Cassandra Lord

Cassandra Lord

Cassie has a love of all things Japanese and travels whenever she can in Europe and Asia.

Preparing For Travelling To Japan For The First Time

If you’re preparing to travel to Japan for the first time, brace yourself for some serious culture shock!

Do you know your “konnichiwa” from your “sayounara”? Your okonomiyaki from your takoyaki? If none of those phrases make any sense to you, you have about the same level of Japanese knowledge as I did the first time I visited.

Although some parts of Japan’s culture or language might be clear from the get-go, some things have taken me years to get my head around. Hopefully, I can prepare you for a first time trip to Japan with my experiences.

Standing out from the crowd

One of the first things I noticed when I went to Japan was how much I stood out, particularly in smaller towns. As a tall, white and blonde foreigner, people would often stop in the street and ask to take my picture ask where I was from.

I’ve found that this kind of treatment as the foreign traveller in Japan can have its advantages and disadvantages.

pic: JenifferTN

Some of the disadvantages include unwanted advances from people in the street, preconceptions of your nationality or customs and a general assumption that pale skin means English-speaking or, less often, Russian. Although not every Japanese person approached me in this way, it certainly happened often enough that it was noticeable.

On the other hand, if you stand out as a lost foreigner, people will often try to help you, even if their English is limited.

There are even some ways to save money that are only available to tourists, such as the JR rail pass and tax refunds on souvenirs. Being a foreign traveller can also mean that many people will be interested in where you come from, and why you’ve come to Japan.

I once visited a tea shop in Hakodate (a town in Hokkaido), and upon hearing that I studied Japanese in the UK, the owner was incredibly excited and showed me her antique music box. As a gift, she gave me a CD recorded from the box, whilst telling me the history of her tea shop. The more Japanese I learn, the more often these surreal, yet kind-hearted events seem to happen.

Expectations vs. reality

Just as some Japanese citizens might have preconceived ideas of your culture, it’s quite likely you have some about Japan, too.

When thinking about Japan, many people’s minds will jump to Tokyo, sushi, anime and robots. Although these are prominent aspects of Japan’s culture, they’re not all that Japan has to offer. These are the things that I expected vs what I actually found.

Expectation:

I expected Japan to be incredibly high-tech, with robots at every corner. I expected high-rise buildings, trains scheduled to the second, and a general air of efficiency and busy-ness.

Japanese robot.. – pic: Jason Lawton

Reality:

Japan is well-known for being a combination of modern and traditional, but that seems to penetrate more aspects of life than anticipated. I found that there would be the occasional robot in a shop as a gimmick to attract customers, but most smaller restaurants will still not take card, and many services aren’t available online as more traditional methods are preferred.

Tokyo does have a lot of high-rise buildings, good trains, and general efficiency and busy-ness. However, this was only true for Tokyo, and I have found that even the larger cities generally have a much more laid-back atmosphere. In terms of efficiency, although many things about Japan are thorough, an unprecedented amount of paperwork can often get in the way of “efficiency” as such.

Osaka sunset – pic: SharonAng

Expectation:

Anime led me to believe that everything in Japan is “kawaii”, or cute. I expected there to be a lot of cute characters, cute outfits, and an over-abundance of anime-fanatics.

Reality:

Kawaii” culture is even more prominent than I had anticipated. Many girls, particularly in Harajuku, enjoy wearing very cutesy schoolgirl-inspired outfits, and cute characters can be found almost anywhere, including on meat packaging and safety signs. If you like Hello Kitty, you’re in for a treat.

Most of the anime-fanatics, however, tend to stick to Akihabara, or “Electric Town”. Akihabara used to be known mainly for its electronics, but has become a place for gamers and hard-core anime fans. The district is now also home to a number of “maid cafes”. These cafes charge per hour, and aim to get regulars to come back and talk to particular maids. I tried out the Ninja café and found it to be a good practice of my Japanese, but otherwise seemed an overpriced way to meet a lady you can’t talk to outside of the cafe.

That said, I would still recommend it for an experience unique to Japan!

Maid outside a cafe in Tokyo – pic: Gullhem Vellut

Nice Surprises

Completely unrelated to what I had expected from Japan, I also found some hidden surprises about the country that are not as publicised. One of the most important aspects is just how safe the country is. According to Business Insider, Japan is joint with Ireland as 10th safest country in the world. One of my friends managed to lose his wallet three times, and retrieved it each time. Lose it once anywhere else, and it’s gone for good!

Traditional Japan – pic: StockSnap

Another nice surprise was regarding food and drink. For some reason, a question people often ask me is “do Japanese people drink much?” In fact, izakaya (almost like a Japanese-style pub, meant for bigger groups) are everywhere in Japan. One of the best things about izakaya is nomihoudai (all you can drink) and tabehoudai (all you can eat).

These set menus tend to involve a prepaid two-hour sitting where you can order as much food or drink as you’d like, usually at around 2,000 (~£15) per sitting, though length and price vary substantially.

I also loved trying out new restaurants in Japan, as eating out seemed to be pretty cheap and I learnt that alongside ramen and sushi, there was a whole new culinary world available to me. Okonomiyaki, takoyaki, kitsune-udon, katsudon… I could go on forever.

Japanese Shabu spread… pic: NGD3

It’s impossible for me to retell each one of my Japan experiences here, but it is safe to say that I would personally recommend visiting the country, as it could turn out to be a place you never want to leave!

Key words:

Konnichiwa こんにちは

Hello

Sayonara さようなら

Goodbye

Okonomiyaki お好み焼き

A thick omelette, usually containing shredded cabbage, with whatever ingredients or toppings you like (“okonomi” means “as you like”, “yaki” means “cooked/fried”)

Takoyaki たこ焼き

Octopus cooked in a ball of batter

Kawaii かわいい

Cute

Izakaya 居酒屋

Drinking establishment also serving food, often meant for groups

Nomihoudai 飲み放題

All you can drink

Tabehoudai 食べ放題

All you can eat

Kitsune-udon きつねうどん

Udon is a type of thick noodle, kitsune refers to a style of soup noodle with fried tofu

Katsudon カツ丼

A rice bowl with deep-fried, crispy pork or chicken (“katsu”).

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Cassie Lord is our resident Japan expert. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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