My family's trip to Japan was a guided tour, which was unusual for us. It was the first time that we took a vacation like this, but I really believed it was the best way to go, even if we didn't spend as much time as I wanted in certain places, like Osaka.
The language barrier was the primary reason I went this route. Only JRS has some working knowledge of Japanese, and NLS knew a few phrases. But we grownups barely could get by, and even the phrase we used most often "arigato gozaimasu" (thank you very much) was regularly mispronounced so much. RAS simply gave up and just used English after a few days.
But there was also the cultural barrier. Japanese society has many rules and cultural norms so different from those in the west that visitors are bound to break a few of them. I wanted to make sure that we had the guidance of someone who knew what to do.
A few other things, however, threw me off when we traveled. Sure, I knew there were times we had to remove our shoes or bowing to greet someone. We greeted people with pleasantries, even if we mangled the language nearly every time. But there were just a few things I didn't expect, and I'll share them here with you in case you visit Japan someday.
1.) Expect to carry your garbage around
Because of the sarin gas attacks that happened nearly 25 years ago, in which terrorists used trash receptacles, you won't find many public places to dispose your garbage. When they are available, you can recycle. Taking your trash with you takes some patience, but you are relieved once you can unload it.
2.) The sidewalks are not your picnic table
We found this out several times during our tour when we had a takeout lunch. Quite a few Japanese restaurants and eating establishments don't have places to sit. If you try to sit out on the curb, the employees will tell you to move. The best thing to do here is to find a place where others are sitting and make that your dining area. This is norm around Japan.
3.) The subway crush is real
I wrote about this a few weeks ago, when there were several delays on the Japan Rail (JR) and Tokyo subway system. It caused a chain reaction of delays and extra-long lines, which then caused the trains to get extremely packed. Luckily, this doesn't happen a lot, and the way to avoid this is travel this way during non-rush hour times.
4.) Fewer locals can or want to speak English than you think
Some people did tell me that Japanese want to practice their English with visitors. But with my experience, I found that most of the locals didn't or refused. This could be because many didn't feel their skills were strong, but sometimes it was frustrating. However, using the usual common courtesies does help with communication.
5.) There's more than sushi and ramen
Yes, there are many American fast food chains in Japan, and not surprisingly, they are popular with Japanese. But I found a surprising number of Italian, Chinese, Korean and Indian places, which was a pleasant break from all the Japanese food we ate. The best part? Enjoying a few French-quality pastries and breads.
I hope you've enjoyed my sharing our trip to Japan. Naturally, I'd like to return some day, and I'll write more about it then.