15 Things I Wish I'd Known About Japan Before Going
Despite being half-Japanese, there were a few things I was surprised by while living in Japan as a Global English Camp mentor.
1: There are (basically) no trash cans in public.
You’ll get used to carrying your trash around in your bag. It’s a challenge to throw something away—whether that be your gum or a plastic water bottle. There are a limited number of trash cans in public and around cities. This is mainly due to the fact that Japan has strict garbage disposal laws for which everyone is expected to separate and organize their garbage. Certain types of garbage are collected on specific days of the week, and the garbage collection system is complicated in Japan. Your best bet is to hold onto your garbage until you can properly dispose of it when you get home.
2: Cash is preferred.
I prefer carrying cards over having cash and change on me, but I quickly got used to carrying physical money in Japan. Most restaurants and shops don’t accept cards, while cash is overwhelmingly used everywhere. Suica and Pasmo cards (train cards), however, are accepted at vending machines and convenience stores, so it might be worthwhile to stock up on that if you want to tap and go at stores like 7-Eleven or Family Mart. Especially if you’re like me and it takes you forever to awkwardly count your change when checking out.
3: Convenience stores have everything you could possibly need.
I did not expect to be buying my morning coffee, lunches, and bath towels at a convenience store — but that’s the beauty of convenience stores in Japan. They have most things you need (including ATMs), and it’s not abnormal to pop into a Family Mart to grab a bite. You’ll probably be frequenting them with your group of friends or your students! Read this blog from a former leader to learn more about the magic of Family Mart.
4: Dryers don’t really exist.
There are washing machines, but not usually dryers. I was surprised to find that my apartment only had a washing machine. My roommate and I got creative with using furniture as drying racks, but most people have access to a clothesline or make one themselves (which I’d recommend over using various furniture to dry your clothes). I found it helpful to do laundry a few times a week so that there was enough space and time to dry everything!
5: Taxis and Ubers aren’t a realistic means of transportation.
No one uses taxis and Ubers regularly because they are EXPENSIVE! As someone who loves Uber-ing and Lyft-ing around, I was disappointed to learn that these modes of transportation are rarely used due to the fact that it’s so expensive to be driven anywhere. If anyone was trying to avoid having to figure out the public transportation system, I’m going to let you know ahead of time that you will be using the subway system on a daily basis if you’re in Tokyo.
Read this article for more information about Tokyo subways. In regards to navigating the subway system, I would recommend using Google Maps (it tells you the exact time that trains are leaving and also gives you prices) and utilizing friendly staff members if you’re unsure of which train to take. Also, subway lines typically stop running around midnight — keep that in mind if you’re out late!
6: Japan doesn’t typically have street names.
Japan is made up mostly of block numbers rather than street names. You navigate the city based off block numbers rather than street names. You’ll notice there are no street signs and that (most) streets don’t have names on maps. Google Maps will help direct you in the right direction, but this definitely surprised me when I was learning how to navigate my way around!
7: People don’t eat and drink on the go.
It’s not illegal, but people strongly avoid drinking and eating on the go in public. It’s considered rude, and I’d recommend that you hold off on eating while walking down the street, sitting on a subway, etc. However, it’s acceptable to eat in public in certain places — like on shinkansens (bullet trains). Until you’re familiar with what are the “acceptable” places to eat in public, try to stick to eating at home, restaurants, or other designated spots. I’m not sure why this is frowned upon, but most people tend to say it’s because Japanese people value cleanliness in public spaces and it can be bothersome to those around you in public. If you get thirsty in public, try to drink it near places where you get your drink — such as vending machines or convenience stores.
8: Japanese people value and respect personal space.
I am a huge hugger! I love to greet people with hugs and kisses on the cheek (it’s the half Bulgarian in me), but this is definitely not appropriate in Japan. Close Japanese friends might hold hands, but otherwise — people definitely keep a polite distance from others. Stick to a polite bow or handshake when people in more professional settings, and try to limit physical contact in general as having personal space is very important for Japanese people!
9: Summers in Japan are hot and humid.
I was not prepared for the summer in Japan. It wasn’t the temperature that got me but the insane humidity. Wear breathable clothing and comfortable shoes! Last summer in Japan was the hottest one on record in several decades. There are plenty of air conditioned stores and buildings, but dress in a way that’s comfortable for you when you’re in public.
10: Food can be affordable.
Despite the reputation that Tokyo has for being an expensive city (it is), food is relatively inexpensive. Although fruits and vegetables are pricey, you can eat out on a budget. Restaurants and packaged meals are affordable — and Tokyo is even known for having several inexpensive Michelin-star restaurants (of which I’m hoping to experience this summer). Price does not affect quality when it comes to food in Japan.
11: Japan is safe and valuables are usually returned.
Usually, you can leave your wallet on a train, and it’ll be returned to you in the same condition as it was when you left it! I’ve once seen a waiter sprint four blocks to return a notebook that a customer forgot at a restaurant. I personally felt safe walking around Japan no matter the time of day. This is something that I was pleasantly surprised by, because I quickly realized how committed people are in helping others and keeping the communities around them safe. Still be aware of your surroundings and belongings, though!
12: Don’t tip.
Tipping is considered rude and will usually not be accepted. As someone who automatically calculates a 20% tip on top of bills for restaurants, cabs, and other service industries, I had to constantly remind myself that tipping is abnormal in Japan. Show your gratitude by being polite and thanking them!
13: Japanese people follow escalator etiquette.
It’s hard to remember this rule when you’re traveling with a group of people, but Japanese people stand on one side of the escalator to allow for people who need to pass through. In Tokyo, people stand on the left side, and they stand on the right in places like Osaka. Although it might feel awkward to sort your group into a single file line, it’s burdensome for the locals if you don’t.
14: People are quiet on public transportation.
Riders on subways and buses are quiet and respectful. There are signs asking people not to eat, apply makeup, or talk on the phone. If conversation takes place, it’s in hushed tones. There’s an expectation to follow certain mannerisms that make the commute pleasant for everyone. Things can get more rowdy once it starts getting late, but be aware of your volume during the day.
15: You’ll learn everything as you go!
I was constantly learning new things about Japan and its culture while living there, and I still have more to learn! People in Japan can be patient, understanding, and helpful. It’s important to be respectful as a visitor. Most importantly, it’s okay to remind your interns of Japanese etiquette during a group outing.
You’re going to have an incredible time in Japan and meet amazing people!
My name is Amy and I am a recent graduate from the University of Michigan. There, I studied international political economy and development and minored in Asian Languages and Culture.
I am so excited to be coming back as a leader this year and am looking forward to meeting all the 2019 Come On Out mentors!