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Traveling anytime soon? A foreigner’s guide to navigating Japan

Navigating Japan for any Westerner is an experience. Once there you can expect things to run differently. What is a different continent, feels like another world entirely, and no matter what preconceived notions you had either intensify or shatter.

Being that Japan is so different in customs to the United States (or any Western country, really), we often see it as odd. It is foreign, no doubt.

Here are a number of things I ran into in while navigating Japan last year.

Bidets in almost every bathroom

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Going to the bathroom was never so clean! This was one of the hardest adjustments when coming back to America. What was standard there is a luxury here.

The few times you may encounter a bidet-less bathroom are humbling, but rest assured the next one will have. Even in seemingly lower-end restaurants and shops will you have comfort on the can.

This is only one aspect of Japan’s cultural dedication to cleanliness. Tokyo, though it’s roughly six times the size of New York City, is leagues cleaner.

This is reflected in the subways, the streets, and certainly the bathrooms.

Tattoos have a bad rap

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If you have tattoos visible on you, expect some people to be a bit concerned. Tattoos are associated with the Yakuza, which is the mafia of Japan.

The locals tend not to assume as much on gaiyajin (Japanese pejorative for a foreigner, prepare to hear that one a lot). All the same, it depends on visibility and generally how threatening you look.

You may be prohibited from certain places if your tats are visible, so be sure to cover up.

No tip…but table charges

One of the best things about navigating Japan is the cheap yet high-quality food from all sorts of restaurants. The service fee is included in the price, so we could learn a thing or two.

However, some places will include a bowl of edamame on your table. It is not free. If you take even one, they’ll give you what’s called a table charge, and applies to everyone at the table. It’s made as a trap for foreigners.

You can choose to leave it, but if it’s there… Break the cycle, friends.

Sleeping in public places

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This may happen more often than you think if you’re going out there. The subways close at midnight and open at 5 A.M. every morning, so you have to commit to a night out.

Because of this, it’s not uncommon for people to just sleep in places like bars and 24-hour fast food places. This is only until the trains open, the exhausted night-before partiers pile on.

It’s much safer to sleep in public in Japan, as you won’t have your stuff stolen and you’ll most likely be left alone. Because it’s so common, you may find people just passed out in places in the early mornings.

That first train of the day was host to many naps of mine.

No thieves

Japan is known for its low crime rate, as most criminal activity there is done online. Because of this, you will never have to worry about anything being stolen!

Even if you were to drop your wallet, wherever you leave it, someone will turn it in with everything intact.

My second day in Tokyo, I was eating at a noodle shop and left my drawstring bag on the floor next to me. Having finished, I paid, left, and walked two blocks to the nearest pachinko parlor.

It was only after running out of bills on hand that I realized I left my bag. With all my travel documents, IDs, and several thousand dollars in yen. When I came back, it was set behind the counter with a blank white sticky note on it.

Lesson learned.

“Thrift” stores

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For you fashion freaks out there, you may be disappointed that thrifting isn’t nearly as cheap as in the West. The items are pieced out and priced by internet standards.

That being said, they do have higher-end goods at their thrifts, as you’ll find luxury brands. You might even find some oversized backpacks.

There do exist thrift stores that sell items for the cheap, and you can get lucky. Keep an eye out and you just might. Travel may be a ways away, but navigating Japan is nice to consider if you’re planning to visit.

Enjoy the land of the rising sun, friends.