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Visiting Japan

June 20, 2015

So you are thinking about visiting Japan? While I am certainly no expert at all things Japan, I have learned a thing or two during my time here. So, I have compiled some information here that should help make your visit to Japan go as smoothly as possible.

Matsumoto Castle Nagano Japan

Before You Arrive

If you are planning on doing any driving make sure you stop by AAA and pick up an International Drivers License they only cost $15 and allow you to drive a rental car once you arrive in Japan. Do keep in mind that they drive on the left and you are probably not going to recognize some of the road signs (although most are pretty intuitive).

Downtown Yokohama

Also before you arrive make sure you pick up a Japan Rail Pass They are worth their weight in gold and will save you a TON of money. They are mailed to your home of record so make sure you order it several weeks before your trip.

Hapo One Ski Resort

If you do rent a car it would be very helpful to have an ETC Pass, this site has a great breakdown of the ETC Pass as well as driving in Japan.

Road signs Road signs

At the Airport

Once you have made it through customs and picked up your luggage you will have the option to rent cell phones. There are many options to choose from. The two largest cell phone providers in Japan are SoftBank and AU. I have been told that SoftBank has the best coverage and SoftBank does offers many rental options to stay connected.

Sushi Blue sky with home in the foreground

Once you have a cellphone (or a SIM card for your US Phone) make sure you download these helpful applications:

  • Google Translate - I use this everyday. You can take pictures of writing and it will translate. It translates voice too and is super helpful.
  • Hyperdia Train Schedule - Another very helpful app and great for short visits. Once you've used the 'free trial' though it becomes very expensive to use.
  • Everything in Japan is in metric and the exchange rate changes daily. A converter app is a good idea
  • In case you did not know there are a lot of earthquakes in Japan. This app will warn you if one is about to strike near you, as well tell you how big it was/is, and whether you should evacuate (especially helpful if you are near the ocean).

Visiting Japan

Accommodations

There are many great accommodations in Japan from ryokens to pod hotels to your typical western hotel. However, in Japan living spaces are small and you often have many family members living under one roof. This makes trysts a little awkward, especially given the lack of wall insulation in Japanese construction. So there are hotels all over Japan called Love Hotels that offer short stays in themed rooms. If you are getting a really good deal on a hotel room and it is too good to be true chances are it is a Love Hotel. These rooms are designed for one thing and are not ideal accommodations for a family vacation. Consider yourself warned.

Japanese post town

Dietary Restrictions

If you are vegetarian, vegan, or gluten free you are going to have a hard time in Japan. Gluten Free is certainly easier to get by, just avoid noodles and stick to rice and you should be fine. Herbivores on the other hand are going to have a hard time as the Japanese put meat in EVERYTHING! I bought food for my dwarf hamster the other day and it had anchovies in it! They even sprinkle fish flakes on most nut snack packs sold at the convenience stores. Even vegetable curry is often made with pork broth... If you are in Tokyo you will be ok but if you go into the outlying areas you are probably going to unknowingly (or have no choice to) eat meat.

Milk store

Customs and Courtesies

  • When bowing make sure you do not make eye contact - this is very rude.
  • Never stick your chopsticks straight into your rice and leave them there. This is done during a Japanese death ceremony, doing so outside of this ceremony is considered very rude.
  • No matter how big the food item you are eating it is rude to eat it in bites with your chopsticks. Put the whole thing in your mouth in one big bite. Also feeding someone with your chopsticks is another no-no.
  • It is considered impolite to not finish all the food that you order or are given. When my wife and I eat in town we often bring a small container, to put food in that we cannot eat because we are either too full or we cannot stomach it. .
Rabbit cafe Hakuba Snow

Japanese Laws To Be Aware Of

  • Having a pocket knife with a blade longer than 2" is illegal. If you are caught with one they will deport you from the country. Tazers and pepper spray are also illegal with similar consequences if you are caught with them.
  • Drinking and driving in Japan is a serious offense. You will be arrested for DUI if you have anything over 0.000% BAC level. Even if you only have one drink DO NOT drive
  • In Japan they have a different sense of personal space. When driving it is the norm to tailgate, cut people off, and speed excessively. Also there are no outward signs of road rage such as horns, middle fingers, and brake checks.
  • Scooters and motorcycles can pass on either the right or left at any time, anywhere, and in any weather conditions - ALWAYS use your turn signals before making a lane change or turning.
Shinto Shrine

So that is a quick summary of important tips and information for those planning on visiting Japan. Be sure to check out my Information Page for more info. If you have any specific questions feel free to contact me or reach out on Facebook.

Sayonara!


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Written by Isaac Tait who now lives in San Diego but dreams of returning, one day, to Japan. You should follow him on Twitter.