The captial of the little island country of Japan, Tokyo, is patiently waiting for your arrival. They have worked hard to weave the idea of traveling there into each and every cultural export that you and I enjoy. Animated brainwashing, I call it. They're hoping you'll join the other almost nine million annual visitors (2007) to their country to spend your hard earned dollars on little pieces of PVC and pervy books you can't quite read yet.
While Tokyo makes itself relatively easy to travel to and visit, there's a few details that are often glossed over, taking new tourists by surprise. We here at Japanator thought it might be helpful to make a list of the things you should probably know before visiting Japan's capital.
10. You look weird
Sorry, but you do. Your nose looks funny. Your hair is strange. Your handbag sucks. And what the hell are you wearing?
You may take comfort in knowing that there are several million other visitors also touring the country, but that's not going to stop you from sticking out like a sore thumb. In America, almost anyone can blend in. Stick an American in Japan, and even with the high number of visiting tourists they're still going to stick out. Chances are you'll be taller than everyone else. Or... bigger. You know what I mean by that. Sorry 'bout that. And young people in Japan have a pretty good sense of style. If you're caught in the wrong place, your sweatpants and hoodie could be kakkoikunai.
And blondes are like magnets to little Japanese eyes. I visited Ueno Zoo once with my lovely platinum blonde female companion. She found it difficult to get around, as school kids would stop and stare at her and her shiny head. School teachers and parents would have to come snap them out of it.
[Pro Tip] Get used to people looking at you. Wink if you're ballsy.
9. You should bring more money
If you're going to Japan, chances are that you'll be visiting Tokyo. Tokyo has consistently ranked among the most expensive cities in the world, this year coming in at #2, according to Forbes. Things are expensive in expensive cities. Lunch might cost a few dollars more than you want it to. That shiny new camera might cost several more dollars than you want it to. Hell, there's stuff in Japanese vending machines that cost more than what you'd pay in an American restaurant.
This isn't even taking the things you'll want to buy into consideration. Getting to Japan isn't cheap, so it's natural that you'd want to make the most of it while you're there. Those doujinshi, trading figures, old Super Famicom games, and gashapon add up quick, and you'll be kicking yourself if you didn't have enough to get that one thing. Yeah, that one thing from that one shop.
That being said, there's several ways to prevent wallet rape in Tokyo. If you play your cards right, you can get by with less money. You might be eating fast food and konbini snacks, and possibly staying in a shit hole, but it can be done. Tokyo is way more expensive for a resident than it is a visitor.
[Pro Tip] While we're on the topic of money, be sure to call your credit card company or bank and let them know you'll be in Japan. Google the horror stories of those who didn't, and were stuck in their hotel rooms for their entire trip.
8. Going to the bathroom can be an ordeal
We don't think much about natural bodily functions until we have to do them in a foreign place. For the most part, the ol' 1 and 2 is pretty straightforward in urban Japan. But there are some things that first timers should be aware of.
Your toilet may have more buttons than a space shuttle - Japan is home to some of the fanciest toilets ever, and they all have buttons on them. Start jamming on said buttons, and you may find yourself sitting on a warm geyser. Or hear music coming out of your rear end. Once you get the hang of them, they're pretty cool. A special Japanator High Five goes out to the guy who thought up the variable water level dial. Epic addition.
Your toilet may look like a hole in the floor - The polar opposite of this space-age toilet is the dreaded squat toilet, which looks like a hole in the floor. A squat pot, if you will. If you're new to this, you may find that your... well, that your aim isn't so good. There's a fair chance you may piss on your own pants if you've never done this before. And what's worse is that the facilities that have these kinds of toilets often do not have toilet paper. Keep that in mind before you leave your hotel room in the morning.
[Pro Tip] When you come out of many of the bigger stations, someone will inevitably thrust a packet of tissues in your face. They're a form of advertising in Japan. Don't ask questions or decline -- you need those. Just nab one and stick it in your back pocket. You'll be glad you did when you come upon a squat pot.
7. You are not welcome everywhere
Most doors will swing wide open for you, white guy/gal, with a store clerk screaming Irashaimase! at you. That means come in and buy our shit, but don't make us talk that much to you... roughly translated. But there are some that don't want your business, white guy/girl. No offense.
It's usually not a racial thing as much as it is a culture thing. In the sexual industry, some establishments prefer not to have relations with non-Japanese people. I was with a group that tried to enter a hostess club. We were blocked by a worker who gave us the universal crossed-arms-in-an-X signal. He said "Japanese only, please" in perfect English. Other more intimate places don't want our foreign STDs. Japanese germs only, please.
Some very traditional places, like older restaurants and and bars, may have signs that say "Japanese Only" on their doors. Don't take offense. Just move on to the next one.
Finally, there are some places -- mostly bars -- that are kind of anti-American. It's nothing against you: you can blame the drunk and rowdy military guys from the bases for the ban in these places.
6. Cash is your friend
[Pro Tip] Take out cash and keep it with you. There are still plenty of places that do not accept credit cards.
You look like a douche at the konbini with a credit card. Get that Pepsi N'ex and those Karl chips with Yen, and not your credit card. For major purchases, credit cards are fine. The bigger establishments and chains will gladly accept them.
Just "hitting the ATM" is not as easy as it would be back at home. The ATMs work fine for the Japanese, but your foreign card isn't as cool here. Also, forget all of that Traveler's Checks nonsense you hear on the TV. Unless you wander off somewhere shady, your money is safe in your pocket in Japan. The Traveller's Checks are more hassle than they're worth.
5. Wear your passport
As a visitor to Japan, you must have your passport on you at all times. It is a crime to not have your passport on you. If you're stopped by authorities for any reason, you'll have to show your passport to them. If you can't show it, you'll be taken in to the police station. You probably won't have any issue, but Japanese police are allowed to stop you at any time, for any reason, and ask to see it. That does not usually happen, though.
There is an upside to lugging your ugly mugshot around. In many of the touristy areas, you'll be able to shop duty free with your passport in certain stores. In many cases you'll be directed to make your purchase at a special counter, but it's worth the hassle to save that money. A side benefit is that the clerks at these special counters are sometimes multi-lingual.
4. Getting around can be overwhelming at first...
...but it gets easier. In Tokyo, public transportation is the preferred method of getting around for the locals. There's trains, subways, busses, bullet trains, cars, and tons of people. You'll have to move quickly to get in line with the masses to get around town. You haven't lived until you've been packed by hand into a crowded train. It's not all bad, it's just really busy.
Luckily, the transportation in the more populated places has plenty of English to read for train riders. Maps are crazy to look at at first, but you'll be counting stations in no time. Hell, if you're going to Akihabara, just follow the nerds.
Sometimes figuring out train fare can be confusing. [Pro Tip] Make it easy on yourself and look for a green Suica machine while in Tokyo. You pay 500 yen for an IC card that you can fill up with cash. Fill that sucker up at the machine (money can be added at any time) and simply tap it on top of the turnstile in stations. Money will be automatically pulled from your card. You don't have to bother with doing the math! You can actually shop at select locations with the card, too.
[Pro Tip] Knowing where you're going before you leave can be a big help. Ask your hotel if they have a map. You can save yourself time and money (and embarrassment) with a well planned trip.
[Pro Tip] On escalators in Tokyo, stand to the left. Don't be that douche on the right blocking traffic. Walking down streets and pathways follows the same formula.
3. Your manners need minding
I'm not saying that you have bad manners. It's just that the ultra-polite Japanese society makes the unprepared foreigner look like an ape.
Gotta sneeze? Make it quiet. Gotta blow your nose? Don't. It's considered disgusting there. Go to a bathroom and do it. Don't point. Also rude.
Get up and let that old lady have your seat on the train. Don't eat and walk around. Don't wipe your face with the warmed towel they give you at restaurants. Don't yell to get someone else's attention.
The shoes thing is real. When you go to a place that requires shoe removal, you'll know. You'll see shoes there, set aside in an orderly fashion. Some bathrooms will have special slippers available for you. You'll see them.
[Pro Tip] Here's some quick guidelines for shoe removal. You'll remove for: tatami matted places, most homes, older eateries and establishments, any place you see slippers available.
2. The flight there sucks
Unless you're in first class, your seat in an airplane is made of foam. It's a flotation device, you know. While it kicks ass for saving you from drowning, it does a shit job of comforting your ass bones. Somehow that seat manages to become as flat as a pancake in your typical 12 hour flight from America to Japan.
What's worse is that the damned thing doesn't recline back far enough to sleep in. And it's always cold as hell on the plane. And you're always sitting next to some old lady that has to piss every hour or so.
You get the point: the flight sucks. Your body will hurt. You'll lose a day going over, so prepare to have your stomach hate you. Most airlines feed you two or three meals on the fight to get you on the right track, but it takes a couple of days to get into the swing of things there.
Once you land, you'll probably find yourself at Narita airport. The bad news is that this is about an hour away from Tokyo. The good news is that Airport Limousine service (not an actual limousine) can get you to Tokyo quite easily. Sure, taking the train is cheaper, but you don't want to look lame with all of your luggage in tow. And walking to your hotel from the train station after a 12 hour flight? No, you're not going to want to do that.
[Pro Tip] Sleeping pills. That is all.
1. There are a lot of people there
There are over 127 million people in Japan. Big deal, you say? That's half of America's population, you say? Well, it is, but it's all crammed into a country about the size of California. Tokyo itself is very similar in population to New York City, with about 8.5 million residents there. The density figures do not accurately portray how crazy foot traffic in Tokyo can be. The city increases in population by about 3 million people every day as workers come into town. And going to certain wards on the weekend can be mind-blowing for first timers.
Shibuya Station pumps about 3 million people through the station on a weekday. Visit on Saturday night and you'll see a sea of black hair, with after-workers hanging out around Shibuya Crossing and the famous Hachiko dog statue. If you think that's crazy, you should see Shinjuku station. The underground pathways are like a city within a city.
It's not just the stations, though. Visit a theme park and get lost in the flow. Arcades are sometimes scary. Hit Akihabara on Sunday like the locals do and find yourself shoulder to shoulder with cosplayers and fans. Geek events like Comiket and Tokyo Game Show welcome a flood of visitors who seem balance chaos and order at the same time. I've even been to a convenience store that had a line out the door and around the corner. I visited a bakery where I had to push my way to the front of a crowd to order, but then couldn't leave!
I've been in bars where there was no chance that you were not breathing on someone else. It was loud in there, not because people were loud, but because of how many people were in there. Tokyoites are totally used to it. Chances are that you won't be at first.
This is just ten of many...
... travel tips for visitors to Tokyo. If there are any other frequent travellers to Tokyo, feel free to add your tips to the comments section below.
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