1. If you eat outside, people will assume you have no home and they will stare. For real.
2. Ordering beef and winter vegetables results in a bowl of things entirely unlike beef and winter vegetables and more like tentacles and decorative hand soap in clear broth, plus a hard-boiled egg. The lesson? Go to places with pictures you can point at. Pointing and grunting equals the international language.
3. Most subway stations have stamps at a table somewhere inside the main turnstile from the street entrance. They’re usually about the size of a coaster and have the station’s name along, with cartoon subway cars or images of local landmarks. If you have a sketchbook with you, look for the stamps and get one at every station. Stamps are fun!
4. Tons of people wander around wearing surgical masks. Not to fear, they are only being considerate. When they’re getting sick, they thoughtfully don the masks to keep from spreading germs (not, as we initially thought, to protect themselves from said germs—they are considerate, not paranoid!)
5. If food looks like it will be sweet, it won’t be. Contrariwise, if it looks salty, have it for dessert. This rule never failed me once.
6. The basements of department stores are usually grocery markets and they’re awesome. Take-away food, racks of salted fish hanging, pastry counters, ice cream, packaged food–all in one busy place. I’d really like it if Ralph’s were more like that.
7. Tokyo is crazy for pictograms—instructions for prayer, subway warnings, everything is illustrated. Check out the doors of subway cars, they have several variations of a “Keep hands clear of the door” cartoon—my favorite is a little cartoon cat yowling as its tail gets caught.
8. Video game arcades are everywhere, and everyone loves them. Where else can you see a guy in a three-piece suit and a surgical mask whacking on giant drums with plastic drumsticks while a little cartoon drum babbles at him excitedly as he advances to the next level? SO AWESOME. Also fun: claw games.
9. Speaking of claw games, there is Doraemon. Doraemon is a cat-like robot from the future. Apparently cats in the future have no ears and gigantically round noggins—he’s also everywhere, as a prize in said arcade claw games, as a ride at carnivals, as key chains, as alarm clocks, and decrying the high cost of his wireless bill (see picture).
10. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hello Kitty is big business in Japan. She has paraphernalia up the wazoo, including assorted merchandise of her in an array of costumes. Geisha Kitty, Froggy Kitty, and—the flat-out best—Hello Kitty dressed up as a wonton. You heard me, WONTON KITTY. How hard does that rock?