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Japan Wanderlust: You Will Get Lost!

How to transcend this and other negative travel expectations when visiting Japan, plus more than 10 resources for first timers.

By 7 min read

For lack of money, fame or whatever it is those Instagram wanderlust-hashtag kids have, most of us with, well, commitments, possess the desire to travel but don’t get to do it often.

I’m neither here to justify nor shame this. What’s more essential is that you are here. So, if you’re the least bit curious about traveling in Japan — let’s break it down. Here’s what most people expect from Japan and how that may (or may not) be right. Plus, some travel tips and location suggestions along the way.

1. You will feel bad about money.

(If you’ve already bought your plane tickets, feel free to skip to No. 2!)

This is just a worry of any rational person. But if you’re going to spend money on something — why not travel? Here’s a little inspiration.

When I was an assistant language teacher, one of my 16-year-old student’s dreams was to be a pilot for All Nippon Airways, one of the top international airlines in Japan. He told me he saved ¥100 ($1) every day for a year in order to save up enough cash to take an ANA plane from Tokyo area to Osaka. And you know what? He took that flight. When I asked what he did during his trip, he replied he just went to the airport and then came home. He did all that just to experience being on an airplane for the first time.

While this anecdote doesn’t remedy the issue of money, it does help with the age-old reminder that: “everything is relative.” And when it comes to travel — where there’s a will, there’s a way. 

4. You will get lost.

This is just the JR map, wait until they add the metro lines.

By now, you’ve probably seen the intimidating schematics of intersecting colorful lines that is the Tokyo train map, but getting lost is one of the best hindrances — and privileges — Japan affords you.

Japan is stupid safe. Compared to most countries, it’s low crime rate and high levels of big-brotheresque security — like CCTV cameras in dark stairwells at train stations — make it extremely secure. It isn’t called “the safety country” for nothing. It’s not that Japan doesn’t have crime, but that it’s, well, hidden. Most of the time, tourists couldn’t even locate the Japanese underground if they wanted to.

Not to mention that if you do get lost, that famed “Japanese politeness” practically ensures someone will bend over backwards to help you. It’s also a great place to lose stuff. Yes, I am aware how funny that sounds, but Japan has an excessively high number of lost-and-found items, so if you do lose even a small item, you’ll likely get it back.

For fun, here’s a list of lost things I’ve retrieved while in Japan (as well as a nod to how well I do — or don’t do — after nomikai, or drinking parties):  wallet (twice), phone (two out of three times), glasses and countless umbrellas.

3. You will get confused.

Sure, the Japanese country side is a little tricky to get to, but it’s well worth it. Seen here is Kurobe Gorge in Toyama.

Some foreign media, like The Atlantic, actually went as far as to advise travelers to straight-up skip over the Japanese countryside (which, by the way, is the majority of the country) and not to rent a car in Japan because you’ll never figure it out.

But not going to the countryside (which is accessible by train, though a car helps) is  — how to say this lightly? — really, really asinine. What did I do on my first trip to Japan in 2013? Exactly what they advised. Just trains and the only countryside I saw was framed by a bullet train window.

My advice now after having traveled from Yakushima to Sapporo? Depending on time, take at least a day or two to discover the stark contrast of the “slow life” outside big cities. One spot I recommend for a little “countryside for beginners” is greater Tokyo’s Okutama that has a modest tourist center with a few English fliers right outside the station and bus system to get you around. (I know other expats are cursing me right now for suggesting a place in Tokyo, but the reality is that most people are only going to go to Tokyo and Kyoto, so freakin’ Okutama is a start.)

If you want the real deal, just a few hours from Tokyo, you’ll be in the quaint mountain towns of Gunma, mysterious cities like Ushiku where a massive buddha statue juts into the skyline; or go into the mystical waterfalls, ravines and countless other miracles of nature in prefectures like Niigata or Shizuoka, just to name a few.

Seishun 18 Ticket

Get a local train pass that allows up to five days of unlimited travel on local and rapid trains and which is a lot cheaper than a JR Rail Pass at 11,850 yen ($115 USD) in most of Japan. Check out more about that on JR’s website.

Another thing to consider is renting a car or camper van. Car rental in Japan is a little on the expensive side, but it certainly opens up travel options, depending on your confidence in navigation and driving skills. Note: For most travelers, you can purchase an international driver’s license in your home country that’s valid in Japan. (For me, it was as easy as dropping by my local AAA.)

4. You will offend someone.

Take a stab at train etiquette while in Japan.

No matter how normal you’ve convinced yourself you are — get real! You being a weird foreigner will inevitably offend somebody, somewhere on your trip.

Japan is polite. For example, no matter how much you study recommended train etiquette, like lining up single file behind the yellow line, there will be rules that only Japanese people will recognize from having grown up in a high-context culture.

Japan is soft-spoken. In some cases, you probably won’t even realize you’re offending someone. I mean, did you know that leaving your backpack on your, well, back while on the train is actually pretty rude? You might be breaking rules you don’t know, yet, for better or worse, most of the time Japanese people won’t say anything. Still, if there is an obvious mishap, it can usually be soothed by a simple, “Sumimasen” (excuse me) or, “Gomen nasai” (sorry).

You might not get used to all the hidden rules in Japan, but embrace it, and do your best to have fun picking up whatever in’s and out’s you can.

5. You will deal with a language barrier.

Which station is it…?

Everyone in Tokyo does not speak English, which is the opposite of what I heard before I visited. Japanese try their honest-to-goodness best, but the truth is that as kind and well-intentioned as most Japanese people are, the country as a whole, is way behind others when it comes to its citizens being able (or willing) to speak English. So, you cannot rely on the fact that everyone will speak it to you.

You will feel like a dummy, but what’s so bad about that? You’ll have to look up some Japanese words to get by. You’ll have to walk up to strangers and ask for directions to the train station. In other words: you’ll have to assume the role of the weary traveler, not the catered-to resort goer.

And yet, Japan will transcend these expectations. 

There are places here that don’t make it onto Google Maps. Restaurants that have no sign. And, let’s not forget, tons of hotels and bars that may or not be for, um, more than a hotel stay and a drink.  

The awkwardness that sparks communication and intuition breakdowns offers up a chance for something you can’t always find at home: happenstance. That’s part of what keeps me falling in love with traveling here. That’s certainly not unique to the Japan experience, but I do think Japan is an ideal place to first challenge your own cultural and linguistic limits.

If you’d like to further discuss travel and Japan in all its glory and frustration, try joining us on GaijinPot’s Facebook forum.

Any more tricks or tips for Japan first-timers? Anything you’re still wondering about? Let us know in the comments below!


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