Tips and Advice; Japan

Invaluable Tips Learned From 23 Years Living in Tokyo

Updated November 8, 2019, by C. Thiele, 23 year veteran of Tokyo.

Hi there! Are you new to Japan? Or perhaps coming soon?

You’re in for a treat. Japan is so interesting. The food, the sights… an interesting and unique culture. There’s a lot to discover and enjoy here.

But you already know that — that’s why you’re here.

In this guide, I’m going to give you TONS of great tips to help you enjoy your time in Japan more. Tips and advice I’ve learned from over 22 years living in Tokyo.

What’s that one thing?

I most often get asked, “If there was one thing you’d tell a newcomer to Japan, to help them enjoy the country more, what would it be?”

I’m going to save the best for last, but in the sections below you’ll be getting a lot of advice, Japanese words & phrases, plus some great cultural information — stuff I wish I would have had when I first arrived in Japan over 22 years ago.

Without further adieu, let’s get started.

Don’t Be A “Main-Roader”

I’m starting off with some of my best advice. I call it “don’t be a ‘main-roader.’

What the heck does that mean right?

Once I explain it to you, you’ll be like “duh!” — but hear me out, because this is something you might catch yourself doing without even realizing it.

When I say “don’t be a ‘main-roader’” here’s what I mean:

Don’t be someone who only visits the places on the large main roads in Japan.

This advice is more for restaurants than anything.

The BEST food in Japan is not found in the large, rich, chain restaurants that can afford to have locations on the large main roads.

It’s so easy to fall into this trap though. The main roads do have quite a lot of amazing food places too. But guess what.

You’ll miss out on one of the best things about Japan (and well, any country for that matter): The mom ‘n pop shops.

Ooh, the mom ‘n pop shops

The mom ‘n pop shops that are down the small roads, the alleys… the places that don’t even look like restaurants are the absolute best places. The food is usually cheaper, and far higher quality.

But of course there is a huge catch — they usually don’t speak English, don’t have English menus, or even have no photos in their menus.

They’re the best, most interesting places, but are also the most difficult to enjoy if you don’t speak Japanese.

But don’t worry about that. #8 and #10 below will explain why.

The Take-away

Explore past the main roads. Don’t be a “main-roader.” You absolutely will not regret it.

You will regret it if you don’t take this advice.

Parking lots, and parking your car.

Ugh, parking.

If you’ve driven even a tiny bit in Japan, you’ll know parking can be a real pain in the butt.

What’s worse is, if you take my advice from the previous section, you’ll find the mom ‘n pop shops have no parking lot of their own — you’ll have to find a paid parking lot.

Not only does this cost you more money but you’ll then have to deal with the payment mechanisms at the parking lot.

Tire-locking parking lots

One type of paid parking lot you will encounter is a tire-locking parking lot. When you park here, a plate will raise up to lock your car in place until you pay.

Prices vary greatly by location, but one thing you can count on… a payment terminal in Japanese. Luckily most follow the same pattern, here it is:

On the type pad, enter the number of the parking spot your car is in. You’ll see the price come up on the screen, put your money in, collect change, and you’re done!

Pro tip: if you want a receipt for this transaction, hit the green button after you put your money in. This will tell the machine to kick out a receipt for you.

Be quick!

The locking mechanism will lower, but don’t wait too long to move your car — it will raise up again if it doesn’t detect your car has moved from the spot.

Saying hello

Saying hello is probably one of the most common things you’d say in any language. You want to be a polite and cool person while adventuring around Japan right?

Japan has a few different ways to say hello, depending on the time of day:

  • Ohayo (おはよう) — means good morning. Use this between breakfast and lunch.
  • Konnichiwa (こんにちは) — means good afternoon. Use this between lunch and about 5:00PM
  • Konbanwa (こんばんは) — means good evening. Use this after 5:00PM until late night, or early morning (before the sun comes up).

That’s it for this section. Your “assignment” is to practice using these words.

When you pass by someone in your neighborhood, maybe a Japanese co-worker, if you make eye-contact just say one of the words above.

They’ll repeat it back to you in return.

Using Credit Cards in Japan

Credit cards. You know, for an advanced country like Japan, you’d think credit cards would be everywhere, and work everywhere. Guess what — they aren’t, and unfortunately, they don’t.

It seems Japan has been slow to adopt credit cards. Sure, every major department store, restaurant chain, etc… will accept them — but many mom ‘n pops still do not — bring yen with you.

Then, when you do use your credit card, they start asking you questions.

What!? It’s interesting actually.

In Japan, they can break up your bill, and charge you monthly — except there is a problem: they can’t do this with most American credit cards (I have heard reports of some banks working, but cannot confirm this).

Even worse, the staff at most places don’t know that, so they keep asking you.

Here’s what they say:

ikkatsu barai to bunkatsu barai dochirani nasaimasu ka?

That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?

When you hear something like that, while trying to pay with a credit card, just hold up one finger — they’ll set it to charge once and everything should work fine.

Be prepared for random failures, or your bank blocking transactions because the charges are overseas.

I want one of “this.

I’ve got a very special phrase for you — one you’ll be able to use in a TON of situations you come across while in Japan.

I go over this in-depth in my article: “How To Order Just About Anything In A Restaurant In Japan.” I highly recommend you read that to become even more comfortable ordering food in Japan.

Are you ready? It’s not as hard as you think, but is so useful:

kore o hitotsu kudasai

It means “one of this please.

Use this phrase when you can point at something you want. Perhaps you’re holding a restaurant menu or at a glass counter.

Point at the item you want to order and say “kore o hitotsu kudasai”.

Thank you and You’re Welcome

The last section was an incredibly useful phrase, though maybe a tiny bit difficult for your first words. 

This section is just a nice, easy, couple of words. How to say “thank you,” and” you’re welcome.”

Arigatou is probably easy enough for you. It’s used in a lot of movies and you may have heard it before.

Actually, if you just want to say a quick “thanks” you can use doumo. It’s less formal, but is more casual and used often between friends, but don’t worry — the Japanese people around you won’t judge you for it.

But I bet doitashimashite is quite a mouthful huh? It’s so much easier to say “you’re welcome” in English, isn’t it?

Do you speak English?

I can’t count how many times I’ve asked if the Japanese person I was about to talk to could speak English — and they could!

It’s so nice when they can speak English, even just a little. You’ll find many Japanese people can speak some, but they’re a little shy to try.

This is a Japanese cultural thing. If they aren’t skilled speakers, they often won’t try — they’ll hide from it.

But you can still ask.

To ask if they can speak English say:

anata wa eigo ga hanasemasu ka?

This means exactly what you think “can you speak English?

You can use this phrase almost anywhere. I often use it over the phone when I can’t be face-to-face with someone, and I know the conversation might include some rather difficult Japanese language.

Nope, no English

If they can’t speak English, you’ll typically see the universal sign for no: forearms crossed in an X shape — or you might hear a timid “no” in response.

If they can speak some English, no matter their level, they’ll usually say “a little.”

Give it a shot though, this phrase can save you in some situations — you’ll get some help from friendly Japanese people with the ability to speak some English.

Some of the nicest people on Earth

I’m going to let you in on a cultural tip in this section — which if you’ve been in Japan even a little while, I’m sure you’ve discovered already.

The Japanese people are some of the nicest people on Earth. They don’t belittle even the simplest of jobs — such as janitors, housekeeping, or fast-food workers.

They relish in self-pride (often too much — to the point of being overly timid when they feel they cannot do something well). You’ll often find them bending over backward to help others.

My point with this is, mingle. The Japanese will take you under their wing if you show the desire and effort to learn the culture.

They’ll offer you food at outdoor events, help you at the train station, give your little one candy, etc…

Get out there, enjoy the culture, enjoy the people. Make some connections, and you’ll more fully enjoy your time in Japan.

We’re reaching the halfway point of this guide. I know I’ve been slamming you with new content quickly. Perhaps you’d like a break?

Set your smartphone timer… take a breather and come back. Don’t forget!

See you soon.

Stay Motivated

Staying motivated when the language barrier is so steep can be quite hard.

You’ll run into this barrier over, and over, and over, and over again… and over again some more.

Japanese is a tough language. The characters look nothing like English. There is extremely little English spoken.

The vast majority of the people in Japan are Japanese (unlike America where we’re a melting pot of cultures).

But that makes the reward so much better. When you begin learning a few phrases and reading a little… you’ll feel like superman (or woman)!

You’ll feel liberated, excited even, that you can get out there and do things your peers can only dream of.

So stay motivated. Keep learning. Never stop learning, never give up, and slowly, but surely, you’ll begin grasping the language.

Don’t worry about making mistakes

This tip is HUGE! One of the biggest bits of advice I give to newcomers.

Remember above when I said to stay motivated, even though the language is pretty tough?

This ties into that.

Don’t worry about making mistakes.

Being afraid to get out there and attempting to use the language will slow your progress, and may stifle your full enjoyment of what Japan has to offer.

Like I said before, the Japanese people are some of the nicest on Earth. You won’t be belittled for making mistakes.

Instead, they’ll often be excited that you’re trying! They’ll help you, encourage you, and may even try to befriend you if the situation is appropriate.

In short, don’t worry so much. Get out there, make mistakes, learn from them, and you’ll enjoy Japan a whole lot more.

Take on the mindset of an adventurer

In this section, I want to expand upon what I’ve been talking about in the last couple of sections: mindset.

Stay motivated, don’t worry about making mistakes, and now — take on the mindset of an adventurer.

It’s easy to become lazy… wait, lazy isn’t the right word.

I mean “stuck in a rut.”

Where you just go along your normal routine day-by-day. Before you know it, you’ve been in Japan for a while, still have very low Japanese language skills, haven’t seen much… you’re basically in a rut.

That’s not to say you’re not enjoying the rut.

I mean c’mon, a rut in Japan is still something to brag about to your friends and family back in the U.S… but I’m guessing you want more than that, and it’s so easy to break out of the rut.

Take on the mindset of an adventurer.

Be bright-eyed like an infant. See the world from a whole new angle (or well, at least see Japan from a whole new angle).

Here are a few things I like to do to be an adventurer for a day:

  • Hop on the train, go anywhere new
  • Walk down the side roads, get off the main roads
  • Pop into a new restaurant, try to order something new off the menu that you have never tried before
  • Check out a Japanese arcade, show great curiosity, try to chat with others there

I realize that some things are harder for some.

If you’re more introverted, don’t try the talking parts… just walk around new places with your eyes wide open.

Realize you’re in Japan, a fantastic foreign country with all kinds of things that are so different than what you’re used to back home.

Go out, adventure, have fun.

Numbers when ordering food

Okay, you’ve had a few bits of great advice, now it’s time to drop a language bomb on you.

In this section, you’ll learn a bit about counting in Japanese.

Japanese has many different ways of counting things, depending on the type of object, size, shape, etc…

…but I won’t be going into all that.

Instead, I’m going to focus on the counting you will need when ordering food at a restaurant.

This counting system is sometimes referred to simply as the “native counting” system. I’m going to show you how to order between one and five of something from the menu.

If you refer back to section #5 where I showed you how to order one of something, it looked like this:

kore wo hitotsu kudasai

Now you simply replace the red word — hitotsu — in the phrase above, with the number from the list below:

  1. hitotsu (一つ)
  2. futatsu (二つ)
  3. mittsu (三つ)
  4. yottsu (四つ)
  5. itsutsu (五つ)

You might use this when ordering more than one of the same dish, or buying more than one of the same item at a convenience store… there are many situations these counting words will come in handy.

This section is a bit steep. Read it over a few times, practice the words. If you click on each one, you’ll hear a pronunciation of the word.

Listen, practice, repeat… then wait a day, do it again.

Why learn some Japanese?

Hope the last section helped you out. It’s a phrase you’ll use often. If you didn’t learn it well yet, please do — it will help your dining experiences quite a bit.

Which ties into this tip. Why learn some Japanese?

Okay, maybe you don’t want to master Japanese — that takes a very long time.

Maybe you don’t really want to study the language at all. You might be too busy, don’t really need it, or just won’t be in Japan very long.

But I would challenge you to learn some Japanese because even just a tiny bit goes a LONG way toward improving your time here.

Even just small things, like some of the phrases I’ve already given you, will smooth things out for you.

There will be many times when you’re out and about and a couple of good phrases will come in handy.

They could mean the difference between a frustrating situation and a constructive one — and learning some Japanese is not nearly as hard as you might imagine at first.

In the next section, I’m going to teach you a simple strategy to start your learning.

Learn Situationally, What you like.

This is a tip I give everyone who asks me for a good way to learn Japanese.

I tell them, learn situationally.

Pick something about Japan you’re really interested in, dive into it, and learn it.

It’s a 5 step process which looks something like this:

  1. Pick one situation you enjoy in Japan
  2. List the tiny situations that might come up while in that situation
  3. Research the Japanese phrases to use in those tiny situations
  4. Test the phrases, revise them, and begin using them
  5. Repeat again with another situation you enjoy

Your homework is to give the steps above a try. Try to build out a situation map as I described.

Telling Time

Excuse me, what time is it? In Japanese, you’d say “ima nan-ji desu ka?”

This tip is about telling the time in Japanese, and it’s a lot easier than you might think. First, you’ll learn to count from 1 to 12, then add -ji to the end of it — almost.

The numbers:

  1. ichi
  2. ni
  3. san
  4. yon/shi
  5. go
  6. roku
  7. nana/shichi
  8. hachi
  9. kyuu/ku
  10. juu
  11. juu-ichi
  12. juu-ni

Did you notice that after 10, it was just 10 + the next number? So for 11, you would say “juu-ichi.

Now add -ji:

  1. ichi-ji = 1 o’clock
  2. ni-ji
  3. san-ji
  4. yo-ji
  5. go-ji
  6. roku-ji
  7. shichi-ji
  8. hachi-ji
  9. ku-ji
  10. juu-ji
  11. juu-ichi-ji
  12. juu-ni-ji

Wait, what about AM/PM?

By default they’ll assume you’re talking about the time in the same part of the day you’re currently in (so PM if you’re in the afternoon, etc…). There’s a modifier you can add to specify AM/PM though.

To specify AM, before the time say asa — and for PM say yoru.

For example, to say 3:00 am you would say “asa san-ji

That was just a starter. To learn more, here’s a great site which takes you through everything. I’ve reviewed the material and think it’s high quality, and will definitely help you out.

Free your mind, the rest will follow

This sounds hokey, doesn’t it?

Trust me it’s not.

If you have a free mind and you bump into someone who doesn’t — it will be immediately clear to you just how liberating a free mind can be while in Japan.

This has always been my best advice. The biggest thing I want you to grasp — don’t get stuck with a foreigner mindset.

When in Japan that can cause major confusion, angst, etc…

You want to fully enjoy the country while you’re here right?

So don’t let preconceived notions get in the way. There will be a lot of little things that seem counterintuitive to you.

Don’t worry yourself with these things.

Look at it from the “it’s how the Japanese wish to operate in their own country” perspective — and do so with empathy.

You don’t have to try to understand it, but realize you have no control over it.

Free your mind, and you’ll have a significantly better time in Japan.

Anything you’d like to add?

Leave a comment below if you’ve been to Japan and would like to share some advice too. Thank you!

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