(1) Talk to people. My number one tip (and the most difficult for me) when traveling to Japan for the first time is to talk to people. Learn a few words in Japanese, and bring a phrasebook or dictionary with you so that you can learn more as you go, and as you figure out what things would be good to say to people. Most people in Japan won’t speak much English, although more of them can read some of it from their school days. Those who do speak English will tend to be very helpful and friendly. In either case, Japanese people seemed to be me to be widely friendly, polite, and patient with me as I struggled to communicate with them via the few Japanese words that I knew.
(2) Look out for signs and read them carefully. There are a lot of different rules in the places that you will visit, and I can guarantee you that there will be signs to guide you. For instance, in some places, you need to take off your shoes and put them in certain areas, visitors may not be allowed in some temples, and even though taking pictures is usually encouraged, in some places it isn’t allowed. For the most part, signs will be posted in easy-to-see areas, and in English. However, sometimes they can be small, and if you aren’t paying attention, you will miss them. I missed a sign asking tourists not to come into a certain temple, and I ended up getting chased out and feeling quite embarrassed, so it is best to not miss signs.
(3) Utilize the amazing train system as much as you can; see if a JR Railpass will get you where you want to go. Japan has the most amazing train system of anywhere that I have been! There were a couple occasions where we had to get a taxi, but I think I could count those on one hand. They making getting around in major cities
like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto a breeze (although they can get busy), and the high-speed rail can get you from city to city quickly and with ease. For our trip, we paid about $400 for two weeks worth of JR Railpass, and this was well worth the cost. While this only covers JR lines, they are just about everywhere in the big tourist spots, and they own the bullet trains. You don’t need to rent a car if you do this, which I would guess would be more expensive anyway, and definitely way more stressful. Navigation in Japan was hard enough on foot, without having to worry about traffic. Some train stations can be a little confusing, but if you get too lost, you should be able to find someone who will help you. If you want to get a good seat on the bullet train, it is also a good idea to get reserved seats, which can be done in the station- usually the day of.
(4) Be prepared to use cash for most things. Of course, Japan does have and utilize credit cards, but overall, it is still a cash economy and people prefer it. As a tourist, using cash is absolutely essential, especially because many of the wonderful things that you will want to buy will come from little stalls or carts, and these people will not typically have methods for using credit cards. Most of my souvenirs came from just such shops, and some of the best food I had also came from carts. Luckily, crime in Japan is extremely low, so carrying cash is typically safe.
(5) If you have any specific needs in terms of food, do some research before leaving. Overall, I think Japan has some of the best food in the world, because I love udon, sushi, and rice. But as with any country, the selection can feel limited if you are looking for specific things. If you are a picky eater, like some people in my family, it would be good to learn about some of the common Japanese restaurants that have food you might like. If you are like me and
need to keep your blood sugar up for medical reasons, and thus need to avoid getting too hungry, do a little research on restaurant hours in Japan. I found this to be a bit confusing, as places seemed to close early in the evening, and weren’t open till later around lunch. I wish I could explain how this works, but even after being there for two weeks, I can’t say that I fully understood it. Keep snacks on you, and make use of convenience stores- they have a ton of great stuff and more of a selection than a lot of ours do. Vegetarian shouldn’t be too hard, but again, do a little research ahead of time, so you know what certain things are.
(6) Most important: have a great time! Relax! Japan is an amazing place full of amazing people. Sure, you will get mixed up and be chased out of temples by angry monks now and again, but overall, people will want to help you out, especially if you are polite and courteous. Remember that Japan has a lot of tradition, and go respecting that.
I should be posting again on the 15th, but I will also be in Puerto Rico at that time. So, I may get delayed.