Japan is a fascinating place to visit, one that will leave an impression on you long after you’ve left. Whether you’re thinking about traveling there for the Olympic Games in 2020 or have just always wanted to go, there are a few things you should know about Japan before you go. From money-saving tips to cultural taboos, Japan is just one of those places where you should do a little research before you hop on the plane.
1. It’s not as expensive as everyone thinks
Japan always seems to be up there near the top of the list with England and Sweden as being among the most expensive countries in the world to visit, but it’s just not the case. Japan can be pricey, but it does have the potential to be a budget-friendly destination, so don’t let a little rumor like that scare you away from booking flights to Tokyo. Tokyo prices do go up during high season (in spring, during the Cherry Blossom Festival called sakura), but compared to other major European cities, it tends to be cheaper.
2. Earthquakes are very common
Earthquakes happen fairly frequently in Japan. But if there’s anywhere you’d want to be during an earthquake, it’d be Japan. Because they’re so common, Japanese architecture is exceptionally engineered so that every building moves very slowly, together with the earth underneath it. Take the tragic tsunami that happened in 2011. Not many people even knew a 9.0 magnitude earthquake had hit as it didn’t cause major damage. Pretty impressive if you think about it. Even ancient cities like Kyoto have withstood time, so you can rest assured you’re safe.
3. Tipping is a faux-pas
It will seem strange at first, but attentive service by staff is the norm in Japan. It’s cultural to be hospitable so tipping is not expected in taxis, at hair salons, at bars or for doormen at hotels. Not only are tips not expected, but in most places they won’t be accepted. Some restaurants include a service charge in the total of the bill and if you tip on top of this, don’t be surprised to find your waiter chasing after you with your change.
4. Matcha is so good for you
You’ll soon notice upon arriving in Japan that basically everything is green tea-flavored. Matcha green tea is a very Japanese thing and you can find green tea flavored ice cream, Kit-Kats, cakes… even Starbucks lattes! Matcha powder is an excellent source of minerals, vitamins and antioxidants; it’s no wonder the Japanese are crazy about it! Don’t knock it till you try it and who wouldn’t be curious enough to try a bright green-colored Kit-Kat?!
5. The bathhouses are a dream
Japan’s public bathhouses, called sento, are soothing places that have remained popular from a time when most homes didn’t have bathtubs. You’ll find all types, from luxurious spa-like places with fancy soaps and fizzing water to neighbourhood joints with creaky floors and coin-operated hair dryers. Whichever you choose, they all cost ¥460. With the Olympic Games on the horizon, the Tokyo Sento Association is trying to make all the public bathhouses more tourist-friendly by posting bath etiquette and instruction cards in English, among other languages.
6. There’s more to Japanese food than sushi
There’s so much more to this country’s culinary traditions than just sushi and if you don’t really like sushi and are afraid you’ll have nothing to eat the entire time you’re there, you can relax! Sushi and sashimi are just the beginning. Food in Japan is both fresh and healthy. Hit the streets if you want to try a wide selection of things like grilled crab claws and fried meat dumplings (called gyoza). In Hiroshima, the local specialty is savoury pancakes called okonomiyaki. Grilled chicken skewers are everywhere in Tokyo and Kyoto is famous for its ramen.
7. Exchange your money at the airport
Japan is a cash-based society so while it may be total commonplace for you to pay for your latte with a credit card or debit card at home, that’s not the case in Japan. Exchange your money at the airport upon arrival. Even in places like Tokyo, banks can be hard to come by and if you do, you may need to wait in line to take money out from the counter-clerk. If you do need to take out money from an ATM while you’re there, look for a 7-11 or a post office. Save yourself some time and exchange at the airport, where you’ll get a better rate anyways.
And, bring a change purse! If you’re buying anything less than ¥500, you’ll pay for it with coins and it’s handy to have a separate coin purse for all that change!
Already been to Japan? What advice would you give first-timers?