Living in Japan can be rewarding but socially isolating. Living on the fringe and not participating will leave you feeling left out and longing to be home. There a few things you can do to get the most out of your experience in this advanced culture. Japan can be exciting and very rewarding for the person who takes the initiative to peel off some of its superficial layers.
Attempt to learn the language
You will find if you at least make an effort to speak the language people will tend to help you a whole lot more. Japanese people know it’s difficult and most will excuse your faux pas. If you are staying in the country for an extended period you should be thinking about taking lessons. You will most likely make some good contacts this way and could make things open up for you. Like any language, learning Japanese takes time and commitment. Get a couple of good translation books and study them. Get the basics down so you can ask for directions and read a menu. If you are persistent if will come to you. The more you immerse yourself in it the faster you will become fluent.
Don’t be afraid to try exotic food
To the western tongue some Japanese food can be pretty nasty. You may be shocked and surprised at some types of food. Things you may find initially revolting are actually very good if you try them with an open mind. The first time I thought of eating raw fish I almost got sick just thinking about it. Now I am a die hard sushi fan. A right of passage for anyone who tries sushi for the first time is wasabi. It’s that green dab of paste they give you on a little side dish. Many people find out the hard way that it is very hot. A bit about the size of a match head is all you need with a bite of food. Never try it alone, you’ll be diving for your cold beer to stop the pain. Even if you don’t like something the first time, try it again. Like a lot of foods, the taste must be understood before you like it. Be aware of prices in restaurants, some food can be frightfully expensive so know what it costs before you order it. You may want to pass on the blow fish. The chef who prepares it must possess a special license. If it is not prepared properly you can die an agonizing death after consuming it. If dying is included in the menu description of an item I usually skip that one and just go on to the next one.
Japan is a fascinating country and is full of wonders for travelers. Be sure to get a good travel guide and plan a trip. Trains and buses are the best bet. Shop around for passes that will get you the best value. Some people go to Japan for business then leave as soon as their business deal is done. This is a sad mistake. If you can set aside at least 2 weeks to hit the high points you’ll be glad you did. It’s a small country with a great transportation infrastructure. You can do an amazing trip crisscrossing the country with a rail pass and have the time of your life. Some trains are magnetically levitated. This means they actually float over the tracks on about an inch of air. They are smooth and fast. Japan also has some of the world’s fastest bullet trains. Your trip doesn’t have to be expensive if you eat in noodle shops, sleep in hostels and squeeze the most out of your time sensitive rail pass.
Join a group
Japan is a group oriented society. Find a group that does something you are interested in whether it is cooking, hiking, skiing, ice skating, archery, calligraphy, origami, go, or shogi. These groups are not hard to find. Finding a good group to join is important if you have just arrived in Japan for the first time. Culture shock can be strong and there are social do’s and don’ts that you can learn from most groups. Even if you just avoid the sense of isolation and mental anguish of being in a strange country alone the group has served you well. If you cultivate relationships in groups you will begin to understand how Japanese society works. Its true there as in many places it’s not ‘what you know, it’s who you know’. Be careful and pick your friends well.
This is not new territory for Americans and things work kind of the same as in the US. Coffee shops can be excellent venues to meet people, make friends, and practice your Japanese. If you live in an area where you are one of only a few Westerners, a few visits to the coffee shop may be necessary for people there to get used to you. Places with counters are best. If you sit at the counter, you can talk with the people working there and other patrons who sit at the counter. If you are polite and sincere most Japanese will spread the word that you are a good person. You never know where any of these meetings may lead: to new friends, a new job, or new knowledge. Just go to the coffee shop, hang out, and see what happens. The amount of Japanese you speak will probably also influence the speed at which things happen. If your Japanese is still not that good, bring a Japanese book or two and study.
Remember you are not at home
Japan is a lovely place, but remember that this will never be your country, not unless your ancestors were Japanese. Japan was a closed society for hundreds of years. Post WWII things have changed dramatically and will continue to change in the future if immigration significantly increases. Now, however, most Japanese view people as Japanese and foreigners. Foreigner, to most Japanese, is a positive word, not a negative one. You will hear young people say that foreigners are cool; many young women state they want to marry foreigners. Still, this will never be your country. No matter how good your Japanese is or how long you have lived in Japan, people will continue to ask if you can use chopsticks. Remember that in some ways, Japan will never be your country, even if you take Japanese citizenship.
At the moment the exchange rate for the yen/dollar is not good. This may well translate into competition for your business and perks for the traveler. Go to Japan with a pro active attitude and an open mind and you will have a much better experience. This country has much to offer and may well be the best chapter in your travel journal.