Japan is very organized! Things make sense, and run efficiently, and there isn’t really any bargaining, or bartering like in most Asian countries. People are friendly and helpful, but sometimes shy and quiet. They don’t like people being too loud or rude, and exercising good manners is always appreciated.
Japanese us the language used all over the country. In major cities you will find many English speakers, especially working in main tourist areas and at attractions. However, in smaller towns or in the countryside, there is a lot less English spoken, so it is useful to learn a few phrases to assist you if going to these areas. Even if people don’t speak the same language as you though, they will still be very friendly. Not everyone speaks English, but everyone is very friendly, and will help you whenever they can, if even by pointing to things for you. If you have a map, bring it everywhere, as it will make that easier. Also, if you have learned any Japanese words at all, they are very much appreciated, even if it is only “Konnichiwa” (hello) and “Arigato!” (thank you) and “Sayounara!” (goodbye).
Japanese Yen. $1 USD = 100-110 yen range from Oct 2016-Oct 2017. I recommend exchanging money in port as soon as you can (or before if possible to do on the ship), as places rarely take US dollars or any other currencies.
The weather in October-March is not too warm, so jeans and a t-shirt are usually a good bet. It doesn’t rain too often, but I’d bring an umbrella or rain jacket just in case. Spring and summer the weather is generally lovely.
Japan being the technological mecca that it is, Wi-Fi is commonplace in many of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, shopping malls, and often in main city streets, museums, and even parks.
Japan is wonderful for shopping everywhere, even in small towns I have found. Japanese people love to give gifts, so it is very easy to find lovely souvenirs for loved ones, or yourself. Large cities like Tokyo and Osaka obviously have the largest possibilities on the shopping market, with everything you could dream of (including western shopping chains if you are interested), as well as many kitsch “only in Japan” items, and all the Hello Kitty you could ever want.
Japan is pretty easy from a visa standpoint for most nationalities from Europe, North America, South America and Asia. I recommend double-checking online before accepting your ship contract or booking your cruise just in case there are any updates though.
Japanese food is incredible and you will find a huge selection and variety of delectable dishes to sample, especially if your ship does a tour around Japan. Every prefecture and major city has its own specialty. Okinawa has Ryuku curry passed down from the ancient people of the island, and I rate the chicken curry I had there as the most delicious curry I have personally ever had. Osaka, especially during festival times has wonderful local dishes, such as okonomiyaki, and squid balls. Muroran is the home of the scrumptious curry ramen. Nagasaki is known for its creamy local made ice cream. Sushi, sashimi, and ramen are found everywhere, but each place has its own slightly different take on each dish, which is very fun to taste your way around to find out first hand what the differences are.
If you are staying in Japan prior to joining your ship, (which I recommend as there is so much to do there, especially if you are joining the ship in Tokyo or Osaka) there are many choices for many budgets. Japan is stereotypically expensive, but this a necessity to your trip. With the rise of cheaper chain hotels and Air B n B around Japan, you can stay for a lot less money than in previous years. If joining the ship in Tokyo, booking a place near the airport is easy for getting transport to it with your luggage with free shuttles, or choosing somewhere nearer Yokohama would make it easier the day of joining the ship. Spend time looking around as there are a lot of options and very varied price brackets. The pod style hotels where you don’t have a room as such, but sleep in a drawer style bed is an interesting “only in Japan” option you could try, and it the lack of room means it is a very economic option.
March and April is when the Sakura festival is on. This is the famous “Cherry Blossom Festival”. The sakura trees (cherry blossom) only flower for 2-4 weeks, and will come into bloom at different times in different parts of the country depending on that year’s weather temperatures. It is advisable to look online to find out when the trees are blossoming as there are several sites with up to date forecast on them, so you know when to base your day around trying to see them. It is absolutely magical and a wonder to see. Japanese people love the sakura blossoms as it symbolizes the fleeting nature and beauty of life, reminding us to be mindful of what we have and appreciate the beauty of life. You will find many Japanese people leaving work (which is rare for a nation of workaholics), and sitting under trees in parks with picnics to simply be there with the trees and enjoy their beauty. Join in and do the same and I promise you will have a magical time too. Spring and summer (from April to September) sees more festivals in general, with Tokyo having music festivals throughout the warmer months. April sees a music festival in Ueno Park with free concerts from distinguished musicians, such as the Tokyo Chamber Orchestra on almost every day. Each city and area has different things events throughout the year, so check online for the particular city and month before travelling in case there is something extra special happening while you will be there.
My Favourite & Least Favourite Thing About Japan:
I love Japan. Am totally besotted with it and almost everything about it, so it is difficult to pick my favourite thing for here. The top things would be the way that its culture rich history blends seamlessly with the modern day and often almost futuristic lifestyle, the general way of Japanese people and how good manners and etiquette leads everything that people do, and the incredible food with all its tastes and varieties in each prefecture.
Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing, and the extent to which etiquette and decorum rule Japanese life means that sometimes it can be taken so far that you don’t really know what people’s feelings actually are about something and attitudes aren’t that open.
Local Customs/Etiquette to be aware of:
• Don’t talk loudly on public transport, or in museums, or restaurants. In fact, anywhere. Be respectful of others always.
• If you choose to visit one of the local onsens, be aware that they all have men only, and women only sections in them and all without clothing.
• Etiquette is more important in Japan than probably any other culture this century, and people are always very polite in general, so always be polite back to everyone.
• Greeting locals with a respectful bow saying “Konichiwa” will guarantee a friendly welcome and assistance to the lost tourist. “Arigato gozai masu” is always a good way to thank people.
• While haggling is the norm in most Asian countries, this is not the case in Japan. It is rude to haggle, things cost whatever they say they cost, so don’t try to haggle and barter. Things will always be what they say they will be, time wise for transport running, costs of things in stores or in markets.
• Tipping is not the custom in Japan. In fact, it is considered as rude, unlike other Asian countries. It is taken as you saying the person is not being paid adequately for their job, and that you are offering them money almost like they are a charity case, and can be offensive.
• Gift giving is a totally different story. Gift giving culture is huge in Japan, with many stores dedicated solely to selling gifts to give to hosts if you go to someone’s house for dinner etc. You will see many stores in every town and city, and even small places selling gifts, which are often prettily wrapped boxes of sweets, candies, and cakes. The presentation of such gifts is very important, and they will always be beautifully wrapped in cloths or papers. To give a gift is a sign of respect and friendship. If you give a gift in Japan, don’t be surprise is you receive a gift back to say thank you for the gift you gave. It can get a little over the top. When visiting for a short period of time, it is nice to carry some little gifts with you to give to people who show you a kindness of give you help, or to waiters or bar staff who are very nice to you. The idea of these isn’t to spend a lot of money, but to show kind thought to someone, so they needed be expensive at all. Small gifts can be given instead of a tip, and things like chocolates, or small tokens from travels, such as pins or ornaments are good. (Crew members could give something with their ship or company logo on it like pins or a pen or something similar.)
• Boasting or showing off is not done in Japan. Regaling others with takes of your own achievements is considered the height of rudeness. Japanese culture demands demure behaviour and modesty at all times. Don’t show off or try to impress people by extolling your own virtues. You will impress people by being humble, respectful and listening.
• Religious articles, like statues of Buddhas, are not trinkets or souvenirs. Only buy them if you are Buddhist, or believe in the main principles of Buddhism. They aren’t for decoration. I am not a full on Buddhist, but do believe in the principles of it and have read a lot about it. So I bought a small bronze Buddha statue, which I bring with me on every ship and have up on a shelf as a reminder of the main principles to always try to be kind, and to try to bring good.
• Japan blends a heady mix of tradition and history with futuristic and forward thinking. It dazzles and amazes at every turn. Embrace this. Fall in love with it, as I did, and don’t try to understand it all! It just is.