So here would be my practical tips for travelling in Japan that I should really have actually taken on board before I left.
1. Actually take shoes you can slip off easily.
If you plan on going into a temple, traditional restaurant with tatami mats, traditional Japanese style accommodation with tatami mats/just generally rooms with tatami mats... You're going to be taking your shoes off a lot. This was definitely a pointer I hadn't thought about it until I was constantly unlacing and lacing my boots and seeing all the intelligent people easily slip their shoes on and off as they entered the temple. There will usually always be signs telling you when to take your shoes off. So bring shoes you can slip on and off. I believe it will make your life so much easier.
2. Brushing up on the useful Japanese phrases and kanji
I actually spent six years learning Japanese. But did I remember how to say: 'Where can I leave my luggage'? or remember how they say 'Are you ready to order?' when required? Of course not. To be fair I've picked up a lot again by having to practice it and navigating around isn't hard due to the bilingual signs everywhere. But having a phrasebook and practicing how to say some useful sentences will help you immensely. In some of the smaller towns, such as Shimabara and Iwakuni, the transport doesn't have English maps and signs or the driver doesn't make announcements in English. You'll have to make sure you're paying attention. Another point: The Shinkansen makes the English announcement second, practically as you're pulling up to the stop, so learning the kanji of the destination is good to make sure you've got yourself ready to get off. Remember that staff in stations, and restaurant workers are always willing to help, but some key phrases will take you places.
3. Utilise the tourist information centres in train stations
So I'm a fan of guidebooks, for just general information, help to get from place to place and just general information about the country. However some people just like not using them and getting lost. In the beginning I didn't realise that they were providing an even easier and more accessible service than a guide book in each major train station and tourist destination. Although sometimes an adventure to find them, the staff at the tourist information desks are usually happy to offer help to provide transport maps and help you get to your station/hotel and where other services are. They should be a good first stop for you to make when you get off the train to orientate yourself. I wish I has discovered them sooner as they're put there for the sheer convenience of tourists and having a map as soon as I get off the train is great for me to launch into discovering a new city.
4. Do as the locals do.
You might find yourself in an onsen, or a restaurant, or another place where you have no idea what you're supposed to do with few English signs telling you what to do. Rather than just pretending and potentially looking like a fool in the process, actually observe the locals and see what they're doing. Not only will you learn the correct way to do things, you might get the praise of the locals who see that you are respecting their culture and methods.
What would be some of your tips that you wished you had paid more attention to? The shoe one gets me everytime I see the sign.
~ Olivia (WM)