Japan. Beautiful country of surprises, cultural differences and a whole-lot-of-fun!
Now, I live in Hokkaido, and am writing from a coming-from-the-UK-to-Hokkaido perspective – but after traveling around Japan, I think these are, pretty-universally, some things that surprise tourists or visitors on their first trip to the country.
There are all kinds of surprises – some good, some inconvenient, some just plain funny. But, hopefully this helps you to be a little more prepared.
1. Convenience stores are awesome.
Okay, I know the name should sum up that convenience stores are, well, convenient.
But, my experience in the UK is that convenience stores just resemble small supermarkets. They sell a selection of ingredients and fresh food, and that’s about it.
Welcome convenience stores in Japan.
The definition of real convenience.
You can buy good food cheaply, and not just in the raw, ingredient form. There are plenty of hot meals, sandwiches, you can access hot water for cup ramen or noodles, the staff will heat your food up for you in the microwave, and you can get a semi-reasonable selection of coffee/tea.
Many convenience stores now have small sit-in café area, free Wi-Fi, ATMs, and the ability to do everything from buying concert tickets to paying a bill, without leaving the premises.
If you are traveling Japan on a budget, convenience stores will be your friend.
2. You can’t use your credit card in lots of places.
BUT, if you think you can pay with your fancy credit card, you might get a shock. This is changing a little (there are more places taking card now), but Japan is still very much a cash-based society. Especially if you are traveling off the beaten track on your adventures.
My advice would be to bring enough cash to Japan to last at least the first week or two or your travels (if you’re enjoying a long trip), and then make sure that you have a way to get more.
Not all ATMs in Japan work with international cards, but 7-11 stores and Post Office ATMs are always a safe bet.
Just remember that Post Office ATMs are normally only open 9-5 (yes, ATMs CLOSE in Japan).
Also remember to let your bank know you are traveling overseas so your card doesn’t get blocked. I know, it sounds obvious, but we’ve seen a lot of guests get caught out by this!
3. There are NO bins… Pretty much anywhere.
I mean, inside convenience stores or food courts, you can find a regular garbage can. Occasionally, in some big parks, you might also be in luck.
But the norm in Japan is that there are no public trash bins. I’ve been told this is to avoid the risk of terrorism, or even just someone setting a fire in the garage, but it’s something that surprised me on my first trip.
More surprising was the fact that the UK has a ton of public bins, but lots of people don’t use them and garbage is a huge problem. However, Japan has no public bins and you see litter very, very rarely.
People don’t litter here. They take their garbage home and dispose of it there.
My advice for travelers is to keep an old convenience store plastic bag in your backpack and then get rid of your garbage at your accommodation when you get back.
You could try sneaking it into a convenience store bin… But do this at the risk of getting shouted at by the normally super-pleasant staff! You’ve been warned!
4. The basements of department stores are great places to buy cheap food – especially once evening hits.
An expensive-looking department store isn’t always an obvious choice for a budget lunch, but in Japan, you’ll be surprised.
Most department stores have a basement floor filled with a variety of reasonably priced food.
If you head there in the evening, after 5-6pm, you can also get some real discounts as fresh food gets its prices slashed.
Again, recommended for travelers on a budget – or those saving their money for a few spectacular Japanese meals.
5. The subway/train system doesn’t run 24 hours.
This was a surprise for me when I landed in Tokyo – I guess as it has the reputation as being the city that doesn’t sleep.
When I came to Sapporo, I was less surprised, but it still takes a bit of planning for transport if you’re out late or going to an event that finishes after midnight.
The last subway here is around midnight, and if you miss it you’re walking/getting an expensive taxi/staying in a manga café. The subway restarts at around 6am.
Taxis aren’t super cheap in Japan, especially if you are taking one as a solo-traveler, so just keep this in mind when making plans!
6. Trains and subways are on time. And bang on time.
Whilst we’re talking about public transport, let’s also clarify the time of departure for public transport in Japan.
This is a great thing.
But, I arrived in Japan, used to the UK. If the train timetable said 11.34am, I could probably run onto the platform a minute or two late and be absolutely fine.
In Japan, if the train timetable says 11.34am, that MEANS this is the time you’ll be leaving the station. Don’t be late.
7. You don’t tip in Japan.
Again, this one was not only surprising for me, but also went against my British-nature.
For me, if you receive good, helpful, smiling service, you WANT to leave a tip. It’s like saying ‘thanks’. You also appreciate that lots of waiting or service staff are relying on tip money to top up their salaries.
But in Japan, you don’t tip.
If you do, then the waiter or staff member may well come running down the street after you, carrying your change.
I’m being totally serious.
In Japan, you’re probably going to receive the greatest customer service you’ve ever experienced, and you’re going to have to deal with expressing your thanks verbally rather than through tipping.
8. All you can eat/drink options are the norm, and really worth doing!
Japan is the home of ‘tabe-houdai’ or ‘nomi-houdai’ which literally mean ‘all-you-can-eat’ and ‘all-you-can-drink’.
It seems intimidating if you don’t speak much Japanese, but I guarantee that these options are normally going to save you a fortune.
Granted, it does depend on how much you normally eat or drink – but if you are having a leisurely night out with friends, it can make a big saving. For instance, you can often get an ‘all-you-can-drink’ for 120 minutes for 1500-2000JPY, when a single drink will cost 500JPY.
Some Japanese foods like ‘shabu-shabu’, BBQ lamb or a standard buffet deal also offer all-you-can-eat options which are great for a long lunch or the evening!
9. Public Wi-Fi is becoming more common, but if you’re travelling outside of the city, you are going to still want to rent a portable router.
Another surprise, as Japan has a super hi-tech image!
But, although Wi-Fi spots ARE increasing, right now, you are probably still going to want to look for a portable router rental option.
7-11s, Starbucks and MacDonald’s are your safe bets if you do need Wi-Fi out and about.
In Sapporo, the city centre is also really convenient, and the main underground walkway between Sapporo and Odori stations has pretty good Wi-Fi connection.
However, if you are going to explore the wider Hokkaido area and want to be connected, you’ll have to plan for it!
Of course, if you want to escape your social media and enjoy the great outdoors, this might be a convenient excuse!
10. Japanese toilets.
Finally, let’s just throw this one out there.
Japanese toilets are some incredible technological feat. Heating, sounds, bidet options, lighting… let’s just say that they probably deserve a post in their own right.
But be prepared and don’t freak out.
I’ve had friends press the wrong button, end up shock-screaming in a public toilet cubicle, shooting water over themselves, or other such embarrassing (yet hilarious) stories.
So, my best advice is to not press something you don’t understand!
Ever the contradiction of old and new, if you are traveling in countryside-Japan, you may also find the extreme opposite of Japanese hi-tech toilets – the old-school squat toilet. These do still exist and cause just as many challenges to travelers.
I had a friend who took a good 20-minutes trying to figure these out, and ended up using it the wrong way around, very separated from toilet paper. Not good!
Japan is a wonderful country, and so fun to explore! Come with an open-mind and embrace all the cultural differences you run into.