Hostels are mostly awesome
We stayed at hostels most of our trip in Japan except for our initial stay in Osaka so we could be close to the airport upon arrival. The hostels in Japan were clean, comfortable, and most of all had amazing staff who spoke very good English. This was great for getting suggestions on where to go for food but especially for directions. I used hostels.com to book everything and they have a great rating system and lots of reviews you can read. You do need to book a bit in advance, but I was still able to find a hostel a week before towards then end of our trip. The bad part about hostels are the other guests who can be very rude unfortunately. However, we also met amazing people and got that hostel experience at least a couple times. So I highly encourage you to stay in hostels, they are inexpensive and we got private rooms on several occasions.
You probably don’t need a rail pass
Unless you’re going to from Osaka to Tokyo, we realized quickly that the JR rail pass they encourage you to get ahead of time to save money, actually doesn’t. If you are staying in a more central location, you probably don’t need it. Also realize there are other train lines and that you can still get day passes for the JR when you get there, so I’m not sure why they make such a big deal about getting one. Also, the buses and subways can be just as amazing to use and more convenient. So they really over sell it, try to research, although it’s hard to really see prices until you’re there.
Holy cow this place has no crime
I honestly felt safer in Japan than any where else I’ve been in America. Kids played in the street unsupervised, young girls walked around by themselves……nothing felt unsafe. We never went to Tokyo, so I don’t know how different it is there. But there is just this big sense of respectfulness and no crime that you have to experience to believe.
You don’t need to bring toilet paper….no seriously, you don’t
I don’t how many books, blogs, and guides said that “in some cases there wouldn’t be toilet paper, so be sure to carry some with you…” I bought big packs of travel kleenex cuz I was so freaked out there wouldn’t be any toilet paper. Not once, not even when we were in a more rural place like Takayama did they not have toilet paper. NEVER! They even had it in the national park. So maybe bring one single pack with you just in case, but seriously, not once.
But you might want a hand towel
While there was always toilet paper, there was almost never paper towels. You may think, ok, no big deal, they have the hand dryers right? Not usually. I ended up with wet hands to wipe on my clothes until I noticed everyone had a little hand towel/washcloth with them. Then I realized they were sold all over. So this I would definitely get and many of them have cute designs on them too.
Holy cow this place is clean
I think part of the reason there’s no crime, is everyone has a job, which includes cleaning everything. And I’m not talking about going down the street with a leaf blower, these people meticulously clean or prune everything by hand it seems. There was always someone in the bathrooms cleaning. Public bathrooms were cleaner than most American ones. The streets were super clean, it was crazy.
Breakfast gets no love, unless it’s desert
The one thing we learned very quickly is there is no where to get breakfast. We found a couple places in Kyoto, but only a couple, otherwise places don’t open until around 11am. It’s just not a thing there, unless it’s pancakes or crepes- but they are meant to be dessert! It seems everyone has breakfast at home or grabs something small on the way. So we mostly resorted to going to the convenience store and getting Onigiri and snacks and Coffee Boss lattes! Don’t be scared to use the connivence stores, they are very nice and located everywhere. Convenient Stores FTW!
Tea? Sushi? Anywhere?
When you think of going to Japan you usually think of tea and sushi. I never ran across a tea shop. I rarely saw lots of tea for sale in like big loose leaf bins. It was mostly packaged and just in the stores. Sushi was also not a refined thing but a fast food of sorts. Think conveyor belt sushi, although the quality is fair, but not upscale for when you go out for dinner. Instead try Yakitori, Shabu Shabu, or Yakiniku if you want fun and good dinner options. Or you could always go for Italian which is supposed to be high end for Japanese, lol.
People are super friendly and helpful
I will admit that my husband speaks very good conversational Japanese, which pleasantly surprised many people we met, so maybe they were extra helpful to us. But I feel like if I went by myself I would still get lots of help. Besides convenience, I really was surprised by how friendly and outgoing Japanese were. How people would go out of their way to help you. I was not expecting this, maybe Tokyo has given the rest of Japan a bad rap or something, but I always expected Japanese to be closed off and not caring about other people. The truth is the complete opposite. Even when we were being dumb tourists at one point, this man was very accepting of us and patient. An older lady walked us down to where we needed to go. I had so many instances I can name off like that, it truly blew me away.
Most people spoke English
So many people speak very good English. Signs are also in English. Don’t be afraid to ask in English, lol. One thing that does help however it being able to read Japanese if you can, but you really don’t need to speak much. “Sumimasen” goes a long way too.
Umbrella not for rain but for Sun!
We went in mid May, and when the sun is out, omg it is OUT and BRIGHT and HOT. I don’t know if it’s elevation or latitude or what but man! The umbrella I got from a gift shop had a silver underside to it, this is really important! It helps reflect back the sun and believe me, you want to reflect as much as you can. It also compacts down and everything, and I used it everyday except for when we were in the bamboo forest grove, lol. I also downed ice water from the vending machines and ice cream saved me on more than one occasion.
I ate raw squid and it wasn’t half bad
At one point we went out to eat with one of the hostel workers and her fiance. They ordered typical fare they would normally get such as sardine sashimi. One thing I tried was the fermented raw squid. It was about 6 inches long, so not tiny. It was fermented in bean paste and soy sauce I believe, and it was good. I was always pleasantly surprised at how good the food was even when it was very different than what I was used to.
No Hello Kitty store, just Hello Kitty items everywhere
I kept expecting to find a Hello Kitty store, but we never ran into one. However, there were Hello Kitty themed trinkets at each location. They all had a theme akin to that location!
Didn’t need that data plan
Every place we stayed at had free wi-fi or an internet hub to use. So we would do all we needed before leaving-upload pictures off the phone, screen shot maps, look up train schedules, etc. And then we just didn’t use data the rest of the day, plus we were sight seeing anyways and didn’t need it. We did buy an international plan before we left just in case, but never used it, just stayed in airplane mode. We were almost going to use Docomo or another service, but there really was no need if you’re just sight seeing.
Plum Wine and Chuhai!
What did I miss most when we got back? The alcohol of course! I was not a huge fan of sake, but I don’t like much hard alcohol anyways. I loved the Plum Wine, very sweet! What we would have most of all was Chuhai, which were low alcohol soda drinks. Sort of like a wine cooler but more refreshing. So hard to find both of these in the states so far!
Travel bonuses: no tipping, transportation, hostels
Japanese frown upon tipping, it’s like implying they are poor and need extra money. Tipping can be a big expense of a trip, but no need to worry about it there! Transportation was so convenient, fast, and there were so many options. We mostly stayed in hostels and I highly recommend it! They are clean, safe, and the staff are super helpful and friendly. They are usually located in a good part of town as well.
I had a great trip in Japan. I kept remarking how I couldn’t believe how well everything was going. The temples are beautiful, the people are nice, the food is great. It’s foreign enough to be interesting but also westernized enough to be comfortable and accessible, you don’t feel like you’re in a third world country, but at the same time it’s very different. It’s so easy to travel there and I would go back for sure!