It has been almost 17 years since I last stepped foot in Japanese soil. I can easily say that I “grew up” in Japan, being that I’ve spent the majority of my adolescent years (10 years) there. However, I can also honestly say, “eh, not really.” I’m a military brat. I lived in a military base AND went to a school on a base as well. So, let’s face it–it felt less “Japan” than Japantown.
A trip to the Philippines had propelled my interest to dive into the deep end and just make a Pacific Trip out of this—Philippines-Guam-Japan, because, why not? It only takes about 3-4 hours between each island, so why not make the use of my “half-way around the world” trip? In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the best idea, considering I was only on vacation for less than two weeks and had to compress an entire Pacific Tour.
Flash forward to present-day, after I’ve officially recouped from the jet-lag and flying over multiple time zones, I had a realization: I learned more about Japan in 3 days than I ever had than when I lived there for 10 years! Read on:
After a 4 hour flight from the Philippines, we landed in Fukuoka–located in Kyushu, the most southern island of Japan, definitely a ways from Tokyo (situated on the northern island of Honshu, most populated and largest island). Once I stepped foot in the streets of Fukuoka, it felt familiar, but at the same very different.
Here are 10 tips when traveling to Japan.
Tip 1: BE COMFORTABLE
We stayed in The Grand Hyatt in Fukuoka, which is perfectly situated in the heart of Fukuoka. You get the city vibes, but it’s not too overwhelming, infact, it’s very calming. It’s right next to a beautiful Riverbank bordered by Cherry Blossom trees. The hotel is also attached to a large mall with your globally familiar stores and local stores. Everything is almost walking distance. Walks are relatively short, but if youre not used to walking 15-30 minutes, there’s always a taxi. However, you will be missing out on a lot of Fukuoka. I recommend to bring comfortable shoes.
TIP 2: PORTABLE WIFI
I traveled with my brother and his girlfriend, who frequent Japan, so they’re a little familiar on how to get around. First and foremost, they advised to buy a portable WIFI because it is a lot cheaper than a sim card. Most communication nowadays is through WIFI/data supported apps such as Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger, so it was totally practical to just get a portable WIFI. The three of us stayed together most of the time, so we only purchased 1 device, which we mainly used for Google Maps. The hotel had WIFI, so if we were to separate, it was mainly because someone decided to stay in and relax.
TIP 3: KNOW SOME WORDS
English is pretty much a global language. I mean, people in the Philippines talk Taglish. Japan, however, doesn’t have that–it’s just straight-up Japanese, BUT, the Japanese DO know some English words as well, especially Hotel staff and Taxi Drivers. The internet is an amazing source—use it. Find some words to help you get your foot in the door.
TIP 4: TAXIs
By the way, I do have to mention that the Taxis in Japan are extremely catering. Do NOT attempt to open the door, stay a few feet away from the door, because it automatically opens outward for you. Just get in, sit, and it closes on its own.
TIP 5: BE RESPECTFUL
One of the things that I can take from living in Japan for 10 years is how extremely respectful they are. Whether you are a stranger or a family friend, they treat you the same. If you’re walking down the street and make eye contact, they usually do a slight bow of respect, so reciprocate. Respect the streets and the road. You will notice, when you arrive in Japan, is how CLEAN it is. The streets are clean, and also the bathrooms as well. If there isn’t a bathroom attendant, there are sanitation wipes for you to use to clean the toilet as a courtesy to the next person.
The Japanese take their jobs very seriously, meticulously, and proudly—no matter what they do. They are perfectionists, so showing some gratitude for their hard work is always appreciated.
TIP 6: EAT SUSHI CORRECTLY, THERE’S A REASON
Yes, we have sushi in the United States, and Yes, no one is EXPECTING you to eat Sushi the “correct” way in the United States. In Japan, however, sushi is a form of art. Sushi chefs are taken in high regard and they master their craft with dignity. I don’t think anyone in Japan really expects foreigners to eat sushi the traditional way, but just like what I’ve mentioned before about showing respect—at least try to eat Sushi how it’s intended to be eaten, because there is a reason why it is made the way they are made.
First and foremost, condiments. Do NOT drown your sushi in soy sauce or wasabi, because the chef already put enough soy sauce and wasabi in the sushi—enough to add some flavor but not overpowering to mask the freshness of the fish.
Sushi in Japan is usually eaten with your hands and in the mouth in once piece. Sometimes, soy sauce is given as a side condiment, but again, do NOT drown your sushi–just quickly dip and eat.
Nigiri, fish over rice, for example, is eaten by turning it over—tip of fish quickly dipped in soy sauce (not the rice, because the rice will absorb a lot of the soy sauce and mask the flavor of the fish).
Sashimi, thick slices of rectangular fish, can be eaten with chop sticks or fingers. The proper way to eat it is to place a little bit of wasabi on the center of the fish, fold it, LIGHTLY dip in soy sauce, and eat in one piece. Sashimi is prepared from the lightest fish to darkest (lean to fatty) and that’s traditionally the order on how it’s eaten.
Miso soup, in the United States, is usually served as an appetizer. In Japan, it is served LAST to help settle the food. So if you’re eating Sushi in Japan, ask for miso soup last.
TIP 7: NO LOLLYGAGGING IN RESTAURANTS
You will rarely see a corporate restaurant in Fukuoka. Many of the restaurants are food stalls or small, hole-in-the-walls. One of the restaurants we went to, we literally walked through a long alleyway, through live-in spaces—it felt very sketchy. Once we went inside, WOW, it seemed completely out-of-place considering the location.
Restaurant etiquette is pretty obvious there. During the night, people in Japan eat out pretty late, but seem to take their time to wind down from a long day’s work. However, during the day, it’s usually eat and split. Ramen shops are EXTREMELY small, and during the day, people are there to have their lunch break. No one talks to each other. They immediately eat their food and leave. This keeps the flow of patrons in and out so there’s rarely a long wait.
SLURP! AND SLURP AWAY!!!!! Slurping may seem rude and low class in the United States, but in Japan, it shows that you enjoy the food and it supposedly enhances the flavor.
TIP 8: DO NOT START FIRES WITH YOUR CHOPSTICKS
Yes, I see it all the time. People remove the chopsticks from their packaging and rub them together. I get it, rubbing them helps “remove the splinters.” However, in Japan, it is considered an INSULT because you’re implying that their chopsticks are CHEAP. Also, absolutely DO NOT stick your chopsticks upright. It is a sign of disrespect because that is normally practiced in funerals.
TIP 9: DON’T EAT AND WALK
It’s a busy world out there, and multi-tasking is something of commonplace. However, eating WHILE walking the streets in Japan is considered rude and low class. One main reason why it is frowned upon is because of the risk of spillage and litter. I’ve mentioned before how CLEAN Japan is, right? Also, the Japanese has a high respect for food, so it is best to enjoy the food with your undivided attention. Yes, there are street vendors out there, but find a place to sit down and eat.
TIP 10: TIPPING ETIQUETTE
It is not customary to tip in Japan. The Japanese believe that customers pay for great service. If you do try to tip, do not insist or be offended if they refuse your tip. In some places, though, especially in tourist areas, tipping may be accepted because they are accustomed to receiving tips from foreigners. Again, though, if they refuse, do not insist, and just show your gratitude.
So, HOW exactly did I learn so much about Japan? Easy: Fukuoka itself.
Staying in Fukuoka has opened my eyes into an entirely different culture that I have only experienced in textbooks in Ms. Matsumoto and Ms. Endo’s class (our elementary school’s Japanese language and culture teachers, respectively). Tokyo is a wonderful City, probably the “New York” of Japan—lights, large streets, noisy vehicles and all the ingredients to a busy city, but also very Western. You can’t discount Western influence, it’s obvious– I mean, there is McDonald’s and Starbucks in every corner!!
What I enjoyed about Fukuoka was that I was able to experience the Japanese city life in a more subtle way, and at the same time immerse myself in traditions that are still deeply rooted in their society. You can feel traditional Japan, with their temples and shrines in every corner, small convenient stores, and narrow alleyways bordered by quaint restaurants. Of course, you can’t forget about Cherry Blossoms. Cherry Blossom season this year was around March/May. I arrived in Fukuoka at the tail end of Cherry Blossom season, it was still very beautiful, but imagine being there peak season!
If you feel more comfortable as a city slicker, don’t worry, Fukuoka still manages to keep up with the times. You can expect to still see the familiar tall buildings, crowded streets, and traffic.
Now, again, this is the 21st Century. Cultural amalgamation and overall, times have slightly changed each generation, but it is also important to recognize traditions. Your cultural sensitivity will be appreciated.