Visiting Japan II - Money and transport
In my last post on visiting Japan, I listed some of my experiences of people and etiquette in Japan which ultimately allowed me to relax into my new life and enjoy living in this wonderful country. In this post, I aim to apply the same treatment to matters of money and transport. I should stress that these notes stem only from what I have noticed myself during my visits and recent six months as a resident, but seem to generally agree with other sources I have consulted for my own information at various times.
Almost everything is still paid for in cash in Japan, which came as a bit of a shock. In addition, most cash machines (ATMs) don’t accept foreign cards, so you need to find a post office or ideally a 7-11 convenience store (konbini). As someone unused to paying cash, I was a bit averse to using the large ¥10,000 (around £75) notes at first, but I soon found that it is perfectly acceptable if you find yourself without the correct denominations of ¥1000 and ¥5000 notes. If you are on a tight budget whilst shopping, keep in mind that prices displayed in Japan do not include tax, which is 8%, this will be added on at the till.
It is not customary to tip in Japan. This includes in restaurants, bars and taxis and could even cause offence in the wrong circumstances. Simply paying your bill in full and thanking your server or driver with a respectful “arigatou goziemas” is enough.
Although modern supermarkets and convenience stores seem to be moving to the system of having a plastic tray for depositing the required payment, in places where you have to hand money to someone, you should ideally get all of the money together and hand it to the salesperson with two hands. Equally, if money or a receipt is handed to you, it is more polite to receive it with both hands.
In terms of the cost of living, I think it is broadly comparable to the UK, but with some differences. The price of renting in my area is slightly lower than equivalent places in the UK, and the price of utilities is roughly the same. Food from supermarkets is generally more expensive, especially fresh meat, fruit and vegetables and western ingredients such as pasta, butter, and bread. Convenience store prices, however, are the same as the supermarket prices, so you don't need to worry about being "ripped off" for the sake of convenience. Eating in restaurants can be incredibly good value for money; many ramen, udon and soba restaurants charge ¥500-700 (£3-5) for a huge bowl of noodles with meat and vegetables. Cafes often serve lunch as a "set", which means you can order a main dish and then get a drink (unlimited drink bar is quite common), side (usually its rice and/or miso soup, but not always) and even a dessert all in the price of your meal, which is less than ¥2000 (£14). Eating in bars is also good value, as you usually order as much as you like from a selection of small dishes such as yakitori, fried fish, grilled vegetables, salads and so on. Of course, some restaurants are more expensive, particularly those with private dining (where each table occupies its own private booth) or those specialising in certain types of cuisine, such as sushi, wagyu steak or unagi (eel). In these places, you can easily spend ¥6000 (£50) or more, especially once you factor in the drinks.
Japan doesn't have the same culture of disposable high-street fashion that is common in the UK, so British visitors may find clothing, toys and home-wares purchased in department stores seem expensive. There are of course cheaper and more expensive department stores, so if you are prepared to shop around you can usually find something in your price range. Alternatively, shops like Uniqlo, Gu and H&M can provide basics at a comparable price to the UK.
Petrol (or diesel) is slightly cheaper, at around £1 per litre. Bus prices are similar or cheaper, while train tickets are similar or slightly more expensive. A bicycle is quite a pricey item, and has to be registered to you with your address and resident's card, but of course, after that, it's free to use, and there are good facilities for storing it.
Public transport in Japan is brilliant. The trains are famously fast and timely, but they are also frequent, spotlessly clean, well-maintained and (except at peak times in large stations) have ample space for the number of travellers. The buses are only slightly less admirable, being more affected by traffic conditions and more inclined to be either over or under-heated. In touristy places it is pretty straightforward to rent bikes, and I have found that it is generally acceptable to cycle on the pavement, except in crowded areas of larger cities (use common sense to avoid getting in people’s way). Despite their disdain for other cars sharing their road space, drivers in Japan are generally very considerate of cyclists: if someone is pulling out of a small side-road or driveway and spots you heading towards them, they will usually reverse back to allow you the freedom of the pavement or road to pass them.
It is pretty straightforward to use public transport, as long as you have cash and know the name of your destination (ideally in Japanese, but you may get away with the English spelling). Train stations have both electronic ticket machines which can be used in English at the touch of a button, and small staffed ticket booths, for use if you have questions or manage to make a mess of buying your ticket electronically. There is a fixed price for each journey on local trains, which is displayed on a large map above the ticket machines. Simply select the ticket price which matches your destination and off you go. For longer journeys requiring Shinkansen (bullet trains), you may need to use a different ticket machine (it will be labelled in English) and you will need to make a reservation as well as buying a ticket. You can do both of these in succession at the machines. You can buy reservations and tickets on the Shinkansen itself, but it may well be much more expensive and you may find there are no seats left so I wouldn’t advise it. Conversely, on buses you simply show up at the bus stop at the correct time and pay on the bus by posting your coins into a small slot next to the driver. A lot of buses have electronic signs and English-language announcements to help you keep track of when to get off, but if they don’t a quick word to the driver (it helps to have your destination written down in Japanese) is all it takes to get them to call you when you get to your stop.
Driving in Japan, if you are able to get the appropriate licence (I am lucky in that the UK has an agreement allowing me to use an International Licence) is pretty easy, especially if you are already used to driving on the left. Street signs are generally rendered in both Japanese and western script (romanji) and the other traffic signs and signals pretty much operate as you would expect. Apart from driving on the left, the other aspects of Japanese roads borrow more from America than the UK: lights are above the road, not to the sides of the junction, and there is no amber light before green. The speed limits are surprisingly slow considering the quality of most of the roads. However, you may soon learn that this is for your own safety as, in my opinion, Japanese drivers are pretty bad at driving. Unlike in some countries of “bad drivers” (not naming any names!), Japanese drivers are not reckless or aggressive, it is more as if they are not really sure of the rules of the road and so they proceed through red lights, cut corners, disregard the speed limit, pull into moving traffic and turn corners without indicating, but often in an infuriatingly oblivious way. Still, as long as you stick to the speed limits and keep your wits about you, you can generally expect to be safe on the roads in Japan.
There are a couple of extra courtesy points to note when driving in Japan. Firstly, people don’t usually express their anger whilst driving, so don’t beep your horn or flash your lights unless you want to confuse everyone. Secondly, beeping the horn is usually a friendly gesture, for example if someone wants to let you out ahead of them or if they wish to thank you for doing the same. Flashing the hazard lights once or twice also seems to be used as a gesture of thanks. Don’t be surprised though if you have to force your way into slow moving traffic, rather than waiting to be let out. Apart from the odd extra-helpful driver, most people seem to assume that it’s your responsibility to pull out when it’s safe, and they will subsequently adjust their speed to accommodate you. Last of all, when driving on an expressway (like a motorway, but with a slightly lower speed limit), the rules about over-taking, undertaking and “hogging the middle lane” which are so cherished in the UK go completely out of the window in Japan. As far as I can tell, most people treat the Japanese expressway as “every man for himself” and each person drives at whatever speed they like in whichever lane they prefer. As a result, you will often find yourself forced to undertake or disobey the speed limit, as it is the only way to continue your journey safely.
So there you have it, my experiences of money and transport in Japan. Please let me know if your experience differs or you have anything to add, Questions also welcome!