How to Be a Tourist (and Not a Clueless Schmuck) in Japan

I follow Travel + Leisure on Facebook, and yesterday they re-posted an old slideshow of theirs: The Anti-Tourist Travel Rules. It got me thinking: How does one be an “anti-tourist” in Japan? That is, how can you blend in and know the ropes, before even getting off the plane?

So I gathered some of my own observations from my time in Japan, in hopes that it will be of use to you. This practical primer will help you feel (and appear) less like a wide-eyed noob on your first trip to Japan. Navigate metro lines and sashimi menus in good faith, for I come bearing wisdom! Read on, anxious traveler!

1. Be very polite. Because everyone will be very polite to you. One of the things I love about Japan is that everyone takes pride in their jobs, and people genuinely want to help you. Here in the States, gas station attendants or store clerks can act bored as hell, or outwardly surly, frustrated that this “lowly” minimum wage gig is what’s putting bread on the table.

But in Japan, everyone realizes that their job plays an integral role in society, making for the best customer service on Earth. This makes the country refreshingly devoid of scorned patrons screaming cuss words, and threats of frosty Yelp reviews, to restaurant staff. (Which would be a very un-Japanese thing to do, anyway.)

2. Bring a coin purse. You’ll be using lots of coins. In Japan, coins aren’t Tiddlywinks flirting with extinction. Yen coins reach values of up to five U.S. dollars. Five dollars! That’s a drink! When have you ever bought a drink with a coin? Pretty awesome, but on this last trip, it left me digging in my pockets a lot. It also made for a clumsy checkout at 7-Eleven when I was buying my plastic-wrapped, melon-flavored French toast.

Now’s a good time to mention Japan’s a cash society, and very few places take cards. So, coin purse = OK. Fanny pack = still not OK.

3. DON’T BE THAT LOUD AMERICAN. Especially on trains. Japanese trains hover around “pin drop” noise level, so refrain from talking loudly, and from talking on your phone at all. You won’t find any breakdancing or other raucous means of solicitation on these subways.

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4. Bring shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Lots of places require you to take off your shoes before entering. (You’ll always take them off if you’re in somebody’s house.) On this last trip, I was constantly hunched on the ground, lacing and re-lacing my Chucks, when I should’ve brought sandals or boat shoes or Crocs (which are absolutely still a widely-worn item in Japan).

(pic via)

5. Don’t tip. Like a lot of other countries, Japan doesn’t expect gratuity for servers, barbers, cabbies, porters, skycaps, bellhops, acupuncturists, court jesters, soothsayers, human footrests, or anyone else.

6. Load up the apps. I suggest bringing your phone, leaving it on airplane mode, and connecting to Wi-Fi when it’s available. Outfit your mobile with downloadable city guides and metro maps you can use offline. I recommend City Maps 2Go and the official Tokyo subway app.

7. Sign up for free Wi-Fi. Free Wi-Fi is strangely spotty in Japan. Your best bet is Starbucks, but for some very counterintuitive reason, you need to sign up on the Internet… before being able to use their free Internet. You can do that here, then log in once you’re at Starbucks, sampling a matcha Frappuccino.

8. Follow the rules. If it says walk up this staircase and down that staircase, then do so. If it says no smoking in front of the building, then abstain from cancer sticks for now. Signage is your friend. Japanese people are ridiculously kind, and expect foreigners to be utterly confused, so don’t get super stressed out over unintentional infractions. Plus, any signs you’ll see will never be preachy, threatening, or litigious. It’s just that, in Japan, people don’t regularly break the rules, take advantage of the system, or generally be douche bags. They just think that following the rules yields a safe, organized society — which for them, it does.

Just remember that when you’re abroad, in any country, you automatically become a representative of where you’re from. You’re a grassroots ambassador. If you show up and act like an unruly asshole, oblivious to the environment around you, then the locals will think everyone from your country is like that. This is especially true, I think, in a homogenous, island nation like Japan. (When I lived there, I once met a little girl who said me and my friends were the first non-Japanese people she’d ever seen in real life.)

9. When in doubt, bow. And say “sumimasen,” a Swiss army knife of a phrase that can be used as “excuse me,” “sorry,” or “thank you,” depending on the context. While in Japan, there’ll be times when you’ll have no idea what’s going on: There’s the lack of English, the byzantine metro systems, the zany TV, the mystery meat on your plate. But that’s what makes it fun. Be patient, friendly, flexible, polite, and willing to learn.

Send me a postcard!