After spending just 10 days in Japan I learnt more than I did in all of my guide book and blog research. A few of the things I learnt were incidental, but others would have been seriously handy to know beforehand. So without further ado, these are seven things I wish I’d known before going to Japan.
1 – A distinct lack of street names
While planning, I couldn’t figure out why google maps didn’t show street names, no matter how much I zoomed in. Upon arriving in Japan I realised the horrifying truth – almost no streets have names. Big shopping streets and main roads will generally be named, but everything else is a mystery. I can imagine that this doesn’t pose much of a problem to the locals, but for tourists trying to find a particular recommended restaurant it makes life difficult. Your best bet is to get a decent, accurate map (more on that later) and count the streets to the place you’re looking for, but always plan ahead and give yourself an extra half an hour to get anywhere. I frequently would plan my route on google maps using the hotel wifi and then screenshot it, so I would at least have a vague idea of where I was going.
2 – Train fares vs JR pass
Before heading to Japan every single website recommended the JR Rail Pass. There are national and regional variations, and since I was staying in the Kansai area the Kansai pass sounded like the best bet for me. However, the pass only covered three days, and I was going to be there for ten. Despite the travel agent, both guide books and every website I came across saying what a good deal the JR Pass was, I decided against it. If you’re travelling around Japan and are going to be taking lots of bullet trains then it is definitely worth it, but for me it just wasn’t. Trains in Japan are seriously cheap in comparison in to the UK; the longest journey I took was to Kyoto, it took an hour by the cheapest train and cost a measly ¥560 which is about £3.70. BARGAIN.
3 – Food is expensive
While trains were cheaper than I expected, food was definitely more expensive. In Dotonbori two bowls of ramen can easily cost you £20, and that’s the cheaper end of the spectrum. Food was where the majority of my spending money went for the holiday, and even while trying to do it on the cheap I found I was running out by the end.
4 – Fruit is hard to find
I love fruit. I always have apples in the house and will attempt to squeeze fruit into every meal if I can. I didn’t really give second thought to my diet for while I was in Japan, aside from dreaming of ramen and sushi most days. However, it turns out that in Japan fruit it considered a luxury, with fancy fruit baskets highly prized as gifts. While I’ve since been assured by a friend that you can find reasonably priced fruit at the larger supermarkets, if you’re a tourist and just craving an apple, you’re not going to have much luck at your local 7-Eleven. All I ever really saw were bananas and ridiculously overpriced peaches (like ¥2,000 for two peaches expensive). By the time I was leaving Japan I would dive on any piece of fruit I saw; I had a practically religious experience at a food stall outside Fushimi Inari temple in Kyoto where a vendor was selling ice cold pineapple on sticks for ¥100 a pop. I think I spent about ¥500 and he was watched me devouring pineapple like a madwoman.
5 – Safety
Japan is ridiculously safe. I’m fairly safety conscious in the UK, especially regarding things like my bag and belongings, but that’s amped up times a hundred whenever I go abroad. However, by the end of my time in Japan my safety-conscious self had seriously relaxed. While I still wouldn’t recommend walking down any dark alleyways alone, but for the awkward travelling alone and trying to reserve a table dilemma, Japan is amazing. I noticed early on people leacing bags and valuables on tables when they went to the loo or to reserve their seat, and they were never even touched. This video by Life Where I’m From really makes it clear just how safe Japan is.
6 – Don’t trust the guidebooks
In Kobe I discovered the problem with guidebooks – their maps are not always accurate. My brother and I spent the best part of an hour desperately wandering around a small area of Kobe where the guidebook told us a highly recommended restaurant, Wanto Burger, should be, only to discover thanks to a helpful local that it was about ten minutes walk down the road and had always been there. With the serious lack of road names, an accurate map is essential, and while the Wanto Burger incident was the worst there were several instances where our Lonely Planet guidebook let us down.
7 – Japanese
Okay, this would have been really handy to know beforehand, but in all honesty, as long as you’re in the main cities you can get by without knowing much, if any, Japanese. Restaurants with an English menu tend to advertise that fact, and even with a Japanese menu it’s not too hard to manage as many have photographs of the food. It’s worth learning some key phrases such as please and thank you, and how to ask for the bill, but generally most Japanese people will be patient with you as you both struggle through the language barrier. However, if you know any Japanese at all and head out of the big cities, people will often be delighted that you’ve taken the time to learn something of their language. I’d love to have been fluent in Japanese and it definitely would have made the trip easier, but it’s certainly not a prerequisite.