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  • Writer's pictureDr Kalanit Ben-Ari

Experience Japan Like a Local: 11 Pro Tips for Travellers

Planning a trip to Japan can be exhilarating yet daunting, given its rich culture and unique customs. To help you make the most out of your visit, I've put together my top 11 tips based on personal experiences that promise a deeper connection and smoother journey through this beautiful country.

Don’t forget to check my book recommendations and movie recommendations at the end of the blog, if you want to familiarise yourself more with this fascinating culture and country.

My Top 11 Tips to Enhance Your Trip to Japan:

1. Learn Basic Japanese Words

Starting conversations with a few words in Japanese, such as greetings and thanks, can significantly enhance your interactions. Even a minimal effort is highly appreciated and serves as a great ice-breaker. My husband and I used the language app Pimsleur, and although we completed only a couple of lessons, the few words we learned went a long way! If you need to know just two phrases, they should be "Sumimasen" (excuse me) and "Arigato gozaimasu" (thank you, in a polite way).

2. Respect the Two-hand Exchange

In Japan, it is customary to give and receive items with both hands. Whether it's tea, a pen, change, or a business card, remember to use both hands. This small act of respect enriches your cultural experience and shows your regard for local customs.

3. Bowing: A Crucial Cultural Etiquette

Bowing when greeting or parting is a profound aspect of Japanese etiquette. In Japan, not only is there no such thing as turning away without a respectful bow and a face-to-face 'thank you,' but it's also customary to bow before entering and leaving places like temple gates, taxis, and hotel receptions. Embracing this practice is not only respectful but also adds a heartfelt touch to your departures and entries. You'll also notice that younger people often bow to older ones as a sign of respect—whether crossing the road, passing by a stranger, or greeting each other.

4. Seek and You Shall Receive

Japanese people are known for their kindness and generosity. Asking for directions or recommendations can sometimes lead to unexpected adventures, like being physically guided (sometimes a 5-10 minute walk!) to a hidden gem of a restaurant. Don't hesitate to ask locals for suggestions; it's often better than what you might find on your own. They truly go out of their way to help, and remember, most local restaurants have no signs outside, so you'd never guess they were there!

5. Early Restaurant Closures

Many restaurants, especially those on the ground floor, close relatively early. However, Japan's cities are sprinkled with dining options at every corner, often on higher floors of buildings. Look for signs at the building entrance and check directories to discover various dining spots above street level.

6. Communication Essentials

Most locals don't speak English, so it's crucial to have your destination and hotel name and address written in Japanese to show taxi drivers or when asking for directions. It's a tip I received in advance, and it was a trip saver! Also, if you have food allergies, carry a card that lists these in Japanese to avoid any mix-ups.

7. Cash is King

Be prepared to use cash in many places including museums, taxis, and smaller restaurants, as they may not accept credit cards. Ensuring you have enough cash on hand is essential for a hassle-free experience.

8. Tax-Free Shopping with Your Passport

Carry your passport while shopping; you can present it at stores to receive a tax deduction right at the payment counter, which can lead to significant savings.

9. Prepare for Car Rentals

If you plan to rent a car, note that Japan requires a special original permit called an International Driving Permit, which you must obtain from your home country’s post office about a month before your trip. This requirement is stricter than in many other countries, so plan accordingly.

10. Embrace the Onsen Experience

Visiting a public bath or onsen is a must in Japan. These are gender-separated, and it's important to note that you will be naked, which is the norm in these baths. Before entering the bath, you are expected to shower while seated to clean yourself thoroughly. While the idea may seem daunting or awkward at first, the relaxing experience is incredibly rewarding and not to be missed. For us, the initial visit felt a bit awkward, but by the second time, we were totally hooked on the experience.

11. Arrive Early at Popular Spots

A warm recommendation: when visiting popular places, make the effort to arrive as early as possible. It can make all the difference between a 'wow' experience and a 'get me out of here' experience. Beating the crowds not only allows you to enjoy the scenery in peace but also offers the best opportunities for those perfect photos.

Preparation Recommendation

When I travel to a different culture, I like to immerse myself by reading novels and watching local films to better understand the country and its customs. While I do read some travel guides about destinations and sights, here I'm recommending materials that delve deeper into the culture rather than just the places.

One such gem is a children's book shown to us by a sushi master-chef during a dinner in his restaurant. Discovered mid-trip, it provided all the answers to our questions and misunderstandings, making it a valuable read for children, teens, and adults alike! I highly recommend Squeamish About Sushi (link to Amazon).

Additionally, I found two other books intriguing: one is a fiction and the other more like a diary. Four Seasons in Japan (link to Amazon) gives a deep dive into the customs and culture across different generations. Abroad in Japan (links to Amazon), written as a journal, shares the experiences of a young Englishman in Japan. Though not prize-winning literature, these books offer valuable insights into the Japanese way of life.

I also recommend watching two Japanese films: Every Day is a Good Day, a beautiful movie about the art and wisdom of the tea ceremony through the journey of a young woman. Having experienced a tea ceremony in Japan, this film added so much depth and appreciation to what we experienced. The second film, Perfect Days, might not be everyone's cup of tea due to its slow pace, but it provided a poignant look into the daily life and routine of an older man and introduced us to the public baths, which we later grew to love immensely in Japan.

By following these tips, you’re not just visiting Japan; you’re immersing yourself in its culture and customs, which is the essence of true travel. Enjoy your journey to the fullest and make memories that will last a lifetime! Stay tuned for my next blog, which will highlight our top destination experiences!

This blog was written by senior couples therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari. With a doctorate in Psychology, Dr Ben-Ari has worked in the field for over 20 years and runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London. She is also an author, speaker, international trainer, therapist supervisor, and was the Chair of Imago Relationship Therapy UK from 2013-2023.


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