Sorry this post took so long. I was wanting to take a few days to let the ideas come to me then write them down as I thought of them. Because I did that, however, I forgot that I was wanting to write a post about this topic and found myself writing things down without any reason why. Have no fear! Here I am now to ease your wondering minds, and bring you this final instalment of travel advice in Japan. In this final topic, I will talk about cultural things that you may or may not know about. Head's up, as I am American, I can only talk about things surprising to me as an American. So if things are similar in your country, then disregard that section and move to the next one.
First, let us tackle the most common and obvious difference when shopping in Japan. That is paying in trays. You never, ever just hand the money to the clerk, you must always put the money on a tray. If a tray is not available, the put the money on the counter. You will see this happening all over Japan. The same goes for credit cards too (that is if you find a place that accepts them), you put the cards in the try. 80% of the time, they will hand you the change, but the other 20% they will put the change in a new tray just for you to pick up.
One thing you will notice right away while shopping at a mall or department store is the incessant need for all the employees to say, on repeat "irasshaimase." Do not, and I repeat, DO NOT say this back to them. If you do, they and anyone else around you will laugh at you. It means "welcome to our store." It literally means "you
come/go" which is funny, but it really means "welcome."
Let's say that you want to try on some clothing. Usually, they will let you just take the clothing off the rack and try it on, but sometimes they have a special item just for trying on that is literally the same exact thing without all the tags. Right before you head to the fitting room, they will either point out to you, or hand you a strange bag. This bag is not an actual bag, it is to put over your face to protect the clothing from getting makeup stains on it. All dressing rooms in Japan carry this, and it is encouraged that you please use it. Another important thing to note, is that you must remove your shoes. But don't take off your shoes, stand right next to them, then step up on the carpeted area to try on clothing. This is what most foreigners will do. You need to take your shoes off as you are stepping up. This means that your shoeless foot should never touch the same ground shoes walk on. Take off one shoe, then step up on the carpet, then remove the other shoe, and continue stepping up. Please, please, please, PLEASE do not step on the same ground as your shoes. The employees will yell at you might refuse to let you try on clothes. Don't gaijin smash! This web site is not about gaijin smashing.
After you have made your purchase, you have correctly put the money into the try, you are ready to take your purchased item and leave. Yet, the employee isn't giving to you, despite the fact that your hand is outstretched. You have encountered a store that requires the employees to pass on the shopping bag at the entrance of the store. 50% of the time they will just give you your bag (taped closed I might add. Don't ask me why), but the other 50% of the time, they will be expecting you to walk with them to the front of the store, take the bag, then walk away. If you look back, they will be bowing deeply for several seconds. This is normal. Some foreigners really find it strange and odd and often make fun of them, just let it go. Please don't be rude. This is their culture, not yours. I am sure your culture does things that they don't understand as well.
After shopping things can get a little tiring so you stop at a local restaurant to grab a bite to eat. You get seated, you check out the menu, and you start to notice that everything include bread or flour and you are gluten free. "No biggie" you think. "I will just ask for a gluten free option or exchange an item for something else." While that works fine in your country, things don't work like that in Japan. You cannot, under any circumstance modify an order without causing utter chaos to the entire restaurant. It is impossible. The waiter doesn't know what to do, the chef doesn't know what to do, and the manager doesn't know what to do. No one knows what to do. Even if you are asking for something as simple as putting dressing on the side, they just cannot fathom anyone
deviating from the set menu's recipe. The good news is, you can ask for minor modifications at Starbucks or fast food chains, but actual sit down restaurants, this is out of the question. A word of advice, check the menu first, BEFORE you decide to eat there. I have yet to see a restaurant in Japan that doesn't post their menu outside the place. You literally have no excuse to step into the store, then ask if they have anything you can eat. The sign is right there.
Let us move on to having found a restaurant that accommodates you. You found what you want to eat, and are ready to order, but there is no waiter to be found. This is because you need to press a call button. They are usually on the table near the napkins or box of silver wear (oh yeah, they put all the spoons and stuff in a little box on the table). Just press that, and someone will be with you shortly. If there is no button, then just put up your hand and say "sumimasen!" If you hear a "hai~!" Then someone will be with you shortly. If nothing, then
repeat it louder.
Now you are finished eating your delicious food and are ready to pay. If there is no receipt/bill already on the
table then you have to get up to the counter and tell the clerk what you had. This part is easy even if you have
0 Japanese. If you are with someone and want to pay separately, then just say "betsu betsu." If you have a bill at your table, you must bring it with you to the register. You never leave money on the table. Which brings me to my next point, no tips. You can't. I have tried. They will refuse until you are blue in the face. Just don't bother, no matter how good the service was. You can't do it. As a matter of fact, no tips anywhere in Japan. No one accepts them.
Now you have been shopped out, and would like to travel back to your hotel. Well, now you have to take a train/bus/subway. (I will not be discussing buses, as their system is different in every area). If you have the JR Pass, you are taking the train. You cannot take the subway, however you can take very select buses.
If you don't have the pass, you can take whatever you so please. The subway and trains are very similar with minor differences but for the purpose of this analogy, they are the same. There are so many train lines in Japan that they can feel overwhelming. Rather than just standing there staring at the map and trying to make sense of it, why not try using hyperdia? This site is helpful in finding your way around Japan. It might take a bit to get used to it if you have never used a transit system before but after a few tries it will make sense. You just need to type everything in capitals or it doesn't know what you want. Speaking of standing there searching for your train, be considerate and stand to the side by a wall or something. Don't just stand in front of the ticket counter or kiosk. Move to the side, find what you need, then go to a kiosk or train. People are constantly moving very fast to catch their trains. It is best not to be in their way.
You have found your train, you have your ticket/pass, and head to the escalators to the platform. You see that everyone is standing on one side while the other side is completely free. This is because one side is meant for standing, while the other side is left open for people to walk up or down. In the kanto area (Tokyo), you stand to the left. In the kansai area (Osaka/Kyoto), you stand to the right. If you don't know, people watch. That is the best thing to do.
Now you got on your train and it is packed. You have to squeeze your way into the train and mush yourself amongst many people, so you start uttering "sumimasen" (excuse me) over and over and over. You are probably garnering strange looks too. This is because no one uses "sumimasen" to actually mean "excuse me." They use it to mean "I have a question, please help me." "Gomen" (I'm sorry) is probably better to use, but when it comes to crowds, you are going to bump into people. Unless you notice that person react to you or drop something, there is no need to say anything. Everyone knows that physical contact is inevitable.
While you are on the train you get a phone call from your friend asking where you are because she wants to see a movie. So you answer and start talking. This is a big no-no. You must not answer your phone. You can text if it is on silent mode but no talking. Quiet talking with your friend on the train is ok, but definitely no phones, no horseplay, no big gestures, and no loud talking. You must be very quiet.
You have arrived at your stop, you meet up your friend to see a movie but you still are carrying all your shopping bags from earlier. You don't really want to take them with you all over the place. Never fear! There are coin lockers! Coin lockers at the station are usually more expensive, but nothing too extravagant. Most facilities have coin lockers. If they cost 100 yen, then it is actually free. Just open it up, put your stuff in, insert the 100 yen coin, lock, and you are good to go. When you are ready to retrieve you items the coin will be returned back to you. Simple, and convenient.
Ok, first off, don't ask for the bathroom in Japan, they will all be thinking of a bathtub. Instead, ask for the toilets,
or "toile" in Japanese. Before the movie, you need to use the bathroom, so you find one, and unfortunately, the
only stall available is the dreaded hole in the ground. Dun dun DUUUUUUUUH! They really aren't that bad. It is just stigma. And they aren't holes in the ground either. It is an actual toilet. Just pull your pants down, face the piping, and do your business. Then it comes time to flush the toilet, but there is no handle. What do you do? Oh no! There is no handle! The toilet is broken! What do I do!?! Relax it's on the wall. If it doesn't say "flush" it will say "流". That means flush. The button will be obvious so don't worry.
Now you are ready to wash your hands. Yay! Sparkly clean. Uh oh. There are no paper towels. There are no hand dryers. Are you.....are you supposed to use your shirt?? Not unless you read my previous posts and prepared well by bringing a hand towel. 99.9% of public toilets in Japan do not include anyway of you drying off your hands.
You and your friend enjoyed the movie, you enjoyed your popcorn and soda. No you are ready to toss those away and head back to your hotel. But wait, what's this? Multiple trash bins???? I know why Japan does this, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Congratulations, you have encountered the annoying Japanese trash system. It should be pretty straightforward. Paper goes in paper, and plastic goes in plastic, and bottles go in bottles, there will be pictures so it should make sense. If you are unsure, you can ask someone. They will gladly help you.
Another thing to note, it is considered rude to eat/drink while walking. So make sure you sit somewhere to finish your snack or stop walking for a moment to take a drink. Another thing that is rude is licking food off your fingers. Unless you want people to avoid you then by all means, lick away. Just use a napkin.
Hooray! You have survived your first imaginary outing in Japan! Throughout this post, it progressively got more real. Sorry about that. Unless you liked it then, you're welcome! If there is anything that I forgot and you feel should be mentioned, feel free to let me know by leaving a comment. Thanks for reading!