs) and some buttons I didn’t even get around to pressing! The mystery continues...


The toilets also come with anti-bacterial wipes to sanitise the toilet seat after use, I have never felt cleaner! Oh yeah, and you know when you’re in a fancy restaurant and someone turns the end of the toilet paper up into a nice V as if it’s never been used? Well that’s the case in all public toilets I had the pleasure of visiting in Japan, they really are pristine.


I dread to think what a Japanese tourist may think using a public restroom in the UK, that is likely covered in stale urine and offering a hepatitis risk with each visit. They must think we are savages!



 


INGURANDO


Whilst I found Japanese people in the service industry to speak very good English, many other people do not. This was especially true outside of the tourist hotspot trio of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Nevertheless, I found people to be friendly and genuinely interested in where I was from.


We had quite a few instances of trying to say ENGLAND with no comprehension.


Travel Tip 1 for Japan: If you’re from the UK, saying you’re from INGURANDO works much better!


In fact, with the L’s pronounced as R’s, I was often ordering a ‘grass’ of wine or a ticket for the ‘erectric cable car’. This is actually how it’s written in signs and menus and it’s very endearing and charming!



 


THE CULTURE OF QUEUEING


Japan is titchy, and they have a large population, plus a gazillion tourists. Not only that, but most of the land across the 14000 islands of Japan is uninhabitable. With all of the volcanos, mountains and rivers in the way, the population is bunched up into major hubs, where the human scale can feel massive, especially in the cities. It felt like there were people everywhere.


Another observation I made from my time in Japan is that even the busiest areas are generally quiet, as it seems Japanese people are super calm, courteous, polite, and ever so helpful, so don’t worry about any type of chaos, there’s just a lot of people.


This means that if you visit Japan you should just expect there to be a queue for everything, and an orderly one at that. Thirty minutes to buy a train ticket, fifteen minutes for a Ramen restaurant, and ten minutes for the toilet. If there isn’t a queue, well, you can be pleasantly surprised!


It shouldn’t be too tricky to figure out the queuing system, as normally in these types of places there will be little footprints on the ground indicating exactly where you should stand. It’s a very rule-based society and people follow the rules.


That also goes for jaywalking, even if nothing’s coming, which I found quite infuriating. As a grown-up, I think I have mastered crossing roads when nothing is coming, but I am not trusted to make that decision in Japan it seems!


An extra tip for avoiding the queues would be to 'catch the worm' as early as possible. This is especially important in Kyoto which is overwhelmed with tourists.


Travel Tip 2 for Japan: I would advise visiting any famous landmarks before 10am in the morning, you’ll thank me later.


Travel Tip 3 for Japan: For escalators in train stations, in Tokyo stand on the left, in Osaka stand on the right!



The illusion of peace at Fushimi Inari Shrine
The illusion of peace at Fushimi Inari Shrine
 

UNIFORMS

I rarely saw anyone who was dressed casually in Japan. Most people seemed to dress smart, whether they were working or not. Suits, dresses, and proper shoes. As someone who had been backpacking for 8 months up to that point, I felt very under-dressed!


I do also want to pause and mention the shit-hot uniforms. I especially like the train station employee's outfits with gloves, hats and neckties. Everyone looks so classy and it’s easy to spot someone who can help you.


To be fair, everyone must be so used to seeing tourists looking at signs and maps with confused expressions that a lot of the time you don’t even need to ask for assistance. People will offer their help.



 


FOOD DISPLAYS


So you know sometimes in more err ‘tacky’ restaurants here in the West they will display photos of the food (which I have always disliked) well in Japan (and I noticed it in Korea too, for that matter) they have gone a step further.


You’ll often see what I can only describe as ‘model’ dishes presented outside a restaurant. This is a plastic sculpture of each dish which looks deceptively life-like, and I wonder if there’s one guy who’s just really good at crafting plastic chicken Katsu’s or whatnot.


It’s a very curious thing and seems like a lot of effort, but actually proved very helpful when the task of translating every page of a restaurant menu felt like climbing Everest.


Plastic food displays on point in an Osaka subway station
Plastic food displays on point in an Osaka subway station
 


FAMILY LIFE & STARBUCKS


There are soooo many Starbucks in Japan, on every corner in the big cities, I would say almost as many as in the USA, which IMO is a completely unnecessary amount.


We wondered how this worse-than-average American coffee chain had completely throttled Japan, and we gained some insight from our host on our Osaka food tour.


I am not claiming to be an expert on Japan's economic history, but here is what I learnt:


After WW2 Japan had to change in many ways. Not only did they have to promise never to engage in war with another country again, and live with the consequences of the atomic bombs, but their economy and family life got completely turned upside down.


Japan was always into extended family and large networks of support, but that didn’t work for the USA, who wanted another consumer market, and to do that needed to break up this format into smaller nuclear families who would buy, buy, buy. Starbucks was just a side effect of this enforced capitalism.



 


CASH IS STILL KING


We found it really surprising in a country that is famous for being so modern and digital forward, that many, many places did not accept card payments.


Apparently, it’s due to little trust in the government and banking system, that people have refused to transition into a cashless society, and good for them.


Travel Tip 4 for Japan: 90% of Japanese people still prefer to use cash over card payments, so bear that in mind when exchanging money!



 


AM I BEING RUDE?


In a country whose culture is so different from our own it’s best to be cautious not to offend anyone. So here are a few things I learned that may come off as rude…


Travel Tip 5 for Japan: The below list of actions may offend...

  • Talking on the phone on public transport, don't do it! In fact any type of loud or boisterous behaviour is completely unacceptable!

  • Putting your bag on the floor (normally baskets will be provided but if not, put it on the chair next to you or your lap).

  • Watch your chopsticks! Most of you may know this already, but I didn't. My bowl of rice seemed like a good place to shove my chopsticks and I got told off! As a rule, keep them on the chopstick holder horizontal to you.

  • Tattoos are still massively associated with organised crime, and if you've got ink you may not be allowed in swimming pools, gyms, beaches or Onsen, whether they are covered or not.

  • Servers can feel embarrassed by you trying to tip, especially if it would make them appear to have one up on their colleagues. We did not tip at restaurants but we did tip our tour guides and it was appreciated.



 


TRAINS ARE A DAY ON THE COUCH


I have seen many people ask if the Japan Rail Pass is worth it. For reference, I paid £300-ish for a two-week pass, but I was surprised to learn it could not be used on the metro or local buses, I must have missed that detail when I purchased the JRPass.


You can only use it on Japan Rail lines, which can get you all over the country, so it really depends on how far and wide you are travelling. The prices went up 70% in September 2023, so it may not be worth it at all now.


Travel Tip 6 for Japan: For the JR Pass you will be given a paper ticket with no backup, if you lose it, you have to buy another one. Seems very risky to me!


Trains are a superb way to travel Japan, they are extremely efficient and run very often and they are super comfy, with big, plush armchairs, desks, solid Wifi, and vending machines for snacking. (Vending machines are everywhere).


I travelled from Shikoku to Tokyo, which was two 3-hour trains, where I streamed Gossip Girl on Netflix and ate snacks. It was honestly like spending a day on the couch!


Just about to board our first Bullet train
Just about to board our first Bullet train
 

VOLCANOES SMELL LIKE EGGY FARTS


If you plan to visit any hot springs or volcanoes, just be aware that the Sulfur means that the aroma in the air will be like eggy farts, for real. Some are stronger than others.


The view of Mt. Fuji from the plain, which I am sure smells very eggy.
The view of Mt. Fuji from the plain, which I am sure smells very eggy.

 


IT AIN’T ALL SUSHI

I couldn't leave without mentioning food, as for many people eating is the main activity when visiting Japan (like for us!)


I was surprised to find that sushi is not the main affair, it's great, don't get me wrong, but Japanese cuisine has so much more to offer.


We actually found that trying all of the different Ramen was the most exciting culinary part, as they are SO different from one another and very wallet-friendly too. The lobster bisque Ramen was a highlight!!!

Lobster Bisque Ramen
Lobster Bisque Ramen

 

So these are some of my observations from my time in Japan, along with some useful travel tips snuck in there too!


Obviously, there is a lot more to it than this, as 3 weeks in Japan is really not enough to even scratch the surface.


I hope you enjoyed reading, if you did, feel free to subscribe to my blog, where I post articles every week or so documenting my year-long backpacking trip around the world.


For more travel inspiration, check out my post: A Seoul City Break.


Happy Travels

xx


I Dream of Mangoes at Teamlabs Japan
Teamlabs digital art exhibition, Tokyo


START PLANNING YOUR NEXT TRIP


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