Japanese may seem like a daunting language, but don’t freak out; a ton of the signs in Japan are in English or Romaji, which is Japanese words spelled using the English alphabet. A few key phrases couldn’t hurt to learn, and most Japanese people are happy to help a tongue-tied student traveler. If someone is shy when you speak to them, don’t worry; they’re a little disappointed that they can’t help as much as they would like, and might run away to try and find someone who can.
Currency & Tipping
The currency of Japan is yen ( ¥ ), and it’s pretty easy to translate over to the U.S. dollar in your head; 1 yen roughly equals 1 cent (So ¥100 is $1.00, get it?). As advanced as Japan is technologically, there are a lot of “cash only” retail spots, so carry cash with you. Make sure your bank will let you withdraw cash from an ATM in Japan; this will save you from going to a money exchange. Also, tipping is considered rude in Japan, so don’t leave cash for your server.
Japan is a wild adventure in eating. You can find ramen places with vending machine ordering systems, where the machine will print a card that you hand to the chef. There are sushi restaurants that will send food by on a conveyor belt; take whatever looks good and they’ll tally up your bill based on how many plates you have. You’ll spot a vendor selling takoyaki, which is delicious octopus in balls of fried dough. You’ll go back to college with a list of new favorite foods.
It’s kinda tough to keep your cellphone working when you hop over to Japan, or at least it is to do so cheaply. There are some free apps, like “Travel Japan Wi-Fi,” that will get you connected so you can use maps and translation apps, two big helps when you’re lost and don’t know the language. There are other options, like renting a Wi-Fi hotspot device, but you can get a lot done by just using the free Wi-Fi in convenience stores, coffee shops, and some train stations.
There are a few cultural differences in Japan, but nothing too serious. Homes and hostels often have you remove your shoes and put on slippers they provide. Garbage cans are rare, and littering is a big no-no, so you might end up with a food wrapper in your pocket. You might read about complicated etiquette stuff in Japan, but don’t sweat it; just act polite and nice, and any sort of misstep you make will be chalked up to you being a foreign student and forgiven.