It’s always exciting visiting a new country. Cliche, I know, but I really appreciate getting even a tourist’s look at how different cultures operate. While we did visit nine years ago (and climb Mt. Fuji!), going to Japan for our ten year anniversary felt like seeing a new country with new eyes again. Like any country, I noticed some random things that may only be of interest to me (I last did this for Hong Kong). They’re sort of things you need to know about Japan, but also just sort of random.
But I think some of these observations might be helpful to anyone visiting Japan and I can’t think a better place to start recapping my trip. Since these are random observations, this by no means is meant to be a definitive guide to Japan or anything like that. I just enjoy writing/thinking about these kinds of things.
So here goes!
Taxis are expensive
For one reason or another, taxis in Japan are very expensive. (I think it has to do with the fact that gas is so expensive, as I found out when it cost me like $10 for a gallon on my rental car!) So if you like taking cabs from place to place, be prepared to pay a premium. According to this site fares can run $4-$7 for the first 2 km (a little over a mile) and then about another $1 for every 300-400m after that. Expect fares to increase late at night and at peak times as well. That means a taxi ride from Narita airport can cost up to $200!
It’s much better to take public transportation, especially because Japan’s public transportation is super efficient. Which brings me to my next point.
Japan feels very organized and logical
Japan seems to be structured and organized in a way the just clicks with my particular brain. Everything seemed hyper efficient when I visited. Trains run on time, planes load and push back very quickly, and people queue in an orderly but productive fashion. It all just hums. Everything seems to be designed to move as smoothly as possible. The airport is a prime example of this. At Chitose Airport in Hokkaido signs advertised that you only needed to go through security twenty minutes before boarding. They know their system is that efficient.
Japan’s organization also makes things easier for visitors. Subway stations are named, but they also are abbreviated. So the Ginza Line, which has 16 stops, abbreviates its stops G1-16. Very useful when asking for directions or feeling lost.
But since everything has an internal logic, Japan handles rules differently than we may be used to in the United States.
Expect even rules that might feel trivial to be enforced
While I generally appreciated Japan’s internal logic, the Japanese adherence to rules did run a bit contrary to my general mindset. In the States, I’m used to rules being a bit more of a guideline. Example – I don’t expect to use my luggage tags unless I’ve actually lost my luggage. We didn’t check bags on our flights so I can’t speak to that, but our bus drivers made sure to collect our luggage tags even after a 20 minute drive.
We ran into this adherence to rules again on our shuttle back from Tokyo DisneySea. We arrived at the bus stop about five minutes early; at that time we checked in and I was asked to spell my last name. Note this was a very quiet bus stop and we were one of two or three families waiting in line. Five minutes later, the bus pulled up and the nice attendant who had been standing next to me the entire five minutes we waited asked me to spell my name again. She was very polite about it, but Japan follows protocol pretty closely. So if you’re Amy Santiago, you’ll love Japan!
I’d say there was only one rule that stressed me out a bit, which is probably one of the random things that surprised me the most.
Japan separates their trash into burnable and non-burnable
If you’re not a stickler for protocol, you might not want to move to Japan – especially when it comes to sorting your trash. As a visitor, I immediately noticed a distinct scarcity of garbage cans compared to what I’m normally used to in urban US cities. Furthermore, on day 2 I realized that Japan sorts their public trash into burnable and non-burnable. This immediately caused me stress (not an exaggeration). I felt bad for non-burnable stuff I had put into the wrong bin on day 1 and I started being unsure of what was considered burnable or not!
I know that seems silly, but as a visitor I wanted to do my best to respect the systems in place. Eventually I think I mostly figured it out (and I’m almost certain someone sorts the trash by hand before it reaches its final destination). Still, the burnable trash thing was an interesting quirk about Japan and something to bear in mind – don’t just go dumping your trash into any random bin!
I will say this, whatever Japan is doing definitely works – it might just be perception but the country and especially the cities Sapporo and Tokyo definitely felt cleaner on average than what I’m used to.
Many signs are in English and it helps to read a little Chinese
If you’re visiting Japan, one thing you don’t need to worry too much about is finding signs in English. While I’ve noticed that the Japanese don’t speak English as well as you might expect in Europe (why would they?), almost all signs are written in English. This includes road signs which was pretty helpful since we rented a car in Hokkaido (drive on the left, btw). So if you’re touring on your own you should be able to figure out where to go just by reading English – even if it spelling might be a little bit off.
For those of you who can read some Chinese, that helps too. Instead of writing out each syllable in their words all the time (similar to English), sometimes things will be written as a single Chinese character (“Kanji”). From Quora:
One could turn a word like＂スーパー＂(Super) into 超, which is the case the (sic) popular Japanese show, “ドラゴン・ボール” (Dragon Ball) or also known as 竜珠 or 龍珠.
So if you can read some Chinese, you’ll have an even better idea of what’s going on because on signs often use Kanji. This came in very handy the one time I wasn’t sure how to flush a toilet (I’m surprised it only happened once). I noticed that one button said “小” (small) and one button said “大” (big) – so I figured it out. But overall, even with just English, don’t be too worried about reading signs.
The Japanese are an incredibly hospitable people
And even when reading signs fail, the Japanese are an incredibly hospitable bunch. I joked with my wife it’s like they’re all Disney cast members – the best ones. I found Japan to be one of the friendliest, most polite, and most helpful places I’ve ever visited. Even if people don’t speak English, they’ll do their best to help you. You can read about the concept that fuels this, omotenashi.
I think part of what makes visiting Japan so wonderful is this amazing hospitality. We never once walked to our hotel room alone, at all three places we stayed at we were escorted. Everyone did their best to help us when we were confused. And even though we were thousands of miles away from home, the majority of the people we met made us feel welcome which went a long way.
If you’re planning on visiting Japan, hopefully my random observations have given you a little bit of an idea of what to expect. None of them are earth shattering (well, maybe the trash thing). I think of all of them very fondly. We loved our trip to Japan and are already plotting to go back – with our kids this time. And if you aren’t planning on visiting Japan, might I suggest you consider it?
Have you ever been to Japan? I was only there for a week, so if you have any observations or things you’d like to share I’d love to hear them in the comments! Expect more coverage on our trip in the weeks to come.
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Headed to Tokyo and Kyoto in two weeks! This was really helpful thank you!
Have a great trip! If you pick up anything over there lmk, I’m in Japan withdrawal.
Great write up Joe, with some useful tips. I look forward to your report (or podcast ep) on Disney Sea.
Last Spring, we did a week long stay on the outskirts of Tokyo. Five of us (wife, two kids, mum-in-law and myself) stayed using AirBnB, which was a good value (compared to hotel rates) for the time period. After an AirBnB coupon I had, the cost was roughly US $100 per night for a full service 2 bedroom home). Based on the experience we’d definitely use AirBnB again, but I’d read that the Japanese government was getting ready to drop the legislative hammer on AirBnB just a few months after our trip.
Dealing with the trash was a bit of a challenge, but the house owner came by on trash day to help us get it right. The one thing that’s almost ironic is that many Japanese food products are over-packaged. Even a pack of cookies will have each cookie individually wrapped. She also had signs in the bathroom on proper bathing etiquette for a Japanese bath. (Basically shower first, then soak). It was a terrific experience and much more immersive than a hotel stay.
We did opt for a one night onsen-hotel stay as well (perhaps influenced a bit too much by the 2018 season of Terrace House 🤣), and for a fan of Japanese pop-culture such as myself, Japan remains a place of ‘so much to do, so little time.
One of the big cultural aspects I personally had to get used to was not walking and eating. In Japan it’s apparently rude to walk and eat on the street, something whic I got overly used to doing in Hong Kong 😅.
Ooh I wasn’t sure about walking and eating but I had an inkling since we like the only people walking around eating ice cream 😛 Oops.
Too funny about the trash and yes, we do think that Japan uses a LOT of packaging. They should really start charging for bags haha