For a foreign tourist arriving in Japan, it can be quite a culture shock at first. Western tourists, in particular, may find they must adapt quite a lot to the local lifestyle. Many of the unique customs of Japan are very well known across the world, and no doubt the prepared tourist will know a bit before arriving. Therefore, this article will not discuss SIM cards and pocket WIFI, the means of transportation, how to handle the subway system or which apps to download. Instead, this is a collection of the more subtle differences that might seem quite foreign to western tourists arriving in Japan for the first time.
One of the biggest surprises may be the visible lack of trash cans. The Japanese pay a lot of attention to separating their trash. You will notice that alongside bottles and cans being organized separately, most households also separate burnable and non-burnable trash. Interestingly, despite the fact that trash cans are rarely seen in public spaces, except for major junctions and transport hubs, you will not see rubbish lying around on the streets. Thanks to the disciplined nature of trash collection in Japan, the streets look pristine at all times!
Due to the lack of trash cans, it is a good idea to have a small bag with you, to store your rubbish until you reach a trash can. Whilst on the topic of bags, it also pays off to have a hand sanitizer or some wet towels with you when you are sightseeing, because some of the public toilets, although usually very clean, may not have soap or paper towels in them.
Another surprise is the contradictory nature of Japanese prudeness with regards to clothing. Being a western tourist in the summer heat, you might wear tank tops and shorts, and could this attract some attention in Japan. As the Japanese are very careful to keep their skin white and young they will do everything to avoid the sun. This can mean double layers, gloves, and hats in the suffocating summer heat. Naturally, western tourists may be less concerned about avoiding the sun and show a lot more skin, which could attract the gaze of locals. This may cause feelings of self-consciousness, but fear not. Remember, you are also in a country where buying shojo manga and overly sexualized figurines is perfectly normal and seen frequently in some areas of the cities in Japan!
Although the busy and crowded Tokyo subway rush hour is widely known, there are other important elements of public transportation in Japan. It’s good to keep in mind that if you don’t want to be rude you should avoid eating, drinking or talking on the phone while you are using public transport. The Japanese are very careful in following this norm, and they will do everything not to bother others. Further to this, you will rarely see teenagers stealing the priority seats on trains and buses!
An important thing to focus on while using public transportation in Japan is to follow the little arrows on the floor which tell you which side you should walk on. It’s mostly on the left in Tokyo, but it can vary so always be mindful not to be in other people’s way.
Japan is an orderly country with many conveniences, such as restaurants which have a machine at the entrance where you can pay and select your menu item. After using the machine all you have to do is hand the tickets it gave you to the waitress. These machines, like many things in Japan, mostly only accept cash so make sure you have cash on you at all times. These machines are also a representation of how the idea of tipping is unknown in Japan. Even if you really feel like a taxi driver has saved your life or that the service of a restaurant was beyond compare, just thank them verbally as tips will not be accepted.
Finally, here is a tip that can invite even more opportunities for tourists in Japan: always look up! It’s good to keep in mind that many interesting places such as shops, restaurants, and cafes can be on the higher levels of tall buildings, so always keep an eye out for them as well!
Even for a very well prepared first-time tourist in Japan, this country will definitely provide numerous pleasant surprises!