During our visits to Japan, we experienced a culture to which we had no direct connection. Even though the culture was different, there were many touchstones from home. Below are some of the customs about which we learned traveling in Japan.
1. The Language Barrier
Traveling to a land where you neither read or speak the language can be daunting. However, we found that in urban areas that there is enough English present to put you at ease. Virtually all signage has English as well as Japanese, so navigating your way is relatively easy.
Traveling outside of the major urban areas could present more of a challenge when it comes to communicating with locals. For example, we found that Fukushima and Sendai had much less of an English presence than Tokyo or Osaka. These cities offered us our real first taste of being in Japan. Still, in these areas, there were still some reminders of home.
If you plan to travel outside of the more urban areas of Japan, it might be a good idea to load Google Translate (or something similar) on your phone. To be safe, I loaded a version of Translate with a static dictionary, in the event we found ourselves outside of good cell reception.
2. Walking on the left side
The Japanese drive on the left side of the road, and they, for the most part, walk on the left side of the sidewalk, and the left side of stairs. The only large scale exception to this rule we saw was in Osaka, where it seemed customary to walk on the right. Of course, not everyone does this. In Tokyo, this custom seemed less rigid, with people walking on each side (much like you might find in Manhattan). Overall, to be considerate, try to walk on the left side.
2. Interacting with locals
As a rule, it seems as though the Japanese shy away from dealing with foreigners. In urban areas, this not quite as evident as in more suburban or rural areas. In fact, we had a young Japanese woman ask if we needed help purchasing train tickets at Tokyo Station. By contrast, I offered to help an elderly couple in Tokyo carrying boxes that were clearly too large for them. They politely declined and went about their way.
Don’t be insulted if a seat next to you on a train remains empty, even during peak travel times. It’s just their way.
In Japan, there is no tipping. Unlike everywhere else we have been, the Japanese see tipping as rude or an insult, as though you were paying them extra to do their jobs well. This includes restaurant servers, hotel employees and cab drivers.
5. Eating on the Run in Japan
While most places we’ve been have convenience stores in abundance, there are ubiquitous in Japan. In virtually every urban area we’ve visited, there are 7-11 stores. Just like in the US, you can grab a quick snack or drink. Unlike the US, however, you can actually get a small meal at the 7-11, and even eat it there. In fact, we saw as many people eating at 7-11s as more traditional fast food restaurants.
The 7-11 stores are far from the only convenience stores in Japan. On seemingly every block stood a Family Mart or a Lawsons. These stores have plenty of snacks and drinks too, and some are even located near or within hotels in Tokyo. In addition, there are vending machines almost everywhere, offering drinks and water. If you travels keep you busy, convenience stores and vending machines will keep you fueled until you time for a meal.