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No matter how well researched a visit to a new place, there is always information that only made itself known once you're already there. This is what I wish I knew about Japan before arriving.
IS IT DIFFICULT TO FIND A RESTROOM? Mostly no. They are everywhere and are typcally clean and well-stocked. Some, like the ones in larger department stores, are quite luxurious. Others in more remote areas, like mountain top shrines, have squat toilets. The only tricky restrooms to find may be ones that service shopping arcades; these are typcally stand-alone kiosks just off the main arcade corridor in an exterior alley.
WHERE ARE THE PAPER TOWELS/HAND DRYERS? Most restrooms do not have paper towels or hand dryers. You can just shake the water off your hands but you'll quickly notice many Japanese carry their own hand towel. Called a tenugui, you can find them at most souvenir shops - look for the fabric squares in lovely colors and patterns with terrycloth or guaze sewn on the reverse side of the pattern. They are popular gifts even amongst the Japanese and the patterns are endless, suitable for men, women and children and often depicting symbols particular to that area.
WHERE DO THEY KEEP THESE TENUGUI? Why, in a bag of course. Everyone has a bag in Japan. EVERYONE. Men and women alike. Backpacks, briefcases, purses, messenger bags, tote bags, reusable shopping bags. Where else are you going to keep your lunch? If you do not have your own bag you may as well be naked and you really should go buy a bag. Just remember to put your backpack to your side or between your feet if the subway, bus or train is standing room only.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE TO BE AWARE OF ON THE SUBWAY? Yes. Don't talk on your mobile phone and, if you're having a conversation with someone with you, speak quietly. While you will see plenty of locals nose-deep in a mobile on the subway, train or bus, you'll notice they are not speaking - they are texting, surfing the net, playing games or listening to music. If your subway line has announcements in English, you will hear the rules on mobile phone use shortly after the doors close.
IS ANYTHING ELSE CONSIDERED RUDE IN JAPAN THAT MAY NOT BE ELSEWHERE? Yes - cleavage and bare feet. Bare feet are considered very dirty and there are many sites in Japan where you can enter only if you remove your shoes and then often only if you are wearing some sort of sock (nylons are acceptable).Don't miss out on your must-visit teahouse or palace because you didn't have socks. Even if you don't wear them with your shoes you should keep a short pair in your bag. On cleavage, the details of the breasts are just not shown by Japanese women and people are very uncomfortable around exposed cleavage and/or 'headlights.' If you're trying to be sexy in Japan, show off your neck or your legs - very short skirts are perfectly fine.
WHAT TO DO WITH THIS HUGE, HEAVY SUITCASE WHEN CHANGING HOTELS/CITIES/LEAVING JAPAN? Many travelers bring big bags when travelling internationally and even those who don't often find themselves with enough souvenirs that their spare bag is full after just two days of shopping. Public transportation in Japan is not designed for large bags (think checked size, not carry-on). You may find yourself not only uncomfortably lugging around a large, heavy bag (there are lots of stairs in Japan), but also having no place where it will fit on the train. For a very reasonable price there are parcel delivery services that will move your bag from hotel to hotel within the same city for the US equivalent of less than $10.00, from city to city overnight for around $30, and from city to the airport for $40 as long as you give them two days to get it there if you're in a city other than the airport city (such as in Kyoto but flying out of Tokyo). You can use these services at convenience stores like 7-11, in larger subway stations, and if you are staying in a hotel or ryokan the front desk will arrange it for you. If you can, have the front desk or store clerk fill out the slip - it's doable in Engish (look up an example online) but the benefit to having it written in Japanese is you can use your copy to get help finding your hotel or ryokan if you get lost along the way and forgot to have your accomodation addresses printed in Japanese before you left. Get used to packing an overnight-size bag to hold enough items for a couple days if your main bag will be traveling to your hotel in Kyoto while you're detouring through Mt. Koya for the weekend - it will be safe and sound, waiting for you in your room, when you arrive.
WHERE ARE THE TRASH BINS? Few and far between. People do not walk around eating and drinking in Japan like they may do elsewhere, and accordingly there are very few trash bins. Even most public restrooms do not have them because they do not have paper towels. If you need a trash bin look for vending machines when on the streets or between kiosks on subway platforms - there will be an array of bins for different types of trash - burnable, light-weight plastic bottles (not the caps), and everything else (bottle caps and weird heavy trash that you likely will not have). All convinience stores will have trash bins located in or ourside its store. Main streets have pick-up locations where, on the sidewalk next to the curb, you'll see platic sheets or netting holding down various bags of sorted trash; it's okay to lift the covering and put your trash here but please at least try and sort it based on what you see. If you have just eaten next to a food stall it is not unusual to hand your trash to the food stall worker. Just hold it up and catch their eye - if they have their own bins they'll wave you over. In a pinch, you can always put it in your bag and throw it away back at your hotel.
MUST...HAVE...COFFEE... There are plenty of Starbucks in Japan, but if you don't feel like laying down $3.00 for a drip grande, can't find one, or just don't like their brand, head for the nearest vending machine and enjoy a decent cuppa for half the price. Just pay attention to the color of the button, blue or clear gets you a refreshing cold coffee, red deposits a perfectly hot can for your enjoyment. Convenience and grocery stores will also have a choice of cold or hot cans of coffee. Espresso, latte, cream, sugar, cream/sugar, black, the vending machine will have many choices.
CAN I AFFORD TO EAT IN JAPAN? If you're used to prices in the larger Western cities, nothing will shock you about food prices in Japan. But even if you don't hail from London or Los Angeles you'll find many great choices that will fit your budget. This is not a city where you would be better off renting an apartment for your stay so you can avoid the $30 breakfast/$50 lunch. In addition to an array of prices from food stalls to restaurants, convenience and grocery stores carry a wide variety of very good prepared foods suitable for all meals of the day. If your item can be heated, in convenience stores they will ask when you pay and will heat it if you wish and, if you are picnic-ing later in the day, they will provide you with the proper utensils if you ask. Train stations often have a market with a huge selection of prepared foods as well as vendors selling more unique items - trains are the only mode of public transportation where you will see many people eating. What are almost impossible to find are napkins, so bring your own if you are a bit messy when eating.
SUBWAY FARE ADJUSTMENT vs RELOAD MACHINES Even if you have a Suica or Passmo card you're eventually going to run out of funds and face the red X of shame trying to exit the subway. Don't worry, just a short distance away will be two types of machines where you can either buy a ticket for just the amount you are missing (the Fare Adjustment) and feed that ticket into the gate, or you can reload you card with more funds and swipe it once it's reloaded. In general, unless it's your final day in Japan, it's easier to just reload your card. If you have any problems or questions, there will almost always be a counter or window next to the gates where you can speak to the subway attendant.
UNIQUE TEMPLE STAMPS When the weather is nice, followers of Buddhism or Shinto make pilgramages to the important shrines and temples. They often buy a small, hardbound blank book which they present at each site to a worker of the temple, who is usually sitting in a kiosk or building. The worker will find a blank page and stamp upon it the official symbol of that temple. These stamps are in Japanese but are largely pictoral and quite beautiful. You do not have to be a pilgram to get the stamp but you must have your own book or other paper. Some pilgrams appeared to have simple, short white cotton robes - more like a long belted shirt, on which they had the stamps applied. Some of the smaller temples (and some larger palaces) do not have workers to stamp the books but they have tables set-up where you stamp your own.
CITY MASCOTS Some smaller cities have their own mascot - look for cardboard cutouts or statues about 3 feet high of a cartoon-like character. You'll realize it has something to do with that region, like horns for the deer in Nara. If you want a novel way to remember where you traveled, photos with mascots or mascot branded foods/gifts might be right up your alley. Typically foods branded with that city's mascot are considered a local specialty, like freeze-dried tofu in Koyasan, so you're less likely to find that food elsewhere
CASH IS KING Larger department stores, most hotels, and some restaurants take credit cards (Visa, American Express), but the majority of what you spend will need to be in cash. All post offices, and now most 7-11's, have ATMs that accept international debit cards. Take out the max you can, remembering to go witih your bank-set limit converted to yen, on the first day and see how you do. There are many Japanese coins, some of such low denomination like 10 and 1 that you may think you're better off tossing but you'll find they come in handy for bus fare and subway fare adjustments. You don't need to worry about a money belt but do keep your money in two separate locations - a smaller amount and coins on your person and larger amount in your bag.