8 spoilers for your first trip to Japan

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Inside Japan customer Cat Jones travelled with us for the first time in 2015, and loved it so much she headed back out in September this year. Having explored Tokyo in-depth on her first visit, this time Cat decided to make the Kansai region the focus of her holiday, spending time in Osaka, Mount Koya and Kyoto. She also stopped in Tsumago, a small post town on the old Nakasendo Way, and Hakone – a national park in the shadow of Mount Fuji. Here’s how she got on…

If you are off on your first adventure to Japan you may have spent some time planning your trip with Inside Japan Tours, drooling over Instagram photos and even reading some very helpful guides. However after a while, all the guides and top tips articles start to look the same. Don’t tip. Do bow. Don’t put your chopsticks in rice…

This is great advice, but what about the small stuff you notice when you get there? With the UK and Japan nearly 6,000 miles apart, there are some small differences that you might not expect.

Knowing about these things in advance won’t ruin your trip, but it might spoil the surprise!

Tokyo's fish market
Tokyo’s fish market

1. Everything has a mascot and a jingle. Everything.

Cute dog cartoon showing you the visa process at the airport? Sure.

Walking into a convenience store and having a jingle play when you walk in? (Naturally followed by a chorus of “welcome”: Irasshaimase!) Why not.

Your chain hotel having a cute bird mascot on everything. Instructions how to use the elevator, what time breakfast is served, and even a concrete statue outside in a mini shrine? Erm… OK.

Every subway stop having its own theme tune that plays when each train arrives? Of course. You can even buy a CD of your favourite jingle.

My personal favourite unexpected jingle was a motorised cleaning cart being pushed by a janitor.

It is an adorable assault on the eyes and ears. Enjoy it!

2. Get used to looking up

Space is limited in Japan. The UK isn’t the biggest landmass either, but in Japan there are 348 people per square kilometre – versus 269 per square kilometre in Britain. Whilst the UK has gentle rolling hillsides for the most part, over 70% of Japan is mountainous and heavily covered in forest. That means there isn’t much space left over to live, socialise and grow food in.

If you can’t spread out, you have to spread up. Skyscrapers dominate the city skylines, not out of vanity but necessity. Whilst a tall building isn’t that unusual for a Brit, we don’t tend to have a department store that is only on the 5th and 6th floor of a building. Hundreds of companies can live within the same building, so if you are having trouble finding that great sushi place you were told about – try looking up!

Look up!
Look up!

3. Get used to looking down

Building vertically to maximise space isn’t limited to above the ground! Japan has a whole subterranean world. Never mind the tangled webs of the (excellent) subway systems; entire department stores also live under the pavement. For example, Namba Walk in Osaka is home to nearly 250 underground shops.

4. They know how to deal with weather

Making small talk about the weather is a British national sport. However, if the weather is something other than “a bit overcast”, the country doesn’t really know what to do. The Japanese have a lot more weather to deal with than the UK, and they deal with it amazingly.

If it is the rainy season, everyone has an umbrella. If it is raining you leave it in the stand outside stores when you go in (and it will always be there when you get out) or you put in a contraption that wraps it in a plastic bag so you don’t drip indoors. There are even devices that hold umbrellas to bikes so you can still use two hands and stay dry.

If it is hot, there are misting machines, air conditioning and fans everywhere. People use umbrellas for sun protection and carry small towels to wipe away sweat.

5) Limited or no Japanese is not a problem

For your first trip to Japan you will probably be sticking to the larger cities or going as part of a tour. Do not let your lack of language skills put you off! If something is quite important, information will be in English. For example, train station announcements on the bullet train and subway systems are in Japanese then English.

With the country already deep in preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there are a number of ways the large cities are making steps to be more accessible to foreign tourists.

Sure, you will miss out on a little. But with so much to see and do anyway it won’t matter.

6) Clean. So clean…

For a country with so few public bins (if you see one, use it!) it is incredible how clean and tidy everywhere is. You have probably read this else where but it still surprises you in real life.

The Sumida river of Tokyo has fraction of the crisp packets you’ll find in London’s Thames, and the Dotonburi canal in Osaka is infinity tidier than the canals in Birmingham.

Even at rowdy gigs in rock clubs, the locals do not throw their empty plastic cups on the floor. At the end of the night, if there are any stray cups around people collect them up on their way out. It is a beautiful thing.

Tsumago, in the Kiso Valley
Tsumago, in the Kiso Valley

7) Contrast and harmony

Japan is a country with a rich history and culture, yet it is also one of the most technologically advanced in the world. Buddhist influences are everywhere, yet it is deeply consumerist. “Hole in the floor” toilets can be found in the same facilities as ones with 18 buttons.

As a low-key example of contrast and harmony in action: it is 2016 and flip phones and faxes are still a big deal. Like anywhere, people are glued to their phones. Japan still likes flip phones. I saw more flip phones in 2 weeks in Japan than in the last 5 years in the UK. Go into any gadget shop (if you want to look at what technology is on offer) and there will be the fanciest fax machines you can imagine.

8) The bullet train isn’t *that* special

In the interest of balance, here is something that surprised me in a disappointing way.

Before my first trip, my friends and colleagues were in awe that I was going to be riding a bullet train. I’m going high speed!

However when you get on board… It is just a train. They run about every 10 minutes. You buy a ticket, you get on, you get off at your destination.

I’m not sure what I expected, an experience to tell future generations maybe? But it was just a clean and efficient train service. Not to be sniffed at, but unless you are a real train buff, this will be a great mode of transport but won’t be an experience itself.

Of course, this efficiency is a compliment to Japan Rail services. But don’t be downhearted if it isn’t a trip highlight.

Low tide on Miyajima Island
Low tide on Miyajima Island
Thousands of paper cranes at Hiroshima's Peace Park
Thousands of paper cranes at Hiroshima’s Peace Park

If you’ve been inspired by Cat’s trip to Japan, don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our consultants to begin planning your trip today. We’ll put together a tailor-made proposal free of charge, or book you onto one of our fabulous group tours! Click here to contact us.

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