When we first arrived in Osaka, we had some American money, which the hotel could change for us, but had the bulk of our travel money in an card. After trying several ATM's with various credit cards and none of them worked, we began to panic. Here we were in Japan with next to no money. Luckily the wonderful man at the hotel desk told us, "Wait until morning, and use the ATM at the post office". My first thought was, "Airport post office?" The post offices all open at 9am, and yup, the card we had worked like a charm in their machine. Even better? They have a button to push to have the commands in English! Score! There are post offices everywhere. At the train station in Kyoto there is a post office next door, very convenient for the traveler.
I don't remember why, but the day we visited Arashiyama, Hubby sent me alone to the post office. Off I go, confident in my ability to accomplish this mission. I arrive at the post office, a short walk from our hotel, go in push the buttons stick in the card, and that's when the trouble begins. So, you know that the first number you poke in arrives at the end? Poke the "4", and the machine reads, ".04". As you poke the zero button the number grows, right? Ok, so far so good. Now, I have an issue with numbers and the Japanese currency tosses me head a good one. I needed to withdraw an amount equal to USD 400.00, and poked the button, it spit out the money, a quick fold and step step, back to the hotel and off-ski we went! Hubby pulled out the money to buy the train/boat tickets and promptly freaked. He had lost $400! We back tracked, but to no avail, the money was gone, gone, gone. Needless to say he wasn't a happy camper and it really put a crimp on the first bit of our trip. As we sat on the train, I began to think......and decided that maybe I didn't add enough zeros to my withdrawal.... After getting off the boat we walked to the post office in Arashiyama he put in the card, and sure enough, I had only drawn out $40.00. That was the very last time I was trusted to withdraw money. What I should have withdrawn was 40,000.....
For a quick and dirty translation of Yen to USD, move the decimal point over one number to the left. So if the price is 1425Y it rounds off to about 142.50-ish.
While the Japanese work long hours and often begin and end their days with a long commute, you will notice as you get on buses and trains, or walking down streets you never see anyone eating or drinking. That is because it is considered rude to eat and drink while walking. If you are a gum chewer, that to is a no-no to walk and chew gum. Riding on a bus or train you may sip quietly and slowly, just make sure not to gulp it. Eating is forbidden however on all buses and inter-city trains and subways. Trains that travel to other cities it is allowed to eat and drink, and will often sell bentos on the platforms and the bullet trains sell snacks on the trains. While standing on the platform waiting for any train, or if you are lucky to snag one of the few seats at the platform, it is acceptable to eat and drink. Just be as neat and quiet as possible. It is polite to stand and drink and eat, just don't make a great deal of noise with the packaging and loud crunching.
If you are walking and are thirsty, step out of the flow of foot traffic and stand and drink. Conbinis sell all manner of sandwiches and other ready made food. Some of them offer a few places to sit, but most do not. What to do? Stand out of the way on the sidewalk outside the conbini, and eat your sandwich, yes folks will look at you oddly. One day we sat on the side of a building to eat our conbini lunches, and folks driving by did look at us weirdly.
There are very few trash bins to be found. Many vending machines at bus stops and train stations have a recycling bin built into the machine! And most train platforms have trash bins with pictures to show what sort of trash goes in which bin. But the easiest thing to do is to have a plastic grocery bag in your messenger bag/backpack/purse/coat pocket to hold any trash until you get home. One day while eating conbini boiled eggs and some packaged fruit at a bus stop I realized there was no place to throw away the trash. Luckily we had purchased several souvenirs, and used one of the bags to hold my trash.
If you are not proficient with chop sticks, get some and practice! We were in several restaurants that only had chopsticks, and spoons for soup. It can be tricky to get the hang of at first, but I can pick up a single sunflower seed now. If I can do it, I know anyone reading this will be able to learn. There are several rules on how to politely use chopsticks. Do NOT suck or lick them. If your food comes on a tray, keep the dishes on the tray and lay the chopsticks between you and the plate on the tray. Don't leave them on your plate, or next to your plate, as it is considered rude due to them being in your mouth. Do not spear food with them, or lick them. Also, do not stand them up in a bowl of rice, as that is a ritual used after someone has died.
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If your rice is served in a small bowl, the rice must be eaten plain and alone. If rice is served in a large bowl with acres of room, then you may add anything you wish to it. At breakfast buffets at large hotels you might see stacks of eggs in those flat egg cartons. These eggs are raw, and are beaten with chopsticks into hot rice at the table.
It is nearly impossible to substitute one thing for another at a restaurant. While we see any meal as separate parts, they don't. A "set meal" is just that a set. Western eyes would see a bowl of rice, a plate of meat/fish/tofu, a small dish or two of vegetables, they see a single item, "beef" lunch set. However, I have to say that with my very polite "please don't feed me these foods" card and using as much Japanese as we possessed, they quite often fed me just the parts of that 'set' that I could eat. But we were polite, and smiled and I always started out our conversation with the staff by saying, "go-menn-sai", which is "I am very sorry". This is a super polite way of apologizing. That let them know that I was sorry for causing them trouble, and it worked. Sure I got told no quite a lot, but still the few times I was able to eat out, I was never sick.
Many of the larger train stations have a taxi stand advertising drivers with some English. They are a huge help, and most are chatty and are willing to go the extra mile. Yes, you will encounter the rare surly one, but thankfully they are mega rare. Hubby took a cab to have an acupuncture treatment. I had written the address and name of the shop in Japanese. It was in a very very old part of Kyoto where cars cant fit! So, out of the taxi Mr. Taxi Man jumped after parking on the main street and motioned to hubby to follow him, as Mr. Taxi Man didn't speak English. Off they went down one street and up another, and still it was no where to be found! Luckily I had included their phone number, Mr Taxi Man called them and then the shop was easily found. Remember that tipping isn't allowed, so he didn't do this for a big fat tip, and had hubby pay before they got out of the taxi.
Write down any address in Japanese if you are going by taxi, and just to be safe, write the phone number as well. Write down the name of the town or shrine/temple/etc in Japanese so if you do get turned around people can help you find your way. Most kanji isn't super hard as long as you take it slow and study the strokes so as to know which ones to do first. Long strokes first, followed by the smaller ones, with the very small ones last.
If you are staying in a hotel, grab one of their Japanese pamphlets so if you do get lost, or tired and decide to take a taxi back, they won't have any problems understanding where you wish to go. The Mr. Taxi Men will place your luggage in their trunk, and will be offended if you try to help. They also like to open to car doors for you, let them.
Many if not most of the etiquette rules stem from eons of the Japanese living in very close quarters with neighbors cheek and jowl close. Remember that there were no glass windows, but used paper instead, so sound traveled easily from room to room and house to house. That is why on the whole people are very quiet out in public, its rare to be overwhelmed by someone's perfume or aftershave, as that too is considered a form of "noise" and is rude. No using ones phone in trains or buses, except for text or reading, and all ring tones and alert sounds are muted. On mass transit, give your seat up to elders, mums with small children, or those who are ill. Stand up, smile, nod, and move out of the way. Large and bulky backpacks will prove to be an issue on buses and trains, so take them off and use the handle on the top while in the bus/train/subway.
On buses, you board from the back of the bus, and either pull a ticket from the machine or have purchased an all day pass. Exit thru the front where you'll either pay for the trip or show your pass. Train platforms will often have a set of footprints showing where to stand to wait for the train to be mostly out of the way of folks exiting the train. And remember!!! If you are riding a bullet train, your train WILL arrive about 5 minutes prior to when it's stated on the ticket.
Bathrooms as a rule are not equipped with hand dryers and never with paper towels. The Japanese all carry wee pretty/cute wash cloths towels with them. After finishing, just fold up and its ready for the next visit. That need makes a great first souvenir. At some of the temples one must pay 1 Yen for a packet of toilet paper, or just handy a pocket size kleenex pack.
Also handy to carry with you are flat slippers, especially if you have small feet, or large feet. The slippers only come in a size or two at temples and shrines and you must take off your shoes to enter.
Have fun and good luck!!