If after reading all this, you are thinking of going to Japan, here’s some things to keep in mind. These are based on my experiences of traveling on my own (without a local guide or as part of a tour).
· You will almost certainly get lost frequently. If you can’t read Japanese, some signs will confuse you. And, Japanese maps work differently than US maps – it goes by district, block, and building number, not street and number. Luckily, there are many maps in train stations, on the street, and inside buildings. I think that some Japanese natives have trouble finding their way, so don’t feel bad if you get lost. To me, part of the adventure is trying to figure out where you are going without having to ask for help. We did resort to asking a couple of times (with mixed results). But, for the most part, we made our own way. If you have no sense of direction, can’t follow a map, and don’t like navigating, you may not want to travel in Japan on your own.
· On the other hand, people are very helpful, despite some language obstacles. They are understanding of people who don’t speak or read Japanese. If you’re patient, you’ll get there.
· You have to be willing to experiment with food. Japan is not for the picky. As a very picky child, my Mom probably still can’t believe the things I’ve eaten while traveling. You won’t always know what the ingredients are in the food you get, even after you are eating it. But, you’ll find new things you like. And, when it works out, it’s very rewarding. My favorite meal on this trip was in a little restaurant on a side street in Kamakura. There wasn’t a word of English in the restaurant or on the menu. And, no one working there spoke English. We were able to order some noodle dishes by bringing the waitress out to the street and pointing to what we wanted in the plastic food disply outside the restaurant. It was delicious, and they were very friendly to us. What fun!
· There’s no tipping in Japan. Period. Once you experience this, you realize how dumb a system based on tipping is. People in Japan generally take pride in their work and would be insulted by the offer of a tip. It’s so nice to not have to think about how much to tip and whether one is necessary.
· Japan is a very noisy place that is full of overstimulation if you can understand it all. But, it’s strangely relaxing to know that you can ignore almost everything you see and hear since you can’t understand it.
· Japan is very crowded, but very orderly. People walk (and drive) on the left, and wait in very orderly lines. If you’ve ever been stuck behind someone on a moving walkway who doesn’t understand (in the US) ‘stand right, walk left’, you’ll like Japan. People always stand on the left on escalators, leaving room for walkers on the right. This happens on the longest escalators and in the biggest crowds. If you love it when things are thoroughly organized, you’ll like Japan.
· Your hotel room will be small. Our room, although nice and comfortable, had almost no storage space. There was one small closet and one shelf. We lived out of our suitcases. And, if you wanted to just throw your stuff on the floor, you’d run out of floor space quickly. We adapted quickly and developed a routine of where to put things so that we could still move around the room. I imagine that for some people things would get cluttered fast.
· Things go more smoothly when you follow the rules. Many times, people will insist on you following rules that obviously don’t matter much. But, if you don’t follow them, they will keep asking you to do it. So, just follow along. Get in your assigned seat on the empty bus. Don’t cross the street against the crossing light even when there is absolutely no one around. Always take your receipt when you buy something. The first time I didn’t do that, I got the impression that the store clerk was going to get fired if somehow she didn’t convince me to take it.
The best part of all of these experiences is when you realize what Sam did on our first day in Japan –“They do everything we do, they just do it all differently!” Maybe visiting a place like Japan can help you realize that there are always many ways of doing things, not just the way you are used to.