I arrived in Japan on September 3rd with an interesting mix of unease and excitement. Here I was, a Gaijin (foreigner) who didn't speak a word of Japanese and knew very little about Japanese culture, entering Tokyo's maw. Things could go splendidly or poorly.
I shouldn't have worried. By simply having the courage to make mistakes and apologize quickly helped me walk away with three things everybody should know when going to Tokyo for the first time.
1. Tokyo as a Land of Contrast
When talking to locals on my first night, it became clear that there were two flavors of experience I could have in Japan. First, I could optimize my itinerary for an sightseeing-oriented experience.. This would mean immersing myself in Japan's culture and natural beauty by visiting ancient temples like Meiji Jingu, the Imperial Palace, and Mt. Fuji.
Second, I could opt for a consumer experience, visiting the iconic Shibuya area where there are hordes of pedestrians and multi-story buildings home to a plethora of esoteric shops.
I decided to mix and match urban and natural adventure for my first day. Although each could and probably should be a full-day affair, I had a blast peering backwards in Japanese history in the morning and shopping for stationery in the afternoon. I posted some photos here.
2. Japanese Protocol
There is extensive etiquette on how to properly conduct yourself in Japan. You will mess up. A lot. It's easy to tell if you're making a mistake: if people are staring at you extensively, you're breaking some rule you don't know about yet. For example, I walked on the wrong side of the sidewalk and ate while walking.
The only reason I figured out I made a mistake was by asking others. I have a handy-dandy Japanese phrasebook that I torture hostel employees with whenever I have some downtime. Between them and Google, you can fill in important culture gaps relatively quickly.
3. Plastic Consumption
I'm on a budget while in Japan, so I eat at 7-11 a lot (and yes, it's amazing here). I found that employees will give me a plastic bag for something as small as a ￥100 sashimi item. If you're not hippy enough to ask for no bag, refrain from throwing these bags away. You're going to need them for trash later. Why? Because following some bombings in Tokyo, city officials got rid of trash cans, full stop. You could walk for thirty minutes without seeing a single place to deposit your candy wrapper. So reuse those bags.
I'm sure there are other, more extensive resources for transitioning into Japanese society. All I can say is go for it. You can read articles like this all you want, but until you actually visit and smell the ramen and hear the trucks boom edm music and feel the firmness of a tatami as you sit for a traditional Japanese meal, your research is a cute hobby.