So you’ve finally booked your trip to Japan, you get off the plane and realise “holy shit, I’ve just landed in a completely different society with no idea how things work here”. Fear not though, because if you read this essential idiot’s guide to Japan you’re sure to avoid looking like some fresh off the boat gaijin numbskull.

Four Phrases To Get You Through Anything

Of course, you should make an effort to speak as much Japanese as possible you damn tourist, but you’ll also notice that most of your daily interactions (shopping, eating, transport) can be boiled down to just 4 phrases.

Even less, if you’re talking to this guy.

These are:

“___ o kudasai” ( ___ をください) – “____ please”

[oh koo-dah-si]

“Arigatou gozaimasu” (ありがとうございます。) – “Thankyou very much”

[ah-ree-gah-toh goh-zi-mass]

“Sumimasen” (すみません) – “Excuse me/sorry”


“___ wa doko desu ka?” ( ___ はどこですか) – “Where is ___?”

[wah doh-koh dess kah]

As a visitor you’ll be using these the most, and combined with a lot of pointing you may not have to say anything else (although really, you should. Save the English-only expat act for Magaluf).

A.B.B (Always Be Bowing)

Japanese expression involves a lot more bowing than you’re used to, but you’ll get the hang of it. It happens everywhere: accompanying a greeting, as an apology, even from the cashier at the convenience store.

It’s better to be too respectful than disrespectful.

A good rule of thumb is that whenever someone does something for you, you find yourself at a shrine or an exchange of cash/goods takes place, take a bow. Don’t be the crass gaijin in these situations, guys, even if you end up being more polite than the locals. In other words: Always. Be. Bowing.

Ditch the Vending Machines

Vending machines are everywhere in Tokyo, and for the first couple days you’ll be using them just for the novelty of all those drinks you can’t get anywhere else. However, there’s a far cheaper way to quench your thirst.

Don’t let Tommy Lee Jones tell you what to do.

Most machines have prices that range from ¥110 to ¥160 (depending on the neighbourhood), but find a drug store or a ¥100 discount store and you can get a similar selection for as little as ¥70! Pinch those Yen people, you’re going to need them.

Go Upstairs

Most Westerners are used to one storefront per building, but in Tokyo each building is like its own mini mall/department store. Due to business rent you can find many different shops and businesses stacked one on top of the other.

Every shopping trip is like The Raid, basically.

It’s important to remember this when shopping for something: the higher up the building you go, the cheaper a price you’ll get due to the lower overheads. Many tourists ignore the staircase or elevator at the back and end up paying top dollar at street level.

Touts Aren’t Your Friends

This should go without saying, but sometimes there’s something about being a tourist that’ll make you forget all the common sense you learned back home.

That includes the first rule of Fight Club.

If you meet a guy or girl out on the street telling you to go to their bar, they don’t want to be your friends. They just want you to spend a lot of money. On the worse end of the spectrum there have been stories about tourists’ drinks being spiked and them waking up to an inflated bar bill.

You Can Actually Talk To The Police

As a Westerner, you may be used to the police as silent authority figures either standing outside train stations with machine guns or occasionally walking through your neighbourhood every 6 months. In Tokyo, however, the police maintain a constantly visible yet less threatening presence.

Who knew a police station could look so inviting?

Crime rates in Tokyo are relatively low, so police actually spend most of their time co-ordinating traffic and assisting tourists. If you’re lost, don’t be afraid to ask ’em the old “___ wa doko desu ka” mentioned earlier – they won’t give you the death stare.

You Aren’t That Special

You’ve probably heard that Japan is just sooo isolationist. You reckon you’ll go over there all Last Samurai and wow the locals with all your exotic gaijin ways. Except, here’s the thing: you are far from the only foreigner in Tokyo. In fact, nobody really gives a shit that you’re foreign. They’re used to you.

Even this guy.

You’ll rarely be able to go anywhere without spotting at least one other foreigner, be they European, American or Chinese. Tokyo is a world city, and it’s ready for you; many restaurants have English menus (and may even offer you a fork – no thanks), and there are several announcements on the Metro dedicated to helping tourists find their way. You know what I had on my first night here? Doner kebab, served in Shibuya by a guy listening to German radio.

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