Arriving in another country can be daunting (but exciting!) at the best of times. Lucky for you, Japan is a safe and pretty welcoming place, but there are some things to be aware of to make those first few days (and the rest of your time, for that matter) all that more smoother.

Japan is a cash-based society

Coming from Australia where everything is paid for with a touch of a card, it felt odd getting used to a cash-only culture in one of the seemingly most technologically-advanced societies out there. But so it is.
An easy rule of thumb is to just not to expect to be able to use your credit card ANYWHERE. You can use your credit card for things like buying Shinkansen tickets, or at hotels, but everything else…rely on cash. No need to be worried about walking around with all that dough on you either — chances of getting mugged are slim-to-none (by Japanese people, at least).
My recommendation – use your change as often as you can to prevent ending up weighed down by kilos of coins. You can use your credit card to get cash out at any 7/11 (which are everywhere) or JP (Japan Post) ATM.

Stick to the left

Except if you’re down south.

If you’re using a train station at any point of your trip (if you’re not…what’s up with that?), it’s worth being aware of your surroundings as much as possible. Don’t take up the whole escalator and always move as much as you can to the left to allow those really rushed folk to walk/run up on the right side. Things change down south in the Kansai region (as opposed to the Kanto region where Tokyo is situated), and the opposite is true. Common sense rule: pay attention to what everyone else is doing, and follow suit.

 Keep your voice down

I know I’ve just mentioned paying attention to what everyone else is doing and keeping in tow, but it bears repeating. Us gaijins seem to be quite oblivious to the whole ‘considerate-of-being-in-other-people’s-space’ thing. Notice when you’re on any type of public transport in Japan, how peaceful it all feels (provided you’re not pressed up against surly salarymen on all sides and inadvertently stepping on someone’s toes…). This is because people are considerate. Considerate of the space they take up, and considerate of the noise they make (except for snorting back snot – apparently that’s way more preferable than just discreetly blowing your nose (◔_◔)).
If people are talking to each other, they’ll be close by to one another and not getting all-up in someone else’s grill. If you’re a few seats away from your travel buddy, it’s wise to hold off having conversations across the passengers between you, and if you’re next to each other and talking, take a dose of self-awareness and keep your loud gaijin voices down, ok?

You will always get a bag

Unless you request otherwise, expect a bag with every single thing that you buy. A single onigiri from 7/11 that you want to eat right away? Bag. Can of coffee at 7:30am in the morning? Bag. McDonalds takeaway? A paper bag inside a plastic bag.
SOMEtimes, you might be offered the option of ‘shi-ru (seal) de yoroshii desuka‘ which is the cashier’s way of asking if you’d like to just have a piece of sticky tape stuck on the barcode to indicate that you’ve bought the product, instead of a bag. ‘Hai, onesgaishimasu‘, should be your response, but if you’d like to be a bit more proactive, simply state the following when you take your items to the checkout: ‘fukuro wa daijyoubu desu‘ with a gentle wave of the hand.
It IS worth noting that garbage bins are few and far between on the public streets of Japan, and the only place you’ll really find them is in convenience stores. So if whatever you’re buying is going to leave you with some trash to carry around, it might be worth having a bag handy for that. Otherwise, use your worldly powers and save the earth, one unnecessary plastic bag at a time.

Clean up after yourself

Maybe you already do so back home, but just in case you’ve been known to dine somewhere that serves your food on a tray, and then you leave said trays on the table afterwards, well…that’s just so not fly in Japanland.

If you dine anywhere where you take your own food to the table, it’s your responsibility to return your trays and get rid of your rubbish once you’ve finished. If you’re in a big food court, take your dishes back to the shop you bought your meal from. Remember this somewhat minor tip to prevent from being thought of as a massive dickhead.

You can’t just buy a sim

In case you were hoping to gain easy in-country data access with a mobile phone sim, it’s not as easy as walking into a 7/11 and handing over some ID. First off, most sims in Japan are specifically for Japanese phones…(or should I say that phones in Japan are specifically built to only fit Japanese sims?). This means that you need to either hunt for a sim that fits your foreign phone or hire a portable wifi device (most of the sims available only offer data anyway). The former can be done by heading into any of the big electronic-type department stores (Bic Camera, Yodobashi) in the big cities, and heading to the Docomo, NTT or Softbank counters. From here, any non-residents (people on a tourist visa) can buy a sim that lasts up to a month.
For the latter… portable wifi modems can be rented for a set period. They can be picked up from the airport or delivered to your hotel/Airbnb/etc, then simply mailed back in the return paid envelope (i.e once you’re at the airport ready to depart…)  If you’re planning on staying longer term, hold out for an entire article dedicated to setting yourself up in Japan with a phone number. I’ll get to it ASAP.

Get a SUICA

In case you didn’t know, this acronym stands for Super Urban Intelligent Card, and it is just that. If you’re spending time in the megalopolis and umming and ahhing about whether to just buy a ticket for each trip or to get a SUICA, let me save you time right now: get it. It means not having to figure out what fare to buy and not having to spend time finding a machine to adjust the fare if you’ve gone a stop too far. You won’t have to waste time finding the ticket barriers that accept these paper tickets (all barriers accept SUICA) and it gives you the chance to buy canned coffee (or tea, or juice, or cider lemonade) from a vending machine with the flash of a card. BAM. Efficiency.

 Take your shoes off

This isn’t only applicable for your Japanese-style hotel room, or when entering a typical Japanese-apartment Airbnb…  Some temples require you to remove your shoes, but it’s probably most helpful to know for when you go shopping and try on clothes, as I’d say this is right up there as one of the most common gaijin mistakes.
If there’s even a slight step up or a different kind of flooring inside the change room, you should remove your shoes and leave them facing away from the door. If you’re not sure if it’s required, then err on the side of caution — you’ll look way sillier from not taking them off when you should have, than unnecessarily doing so.

 Irasshaimase

 

You’ll hear this word everyday, and all you need to know is that shopkeepers/employees use it to welcome you, and that there is no response necessary. You can smile back at them if you like, but this greeting does not require any sort of acknowledgement…so, as you were!

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