For native speakers of English, Japanese can be a very difficult language to learn how to write because of the Chinese characters, but fortunately, it is not as difficult to speak! It is not a tonal language, and with the occasional exception of a “u” following an “s,” there are no silent letters, so you pronounce everything that you see. Pronounce an “r” like an “l” and pronounce all vowels as they would be pronounced in Latin, Spanish, or Italian. Helpful phrases include: “Sumimasen” (Excuse me/ I’m sorry), “Arigato gozaimasu” (Thank you), and “Doko” (Where). Get a phrase book and give it a try! The guidebook I recommend is Lonely Planet, and they sell phrase books, but all of the most important phrases will be in the guidebook.
There is no tipping in Japan—not in taxis and not in restaurants. If you try to tip in a taxi, you will create confusion, and if you try to tip in a restaurant, you may well have your server chase you out into the street to give you the money you accidentally left on the table.
Although major international credit cards such as Visa will be accepted at the hotel and in some restaurants and tourist shops, there are still many places in Japan that operate by cash only. I recommend using the ATM at a 7-11 convenience store. The stores are ubiquitous, and the machines offer instructions in English. I always carry 20,000 yen in cash just to be safe.
Bring at least one pair of easy-on, easy-off shoes as you will be asked to remove your shoes when you visit some temples, including one that is part of our excursion.
Do not do any of the following with your chopsticks: stab food with them, point at things with them, leave them standing upright in rice, or transfer food from one set of chopsticks to another.
Also, don’t be a high-maintenance diner. Japanese people don’t ask for substitutions, or anything on the side, or anything plain, or a vegetarian version of a meat dish, or something brought at a different time from the rest of the food. The food comes the way it comes, and if you prefer it another way, just order something else. It’s also bad form to ask for separate checks, especially for larger parties. While you may be able to get away with it with a small group at a lower-end place where you go up and pay at the cash register, the usual way that it’s done in Japan is to take the total for the group, divide it by the number of people who are there, and pay your share without fussing over who got what specific dish or drink.
Consult a guidebook for other cultural information. I recommend Lonely Planet, which also has an excellent language/phrase book section.