15 Tips for Navigating Japan: How to Save Face, Respect, and Money

Japan operates on very different societal rules than most of the west, and while it creates a stunning society with many beautiful aspects, it can be difficult to navigate without causing a fuss.  And the Japanese hate a fuss.  In a society where respect and trouble rules, I can only relate it to the American South on steroids, with very different food.  It is a marvelous place to explore, and in order to get the most of your trip, follow these tips.

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1. Be quiet- You'll notice in Japan that even the subways are near-silent.  It is important not to burden other people with your noise, especially in closed spaces.  This is a beautiful country with a society that only works because of it's intense respect for others, their space, and their time. Invading it is a major faux pas.

2.  Walk to the left- If you notice the traffic in Japan it makes sense.  While in other countries it is more of a suggestion, here it is much more important to keep the flow going.  This applies to everything from the side walk to escalators to loading onto a subway car.

3.  When in doubt, head bob- Everyone knows that back when there were kings and queens bows were used to signify respect of someone in a higher position than yourself.  We won't get into the details of that in Japan here, but as a foreigner a good rule of thumb is to head bob everyone.  Everyone.  It's nice.

4.  Don't ask for special treatment- need a coffee packaged another way? or a rule ignored?  Don't.  Even if it doesn't seem like a big deal to you, Japanese do not break, or even bend rules slightly, and asking for something out of the norm cases a big fuss that's not worth the trouble for anyone.

5.  Let go after dark- the strict rules of Japanese society change greatly after sundown and a couple of highballs.  Let your hair down, get loud, talk shit, fall asleep on the street.  It's all fine.

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1.  Arigatou (gozaimasu)- thank you (very much).  Use this 3x as often as you normally would.  

2.  Sumimasen- loosely translates to excuse me, this is another word to be used all the time, almost as a reflex.  Japanese people despise burdoning others, even in minute ways we wouldn't consider, so when in doubt, bob your head and say "sumimasen".

3.  Hai- yes, or I'm satisfied.

4.  Daijabu- It's okay.  This phrase is used for yes, it's okay, and no depending on inflection.  Japanese people don't like saying no, so if there's a pause or an "mmm" before this phrase, take it as a no.  Before learning the uses of this word, I got myself into a few miniature arguments in Japan, a big nono!

5.  Wakarimasen/Eigo- I don't understand/English.  You will find in Japan that if who you are interacting with does not speak English, they will try, and keep trying to converse with you in Japanese.  This is the polite way of letting them know you cannot, and maybe add a "sumimasen" after :)

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Money Saving:

1.  Get a Passmo card- This is the preloaded card for the subway system.  It costs a 500Y deposit, but it makes every trip you take a little cheaper, plus saves you the hassle of finding out how much each trip costs.

2.  Hit the grocery store after 9- New York is called the city that never sleeps, but those guys didn't come to Tokyo.  After 9 all the premade food gets heavily discounted, and you can find great deals on everything.

3.  Take advantage of all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink- In other countries, all you can eat means terrible quality, but not here.  You can find great shabu-shabu, Korean BBQ, and other deals at 2500Y for 1.5 hours, and all-you-can-drink accompaniment is usually about 1400Y extra.  It's amazing, period, do it.

4.  Avoid bars, and the cover charge attached- while it's definitely worth checking out some of the better bars, for money's sake it's better to drink at dinner and just hang out there.  Bars charge anywhere from 500-1500Y just for being in the place, before drinks.

5.  Go to restaurants above or below street level- not only are these hidden spots usually tastier, they don't have to pay the high rent of first floor establishments, so prices are generally 20% lower.

Japan is one of the most incredible places, go and enjoy!


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