If somebody were to mention Japan to you, what would come to mind? Likely your answer would depend on whether you’d already been there or not.
For many years Japan has appeared in media and popular culture through a varying array of stereotypes – from nerdy gamers with zero social skills, to real-life anime girls that look just like their cartoon counterparts! So, what are the biggest misconceptions about Japan? And do they have any basis in truth? In this article, we hope to tackle just a few of them.
What Are Common Misunderstandings About Japan?
1. Japan Is Far Too Expensive
For a long time, Japan’s reputation for being an expensive place to visit was probably pretty accurate, because it was more expensive than its neighboring countries. People hoping to see Asia would skip Japan and head to Thailand or Cambodia.
That’s not to say that these places are interchangeable by any means – each place has something completely different to offer. For many travelers though, the initial cost of flying across the world is so high that their budget does not allow for anything as prohibitively expensive as Japan seems to be. That’s why this misnomer is at the top of our list and is the one we’re going to cover in the most detail.
What most people don’t realize is that Japan is accessible for people on all kinds of budgets – whether you can afford it really depends on how you like to travel. There are definitely parts of Japan that cater to an unlimited budget, as a certain *unnamed* hotel in Kyoto, which at the time of writing this article will set you back around $1523 (¥164’356) a night - in the hotel’s defense it definitely looks worth it if you’ve got the cash to spare.
But, on the reverse side of that, there are very cheap places to stay in Japan that are clean, comfortable, and minimal, that only set you back $47 (¥5’073) a night, or entire apartments on Airbnb that cost even less.
Regardless of how much you want to spend, one thing is for sure – there’s plenty of accommodation to match any budget. The same goes for food and activities too, and you can cut costs by planning ahead and doing your research. There’s plenty of reasonably priced food to be found that’s both delicious and nutritious – in fact, you can eat very well for very little without feeling like you’re missing out.
Depending on which parts of Japan you’d like to see, it might even be worth it to you to purchase a Japan Rail Pass which allows you to travel across the country as many times as you’d like for one price. The upfront cost might seem a little high, but it’s extremely good value for money, saving you hundreds on the face-value price of most bullet train trips. What’s the best way to make the most of your trip financially? Work out your budget beforehand, and Japan will be sure to offer everything you need within it.
2. You MUST Be Able to Speak Japanese
There’s a huge misconception that unless you speak Japanese you won’t be able to get around the country efficiently or interact with anyone while you’re there. For the most part, this simply isn’t true anymore. Many Japanese people, especially if they are of the younger generation, speak a little English.
In big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, many signs are translated into simple English, and if they aren’t, Google Translate and Google Maps go some of the ways to helping you find what you need. We had one of our best meals in the smallest, unassuming restaurant simply by pointing a photo translation app at the menu and taking our best guess at what it said.
BUT – and that’s a big but – by learning a little conversational Japanese before you travel across the globe, you’ll be adding a whole new layer to your trip. Having some familiarity with the language could give you the confidence to travel to some of the smaller towns, whose signs (and residents) lack the English you’ll need to get around.
A huge added benefit is the joy of trying to express your appreciation in the local language – a simple “Konnichiwa” (hello) or “arigatōgozaimashita” (thank you) will go a long way with locals, even if your pronunciation leaves something to be desired.
While it’s not an absolute necessity to learn the language before you travel here, there are lots of great reasons to have a go – check out this article we published for some more of those reasons here.
3. If You Don’t Like Fish, You’re Going to Starve
Here’s a shoutout to all you picky eaters out there – have you been put off from the idea of traveling to Japan because you’re scared of the lack of food available? Let me bust the myth – while the Japanese LOVE fish, and are excellent at preparing it, they also excel at a bunch of other foods too.
In fact, for picky eaters many Japanese restaurants are ideal because they display images or plastic models of each dish, meaning you can see what your meal will look like even if you’ve never tried it before. And if all your taste tests fail, there are many trusty fast-food restaurants serving food just like home, meaning at least you won’t starve.
We were surprised at the variety of food available while in Japan for the first time – both the pleasantly mundane, the weird, the wonderful, and the unexpectedly British(ish) - strawberry and cream sandwiches, anyone?
Convenience stores offer a wide variety of simple, healthy foods that won’t break the bank, and there are many restaurants specializing in different types of food – ramen, curry, eel (it’s no stranger than chicken, trust me), or even traditional BBQ. Plus, if you have a sweet tooth, you’ll love the desserts, of which there are many, each one tastier than the last.
4. You’re Going to Offend Everyone You Meet
Japan has a reputation for being one of the most well-mannered places in the world, and lots of people hesitate to travel there because they’re anxious about existing within a completely different set of rules, or they’re worried about offending somebody.
While the abundance of etiquette isn’t a myth, the idea that you’ll be vilified for breaking any rules is. As a foreigner, you’re not expected to know or understand every single rule that seems so innate to the locals of any city or prefecture you visit, although that doesn’t mean you’ve got free reign to be a jerk.
There’s another but coming, though. Learning some of the written and unwritten rules that most Japanese people live by will go a long way toward enhancing your trip. Your interactions with people will be much more pleasant, and you’ll get a real understanding of the culture you’re immersing yourself in.
By trying your best to understand the expectations of your environment, the people around you will be much more willing to forgive you for, say, answering your phone on a quiet train carriage (or possibly not, this one’s a biggie). After all, what’s the point of traveling somewhere only to ignore the quintessential traditions that make it different from home?
5. It’s Not Worth Going Outside of Cherry Blossom Season
Anyone who’s been within an inch of Instagram or read a travel guide has probably seen the breathtaking images many times before – beautiful landscapes or city streets full to the brim with pink blossoms. Thousands of people flood to cherry blossom hotspots in Japan every year to catch a glimpse of this spectacular sight. But what if your schedule just doesn’t allow for a trip at that time of year? Does that mean you should cross Japan off the list altogether?
Absolutely not. Cherry blossom season definitely is beautiful, but that could be said of every season in Japan. Autumn, in particular, can be just as breathtaking as you watch those pink trees produce every autumnal color of brown and orange imaginable. There’s also an added benefit to traveling outside this busy season – fewer people, and smaller crowds in the normal cherry blossom hotspots. Of course, it will still be pretty busy – it is Japan after all.
6. Tokyo Is The Only Place Worth Your Time
This last one is a real point of contention for Japanese people and travelers alike. Yes, Tokyo is an incredible city that has thousands of things to see and do, but so does the rest of Japan! The landscape is extremely diverse – during our first trip there, we saw warm beaches near Hiroshima, blossoms and rainy days in the center of Tokyo, and snow-covered soba restaurants in Niseko, Hokkaido. Every single place offered a different perspective and different cuisine.
It wasn’t until we tried Ramen in frosty Sapporo that we really appreciated the beauty and complexity of that seemingly simple dish. Without seeing Osaka, you might not truly understand Japan’s love for vending machines. And did you know there’s an entire island overrun with friendly, sleepy bunny rabbits?! Japan has plenty of crazy and fantastic sights to delight every tourist, and they’re not exclusive to Tokyo.
Speak To Somebody Who Has Already Been There
Something that all of these misconceptions have in common is the fact that most of them are unintentionally spread by people who’ve never even been to Japan. Look out for phrases like “I heard it’s…” to weed out the misinformation because the people you speak to who has actually been there will dispel most of the myths you’ve heard.
One great way to get a clear picture of Japan is reading websites like ours (yes, we’re a little bit biased). We’re a group of people who’ve been to Japan or live in Japan and love it wholeheartedly for a wide variety of reasons. Why not check out some more of our articles, or tell us what else you’d like to know about Japan in the comments below!