Things I wish I knew before going to Japan

I’d read a fair amount of pages and posts talking about things to know and prepare in advance, however many of them ended up saying the same things (no tipping, why Japanese people wear masks, take off your shoes, slurp your noodles, don’t litter, etc.). This was nice but it really had no impact on my visit to Japan since these are some of the first things a person planning a trip to Japan will read, many of these things I already knew beforehand too. Here are some things that I do wish I knew before going to Japan that I hadn't prepared for.

1- Many places close on Mondays

Museums, castles, residences and even some shrines and temples take this as their rest day. So many times I've taken a long train ride and/or walked a great distance only to stand in front of a closed door and say to myself "ahh... it's Monday". Some places close on Tuesdays or Wednesdays though, so it's a good idea to check just in case (especially museums). I now make sure to plan my Mondays well and know I'll be going to places that are actually open!

2- The prices shown on the labels sometimes don't include tax.

This generally doesn't matter too much but when you're buying something that costs 2000 yen or more you may want to check before buying as you can end up paying more than you expected.

3- If you want to buy stamps…

I’d heard that convenience stores sell stamps. It's true, they do, I went and asked if I could buy one from Japan to Spain. The guy at the counter then said "what price?". I had no idea. In Spain places that sells stamps will mostly tell you the price of the stamp you need to buy for wherever you want to send it, but apparently in Japan you have to know this yourself beforehand. The poor guy at the konbini apologised profusely and so did I, but it was very embarrassing for the both of us. If anyone else still sends postcards in this day and age, know that the post offices do have a booklet with the prices written down, or just look it up online before going to buy one.

4- コーヒー means coffee. If you don't like coffee beware, it's everywhere and many times the drink looks like chocolate. Rarely is it chocolate.

5- You're allowed to bring ibuprofen

Japan has many rules on what you're not allowed to bring into the country (mostly because it's an island); I stared at the list, got too scared that I would make a mistake and bring something I wasn't supposed to and then get into trouble and so I just left the ibuprofen behind. I spent a horrible two days in Tokyo with intense back pain and really wished I had taken it with me. Since then I always bring ibuprofen. There's of course a limit as to how much you're allowed to bring but I've been fine with four little packets and it's helped a lot.

6- The rations aren’t small

I was told that food rations are small in Japan so a couple times I ordered double in restaurants to make sure I'd have enough to eat. I don't know what sizes are common in the US but the rations are about the same as the ones here in Spain and those two times I ordered double I ended up with way too much food that was very hard to finish. I soon learnt my lesson and simply ordered a normal amount.

7- Summer is hot

I mean really hot. I try not to go anywhere south of Osaka in July and mostly avoid going to Japan altogether in August. This may seem a bit extreme, especially since many people actually live in Japan and have survived many summers, however I have very low blood pressure and a tendency of collapsing in the heat... If I'd been well prepared for how hot and humid it would be, I would've avoided a few incidents.

8- The sentence I used the most as a solo traveller was "shashin o totte itadakemasuka?" - Will you take a photo of me?

As well as the obvious "please" and "thank you". However, I tried learning many sentences and words that I've never used in Japan, including things like "this, please", "how much does it cost?", "Could you please bring us the bill?". Learning a few things is of course great, but I guess there are some phrases that are more useful than others. Pointing and gestures can cover most of the above phrases, or they simply aren't needed often enough. I've now learnt a few Japanese basics and I think that simply being able to read hiragana and katakana is the most useful thing I could've learnt. Kanji too, but I can understand not wanting to learn how to write Japanese for a two-week trip.

9- Stereotypes about Japanese people aren't too true

I'm sure they're true to an extent, but I was convinved that Japanese people were more shy, reserved and simply don’t talk much in general, I was also told that they mostly preferred to stay clear from foreigners who don't speak Japanese, and was surprised when people came up to me in Japan simply to talk. I've had people ask me where I'm from and where I'd be visiting, start impromptu conversations with me, offer me a ride to wherever I wanted to go, happily answer my questions, listened to kids and teens talk and giggle and even shout loudly on trains, people offer me food and sit down next to me while we're waiting for something, people start talking to me on planes, etc. Honestly, Japanese people aren't all that shy (I think I'm much more reserved than most people I've met) and many of them are eager to get to talk with someone from the other side of the world. Don't be scared to talk to someone! If I hadn't listened to the stereotypes I'm sure I would've started a few more conversations on my first trip and had an even better time.
How to open the onigiri wrapping so that the seaweed doesn't break and you don't get sticky fingers from the rice (source: takaski.com)

10- You're supposed to dunk the soba noodles into the soy sauce.

I always thought soba was slightly boring and dry, it wasn't until much later that I discovered that you're supposed to put them in the soy sauce... it improves them a lot! Don't put the soy sauce on top of the noodles though.

11- Shinjuku and Seibu-Shinjuku are different stations.

As are Shinsen-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-Sanchome, Shinjukugyoen-mae… This seems obvious now but it wasn't when I was there on my first trip and got desperatly lost around Shinjuku during rush hour... I thought they were like different lines in one station or something.
So those are the ones I can think of! What are some things you wish you knew before going to Japan?

Sam Lesmana