Challenges On Your Visit to Japan (And Navigating Them)

Before moving to japan, I had a handful of visits. And while navigating Japan for me was overwhelmingly magical, there was always a few tiny things which made for minor inconveniences which could have been easily avoided – if I knew in advance. So hopefully this Blog post comes in handy for someone with an upcoming trip to Japan, so that they have zero detractions.

Problem 1: Always taking shoe’s on & off
Yes, you do it whenever you enter someone’s home. But that’s not all. Many businesses, and restaurants with tatami mats will also require it (possibly offering you slippers). It can be a new task to deal with, so think about it in advance.
Solution: Slip on/off shoes. Maybe bring an extra pair of Croc’s for convenience.

Problem 2: No paper towels, only hand dryers
This one bugs me more than many of the others. I hate having wet hands! But for the sake of waste and conservation it makes sense.
Solution: Always bring a handkerchief, or small hand towel with you and keep it somewhere on your person. If you have a baby, those wet-naps will come in handy too. Your’e going to want to leave any setting better than when you found it (clean up your mess).

Problem 3: Having pockets full of change
.
Your American dollars are not accepted here! So get used to paying in Yen. Oh by the way, any denomination less than 1000Yen (~$10) is a coin. That’s right men, break out that coin purse.
Solution: Force yourself to pay using as much change as possible in every transaction. And i’m serious, bring a coin purse / wallet with pockets.

Problem 4: No Garbage Cans / Recycling
That’s right, almost everything is either burned or recycled in Japan. I currently separate my garbage into 8, yes EIGHT different categories of trash (burnables, paper, cardboard, plastic, bottles, cans, styrofoam, non-burnables). It’s exhausting! So why is it so rare to see public trash cans, and how does everything stay so damn clean? Because you are responsible for your own trash.
Solution: Keep some plastic bags on hand. Convenience store trashcans are for things you buy there only. So be prepared to bring your trash with you, back to your car/hotel or wherever. Have a baby? Bring ziplock bags for those poopy diapers. Yep, nobody want’s them.

Problem 5: You don’t speak Japanese
In Tokyo many people will speak English, or at least some limited English., but beyond that – all bets are off. You are in another world, so you better come at least slightly prepared. Do yourself a favor and don’t perpetuate a bad stereotype for foreigners. If you try to speak some limited Japanese – odds are people will meet you half-way, or at least understand your intention and respect the effort.
Solution: Congratulations, you live in the age of technology which opens up a lot of possibilities. But you should still memorize all the common phrases you’d need on any foreign visit. Cell phone apps like ImiWa (Dictionary) and GoogleTranslate are FREE and helpful. Want to take the next step? Download some lessons at jpod101.com

Problem 6: Squatty Potties (..er traditional Japanese toilets)
Yes, you will occasionally see the old style Japanese toilets. If you’ve never had to use one… well, imagine yourself camping, and the position you’d assume in the woods. End of lesson. It could be a little confusing the first time you see one. (Which way do I face anyway?)
Solution:  Most establishments have Western style toilets, or at least an option. If you don’t see one initially, check the handicapped/baby changing bathroom, as sometimes that washroom is different. Odds are there is simply an alternate business (again, convenience store) that you can walk to where they will have a Western style toilet.
In the event of emergency: Sometimes waiting or going elsewhere is not an option. It’s not a bad idea to at least be able to use the old style commode! Make sure your wallet and other items are safely secured, face towards the flusher, and assume the position. After you’ve had to do it a couple times, it’s rather easy.

Problem 7: You have food allergies / Don’t like certain foods / Afraid of sushi
Don’t fear trying new things! Some things which are impossible to eat in the US, are quite edible in Japan (due to being prepared/raised differently). Having said that, some people have sensitivities.
Solution: Tokyo is an endless assortment of amazing restaurants of all styles. Even in the countryside you can find McDonalds, Denny’s, CoCo’s. etc. (although menu’s vary). If you have an allergy you should be able to convey that in Japanese perfectly. Especially seafood allergies, as most “stock” sauces/soups are fish based in Japan. Maybe pack some emergency snacks in your suitcase that will satisfy you. And the convenience store is your friend, and almost always has sandwiches and other very simple fresh foods.

Two (special) melons for $50 – serious fruit!

Problem 8: Expensive Food
I’ve seen prices on food that I never thought imaginable. An $30 melon? yep. You name it. But these are specialty cases. And with restaurants, you could pay any price. But you don’t have to pay a lot for a good meal.
Solution: It’s all about familiarity. For $5 i can fill up at a local Udon restaurant. Put down the travel guide, and talk to a local to find where to go. Supermarkets are loaded with freshly made inexpensive food (with sushi half-off after 6:30 – wow!).

Problem 9: You are arriving in the summer – or the winter
Japan is (stereotypically) humid in the summer, and can get quite cold in the winter depending on location. Ideal times to visit are during the spring or the fall.
Solution: Be prepared to sweat in the summer! Japanese are used to it, and have a great number of helpful things such as face / deodorant wipes to keep you feeling fresh and clean. For the winter I’d suggest layering of course, but stop by Uniqulo and get yourself a lightweight down jacket – it’s amazing how warm they keep you.

Learn more about some cultural differences I’ve noticed in my recent blog post – 6 Striking Cultural Personality Diferences

One thought on “Challenges On Your Visit to Japan (And Navigating Them)

  1. Good tips. I’ve heard about some people printing a small business card in Japanese that says any dietary restrictions (vegetarian, allergies, etc.). Then you can show them to the restaurant staff, and they’ll understand you. Of course, you’d need someone to write it correctly in Japanese for you.

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