Posted by: soniahs | June 7, 2012

Some general impressions of traveling in Japan

I thought I’d start talking about our recent trip to Japan by making a list of some of the things that were (or would have been) really useful to know about ahead of time. This is, of course, from the perspective of first-time visitors to the country, so is probably not very profound. Also, these will be mostly practical types of things, not cultural observations and the like. I’ll post about what we actually saw/did in the future.

First, I’ll start with a list of things that took some getting used to. We’d mostly heard about these things ahead of time, so were prepared.

  • Lack of paper towels in restrooms, and napkins in restaurants. For the former, people seem to carry around handkerchiefs, and for the latter you’ll typically get a wet wipe before the meal to wipe hands with- this is generally the only napkin. In some “messier” restaurants (burger and pizza places), more napkins were often available – maybe as part of the foreign dining experience?
  • Lack of soap in public restrooms.
  • Squat toilets. Actually, the juxtaposition of these with some of the most technically sophisticated toilets on the planet was really interesting.
  • Few rubbish bins, though there was very little trash on the ground.
  • Few places to sit in public. This is probably a “big city” issue and not confined to Japan, but you really notice a lack of benches when you’ve been walking around all day. This extends to eating in public – it’s not done much, so there weren’t many places to sit and do so.
  • Entering buses from the back, and paying when you leave.

The “Inu-Yasha” bus was one of the two tourist buses in Niigata. Sadly, we did not get to ride on it…

  • Lots of sticky white rice, and very few fresh fruits and vegetables. Also, very runny eggs. (And bonito flakes, but we were expecting that.)
  • It was really hard to find postcards.

And here’s a list of things that were extremely useful to have. This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list; it’s really the things that stuck out as being useful nearly every day. You’ll also need a bag to carry these things.

  • Japan Rail passes. These were fairly expensive (we got 2-week passes), but we did enough traveling so that they were worth it. On local trains, seats were unreserved and you just had to show the pass at the turnstile entering and exiting. On the shinkansen, you could either sit in unreserved cars or use the pass to make a reservation for no extra charge. This is highly recommended for the Tōkaidō Line (Tokyo-Osaka), especially if you’re traveling with someone and want to sit together, or if you want a window seat.
  • Bus passes in Kyoto. The bus system is very easy to navigate, and is very convenient for most sites of tourist interest.
  • Handkerchiefs. As noted above, paper napkins are rare.
  • Hand soap. See above. We brought camping style “paper” soap, which didn’t work as well as we’d hoped (stuck to our fingers in the cold water). Next time, we’d probably bring a mini liquid soap.
  • Ubiquitous bottled beverage vending machines. Not eco-friendly, but very handy. They generally had recycle bins next to them, which assuaged some of the guilt.

Shinkansen pulling into Echigo-Yuzawa station. There’s a vending machine next to the food/magazine kiosk on the other platform.

  • Notepad to write down train reservation requests. Since our Japanese-language skills are very limited, this came in handy. Also, this came in handy for jotting down the kanji for bus/train stops that we needed to remember. In Kyoto and Tokyo and on the shinkansen, these were announced, but not in Niigata (nor, presumably, in other non-Western-tourist oriented cities).
  • Umbrellas.

We saw umbrella “lockers” at several hotels and sightseeing areas. While shoes are taken off and simply left in a cubby, apparently it is important to lock umbrellas up for safekeeping.



  1. I have the same issue with public restrooms here. I won’t even use them anymore. Why get my hopes up? lol


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