Japan is one of my favourite countries in Asia and one that will be forever be special to Ben and I since we got engaged in Tokyo last month! I’ve visited Tokyo twice now and, while I felt quite at ease the second time around, I do remember feeling quite overwhelmed the first time I visited. It is a vast, sprawling metropolis — the most populous city in the world — that encompasses ancient customs deeply rooted in tradition as well as a passion for everything modern. It’s dense, bright and busy and a feast for the eyes, ears and taste buds. If you’re travelling to Tokyo for the first time, here are 20 things you should definitely know before you go:
1. People are exceptionally nice
The Japanese are some of the most welcoming and hospitable people I’ve ever encountered on my travels. Rather than look upon tourists with disdain, they will go out of their way to help you and make you feel comfortable. On my first visit to Tokyo in 2009, I must have been staring at a map with a puzzled expression on my face, because a nice Japanese man stopped and asked whether I needed help. When I explained that I was trying to find a particular restaurant (surprise, surprise), he looked at the map and then declared that he would take me there himself! We all ended up getting lost on the way (read on for a tip on decoding Japanese addresses) and so he garnered the help of a policeman to assist us and the troupe of us eventually found my restaurant! I was so in awe of how helpful these two lovely people had been and had not been expecting such kindness from strangers.
2. Don’t tip
Unlike in many countries, tipping is actually considered rude in Japan! There’s no need to tip in restaurants, bars or in taxis. The total price of the bill is all that is required and expected. Save your yen for more bowls of spicy ramen.
3. Bins are scarce
You might think that in a city as large as Tokyo, there would be bins on every corner. No. It is notoriously difficult to locate a bin in Tokyo. Be prepared to carry around your rubbish with you all day, because chances are, you won’t come across one.
4. The metro system seems complicated but is actually really easy to navigate
When you first descend into the depths of Tokyo’s metro system, getting around can seem really complicated and overwhelming. The city is enormous and the metro maps are exceptionally detailed. It’s very easy to get around by train, however, once you understand how the system works. On the metro maps, look for the station you wish to travel to and an amount in yen will be listed — this is the fare for your trip. The ticket machines all have English options and you simply select the fare price you need and insert your yen. Easy! Trains are almost always on time and run until just after midnight.
5. It is very safe
Japan is a very safe country to travel in, with rates of crime very low. If you need help, most Japanese would be very pleased to help you in any way they can. There is a very strong focus on crime prevention and petty theft is very uncommon.
6. Toilets are either high-tech machines or holes in the ground
You’ll get more than you bargained for when visiting the restroom in Japan. Most toilets are high-tech technological gadgets complete with heated seats, music to hide the sounds of bodily functions and automated lid opening and flushing. In public places such as in train stations though, you’ll still find some traditional squat toilets thrown into the mix, just in case you prefer to go back to basics!
7. Expect the chef to shout at you when you enter a restaurant
Upon entering a restaurant, the entire kitchen staff and probably the service staff as well will shout at the very top of their lungs, irrashaimase! Don’t be startled — you haven’t done anything wrong to deserve a chiding — this is a welcome greeting in Japanese which translates to ‘come in’ and ‘we’re happy to serve you’. It’s actually a lovely ritual and makes you feel really welcome and at home when you enter a restaurant. Just smile and nod your head in response and wait to be seated.
8. Stay to the left
The Japanese strictly follow the unspoken rule of staying to the left of a wide footpath. If you go against the flow, you’ll disrupt the system and it will take you a lot longer to get anywhere!
9. Expect to see a lot of face masks
No matter where you go in Tokyo, you’ll notice many people wearing what looks like surgical face masks. Initially you might think that they are being worn to protect the wearer themselves, but actually, they are worn for the opposite reason: they are worn to protect other people from their germs if they are sick. Quite considerate, don’t you think?
10. It’s not that expensive
Although Tokyo carries the myth of being one of the most expensive cities to travel to in the world, in reality, it is much more affordable than what it’s made out to be. Sure, if you book a four or five star hotel and you want to eat at the city’s top restaurants, prices are going to add up very quickly, but if you want to have a more local experience, you’ll find that it isn’t any more expensive than Western Europe.
11. Smoking is prohibited on footpaths
Don’t think you’ll be able to walk and smoke around Tokyo. Many public footpaths have a strict non-smoking policy, with patrols monitoring passersby. Interestingly, many smaller bars allow smoking inside.
12. You can buy almost everything at vending machines
It’s hard to travel 10 metres without passing a vending machine in Tokyo. It’s not surprising, considering that Tokyo has over 5 million vending machines — the highest number per capita of anywhere in the world! They stock all manner of items, from hot drinks to fresh eggs, from bouquets of flowers to women’s underwear (yes, really), these machines really do take convenience to a whole new level.
13. Bow when you meet somebody
It is customary in Japan to bow when you meet somebody for the first time. It is a sign of respect. When greeting an elder or someone of authority, be sure to bow lower than that person. This shows that you respect them highly. A quick, high bow should be reserved for friends or people of similar social standing.
14. Finding an address is almost impossible
Deciphering Japanese addresses is a fine artform and one that is almost impossible for visitors. Addresses in Tokyo contain information not only on the Ward, District and Chome (subsection of District), but also the city block and building number. The main problem lies with the fact that buildings are not labelled sequentially, but actually by the date they were erected. Given the amount of rebuilding and redevelopment Tokyo has seen in the past 70 years or so, this system is confusing to say the least! Google maps is your best friend here so make sure you’ve got internet connectivity.
15. It’s rude to eat quietly
Contrary to what we’re taught about ‘good manners’ when growing up, in Japan it’s actually rude not to slurp your noodles loudly. If you eat too quietly, you send the message to the chef that you are not enjoying your meal. Slurping loudly indicates that you are relishing it. You might feel self-conscious at first, but when you notice everyone around you slurping the same, you’ll quickly feel at ease and even relish your new piggy-like ways.
16. Remove your shoes at thresholds
Whenever you enter someone’s home or a restaurant, it is usually expected that you remove your shoes. Place them on the rack near the entrance. Most times, there will be some indoor slippers you can wear but remember to wear only your socks on tatami mats since shoes and slippers damage them. If in doubt about this shoe-wearing etiquette, simply follow the lead of those around you and copy what they’re doing.
17. Conformity is king
Drawing attention to yourself in Japan is a big no-no. Don’t speak loudly in crowded areas, don’t blow your nose in public, don’t cross the street without waiting at the traffic lights and avoid eating on the go. All of these things make you stand out like a sore thumb (you will to some extent anyway given that you’re a westerner, but there’s no need to make it any worse is there?)
18. Wash before you bathe
Instead of bathing to get clean, in Japan you should ensure you are already clean beforehand. Public bathhouses known as sento are popular in Tokyo as are onsen which are traditionally visited on weekend excursions. Ensure that you scrub your body from top to toe until you’re squeaky clean before even stepping foot in the bath. It is a big taboo to be seen to dirty the water in any way, since other people will also be bathing in the same water. Also, be aware that it is expected that you bathe nude at these public bathhouses. For more on nude bathing around the world, read my post on my confronting German spa experience.
19. Cover your tattoos
Tattoos are taboo in Japan since they are associated with the Yakuza and organised crime. If you have tattoos, it is a good idea to cover them up while you’re in Japan. These ideas are slowly changing but it’s best to be conservative while you’re there.
20. Use two hands to give and receive
Whenever you need to hand something to someone, such as a business card or credit card, use two hands and deliver it with a small nod. This shows respect to both the person and the item.
For more inspiration on Tokyo, you might like 10 Must-Have Culinary Experiences in Tokyo.