I’ll start off by saying I am in no way an authority on foreign etiquette at all. On my recent trip abroad to Japan, I did everything in my power to prevent myself from looking like a complete and total jackass. The illusion that I was a perfectly capable, courteous, and tolerant human being was sometimes shattered by my penchant for clumsiness or my sometimes oblivious nature. If you’re reading this , Japan (all 127 million of you- thanks Google!), I sincerely apologize for my transgressions. However, through much trial and much more error, I have compiled a list of tips that will hopefully make things a bit easier for anyone else headed to glorious Nippon . Hey, if you’re going to be an annoying gaijin (foreigner), you might as well be an informed annoying gaijin.

  1. Bring cash: This one is pretty simple. Cash is always king no matter where you go, and this is very true for Japan. I understand the fear associated with lugging a large sum of cash overseas, but there isn’t much of a way around it. Even with the slow introduction of credit cards into the country, you can never go wrong with having a backup plan. And believe me, when your credit card isn’t accepted while trying to purchase that sweet gunpla model you’ve been eyeing for months, you’re gonna wish you had cash. I will say that I did see more shops accepting credit cards than I expected. Visa was one of the cards we saw advertised while in Shibuya, and we even had a chance to use our Mastercard to purchase a new pair of glasses for my wife after she lost her original pair in the Pacific ocean (a story for another time). Discover is also accepted in Japan, but it is more commonly known as “JCB” or “Union Pay”. Do yourself a favor and carry 1-2 credit cards for emergency only, and fill that wallet of yours up with greenbacks instead.
  2. Credit Card Installments: If by some chance you do have to use a credit card, you may be asked the number of installments you’d like to make towards the total purchase price. As an American, this question was both strange and very intriguing. In America I have never been asked the number of installments I’d like to split a purchase into. It seems like a great idea to take advantage of, especially if you’re making a larger purchase. You know, on second thought I’ll take that installment plan on those Pringles. Split the payments up between 12 months if you would, money is tight and I want to regret this $2.50 purchase for an entire year.
  3. Carry Coins: At least in America, I find the prospect of carrying around so many coins to be very cumbersome. Who has enough room in their pockets, let alone their wallets for pennies?! I don’t know about you, but I really need as many department store/grocery store club cards as I can fit in there, and don’t even get me started on restaurant reward cards. You had me at free sandwich (after 10 regular priced sandwich purchases that is). However, coins in Japan are actually useful due to the fact that their 100 yen (basically $1.00 USD) and 500 yen amounts are in coin form. This makes their coin system much more useful to everyday use and essential to carry on person. If you plan on taking public transit, then coins become even more invaluable. Sure, you eventually do get an influx of smaller yen coins that clog up your pocket space, but if you manage your smaller yen wisely you’ll come out on top.
  4. Konbinis: The Konbini, or convenience store, is an essential part of life in Japan. Much like convenience stores elsewhere, Konbinis carry a wide array of products that range from food and beverages, to household necessities, to various forms of literature. Unlike other countries, such as America, the selection offered at your local Konbini is actually of quality. For example, the 7-11 in Japan offers many selections of food that range from ready-to-eat, to unprepared. However, unlike America this food is actually edible and will not cause you to vomit non-stop for hours on end. On your visit you’ll see these havens known as “7-11”, “Lawson”, and “Family Mart”. Stop in and give them a try.
  5.  Use Vending Machines: These automated beverage dispensaries are just about everywhere, and they are akin to an oasis in a desert during cruel, sunny summer days. Seriously. Vending machines are so prevalent that it may be more difficult to name places they aren’t located. With a good variety of drinks available at these machines and a wide selection of machines to choose from, it’s no wonder there are so many of them around. Use them -for the love of God use them! A lot of times they will save you a walk to the Konbini or local market for a sip of water. On our visit we mostly encountered machines that sold beverages, but we also saw a select few that sold food. Also, just because someone will probably ask- no, we saw absolutely no machines that sold panties. Then again, we probably weren’t looking hard enough. Shō ga nai.
  6. Public Transit: If you’re from the States, then you might know all too well how infuriating public transit can be. Need to get somewhere on time, but you don’t have a car? Then you’d better call creepy Carl driving the ’88 Mercury Tracer on Uber, because taking the train isn’t always a very reliable option in America. I am so very pleased to say that this isn’t the case in Japan. Trains are punctual, and when I say “punctual” I mean to the minute. We once arrived at our train platform about half a minute after the passing of the hour, only to discover that our train had already gone on its way. Transit is just that precise. Not to worry, though, because missing a train isn’t a cause for concern. Trains seem to arrive within about 5 minutes  (minus the bullet train, which usually takes longer) or so from one another. Buses are somewhat similar taking usually around 8-10 minutes to arrive. Finally, a public transportation experience where I didn’t want to lay on the third rail.
  7. JR Pass: A Japanese Rail (JR) pass would be in your best interest if you plan to travel a good amount via the rail systems. The JR pass allows the bearer to use the  JR line brand of trains for the allotted time purchased. These trains and bullet trains cover a broad area of Japan, and will definitely be worth it if you’re traveling far distances or if you plan to use the JR lines consistently throughout your stay. You will still encounter non-JR line trains that you will have to pay a nominal fare for, and you cannot use the pass on buses, but all-in-all I believe it’s a great investment.
  8. Reserve Seats In Advance For The Shinkansen (Bullet Train): So, you’ve decided to take a ride on the shinkansen. Great! The shinkansen is a fun experience on a very fast-moving train, leading you through all of the twists and turns of Japan and providing a great view of the country along the way. However, if you’re going to  bite the bullet (train…ha!) and hitch a ride on one of these bad boys, then I’d caution you to reserve a seat ticket. Reserved tickets basically guarantee that you’ll have a seat on the train, and best of all the reservations can and should be made a few days ahead of travel. I would especially recommend doing this if you’re traveling with a group and want to remain in the same train car with one another, because having a reserved ticket doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be sitting together. No, the bullet train gets very busy very quickly. We had no knowledge of this on our trip, and we did end up sitting apart from one another or in separate cars altogether more than once. Also, the shinkansen is usually a train you’d take to travel large distances, so it’s best to avoid standing on a vehicle that moves at a speed of 320 km/h (200 mph). If you don’t reserve a ticket you can still board the train, but you’ll have to hunt for a seat in the non-reserved sections, which can be problematic on days where there is heavier traffic on the train.
  9. Walk: There’s a lot to see in Japan, and you won’t be able to take a train or bus everywhere, nor will you want to spare the fare sometimes to travel to places that are only a few minutes away. So, stretch those hammies, calves, and ankles and put on your best walking shoes and…walk! Japan has a huge walking culture, and you’ll find yourself making treks all over town with no real intent or goal. Walking just to walk, imagine that? Just taking a stroll up and down the block provided us with great stories, restaurants, and other hidden gems that we ordinarily wouldn’t have found otherwise. For example, while walking in Kyoto we stumbled upon a store/exhibit devoted entirely to Miyazaki films (“My Neighbor Totoro”, “Spirited Away”, “Ponyo” etc). As we dug a bit deeper into the exhibit we were greeted by the sight of a “Hello Kitty” cafe. Prepare yourself both physically and with proper footwear. On heavier days trekking through the country, we found ourselves walking somewhere around 30,000 steps or about 15 miles.
  10. Use Trashcans/Recycling Bins Whenever Possible: For as clean as a country as it is, Japan has a surprising lack of trashcans and recycling bins available. I’ve done a bit of research into this reason, and it’s apparently the result of the aftermath of a 1995 subway terrorist attack that killed 13 and injured over 5,000. In these attacks, terrorists released deadly gas into the subway system via plastic bags. In an effort to appease many (understandably) scared citizens, trash cans were removed due to the fact that they could be used to conceal potentially deadly weaponry. Whether this is still the primary reason behind the removal of trashcans is beyond me. All it means is that you’ll have to carry around your trash more often if there’s no nearby receptacle, so be prepared to lug around that empty bottle of Fanta long after you’ve sipped the last grape-filled drop.
  11. Hand Sanitizer: Some of you germophobes will already carry a bottle of the alcohol-filled cleanser with you as a rule of thumb regardless. This is good. For whatever reason, not all of the restrooms in Japan will provide any type of soap for washing your hands. This isn’t extremely common, and I only encountered this a few times during our 17 day stay. However, a few times of not finding soap in a public restroom is already one too many times.
  12. Hand Towel: More common than not finding soap in a public restroom, is finding a lack of paper towels or hand dryers to effectively dry your hands after a good wash. Now, I can understand the environmental impact that paper products have on the planet, but what about those high speed Excel hand dryers? I’d even take the incredibly ineffective old-school white hand dryers that promise to dispense bacon (they never do) once they are switched on. Something! I guess until that dream becomes a reality, a damp hand towel will have to reside in the back of all of our pockets.
  13. Squat Toilets: Do not be alarmed if you ever head into a public restroom stall only to find the absence of an actual toilet. Lo and behold, the toilet is, well…low. In fact, it’s on the floor. Yes, this is a strange third type of toilet known as a ‘squat’ toilet, and it is surely a wonder to behold. These toilets definitely weren’t for me, and I feel as if I wouldn’t be able to use them unless it was an extreme emergency. I’d recommend doing some extended reading on this subject before you travel. Always remember: proper education leads to proper defecation. Put that on a t-shirt.
  14. Pocket Wi-Fi: It’s Wi-Fi that fits right in your pocket! Oh, happy day! These handy little devices will provide you with connectivity to the internet. So, if you don’t have a data plan that allows you to add international usage, or you simply don’t want to buy a separate phone for your trip abroad, then the compact pocket Wi-Fi alternative is right up your alley. The device we used for our trip was able to be ordered ahead of time online and was picked up at the airport.
  15. Learn basic Phrases: This might seem like a no-brainer, but knowing the language of a foreign country will get you far. Even if you can only speak enough words to make only a vague request or statement, it’s still generally better to sound like an elementary school child than knowing absolutely nothing at all. Here are a few  words and phrases that I feel are important:
    • Kon’nochiwa: “Hello.”
    • Sumimasen: “Excuse me.” This phrase in particular was used by almost everyone that I observed. Use liberally.
    • Kudasai and Onegaishimasu: “Please.” Both of these words mean please, but “onegaishimasu” is considered more polite. The two words are often interchangeable, but depending on the situation one might be more appropriate than the other. Know both of them just to be safe. Hell, you could even try saying one after the other just to be certain.
    • Gomen’nasai: “Sorry.” As a foreigner you’ll need to know this one.
    • Wakarimasen: “I don’t understand.” You will also need this phrase…a lot!
    • Oishī: “Delicious.” Everything is oishī. Except nattō. Never nattō.
    • Hai: “Yes.” Resist the urge to wave while saying this.
    • Īe: “No.” This is a pretty direct way to say “no”, but at least it gets the point across.
    • Arigatōgozaimashita: “Thank you.”
  16. Keep Quiet On Public Transit: If you’re going to ride public transit, do your best to at least turn your cell phone on silent. Talking on the phone is also frowned upon while on the bus or train. The jury is out on whether or not quiet small-talk is acceptable or not. Some will argue that silence is the golden rule of the public transit system, while others will say chit-chat is acceptable as long as its kept at a reasonable volume. In my opinion, I’d keep the talking to hush in the early hours of travel. Later in the day, it may be more acceptable to have a softer conversation. If you’re really struggling on what may be acceptable, it definitely won’t hurt to stay silent for the duration of the ride.
  17. Travel Light: I understand that this one is tough for us foreigners to do, especially if we’re gong to be staying abroad for an extended period of time. Take it from someone who traveled in a group that brought entirely too large and too much luggage. Try to minimize the amount of baggage you have, both in amount and size. Japan is a land that can sometimes lend itself to immense crowds, and traveling through those crowds with luggage the size of an SUV only serves to complicate your experience. Now remember, you’ll also be traveling across inclines, declines, and areas where there are no escalators. Do your arms and back a favor and pack smaller, smarter, and lighter.
  18. Coin Laundy: This ties directly into the whole point of packing lighter, but learning how to use the coin laundromats in Japan can be a really valuable skill. Once you master the Japanese laundry system, you will be ready to conquer the world…of scented detergent. Using the coin laundromats allows for you to pack lighter, since you will be able to pack less clothing that you will be able to wash, instead of packing an outfit for every day you’re abroad.
  19. Escalator Etiquette: Though no one makes a public spectacle of you if you happen to slip past this courtesy, it sure will feel as if you’ve done something far worse. If you’re not going to actively ascend the escalator make sure you and whatever baggage you may have are situated as far left as possible. This allows those that might be in more of a hurry to pass by on the right-hand side. This unspoken rule is certainly felt more in larger metropolitan areas such as Tokyo and its surrounding districts.
  20. Business Cards: Often times when you meet someone new in Japan they will introduce themselves and hand over a business card containing  their contact information. In America, the tendency is to immediately take this card and put it into either a wallet, or a purse, or some other sort of satchel of holding. Do not fold it or crumple it up, or try to stuff it into your pocket. Setting the card aside or putting it away conveys disinterest. Instead, smile and thank the card owner. Pretend it was a great honor to receive the card, just like you pretend your kid’s recorder playing at the school recital is top notch.

That wraps up all of the tips I can offer. Nothing here is absolutely definitive, but these were the tips that stood out in my mind. These were the subjects that me say, “I wish I had known that before.” I’m just trying to do my part for the next confused, bumbling traveler out there, someone who’ll be a lot like myself when they go abroad. And maybe, just maybe, that traveler will return with a pair of panties from one of those sketchy vending machines as a sign of gratitude. One can only hope.