So you want to go to Japan. Cool! Here's some stuff to be aware of.
- Japanese vowels are very similar to Italian. They're produced way back in the throat, and they don't change based on position in the word or surrounding consonants. tonkotsu and tonkatsu refer to very different things; resist the tendency to slur vowels into a schwa. And vowel length can matter: "meshi" means 'food', "mēshi" (with an extended e) means 'business card'.
- Japanese people are not used to people speaking bad Japanese. Bad pronunciation and bad grammar will often confuse the hell out of them.
- Did you take high school Spanish? Do you remember much of it? Do you know what "piso mojado" means? How's your accent? Yeah, well, it's like that for Japanese folks and English, except they were even less likely to have native speakers teaching them. And an awful lot of people would be too embarrassed with their language ability to admit to knowing any English at all.
- If you write something down, it's often much more likely to be understood than if you speak it aloud. Phrasebooks can be helpful for this, so you can point at the phrase you're speaking.
- The single most useful thing to learn before your trip is not Japanese per se, but the katakana syllabary. There's a whole lot of English words that have been imported for everyday use and they show up on a lot of signs. Take a look at https://www.narita-airport.jp/jp/inquiry/ ; the first two boxes have 'フライト' ("furaito") and 'セキュリティチェック’ ("sekyuritichekku"). If you know that the "r" and "l" sounds are interchangeable, it shouldn't be too hard to recognize those two as "flight" and "security check".
- If you're going to be spending a fair amount of time in cities, get a Suica stored-value card or the local equivalent. It's a supreme pain in the ass to figure out what the train or bus fares are going to be, which magic turnstiles you have to use to transfer between lines more cheaply, and so forth. By getting one, you can just slap $10 or $20 on there, and just tap it at the turnstyles, and all the calculation and deduction and transfer stuff will be done for you, pretty much.
- With the exception of Kyoto, the trains (subway or aboveground) in big cities are usually going to be cheaper and more convenient than buses. They're on-time, they're cheap, they're reliable; if the train schedule says they're going to leave at 09:45, by golly, it's going to leave at 9:45. This goes for local trains, the shinkansen, pretty much everything.
- Most cities will have more than one transit vendor, and it'll be far cheaper (if sometimes much slower) to use only one vendor's transit line than to switch back and forth between them on any given trip.
- Almost all businesses will have little maps showing where they are, along with their address. The address is good for computer navigation or looking something up in a map book, but almost useless for actually navigating somewhere on foot. If you're at "1-23-4" and trying to get to "1-24-4", it doesn't mean you're necessarily anywhere near, and even local residents are unlikely to know where a given address is. See the fine Wikipedia article for more details. If your hotel has a map on its webpage, print it out along with the address.
- In a lot of major cities, the trains shut down midnight-ish and the cabs go into super usury mode. If you're going to go out late, be prepared to hoof it back, wait until 5 when the trains start running again, or shell out $50 for a cab.
- Most ATMs have hours, because why would you ever need to withdraw money past 7pm? Your foreign ATM cards are most likely to work in either a Japanese Post Office ATM, or a 7-Eleven ATM. (Supposedly Citibank, too, but I've seen all of two Citibank ATMs over there, I think.)
- Be prepared to use cash. A lot. Some places will accept credit cards for over a certain amount, but it's often a minimum of $50-$100. Many places don't accept credit cards at all.
- If you've got a Suica, some vending machines will let you use it to pay.
- It's way too easy to end up with $20 of change at the end of the day if you're not paying attention, since the 500円 coin is the largest denomination, and that's $5.
- The single most useful word: "sumimasen". It's roughly equivalent to "excuse me" and all the connotations associated therein; you can use it to get somebody's attention, to apologize, etc.
- Second most useful word: "arigatō", 'thank you'.
- Use the above two a lot. Looking abashed and apologizing will smoothe over an incredible amount of social awkwardness and/or impropriety.
- Don't be loud. Watch where you're going. Be on time.