Earlier this year, I visited Japan in the high heat of summer with my little brother, cousin, and husband. Thus far, I have published all our highlights from the trip, in terms of which cities and sites we visited. This post is more of a summary and reflection of the whole trip.
Things to keep in mind when traveling to Japan:
Before going to Japan, we were all a little nervous about the heat. In case you didn’t know, summer in Japan are hot and humid. Most of the days we were there, the temperatures reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit and we were pouring sweat constantly. Given a choice, I would have preferred to go during autumn for the cooler temperatures and fall foliage… but that wasn’t an option for us. It is hard to coordinate with 4 different people and their schedules.
Fortunately, as I learn and relearn every time I travel, the human body is amazing at adapting, and so is the mind. It WAS really hot, but I quickly became accustomed to sweating each time I stepped out the door.
And, there turned out to be a plus side of our travel dates! Because it was so hot, there were less tourists for us to compete with. I have traveled through a few places during peak tourist season – summertime in Dubrovnik, Croatia and cherry blossom season in Washington, DC. It was so crowded that I could only move one step a minute and was pushed around in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds like I was at some middle school emo concert mosh pit. (is that dating myself?) If I’m being honest, I didn’t mind trading the crowds for the heat.
A common worry that someone might have when traveling to another country is the language barrier. For an English speaker, this was not an issue at all in Japan. We did run into a few people who did not speak English, but that was always when we left the cities (Mino park in Osaka). Even then, the people of Japan were so patient and helpful that we were able to communicate our needs regardless of the language barrier.
Cleanliness and trash disposal
Everywhere in Japan was clean… even bathrooms in the mountains were pristine. The whole country was so clean that it was noticeable. Tokyo was spotless. The subways were spotless. Is it still considered a city if there is no litter in the streets?
There was no trash on the streets, and there were also no trash cans on the streets. Why, in the USA, do we have both trash AND trash cans on the streets? If it’s so easy here to throw trash in a can, why do people still throw it on the ground?
In Japan, you might sometimes end up carrying your trash with you for a long time until you find an appropriate receptacle… yet everyone still waits to get to a receptacle before disposing of their trash.
Each hotel we stayed in was exceedingly accommodating. They were always willing to help at the front desk (make phone calls, hold luggage, other requests).
Coming from the USA, I noticed that the rooms were smaller than what I was used to. About half the rooms we stayed in did not even have enough floor space to open up one suitcase completely.
Also, for me, futons had a slightly different definition than what I was used to. In Japan, futons are not fold-out couches, no matter how much I tried to pull apart that couch at our first hotel. I embarrassed myself by calling the front desk and asking them where the futons were, since the couch in the living room did not fold flat. An employee came up and opened a closet for me where all the futons were. It turned out that a futon was a pad you lay on the floor to sleep on. Despite how thin they looked, the futons were surprisingly comfortable!
Food and eating
I didn’t have one bad meal while we were in Japan. All the food is good, so eat everything you can find. One of my favorite nights was a food festival night where, even though it was insanely crowded, you could buy cheap snacks like fish on a stick to eat while looking for your next snack. Conveyor belt sushi was always a good choice, and usually around 1 USD per plate! Ramen was a second favorite of mine, after sushi.
Most impressive for me, an avid tea drinker, was the fact that tea was unlimited at most restaurants. Ramen restaurants had sinks with iced rooibois at your seat and sushi places had hot water sinks and a tub of matcha powder at every seat.
Must haves include: Waygu beef, Takoyaki, yuba, conveyor belt sushi, ramen, and every-flavor kit kats.
Don’t walk and eat. Find somewhere on the side to stand or sit and eat.
Carry a water bottle with you so you can fill it at water fountains… but also carry a few yen so that you could get drinks at the vending machines. There are vending machines everywhere and they have such fun and delicious cold drinks! Most are 100 yen (1USD). There’s no reason not to have vending machines in the mountains, so you’ll find them even on the trails!
Just about everything in Japan is cash only, even the train station at the airport didn’t accept credit cards. Make sure you have cash everywhere you go. When paying, do not hand your money directly to the person whom you are paying. Instead, look for a tray on the counter where the money is usually placed. When there is no tray, you can hand your money directly to the person whom you are paying by holding it in two hands and bowing your head slightly as a sign of respect.
Service people are paid fairly and take pride in their work. Do not tip them. Tipping is a sign of disrespect as you are insinuating that the person whom you are tipping does not earn enough money. don’t hand people money, put it in the tray.
Uber and Taxi were extraordinarily expensive, so public transportation was the way to go. We chose to get the Japan Rail (JR) pass for 7 out of 10 days of our trip. The pass only came in 7 day increments. On days we didn’t have the JR pass, we really wished we did. If I had to do it again, I would get the 14 day pass even if I was only there for 10 days.
The JR pass really made travel easy. The JR is easier and cheaper to buy ahead of time online than after your arrival in Japan. You will receive your JR pass by mail before leaving for your trip. Once you arrive in Japan, you need to go to a JR office in the train station to set up and activate your physical JR pass. It is important to be careful within cities, as not all metro rails are also covered by JR. It is also important to be careful when getting on a bullet train, as not all types of bullet trains are covered by JR. Night buses are also not covered by the JR. Exceptions and rules will be written in English on your physical JR pass.
Traveling between 130 and 185 miles an hour, bullet trains arrived at destinations before a car could dream about it. This was a shock to me coming from the states where the trains were twice as expensive and twice as slow. While you shouldn’t eat on normal inner-city subways, feel free to have full out picnics on the bullet trains. As with normal inner-city subways, don’t talk on your phone while in your seat, there are specific corridors or rooms where you could talk on your cellphone.
Train stations in cities in Japan were large and beautiful shopping malls. Near the center of the station would be a display board of upcoming trains. Information listed included train type (only some trains are JR pass eligible), final destination (direction), time of departure, and which cars you can sit in with a non-reserved ticket (usually the back 3-5 cars).
Go to all the bathrooms. Seriously. They are more than just a place to poop.
Hospitality and respect
Every person and every person’s job was important. Because of this respect, everyone took extra care in their work. When we bought souvenirs, the cashier would wrap them delicately and intentionally, making sure each crease was clean. We were mesmerized watching. When we waited for the shinkansen (bullet train) to be cleaned before boarding new passengers, we saw that the cleaners were all impeccably dressed and even came out to take a synchronized bow in front of the new passengers before moving on to cleaning the next train.
Outside, even in crowded areas, people appreciated order and followed directions for where to walk and how to enter and exit subway cars. There were arrows drawn on the ground in most areas to show which side of the street or sidewalk or stairs to walk, on as it did change from place to place. At subway car entrances, there were arrows drawn for where to stand in wait, and people even formed queues for getting on and off the subway. They waited in long lines and don’t complain or try to elbow their way to the front.
Do not talk on the phone or loudly with your companions in the subway. Take a break. Enjoy the silence.
I hope you find these tips useful for your trip! Feel free to ask me any questions 🙂
This is my last post about Japan, subscribe to my blog so you can follow me to Mexico!