Cheat Codes for Life in Japan

Little tricks that take life here to the next level:

  • Train cards: you can buy these at the ticket machines in every station, but so many tourists and short-termers never do it. These save you the time and aggravation of calculating your fare every single trip, simply deducting the right balance when you touch them to the turnstile.
  • “Sono mama” (de ii): This essentially means “leave it in the state it’s presently in.” When do you use it? To stop cashiers from elaborately bagging everything they sell to you, from can coffee to clothing. Saying “sono mama” makes them stop wrapping it and handing it to you. I use it to avoid bags at the convenience store all the time.
  • “Sekigaisen” (seh-key-guy-sen): Literally, this means “infrared data transmission,” but in common use it means “hey, get out your cellphone so we can trade numbers.” Possibly the shortest, most innocuous, most effective digit-grabbing phrase in the entire world.
  • Seishun 18: This is a super-cheap train pass that lets you spend five different 24-hour periods on trains going wherever you want, for something ridiculous like $25 a day. Shinkansen and some expresses are excluded, but it’s still the best deal in the country.