Although I consider myself a seasoned road tripper, I’ve only spent a few weeks outside the United States. Those fourteen days were spent traveling Japan with a good friend on my first international trip. Not everything went as well as we had planned, but it was a life-enriching experience and a lesson in what to do and what not to do while visiting another country with little international experience. Here are just a few of the things I picked up along the way.
Food is such an essential part of the human experience that it would be a shame to restrict your diet while traveling abroad, but I extend my sympathies to those who have to do so for health reasons. I gave up alcohol just before heading to Japan and was subjected to ordering spiced ginger ale at every bar I ended up in. Other than my dry bar crawls, I made sure to try as much local food as possible, although I admit to going to a McDonalds more than once (they happened to have a Mega Mac burger at the airport a few months before I was able to find it the States.) Of everything I ate in the land of the rising sun, my worst meal was easily my European-themed hotel’s breakfast buffet. Everything of Japanese origin was a unique culinary experience that I hope to repeat soon.
My first uniquely “Japanese” experience after landing at Narita airport was wandering the streets of Itabashi looking for something to eat. My traveling companion and I had booked our AirBNB while waiting for a layover in Chicago and didn’t know what to expect when we arrived. For our first Japanese meal, we ended up stumbling into a small ramen shop with a pullback curtain and a menu sitting out front.
We saw that two other patrons were already enjoying their meal so my friend and I sat patiently for the chef to address us. Before we realized what we needed to do, another couple entered, greeted the chef, and turned to order their food from a vending machine just inside the door. After realizing and correcting our mistake, we handed our receipts to the chef and he began preparing our meals. I ended up eating some of the best ramen I’ve ever had in my life. You don’t know how glad I am that we didn’t just get sandwiches from a Lawson and call it a night.
Plan Only When Necessary
Life is full of surprises and part of traveling is embracing a certain amount of spontaneity. There are obvious necessities that must be planned for, such as passports, visas, and plane tickets, but you should have an open mind towards new opportunities in case you happen to run into them. For example, I had no idea where I was going to spend the night in Tokyo, but ended up thoroughly enjoying spending the night in a neighborhood that I wouldn’t otherwise know anything about. You don’t necessarily need to book your AirBNBs last minute to get the most out of traveling, but you should avoid filling up your itinerary to the brim and making no room for the surprises you’ll find along the way.
Read the Signs
When it comes to visiting a foreign country without much experience speaking or reading the native language, Japan makes things easy. As long as you stick to the popular cities, most important signage will be in both Japanese and English. That didn’t stop a lot of tourists I witnessed purposefully ignoring clearly written instructions, however. Some of them seemed to operate under the assumption that any potential social faux pas would be disregarded by any Japanse onlookers because of their tourist status.
It goes without saying to not be a jerk on your trip, but sometimes the stuff that goes without saying needs to be said anyway. In this case, read the sign. Just do the thing, whatever it is, that keeps you from looking like an ass in public.
In cases when you can’t read the sign, look up traveling tips for the specific country you are visiting. Every culture has its ins and outs, so no one is expecting you to be an expert, but doing the bare minimum will go a long way towards making your trip easier for everyone.
Take Some Time For Yourself
Your first international trip may be exhausting, depending heavily on your target destination and your traveling habits. Since flying to Japan was both my first time ever leaving the country and my first time on a commercial airplane, I was unprepared both physically and mentally for jumping time zones. I was already feeling sick just before departure and the jetlag only made it worse, but once I was able to recover, my next reality set in. I was going to be doing a lot of walking.
I should give myself some credit here as I did purchase a new pair of sneakers just before I left, but no amount of shoe could defend against me hiking up mountain shrines and walking around different Japanese cities for two weeks. The one-two punch of jetlag and physical exhaustion made me realize how important having a few minutes to relax and gather your thoughts can be. Whether I was calling another dry bar crawl early to get some shuteye or taking a walk before breakfast, I made sure to take time for myself when I needed it, rather than try to wring every ounce of enjoyment out of my trip. It always ended up benefitting me in the long run to know my limits.
Make Friends Whenever Possible
My trip to Japan was unique in that I was piggybacking on my companion’s work trip and ended up spending a lot of time meeting other people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I was also fortunate enough to run into other local Japanese people who were willing to help me with directions or with my chopstick etiquette. The language barrier was tough for some, but when I wasn’t struggling with American idioms, most of my acquaintances understood (or at least were polite enough to pretend) what I was talking about.
Some of my best experiences traveling have been because of the people I’ve met and my time spent abroad was no different. The key isn’t necessarily to be the most interesting person in the room, but instead to be willing to listen and learn from others. Once both parties agree to listen to one another, most barriers can be overcome.