A tourist in Tokyo Q&A: Toilets, menus and naked bathing

2017-01-26 19:01
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(Tina Hsu, Traveller24)

Tokyo — Tourism to Japan is booming, with 1 million Americans among the country's more than 20 million annual visitors. But language barriers and cultural differences may seem intimidating to some travelers. Here are answers to questions you might have if you're contemplating a trip to the capital city, Tokyo.

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Q. Is it true that addresses don't really exist? How will I find anything?

There are addresses, but the Japanese system is different. Most streets have no names and buildings are not numbered in order. Use a map or an app. That's what the natives do.

Bilingual neighborhood maps are usually posted outside train stations in tourist areas. Carry a bilingual map so you can point to where you're heading if you need to ask a local for directions. Two tricks will help you pronounce Japanese destination names: Put equal emphasis on every syllable, and always pronounce the E at the end of words as a separate syllable (so "Kobe" is "ko-bay").

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Q. I can't read Japanese. How will I figure out the trains?

Trains and stations have signs in English. Most trains also have bilingual recordings and electronic signage announcing the stations. Stops are also numbered, which helps both with figuring out distance and with names that seem like a jumble of random syllables.

The bigger problem is that the system is so elaborate, a mere human can't always figure out the best route. No map can include all lines. Again, use an app. English options include the Tokyo Metro app and a version of the Japanese app Navitime.

Avoid trains at rush hour if possible.

Q. Bathrooms are really different, right? Spraying water, heated seats! What do I need to know?

Most high-tech Japanese toilets are easy to use. Flush is sometimes labeled in English. Just don't touch the other buttons. And don't be freaked out when a fancy one opens the lid automatically for you.

But be prepared for traditional squat toilets. Some public toilets have both squat and Western-style toilets, often with doors labeled for each type. If there's a line, it's fine to wait for the Western style to be available.

Another small wrinkle: Toilets nearly always give an option for a big or little flush. If you want to be environmentally correct, learn the characters for those terms because they're rarely labeled in English. Not a bad idea to learn the character for "flush" also, just in case.


Photo: Tina Hsu


Q. I'm scared of eating strange things. How will I order food?

Some restaurants have photo menus posted outside, and there may also be plastic food samples, so you can usually point to what you want. English menus are not unheard of, but don't expect them. And if a server doesn't come to take your order, you're not being ignored. It's typical to call one over (usually by saying "sumimasen" — basically "excuse me"). There's no tipping and usually you pay at the register on the way out.

Other options include convenience stores, where food is much better than in similar U.S. stores, from wrapped sandwiches and bento to snacks and dessert. Most Japanese department stores also have food on lower levels that you can point at and take away.

For unadventurous eaters, there's always tempura and ramen. But Tokyo is also a world-class food city. In some neighborhoods it's harder to find traditional Japanese food than Italian or French. There are exquisite Western baked goods in many neighborhoods along with a version of white bread that is like your childhood supermarket loaf died and went to heaven. You'll also find Western fast food chains, although don't be surprised to find local specialties on the menu.

Photo: Tina Hsu

Q. Do I have to drink tea? I really need my coffee.

The Japanese are serious about coffee. You will find Starbucks, local chains and many independent shops.

Q. What do I need to know about money?

Japan is still very much a cash society, partly because it's so safe that no one worries about carrying a lot of cash. Department stores, large chains like Uniqlo and hotels take credit cards, but you'll pay cash at most other places.

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Q. I'm intrigued by onsens. But do I have to be naked with strangers?

Yes, in both onsen (natural hot-spring baths, usually at resort hotels) and sento (public baths in cities). But bathing is gender-segregated. When everyone else is doing it, it quickly seems natural. To avoid calling attention to yourself, follow the customs. Most critically, wash yourself thoroughly BEFORE getting into the bath, which is only for soaking. Also know that baths traditionally prohibit people with tattoos, which are associated with organized crime, though this is starting to change.



Q. Will I have to sleep on the floor? Or in a drawer?

Not unless you want to. There are innumerable Western-style hotels in Japan. But there's nothing quite like waking up on a futon to the smell of tatami mats, so why not try it? As for the famous beds in drawers, capsule hotels are mostly for short-term business travelers, not vacationers.

Q. Do I have to take my shoes off?

Historic houses, fancy traditional restaurants, temples and traditional inns may require visitors to remove shoes. If you're wearing sandals, bare feet may not be allowed, so pack socks.



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