There are a lot of unfamiliar things that could cause you a problem in Japan. Things are written in funny letters, and it’s easy to get lost in an incredibly crowded city like Tokyo. Worse still, bathrooms might have a surprise or two. Don’t worry. Travelers have ways of dealing with these problems. So in the words of the greatest travel guide ever, don’t panic.
We might as well start outside our comfort zone. Squat toilets aren’t that common in Tokyo, but you’ll occasionally find one in a public restroom, particularly near parks or in train stations. I’m no expert with squat toilets, but I’ve made it work when necessary. Here’s the plan of attack:
Stand over the toilet, facing the little “hood” thingy. Unbutton/unzip and pop a squat. Use one hand to grab your pants by the beltline and pull them forwards. You’ve still got one free hand, and this assures you won’t make a mess on your own pants. This method is a bit juvenile, I admit, but my pants are totally clean.
No toilet paper
Some public restrooms won’t stock toilet paper. This is on the decline, too, but if you come across such a place you’ll get a warning: a vending machine selling tissues or toilet paper. Be sure to check a bathroom for TP before unzipping.
Another easy solution is the little packets of tissues handed out on the street. If you keep one in your pocket or bag, you’ll always be prepared.
No way to dry your hands
Most native Japanese carry handkerchiefs which they use for a number of purposes, like wiping off sweat from their brow or drying their hands after washing them. My preferred solution is to buy some alcohol-based hand sanitizer at a pharmacy.
Japanese medicine is comically bad, which is why I recommend that you pack your own for common problems. But if you’re stranded, you’ll be able to find something at a pharmacy. On city streets, they’re commonly labeled with the international green cross sign, but in other places they’re labeled only in Japanese, so be prepared to ask a taxi driver or policeman. You’ll find medicine for colds, stomach pains and various aches, but be warned that most Japanese medicines are weak and loaded with caffeine. Try to find a medicine without the word カフェイン (caffeine) in the ingredients list (don’t worry, that word stands out more than you might think). You’ll be amazed at how many medicines will jolt you like a double espresso.
Your group got split up
Being separated from your buddies could be a really jarring experience, but it doesn’t have to be. Just think of it like the military would: there’s a procedure for what to do when you lose your team.
The first thing to do is establish contact with the people you’re missing. This is why I recommend getting cell phones before leaving the airport. If you’ve got a phone, call your amigos and work your way back to the last place you were together. If you lost each other while in transit somewhere, pick a place to meet back up, either where you started or at your destination.
It’s important to put your actual travel on hold. If you get split up in a train station, bus depot or airport, delay your trip (even if it costs money) and head to the office. Tell the staff that you’re looking for your group.
Police stations, by the way, have two signs to signify them. The old one is a gold star with a special design, and the new one is a green sign with the gold star on a police hat and the word “Koban,” which is Japanese for ‘police box.’
You missed the last train
Japan, for all its futuristic ways, is totally behind the times with trains. They stop running just after midnight and don’t start again until about 6:00AM. This makes nightlife a unique challenge: do you call it a night when things are still picking up, or do you commit to the all-nighter? You have several options once the trains have gone to bed:
- Taxi: Expensive, but available anytime and will take you exactly where you want to go. You can get pretty much anywhere inside central Tokyo for under $100, but after that things get crazy.
- Internet cafe: Internet cafes have something to do (computers and video games), free soft drinks, and a chair that might even be serviceable for sleep. Japanese people commonly take refuge in Internet cafes after hours, and most offer an “all-nighter” discount which makes the whole night cost something like $20. Many cafes even have a shower, so if you’re really in a pinch you can try here.
- Love hotel: These hotels are usually rented by the hour for couples seeking a little privacy. After about 10:00PM, they can be rented out for the whole night. The rooms are clean and safe, though the staff may turn away solo and other non-couple travelers. The overnight price will be labeled as “stay” on a sign out front.
- Capsule hotel: The infamous hotels with morgue-like sleeping chambers are actually a typical remedy for drunk businessmen who can’t make the last train. While the sleeping quarters are too claustrophobic for many, the hotels are usually loaded with amenities like saunas and are very cheap.
- 24-hour restaurant: The typical 3AM refuge for clubbers who couldn’t quite go all night, 24-hour restaurants are good places to rest up, sober up, and maybe get a little quiet. Personally, I like the chain Saizeriya for their $4 margherita pizzas, but it’s also a great time to try the Japanese McDonald’s if you haven’t already. Locals often go to ramen shops.
If your cell phone is unavailable, you can still use a pay phone to make an important call. Instructions are written on the phone in English. The Japanese phone system has a few oddball kinks, so here’s how to make certain calls from a payphone:
Dialing in the same area code:
1234-5678 (leave off Tokyo area code 03)
Dialing long distance:
03-1234-5678 (calling Tokyo from elsewhere in Japan)
001-010-1-212-123-4567 (calling New York from Japan)
Not all pay phones can make international calls. Look for a green phone that says “International and Domestic Card Telephone” or a gray phone with a digital screen.
Like the over-the-counter medicine, the Japanese medical practice is strangely behind the times, so any elective stuff should wait for your return home. In an emergency, English speakers are common at hospitals, so don’t worry about needing a translator. But if you do have a friend who’s bilingual, bring them along just to make sure.
Japanese hospitals have a central check-in and triage counter near the front. Check in and answer questions as needed. The hospital may be hesitant to treat you if you lack Japanese health insurance, but you should refuse to leave until you’re treated. You may have to pay cash, but if you’re in enough of an emergency to go to a Japanese hospital, payment is likely the least of your concerns.
A quick note on insurance
Many credit cards offer some form of travel insurance which will cover medical treatment while abroad. With some cards, the travel insurance automatically kicks in when you purchase your tickets with that card. Have a look through the paperwork for your credit cards to see if you’re covered.
I highly recommend travel insurance because it’s so cheap to get these days and covers a lot of potential problems ranging from health to baggage.
Japanese police have a great deal of power, and while it’s rarely seen in action, the nation’s justice system is a thing to be feared. Here’s what you need to know about encounters with the police:
- They’re helpful. Japanese police officers will go to great lengths to help you find your way around Japan or give you other information or assistance.
- You can be asked for your passport at any time. Not having your passport on you can get you arrested, so carry it safely at all times.
- You can be questioned at any time for any reason. The Fifth Amendment doesn’t apply in Japan, so refusing to answer a question may come across as suspect.
- Self-defense is not a justification for a fight. If someone tries to start a fistfight, you could get deported, even if you fight back in self-defense.
- Marijuana is seen as a hard drug and will get you jail time and deportation. Leave it at home.
- If you are arrested, go peacefully. The police have an agreement with the American Embassy to notify the Embassy of American citizen arrests within 24 hours. If you are questioned in Japanese, say that you will answer questions when given a translator. You are presumed guilty until proven innocent. 90 percent of Japanese criminal charges result in conviction or confession.
- An example foreigner arrest involves drug possession. (I’m painting with very broad strokes here, but this is just to give you an idea of the experience.) The overwhelming majority of those arrested are held for a few weeks before either confessing (whether guilty or not) or being found guilty. In either case, it involves strict discipline and harsh treatment by Japanese prison guards, dealing with a Japanese lawyer, and deportation upon conviction.
I’m not a woman, so I’m not too good at the women’s safety issue. I will say, however, that while Japan is a safe country and Tokyo is a safe city, there’s no good reason to let your guard down. Lock your doors, avoid really dark alleys, move in groups, and so on. Absolutely trust your gut – if a situation seems shady, it may well be. Never be afraid to say no.
The most common problem women face is wandering hands on crowded trains. The appropriate response is to make a scene in order to shame the perpetrator. If you’re on a train with frequent stops, hop off at the nearest stop and inform a station worker on the platform.
OK! Now you’re really, truly, honestly ready to travel like a pro. Why not celebrate by picking up 10 words of Japanese?