Master the Land of the Rising Sun
The first thing people said when they heard I was going to Japan as part of my round the world trip was 'Wow, you're brave'. There were times when - thinking about the language (I speak no Japanese) and the squat toilets - I felt inclined to agree. However, I figured that the toilets were part of travelling and that a country that had the World Cup in 2002 must at least have basic English.
In fact, hotels and tourist information centres had perfect English, putting my slight London twang to shame. Most hostel staff speak English, as do all tourist information staff, and all train announcements are made in both languages.
Lost in translation
Once off the beaten track, though, language can cause problems. When trying to book a hotel in Hiroshima (still a fairly major destination) I thought I'd try out a traditional Japanese ryokan. When the receptionist answered the phone I asked if she spoke English; all I got was a reply in Japanese. Not wanting to hang up rudely, I said 'Thank you, good bye' and got a reply in perfect English. That is the only downside with Japan. Whilst most people are very welcoming, friendly and want to practise their English on you, a small minority will resent you being there. When queuing for the subway I would join the back of the queue. On more than one occasion, the next person would then stand just in front of me and slightly to the side, and the queue would continue there. They would then push in front of me onto the train. At first I thought it was just me imagining things but when talking to others it became apparent that others had experienced this.
As for my other concern, all the hotels I stayed in had Western-style toilets and even public toilets usually had one Western toilet if you looked for it. On the Shinkansen (bullet trains) they have both a Japanese-style and a Western-style and it says on the door, in both English and Japanese, which is which.
With Japan being so westernised, it doesn't really matter if you leave anything at home. Electrical equipment such as hairdryers, straighteners and mobile phones are available all over the place and very high quality. It is a good idea to take a lot of money though. Prices, whilst not being as unreasonable as many would have you believe, are still on a par with London. One money-saving tip is to buy a Japan Rail pass - this gives you unlimited travel across the whole JR network. Unfortunately, it does not cover the Tokyo subway.
With regards to clothes, unlike most of the rest of Asia, there is no need to cover shoulders and knees or to wear a wedding ring. The only real recommendation is flip-flops. Shoes need to be taken off when entering someone's house and many hotels and hostels, or when visiting a temple, and ones that slip on and off are definitely the easiest. It's also a good idea to take an umbrella if you will be there anywhere near the rainy season. I didn't and I regretted it. The rain was so heavy that it got through my new, waterproof shoes.
A few more etiquette tips
There is no tipping, although the Japanese are getting used to it so they wont say 'no'!
Also, it is the Japanese custom to bow. I was never quite sure if there was a correct way to do this but I found that as long as you obviously attempted it and gave people a friendly smile they'd offer you a handshake as a sort of compromise.
Japan is great for shopping if you've got enough money. In Tokyo, the main shopping districts are Shinjuku and Shibuya, both easily reached by subway. For those interested in music, or who are supposed to be buying weird and wonderful musical instruments for friends (don't ask), there is actually a music district - Ochanomizu.
In Kyoto, one of the better-known areas is Shijo. Here you can buy just about anything and prices are fairly reasonable. It's all under cover as well, so it makes a great escape when the rain sets in. I managed to spend an entire day there and I'm not the greatest fan of shopping. One thing to look out for is some of the things written on T-shirts. They obviously make sense in Japanese, but things get lost in translation and some end up looking like they were made just by printing random words...
If you want to try on traditional clothes but don't really want to buy them, some hostels will allow you to do this. At the hostel I stayed at in Kyoto, you could try on a kimono and shoes for free.
Japan is a very beautiful country and Osaka is one of only a few places where, if stood in the right place, you can get a view of an old castle with a backdrop of very modern skyscrapers. It is a safe country and one in which I had no real hassles as a solo female traveller. Obviously, this does not mean that you don't need to take precautions, but no more than you would at home.
Get a Taste of Tokyo
Getting started on your travels in Japan can be intimidating. It's a crazy place and wonderfully alien. Thankfully we've got a Tokyo Taster pack that means you'll be off to a flying start and totally set up for when you arrive.
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