If you’re planning a trip to Japan, it’s important to be prepared! It’s easy to find information on what to pack, or which sight-seeing spots to visit, but what about where to get wi-fi, or how to contact police if there’s an emergency? Here are 10 Japan tips that no one really talks about.
Wifi is essential for travel these days, and luckily it is available in many cafes, stations, airports, and even on the Shinkansen bullet train. To help foreign tourists find free Wifi hotspots wherever they go in Japan, the Japanese government created Japan Free Wi-fi, a free app that’s able to find and label over 500,000 free Wifi locations across Japan. App users can find Wi-fi hotspots by searching in a city or major location, or even use your phone’s GPS location services to find a hotspot close to you. You can download it for free here.
If you’re traveling around and don’t want to have to worry about finding a hotspot where you are, you can also rent Pocket Wifi. You can either rent them at the airport or even order them online before you come to Japan. The mobile devices can be carried in your pocket wherever you go, and then you simply return them before you head back home!
2. Cash & Tipping
Japan is still very much a cash-based society. Most people pay for everything with cash, and few places accept credit cards, especially when you get outside of the bigger cities. There are money conversion stations and machines in most major airports, as well as ATMs in many convenience stores that will allow you to withdraw money from an international credit card. Often, these ATMs have an English setting as well. However, it is always a good idea to carry enough cash with you to cover your expenses when you’re traveling around Japan, because you don’t want to be needing an ATM when there isn’t one around!
As for adding a tip to your bill: don’t worry about tipping, as it is not common practice in Japan. And, if you’re still confused by Japanese money etiquette, check out our complete guide to Japanese money.
3. Not Vegetarian Friendly
As people become increasingly concerned about their health and the environment, more and more are ditching meat and fish in favor of vegetarianism and veganism. Restaurants in the Western world are used to catering to every allergy, preference, and diet, but it is not so easy in Japan. Meat is a staple in the Japanese diet, and according to a 2014 survey, only a mere 4.7 percent of the Japanese population were vegetarian or vegan.
If you’re a strict vegetarian visiting Japan, you can easily find things at convenience stores or supermarkets that you can eat, but restaurants might be a little difficult, as meat and fish products are often cooked into the dishes, and can’t just be “taken out”. Some animal-based products might easily go unnoticed by someone not familiar with them, such as dashi . Whilst the term dashi simply refers to a general type of soup or cooking stock, it’s often the case that dashi is made from fish stock – and it used in many Japanese meals that otherwise appear to be vegetarian. The same goes for dried bonito flakes (鰹節), which are used as a topping for a variety of meals.
That being said, being vegetarian or vegan in Japan is certainly possible! The number of vegetarian-friendly restaurants are certainly increasing, especially in larger cities like Tokyo and Osaka. You can easily find them on websites such as Happy Cow. And, restaurants serving traditional Japanese Shōjin ryōri that was consumed by vegetarian Buddhist monks is also readily available across Japan today.
4. Convenience Stores
Chances are you’ve already heard about how numerous and convenient Japan’s convenience stores are, but there are lots of other things that you can do at them besides just buy a quick snack or drink! Not only are many open 24 hours, but you can use their international ATMs, buy limited-edition souvenirs, get basic toiletries, such as shampoo, toothbrushes, and even makeup, mail/ship items, pay bills, use the bathroom, and connect to Wifi. There’s a reason people say that the convenience stores in Japan are the best in the world! For a full list of everything you can do at Japanese konbini, check out our blog here.
5. Police and 110
Japan is widely regarded as one of the safest countries in the world, but if you happen to get stopped by police in Japan, do you know what to do? it’s quite common to be stopped on the street in Japan and asked to show ID. These stops are performed for a variety of reasons; if you are a new face in a small town, or if a crime has been reported, if you are riding a bicycle, or even for no reason at all! As a foreigner, you are legally required to carry either your passport or residence card with you at all times. So, if an officer asks you to show it—you are legally obligated to do so. Generally, most police do not want to simply hassle you. The vast majority of times, you will be asked to produce ID, maybe asked a few basic questions about where you live or where you work, and then sent on your way.
If you are a witness of a crime, or are a victim of a crime, there are a couple of things you can do. First, in case of a fire or need of an ambulance, you can call 119, which is the Japanese equivalent of 911. The number to reach Japanese police is 110. But, if you don’t have a Japanese phone, you can head to the nearest kōban (交番). Koban literally translates to “police box” because these are designed to be small police outposts.
Kōban are located in residential communities, and are there to provide safety assurance and protection to the locals. There is an entire department in Japan’s police force which handles the operations, monitoring of the kōban and even deployment and rotation of the staff. The main goal of the kōban is to engage in the daily operations of the localities and ensure the safety of the locals. It is also a means of letting locals feel safer because once they know where these police boxes are located, they can easily call for help.
6. Eating and Walking
While it may be completely normal in other countries, Japanese people generally don’t eat or drink as they are walking, as its considered to be rude and unseemly. You’ll see most people carrying their takeout in secure bags to eat later, or finishing their drinks while standing at the vending machine. Drinking and eating are also not allowed on public transport.
Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule, especially during matsuri, or festivals, which often have pop-up yatai stalls selling street food. But again, rather than eating while they walk, the majority of Japanese people will buy their food and then step off to the side to enjoy it while standing or sitting.
Compared to many other developed countries around the world, Japan has a very prominent smoking culture. Not only are cigarettes (called tabako たばこin Japanese) very cheap and readily available in Japan, but smoking is still generally accepted in restaurants and cafes, many of which have both smoking and non-smoking sections.
Keep in mind, however, that smoking in public spaces and out on the street is strictly prohibited, and people who violate this rule can be fined. There are designated smoking areas near many bigger stations, as well as smoking rooms inside some shopping malls and even on the shinkansen (bullet train).
Did you know that you are allowed to drink in public in Japan? Unlike in the US, open-container laws do not exist in the majority of places in Japan. While it is generally frowned upon to drink or eat in public outdoor spaces in the country, it is legal to drink alcohol as you walk around outdoors or even ride on the train. There are even vending machines that offer beer and sake, and traditional festivals that involve drinking outside, such as hanami (花見) where people enjoy a picnic with food and drinks under blooming cherry blossoms.
Although they are becoming more and more common in Western countries, tattoos are still heavily stigmatized against in Japan. Traditionally, visitors with tattoos weren’t allowed to bathe in onsen (hot springs) because of an association with tattoos and organized crime. The tattoo ban was to keep out yakuza and members of other crime gangs who were traditionally inked with elaborate full-body tattoos. These days, attitudes are changing, but businesses can still legally refuse to allow people with tattoos to bathe in the onsen. For a list of the top 10 tattoo-friendly onsen in Japan, check out this blog entry.
10. Riding a Train
Japan’s public train system is one of the most advanced in the world, and millions of people use it every single day. There are some unspoken rules to riding the train that no one really talks about, yet are good to know if you are a foreign tourists visiting Japan. When waiting for the train to arrive, be sure to politely wait your turn in line before boarding. If there is a waiting bench on the platform and you wish to sit down, feel free to do so, but make sure to offer it up to any elderly or disabled person should they come by.
Priority seats are the specially marked seats on buses and trains that are designated for passengers who are elderly, have a disability, injury, are pregnant, or are traveling with infants. When taking a bus or train, you may sit in the priority seats if they are open, but be sure to give up your space to anyone who needs it more.
Many trains in Japan have a few Women Only cars, which are easily identifiable by pink signs on the platform as well as on the sides and windows of the train car. For most Women Only cars, for certain hours of the day (usually during busy rush hours), only women can be passengers on that car.
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