Here are some tips for living in Japan and tips for living in Tokyo. Some of this advice may seem obvious, but you would be surprised at how many gaijin [外人] (foreigners; literally, "outside person") do not follow it. If you plan to live in or visit Japan for an extended period of time, I strongly encourage you to consider the following pieces of advice. A lot of these tips come from my own experience of living in Japan. Some of these tips took me a while to learn.
1. Learn Japanese
Yes, this seems extremely obvious, but many foreigners in Japan either refuse to learn Japanese (for whatever reason) or know very little. Japanese begin to learn how to read and write English in middle school (and more recently as early as elementary school), but many of them cannot speak or understand spoken English. If you intend to be in Japan for some time, the most useful thing you can do is learn Japanese. If you don't have time to learn Japanese, at least learn to read kana. If you don't have time for kana, at least learn katakana, because (as an English speaker) it will be more useful to you than hiragana. I recall speaking with a middle-aged American man who had lived in Japan for 24 years and spoke no Japanese! Don't be like this guy! Please!
2. Learn numbers in Kanji
If you are unwilling or unable to learn Japanese, at least learn the characters for kanji numbers. Although arabic numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.) are virtually ubiquitous, many restaurants and stores, especially those in the country side, list prices in kanji numerals. There are essentially 14 characters one needs to know to be able to read kanji numbers. For more information, see my page on kanji numerals.
3. Spend your change!
Very few stores in Japan will accept checks, credit, or debit cards. Therefore, it is necessary to carry cash and pay for items with cash. Many gaijin will go shopping and spend several 1000 or 2000 yen bills and receive a lot of coins in change. Carrying around all of this change can be extremely annoying. What's the solution? Spend it! Pay for items with exact change if possible. I knew too many gaijin who carried around pounds of change. In fact, I used to do this myself until it occured to me that spending it was a good idea.
4. Learn how to ride the train
This is very important. Many people in Japan do not own a car or drive. Therefore, to get to where you need to go, it's critical that you learn how to use the train system. Near the entrance of most stations there is a large map angled between the wall and the ceiling with prices on it. The machines at which you purchase the tickets are usually below these maps. Simply throw in as much change as you need for your destination, and purchase your ticket (secret: if you have tons of change, throw it all in and many machines will give you higher denominations... one 100 yen coin instead of the ten 10 yen coins you put in for example). Go through the ticket gate, and don't forget to grab your punched ticket. You will need it to get out of the station at your destination.
5. When you get lost, find a train station
Tokyo is very large, and has many train stations. If you get lost in Tokyo, you can simply find a train station and make it to wherever you need to go. This is a lot easier than it sounds. Tokyo literally has hundreds of train stations, some of which have hundreds of entrances/exits (Shinjuku station for example).
6. Navigate by tall buildings
Tokyo is huge and has tons of tall buildings. If you can remember which districts and areas the tallest or unique looking buildings are in, it's much easier to navigate through the streets and remember where you are. This advice can apply to any big city.
7. Stay hydrated
It can get extremely muggy (hot and humid) in Japan. If you arrive at such a time of the year, you will notice the heat blast as soon as you exit the plane. If you are not used to such conditions (for example, if you are from the Pacific Northwest), you will find that you will sweat profusely and lose tons of bodily fluids. Vending machines are everywhere in Japan -- use them to stay hydrated. However, be aware that alcohol and caffeine are diuretics and will suck the fluids out of you. Most teas have caffeine, so other drinks such as "Pocari Sweat" may be a good idea at times.
8. Don't be rude!
This is obvious... or it should be. Do not be rude, especially when you are in a different country. Here are some things you should do or avoid doing in Japan in order not to be rude or seen as rude. This list is by no means exhaustive:
As I said before, this list is by no means exhaustive. Use common sense and good judgement. Think about your decisions and why you are making them.
- Bring a small gift (called "omiyage" [お土産]) when visiting someone's home.
- Say "ojama shimasu" [お邪魔します] when entering someone's home.
- Take off your shoes when entering someone's home.
- Say "itadakimasu" [いただきます] before you begin eating, and "gochisousama deshita" [ごちそうさまでした] when you finish.
- Don't put soy sauce on your rice. This is rude. Japanese do not do this.
- Don't suck on the ends of your chopsticks.
- Never pass food between chopsticks or stick your chopsticks in rice. This is done at funerals.
- Never leave a tip at a restaurant. This is considered extremely rude.
- Don't ask for a doggy bag/carryout box at a restaurant. This is not common in Japan.
- When going through a ticket gate at a train station, don't stop to put your ticket in. Insert the ticket while walking.
- If someone pushes you, it's because you're in the way. Move. Don't push back.
- Don't use your cell phone or talk in a loud voice on the train.
- Don't take pictures of graveyards.
- Never jay walk. Jay walking is not commonly practiced in Japan.
- Walk on the left side of the hall/sidewalk, not the right.
- Don't walk and eat/drink at the same time. Don't eat/drink on the train.
- Stand on the proper side of the escalator. In Tokyo stand on the left; in Osaka stand on the right.
- Properly sort and dispose of your trash. This can be difficult, but do your best.
- Say "arigatou gozaimasu" [ありがとうございます] (thank you), "sumimasen" [すみません] (excuse me/sorry), and "gomen nasai" [ごめんなさい] (sorry) more often than natural. Japanese culture expects this. When in Japan, do as the Japanese do.
I hope you find these tips useful. If more gaijin followed this advice, they would enjoy Japan more and Japanese people would appreciate them more. It's your duty to defy the stereotype of the stupid gaijin. Ganbatte! 頑張って！