Japan is a country like no other in terms of culture. Often travelling to Japan can be a real challenge as you might feel totally out of space and time. Everything will be new and different, you will feel inadequate at times. This is why I made this list of things to know before visiting Japan. It will help you with the adaptation and understanding of the local environment and culture.
There is nothing better than getting out of your comfort zone, far from your usual environment. The only way you can learn more about the world and your place in it is to travel. Japan is one of the destinations that are a good choice for women travellers. It is safe but offers many challenges. Prepare yourself in advance and read as much as you can about the country and its culture, people, food, transport, and more. Plan and organise prior to your trip each step of the journey. Japan is a country with strict rules and a lot of things require more time.
IS JAPAN SAFE FOR WOMEN?
In Japan, the crime rate is very low, however, as everywhere else, you must be careful. If you are visiting neighbourhoods for entertainment such as “Roppongi” and “Kabuki-cho” in Tokyo be aware that it is not advisable to go there alone, especially at night.
WHAT TO EAT IN JAPAN
The food varies in the different parts of the country. In Tokyo, there is a wide variety of cuisine, including influences from China and other Asian countries. But in smaller cities, food is with better quality and cheaper. Osaka has many good street restaurants and its Dotonbori district is famous foodies destination for locals and visitors alike. The real foodies will enjoy even more visit to Osaka’s 200-years old Kuromon Market.
Kobe’s Chinatown has such an abundance of delicious food that you will wish to have more time, money and especially a bigger stomach to be able to taste as many as possible.
In Tokyo, if you like to dive deep into the local culture and lifestyle, you will enjoy the secret food tours . The district is described as unique with its blend of contrasts and one of the best spots for cherry blossom viewing.
One of the things to know before visiting Japan is that if you don’t like seafood, you will struggle. There are not many alternatives but still, there are so fats food chains, Western food and international food available.
Luckily for me, the Japanese people have discovered the Bulgarian yoghurt many years ago and now you can find it everywhere in the country.
In public transport, you will rarely hear the Japanese people talking loudly. There is a strict priority for elders, mothers with children, pregnant women and disabled people. Always take into consideration that moving from point A to point B will take some time, despite good public transport. The transport system in Japan is one of the most developed in the world, although in places like Kyoto you will have to use buses that are slow and crowded.
If you plan to visit several Japanese cities, the cheapest option is to purchase a Japan Rail Pass with which you can travel unlimitedly on almost all lines. You can buy 7-day, 14-day or 21-day rail passes. It depends on how long you will stay in the country. The only condition is to purchase the pass outside Japan before travelling because this kind of pass is only for people visiting the country from outside. Public transport in Japan is accurate to the second and there are trains frequently.
Another thing is to understand the train’s schedule. Since the options are countless, to be sure that you catch the right train ask one of the many employees on the platforms.
One of the other important things to know before visiting Japan is about electricity.
Voltage in Japan is 100 V, so it is very likely you will need an adapter. Do not rush to buy one before you ask the hotel reception because they often have available for the hotel guests or you can borrow one from a friend. Sometimes, at international hotel chains, you can find different standards of electric outlets, especially in the bathrooms.
ABOUT THE HOTEL ROOMS
Hotel rooms, similarly to the Japanese houses, are very small, space is limited and you will certainly have problems with the large suitcase that you have brought to Japan. Take it as one of the local peculiarities.
As Japan has very little land per capita, people and businesses have learned to use every square meter effectively, which to the Western people may seem claustrophobic.
Another thing is that hotel staff often do not speak good English and you should stock up some patience for communicating with them. And remember, the smile is a universal language and helps in all situations. Especially in Japan.
Photo credit: IbisTokyo Shinjuku Hotel
In Japan, dining etiquette is very strict. Using knives to cut food on the table is not accepted. Nowhere will give you a knife but you do not really need because the food is cooked in small pieces. You can ask for a fork if you are not accustomed to using chopsticks.
If you prefer to eat with chopsticks there are several strict rules that should be followed: do not use chopsticks to transfer food to one another (from one set of chopsticks to another), this is done only at funeral ceremonies; do not brandish the chopsticks; after you have used them, do not stuck them in food, especially in rice because this is also a funerary tradition where rice is placed on the altar.
If you would like to learn more about the Japanese etiquette, you might want to buy this book.
FRUITS IN JAPAN
Fruits are very expensive in Japan. I can say they are delicacies. Because of that, there is not much of them in traditional cuisine. Fruits usually are sold in small packages and they lack diversity. If you’re used to daily diet full of raw fruits, in Japan you will need to replace them with something else such ss fruit on a stick /understand – slices of fresh watermelon, melon or other fruit in the form of a huge lollipop/ that you can find on the markets, fruit compote or to rely on lighter food like yoghurt.
The yoghurt in Japan is very good thanks to the imported from Bulgaria traditions, the technology of production and even bacteria Bacillus Bulgaricus used for the fermentation of the product. Eating yoghurt is one way to maintain a healthy diet while you’re in Japan. Although the food here is plentiful and delicious, often it is fried or breaded but not greasy and heavy to digest, but if you’re used to eating raw and light meals you will encounter problems to adapt.
SHOPPING COSMETICS & CLOTHING IN JAPAN
When you shop for clothing and cosmetics, keep in mind two things – clothes sizes are much smaller because Japanese ladies are small and delicate. Female clothing stores at first glance look like shops for children.
The cosmetics in most cases is intended to maintain a bright skin, as this is the ideal of beauty in Japan, and contain bleaching components. This is not necessarily bad because the local cosmetic industry uses a variety of natural ingredients which are also skin-friendly. Just keep in mind this particular aspect of the local idea of beauty.
There are many shopping tours on offer. From kawaii shopping in Harajuku (what is kawaii?) to night shopping in Shinjuku. There is also a walking tour around antique shops and secondhand bookshops as well as kimono shopping tour!
HOW TO DRESS IN JAPAN
For a woman, this could be one of the most interesting things to know before visiting Japan. Fashion in Japan is a multi-style concept. The styles are endless, colours and fabrics too. On the streets, you will see a wide variety, but one thing is true for everyone, from small towns to super-megalopolis Tokyo – all people are clean, their clothes and accessories are matched to the smallest detail, as in the combination of colours residents of Tokyo are the best! I’ve never seen so clean and elegant nation! If you want not to look too much like “tourist”, take some simple but elegant clothes for the trip to Japan, of course without compromising on comfort and convenience.
ULTRA-MEGA CONSTRUCTION AND ZEN GARDENS
Everything in Japan fits between super skyscrapers which can be seen almost everywhere in the big cities and many green spaces which are arranged in a very minimalist design. In this way, the Japanese people have achieved some peculiar balance between modernization and the principles of their old culture – Zen Buddhism.
Wherever you go in Japan, everything is based on harmony, patience and care for others. This applies even to the huge skyscrapers populating Shinjuku, the business district of Tokyo, which is as high as beautiful and proportionate in its structure.
ABOUT THE JAPANESE PEOPLE
Although it is difficult for them to speak English, the Japanese people will do everything possible to help you if you ask them for help. The people of Osaka are warm and more responsive than those in Tokyo which naturally can be explained with the busier and hectic life in the capital. I would say that people are the greatest treasure of Japan. And the children are calm and just wonderful with their serious faces and beautiful, curious eyes.
AND FINALLY, ABOUT THE GEISHAS
One of the very important things to know before visiting Japan concerns the geishas. Before travelling to Japan and diving into the geisha’s district in Kyoto learn about this unique Japanese tradition. Read everything you can find about the subject and about what is actually happening there. Geishas are not dolls, toys and even fewer prostitutes. Geisha means “person of talent” who learns from a very early age to acquire skills in various fields, both in art and etiquette.
Many tourists lurk, chase and annoy the geishas when they go out dressed in their traditional kimonos on the way to a meeting with a client. Remember the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” (if you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to do it) and remember that the geishas are also human beings though they look just like perfect miniatures created by an unknown sculptor.
What to Buy in Japan
In no words but in one photo, here are ideas about what to buy in Japan. These are what I bought – a t-shirt for my son, tea (the pretty box is still adding charm to my kitchen, a little but a very handy box. Trinkets with miniature geishas and rise-based cosmetic products are always winners too.
Japan is one of the best destinations to visit – as a solo female traveller or with a partner or friends. Its unique culture is interesting to be observed and challenging to be understood. For even more women travel-related things to know before visiting Japan, watch the video at the end of my interview with Catherine DeVrye. She lived and worked in Japan and, as you can imagine, gained valuable insights into the local customs.
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