Here are a few helpful travel tips for Japan:
Pack light. This is the most important tip. Although the Narita Express train from the airport has space to accommodate larger suitcases, the Shinkansen (bullet train) and subways absolutely do not accommodate more than a carry-on bag. The trains seemed to be designed for the Japanese weekend traveler who only needs a change of clothes. I brought two carry-on roller bags, which were the bane of my existence. I wished I could have had only one bag, but needing both warm and rainy, cold-weather clothes for a two-week trip, I couldn’t get it down to one bag. One roller bag and a backpack would have been easier to handle. Most subways and streets have a lot of bumpy strips to help blind people, and my bags were constantly getting caught in the bumps. Elevators were not always available, and carrying two bags up and down stairs was not fun. Pack light. Most train stations have lockers that you can use to store your belongings if you are planning to come back through the same station. Another option is using a concierge service that will transport your luggage to your hotel so you won’t have to drag it around with you. You can find these services in the airport and train stations. Some major hotels like the Westin have offices in the train stations near their hotels, and they can take your luggage off your hands and deliver it to your room for a small fee.
Wear comfortable shoes. You will be walking a lot. Leave the high heels at home.
Stay Left. The Japanese drive on the left side of the road, and in many (but not all) places walk on the left side as well. Be careful crossing the street, and if you aren’t used to driving on the left-hand side, leave the driving to someone else. Take trains and cabs.
Learn some basic Japanese words. Aside from the information desk at the airport and train station, almost no one that we encountered spoke English, so don’t expect people to understand you. In general, people were very patient and polite, and no one made us feel bad about butchering their language (I’m talking about you, Italy and France!). Luckily, body language and one-word sentences can go a long way, and a lot of restaurants have pictures on the menu. Here are a few useful words written phonetically:
Ko-nee-chee-wah – hello!
Toy-ray? – This will suffice for “Where is the bathroom?”
Eggo? (Yes, just like the waffles.) Good enough for, “Do you speak English?” Usually, the answer will be “Noooo!”
Arra-gato – Thank you.
Su-me-ma-sen – Excuse me.
Smiling is good too. Google Translate and the Say Hi app came in handy lots of times.
Bring a portable battery-operated phone charger everywhere you go, and keep your phone in low-battery mode when you’re out sightseeing. Unless you speak and read Japanese, you will be very dependent on your phone. GPS seems to eat the battery fast, so we would run out of juice quickly.
Mind your manners. The Japanese are very polite with one exception: If you are in their path when they are walking in the subway, they will not stop! Other than that, they don’t talk on the subway, they don’t eat or drink in public, they don’t throw trash on the street, they don’t write on walls or bathroom stalls, they stand in line and wait their turn.
Be prepared for the bathroom. You will either find super high-tech toilets that wash and dry your bum and emit the sounds of waterfalls and birds, or you will find what amounts to a porcelain hole in the ground. I was a little worried about the “non-western” toilets. (Note that some public bathrooms have both types of toilets.) I only had to deal with a hole in the ground once, and that was at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. It was cold and raining, so I was wearing knee-high boots, jeans, and two coats and I was carrying a tote bag and an umbrella. This was not the best outfit for squatting — removing items would be necessary, and there was no place to put anything down. I’ll spare you the details, but I came out of the bathroom about a half hour later, totally exhausted, soaked with sweat, and with one boot still unzipped. After that, every time I found a regular toilet, I would pump my fist and say “YES!” I did find a handy little thing for women, which I kept in my purse during the trip. The Go Girl helps you out in these situations so you won’t make a mess all over your clothes. Practice at home first! Aside from toilets, you may have to deal with a lack of privacy. Some hotels don’t have showers in the room, so you shower in the hotel’s shower room. In some cases this is a private shower, but in others it’s a big room where everyone showers together. (There is a separate shower room for men and women.) One more thing: Surprisingly, you will find many bathrooms without soap, so you might want to travel with hand wipes.
Be adventurous! You went all the way to Japan, so try new foods, do new things! You’ll find new things to love and some things that you don’t care for. But you won’t know until you try.
Stay tuned for more articles on Japan!