10 Things Every Traveller Should Know Before Going to Japan

Tokyo, glistening in a mix of Blade Runner and post-impressionism. Taken outside Shinjuku Station (2014) | ©Moyan Brenn/Flickr
Tokyo, glistening in a mix of Blade Runner and post-impressionism. Taken outside Shinjuku Station (2014) | ©Moyan Brenn/Flickr
Photo of Simon Leser
Uk Literary Editor5 February 2020

Navigating the wonders of Japan can be a little tricky for the uninitiated; to say that the country is culturally very different from what we’re used to in the West runs the risk of understatement. Thankfully, Wundor Editions recently published a book dedicated to Tokyo, the first instalment of its city guide series, devoted to offering authentic local insights on one of the world’s most exciting cities. We were lucky enough to get our hands on a selection of its most useful tips. The extracts below, adapted from the guide’s ‘Navigation’ chapter, were written by Yuriy Humber and edited by Matthew Smith.

The cover, adorned with a photo by Go Itami | Courtesy of Wundor

Cash is king

Japan may be a common by-word for technology, but the country is very old-fashioned when it comes to handling money. Even today, in 2016, many a shop and eatery in Japan will only accept cash. For public transport, especially buses and short-journey trains or Metro travel, even if you simply wish to top up your Passmo or Suica travel card, you should always carry cash. And if you take trips outside the city, no matter what metallic element you have embedded in your credit card, it will be treated as the piece of plastic that it is.

In Japan, it isn’t unusual to carry thousands of US dollars’ worth of yen in your wallet on a daily basis. This is made feasible by the fact that Japan has very low crime rates. Even if you drop your wallet, it will likely be handed to the nearest police box with all its cash, coins and cards intact.

Cash is a crafted product and as such it has a social value that credit or debit cards do not. Japanese banknotes are kept clean and straight, and no local would think of crumpling them or pulling creased yen straight out of their pocket. The correct wedding or funeral gift is cash in a decorative envelope, and there is even a table of prescribed amounts to give depending on your age and relation to the people in question. Prayers at a temple are preceded by a cash offering. The New Year’s present from an adult to child has to be money. What’s more, financial data show that the ratio of banknotes in circulation in relation to Japan’s economy, already the highest in the world, is rising.

Gesturing at a map of the Tokyo metro, and hoping for the best | © Petr Meissner / Flickr

The most extensive rail network

Tokyo’s rail network consists of more than 150 lines, almost 50 operators, and stretches close to 5,000 kilometres. To say that it’s overwhelming on first visit is to note that the sun can be a touch warm in Yoyogi Park in August. Despite this, it is fantastically efficient, delays are rare and they are generally restricted to 2–3 minutes. Should one run over that, you may ask for a certificate from the station clerk to prove to your boss or teacher that your tardiness was not of your own making. A cancelled train is almost unheard of. With over 2,000 stations in metropolitan Tokyo, under and overground trains are your best transport option in the city and compared with other urban networks (we’re looking at you, London) it is not too expensive.

The operators are generally split into train and Metro, government and private. Most evolved with the postwar economic boom, in stiff competition, meaning that in many areas of the metropolis there are rival stations just a block away from one another. The rail companies were often part of larger conglomerates that ran department stores or entertainment parks and tailored routes to suit their commercial agendas.

For the visitor, the main operators you will likely encounter in the Tokyo area are the East Japan Railway Company (JR East), the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. Like most of the others, these operators have by now somewhat integrated their stations with those of rivals, making for easier line changes. However, the fact that each operator takes its cut means that swapping lines can often add up. On the practical side, all stations carry signs in both Japanese and English and if you pay close attention you will note that among the notices on the platforms will be lots of useful tips, such as the times between stations or which carriage to board for your next line change.

There are no street names…

Before the widespread use of the smartphone and GPS technology, finding addresses in Japan was a real quest. As recently as the noughties, trying to track down where someone lived or where the office of a small company resided could take hours of mindless and desperate roaming. You may think finding your way around a foreign metropolis is tricky enough, but spare a thought for those who inhabit a city where the streets have no names. Tokyo, like most cities and towns in Japan, only has a few road names for the major thoroughfares and these are, for lack of a better word, for ceremonial purposes. Named roads don’t feature on addresses. Instead, the postal system is like the one used in ancient Rome where urban congregations are split first into areas, then wards, then other subdivisions. Therefore a Japanese address is based on buildings alone – not the spaces in between them, i.e. streets.

In Naka-Meguro, taken by Matthew Smith | Courtesy of Wundor Editions

So finding your way will be tough

An address in Japan starts with the city, then zeroes in on the ku or ward (in the case of a capital filled with 33 million souls, a ward is a small city in itself). It then zooms in further to identify the specific area of the ward, before naming the block number or chōme within that area. For example: you may find yourself looking for a house in Tokyo, in the Shibuya ward, inside Ebisu area’s third block. But here the fun is only just beginning. The chōme are not neatly placed in order, so you will find that Ebisu-1 sits next to Ebisu-4. It gets trickier. Each of the chōme, which might take a good 15-20 minutes to circumnavigate, is split two more times with the numbering of these subdivisions based on a chronological order of construction, not geographic proximity.

Google Maps has not solved everything. Often your GPS-based map will dump you somewhere in the vicinity of the place you are aiming for, leaving you to finish the job. Finding your way around may be easier if you orientate yourself by train stations or major landmarks, and upon closer approach by repeatedly asking for directions. Unfortunately, stopping by the ubiquitous convenience stores may not help as the staff are not always locals or adept at reading maps. And what’s surprising is that your Tokyo knowledge may not be a lot worse than that of your taxi driver when his own GPS reaches the limits of its wisdom. We’ve been dropped off, jet-lagged, on an unlit street at night, and told the restaurant was ‘down there’. After receiving help from a passer-by, the venue was discovered very much to be ‘down somewhere else’, 10 minutes’ walk away. Although it transpired that the cabbie had been watching over us from a respectful distance the whole time, utterly unwilling to depart until we were safe and sound.

An onigiri shop near Akihabara Station, Tokyo (2008) | © Wordridden / Wikimedia Commons

Eating out is very popular

In Osaka, Japan’s second city, there is an eatery for every 40 or so people in the city. Tokyo is not far behind. Locals of the capital are as likely to say ‘let’s get something to eat’ as Londoners are to say ‘let’s go for a drink’. In fact, even going for a drink will likely involve gathering at an izakaya, a relaxed venue akin to an affordable gastropub.

Most business negotiations involve a trip to a restaurant. For many firms, regularly joining colleagues for dinner and a drink after work for bonding purposes is standard practice, and culturally difficult to avoid. As most people tend to live some way from the city centre in small apartments or houses (by most Western standards), there are few home parties and instead restaurants act as a hub for passing the time with friends and acquaintances.

Most Japanese will have a list of restaurants they can proudly recommend and they will sort them by cuisine. Knowledge of a place somewhere off the beaten track is particularly prized in Japan, as are tiny restaurants where one can feel exclusive. If you are fishing for a recommendation, don’t say: ‘Do you know somewhere good to eat?’ That’s like asking a Londoner where you can grab a pint in the local vicinity. You might be in for a long list of venues, and have no clearer sense of direction when you reach the end of it. Better to inquire about their favourite spot for, say, chicken skewers or Sapporo ramen noodles.

And an eatery’s reputation means everything

Walking around Tokyo you will probably pass throngs of Japanese queuing outside seemingly random restaurants. These lines might remain for two or more hours at lunch or dinnertime, and they won’t diminish if it starts to rain. Meanwhile, a next door eatery stands idle. Often the reason for such supreme discrimination is the one you are hoping for. The more popular place has a reputation built over years and even decades; it is a family business delivering just the right kind of noodle or meat cut to draw discerning crowds. In recent times, however, reputations are often generated through television appearances.

Nearly all TV programmes feature food in one way or another and many have celebrities visiting specific cafés and restaurants to sample (and almost without fail) proclaim the food to be superior. (Look out for the orgasmic facial expressions celebrities put on for this ritual and the manner in which they scream the word oishii, or ‘delicious’). In a country where the idea of wasting a meal out on something less than amazing is seen as a travesty, many plump for the obvious, advertised choice. Then, even if the meal is below expectations, it serves as a worthy topic for discussion with friends and workmates.

Izakayas in Tokyo (2009) | © Mehmet Aktugan / Flickr

You may get turned away at the door for being a foreigner

There will be the odd time that as a foreigner you will be turned away from a restaurant or find it hard to make the booking directly even if the language is not an issue for you. This will tend to be for one of three key reasons.

First, many places have a fear of making mistakes, and would rather not risk an awkward encounter with foreigners who might not understand every aspect of the meal and the setting, but who might still complain later when their expectations ultimately go unfulfilled. Secondly, many establishments will not be open to strangers who are Japanese, let alone non-Japanese. It is common for an introduction from a trusted patron to serve as a way into some of the best spots, whether you came from Alexandria or Aoyama. Thirdly, let’s just say that a proportion of places don’t trust foreigners to behave in a civilised way, and fear that a table filled with non-Japanese might be off-putting to the regular crowd. Very occasionally such places will turn you away at the door, without giving a clear explanation as to why they are doing this. The consolation here is that you might not actually want to to visit a restaurant that is genuinely unwelcoming. If you are still keen, invite your Japanese friend to accompany you next time. Asking your hotel concierge to make your bookings for you can also head off such problems in advance.

Dining etiquette

In the more traditional washoku restaurants, you will need to take off your shoes and place them in a locker near the entrance. (Make sure your sock game is strong before arrival.) This helps keep the place clean. The establishment may also have low tables, and instead of chairs the seating will consist of cushions placed on the tatami straw mat flooring. Unless you are used to this it could be an awkward seating position and not all places have Western tables and chairs as an alternative. Once at your table, you will be served a wet hand cloth, o-shibori, which is traditionally delivered while hot.

Before starting a meal, Japanese say itadakimasu, which conveys your appreciation for receiving the food, and at the end it’s polite to say to the cook, waiting staff and the person who paid for the meal: gochaso sama deshita, which translates as ‘it was a real feast’. To convey your appreciation to the person who brought you to the restaurant or the staff, you may exclaim oishii to let them know you thought the food was tasty. During a toast, the common cry is kanpai, which means ‘dry glass’ – in other words, ‘bottoms up’.

You can ask for the bill by crossing your forefingers into an X. There is no culture of tipping. In Japan, the English word ‘service’ is used to mean that something is ‘free’ – because the Japanese believe good service should come as standard.

On chopsticks in particular

Most meals are eaten with chopsticks with the exception of the Japanese variation on the Indian curry, which tends to be a little sweet and is eaten with a spoon, and of steak when served in the Western fashion. Western cutlery is often available when needed, but you can score an easy compliment if you have proficient chopstick ability.

Chopsticks come in wooden, metal and plastic varieties and should never be used to stab food, point to someone, tap the edge of your bowl (a sign of beggary), and they should not be stuck vertically in sticky rice. The latter reminds people of the Buddhist ritual of incense burning at a funeral and symbolises the feeding of the dead. In addition, winnowing wood splinters off of a disposable chopstick is considered to be rude unless it’s a cheap establishment. If you find eating rice with chopsticks tricky, fear not. Oftentimes, people will hold the bowl in their hands as they scoop the rice to make sure it does not drop. No matter its present monetary value, rice has a revered social position and was the predecessor of banknotes in medieval Japan.

Placing chopsticks across your bowl means that you’re finished. If that’s not the case, put them to the right or below your dish, making sure that the tips don’t touch the table (there is usually a rest for the sticks, or you can craft one from chopstick wrapping paper).

Salary men in Omoide Yokocho, Tokyo (2011) | © Charlotte Marillet / Flickr

Proud to be humble

The Japanese have been said to be at once the most proud and the most humble of people. Understanding the thinking behind this might help to explain some of your experiences in Tokyo.

An affection for humility is rooted in core Confucian principles, which include deference to elders and superiors, a love of order (and rules), and a constant seeking to perfect actions (which automaker Toyota echoes in its philosophy of kaizen, ‘constant improvement’). The way people greet each other in Japan involves various degrees of bowing and the utterance of carefully calibrated honorifics. You may see in the evening a party of workers about to go their separate ways; they will spend a good five minutes bowing to each other before splitting; the boss will always be the first to leave and jump into the taxi, while his subordinates may choose to leave in the order that their office hierarchy dictates.

Humility is what drives the way customer service is delivered in Japan: neatly, meticulously, sometimes with an ornate quality in the presentation and language. Japanese has many tiers of politeness. Phrases used to say something to a friend might increase in length exponentially when directed towards a superior or a valued customer. There’s even a special set of words that are used only in reference to the Emperor. When the death of the previous monarch was first announced, part of the population was unclear as to what exactly had happened.

Humility also fits with the Japanese tendency towards self-effacement and showing, or feigning, embarrassment during tricky situations to avoid direct confrontation. When speaking about their own family, the Japanese might refer to their ‘stupid son’. The president of a major company may begin his address by noting that he is embarrassed to be standing before everyone, and that he still has a lot to learn. Is the boy really considered to be stupid? Is the CEO as humble as he sounds? Unlikely, and other Japanese understand this. They know that their interlocutor is following the subtle codes of social decorum.

Alongside the humility flows intense pride, in the Japanese culture and its standards. Many Japanese believe they are unique and can be fully understood only by other Japanese, through a non-verbal sense of ishin-denshin. This can be translated loosely as ‘telepathy’ – it refers to the idea that the heart can transmit what the mind is thinking. That the heart is perhaps a more reliable tool of communication than the face or the mouth. It is a philosophy that has developed in Zen buddhism [sic], and that is now ingrained in the general culture, from the arts to business practices.

Extract from:
Wundor City Guide
Edited by Matthew Smith
240 pp.|£20

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