So after seven months on Guam, we took our first off-island trip, to Japan! It was great and we definitely plan on going again.
The first thing I noticed was how clean the air was. After all this time in a hot humid climate, it was refreshing to be someplace a little cooler and with low humidity. Being from the northern United States, we walked around quite a bit in short sleeves while the locals were bundled up in jackets and sweaters, but that’s okay. It was a nice change of pace.
Yes, it’s crowded. But the people were super friendly and many of them spoke English. We didn’t have a problem at all.
It seems very safe. I heard somewhere that Japan has a really low crime rate and I believe it. Even walking at night, I never felt like I was in any danger.
We went to the base of Mt. Fuji, Yokohama, Hiroshima, and Kyoto. We avoided Tokyo on this trip as we were travelling by ourselves and didn’t want to tackle that metropolis on our first trip there. Now that we’ve accomplished this, we’ll definitely visit Tokyo another time.
Every meal we had was a treat. And healthy! Lots of fish and vegetables, decent portion sizes, and most places will have an English menu for you.
Things I wish I’d known before traveling to Japan
Read up! We got several travel books months before going and read up on the places we wanted to go. It was definitely helpful.
Wear clean socks. Yeah, you’ve probably got it in the back of your mind that people take their shoes off when entering private homes. But you may be surprised at how many tourist spots you’ll be asked to take them off as well. Shrines for instance.
Carry some paper towels with you. Public bathrooms are clean and available pretty much everywhere, but once you get off the beaten path, you’ll notice that there are no paper towel dispensers. I guess this is due to the “cleanliness culture” and many people carrying hand sanitizer etc. Maybe you should just get used to carrying hand sanitizer with you.
How to use a bidet. They’re everywhere. And they’re great! I want one! I didn’t study up however and using a bidet took some practice.
Tattoos in onsens. Onsens are semi-public baths where the men bathe together and the women bathe together. Again, these are awesome – unless you have a tattoo, which I do. Tattoos are traditionally frowned upon in Japanese culture due to their historic association with gangs. I’d heard that as a Westerner, I’d probably not have to worry about it. While that may be the case in larger cities and onsens where there’s a younger clientele, it’s not the case in outlying areas. I got a couple of dirty looks. Always check for signage and ask the staff when in doubt.
No smoking. I like to have the occasional cigarette: after dinner, when going out, when stressed… But smoking is really frowned upon. Many public areas ban smoking even on the sidewalks and you won’t see an ashtray in public anywhere. You’ve been warned.
You can see wild animals just about anywhere. In Fujikawa, we saw wild macaques, in Miyajima we saw wild deer. Remember that you never can predict what a wild animal is going to do. Also, don’t feed them. They get used to being fed by humans and can stop foraging on their own.
Get comfortable with public transportation. Being in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language, we decided against getting a car as we’ve done on other trips. And that’s okay. The public transportation system on Japan is really efficient and you can easily get just about anywhere you want to. Our journey saw us taking trains (both high-speed and local), ferries, and busses. Yes, there’s a learning curve, but be brave and you’ll be rewarded.
Get a Japan Rail pass! Yes, they’re expensive, but if you’re doing any tooling around, it’s well worth the money. You have to purchase them before you go. You’ll get a voucher which has to be claimed once you get there. But do it!
Japan Rail: http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/