Here are 10 handy things to know before travelling to Japan:
1. Accommodation is generally small: Most accommodation, especially hotel rooms in the big cities in Japan are very small. Expect to have a bed, a small table and a small compact bathroom in your room. There is usually very little room to store suitcases. If your budget allows and space is important to you, book the next option up from the Basic/Standard room.
2. Early check in to hotels is rare: In my experience (bearing in mind I did travel in high season), most hotels will not allow you to check in early. I found that most of the hotels had a specific structure and routine for their daily operations and check in was strictly at the time detailed on your booking. If you have an early morning flight planned, don’t get your hopes up for an early check in, just take it as a bonus. In saying that, most lobbies are comfortable to relax in for a few hours before check in if you need to rest.
3. Japan Rail (JR) passes must be purchased before arriving in Japan: There are no exceptions and these cannot be purchased by tourists anywhere in Japan. If you have made the decision to buy a JR pass to get around Japan, it is important to purchase it prior to arriving and collect your pass on arrival at a Ticket Office. There are ticket offices at most large airports and major train stations however opening and closing times may vary.
4. Trains run exactly as per the schedules: Unlike other destinations I’ve travelled to, Japan’s train schedules run to the minute and they do not wait for anyone. I recommend paying close attention to which stop you want to get off at as the trains are fast and punctual. I learned the hard way when I wasn’t paying attention and missed my stop at Nagano on the Shinkansen bullet train. The next stop was approx 90kms away. Thankfully, if you miss your train, the next one is usually only a few minutes away!
5. You pay when you get off local buses, not on: This was super confusing for me in the beginning as I’m so used to paying for buses when I get on. In the Japanese cities I visited, you pay for your bus fare when getting off the bus. The bus drivers are very helpful in showing you how much needs to be paid and the money is inserted straight into a ticket machine.
6. There are sounds for everything: Sidewalk crossings, stairs approaching, elevators, trains approaching, doors opening and closing, bin trucks and even the occasional air raid siren which I’m yet to confirm what that actually means…
7. Japanese people bow to acknowledge and show respect: I had no idea about this before I went to Japan so I was quite shocked when people bowed when I walked into somewhere or went to leave. I’ve grown up to think that only happens to very important people and royalty, certainly not little old me. This is very common in Japanese culture. It is a sign of acknowledgement and respect. Expect for local people to bow when you enter and leave hotels, restaurants and shops.
8. Masks are very common in Japanese culture: Coming from a country where masks are not commonly worn, I was surprised at how many Japanese people wore masks whilst going about their daily business. I had a feeling that this was for more reasons than just hygiene and my research confirmed this. It is a big part of Japanese (and Asian) culture to wear masks. It is taught from a very young age that a person should keep their germs to themselves by wearing a mask, but it is also a part of fashion with many different types and styles of masks being sold. Masks can also act as a comfort blanket for people who suffer with anxiety (in particular social anxiety) and/or skin problems. Super interesting!
9. EVERYTHING is wrapped in plastic: And when I say everything, I mean absolutely everything. Gifting is very popular among Japanese local people if they go away or visit a different prefecture in Japan. This means everything is individually wrapped in plastic to be gifted and also for hygiene reasons. I suggest taking a backpack or carry bag out to avoid taking or using plastic bags when buying things such as fruits, vegetables, souvenirs and shopping.
10. Tap water is drinkable: All tap water in Japan is drinkable so to save on plastic waste and money, take a reusable water bottle and fill up in your room before heading out.