Japanese Culture Facts and Tokyo Travel Tips Guide
I begin with an overview of my experience and some Japanese culture facts and then get into more practical tips for people travelling to Japan and Tokyo for the first time.
Welcome to Japanese Culture Facts
Whether you plan on visiting Japan soon or are just curious to read about it, these Japanese culture facts will highlight things you didn’t know.
Your credit/debit card probably won’t work in Japan and your phone also won’t work. Japan isn’t like the rest of the planet, it is the land of bowing, taking shoes off and the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.
For such a developed country, the level of English is the lowest, yet the people are the most amazing and helpful. As the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics approaches there will be a push for this to improve.
See this for a guide to all the Different cultures around the world. The guide will tell you things like blowing your nose in public is frowned upon in Japan.
Service is a Way of Life
In the US where their level of service is quite good compared to Europe, the customer is King. In Japan, the customer is God! The level of service you receive is world-class and makes me wonder how we endure such terrible service in the UK.
Get used to people bowing to you when you walk out of the building or get in a lift for example. Being bowed to does start to feel quite nice once you get used to it!
Efficiency and speed are also highly praised in Japan, which makes living there very convenient. The bullet train, an excellent high-speed train (top speed 320km/h) is an example of their efficiency and cleanliness. The train has an army of cleaners who clean the entire train when it pulls into the platform. They clean and put new head covers on every chair, turn every chair to face the direction the train will go and all in 10 minutes with military precision.
Please Take Your Shoes Off
Yes, you will have to take your shoes off everywhere like going to the changing room in a store, in nice restaurants you will be given slippers. There are even two levels of slippers in some places! In nice restaurant bathrooms, they have bathroom slippers so you take your regular slippers off and put these special ones on.
Japanese loathe cleaning their houses, so they try to not clean for as long as possible. The no shoe policy helps them do less hoovering and cleaning. In contrast, you will notice that the streets, public spaces and toilets are wonderfully clean, which seems funny. Japanese do not litter, the only downside of this is that it is hard to find a bin sometimes.
Because there are so many places you need to take your shoes off it is a good idea to buy nice socks and wear shoes that are quick to take on and off.
Restaurants in Japan
Tokyo is often quoted as the most expensive city in the world, but compared to New York and London you can find restaurants with excellent food and service for cheaper. Plus tipping is not at all the custom and they will give your money back, this makes it simple for foreigners.
Don’t worry that Japanese don’t speak English, ordering food is easy. Japanese menus are full of pictures and many restaurants have realistic plastic samples displaying what the food will look like in the window, so you can point at the dish.
To make your decision even easier, a lot of the menu’s have a No.1 dish, the most popular meal, so simply choose this.
Cash is used more in Japan than in the US and Europe and many places do not accept cards, so get cash.
Unlike western countries, slurping on soup or noodles is a way to compliment the chef. Slurp away!
Japanese Culture Facts about Cafes
The cafes here are quite unique. The Japanese have taken cafes far beyond just having a coffee. There are cafes with puppies that you can play with. Cafes with kittens. Cafes with owls. I even heard of cuddle cafes, where you can pay for a nap with a stranger!
Maid cafes are a big attraction for foreigners. All the waitresses will be pretty girls in maid outfits. The girls will chat with you more than a normal waitress. They are also allowed to play board games with customers, but you have to pay for it. You can also pay to have a photo taken with the girls.
This isn’t a sleazy thing, it’s just another service. To my surprise, there were more female tourists in the cafe than guys!
Tokyo Subway and Metro
Don’t be one of those crying foreigners overwhelmed by Tokyo on arrival. I made it from the airport to my station Ikebukuro, I looked at the metro station map when I arrived and saw there were 43 exits to the station. Digest that for a moment, it was like arriving at a busy international airport. Ikebukuro isn’t the biggest station and thankfully I didn’t arrive at rush hour.
I was in Kuala Lumpur and the check in girl was telling me how difficult it was to get to the airport, I laughed and said I survived in Tokyo as well as New York and London, I think I can manage KL! If you can navigate the Tokyo Subway you are qualified for the rest of the world.
Japanese Culture Facts: Free WiFi
Free WiFi is rare in Japan. The hardest place to find free WiFi for a developed country, so plan accordingly and get these apps.
‘Japan Free WiFi’, Navitime and Tokyo Subway are all free apps and were extremely helpful.
I also recommend staying in an Airbnb place as most of them give you a mobile WiFi device.
Japanese Culture Facts: Safety
Japan has the second lowest homicide rate in the world, only Iceland’s is lower.
Japan is the safest place in the 62 countries that I have visited. Theft and pickpocketing are very rare much less violent crime which makes a very nice atmosphere.
‘Salarymen’ drink after work until so drunk they can’t make it home, so they just sleep on the street. Laid on the street in a suit complete with a briefcase and nobody bothers them or takes their belongings, they just walk around them!
Japanese Culture Facts: Cuisine
Japan although most famous for sushi, it also has many other great foods.
Here is a description of the different types of foods in Japan:
Yaki-tori: chicken and veggies on skewers, grilled.
Robata-yaki: charcoal grilled meat / fish / veggies. Cheap friendly environment.
Tonkatsu: pork deep fried in special batter. Hirekatsu is the lean fillet.
Tempura: fish and veggies deep-fried at very high temperatures.
Sushi and sashimi: sliced uncooked fish on top of vinegared rice.
Teppan-yaki: meat/fish/veggies grilled on a hot plate.
The last three specialities below are often at one restaurant.
Nabemono: fish & veggies cooking in a pot of water.
Shabu-shabu: Japanese fondue with thinly sliced beef
Suki-yaki: beef with very sweet stock in a pan. Dip it in the raw egg.
Japanese Culture Facts about Drinking and Bars
Japan has some very small bars. I have seen bars with space for 4 people to sit at the bar. There is a whole section of over 200 tiny bars in Shinjuku, Tokyo – Golden Gai. They are all on six narrow streets in close proximity. Most bars can hold about 12-20 people max. This means you can walk from one bar to the next very easily.
They have different types of bars to suit all tastes of music and atmosphere. If you are a group of 8 friends, you can take over the bar and have your own private party!
Some of the bars are private members bars, but most you can just walk in for free. It’s great if you want to meet other people and chat, you can find both locals and foreigners. You can also go alone and make new friends.
How to Drink like a Pro
- If you drink with Japanese, watch their glass because you pour theirs and they pour yours.
- Pour for older men first.
- Offer to pour again when a glass is half empty.
- Lift your glass off the table when they pour. It’s a sign of respect.
- To stop drinking, leave your glass at least half full and decline top-ups.
Japanese Language Basics for Travelling
‘Domo arigato’ (thank you)
Getting to the right station (-eki):
-eki means station, as in Shibuya-eki, Tokyo-eki
Getting to the right line (-sen):
-sen means ‘line’, as in Yamanote-sen, Ginza-sen
See this about Learning languages apps for travel