Japan has always fascinated me with the deeply rooted traditions and culture for simplicity and beauty. I love the way the Japanese respect all living and non living objects, they are extremely kind and polite, always lending a hand when they see you are having difficulty of some kind, and they will thank you 1000 times every day! I have to say that they also have a very strict mindset, which makes it seem as though they aren’t very logical at times, and I don’t appreciate their chauvinism and patriarchal tradition. Another issue is the language barrier, since Japanese may know english but tend to avoid speaking it due to their incredible shyness and fear of making mistakes; so if you have the chance to go with a guide or someone who speaks Japanese it will make your life much easier!
My experience in Japan was extremely positive, I had the chance to immerse myself in the Japanese culture and try to understand their habits. I had the chance to study for a month in a local university, but I was living in a residential area on the outskirts of Tokyo (in Shinagawa). Therefore unfortunately I didn’t get to visit the country as well as I’d wanted to since there are great differences all along the archipelago from north to south.
Japan is made up of four main islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Hokkaido is the northern and most rural island; Honshu is the greatest and most developed island, on which the major cities are located: Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka; Shikoku is the smallest and least populated of the islands; and Kyushu is the most tropical of the main Japanese islands, it hosts the city of Nagasaki and Kagoshima.
TRANSPORT: Moving around Japan is very simple as the whole country is connected by a thick network of railways. This makes things very simple for tourists, and even though it might be frightening at the beginning you can quickly get used to the Japanese system. Before leaving for Japan it’s best to order a Japan Rail Pass, in order to travel from 1 to 3 weeks and save money! Personally I used JR lines every day to move through Tokyo, but also to visit Nara or Arashiyama near Kyoto, and the Shinkansen is the best train you can get to move through Japanese cities (for example from Tokyo to Kyoto it takes around 2 and 1/2 hours). Taxies are everywhere but are quite expensive, so I recommend moving around with public transports (buses, metro, etc.) if possible; I used cabs only at night when the metro was closed.
FOOD: Japanese food is mainly composed of proteins: fish, meat and eggs, and rice in all its forms, both in savoury and sweet food. Japanese food is not only sushi! Of course it is also much cheaper than what you can find in western countries, thereforeif you like it I recommend experimenting. But there are so many great dishes to try! My personal favourites are tonkatsu (a fried cutlet), okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) and all the strange sweets such as dorayaki, mochi and sakuramochi, and daifuku. Try a teppanyaki restaurant, where your food will be cooked on a grill right in front of you! They can cook yakisoba, steak, shrimp, okonomiyaki, or monjayaki.
Another type of cooking you can experience is shabu-shabu, which consists of meat and vegetables that you boil in hot water. If you have the time (and the money) try kobe beef; it is said to be a delicacy. Everywhere you go you will also find vending machines that sell water and other beverages such as green tea and (horrible) cold coffee!
SHOPPING: In Japan every city has a shopping area with a covered gallery or underground area, in major cities there is more than one area. Shopping is quite expensive in Japan, especially when it comes to buying antiques and original kimonos (usually the cheap ones are made in China). Around Japan you’ll also find a lot of Department Stores, such as Matsuya and Seibu, and Discount Stores that sell objects for ¥100 (about €1). Local souvenirs aren’t the best, usually they are quite tacky and fake, so I recommend buying something to eat or drink such as japanese sweets, green tea or matcha tea, sakè or something artisanal made with beautiful japanese paper, wooden or lacquered objects. Try looking for objects that are typical in the particular region you find yourself in, as Japan is quite diversified.
ADVICE:Three things you must absolutely avoid are walking into sanctuaries or homes with shoes on, speaking loudly in public, using soap in public baths (you won’t be able to enter if you aren’t completely naked and if you have tattoos) and blowing your nose in public. In some areas it’s also considered not courteous to walk whilst eating.
Don’t worry if you can’t find trash cans, it’s normal! You can throw your trash at home, in bars and restaurants, or if you’re desperate to throw your trash ask some local store if they can throw it for you.
The most formal way to greet someone is by bowing, and the degree of respect you want to show varies with how much you bow. Avoid kisses and hugging at all costs! When exchanging cards offer yours with two hands, and always read it before putting it away.
Never leave tips! If someone was particularly nice you can leave a gift of some sort.