It’s been a mere week since Mr. Five O’Clock and I returned to NYC from visiting Japan, and in some ways, it feels like we’re waking up from the best dream of lives. (Oh, wait, I did just wake up… and it’s 3 AM. Curse you, jet lag!)
Plenty of things surprised us throughout our two weeks in Japan, from the kindness of the Japanese people to those freakin’ cool ramen-eating booths. Perhaps what surprised me most of all, however, was how much I grew to love this country that had originally not even been on my radar.
In putting our jet lag to good use, we’ve got our first post about Japan all ready! Here are 10 things that surprised us while visiting Japan.
1. Japanese people will help you get out of a jam.
After 20 hours of international flights and an hour-long train ride, it’s no surprise that we were exhausted and delirious by the time we reached Tokyo. We were all set to exit Shinjuku train station with our Japan Rail Pass, only to stare dumbly at the electronic turnstile. How do we get out of here with a paper pass?!
Fortunately, at that moment, an elderly Japanese woman came to our rescue. She pointed at an office by the turnstiles; this was how we learned that with the rail pass, you need to present it to guards upon entering and exiting a station with JR trains.
Countless times on our trip, the Japanese people we encountered went out of their way to help us. Whether we were lost, needed to translate a Japanese phrase, or simply didn’t realize the proper etiquette, we found folks voluntarily willing to help out a poor gaijin, or foreigner. It was a complete 180-degree turnaround from some other countries we’ve visited!
2. Be respectful and reverent, and it will pay off in spades.
We researched Japanese customs and etiquette ahead of time and tried to put our learning into action as much as possible.
By the end of our time visiting Japan, we were bowing to servers and hotel staff on autopilot and saying “itadakimasu” and “gochisosama deshita” — meaning “I receive this food” and “It was quite a feast,” respectively — at the beginning and end of our meals. We were rewarded by fleeting surprise, followed by a warm smile, from chefs and concierges alike.
Nowhere was the payoff for being respectful more apparent than when we visited Bar Ben Fiddich, one of the world’s best cocktail bars.
In following Japanese bar etiquette, we sat where we were told, spoke quietly, and demonstrated genuine reverence for cocktail master Hiroyasu Kayama’s creations. By the end of the night, we’d been invited up to a coveted seat at the bar directly in front of where Kayama-san worked. It was like a tango of respect: once we proved that we weren’t just gaijin looking to get drunk, we were welcomed into the fold.
3. A little language knowledge goes a long way.
The day after purchasing our flight to Tokyo, I had a mini meltdown. What if I get lost and can’t understand directions back to my hotel? What if I can’t read anything on this restaurant’s menu and order sea urchin (which I’m allergic to) by accident? What if I can’t read the sign for the women’s restroom and accidentally wander into…
OK, you get the point.
Being my more rational half, Mr. Five O’Clock suggested that we study some Japanese before visiting the country, which instantly calmed me down. I took a 10-week in-person course with Fluent City, while Mr. Five O’Clock took online lessons via JapanesePod101.
I can’t tell you how many times we uttered some basic Japanese phrase during our trip, only to hear, “Your Japanese is very good!” Maybe these folks were just being polite, but their sentiments seemed to be genuine and appreciative. Plus, it made us feel really, really good about ourselves. *Pats self on the back.*
We promise to write a post on key Japanese survival phrases you’ll want to have handy, but in the meantime, here are three to get you started.
- How to write it: すみません
- How to pronounce it: SOO-ME-MAH-SEN
- What it means: Excuse me; Pardon me; I’m sorry
- Arigatou gozaimasu
- How to write it: ありがとう ございます
- How to pronounce it: ARE-EE-GAH-TOE GO-ZAI-MAH-SSS
- What it means: Thank you very much
- Toire wa doko desu ka?
- How to write it: トイレはどこですか
- How to pronounce it: TOY-RAY WAH DOH-KOH DESS KAH?
- What it means: Where’s the toilet? [Perhaps the most useful phrase in any foreign language, right? Heh.]
4. Japan is incredibly safe.
I’m used to clutching my bags in Egypt, wearing money belts in Europe, and at least trying to pay a modicum of attention on the New York City subway so I don’t wake up next to any of these weirdos. It’s safe to say that I’m a little, er,
super paranoid anxious when it comes to personal safety at home and abroad.
But Japan is the safest country I’ve ever visited, hands down.
In fact, we saw people leave their luggage in the train stations, grab some McDonald’s, and return 45 minutes later… and the luggage was all fine and dandy, completely untouched. Not that I recommend doing this all of the time, but still. Nobody stole a damn thing.
If you still don’t believe me, perhaps official, hard numbers will convince you: Japan tied with Ireland for the 10th safest country in the world in the 2017 Global Peace Index. (Iceland clocked in at #1, in case you’re wondering.)
5. Those *toilets,* though.
Where do we even start with this one? Japanese toilets are perhaps the greatest invention ever made. And no, I’m not talking about squat toilets — those may be more oriented toward the way nature intended us to go, but man, they give my thighs a bloody workout.
I’m talking about the high-tech, magical wonderland of toilets. I’m talking about seat warmers. Lids that rise when you approach. Torrents of water to clean your derrière. (Or your front.) And there’s even waterfall sounds you can play for privacy — you know, in case you’re farting up a storm and don’t want anyone to hear. We won’t judge.
With their friendliness and cleanliness, I ask you: why aren’t we all using Japanese toilets?
6. Hotel check in times are strict.
Arriving early at a hotel in the United States? No big deal. More often than not, if we arrive before the designated check in time at a U.S. hotel, the staff will smile at us and say, “The room’s ready for you!”
But if a Japanese hotel’s check in time is 3 PM, it really means 3 PM sharp. Not 2 PM, not 2:45 PM. Not even 2:59 PM. It’s by the book here, but that’s OK.
7. Trash and recycling are taken seriously. Like, really seriously.
Garbage and recycling — and the dizzying number of ways of sorting them — are serious business in Japan.
For example, some Japanese cities have 10, 20, even 44 categories for sorting trash. You’ll have 20+ pages of instructions on how to deal with over 500 items. And God forbid that you do it wrong, lest you get sternly chastised by your neighbor or even evicted from your apartment.
I learned this the hard way at Odawara train station while en route to Hakone. I’m pretty sure I gave this older couple a heart attack because I threw my trash into the wrong canister by accident. It happened in slow motion: after investigating each bin, I made an educated guess… which turned out to be wrong, as evidenced by an elderly woman frantically pointing at the opposite bin.
Take the time to figure things out, and if you don’t know, bite the bullet and just ask someone which bins are for what. It’ll save you — and Japanese grandmas — a lot of grief!
8. Cash is still king.
We put alerts on all of our credit cards before visiting Japan, only to discover that we couldn’t use them at many shops and attractions. We used Japanese yen for all of our small purchases; a good general rule of thumb is the more expensive a restaurant is, the more likely it is to take cards (see: pricey omakase dinners). The hotels we stayed in took credit cards, but it’s wise to check this ahead of time too.
Fortunately, if you’re low on moola, it’s easy to get more. Just visit a 7-Eleven and use their ATM. Plus, they’re open 24/7, which is a godsend in emergency cases!
Another important point regarding money: you don’t need to tip in Japan. In fact, it can be considered an insult if you do! But you can give a small gift from your country to show appreciation if the situation warrants it; for example, we gave Godiva chocolates with NYC art on the box to our Japanese tour guides in lieu of cash.
9. Vending machines will be your best friend, especially when it comes to your cup of morning joe.
For some reason, we kept running into 900 yen coffee situations in restaurants and hotels we visited, which is the equivalent of $7.95 USD. No offense, but unless my coffee beans were pooped out by furry animals in Bali, there’s no way I’m shelling out more than $3 for my daily dose of caffeine.
Enter vending machines. Here, you’ll find practically any drink your heart desires, from coffee to tea and soda. I was particularly excited to learn that some of them even dispense — *gasp* — beer!!
Be still, my beating heart. I’ll be back in a second once I’ve gotten more Asahi beer from my hotel vending machine…
10. You probably won’t see everything on your original itinerary when you’re visiting Japan, and that’s okay.
Some things you can’t really plan for while traveling: getting sick, missing a train, or a change in weather.
For us, we were in Kyoto when Typhoon Lan hit. Having lived through typhoons and “black rain” in Hong Kong — I vividly recall being on lockdown in a school building for hours there in 2010 — I didn’t intend to mess around with Mother Nature. So, after a few minutes of deliberation, we scrapped our plans to take a day trip to Kobe.
And you know what? It wound up being a perfect vacation from our vacation. We spent most of the day just sipping green tea and reading books in our ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. Not too shabby. (Plus, we wound up going to Kobe a day later after all when the weather let up. You never know how things will turn out!)
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All costs were paid by me, and all opinions are my own. Not even a perfect Japanese toilet can change that.
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