Amazing Japan: Five Insider Survival Tips

Japan has one of the world’s most fascinating cultures to explore. Our daughter Carlee has spent the last few years living in Asia, much of that time in Japan. We were able to visit her there recently, and her experience made our trip so much easier. Here are some of her insider survival tips to make your visit to amazing Japan even better.

1. Follow Japanese etiquette.

This isn’t really survival but just to avoid annoyed glances, as foreigners may not be aware of many Japanese customs.

  • Stand on the left when riding the escalator so people can pass.
  • Don’t eat while walking on the street and certainly not on the train.
  • It is considered very rude to talk on the phone on the train and there are signs everywhere saying not to do it.
  • Don’t leave your chopsticks sticking upright in your rice, and never pass food directly from chopstick to chopstick.

2. Ask the police…for anything. Seriously.

I wanted to get my hair cut in Shinjuku so my Japanese friend and I walked around for a while but couldn’t find anything affordable. I thought he was joking when he said “let’s ask the police!” I thought they would be offended that I am wasting their time with my hair dilemma. But he ran up to ask and right away the police officer led us down a street to a quaint little hair shop. Perfect price and they did a great job on my hair. There are little police boxes all over the city and if you are ever lost or need to find anything, they are, in my experience, super friendly and helpful.

3. “Service” food.

While there is no need to tip at restaurants and pubs in Japan, you might notice an extra charge added to your bill.  Usually a server brings you a small side dish and may say it is a ‘service’, but you will be charged for it. This is called a “tsukidashi (つきだし)”. This is very common when going out to a restaurant or izakaya so just expect to pay a little extra on top of your order.

4. Express vs. Super Express trains.

Download a map. Especially coming from the airport or other longer routes, there are some trains that stop at every single stop while others skip most stops and just stop at the main hubs. It’s a brilliant idea for those who are commuting to work but can be confusing for a tourist. As someone who is directionally challenged already, I took the wrong train three times last time I was in Tokyo. Basically, the super express shows up in red on the overhead board and express is in orange or yellow. Make sure the super express will stop at your destination before boarding that train. If you aren’t sure, ask the train attendant to double check.

5. Learn Katakana

I know a lot of Japan-bound travelers have studied Japanese or at least watched their share of anime, so getting around in Japan won’t be a problem. However, if you can’t read any Japanese it can be quite difficult to navigate your way in Tokyo independently, and even more so the smaller towns. Even many train station signs do not have an English translation.

The best way I can suggest to help you find your way around is to learn Katakana. Katakana is the phonetic writing system that is used for English words. Yes, even English words are written in Japanese. Many signs around Japan are in fact English words, written with Japanese characters. For example, gelato is ジェラート (je raa to), pizza is ピザ (pi za), spaghetti is スパゲティ (su pa ge tei) etc. (apparently I’m craving Italian). There are only 48 characters and it can be learned in an afternoon or two. If you learn Katakana a whole world of opportunities opens up and you will be much more independent and aware in Japan.