Buy a train pass. It is by far the easiest way to get around. Additionally, the card can be used for the bus as well as other payment options at vending machines and 7-11.
Chop sticks – don’t stand them up in a bowl of rice (this is done at funerals) and don’t rub wooden ones together (this insinuates they are cheap)
Despite the fact that there are vending machines everywhere, it is considered rude to drink or eat while walking or on the train.
Plan to carry your trash. There are very few trash cans and the streets are kept very clean. Never litter.
Cover your tattoos. While the perception of tattoos is gradually easing with the preparation for the Olympics, it is traditionally a sign of Yakuza (the mob) and it is still polite to respect the local culture as much as reasonably possible.
Don’t try to have it your way. It is very uncommon in Japan to try to adjust the standard of what is sold / offered. As an example, at a restaurant, it is very uncommon to try to change what is offered (i.e no mushrooms, extra broth)
Bow – it is polite and common to at least bow your head when you greet or encounter someone. This can be when someone lets you merge while driving. When buying something at a store. When entering an establishment. When saying hello, good bye or thank you… You get the point.
Say thank you – Japanese are very polite and Arigatou gozaimasu is a phrase you should use often.
Tipping is rarely expected.
There are public bathrooms in most locations and they usually have toilet paper (but not always soap or paper towels / dryers). It is common to travel with your own small towel.
Cash only. Credit cards are still pretty rare in Japan. This can be even for large purchases or when the cost might be unknown. As an example, I had to pay cash for a trip to the dentist! But you will find banks / ATM machines in larger cities. Most hotels take credit card.
Don’t talk on the cell phone on the train (but everyone will be using them to read or play games)
Business card etiquette – take the card in both hands, look at it respectfully, maybe ask a question and then lay it down in front of you or put it somewhere safe (do not put it in your back pocket!)
Poor someone else’s drink – not your own
Take off shoes in someone’s home
Traffic is a nightmare. Just accept it.
Stand / Walk / Drive (do everything) on the left
Hobbies are taken very seriously. People usually have one hobby that they are completely dedicated too and that is how they spend most of their free time.
When paying, put the money on the tray – don’t hand it to someone
Sunday is the most common day off and the busiest day to do things
If on a budget – check out 7/11 for cheap and well prepared meals.
Adding “san” to the end of a name is a sign of respect. It can be added to first names, last names and names of places (i.e Fuji-san)
Japanese culture allows for complete down time to spend time with family and friends. Most people still travel to their home town over holidays. And during a festival, families are content to just enjoy the day with each other, a blanket, some food and nature / the festival. They don’t have to be doing something. In fact, during Sakura festival (cherry blossoms) it is not uncommon to just sit with family under a blossoming tree and enjoy the day.
Japanese tend to dress more formally than Americans or Westerners and more covered. Unlike some parts of the world showing skin is not offensive but you will stick out. And by American standards always go up one level from what you are told (and you will still be under dressed). As an example, casual may mean slacks and a polo or a suit with no tie, but it does not mean jeans or shorts.
If in doubt what to order, and if ordering from a machine, always go for the top left. It is what is most popular.
Japan seasons (Kanto Plain – Tokyo area): Winters are crisp, clear, beautiful and mild. Spring is gorgeous and my favorite time of year with the never ending flower blooms. June and July are rainy season where temperatures remain fairly mild but it will rain often and hard. This is not to be confused with typhoon season in August and September where it is wicked hot, humid and huge storms can make you hunker down for a couple of days. In the fall, the temperatures will drop again, the leaves will change and it is a lovely time to be out and about.
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. While not perfect and you should always be careful, you do not have to worry about being out alone or petty theft.
Japanese are very reserved. But when they have fun – they have fun!