Here are some things about Japan that no website, guide, or app will ever tell you.

Charlene  |  Singapore
Published 2015-02-03 14:00:00

It seems everyone we know is heading to some part of Japan this year — and not without good reason, too: the Japanese yen is currently at its weakest in nearly 5 years, making it somewhat more affordable to visit than before. In a country notorious for producing thousand-dollar melons, you want to make sure every yen counts. And what better time to do that than now?

The Setagaya Kannon, Tokyo (Image Credit: Charlene Chan)
The Setagaya Kannon, Tokyo (Image Credit: Charlene Chan)

Pop culture would have us imagine that Japan is an eclectic mix of impossibly cute things, cutting-edge technology and having some of the friendliest people, ever. And that is mostly true. But as with every city or country, Japan has its own quirks which no handbook, guide or app will tell you. So if you’re planning a trip there soon, here are some tips which might come in handy:

1. Basic Japanese knowledge is not essential, but very useful

I love picking up new languages. I really do. In fact, part of the draw of travelling, for me, is learning a bit of a new language every time I go somewhere new. But I don’t always have the luxury to do that. And before I know it, I’m 30, 000 feet above the sea and taking that mandatory shot out the plane window. At times like this, I fall back on English and hope that it is enough for wherever I am going.

Image Credit: Charlene Chan
Image Credit: Charlene Chan

In Japan, only a very small minority of locals are proficient in English (or any other language, for that matter). Apart from major airports and the most prominent landmarks and attractions, the availability of English translations is sketchy at best. This is the case for major cities like Tokyo and Fukuoka; in smaller towns or islands, it is likely that the only people who speak languages other than Japanese are the receptionists in the lobby of your hotel.

I definitely don’t mean to say that everyone should learn English just to cater to tourists. In fact, I think that visitors should be the ones who make the effort to learn the local language. Even basic phrases like konnichiwa (hello) and arigato (thank you) will earn you some favour with the locals, and will make your trip a lot more enjoyable.

2. “They will look like they want to be your friend, but trust me, they really don’t.”

So said our host during our stay in Tokyo, which, as we later found out, was a pretty accurate description. Call the locals shy if you will, but very few will try to make conversation past a curt ohayo gozaimasu (good morning) when you bump into them around your Airbnb-sourced apartment block. Even in areas frequented by tourists, only a handful of local shopkeepers will speak at length with you beyond what is absolutely necessary.

The view from our apartment block in central Tokyo (Image Credit: Charlene Chan)
The view from our apartment block in central Tokyo (Image Credit: Charlene Chan)

This is especially apparent in more upmarket neighbourhoods like Omotesando. Again, our host was quick to point out that “quite a number of famous people live here”; they presumably had no want for attention and were super cautious of paparazzi/stalker types. (The whole apartment complex was secured via extra fancy microchip keys). So if your idea of a relaxing vacation is a low key, non-antagonistic one, it’s probably best to stick with a simple greeting and tamp down on your extrovert tendencies.

3. There is art. A lot of it.

Everyone knows Japan for its rich culture and tradition. And it definitely lives up to its name: from traditional kabuki theatre in Tokyo’s Ginza, to the numerous shrines and temples dotted around the country, you’ll definitely get more than you bargained for in the culture department.

But what you might not know about is how Japan is pretty well versed in modern art as well. Contemporary works by artists like Yayoi Kusama, exhibitions from the likes of fashion houses like Dior, architecture by Tadao Ando — there is definitely a burgeoning arts scene in the country, and if you appreciate art in any form at all, then Japan is right up your alley.

Tadao Ando's Yumebutai, Awaji Island (Image credit: Charlene Chan)
Tadao Ando’s Yumebutai, Awaji Island (Image Credit: Charlene Chan)

Incidentally, we managed to make a trip to Naoshima, a tiny island known for its nature and contemporary art. Located 20 minutes away from Honshu by ferry, it’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill travel destination, and might not appeal to those who have no patience for museum-hopping (or a lot of walking). But with a bit of careful planning and luck (it was raining 1.5 days out of the 2 days we spent there, complete with howling winds), the island does have its charm and a spectacular sunset to boot.

4. If you think Japan is all about sushi, you’re wrong

You’re probably sighing and thinking why I would find it necessary to dedicate a portion of this article to talking about food in Japan. After all, what’s a trip there if not for the food, right? But dining in Japan, as I discovered, is not just about tasting as many different dishes as you can. What many restaurants and cafés attempt to do is to provide visitors with an experience, whether through ambience or dining concept.

(Image Credit: Charlene Chan)
The interior of the Aoyama Flower Market Tea House (Image Credit: Charlene Chan)

If you’ve ever dreamed of having a leisurely lunch in a greenhouse filled with fresh flowers and soft lighting, then you’ll love Aoyama Flower Market Tea House. The shop front appears to be just another regular flower store, but walk further in and you’ll see the glass doors to the teahouse. The interior is as beautiful as you can imagine; no surprise, then, that the queue never let up the whole time we were there.

What’s more, this is no standard café with great ambience and not-so-great food/drinks. The flower-infused teas, in particular, are right on point. I highly recommend the rose soda, a light, fragrant concoction (served with rose petals floating on the top!).

Seating arrangements at Ichiran (Image Credit: yokanavi.com)
Seating arrangements at Ichiran (Image Credit: yokanavi.com)

Those hankering after a more fulfilling meal might want to make a stop at Ichiran, a ramen restaurant chain with a unique concept. There is only one item on the menu — the pork-based Tonkotsu Ramen — and diners have the option to customise their order and/or add side dishes.

What’s interesting here is the seating arrangement inside the restaurant: customers are led to individual wooden booths, and are served their food through windows in these booths. Dining here is very much a solitary affair, during which you probably only see the face of the server who brought you to your seat. While no reason is given as to how or why such a concept came about, they do serve a mean bowl of ramen, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re willing to brave the snaking queues.

Now that you are ready to travel, check out a comprehensive list of accommodations in Japan on Agoda!

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