Japan’s got a lot going for it. If you’ve ever been there, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t, this page should serve as motivation for you to drop what you’re doing and book a trip.
Japanese customer service is legendary. The waitstaff act more as if they are butlers, ready to go to any length to please the customer. If the customer so much as implies he/she would like something, you can bet that it will be headed to him/her in no time flat. This is even true in McDonalds there, where everyone is greeted with smiles and the politest interlocution.
Somehow, this client-first utopia manages to exist without any form of tipping. That means there is no motivation to maintain this standard, except for an intrinsic desire to excel.
There’s a saying in Japanese: the customer is God (お客様は神様), which is a more extreme version of our ‘the customer is always right.’
Attention to detail
One important Japanese concept is kodawari (こだわり), which is difficult to translate. It’s somewhere between ‘utmost care,’ ‘persistence,’ and ‘obsessiveness.’ Every Japanese art embodies this precision, from origami to sushi, from ninjutsu to tea ceremonies. There is an unparalleled amount of effort that the Japanese put into nearly everything they do, and it’s marvelous.
It’s no coincidence that Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world – more than #2 and #3 combined. Oh, and #2 and #3 are Osaka and Kyoto.
Japan’s highways are smooth and its buses timely, but the real gem is trains. Japanese trains are clean, safe, and efficient like nobody’s business. High population density means there’s always a station nearby, and trains run frequently. Digital signs on platforms give you an exact reading of when the next one’s coming, and entire subway lines have cell service enabled. They’ve integrated most cities’ fare cards so that they are inter-operable, and the cards can also be used with a variety of vendors as well. And even though some stations are gargantuan (think: 5 railway companies, 36 platforms, 200+ exits, and 10 attached malls/department stores), they’re somehow not too confusing to get around.
Shinkansen, or bullet trains, are a separate class of marvel. The ride is smooth like butter. The conductor bows whenever entering or exiting a train car. The seats all turn around automatically at the end of the line. And they go really, really, really fast.
Everything in Japan happens on time. There’s no concept of ‘fashionably late’… you just need to get there exactly when the invitation says to. Since the ubiquitous trains run like clockwork, there’s no element of guessing how long it’ll take you to get there. An illustrative point: airlines outside Japan generally begin boarding domestic flights 30-45 minutes before departure, but in Japan only 15 minutes are needed. And their on-time departure records put foreign airlines to shame.
Life is a heck of a lot easier without unnecessary fuzziness of buffer times and the waiting game.
Beneath all the politeness and order is a rabbit hole of pure, unadulterated crazy. Gwen Stefani barely scraped the surface when she exposed the outside world to Harajuku fashion. But it goes oh so much further than that. Between maid cafés and cat cafés, strange fetishes and just plain bizarreness, Japan really is a world leader in this category.
Vending machines are everywhere in Japan, and all the legends about the myriad of things you can buy from them are true. You can pay on many by touching your subway card, or add the cost to your phone bill by tapping your IC-enabled smartphone to the machine.
The land of the rising sun is steeped in tradition. Stemming from a storied past of geisha, ninja, and samurai, Japanese society is as complex as any. Sure, Japan shares some generalities with its neighbors. The people bow as a form of greeting, eat rice with chopsticks, and write in kanji. But Japan has so many traditions that are uniquely, well, Japanese. And what stands out to me the most is their ability to espouse change while embracing tradition.
Unlike other countries (cf. Exhibit A), Japan has made great strides to preserve its historical identity. On the streets of today’s Tokyo, you hear the bings and booms of arcades mixed with the clacks of geta. You can experience the world’s most advanced seismic warning systems and see evacuation routes marked with the catfish deity associated with quakes. You hear foreign words like happī basudei used interchangeably with otanjōbi omedetō (happy birthday).
Japan is an incredible land of distinction and contrasts. Don’t take my word for it though: ask anyone you know who’s been.
*There certainly are things that Japan could do better – that’s a separate blog post for another day – but I wanted to share with you some of the beauty and mystique that Japan has to offer.
Want to learn Japanese or get advice on planning a trip to Japan? Try my resources page.
Most people who travel abroad find themselves in situations without a common language with the locals. What do you do if that happens? Here’s my guide on how to communicate anywhere.
Understand cultural cues
Read up before you go on gestures and culture. Depending on your destination, you may learn that hand counting is done differently than you are used to, or that giving a “thumbs up” or “ok” sign is obscene. You may find that people use an unfamiliar motion to mean “I don’t understand” or “I want to help.” Study up; knowledge is power.
Locals also may interact in a different way than people in your home country do. They may be most comfortable talking to one another from a much closer distance than you, or a further distance. Keep an open mind and absorb these differences as mere differences, and avoid judging which system is inherently better.
Maintain a friendly demeanor, and be patient. Communicating without words can feel awkward and frustrating, but keep calm and you’ll figure it out eventually. One thing that’s obnoxious pretty much everywhere you go: simply repeating yourself louder and louder… I assure you it’s not a issue of hearing.
Body language is gold
Make tons of use of motions and gestures. As long as you are aware of cultural significance of certain signs (see above), body language is infinitely useful. If you want to find out if a store is open, you’ll be much better off by signalling opening a door than you are asking, “are you open?” If your travel companion is cold, pointing to him/her and pantomiming shivering will be understood by everyone, from Armenians to Zulus.
Also, keep a pen and paper handy. There are many symbols that are universal. A clock with its hands in a certain position conveys a given time. Icons such as ♂ and ♀ are understood almost everywhere, as are Arabic numerals (0123456789). These can work marvels. And if you’re artistically inclined, you can probably draw what you’re thinking of.
Sounds can be useful too. Want to know if the meat in front of you is beef? Point and moo, with a questioning look on your face. They’ll understand, and probably will laugh too.
Forget perfect English
Your goal here is to communicate – to get an idea from your head to the other person’s and vice versa – rather than to showcase your eloquence. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to let go of grammar, even if you feel like it makes you sound like a caveman! For someone who has very limited English, it’s much easier to understand, “you go to America?” than, “how many times ya been to the States?” Likewise, you’ll get though better with, “where is toilet?” or simply, “toilet?” than with, “where can I find yer crapper at?”
Simplify the way you speak. Enunciate clearly, and cut out slang – you’re helping nobody by using colloquialisms.
Learn 2 words
Some recommend that you learn 20 or so words/phrases and all the numbers before you land in a foreign country. I think that’s unreasonable and scares most people into avoiding preparation altogether. I say: learn two phrases in the local language. You can get by with “hello” and “thank you”, if you embrace my other tips well. This way, you make an impression of caring about local ways. Starting an interaction on the right foot will never hurt.
If you want to memorize just one more, I think the third-most useful phrase is, “do you speak English?” But most people can glean that you need English from hearing you speak it. And even if they can’t specifically identify your language as English, they might assume it anyway given English’s status as a world language.
For those who are more apt with words and want to dig in and learn more, try to find a multilingual (tour guides and hotel staff usually work) to answer your language questions. They can help you out, explain stuff to you, and repeat a phrase over and over until you nail that perfect accent.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.