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The Worried Traveler’s Guide to Japan.

I’m not much of a traveler. The first time I go to a new place, I’m usually too stressed out to be able to enjoy it much. At least that’s the case if I’m not traveling with someone who apparently have everything under control, like Gunnar Garfors, who recently joined a very exclusive club of people who has visited all the countries in the whole, wide world. Basically, I’m all fine and dandy as long as the trip is organized by someone who knows what the hell they are doing. But as soon as that’s not the case, then Mr. Sweaty Palms comes to life.

Perhaps you’ve seen An Idiot Abroad, the brainchild of brilliant comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Karl Pilkington, who isn’t really interested in traveling and negative towards pretty much everything, is sent all over the globe while Merchant and Gervais stay in the United Kingdom and monitor his progress.

I could star in a similar show about a guy who is interested in traveling but doesn’t have the guts to do so. It would probably be a boring show that would be cancelled quickly, but you get the idea. Staying home is more than enough entertainment for this guy, really. But this summer, Anniken and I are going to Japan, a place where everything is different from what I’m used to. So you can imagine that there’s a great potential for a lot of sweaty palms. To keep the traveling stress at a reasonable level, preparation is the key and here are a few pieces of useful information I’ve gathered.

Maps

Digital maps can be a life saver when out and about. Combined with GPS, it’s a great tool for finding your way around. Data costs can be a challenge when you are out travelling, but Google let’s you save maps for offline use on their Android app. For some strange and annoying reason, however, offline maps are not available for Japan. This is a kick in the balls because all the other Android maps I’ve tried basically suck. They are all based on OpenStreetMap, which are excellent for many parts of the world, but not so great in Japan. I was unable to find our hotel in Tokyo, nor the street where the hotel is supposed to be. The solution was to downgrade Google Maps to an old version where offline maps is part of the Labs functionality. Read this post over at XDA for more information. This might also be a solution, but I haven’t tried it. It seems like search is not working on the cached maps, though.

Wi-Fi

Continuing on with the topic of traveling in a digital world; getting Wi-Fi access can be very, very handy. Japan is supposedly not an easy place to find Wi-Fi hotspots, but this is slowly getting better. Most hotels seem to have free Wi-Fi these days, and NTT East is providing free Wi-Fi for tourists in parts of Japan. Just locate one of their distribution locations, present your passport and you’ll get access for 14 days.

Starbucks is many people’s one shop stop for free Wi-Fi and coffee. Japan is no exception, and if you find a Starbucks, you should also be able to find free Wi-Fi (and coffee). For easy access, sign up now.

Japan Guide has a comprehensive page with more information on how to get Wi-Fi access in Japan, but the information is not dated, so I have no idea how accurate it is. If you provide information that might get outdated, why don’t you date it?

The Japan Rail Pass

If you are planning to travel around a bit in Japan, do so by train. Or at least so I’m told. The country is famous for its fast, punctual and reliable trains. If you do decide to travel by train, buy a Japan Rail Pass — it can save you a lot of money. It’s sold only to overseas visitors, and is valid for travel on all major forms of transportation provided by the JR Group, with a few exceptions. You can buy a pass valid for 7, 14 or 21 days on Green cars (first class) or regular cars. But you can’t buy the Japan Rail Pass in Japan, you have to buy it before you arrive, either through a travel agency or online.

Etiquette

In my honest opinion, etiquette is severely underrated by many travelers. What’s perfectly natural to you might be unbelievably rude in the country you’re visiting. So try to stay classy. Here are a few pointers for Japan, but keep in mind that this is stuff I scraped off the internet, not everything might be completely accurate. But the list might prevent you from committing cultural faux pas:

  • It is impolite to eat or drink something while walking down the street.
  • Don’t use your chopsticks to point at somebody.
  • It is normal in Japan to pick up your rice or miso soup bowl and hold it under your chin to keep stuff from falling.
  • Smile friendly as much as possible.
  • When eating rice with chopsticks, do not put your chopsticks straight down into the rice. It is an offering to the dead.
  • Don’t stab your food with the chopsticks.
  • Don’t lick your chopsticks, it’s rude.
  • Accept gifts (and perhaps also change) with both hands.
  • Make sure when you are first introducing yourself you bow just a little bit. Most likely, the person you are introducing yourself to will bow as well. This is to show respect and it kind of says “thank you for acknowledging my presence” if I’m correct.
  • In restaurants or when visiting it’s customary to get a small, moist rolled-up towel (cold in summer, hot in winter) called an “oshibori” to wipe their hands with. It’s impolite to wipe the face and neck with it though some do in less formal places.
  • When sharing a dish, put what you take on your own plate before eating it.
  • Do not make excessive special requests in the preparation of your food, nor wolf it down.
  • Do not use your chopsticks to skewer food, move dishes around, and never dish out food to another using the same ends you just ate from — use the top ends.
  • If you use a toothpick, cover your mouth with your other hand.
  • It’s normal to make slurping sounds when you’re eating noodles. Note that this goes for noodles only, other dishes should not be slurped.
  • There is no custom of “Ladies First”.
  • It is considered rude to use your cell phone on trains and buses.
  • Don’t wear your slippers into a tatami (straw) mat room.
  • Don’t wear the toilet room slippers outside the toilet room.
  • It is considered good manners to empty your dishes to the last grain of rice.
  • After eating, try to move all your dishes back to the same position they were at the start of the meal. This includes replacing the lids on dishes and putting your chopsticks on the chopstick holder or back into their paper slip.
  • When drinking alcoholic beverages, it is customary to serve each other, rather than pouring your own beverage.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list, so there might be cultural pit falls not mentioned here. In general, I’d say that it’s a good rule of thumb to try to mimic whatever people around you are doing. When in Rome, etc, etc.

General tips

  • Get used to squatting in public bathrooms. Also, there is no soap or paper towels. Buy a few little towels (all Japanese people carry them) and if you are obsessive about using soap, then bring hand sanitizes.
  • When you first go into stores, don’t freak out when the sales clerks keep yelling the same word at you. They are just being polite.
  • Not all trains stop at all stops. Pay attention to the color code on the train when it pulls up, or you might end up on an express that doesn’t go where you want to go.
  • Restrooms can often, but not always be found in train stations.
  • It is normal to pay a restaurant or bar bill at the register instead of giving money to the waiter/waitress.
  • There is no tipping in Japan.
  • The Japanese gesture of “Who, me?” is pointing at their nose, not their chest.
  • The Japanese gesture for “Come here” is to put your hand palm out, fingers up, and raise and lower your fingers a few times. The western gesture of palm-up, closing your hand is only used to call animals to you.
  • If you ask a Japanese person to do something and they tilt their head away from you, it’s a sign of strong reluctance or a polite refusal.
  • The Japanese gesture for no is fanning your hand sideways a few times in front of your face.

Useful phrases

English Japanese
Hello Konnichi wa
How are you? Ogenki desu ka?
I’m fine Genki desu
Thank you very much Arigatou Gozaimasu
Thank you Arigatou
You are welcome Do itashimashite
Good morning Ohayo Gozaimasu
Hello Konnichi wa
Good evening Konban wa
Good night Oyasumi Nasai
Let’s eat Itadakimasu
That looks delicious Oishii sou
Tastes great Oishii
What is this? Kore wa nan desu ka?
Cheers Kampai
I’m full Onaka ippai
Thanks for the meal Gochisousama deshita
How much? Ikura desu ka?
Just looking! Miteru dake desu!
Anything else Nanika hokani arimasu ka?
That’s all! Sore de zenbu desu!
Anything smaller? Motto chiisai no wa?
Anything bigger? Motto ookii no wa?
Too expensive Taka sugimasu

Bonus phrases for single travelers

English Japanese
I really like you Dai Suki Dayo
May I kiss you? Kisu shite mo ii?
I love you Ai shiteru
Will you marry me? Kekkon shite kureru

Useful information elsewhere

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