It’s been over a fortnight since we got back from our big trip to Japan.
We’d been planning the holiday for over a year, reading hotel reviews, finding popular restaurants, and noting down specific dishes to eat, places to see, and things to do.
We read guidebooks and blogs, we talked to friends and colleagues who’d visited and knew their way around, we noted down suggestions from locals, saved photos on Pinterest, and spent hours trawling through Instagram hashtags. All in the name of research!
And yet somehow, there was still so much about Japan that surprised us. Little things like how polite everyone is, or how easy it is to find a cold drink.
So here are a few things to keep in mind on your first trip to the Land of the Rising Sun…
1. The people are the loveliest you’ll ever meet
Seriously, everyone we met was an absolute delight. Super friendly and very respectful, they smiled, they said hello, and we didn’t have a single eyeroll or huff at the fact that we didn’t speak the language.
One little old lady stopped to offer us directions when we were standing in the subway station looking a bit lost. People went out of their way to be polite and friendly, and it was my absolute favourite thing about Japan.
2. Manners really matter
Manners matter everywhere, but they’re especially important in Japan. The nodding, the bowing, the big irasshaimase (welcome) that everyone shouts when you enter a shop or a restaurant…
You’ll soon find yourself bowing your head to everyone, even when you’re back in your homeland!
3. Japan loves a queue
You think we love a queue here in Britain? Trust me, you’ve not seen polite queuing until you’ve been to Japan. Trains, buildings, shops, restaurants… they’re everywhere.
It makes everything feel calmer and more streamlined, and I loved it.
4. The public transport is a delight
The subway trains are big and wide and clean. The seats are comfy, the ceiling holds are low enough for me to reach without dislocating my shoulder (I’m 5’6″), and there is blissful air conditioning in every carriage. All this for less than £1 a journey.
The big cross-country trains are also a delight. The seats are as big and comfy as an armchair, with so much legroom that even my 6 foot boyfriend would be happy. They also have plugs, smoking carriages (if you’re that way inclined), and big luggage racks.
I’m putting together a list of improvements for TFL and National Rail as we speak.
5. The language barrier isn’t as bad as you think
Blogs and friends had told us that it was hard to find English speakers or English signs in Japan, so we were a bit worried about the language barrier before we left. But actually, apart from one or two tricky moments, we found it really easy to get around.
We all had a couple of key Japanese words memorised, a few sentences saved on our phones (important things like food allergies etc), and the rest of it was covered by pointing, smiling, and some really basic English.
And if in doubt: Google Translate!
6. It’s not as expensive as you think
Accommodation can be pricey (our hostels were around £30 a night which is pretty steep), and obviously if you’re eating Michelin star food it’s going to add up quickly. But on the whole, Japan was much cheaper than we expected it to be.
Stick to small local restaurants, and you can have a complete set meal for £5-£8. Lunches were usually £2-£4 from a street stall or small cafe. Our most expensive group meal came to around £27 for a ton of yummy food, and several alcoholic drinks each.
The shopping was pretty similar to London in price, with a lot of the typical souvenir items actually coming up cheaper than I thought they’d be. The bullet trains are pricey, but transport within the city is a lot less than you’d pay in the UK (as well as being so much nicer).
Honestly, it’s much easier to stick to a budget than you’d expect!
7. It’s not as busy as you think
This is obviously a subjective opinion, but I was super worried about Tokyo before we left. I’m really not good in crowds of people (it’s why I don’t go to festivals) and I was a bit panicky about getting crushed in the city. But actually, I honestly didn’t find it any busier than central London.
If you can survive Oxford Circus on a Saturday afternoon, you’ll be absolutely fine in Japan. (Except maybe if you’re on the subway at rush hour, but I didn’t try that!)
TRAVEL TIP: If you want to avoid the crowds and get good photos of big tourist attractions: go as early as you can. We did Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and the Fushimi Inari shrine before 8am and it was wonderful, but by the time we left at 9am-9:30am, it was already overrun with people.
Wake up early, do your touristy thing, then have an afternoon nap to make up the lost sleep. It’s worth the effort, trust me.
8. There are vending machines everywhere
And I do mean everywhere. Main roads in the city, side alleys by the hotel, country roads in the middle of nowhere… You’re probably always within a 2 metre radius of a vending machine.
Keep in mind: Japan really only does DRINKS vending machines. Forget your dreams of Japanese Kitkats and packets of crisps, these machines are all about coffee-in-a-can, peach-flavoured water, and weird fizzy drinks with bits of green jelly in them…
9. The convenience stores are very convenient
7/11 and Lawsons are the two biggest brands, and there’s usually one within easy reach of wherever your choose to stay. We never had to walk further than 10 minutes to find a store, even when we were staying in the back end of nowhere by Fuji-san.
Most are equipped with an ATM, and they sell everything from hot drinks to bottles of sparkling sake, hot pork dumplings, chilled onigiri, socks, vests, instant ramen…
They’re super convenient and very cheap. A lifesaver if you’re travelling on a budget!
10. Public wifi doesn’t exist
You’ll probably want to rent a portable wifi device at the airport, as there’s very limited public wifi in Japan.
Erica and I rented one between us which came to about £30 each for the fortnight, and it was great. We even used it to watch films on Netflix and it never ever ran out of data.
11. You’ll lose your heart
Japan will surprise you, inspire you, amaze you, excite you, and make you fall absolutely head over heels in love.
It’s one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited. There are mountains, trees, streets, buildings, neon lights, temples, lovely people, crazy costumes, pretty kimonos, delicious food, cute dogs, great shopping… It’s got something for everyone.
And I can’t wait to go back!
THE JAPANARANG GANG