One of the best things about Japan is that it is safe. Repeatedly shining on top ten lists of the world’s safest countries, Japan is also a great place for solo female travelers. That doesn’t mean you can throw caution to the wind. As with any destination, you’ll need to be vigilant as a foreigner, stay out of shady areas, avoid flaunting your cash, and don’t provoke anyone.
Cash is king in Japan. Workers are usually paid in cash and most businesses and services, including restaurants and shops, accept only cash. Your hotel and some big department stores will usually take credit, but always check first. That said, make sure to always have plenty of yen in your wallet in order to avoid awkward conversations that can easily get lost in translation. Tip: If you find yourself without cash, head to a 7-Eleven to use the ATM. Not only is your bank card guaranteed to work every time, but it’s also open 24/7.
Buying a Rail Pass is totally worth it.
A Japan Rail Pass can help save you plenty of money, especially if you are planning to travel around a particular region or the whole country. You can buy an unlimited pass that’s valid for a specific region or country-wide. This will give you access to the bullet train (Shinkansen) and JR-branded commuter trains, buses, and ferries, often for about the same price as two individual train tickets.
The metro is not 24 hours.
It may seem shocking that a country filled with so many conveniences doesn’t have a 24-hour train system, but it’s true — even in the glittering, well-oiled Tokyo. When planning your night out, expect to make a mad dash for the last train. Depending on where you are, you’ll have to be through the doors anywhere between 11:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.
You’re likely to see lots of drunk businessmen on trains.
It’s not the most becoming part of their culture, but it happens — frequently. While the majority of Japanese society is mild mannered, you’re likely to come across drunk Japanese businessmen. Part of the diehard Japanese work culture is that businessmen will go out for drinks after work and booze heavily. That said, don’t be surprised if you walk on a train around 7 p.m. and are hit with the smell of booze and visibly intoxicated men in suits.
Learn a few phrases and how to recognize key words.
We always recommend learning a few basic phrases in the local language whenever you travel, but this is especially important in Japan where etiquette is held in the highest esteem. Make sure you are familiar with how to say “thank you,” “please,” and “excuse me,” even if you have to write them down phonetically. You may also want to write down a few translations for your own reference, including the words for bathroom, ramen, karaoke, exit (trust us), and certain toiletries.
Tattoos are considered taboo.
While your tattoos may be an artistic way to express yourself, in Japan, they tend to be associated with criminals — namely members of the Yakuza gang.
Keeping your shoes on in certain places is highly offensive.
Leaving your shoes on when entering someone’s house is a major sign of disrespect. Like many other parts of Asia, removing your shoes when entering a home is an absolute must. This is also the norm for several restaurants, so be sure to check around if you should slip your shoes off or not. Oh, and you’re going to have to take off your shoes before entering most dressing rooms, too.
You don’t need to tip.
Speaking of restaurant etiquette, you don’t need to tip in Japan. In fact, if you do, there’s a big chance your server will run after you to give you the money you accidentally left behind. Waiters get paid a living wage in Japan, so don’t feel guilty. This rule is also true for hotel staff and other service staff you’ll encounter during your trip.
You won’t always find an English translation.
Speaking of eating out, be prepared to encounter menus and signs with no English translations.
Most locals speak English better than they admit.
You can usually politely ask for help by finding someone who speaks English. An even if your new best friend says they don’t speak much English, it’s likely better than they say it is. Tip: Speak slowly.
Don’t flag down your waiter — there’s a buzzer for that.
When in Japan, you don’t have to impatiently flag down your waiter. Many restaurant tables have a small black box with a black button so that customers can summon the waiter without calling attention to themselves or creating disruptive noises. Better yet, some spots don’t even have waiters. Instead, guests order from a screen in their booth and the food arrives in a little slot.
Japan has huge underground malls.
Japan’s cities are covered — no, stacked — with buildings. It’s easy to get stuck looking up, but you’d miss all the action taking place underground. Like South Korea, Japan has utilized its underground space by building huge shopping centers, full of stores and restaurants.
Get in on the nomihodai.
What if we told you there’s a way to save big on drinks in Japan? Enter nomihodai — the Japanese all-you-can-drink special that you should experience at least once while in the country. The price for a beer or two in New York City will give you the opportunity to drink for one or two hours. There are a few rules, though. You’ll need to finish your first drink before you order your next, and there’s sometimes also an entrance charge. When the time runs out, you’ll have to abandon all the drinks you haven’t finished.
Speak quietly in public.
Watching the volume of your voice — and the content of your conversation — is extremely important in Japan. Everyone in Japan is aware of the fact that they are sharing space with others, so keeping conversations to a minimum and voice levels at a low volume in public is always appreciated.
A small gift can say a lot.
While you can’t tip in Japan, you can still offer a small token of appreciation, if you want to thank someone for their help or service. This could be in the form of a trinket, such as a keychain or souvenir from your hometown. No matter what it is, be sure to say thank you and bow as you are hand it over. However, don’t make too big a deal out of it or they might feel ashamed that they have nothing to offer you in return.
Pointing at people and things is rude.
Pointing at people or things with your finger, greeting strangers on the street with a friendly “hello,” eating or drinking in public, and snapping photos of people without their permission are all big no-nos in Japan. It’s also impolite to raise your voice or lose your temper in Japan, so be careful of how you handle situations that don’t turn out the way you planned.