Government Constitutional Monarchy and Parliamentary Democracy
Currency Yen (¥)
Area total: 377,915 km²
water: 13,430 km²
land: 364,485 km²
Population 127,960,000 (2011 est.)
Language Japanese (but no official language)
Religion Shinto and Buddhism (often both), Christian (0.7%)
Electricity 100V/50 or 60Hz (American plug, commonly 2-prong without ground)
Country code +81
Internet TLD .jp
Time Zone UTC+9
Emergencies dial 110 for police
119 for fire
119 for medical
Japan, known as Nihon or Nippon in Japanese, is an island nation in East Asia.
The “Land of the Rising Sun” is a country where the past meets the future. Japanese culture stretches back millennia, yet has also adopted (and created) the latest modern fashions and trends.
Japan is a study in contrasts and contradictions. Many Japanese corporations dominate their industries, yet if you read the financial news it seems like Japan is practically bankrupt. Cities are as modern and high tech as anywhere else, but tumbledown wooden shacks can still be spotted next to glass fronted designer condominiums. On an average subway ride, you might see childishly cute character toys and incredibly violent pornography – sometimes enjoyed by the same passenger, at the same time! Japan has beautiful temples and gardens which are often surrounded by garish signs and ugly buildings. In the middle of a modern skyscraper you might discover a sliding wooden door which leads to a traditional chamber with tatami mats, calligraphy, and tea ceremony. These juxtapositions mean you may often be surprised and rarely bored by your travels in Japan.
Although Japan has often been seen in the West as a land combining tradition and modernity, and juxtapositions definitely exist, part of this idea is obsolete, and is a product of Japan being the first major Asian power to modernize as well as Western patronization and heavy promotion by the travel industry. Keep in mind that continued demolition of some of Japan’s historic landmarks goes on apace, as with the famed Kabuki-za Theater demolition. Still, with the proper planning, and with expectations held in check, a trip to Japan can be incredibly enjoyable and definitely worthwhile
Japan’s location on islands at the outermost edge of Asia has had a profound influence on its history. Just close enough to mainland Asia, yet far enough to keep itself separate, much of Japanese history has seen alternating periods of closure and openness. Until recently, Japan has been able to turn on or off its connection to the rest of the world, accepting foreign cultural influences in fits and starts. It is comparable with the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe, but with a much wider channel.
Recorded Japanese history begins in the 5th century, although archaeological evidence of settlement stretches back 50,000 years and the mythical Emperor Jimmu is said to have founded the current Imperial line in the 7th century BCE. Archeological evidence, however, has only managed to trace the Imperial line back to the Kofun Period during the 3rd to 7th centuries CE, which was also when the Japanese first had significant contact with China and Korea. Japan then gradually became a centralized state during the Asuka Period, during which Japan extensively absorbed many aspects of Chinese culture, and saw the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism. The popular board game of Go is also believed to have been introduced to Japan during this period.
Nara Period. The first strong Japanese state was centered in Nara, which was built to model the then Chinese capital Chang’an. This period, dubbed the Nara Period was the last time the emperor actually held political power.
Heian Period. Power eventually fell into the hands of the court nobles during the Heian Period, when the capital was moved to Kyoto, then known as Heian-Kyo, which remained the Japanese imperial residence until the 19th century. Chinese influence also reached its peak during the early Heian Period, which saw Buddhism become a popular religion among the masses.
Kamakura Period. This was then followed by the Kamakura Period, when the samurai managed to gain political power. Minamoto no Yoritomo, the most powerful of them was dubbed shogun by the emperor and ruled from his base in Kamakura..
Muromachi Period. This saw the Ashikaga shogunate come to power, ruling from their base in Ashikaga. Japan then descended into the anarchy of the Warring States period in the 15th century.
Edo Period. Tokugawa Ieyasu finally reunified the country in 1600 and founded the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal state ruled from Edo, or modern-day Tokyo. A strict caste system was imposed, with the Shogun and his samurai warriors at the top of the heap and no social mobility permitted.
During this period, dubbed the Edo Period, Tokugawa rule kept the country stable but stagnant with a policy of almost total isolation (with the exception of Dutch and Chinese merchants in certain designated cities) while the world around them rushed ahead. US Commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Ships arrived in Yokohama in 1854, forcing the country to open up to trade with the West, resulting in the signing of unequal treaties and the collapse of the shogunate in the Meiji Restoration of 1867, during which the imperial capital was relocated from Kyoto to Edo, now re-named Tokyo.
Modern Period. After observing Western colonization in Southeast Asia and the division and weakening of China, which the Japanese had for so long considered to be the world’s greatest superpower, Japan vowed not to be overtaken by the West, launching itself headlong into a drive to industrialize and modernize at frantic speed. Adopting Western technology and culture wholesale, Japan’s cities soon sprouted railways, brick buildings and factories, and even the disastrous Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which flattened large parts of Tokyo and killed over 100,000 people, was barely a bump in the road.
From day one, resource-poor Japan had looked elsewhere for the supplies it needed, and this soon turned into a drive to expand and colonize its neighbors. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 saw Japan take control of Taiwan, Korea and parts of Manchuria, and its victory against Russia in the 1904–5 Russo-Japanese war cemented its position of strength. With an increasingly totalitarian government controlled by the military, Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China via Manchuria in 1931 and by 1941 had an empire stretching across much of Asia and the Pacific In 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying a large portion of the U.S. Pacific fleet but drawing America into the war, whose tide soon started to turn against Japan. By the time it was forced to surrender in 1945 after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1.86 million Japanese civilians and military personnel had died, well over 10 million Chinese and other Asians had been killed, primarily in atrocities committed by the Japanese military, and Japan was occupied for the first time in its history. The Emperor kept his throne but was turned into a constitutional monarch. Thus converted to pacifism and democracy, with the US taking care of defense, Japan now directed its prodigious energies into peaceful technology and reemerged from poverty to conquer the world’s marketplaces with an endless stream of cars and consumer electronics to attain the second-largest gross national product in the world.
But frenzied growth could not last forever, and after the Nikkei stock index hit the giddy heights of 39,000 in 1989, the bubble well and truly burst, leading to Japan’s lost decade of the 1990s that saw the real estate bubbles deflate, the stockmarket fall by half and, adding insult to injury, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 that leveled parts of Kobe and killed over 6,000 people. The economy has yet to fully recover from its doldrums, with deflation driving down prices, an increasingly unsupportable burden of government debt (nearing 200% of GDP) and an increasing polarization of Japanese society into “haves” with permanent jobs and “have-not” freeters drifting between temporary jobs. This has resulted in Japan losing its position as the world’s second largest economy to its larger neighbour, China. Nevertheless, the Japanese maintain one of the highest standards of living in the world
As an island nation shut off from the rest of the world for a long time (with mild exceptions from China and Korea), Japan is very homogeneous. Almost 99% of the population is of Japanese ethnicity. The largest minority are Koreans, around 1 million strong, many in their 3rd or 4th generations. There are also sizable populations of Chinese, Filipinos and Brazilians, although many are of Japanese descent. Though largely assimilated, the resident Chinese population maintains a presence in Japan’s three Chinatowns in Kobe, Nagasaki and Yokohama. Indigenous ethnic minorities include the Ainu on Hokkaido, gradually driven north during the centuries and now numbering around 50,000 (although the number varies greatly depending on the exact definition used), and the Ryukyuan people of Okinawa.
The Japanese are well known for their politeness. Many Japanese are thrilled to have visitors to their country and are incredibly helpful to lost and bewildered-looking foreigners. Younger Japanese people are often extremely interested in meeting and becoming friends with foreigners as well. Do not be surprised if a Japanese person (usually of the opposite gender) approaches you in a public place and tries to initiate a conversation with you in somewhat coherent English. On the other hand, many are not used to dealing with foreigners (gaijin) and are more reserved and reluctant to communicate.
Visibly foreign visitors remain a rarity in many parts of Japan outside of major cities, and you will likely encounter moments when entering a shop causes the staff to seemingly panic and scurry off into the back. Don’t take this as racism or other xenophobia: they’re just afraid that you’ll try to address them in English and they’ll be embarrassed because they can’t understand or reply. A smile and a Konnichiwa (“Hello”) often helps.
As Japan has undergone periods of openness and isolation throughout its history, Japanese culture is if anything unique. While heavy Chinese influences are evident in traditional Japanese culture, it has also retained many native Japanese customs, resulting in a seemingly seamless blend.
The most important holiday in Japan is New Year (Oshōgatsu), which pretty much shuts down the country from December 30 to January 3. Japanese head home to their families (which means massive transport congestion), eat festive foods and head out to the neighborhood temple at the stroke of midnight to wish in the New Year. Many Japanese often travel to other countries as well, and prices for airfares are very high.
In March or April, Japanese head out en masse for hanami (lit. “flower viewing”), a festival of outdoors picnics and drunken revelry in parks, cleverly disguised as cherry blossom (sakura) viewing. The exact timing of the famously fleeting blossoms varies from year to year and Japan’s TV channels follow the progress of the cherry blossom front from south to north obsessively.
The longest holiday is Golden Week (April 27 to May 6), when there are four public holidays within a week and everybody goes on extended vacation. Trains are crowded and flight and hotel prices are jacked up to multiples of normal prices, making this a bad time to travel in Japan, but the weeks immediately before or after Golden Week are excellent choices.
Summer brings a spate of festivals designed to distract people from the intolerable heat and humidity (comparable to the US Midwest). There are local festivals (matsuri) and impressive fireworks competitions (hanabi) throughout the country. Tanabata on July 7th (or early August in some places), commemorates a story of star-crossed lovers who could only meet on this day. The largest summer festival is Obon, held in mid-July in eastern Japan (Kanto) and mid-August in western Japan (Kansai), which honors departed ancestral spirits. Everybody heads home to visit village graveyards, and transport is packed.
Lunar holidays such as equinoxes may vary by a day or two; the list below is accurate for 2012. Holidays that fall on a weekend may be observed with a bank holiday on the following Monday. Keep in mind that most Japanese people take additional time off around New Year’s, during Golden Week, and during Obon. The most important festival is New Year’s Day, and many shops and restaurants close for at least 2 days during this period, so it might not be an ideal time to visit. However, convenience stores remains open, and many temples conduct New Year’s Day fairs, so it’s still not difficult to find food to eat.
January 1 – New Year’s Day (ganjitsu or gantan). January 2 and 3 – New Year’s Bank Holidays
January 9 (Second Monday of month) – Coming-of-Age Day (seijin no hi)
February 11 – National Foundation Day (kenkoku kinen no hi)
March 20 – Vernal Equinox Day (shunbun no hi)
April 29 – Showa Day (showa no hi) – first holiday of Golden Week. April 30 – Showa Day Observed. May 3 – Constitution Day (kenpō kinnenbi). May 4 – Greenery Day (midori no hi). May 5 – Children’s Day (kodomo no hi – last holiday of Golden Week
July 16 (third Monday of month) – Marine Day (umi no hi)
September 17 (third Monday of month) – Respect-for-the-Aged Day (keirō no hi)
September 22 – Autumnal Equinox Day (shuubun no hi)
October 8 (second Monday of month) – Sports Day (taiiku no hi)
November 3 – Culture Day (bunka no hi)
November 23 – Labor Thanksgiving Day (kinrō kansha no hi)
December 23 – The Emperor’s Birthday (tennō tanjōbi). December 24 – Emperor’s Birthday Observed
The Japanese calendar
The Imperial era year, which counts from the year of ascension of the Emperor, is often used for reckoning dates in Japan, including transportation timetables and store receipts. The current era is Heisei (and Heisei 24 corresponds to 2012. The year may be written as “H24” or just “24”, so “24/4/1” is April 1, 2012. Western years are also well understood and frequently used.
Japan has two dominant religious traditions: Shinto is the ancient animist religion of traditional Japan. At just over twelve hundred years in Japan, Buddhism is the more recent imported faith. Christianity, introduced by European missionaries, was widely persecuted during the feudal era but is now accepted, and a small percentage of Japanese are Christian.
Generally speaking, the Japanese are not a particularly religious people. While they regularly visit shrines and temples to offer coins and make silent prayers, religious faith and doctrine play a small role (if any) in the life of the average Japanese. Thus it would be impossible to try to represent what percentage of the population is Shinto versus Buddhist, or even Christian. According to a famous poll, Japan is 80% Shinto and 80% Buddhist, and another oft-quoted dictum states that Japanese are Shinto when they live, as weddings and festivals are typically Shinto, but Buddhist when they die, since funerals usually use Buddhist rites. Most Japanese accept a little bit of every religion. Christianity is evident almost exclusively in a commercial sense. In season, variations of Santa Claus, Christmas trees and other non-religious Christmas symbols are on display in malls and shopping centers throughout metropolitan areas.
At the same time, Shinto and Buddhism have had an enormous influence on the country’s history and cultural life. The Shinto religion focuses on the spirit of the land, and is reflected in the country’s exquisite gardens and peaceful shrines deep in ancient forests. When you visit a shrine (jinja) with its simple torii gate, you are seeing Shinto customs and styles. If you see an empty plot of land with some white paper suspended in a square, that’s a Shinto ceremony to dedicate the land for a new building. Buddhism in Japan has branched out in numerous directions over the centuries. Nichiren is currently the largest branch of Buddhist belief. Westerners are probably most familiar with Zen Buddhism, which was introduced to Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries. Zen fit the aesthetic and moral sensibilities of medieval Japan, influencing arts such as flower-arranging (ikebana), tea ceremony (sadō), ceramics, painting, calligraphy, poetry, and the martial arts. Over the years, Shinto and Buddhism have intertwined considerably. You will find them side by side in cities, towns, and people’s lives. It’s not at all unusual to find a sparse Shinto torii standing before an elaborate Buddhist temple (o-tera).
Karaoke was invented in Japan and can be found in virtually every Japanese city. Pronounced kah-rah-oh-keh it is abbreviated from the words “Empty orchestra” in Japanese – many natives won’t have any idea what you’re talking about if you use the English keh-ree-oh-kee. Most karaoke places occupy several floors of a building. You and your friends have a room to yourself – no strangers involved – and the standard hourly rate often includes all-you-can-drink booze, with refills ordered through a phone on the wall or through the karaoke machine itself. The major chains all have good English-language song selections. Old folks prefer singing enka ballads at small neighborhood bars.
Also ubiquitous are pachinko parlors. Pachinko is a form of gambling that involves dropping little steel balls into a machine; prizes are awarded depending on where they land. Legally you can only win trinkets (from cigarette lighters up to computers) but in reality, most pachinko players opt for nondescript tokens, which they exchange off-site for cash, skirting anti-gambling laws. The air inside most pachinko parlors is quite harsh from tobacco smoke, sweat, and hot machinery — not to mention the ear-splitting noise. Video arcades, though sometimes difficult to distinguish from pachinko parlors from the outside, have video games rather than gambling, and are often several floors high. Unlike pachinko, they attract all ages from kids to adults, and are usually clean on the inside.
Japan’s national game is Go (igo), a strategy board game that originated in China. By no means everyone plays, but the game has newspaper columns, TV, and professional players. The game is also played in the West, and there is a large and active English language wiki discussing it. On a sunny day, the Tennoji ward of Osaka is a good place to join a crowd watching two Go masters go at it. Besides Go, another popular board game in Japan is shogi or Japanese chess.
Mahjong (mājan) is also relatively popular in Japan, and frequently features on Japanese video and arcade games, although it’s associated with illegal gambling and mahjong parlors can be quite seedy. While gameplay is similar, scoring is drastically different from the various Chinese versions.
Baseball is hugely popular in Japan and the popularity is a historical one (baseball was first introduced in Japan around 1870s by an American professor). Baseball fans traveling internationally may find Japan to be one of the great examples of baseball popularity outside of United States. Baseball isn’t only played in many high schools and by professionals, but also referenced in many Japanese pop culture as well. In addition, many Japanese players have gone on to become top players in Major League Baseball. The official Japanese baseball league is known as Nippon Professional Baseball, or simply known as Puro Yakyū meaning Professional Baseball. Travelers who are interested in baseball may watch professional baseball games once in while with a friend or a Japanese local. Just make sure you reserve your ticket in advance. The rules in Japanese baseball are not much different than baseball in United States, although there are some minor variations. The Japanese national baseball team is also considered to be one of the strongest in the world, having won the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, as well as the second edition in 2009.
These days, hand-drawn or CGI-based TV animation is also popular in Japan, especially with people called otaku. Although TV animation (or “anime”) was regarded as childish before, today, many Japanese find it so exciting that they are proud of it as a part of their culture. Note that the Japanese do not distinguish between western visual animation and “nihon no anime.” Saying that you like anime could mean that you like Naruto, or Batman cartoons, or The Flintstones. The conversational context will dictate. Do not call it “Japanime.”
The Japanese are proud of their four seasons (and an astonishing number of them are firmly convinced that the phenomenon is unique to Japan), but the tourist with a flexible travel schedule should aim for spring or autumn.
Spring is one of the best times of year to be in Japan. The temperatures are warm but not hot, there’s not too much rain, and March-April brings the justly famous cherry blossoms (sakura) and is a time of revelry and festivals.
Summer starts with a dreary rainy season (known as tsuyu or baiu) in June and turns into a steambath in July-August, with extreme humidity and the temperature heading as high as 35°C. Avoid, or head to northern Hokkaido or the mountains of Chubu and Tohoku to escape. The upside, though, is a slew of fireworks shows (花火大会 hanabi taikai) and festivals big and small.
Autumn, starting in September, is also an excellent time to be in Japan. Temperatures and humidity become more tolerable, fair days are common and fall colors can be just as impressive as cherry blossoms. However, in early autumn typhoons often hit the southern parts of Japan and bring everything to a standstill.
Winter is a good time to go skiing or hot-spring hopping, but as some buildings lack central heating, it’s often miserably cold indoors. Heading south to Okinawa provides some relief. There is usually heavy snow in Hokkaido and northeast Japan due to the cold wind blasts from Siberia. Note that the Pacific coast of Honshu (where most major cities are located) has milder winters than the Sea of Japan coast: It may be snowing in Kyoto while it is cloudy or sprinkling rain in Osaka, an hour away
There are multitudes of books written on Japan. Some great, some amazingly un-great. A good place to begin is to visit sites like The Crazy Japan Times, Japan Review or Japan Visitor. Some recommended books include:
Untangling My Chopsticks (ISBN 076790852X), by Victoria Abbott Riccardi. Set mainly in Kyoto.
My Mother is a Tractor (ISBN 1412048974), by Nicholas Klar. A former English teacher with a witty and informative take on Japanese society. Written from the depths of the Japanese countryside.
Hitching Rides with Buddha (ISBN 1841957852), by Will Ferguson is about a Canadian English teacher who hitches rides across the country, following the blooming cherry blossoms. At times hilariously funny and deathly serious, it gives a very honest evaluation of all sorts of aspects of Japanese culture.
Culture Shock: Japan (ISBN 1558688528). A part of the ‘Culture Shock’ series, this is an excellent overview of the culture and lifestyle of the Japanese. A good resource for a long or work-related stay in Japan or even for interaction with Japanese people.
All-You-Can Japan (ISBN 1479216437), by Josh Shulman is a unique travel guide to Japan that offers a smart travel strategy for getting an authentic yet affordable experience in Japan. The author was born and raised in Japan, and writes this short guide in a casual, easy-to-read language.
Regions. Japan is conventionally divided into nine regions, listed here from north to south:
Hokkaido. Northernmost island and snowy frontier. Famous for its wide open spaces and cold winters.
Tohoku (Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Miyagi, Yamagata, Fukushima). Largely rural north-east part of the main island Honshu, best known for seafood, skiing and hot springs.
Kanto (Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Tokyo, Kanagawa). Coastal plain of Honshu, includes the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama.
Chubu (Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, Yamanashi, Nagano, Shizuoka, Aichi, Gifu. Mountainous middle region of Honshu, dominated by the Japan Alps and Japan’s fourth-largest city Nagoya.
Kansai (Shiga, Mie, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Wakayama, Hyogo). Western region of Honshu, ancient capital of culture and commerce, including the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Kobe. Chugoku (Tottori, Shimane, Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi)
South-westernmost Honshu, a rural region best known for the cities of Hiroshima and Okayama. Shikoku (Kagawa, Ehime, Tokushima, Kochi). Smallest of the four main islands, a destination for Buddhist pilgrims, and Japan’s best white-water rafting.
Kyushu (Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Oita, Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Kagoshima. Southernmost of the four main islands, birthplace of Japanese civilization; largest cities Fukuoka and Kitakyushu.
Okinawa. Semi-tropical southern island chain reaching out toward Taiwan; formerly the independent Ryukyu Kingdom until it was annexed by Japan in 1879, its traditional customs and architecture are significantly different from the rest of Japan.
Cities. Japan has thousands of cities; these are nine of the most important to the traveller.
Tokyo — the capital and main financial centre, modern and densely populated.
Hiroshima — large port city, the first city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb
Kanazawa — historic city on the west coast
Kyoto — ancient capital of Japan, considered the cultural heart of the country, with many ancient Buddhist temples and gardens
Nagasaki — ancient port city in Kyushu, the second city to be destroyed by an atom bomb
Nara — first capital of a united Japan, with many Buddhist shrines, and historical buildings
Osaka — large and dynamic city located in the Kansai region
Sapporo — largest city in Hokkaido, famous for its snow festival
Sendai — largest city in the Tohoku region, known as the city of forests due to its tree lined avenues and wooded hills
Other destinations. Japan’s Top 3 for some sights and places held in the high esteem by the Japanese themselves, and Off the beaten track in Japan for a selection of fascinating but less well known destinations throughout the country.
Dewa Sanzan — three holy mountains frequented by pilgrims and ascetics on the western Tohoku coast
Japan Alps — series of high snow-topped mountains in the center of Honshu
Miyajima — just off Hiroshima, site of the iconic floating torii
Mount Fuji — iconic snow-topped volcano, and highest peak in Japan (3776 m)
Mount Koya — mountaintop headquarters of the Buddhist Shingon sect
Sado Island — island off Niigata, former home to exiles and prisoners, now a brilliant summer getaway
Shiretoko National Park — unspoiled wilderness at Hokkaido’s northeasternmost tip
Yaeyama Islands — the farthest-flung bit of Okinawa, with spectacular diving, beaches and jungle cruising
Yakushima — UNESCO World Heritage site with enormous cedars and misty primeval forests
Visa. Citizens of 61 countries and territories, including most Western nations, can obtain landing permission on arrival without a visa. This is usually valid for a stay of up to 90 days, although certain European nationalities and Mexicans are permitted to stay for 180 days if they note a longer stay upon entry. All other nationalities must obtain a “temporary visitor” visa prior to arrival, which is generally valid for a stay of 90 days. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains an online Guide to Japanese Visas. Note that no visa is required for a same-day transit between international flights at the same airport, so long as you do not leave the secured area.
All foreigners (except those on government business and certain permanent residents) at the age of 16 and over are electronically fingerprinted and photographed as part of immigration entry procedures. This may be followed by a short interview conducted by the immigration officer. Entry will be denied if any of these procedures are refused.
As of 2012, a new system is in place for foreigners staying for longer than 90 days where a Residence Card is issued at the port of entry, but the system currently applies only to arrivals at Narita, Chubu, Kansai, and Haneda airports. Arrival at other ports of entry will require that a residence card be obtained in a manner similar to the former alien registration system (and a stamp will be placed in your passport to note this). Under the rules in place as of 2012, a re-entry permit no longer needs to be held, in most cases, for temporary stays of less than one year outside Japan. However, the Residence Card needs to be surrendered upon the final departure from Japan. Previously issued Certificates of Alien Registration (gaijin cards) are still valid until expiration or 8 July 2015.
A customs issue that trips up some unwary travellers is that some over-the-counter medications, notably pseudoephedrine (Actifed, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers) and codeine (some cough medications) are prohibited in Japan. Some prescription medicines (mostly strong painkillers) are also banned even if you have a prescription unless you specifically apply for permission in advance. You may also require permission in order to import drug-filled syringes, such as EpiPens and the like. Ignorance is not considered an excuse, and you can expect to be jailed and deported if caught. See Japan Customs for details, or check with the nearest Japanese embassy or consulate.
Once in Japan, you must carry your passport (or Alien Registration Card or Residence Card, if applicable) with you at all times. If caught in a random check without it (and nightclub raids are not uncommon), you’ll be detained until somebody can fetch it for you. First offenders who apologize are usually let off with a warning, but theoretically you can be fined up to ¥200,000.
Most intercontinental flights arrive at either Narita Airport (NRT) near Tokyo or Kansai Airport (KIX) near Osaka; a smaller number use Chubu International Airport (NGO) near Nagoya. All three are significant distances from their respective city centers, but are linked to regional rail networks and also have numerous bus services to nearby destinations. Tokyo’s other airport, Haneda Airport (HND), is still primarily for domestic flights but has begun drawing an increasing number of international flights away from Narita.
Just about every sizable city has an airport, though most only offer domestic flights and a few services to China and Korea. A popular alternative for travellers to these cities is to fly via Seoul on Korean Air or Asiana Airlines: this can even be cheaper than connecting in Japan.
Both Narita and Kansai airports are generally easy to get through and not particularly crowded assuming you avoid the main holiday periods – namely New Year’s (end of December – beginning of January), Golden Week (end of April – beginning of May), and Obon (Mid-August), when things are more hectic and expensive.
Japan’s two major airlines are Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA). Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and American Airlines also operate sizable hubs at Narita, with flights to many destinations in the US and Asia.
There are a number of international ferries to Japan. Except for the ferries from Busan to Fukuoka and Shimonoseki, these are generally uncompetitive with discounted air tickets, as prices are high, schedules infrequent (and unreliable) and travel times long. In roughly descending order of practicality:
Busan-Fukuoka: JR Kyushu Ferry 092-281-2315 (Japan) or 051-469-0778 (Korea), operates hydrofoil service several times each day, taking about 3.5 hours and costing ¥13,000 one way. Camellia Line, 092-262-2323 (Japan) or 051-466-7799 (Korea), operates a ferry that takes about 8 hours and starts at ¥9000; if overnight, it may stop and wait in front of Busan Port in the morning until Korean Immigration opens. (Compared to most airports, there should be relatively little security hassle on this line.)
Busan-Shimonoseki: Kanbu Ferry, 0832-24-3000 (Japan) or 051-464-2700 (Korea), daily service. 13.5 hours; ¥9000+.
Busan-Osaka: Barnstar Line, 06-6271-8830 (Japan) or 051-469-6131 (Korea), offers thrice weekly service. 18 hours; ¥13,700+.
Shanghai-Osaka/Kobe: Japan-China Ferry, 078-321-5791 (Japan) or 021-6326-4357 (China), thrice weekly service. 45 hours; RMB1,300 from China, ¥20,000+ from Japan.
Tianjin-Kobe: China Express Line, 03-3537-3107 (Japan) or 022-2420-5777 (China), weekly service. 50 hours; ¥22,000+.
Qingdao-Shimonoseki: Orient Ferry, 083-232-6615 (Japan) or 0532-8387-1160 (China), thrice weekly service. 38 hours, ¥15,000+.
Suzhou-Shimonoseki: Shanghai-Shimonoseki Ferry, 083-232-6615 (Japan) or 0512-53186686 (China), thrice weekly service. ¥15,000+.
Keelung (Taiwan)-Ishigaki/Naha: Star Cruises, +886-2-27819968 (Taiwan) or +81-3-64035188 (Japan), irregular cruises in summer high season only (May-Sep), not available every year. One-way fares generally not available.
Sakhalin-Wakkanai: Heartland Ferry. 5.5 hours; ¥21,000+. Service is suspended October-April due to sea ice.
Russia to Japan via Sakhalin itinerary.
Vladivostok-Takaoka (Fushiki): Far East Shipping Co c/o United Orient Shipping, 03-5640-3901 (Tokyo), roughly weekly. 42 hours; US$320+.
Japan has one of the world’s best transport systems, and getting around is usually a breeze, with the train being overwhelmingly the popular option. Although traveling around Japan is expensive when compared to other Asian countries, there are a variety of passes that can be used to limit the damage.
For sorting through transport schedules and fares, Hitachi’s Hyperdia is an invaluable companion; it computes to-the-minute directions including connecting trains, as well as buses and planes. Jorudan is a similar service, but with fewer options for exploring alternate routes. The paper version of these is the Daijikokuhyō, a phonebook-sized tome available for browsing in every train station and most hotels, but it’s a little challenging to use as the content is entirely in microscopic Japanese. A lighter version that just includes limited express, sleeper and bullet trains (shinkansen) is available from the Japan National Tourist Organization’s overseas offices. English timetables are available on the websites of JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR Central and JR Kyushu. Timetables for the Tokaido, San’yo and Kyushu shinkansen can also be viewed in English at Macoto’s Tabi-o-ji timetable site. Both Hyperdia and Tabi-o-ji offer schedule searches that exclude Nozomi and Mizuho services, which will benefit holders of the Japan Rail Pass.
In Japanese cities, a place’s address is useful for mail, but it’s nearly useless for actually getting there. Most places are described in terms of the walking distance from the nearest train station, and relative to local landmarks. Business cards very often have little maps printed on the back to make navigation easier (at least if you can read Japanese). In addition, many train stations have maps of the local area that can help you find a destination if it is reasonably close to the station. Typical addresses are written as “1丁目 2-3” or “1-2-3”, which would be district 1, block 2, house 3.
Japan’s railways are fast, highly efficient and cover the majority of the country, making this the transport mode of choice for most visitors. The first and most confusing aspect of Japan’s railway system (especially within large cities like Tokyo) that you will encounter is the overlap of several private railway networks with the JR network. Tokyo also has two separate metro systems to add to the confusion. Being aware of this one fact will substantially reduce the confusion you experience trying to understand railway maps and find your way around.
North Americans are usually astounded to find that Japanese trains, like other forms of mass transit, nearly always leave and arrive promptly on time, following the published schedule to the minute. If you are late, you will miss the train!
Note that most trains do not operate 24 hours, for example in Tokyo they do not run between 1:00 AM and 5:00 AM roughly. If you are planning to be out late and are relying on the train to get home, be sure to find out when the last train is leaving. Many bars and clubs are open until the first train runs again in the morning, so keep this in mind as another option.
The JR network is extensive as one would expect from what used to be the national rail system (now privately owned and split into regional companies). The JR group operates the Shinkansen lines, as well as a multitude of regional and urban mass transit lines. In the countryside the group companies also run bus services to connect places that don’t have a rail service. However, the JR network is not a monopoly and particularly within major conurbations there are other private rail networks.
Interestingly, people refer to JR in Japanese by its English initials, “Jay-Arru.” Hopefully even non-English speakers can help you find a station if you ask.
Japan Rail Pass
By far the best option for visitors who plan to do a lot of travelling is the Japan Rail Pass, which allows unlimited travel on almost all JR trains, including the Shinkansen, for a fixed period of 7, 14 or 21 days. Whereas a single round trip from Tokyo to Osaka costs almost ¥29,000, the 7-day Rail Pass in Ordinary (Standard) Class is ¥28,300. The 14-day and 21-day ordinary pass is 45,100 and ¥57,700, respectively. Green Car Rail Passes cost ¥37,800, ¥61,200 and ¥79,600 for 7, 14 and 21 days, respectively, and include unlimited travel in Green Car seating (See “Green Cars” below).
The pass can only be purchased outside of Japan from specific vendors. Upon purchase, you are given an Exchange Order, which can be exchanged at most larger JR stations in Japan, including all of the stations nearest to airports, for the Rail Pass itself. At the time of exchange, you will need to have your passport with you, and know the date upon which you will want the Rail Pass to start. Dedicated counters specifically for Rail Pass exchanges are available at Tokyo and Nagoya stations; wait times are little and as soon as you receive the pass you can start making free seat reservations immediately at the counter (recommended if you’re travelling on less-popular routes that might fill up, or if you are travelling with a large group).
The rail pass does have a few exceptions: You are not allowed to travel on Nozomi or Mizuho services on the Tokaido, San’yo, or Kyushu Shinkansen lines (the full fare has to be paid). If you use the Hayabusa service that operates between Tokyo, Sendai and Aomori, you cannot use the premium first class cabin, known as “GranClass”, unless you pay the limited express fare and GranClass fare (i.e. about ¥16,500 between Tokyo and Aomori). You must also pay extra surcharges for most overnight trains, and for JR trains that travel on non-JR track.
Regional JR companies also sell their own passes that cover only parts of the country. They are generally poorer value and you’ll have to plan pretty carefully to make them pay off: in particular, none are valid for travel between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka. Unlike the main Rail Pass, these can only be purchased in the country (at any major JR station), but they’re still for most part limited to visitors. From north to south: Hokkaido: JR Hokkaido Rail Pass, Tohoku: JR East Rail Pass (also covers Kanto and some private rail lines)
Chubu: none, Chugoku: JR West San’yo Area Pass; JR West San’yo-Shikoku-Kyushu Rail Pass (Includes all of Shikoku and all or part of Kyushu), Shikoku: Shikoku Free, Kippu, Shikoku Saihakken Kippu, Kyushu: Kyushu Rail Pass
When you make any rail journey (even if you obtained a ticket using your Rail Pass), you will need to show the Rail Pass at the manned ticket barrier. This is inconvenient if there is a queue, but it is usually acceptable to flash your pass at the ticket-taker as you slip past the other customers transacting business with JR.
Seishun 18 Ticket
The Seishun 18 Ticket (Seishun jūhachi kippu) is the most economic deal for travel in Japan, offering five days of unlimited train travel for just ¥11,500. Better yet, unlike the Rail Pass, the days do not have to be consecutive. You can even split a ticket so that (for example) one person uses it for two days and another for three days. The main catches are that tickets are only valid on local trains and that tickets are valid only during school holidays (March-April, July-September, December-January), so you need good timing and plenty of time on your hands to use it.
Buying a ticket.
For travel within big cities, the easiest thing to do is to pick up a rechargeable contactless smart card like Suica/Pasmo (in the Tokyo/Kanto area) or ICOCA/PiTaPa (in the Kansai area), which will calculate the correct fares for you automatically. Note that the Suica/Pasmo cards can sometimes be used at places surprisingly far from Tokyo, and also in buses; though it can also happen that having entered the system with the card, you find yourself exiting at a point on a private railway where the card doesn’t work, and you will have to pay cash for the whole journey, getting a receipt with which you can get your card cleaned up at a ticket office the next time you want to use it. But if you’re travelling longer-distance and don’t have a JR pass, or are just passing through and don’t want a local smart card, then buying a ticket can get more complicated.
At major stations there will be an obvious travel section where you can buy your ticket from a human being (look for the little green sign of a figure relaxing in a chair or ask for the midori no madoguchi (literally “green window”). Since you probably need to know the train times and may want to reserve a seat as well this is a good thing. Generally speaking you can make your desires known by means of handwaving and pointing at destinations if the staff are unable to speak English. Writing down information helps as most Japanese have a much easier time reading English than hearing it.
On the other hand if you are at a local station (or a subway station) you will have more difficulty as you nearly always have to buy it using a machine whose instructions are in Japanese (although newer machines have an English mode). Most of these machines do not take credit cards although many JR East long-distance ticket machines do. Fortunately this is exactly the place where looking utterly bewildered is liable to lead to some nice Japanese offering to help. If they do then you are in luck, if not then here are some hints.
Firstly, there is usually a big map above all the machines that shows the current station in red, often marked with “当駅” (tōeki). Around it will be all other stations you can get to with a price below them. The nearer stations have the smaller numbers (e.g. the closest stations will probably be about ¥140, more distant ones rising to perhaps ¥2000.
If you recognise the characters of the station you want to get to, make a note of the amount you should pay and place that amount (or more) into the machine using coins or notes (most machines take ¥1000 notes, some also take ¥5000 and ¥10000 notes) the price you want will show up as one of the buttons to press. Note that some machines have large black buttons with nothing written on them. These are for different fare levels. Press the buttons until your fare level shows up, insert the money, and take your ticket.
If you cannot figure out the price, buy a minimum fare ticket and pay when you arrive at your destination. You can either present your ticket to the staff at the gate, or pay the balance at the “Fare Adjustment” machine. Look for a small ticket vending kiosk near the exit, but still inside the gate. Insert your minimum fare ticket and pay the balance indicated on the screen.
For express trains that require a surcharge and seating reservation, you will usually be able to find a staffed window. However, some trains have their own specific machines to do this. First, buy a regular train ticket to your destination. On the touchscreen machines, there will usually be a button for express services. Choose the name of the service you wish to travel on, your destination, preferred departure time and seating preferences, and then insert the surcharge amount. You will be issued a reservation card showing the departure time and your seat number. You must also have either a travel ticket, pass or smartcard to get through the ticket gates: a surcharge on its own is not valid for travel.
At bigger stations, you will probably have the choice of more than one train line, or more than one company operating the lines. Therefore, always first find the line you want to use, and then get your ticket from the nearest machine, instead of jumping on the first ticket machine next to the station’s entrance. Otherwise you might end up with a ticket for a different company and/or line. While you can usually choose your platform after going through the gate, and thereby activating your ticket, at smaller stations this might not be the case. If you notice later that you need to get to another platform, you might not be able to get out anymore without invalidating your ticket. So always have a good look at the signposts at every station.
Carriages 1-3 are non-reserved
JR pioneered the famous Bullet Train, known in Japanese as Shinkansen, and with speeds nudging 300 kilometers per hour (360 km/h in the near future), these remain the fastest way to travel around the country. Note that Shinkansen do not run at night, and eg. the last departures from Tokyo towards Kyoto and Osaka are around 9 PM.
The most important, most-travelled shinkansen route in the country is the Tokaido Shinkansen, which links Tokyo with Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka. This line continues from Osaka to Okayama, Hiroshima and Fukuoka (Hakata station) as the San’yo Shinkansen, then to Kumamoto and Kagoshima as the Kyushu Shinkansen. There are a total of six different types of services operating on the Tokaido, San’yo and Kyushu Shinkansen lines. These can all be grouped into three types, reflecting the number of stops made:
Nozomi, Mizuho. These two services are the fastest, making stops only at major cities. The Nozomi is the primary service that runs through both the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen lines, though some other Nozomi trains run only between Tokyo and Osaka. A one-seat journey on the Nozomi from Tokyo to Osaka takes 2 hours 30 minutes, while trips from Tokyo to Fukuoka take 5 hours. Seamless transfers can be made at Fukuoka between the Nozomi and Kyushu Shinkansen trains: Tokyo to Kumamoto is 6 hours, and the full run from Tokyo to Kagoshima is about 7 hours.
The Mizuho, on the other hand, is restricted to services on the San’yo and Kyushu shinkansen between Osaka and Kagoshima, with two daily round-trips in the morning and two in the evening. Mizuho trains run from Osaka to Kumamoto in 3 hours, and Osaka to Kagoshima in 3 hours, 45 minutes.
A small surcharge on top of the Shinkansen fare is required, and seat reservations are mandatory for all but three cars on the train. Most importantly for tourists, the Japan Rail Pass is NOT valid on Nozomi or Mizuho trains.
Hikari, Sakura. These are the fastest services valid with the Japan Rail Pass, making a few more stops than the Nozomi or Mizuho. On the Tokaido Shinkansen, there are usually two Hikari trains per hour that depart from Tokyo: One train terminates in Osaka, and the other continues on the San’yo Shinkansen, terminating in Okayama. West of Osaka there is generally one Sakura train per hour (two during commuting hours) that runs from Osaka to Fukuoka and on to Kagoshima. Other Sakura services run only between Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Kagoshima on the Kyushu Shinkansen.
If you use the Hikari or Sakura with a Japan Rail Pass you will typically need to transfer at least once for long journeys. For trips on the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen, Shin-Osaka is the best location to transfer between services, with Shin-Kobe, Okayama, and maybe Himeji as alternatives for some connections.
Departing Tokyo with these services you can reach Osaka in 3 hours, Fukuoka in 6 hours, Kumamoto in 7 hours and Kagoshima in 8 hours. From Osaka you can get to Fukuoka in less than 3 hours, Kumamoto in 3 hours 30 minutes and Kagoshima in 4 hours 15 minutes.
Kodama, Tsubame. Also valid with the Japan Rail Pass, these are the all-stations services stopping at every shinkansen station on the route. Tokaido Shinkansen Kodama services generally run from Tokyo to Osaka, or Tokyo to Nagoya. Separate all-station Kodama services run on the San’yo Shinkansen, and Tsubame trains run only on the Kyushu Shinkansen between Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Kagoshima. While Tokaido Kodama trains operate a full 16-car consist, San’yo Kodama services can operate with 16, 8 or 6-car trains. Kyushu Tsubame services operate with 6 or 8 cars. Be sure to check the signs on the platform for your proper boarding location.
On the newer and recently refurbished bullet trains, smoking is not permitted except in a designated smoking room located between cars.
Other JR services, particularly suburban ones, use the following generic labels:
Regular (futsū, kakutei or kakueki) – local service, stops at every station
Rapid (kaisoku) – skips approximately 2 out of 3 stops, no surcharge
Express (kyūkō) – skips approximately 2 out of 3 stops, requires a surcharge
Liner (rainaa) – skips approximately 2 out of 3 kyuko stops, requires a surcharge
Limited Express (tokkyū) – skips approximately 2 out of 3 kyuko stops, requires a surcharge and usually a reserved seat as well
Green Cars. Express services may offer first-class Green Car seats. Given that the surcharge of almost 50% gets you little more than a bit of extra leg room, most passengers opt for regular seats. However, if you really need to ride a particular train for which the regular seats are full, the Green Car is an alternative. The JR pass is available in two types “Ordinary”, which requires paying the surcharge to use the Green Car, and “Green”, which includes Green Car seats at no additional charge.
Depending on where you travel in Japan, Green Cars do have some little perks. If you travel in the Green Car on JR East bullet trains north of Tokyo, for example, you are entitled to a free drink once you are on board. Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen Green Cars have softer lighting with access to six channels of in-cabin audio – mostly in Japanese, with the occasional English language lesson included. If traveling on the Hikari or Nozomi you will receive hot towel service. Only on the premium Nozomi will you will be greeted by a female attendant who will bow to you as you enter the train and check your tickets in place of the train conductor. Depending on the day and time that you travel, Green Cars can be less crowded and quieter than the regular cars, but, of course, during Golden Week and other high-peak travel periods, all bets are off.
Smoking is not allowed on suburban trains. While it is currently permitted on long-distance services in designated cars and vestibules, JR companies are starting to ban smoking on many routes. Presently, smoking is not permitted on nearly all JR trains in Hokkaido and Kyushu, along with all JR East Shinkansen services north of Tokyo and most JR limited express trains in the Tokyo area, including the Narita Express to/from Narita Airport. The new N700-series bullet trains, now in service on the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen, have segregated smoking compartments within the train; smoking is not permitted in the seating areas. Refurbished 500-series bullet trains in service on San’yo Shinkansen Kodama runs also have separate smoking rooms.
Usually non-smoking trains are marked in timetables with the universal no-smoking sign, or with the Japanese kanji for no smoking (kin’en). Note that if you do not smoke, sitting in a smoking car for a long trip can be very unpleasant.
Making a reservation. On Shinkansen and tokkyu trains, some of the carriages require passengers to have reserved their seats in advance (shiteiseki). For example, on the 16-carriage Hikari service on the Tokaido Shinkansen, only five of the carriages permit non-reserved seating, all of which are non-smoking (kin’ensha). On a busy train, making a reservation in advance can ensure a comfortable journey. Especially consider it if you’re travelling in a group, as you’re unlikely to find 2 seats together, let alone more, on a busy train.
Making a reservation is surprisingly easy, and is strongly advised for popular journeys (such as travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto on a Friday evening, or taking a train from Nagoya to Takayama). Look out for the JR Office at the train station, which bears a little green logo of a figure relaxing in a chair – and ask to make a reservation when you buy your ticket. The reservation can be made anywhere from a month in advance to literally minutes before the train leaves.
If you are a Japan Rail Pass holder, reservations are free: simply go to the JR Office, and present your Rail Pass when requesting a reservation for your journey. The ticket that you are given will not allow you to pass through the automated barriers though – you’ll still need to present your Japan Rail Pass at the manned barrier to get to the train.
Without a pass a small fee will be charged, so a non-reserved ticket may be preferable to a reserved ticket, particularly if you are boarding at Tokyo or another originating station where all the seats will be open anyway.
Foreigners can make train advanced reservations for JR East trains on the internet, in English, at the JR East Shinkansen Reservation website. This website allows regular travelers and Rail Pass holders alike to reserve seats on JR East-operated Shinkansen and Limited Express lines. On the other hand, it does not allow you to make a reservation on the Tokaido, San’yo or Kyushu Shinkansen lines, which are operated by other companies. Seat reservations may be made anywhere from one month up to three days before the date of travel, and your ticket must be picked up at a JR East ticket counter anytime up to 9 PM on the day prior to departure. Also, the basic fare is NOT included in the seat reservation cost, unless you have a valid rail pass. One advantage to this website is that advance seat reservations can be made on the Narita Express from Tokyo to Narita Airport.
If the option is there for your journey, the private railways are often cheaper than JR for an equivalent journey. However this is not always the case as changing from one network to another generally increases the price. Most private railways are connected to department store chains of the same name (e.g. Tokyu in Tokyo) and do an excellent job of filling in the gaps in the suburbs of the major cities. Private railways may interpret the service classes above differently, with some providing express services at no additional charge.
Kobe, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, Sendai, Fukuoka, Tokyo and Yokohama also have subway (underground) services. For seeing the sights within a particular city, many offer a one day pass, often between ¥500 and ¥1000 for an adult. Tokyo has several types of day passes, which cover some subway lines but not others. The full Tokyo subway pass (which does not include the JR Yamanote Line) is ¥1000.
Women Cars. Women-only car sticker on the JR Chuo Line in Tokyo
To provide a sense of safety and security for female passengers, many of the JR and private commuter rail lines in Japan reserve a car for women only during the morning and evening rush hour. These cars are identified by special placards and stickers on the train and platform, which also designate the times that women-only cars are in effect. Also, some limited express trains operated by JR West to and from the Kansai region have reserved seats specifically for women and their children. You will find men sitting in “women-only” seats, but they will make way if requested to do so. Normally, the first and last carriages are designated “women-only” during the morning rush time.
Overnight by Train. Overnight trains in Japan, containing the prefix shindai but more commonly known as Blue Trains because of the blue color of the sleeping cars, were once an icon of the entire country. Numerous services would run regularly, bringing the Japanese to different parts of the country in a timely, efficient manner. These days, however, with aging train equipment and other modes of transportation becoming easier and sometimes cheaper (i.e. Shinkansen trains and overnight buses), overnight trains have slowly been discontinued. As of 2010, only these regularly-scheduled overnight train services remain:
Cassiopeia deluxe sleeper, Tokyo – Hakodate – Sapporo / Hokutosei, Tokyo – Hakodate – Sapporo / Akebono, Tokyo – Akita – Aomori / Sunrise Seto deluxe sleeper, Tokyo Okayama – Takamatsu (during the high season, continuing to Matsuyama) / Sunrise Izumo deluxe sleeper, Tokyo – Okayama – Kurashiki – Izumo / Twilight Express deluxe sleeper, Osaka – Kyoto – Sapporo / Nihonkai, Osaka – Kyoto – Aomori / These trains are technically not shindai trains but operate overnight / Hamanasu, Aomori – Sapporo / Kitaguni, Osaka – Kyoto – Niigata. For most of these services, three separate fares will have to be paid: The basic fare and limited express fare, which are both based on distance, and the accomodation charge, which is fixed over the entire journey. Lodging ranges from carpet spaces – where you literally sleep on the floor – to bunk bed-type compartments, to private rooms with a shower and toilet. The Japan Rail Pass will cover only the basic fare: if you sleep in a bunk bed or a private room, then the limited express and room fares will have to be paid. A few trains have seats or carpet spaces that are fully covered by the Rail Pass. On some trips that run over non-JR tracks, the basic and limited express fares for that portion of the trip will also have to be paid.
Some additional overnight services are added during periods of high demand, such as Golden Week, New Year’s and the summer months. Among these is the very popular Moonlight Nagara service between Tokyo and Ogaki (located between Nagoya and Kyoto). The Moonlight Nagara, and certain other extra services, are classified as Rapid trains with regular seating. As such, these trains can be used with the Seishun 18 Ticket – and tend to get crowded when they run.
There are a few drawbacks to overnight train travel. In most cases you cannot book the train until you arrive in Japan, by which point the train might be sold out (unless a helpful Japanese resident purchases the tickets for you in advance of your arrival). Some overnight trains are also subject to cancellation on the day of departure if inclement weather is expected along the route. For example, the Twilight Express, Nihonkai and Akebono, which all run along the Sea of Japan, are the most prone to cancellation if heavy snow or high winds are in the forecast.
The alternative to traveling overnight by train is to travel by bus (see below) – but if you have a Japan Rail Pass, there is another way that you can go about traveling by night – and it can be relatively easy. The key is to split up your journey, stopping at an intermediate station en-route to your destination and resting at a nearby (and preferably cheap) hotel. In the morning, take another train toward your destination to complete the trip. The Rail Pass will cover your train journey: your only responsibility is paying for the hotel room. If you can find accomodations in a smaller city, the chances are good that you will pay less for it compared to lodging in bigger cities such as Tokyo… not to mention you will have your own bed, bathroom and toilet. Toyoko Inn business hotels are sprouting up all over Japan – most of them near train stations – and are a great example.
With careful planning and research, you will be able to find an overnight itinerary that works for you. For example, using the Shinkansen you could sleep in Hamamatsu on a trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, or in Himeji on a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima. For a trip north from Tokyo to Hokkaido you could choose to rest in Aomori.
If you have some extra money, consider forwarding some of your luggage to your destination using a luggage delivery service; this will make the trip much easier.
Japan’s excellent Shinkansen network means that flying is usually more of a luxury than a necessity. That being said, flying remains the most practical mode of reaching Japan’s outlying islands, most notably for connections from the mainland to Hokkaido and/or Okinawa. Flying is also useful for getting around sparsely populated Hokkaido, as there is no Shinkansen network there.
Tokyo’s Narita Airport handles a few domestic flights, but most domestic flights leave from Haneda (HND) to the south of the city. Similarly, while there are some domestic flights from Kansai International Airport, more use Itami (ITM) to the north of Osaka, and Kobe’s airport also fields some flights. Narita to Haneda or Kansai to Itami is quite a trek, so allow at least three and preferably four hours to transfer. Chubu, on the other hand, has many domestic flights and was built from the ground up for easy interchange.
List prices for domestic flights are very expensive, but significant discounts are available if purchased in advance. Both of Japan’s largest carriers, Japan Airlines (JAL, Nihon Kōkū, and All Nippon Airways (ANA, Zennikkū,) offer “Visit Japan” fares where the purchaser of an international return ticket to Japan can fly a number of domestic segments anywhere in the country for only about ¥10,000 (plus tax) each. These are a particularly good deal for travel to Hokkaido or the remote southern islands of Okinawa. Some blackout periods or other restrictions during peak travel seasons may apply.
The low-cost carrier concept has yet to make significant inroads into Japan, but Air DO provides a little much-needed competition between Tokyo and Hokkaido, while Skymark Airlines and StarFlyer serve Tokyo, Osaka and Kyushu. Usually these airlines offer lower walk-up fares than the majors but are not as competitive for advance-purchase discounted tickets.
ANA, JAL, and their subsidiaries offer a special standby card, the Skymate Card, to young passengers (up to the age of 22). With the card, passengers can fly standby at half of the full published fare, which is usually less than the equivalent express train fare. The card can be obtained from any JAL or ANA ticket counter with a passport-sized photo and a one-time fee of ¥1000
If you do wish to go on a domestic flight in Japan (e.g. Tokyo to Osaka), don’t be surprised if a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet is supplying the short 50 minute flight that you are booked on. Japan is well-known as being the only country in the world to use jumbo jets on short domestic flights of an hour or less, mainly on the Tokyo to Osaka sector.
Given that Japan is an island nation, boats are a surprisingly uncommon means of transport, as all the major islands are linked together by bridges and tunnels. While there are some long-distance ferries linking Okinawa and Hokkaido to the mainland, the fares are usually higher than discounted airline tickets and pretty much the sole advantage is that you can take your car with you.
For some smaller islands, however, boats may well be the only practical option. Hovercrafts and jet ferries are fast but expensive, with prices varying between ¥2000-5000 for an hour-long trip. Slow cargo boats are more affordable, a rule of thumb being ¥1000 per hour in second class, but departures are infrequent. There are also some inexpensive and convenient short-distance intercity ferries such as the Aomori-Hakodate ferry.
These boats are typically divided into classes, where second class (nitō) is just a giant expanse of tatami mat, first class (ittō) gets you a comfy chair in large shared room and only special class (tokutō) gets you a private cabin. Vending machines and simple restaurant fare are typically available on board, but on longer trips (particularly in second class) the primary means of entertainment is alcoholic — this can be fun if you’re invited in, but less so if you’re trying to sleep.
Highway buses. Long-distance highway buses (kōsoku basu; haiwei basu) serve many of the inter-city routes covered by trains at significantly lower prices, but take much longer than the Shinkansen. Especially on the route between Tokyo and Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe triangle the high competition broke down the prices: as low as ¥3500 one-way. There is a multitude of operators, including Star Express and Willer Express, Kansai Bus, as well as companies of the JR group.
Note that your JR Rail Pass may be valid for JR buses (although choosing the bus instead of the Shinkansen or any Express train for the same trip would be a very awkward choice in terms of comfort and speed).
Many of these are overnight runs (yakō basu), which allows you to save on a night’s accommodation. It may be worth it to pay a premium to get a better seat; remember that it is less fun to sightsee after a sleepless night. Look out for sanretsu shiito, meaning there are only three seats per row instead of four. Intercity buses usually have significantly less legroom than intercity trains, so passengers over about 175 cm may be uncomfortable.
A few buses offer more luxurious Premium Seating. These seats are bigger, offer more legroom, and are exclusive, with only a few seats allocated to an entire bus. Examples include the first floor seating on JR Bus’ Premium Dream service, and Cocoon seats on Willer Express services. Expect to pay around ¥10000 for such a seat on an overnight service between Tokyo and Kansai.
Like their railroad counterparts, a few overnight buses can be used only by women (an example is the Ladies Dream Osaka bus service between Tokyo and Osaka).
Japan Bus Pass. Bus operator Willer Express offers a Japan Bus Pass for travel on their network of highway buses. It is available to both Japanese and foreigners, but must be purchased outside of Japan. The cost of a Bus Pass is ¥10000 for 3 days, ¥12000 for 4 days or ¥14000 for 5 days. Travel days are non-consecutive but passes must be used up within two months. You are limited to a maximum of two bus trips per day and you cannot travel twice on one route in the same day. Passes are not transferrable and photo identification is required when boarding the buses. If you have a lot of time on your hands, want to visit several major cities in a single trip, and do not mind the time spent on buses (including sleeping), then the Bus Pass is worth considering. The more trips you take, the more cost-effective the pass will be. You can potentially ride Willer Express buses for as little as ¥1400-1600 per trip.
There are a couple of small drawbacks to using the Bus Pass: You are restricted to using buses that seat four to a row, as opposed to three (see above). You also cannot use the Bus Pass during Japan’s major holidays (New Year’s, Golden Week, Obon) and certain other weekends, unlike train passes (Japan Rail Pass), which have no blackout dates.
Local buses. You won’t need to use local buses (rosen basu) much in the major cities, but they’re common in smaller towns and the idiosyncratic payment system is worth a mention. On most buses, you’re expected to board from the back and grab a little numbered slip as you enter, often just a white piece of paper automatically stamped by the dispenser as you pull it. In the front of the bus, above the driver, is an electronic board displaying numbers and prices below, which march inexorably higher as the bus moves on. When it’s time to get off, you press the stop button, match your numbered slip to the electronic board’s current price, deposit the slip and corresponding payment in the fare machine next to the driver, then exit through the front door. Note that you must pay the exact fare: to facilitate this, the machine nearly always has bill exchanger built in, which will eat ¥1,000 bills and spew out ¥1,000 worth of coins in exchange. If you’re short on change, it’s best to exchange before it’s time to get off.
Increasingly, buses accept smartcards such as PASMO and Suica – you will need to tap your card against a scanner by the entrance (usually above the ticket dispenser) and then again using the scanner next to the fare machine by the driver when you exit. If you fail to ‘tap on’ when boarding, you will be charged the maximum fare when alighting.
The electronic board almost always includes a display and recorded voice announcements of the next stop — usually only in Japanese, although some cities (like Kyoto) make a welcome exception. However, if asked most drivers will be glad to tell you when you’ve reached your destination.
You will find taxis everywhere in Japan, not only in the city but also in the country. Taxis are clean and completely safe, though a bit expensive: starting fees are usually in the ¥640-710 range and the meter ticks up frantically after the first 2 km or so. But sometimes, they are the only way to get where you are going. Taxi meters are strictly regulated and clearly visible to the passenger. If you are not sure if you have enough money for the trip, your driver may be able to guess the approximate cost of a trip beforehand. Even if money is not a concern, if you get a cost estimate beforehand, some taxi drivers will stop the meter at the estimated price regardless of how much further the destination may be, which can save you money. Although it is quite nice when it happens, do not expect this treatment from every taxi driver. Taxi fares are also higher at night. Tipping is not customary and would most likely be refused.
In the city, you can hail a taxi just about anywhere, but outside train stations and other transfer points you should board at a taxi stand. (The taxi stand will usually either have a long line of patient passengers, or a long line of idle taxis.) If the destination is a well-known location, such as a hotel, train station, or public facility, the name alone should be enough. Note that even in the major cities, extremely few taxi drivers can speak English, so carrying a pamphlet or card of your hotel or destination with the address on it can be very helpful. Likewise, have staff at your hotel write down the names and addresses of places you want to visit in Japanese to show your taxi driver.
An interesting feature of Japanese taxis is that the driver controls the opening and closing of the rear left passenger door. Try to avoid the habit of closing your door when you board the taxi. Taxi drivers also have a reputation for speeding and aggressive driving, but there are very few accidents involving bad drivers.
Rental cars and driving in Japan are rare in or around the major cities, as public transport is generally excellent and gets you almost everywhere. In addition, the roads of major cities like Tokyo are plagued with massive traffic jams and parking is expensive and difficult to find, so driving there is more of a hindrance than anything else. However, many rural areas can really be explored with only your own transport, so driving should certainly not be dismissed out of hand, especially on the vast, sparsely populated island of Hokkaido. Due to Hokkaido’s cooler climate it is a very popular destination in summer, so if you are considering renting a car at this time be sure to do so well in advance of your planned travel date as they are often unavailable at this time. Often the most feasible option is to combine the two: take the train out to the countryside and then pick up a rental car at a station. JR’s Ekiren has outlets at most larger train stations and often has discounted train & car packages.
An international driver’s license (or Japanese license) will be required if you wish to rent a car or drive in Japan, and must be carried at all times. Rental rates typically start from ¥6000 a day for the smallest car. Purchasing insurance from the rental car company is highly recommended as any rental car insurance from your home country (especially through most credit cards) is unlikely to be valid in Japan, check your policy before heading out. Club ToCoo! offers an online booking service in English for most major rental car companies, and often provides rental specials and discounts.
Driving is on the left as normally found in UK/Australia/NZ/India/Singapore, opposite to continental Europe/USA/Canada. There is no “right turn on red” (or left turn, rather) rule in Japan, however in rare cases a sign with a blue arrow on a white background will indicate where turning on red is legal (not to be confused with the white arrow on a blue background, which indicates one-way traffic). Drivers are required to make a complete stop at all at-grade railway crossings. Driving while drunk can result in fines of up to ¥500,000 and instant loss of licence, at above the official “drunk driving” blood-alcohol limit of 0.25 mg. It’s also an offence to “drive under the influence” with no set minimum that can be fined up to ¥300,000, with a suspension of license. Using a cell phone while driving without a hands-free kit can result in fines of up to ¥50,000.
Tolls for the expressways (kōsoku-dōro) are generally significantly higher than the cost of a train ride, even on the bullet train. So for one or two people it’s not cost-effective for direct long distance travel between cities. In major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, a flat rate toll is paid when entering the expressway system. On inter-city expressways, tolls are based on distance travelled, a ticket is issued when you enter the system and the toll is calculated when you exit. Avoid the purple ETC lanes at toll plazas (unless you have the ETC device fitted) as they are reserved for electronic toll collection, any other lane will accept either yen cash (exact change not required) or major credit cards. Inter-city expressways are well-serviced with clean and convenient parking areas at regular intervals, but be wary of traveling into large cities on Sunday evenings or at the end of a holiday period, as traffic jams at these times can reach up to 50 km long. Using local roads to travel between cities has the advantages of being toll-free and offering more opportunities for sightseeing along the way, but traffic jams and numerous traffic lights slow things down considerably. Covering 40 km in 1 hour is a good rule of thumb to follow when planning an itinerary on local roads, generally more on Hokkaido.
Both rental costs and fuel are more expensive than those in the USA, but fuel is generally cheaper than found in Europe. Most fuel stations are full service, to fill up the tank with regular fuel, say regulaa mantan to the attendant. Rental car companies generally offer smaller cars from ¥5,000 a day, and a full size sedan will cost around ¥10,000 a day. Most rental cars have some kind of satellite navigation (“navi”) thus you can ask the rental car company to set your destination before your first trip. Some models (specifically newer Toyotas) have an English language mode, so it doesn’t hurt to ask the staff to change it before you head out. However unless you read Japanese you may need to ask for assistance to make full use of the navigation computer. Japanese driving habits are generally as good as anywhere else, and usually better than other Asian countries. Japanese roads are generally of good quality, with smooth bitumen surfaces. Gravel roads are very limited, usually forest roads, and unlikely to be on the itinerary of too many tourists. Roadworks are frequent however, and can cause annoying delays. Certain mountain passes are shut over winter, those that are not usually require either snow chains or a combination of studless winter tires and 4-wheel drive. If you rent a car in mountainous/northern areas they will generally come with this equipment already included.
Navigating within cities can be confusing and parking in them costs ¥300-400/hour. Larger hotels in the cities and regional hotels normally offer car parking, but it would be wise to check car parking however before you book. Validated parking is available at some car parks that are attached to major department stores in large cities, but don’t count on getting more than 2-3 hours free. The best car to use in Tokyo is a taxi.
Japan has horizontal traffic lights, with any arrows appearing beneath the main lights. The color-blind should note that the red (stop) is on the right and the green (go) is on the left. There are usually only one or two traffic lights per intersection pointing the same way, which can make it hard to see when the signals change. However some prefectures, such as Toyama and Niigata, have vertical lights (this is supposedly due to the amount of snow they get).
Japanese signs follow a mixture of European and North American conventions, but most should not pose any difficulty in understanding. “Stop” is indicated by a downward-pointing red triangle, not to be confused with the similar looking Yield sign found in North America. On the highways and around major cities English signage is very good; however in more remote locales it may be spotty. Electronic signs are everywhere on expressways and major arterial roads, and provide helpful real-time information on road conditions, unfortunately they are displayed exclusively in Japanese.
Road speed limits are marked in kilometres per hour. They are 40 km/h in towns (with varying areas: some at 30, roads by schools usually at 20), 50 to 60 in the countryside (if unmarked, the limit is 60), and 100 on the expressways. There is usually a fair bit of leeway in terms of speeding – about 10 km/h on normal roads, for example. If you go with the flow you should not have any problems, as the Japanese often pay speed limits no more attention than they have to.
Japan has many great opportunities for bikers. Bike rentals can be found throughout the country, especially near popular routes. Some routes (like the Shimanami Kaido, which takes you from the mainland (Onomichi) to Shikoku (Imabari)) have been set up specifically for bikers.
If you will be spending an extended period of time in Japan, you may want to consider purchasing a bike. If you choose to do this, be aware that you need to have it registered. If your bike does not have the proper sticker, your bike can be confiscated. It is important that any bike that is not a rental bike is registered under the rider’s name. If you are caught borrowing a bike registered under someone else’s name, it is considered stolen in Japan, and you will likely be taken to the police station. The police often check bikes, so avoid problems by obeying the law.
Japan is an excellent country for hitchhiking, although there is no Japanese custom for this, and some Japanese language ability is almost mandatory. See Hitchhiking in Japan for a more detailed introduction and practical tips for this fine art.
The National language of Japan is Japanese, although Japan has no Official Language. Most Japanese under 40 have studied English for at least 6 years, but the instruction tends to focus on formal grammar and writing rather than actual conversation. As a result, outside of major tourist attractions and establishments that cater specifically to foreigners, it is rare to find people who are conversant in English. Reading and writing tends to come much better though, and many younger Japanese are able to understand a great deal of written English despite not being able to speak it. If lost, it can be practical to write out a question on paper in simple words and give it to someone young, preferably high school or college students, who will likely be able to point you in the right direction. It can also be helpful to carry a hotel business card or matchbook with you, to show a taxi driver or someone if you lose your way. Take comfort in the fact that many Japanese will go to extraordinary lengths to understand what you want and to help you, and try to pick up at least basic greetings and thank yous to put people at ease.
Japanese is a language with several distinct dialects, although standard Japanese (hyōjungo), which is based on the Tokyo dialect, is taught in schools and known by most people throughout the country. The slang-heavy dialect of the Kansai region is particularly famous in Japanese pop culture. On the southern islands of Okinawa, many dialects of the closely related Ryukyuan languages are spoken, mostly by the elderly, while in northern Hokkaido a rare few still speak Ainu.
Japanese is written using a convoluted mix of three different scripts: kanji or Chinese characters, together with “native” hiragana and katakana syllabaries, which were in fact derived from Chinese characters more than one thousand years ago. However, hiragana and katakana do not carry the meaning of the original Chinese characters they were derived from and are simply phonetic characters. There are thousands of kanji in everyday use and even the Japanese spend years learning them, but the kana have only 50 syllables each and can be learned with a reasonable amount of effort. Of the two, katakana are probably more useful for the visitor as they are used to write words of foreign origin other than Chinese
Using people’s names
Last name first!. As with many East Asian countries, a person’s family name comes before his/her given name, opposite of Western names. However, most Japanese are familiar with Western customs, and will almost always give their name in Western order when speaking with Westerners. So in Japanese they might say, “Watanabe Ken desu,” but in English they’ll say, “I’m Ken Watanabe.”
Names are a complicated matter in Japanese language. Using someone’s given name when speaking to or about them is considered very personal, and is only common among grade-school children and very close friends. At all other times, the default is to use family names plus -san, a suffix approximately like “Mr.” or “Ms.” Most Japanese know that Westerners usually go by their given names, so they may call you “John” or “Mary” with no suffix, but you should still call them “Tanaka-san” to be polite. In the Japanese language, though, names are frequently avoided altogether by using pronouns or just grammatically omitting them.
San is the default name suffix, but you may encounter a few others: -sama (people socially above you, from bosses up to deities, as well as customers); -kun (young boys, subordinates and good male friends); and -chan (young children and close (usually female) friends). To avoid being overly familiar or formal, stick with -san until someone asks you to call them differently.
Castles. When most Westerners think of castles, they naturally think of their own in places like England and France however, Japan, too, was a nation of castle-builders. In its feudal days, you could find multiple castles in nearly every prefecture.
Original Castles. Because of bombings in WWII, fires, edicts to tear down castles, etc. only twelve of Japan’s castles are considered to be originals, which have donjons that date back to the days when they were still used. Four of them are located on the island of Shikoku, two just north in the Chugoku region, two in Kansai, three in the Chubu region, and one in the northern Tohoku region. There are no original castles in Kyushu, Kanto, Hokkaido, or Okinawa. The original castles are: Uwajima Castle. Matsuyama Castle, Kochi Castle, Marugame Castle, Matsue Castle, Bitchu Matsuyama Castle, Himeji Castle. Hikone Castle, Inuyama Castle, Maruoka Castle, Matsumoto Castle, Hirosaki Castle, (Nijo Castle is an original however, it was actually an Imperial residence rather than a castle, so it is not included on the list of originals)
Reconstructions and Ruins. Japan has many reconstructed castles, many of which receive more visitors than the originals. A reconstructed castle means that the donjon was rebuilt in modern times, but many of these still have other original structures within the castle grounds. For example, three of Nagoya Castle’s turrets are authentic. Reconstructions still offer a glimpse into the past and many, like Osaka Castle are also museums housing important artifacts. Kumamoto Castle is considered to be among the best reconstructions, because most of the structures have been reconstructed instead of just the donjon. The only reconstructed castle in Hokkaido is Matsumae Castle. Okinawa’s Shuri Castle is unique among Japan’s castles, because it is not a “Japanese” castle; it is from the Ryukyuan Kingdom and was built with the Chinese architectural style, along with some original Okinawan elements.
Ruins typically feature only the castle walls or parts of the original layout are visible. Although they lack the structures of reconstructed castles, ruins often feel more authentic without the concrete reconstructions that sometimes feel too commercial and touristy. Many ruins maintain historical significance, such as Tsuyama Castle, which was so large and impressive, it was considered to be the best in the nation. Today, the castle walls are all that remain but the area is filled with thousands of cherry blossoms. This is common among many ruins, as well as reconstructions. Takeda Castle is famed for the gorgeous view of the surrounding area from the ruins.
Gardens. Japan is famous for its gardens, known for its unique aesthestics both in landscape gardens and Zen rock/sand gardens. The nation has designated an official “Top Three Gardens”, based on their beauty, size, authenticity (gardens that have not been drastically altered), and historical significance. Those gardens are Kairakuen in Mito, Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, and Korakuen in Okayama. The largest garden, and the favorite of many travelers, is actually Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu.
Rock and sand gardens can typically be found in temples, specifically those of Zen Buddhism. The most famous of these is Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, but such temples can be found throughout Japan. Moss gardens are also popular in Japan and Koke-dera, also in Kyoto, has one of the nation’s best. Reservations are required to visit just so that they can ensure the moss is always flourishing and not trampled.
Spiritual Sites. Regardless of your travel interests, it’s difficult to visit Japan without at least seeing a few shrines and temples. Buddhist and Shinto sites are the most common, although there are some noteworthy spiritual sites of other religions, as well.
Buddhist. Buddhism has had a profound impact on Japan ever since it was introduced in the 6th century. Like shrines, temples can be found in every city, and many different sects exist. Some of the holiest sites are made up of large complexes on mountaintops and include Mount Koya (Japan’s most prestigious place to be buried and head temple of Shingon Buddhism), Mount Hiei (set here when Kyoto became the capital to remove Buddhism from politics, the head of the Tendai sect of Buddhism), and Mount Osore (considered to be the “Gateway to Hell”, it features many monuments and graves in a volcanic wasteland).
Many of the nations head temples are located in Kyoto, like the Honganji Temples and Chion-in Temple. Kyoto also has five of the top Zen temples named in the “Five Mountain System” (Tenryuji, Shokokuji, Kenninji, Tofukuji, and Manjuji), along with Nanzenji Temple, which sits above all the temples outside of the mountain system. Although there are “five” temples, Kyoto and Kamakura both have their own five. The Kamakura temple’s are Kenchoji, Engakuji, Jufukuji, Jochiji, and Jomyoji Temples. Eiheiji Temple is also a prominent Zen temple, although it was never part of the mountain system.
Nara’s Todaiji Temple and Kamakura’s Kotokuin Temple are famous for their large Buddhist statues. Todaiji’s is the largest in the nation, while the Kamakura Daibutsu is the second largest, meditating outside in the open air.
Horyuji Temple in Horyuji, just south of Nara, is the world’s oldest wooden structure. The beautiful Phoenix Hall in Uji is seen by most visitors to Japan on the back of the ten yen coin, if not in real-life.
Shinto. Shintoism is the “native” religion of Japan, so those looking to experience things that are “wholly Japanese” should particularly enjoy them as they truly embody the Japanese aesthetic. The holiest Shinto Shrine is the Grand Ise Shrine, while the second holiest is Izumo Shrine, where the gods gather annually for a meeting. Other famous holy shrines include Itsukushima Shrine’ in Miyajima, Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, the Kumano Sanzan, and the Dewa Sanzan. Kyoto also has many important historic shrines, such as Shimogamo Shrine, Kamigamo Shrine, and Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Christian. Japan’s introduction to Christianity came in 1549 by way of the Portuguese and Saint Francis Xavier. He established the first Christian church in Yamaguchi at Daidoji Temple, whose ruins are now part of Xavier Memorial Park and the Xavier Memorial Church was built in his honor.
When Toyotomi Hideyoshi came into power, Christianity was banned and Christians were persecuted. Nagasaki is the most famous persecution site where 26 Japanese Christians were crucified. They are saints today and you can visit the memorial for these martyrs in the city. The Shimabara Rebellion is the most famous Christian uprising in Japan, and it was this rebellion that led to the ousting of the Portuguese and Catholic practices from Japan (although Christianity had already been banned by this time), along with approximately 37,000 beheadings of Christians and peasants. In Shimabara, you can visit the ruins of Hara Castle, where the Christians gathered and were attacked, see old Portuguese tombstones, and the samurai houses, some of which were occupied by Christian samurai. Oyano’s Amakusa Shiro Memorial Hall contains videos of the Shimabara Rebellion and great displays related to Christian persecution. Less famous sites may be off the beaten path, like the Martyrdom Museum and Memorial Park for martyrs in Fujisawa. When the nation reopened, some Christians assumed that meant that they were able to practice Christianity freely and openly, so they came out after 200 years of practicing secretly. Unfortunately, it was still not legal and these Christians were brought together in various parts of the country and tortured. You can see one of these sites at Maria Cathedral in Tsuwano, built in the Otome Pass in the area where Christians were put into tiny cages and tortured.
Along with the Martyrdom Site, Nagasaki is also home to Oura Church, the oldest church left in the nation, built in 1864. Because of Nagasaki’s status for many years as one of the nation’s only ports where outsiders could come, the city is rich in Japanese Christian history, so even the museums here have artifacts and information about the Christian community. Strangely, you can often find Christian objects in temples and shrines throughout the country. This is because many of these objects were hidden in temples and shrines back when Christianity was forbidden.
Other. Japan has a handful of well-known Confucian Temples. As Japan’s gateway to the world for many centuries, Nagasaki’s Confucian Temple is the only Confucian temple in the world to be built by Chinese outside of China. Yushima Seido in Tokyo was a Confucian school and one of the nation’s first-ever institutes of higher education. The first integrated school in the nation, the Shizutani School in Bizen also taught based on Confucian teachings and principles. The schoolhouse itself was even modeled after Chinese architectural styles. The first public school in Okinawa was a Confucian school given to the Ryukyuan Kingdom along with the Shiseibyo Confucian Temple.
The Okinawan religion also has its own spiritual sites. Seta Utaki, a World Heritage Site, is one of the most famous. Many Okinawan spiritual ceremonies were held here. Asumui in Kongo Sekirinzan Park is a large rock formation believed to be the oldest land in the area. As a religious site, shaman used to come here to speak with the gods.
World War II Sites
The three must-visit places for World War II buffs are Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the capital of Okinawa, Naha. Okinawa is where some of the most brutal battles occurred between Japan and the United States, and the area is crawling with remnants from its dark past. The Peace Park, Prefectural Peace Museum, Himeyuri Peace Museum, and the Peace Memorial Hall are some of the best places to learn more, see artifacts, and hear accounts of the battles that took place here.
While Hiroshima and Nagasaki are important World War II sites, because the bombings of these cities led to the end of the Pacific War, the sites and museums found in these cities also speak to many as visions of a grim future, should nations continue supporting nuclear weapons programs and nuclear proliferation. These two cities are the only cities in the world that have ever been hit by nuclear bombs, and each city has its own Peace Park and Memorial Museum where visitors can get a feel for just how destructive and horrific atomic warfare truly is. For many travelers in Japan, visiting at least one of these cities is a must.
Many people are curious about the possibility of visiting Iwo Jima. Currently, the Military Historic Tours Company has exclusive rights to conduct tours of the island
88 Temple Pilgrimage — an arduous 1,647 km trail around the island of Shikoku
Chugoku 33 Kannon Temple Pilgrimage
Narrow Road to the Deep North — a route around northern Japan immortalized by Japan’s most famous haiku poet
Japan’s Top 100 Cherry Blossoms Spots
Climb the 3776 meter Mount Fuji, an icon of Japan.
Take a walk amidst thousands of cherry blossoms in Yoshino
Ascend Mount Aso to see one of the world’s largest calderas
Visit the snowy peaks of the country’s largest national park, Daisetsuzan.
Climb the 2446 stone stops of the holy Haguro mountain through an amazing primeval forest.
Soak in the hot springs of Japan’s Onsen Capital, Beppu.
Go River rafting in some of the last wild rivers in Japan in the Iya Valley
Ski the world famous powder of Hokkaido or in the Japan Alps.
Overnight in one of the holy temples of Mount Koya.
MasterCard has issued a warning stating that certain Maestro cards issued outside of Asia/Pacific will not work at any ATM in Japan (Source). More generally, most foreign credit and debit cards will not work in most Japanese ATM’s anyway. Make sure to have cash at hand before entering the country.
The currency of Japan is the Japanese yen (pronounced en in Japanese). In foreign exchange contexts its more common to see the ¥ or JPY symbols used. The value of the yen has been up and down significantly over the past few years. As of February 2013, it stands at 102 yen to the US Dollar (making it useful to consider the prices of goods in US dollar cents — 1,500 yen is 1500 cents is $15).
Japan is fundamentally a cash society. Although most stores and hotels serving foreign customers take credit cards, many businesses such as cafés, bars, grocery stores, and even smaller hotels and inns do not. Even businesses that do take cards often have a minimum charge as well as a surcharge, although this practice is disappearing. The most popular credit card in Japan is JCB, and due to an alliance between Discover and JCB, Discover cards can be used anywhere that accepts JCB. This means that Discover cards are more widely accepted than Visa/Mastercard/American Express. Most merchants are not familiar with this, but it will work if you can convince them to try!
The Japanese usually carry around large quantities of cash — it is quite safe to do so and is almost a necessity, especially in smaller towns and more isolated areas. In major convenience store chains and at many vending machines and public transportation ticket barriers, people can also used a number of NFC-based payment systems like Suica, Pasmo, QuickPay, Eddy and others in Tokyo. These are generally credit-card sized charge cards that can be recharged in exchange for cash (in 1000 yen increments), either at metro ticket vending machines or at covenience store cash registers for no additional fee. A Pasmo card is a very convenient way to pay for everyday purchases and can be obtained for a 500 yen deposit and the initial charge amount from ticket vending machines at Tokyo subway stations. The remaining charge and half of the deposit is refunded upon returning the card to station staff. Note that some of these systems like Suica and Pasmo were intended primarily for public transport use and cannot be used in other regions of Japan, which might have their own incompatible equivalents.
Some people also use mobile phones to pay for their purchases where the mobile phone either has a built-in chip that allows it to function like a stored value card (e.g. Suica) or like credit cards whereby the cost is billed to them with their mobile phone bill. However, a Japanese phone and SIM card is required to make use of this service so it’s typically not available to foreigners on short visits. If you already have a Japanese phone, be aware that initializing the prepaid card on a rental SIM will incur data charges, though this will most likely be less than the cost of a physical card. This can be avoided by using WiFi. Mobile phone-based stored value systems can be charged either by credit card or at convenience store cash registers.
Almost any major bank in Japan will provide foreign currency exchange from US dollars (cash and traveller’s checks). Rates are basically the same whichever bank you choose. Having to wait 15-30 min, depending on how busy the branch gets, is not unusual. Other currencies accepted are euros; Swiss francs; Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand dollars; and British pounds. Among other Asian currencies, Singapore dollars seem to be the most widely accepted, followed by the Korean won and Chinese yuan.
Exchange rates for US dollars and euros are typically very good (about 2% below the official rate). Exchange rates for other currencies are very poor (up to 15% below the official rate). Other Asian currencies are generally not accepted (currencies from nearby countries, like won, yuan, and HK$, are exceptions). Japanese post offices can also cash traveller’s checks or exchange cash for yen, at a slightly better rate than the banks. Traveller’s checks also have a better rate of exchange than cash. If you are exchanging amounts in excess of US$1,000 (whether cash or T/C), you will be required to provide identification that includes your name, address, and date of birth (to prevent money laundering and the funding of terrorism. Since passports usually do not show your address, bring along another form of ID such as a driver’s license that shows your address.
NOTE: Do not take it for granted that your foreign debit or credit card will work in Japan, even if it has logos from major global card brands, even if your card’s logo is on the ATM, and even if the information below suggest that you should be able to use it. Make sure to have cash at hand before entering the country.
Japanese ATMs generally do not accept foreign cards and the availability of credit card advances, known as cashing (kyasshingu), is spotty. The major exceptions are:
Over 12,000 Japanese 7-Eleven stores with ATMs accept foreign cards for cash withdrawals. Accepted cards include Visa, American Express, Discover, Diner’s Club, JCB and UnionPay, and ATM cards with the Cirrus and Plus logos. These are the most useful as they are everywhere and are accessible 24/7. However, as Seven Bank’s website mentions, the presence of one or more of the above-mentioned logos does not guarantee your card will be accepted. It is best to use this as a “might work” option and to bring a credit card to use at a JP Bank ATM.
JP Bank (Yū-cho), formerly the Postal Savings Bank and hence found in almost every post office, which in turn has a branch in almost every village. Most postal ATMs provide instructions in English as well as Japanese. Plus, Cirrus, Visa Electron, Maestro, and UnionPay are accepted, and you can do credit card advances on Visa, Mastercard, Amex and Diners Club. Your PIN must be 6 digits or less. You might have to select the English menu in order to use foreign cards.
Citibank, which has a limited network but does have ATMs at the major airports.
HSBC ATMs are few and far between, but these are capable of taking Visa and MasterCard.
Shinsei Bank ATMs, which accept Plus and Cirrus, are located at major Tokyo Metro and Keikyu stations, as well as in downtown areas of major cities.
SMBC ATMS will take UnionPay cards for a ¥75 surcharge. You MUST change the language to either English or Chinese before inserting the card; the machine will not recognize it otherwise.
Mitsubishi UFJ ATMs will take UnionPay, foreign-issued JCB, and Discover cards for no surcharge. Be aware that you MUST press the “English” button first; their ATMs will NOT recognize non-Japanese cards in Japanese-language mode.
AEON ATMs will take UnionPay for no surcharge. Here you must press the “International Cards” button.
Notice the trend of “local” Japanese banks going with UnionPay (and MUFG accepting Discover as well). While 7-Elevens are everywhere, having more options is always recommended, so try to get either a UnionPay or Discover debit card before arrival for increased convenience (for instance, at Narita Airport, there are the “usual” foreign-capable ATMs on the 1st floor of Terminal 2 that get crowded when the international arrivals start coming, whereas the Mitsubishi-UFJ ATMs on the 2nd floor are wide open during most hours).
One thing to beware: many Japanese ATMs are closed at night and during the weekends, so it’s best to get your banking done during office hours! An exception is 7-Eleven, which is open 24 hours.
On top of these, there are cash dispensers (abbreviated to CDs in Japan), intended for credit card cash advances. Some will work with foreign-issued ATM/debit/credit cards.
SMBC, UC Card, and Mitsubishi UFJ Card machines will take Visa and MasterCard.
Orico machines will take MasterCard only.
JCB machines will take Visa, MasterCard, American Express, JCB, and UnionPay.
Note the difference between CDs and ATMs, even for the same financial institution. For example, for foreign-issued cards SMBC and MUFG bank ATMs take UnionPay (MUFG also takes Discover), while SMBC and Mitsubishi UFJ Credit cash dispensers take only Visa/Mastercard.
Vending machines in Japan are known for their pervasiveness and the (notorious) variety of products they sell. Most will take ¥1,000 bills, and some types such as train ticket machines will take up to ¥10,000; none accept ¥1 or ¥5 coins, nor ¥2,000 notes. And even the most high-tech vending machines do not take credit cards, save for certain ones in train stations (though there are limitations — for example, JR East ticket vending machines require a PIN of four digits or less; most credit card customers would be better off purchasing from a ticket window). Note that cigarette vending machines require a Taspo card (age verification), which are unfortunately off limits to non residents, but local smokers are usually happy to lend you theirs.
Prepaid electronic cards are quite popular in Japan for small purchases. There are cards for train fares, convenience store purchases, and public telephones, though they aren’t interchangeable.
There is a 5% consumption tax on all sales in Japan, due to increase to 8% starting in April 2014. As of April 2004, the tax must now be included in all displayed prices, which is why so many prices are awkward amounts like ¥105 (including so-called 100 yen stores) or ¥525, but some stores still also display tax-excluded prices, so pay attention. The word zeinuki means tax-excluded, zeikomi means tax-included. If you cannot find out any words in the price card, most of them are tax-included.
Always keep a sizeable stack of reserve money in Japan, as if you run out for any reason (wallet stolen, credit card blocked, etc), it can be difficult to have any wired to you. Western Union has a very limited presence even in the larger metropolitan areas (their agreement with Suruga Bank ended in 2009, and they have just started a new agreement with Daikokuya as of April 2011), banks will not allow you to open accounts without local ID, and even international postal money orders require proof of a residential address in Japan.
Tipping. Tipping effectively does not exist in Japan, and attempting to offer tips can often be seen as an insult. Japanese service is legendary, and you do not need to bribe the waiters/waitresses to do their job properly — if you leave a tip in a restaurant, the staff will probably come running after you to return the money you “forgot”. Even bellhops in high end hotels usually do not accept tips. The only exceptions are high-end ryokan (see Sleep) and English-speaking tour guides.
That said, some restaurants do add a 10% service charge, and family restaurants may add a 10% late-night charge after midnight.
Japan is not as expensive as its reputation implies. It is cheaper to eat a full meal at a moderately priced restaurant in Tokyo than in Australia, Canada and most Western European countries. Lodging and transport will be your biggest expenses. For long-distance travel, the Japan Rail Pass, Japan Bus Pass, and Visit Japan flights can save you a bundle.
You will find it possible to travel on less than ¥5,000 per day, if you stay in hostels and avoid high-cost transportation like taxis, high-speed airport connections or the Shinkansen. Typical prices for moderate budget travel would be ¥5,000 for a hotel or ¥2,500 for a hostel, ¥2,000 for meals, and ¥2,000 again for entry fees and local transport.
Tips for budget shopping
Japan is expensive in the central high-end shopping and eating areas. Since tourists often flock to these areas, consider purchasing lunch or snacks at a local supermarket before starting your day. A glass of orange juice at a cafe in the centre can cost you more than your entire lunch at the supermarket. Instead of shopping at the well-publicized shopping districts such as Isetan in Shinjuku and Matsuya in Ginza, consider the suburban shopping malls or Aeon / Ito-Yokado.
If you find yourself a little short on cash, you can get your essential items in one of the many ¥100 shops (hyaku-en ten) located in most cities. Daiso is the Japan’s largest ¥100 shop chain, with 2,500 shops across Japan. Other large chains are Can Do, Seria, and Silk. There are also convenience-store-like ¥100 shops such as SHOP99 and Lawson Store 100 where you can buy sandwiches, drinks, and vegetables in addition to selected ¥100 items.
The consumption tax imposed is not refundable for purchases of consumable items such as food and beverages. However, for non-consumable items like clothing and electronics, the tax may be refunded for purchases of ¥10,000 or more before tax in a single receipt if you are not a resident and intend to bring the items out of Japan when you leave.
At many department stores like Isetan, Seibu and Matsuzakaya, you typically pay the full cost at the cashier and go to a tax refund (zeikin kanpu or zeikin modoshi) counter, usually located at one of the higher floors, and present your receipt and passport to the counter to get reimbursed. In some other stores advertising “duty free” (menzei), you just present your passport to the cashier when making payment and the tax is deducted on the spot.
When making tax free purchases or tax refund claims, counter staff would staple a piece of paper in your passport, which you should keep with you until you leave Japan. This piece of paper is to be surrendered to the customs counter at your point of departure just before you pass through immigration and checks may be done to ensure that you are bringing the items out of Japan.
Despite the saying that Japanese cities never sleep, retail hours are surprisingly limited by North American standards. Opening hours of most shops are typically 10AM-8PM, though most shops are open on weekends and public holidays except New Year, and close on one day a week. Restaurants typically stay open until late at night, though smoking would usually be allowed after 8PM so those who can’t stand cigarette smoke should have your meals before then.
However, you will always find something you could need to buy at any time of day. Japan is crawling with 24/7 convenience stores (konbini), such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, Circle K, and Sunkus. In central Tokyo you will never be more than 400 meters away from a convenience store. They often offer a much wider range of products than convenience stores in the US or Europe, often have a small ATM and are often open all day all week (unless they are part of a larger mall that has a closing hour)! Many convenience stores also offer services such as fax, takkyubin luggage delivery, a range of non-international postal services, payment services for bills (including topping up international phone cards such as Brastel) and some online retailers (e.g. Amazon.jp), and ticket sales for events, concerts and cinemas.
Of course, establishments related to night life such as karaoke lounges and bars stay open well into the night: even in small towns it is easy to find an izakaya open until 5 am. Pachinko parlours are obliged to close at 11 pm.
Anime and manga
To many Westerners, anime (animation) and manga (comics) are the most popular icons of modern Japan. Many visitors come to Japan in search of merchandise relating to their favorite anime and manga titles, which are often released in different versions in Japan and the West; the Western versions edit out taboo references in the Japanese version. Most anime fans will even try to find Japanese-language anime DVDs, but there are difficulties to doing so: there are usually no subtitles on domestic releases (with the exception of Studio Ghibli releases, which all offer English subtitles), and Japan is in DVD Region 2 and uses NTSC video formatting, so if you live outside of Region 2 and/or use PAL or SECAM, you may not be able to play the DVDs. You can get around this with special, often expensive equipment such as multi-system televisions and all-region DVD players. More commonly, a computer with region-lock bypassing software installed (i.e. VLC Media Player) should allow the more tech-savvy to view such DVDs. You may also be surprised by the prices: new DVD releases regularly cost over ¥3,000 and there are usually only 2 episodes per DVD.
Blu-ray releases are more expensive than DVDs (starting at ¥4,000). Note, however, that Blu-ray regions are much less restrictive than DVD regions. Japan shares its code (Region A) with North and South America, Korea, Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong (but not mainland China). Some discs are also released without any region coding at all, and can be used with any NTSC-compatible player.
Be mindful about the content of any anime or manga that you purchase and try to bring back to your home country, especially if it contains sexually explicit material. The content of some anime and manga may be illegal under certain laws in your country. A [well documented case] involves an American who in 2007, ordered manga from Japan and was arrested after American postal workers opened his parcel prior to his receipt of the package. The manga he ordered were declared illegal under U.S. obscenity laws as they were said to contain cartoon images of underage characters in sexual situations. While this cannot be charged under child pornography laws (being drawings, no children can be said to have been involved in their creation), they are still illegal in the U.S and several other countries under laws regarding obscenity. [A similar incident] occurred with Canadian customs agents, although charges were dropped in this case but only after a two year ordeal. Check your local laws before trying to import any titles that might be questionable.
Video and PC games. Video games are a huge business in Japan, but Japan’s NTSC-J region code is incompatible with consoles in Europe, North America, Australia and mainland China, so you will need to buy a Japanese console to play these games. In South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau or Southeast Asia, these games should work fine on your console. Of course, the language will still be in Japanese (unless the game has multilingual options).
Electronics and cameras
Battery-powered small electronics and still cameras made for sale in Japan will work anywhere in the world, though you might have to deal with an owner’s manual in Japanese. (Some of the larger stores will provide you with an English manual (eigo no setsumeisho) on request.) There are no great deals to be found pricewise, but the selection is unparalleled. However, if you are buying other electronics to take home, it’s best to shop at stores that specialize in “overseas” configurations, many of which can be found in Tokyo’s Akihabara. You can get PAL/NTSC region-free DVD players, for example. Also, keep in mind that Japanese AC runs at 100 volts, so using “native” Japanese electronics outside Japan without a step-down transformer can be dangerous. Even the US standard 110V voltage is too much for some devices.
Prices are lowest and shopping is the easiest at giant discount stores like Bic Camera, Yodobashi Camera, Sofmap and Yamada Denki. They usually have English-speaking staff on duty and accept foreign credit cards. For common products the prices at any are virtually identical, so don’t waste time comparison shopping. Bargaining is possible in smaller shops, and even the larger chains will usually match their competitors’ prices.
Most of the big chains have a “point card” that gets you points that can be used as a discount on your next purchase, even just a few minutes later. Purchases tend to earn points between 5 percent and even 20 percent of the purchase price, and 1 point is worth ¥1. Some stores (the biggest being Yodobashi Camera)) require you to wait overnight before being able to redeem points. The cards are handed out on the spot and no local address is needed. However, some stores may not allow you to earn points and receive a tax refund on the same purchase. Also, major stores tend to deduct 2 percent from points earned if paid using a credit card
Fashion. While you may be better off heading for France or Italy for high end fashion, when it comes to casual fashion, Japan is hard to beat. Tokyo and Osaka in particular are home to many shopping districts, and there is an abundance of stores selling the latest fashion, particularly those catering to youths. Just to name a few, Shibuya in Tokyo and Shinsaibashi in Osaka are known throughout Japan as centers of youth fashion. The main problem is that Japanese shops cater to Japanese-sized customers, and finding larger or curvier sizes can be real challenge.
Japan is also famous for its beauty products such as facial cream and masks, including many for men. While these are available in almost every supermarket, the Ginza district of Tokyo is where many of the most expensive brands have their own shops.
Japan’s main contribution to jewelry is the cultured pearl, invented by Mikimoto Kōkichi in 1893. The main pearl growing operation to this day is in the small town of Toba near Ise, but the pearls themselves are widely available — although there is little if any price difference to buying them outside Japan. For those who insist on getting their hands on the “authentic” stuff, Mikimoto’s flagship store is in the Ginza district of Tokyo.
Then of course there is kimono. While very expensive new, second hand kimono can be had at a fraction of the price. There is a separate Kimono buying guide on Wikitravel for those who would like to buy their very own.
Smoking cigarettes remains popular in Japan, especially among men. While cigarettes are sold at some of the many vending machines dotting Japan, visitors to Japan who wish to purchase them must do so at a convenience store or duty-free. As a result of the Japanese tobacco industry cracking down on minors (the legal age is 20), you now need a special age-verifying IC card, called a TASPO card, to purchase cigarettes from a vending machine. TASPO cards are issued only to residents of Japan.
Cigarettes generally come in 20-cigarette king-size hard packs and are fairly cheap, around Y300-400. Japan has few domestic brands: Seven Stars and Mild Seven are the most common local brands. American brands such as Marlboro, Camel and Lucky Strike are extremely popular although the Japanese-produced versions have a much lighter taste than their western counterparts. Also, look out for unusual flavoured cigarettes, light cigarettes with flavour-enhancing filter technology although they taste very artificial and have little effect, mostly popular with female smokers.
Japanese cuisine, renowned for its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, has taken the world by storm. The key ingredient of most meals is white rice, usually served steamed, and in fact its Japanese word gohan also means “meal”. Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso soup served with many meals, but also tōfu, bean curd and the ubiquitous soy sauce (shōyu). Seafood features heavily in Japanese cuisine, including not only creatures of the sea but also many varieties of seaweed as well, and a complete meal is always rounded out by some pickles(tsukemono).
One of the joys of getting out of Tokyo and traveling within Japan is to discover the local specialties. Every region within the country has a number of delightful dishes, based on locally available crops and fish. In Hokkaido try the fresh sashimi and crab. In Osaka don’t miss the okonomiyaki stuffed with green onions and the octopus balls (takoyaki).
Chopsticks. Most Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks (hashi). Eating with chopsticks is a surprisingly easy skill to pick up, although mastering them takes a while. Some chopstick guidelines to be aware of: Never place or leave chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, and never pass something from your chopsticks to another person’s chopsticks. These are associated with funerary rites. If you want to give a piece of food to someone, let them take it from your plate, or place it directly on their plate. When you are done using chopsticks, you can rest them across the edge of your bowl or plate. Most nicer restaurants put a small wooden or ceramic chopstick rest (hashi-oki) at each place setting. You can also fold the paper wrapper that the chopsticks come in to construct your own hashi-oki. Licking the ends of your chopsticks is considered low-class. Take a bite of your rice instead. Using chopsticks to move plates or bowls (really anything other than food) is rude. Pointing at things with your chopsticks is rude. (Pointing at people in general is rude; with chopsticks, doubly so.) Spearing food with your chopsticks is generally rude and should be used as only a last resort. Disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) are provided in all restaurants as well as with bentō and other take-out foods. You shouldn’t “whittle” your chopsticks after breaking them apart. Many restaurants give you a hot towel (o-shibori) to wipe your hands with as soon as you sit down; use it for your hands, and not your face.
Many Japanese dishes come with different sauces and garnishes. Japanese never put soy sauce on their rice; they eat bowls of rice plain, or sometimes with furikake, a blend of crumbled seaweed, fish, and spices. Soy sauce is used for dipping sushi in before eating, and they pour it on grilled fish and tofu as well. Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) comes with a thicker sauce, tempura comes with a lighter, thinner sauce made from soy sauce and dashi (fish and seaweed soup base), while gyōza (potstickers) are usually dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil.
Most soups and broths, especially miso, are drunk directly out of the bowl after you’ve chopsticked out the larger bits, and it’s also normal to pick up a bowl of rice for easier eating. For main-dish soups like rāmen you will be given a spoon. Curry rice and fried rice are also eaten with spoons.
The number of restaurants in Japan is stupendous, and you will never run out of places to go. For cultural and practical reasons, Japanese almost never invite guests to their homes, so socializing nearly always involves eating out.
According to the world famous Michelin Guide, which rates restaurants in major cities around the world, Tokyo is the most “delicious” city in the world with over 150 restaurants that received at least one star (out of three). In comparison, Paris and London received a total of 148 between them.
Most Japanese-style restaurants have lunchtime teishoku, or fixed set meals. These typically consist of a meat or fish dish, with a bowl of miso soup, pickles, and rice (often with free extra helpings). These can be as inexpensive as ¥600 yet ample enough even for large appetites. Menus will, for most establishments, be in Japanese only; however, many restaurants have models (many in exquisite detail) of their meals in their front window, and if you can’t read the menu it may be better to take the waiter or waitress outside and point at what you would like.
Restaurants will present you with the check after the meal, and you are expected to pay at the counter when leaving — do not leave payment on the table and walk out. The phrase for “bill” is kanjō or kaikei. When it’s getting late, a server will usually come to your table to tell you it’s time for the “last order.” When it’s really time to go, Japanese restaurants have a universal signal — they start to play “Auld Lang Syne”. (This is true across the country, except at the most expensive places.) That means “pay up and move out.”
Many cheap chain eateries have vending machines where you buy a ticket and give it to the server. At most of these restaurants, you’ll have to be able to read Japanese to use them, though. At some of these restaurants, there will be plastic displays or photographs of the food with varying prices in front of them. It is often possible to match the price, along with some of the kana (characters) to the choices at the machine. If you’re open-minded and flexible, you might get shōyu (soy sauce) ramen instead of miso (fermented soy bean) ramen or you might get katsu (pork cutlet) curry instead of beef curry. You’ll always know how much you’re spending so you’ll never overpay. If your Japanese language skills are limited or non-existent, these restaurants with vending machines are really quite comfortable places because there is limited or no conversation required at these establishments. Most of the customers will be in a hurry, the hired help will usually not be interested in making conversation and will just read your order when they take your ticket and the water/tea, napkins, and eating utensils are either supplied automatically or self-service. Some other places have all you can eat meals called tabehōdai or viking.
Tipping is not customary in Japan, although fancy restaurants apply 10% service charges and 24-hour “family restaurants” such as Denny’s and Jonathan’s usually have a 10% late-night surcharge.
While most restaurants in Japanese specialize in a certain type of dish, each neighborhood is guaranteed to have a few shokudō serving up simple, popular dishes and teishoku sets at affordable prices (¥500-1000). Try ones in government buildings: often open to the public as well, they are subsidised by taxes and can be very good value, if uninspiring. When in doubt, go for the daily special or kyō no teishoku which nearly always consists of a main course, rice, soup and pickles.
A closely related variant is the bentō-ya which serves takeout boxes known as o-bentō. While travelling on JR, don’t forget to sample the vast array of ekiben or “station bento”, many unique to the region – or even the station.
A staple of the shokudō is the donburi, literally “rice bowl”, meaning a bowl of rice with a topping. Popular ones include: oyakodon – lit. “parent-and-child bowl”, usually chicken and egg (but sometimes salmon and roe), katsudon – a deep-fried pork cutlet with egg, gyūdon – beef and onion, chūkadon – lit. “Chinese bowl”, stir-fried vegetables and meat in a thick sauce.
You will also frequently encounter Japan’s most popular dish, the ubiquitous curry rice (karē raisu) — a thick, mild, brown paste that most Indians would hardly recognize. Often the cheapest dish on the menu, a large portion (ōmori) is guaranteed to leave you stuffed.
At the other extreme of the spectrum are super-exclusive ryōtei (the Michelin three-star restaurants of the Japanese food world, which serve gourmet kaiseki (meals prepared from the very best seasonal ingredients. Should they condescend to let you in — and many require introductions — you will be looking at upwards of ¥30,000 per head for an experience, which, quite frankly, will go right over the heads of most mere mortals visiting Japan for the first time.
Noodles. Even Japanese want something other than rice every now and then, and the obvious alternative is noodles (men). Practically every town and hamlet in Japan boasts its own “famous” noodle dish, and they are often well worth trying.
There are two major noodle types native to Japan: thin buckwheat soba and thick wheat udon. Typically all dishes below can be ordered with either soba or udon depending on your preference and a bowl will cost only a few hundred yen, especially at the standing-room-only noodle joints in and near train stations: kake soba – plain broth and maybe a little spring onion on top
tsukimi soba – soup with a raw egg dropped in, named “moon-viewing” because of the resemblance to a moon behind clouds, kitsune soba – soup with sweetened thin sheets of deep-fried tofu, zaru soba – chilled noodles served with a dipping sauce, shallot and wasabi; popular in summer, Chinese egg noodles or rāmen are also very popular but more expensive (¥500+) due to the greater effort involved and the condiments, which typically include a slice of grilled pork and a variety of vegetables. Ramen can be considered to be the defining dish of each city, and practically every sizable city in Japan will have its own unique style of ramen. The four major styles of ramen are:
shio rāmen – salty pork (or chicken) broth, shōyu rāmen – soy broth, popular in Tokyo, miso rāmen – miso (soybean paste) broth, originally from Hokkaido
tonkotsu rāmen – thick pork broth, a speciality of Kyushu. Slurping your noodles is acceptable and even expected. According to the Japanese it both cools them down and makes them taste better. Any remaining broth can be drunk directly from the bowl.
Sushi and sashimi
Perhaps Japan’s most famous culinary exports are sushi (usually raw fish over vinegared rice, and sashimi, plain raw fish. These seemingly very simple dishes are in fact quite difficult to prepare properly: the fish must be extremely fresh, and apprentices spend years just learning how to make the vinegared rice for sushi correctly, before moving on to the arcane arts of selecting the very best fish at the market and removing every last bone from the fillets.
There is enough arcane sushi terminology to fill entire books, but the most common types are: nigiri – the canonical sushi form consisting of rice with fish pressed on top, maki (巻き) – fish and rice rolled up in nori seaweed and cut into bite-size chunks, temaki – fish and rice rolled up in a big cone of nori, gunkan – “battleship” sushi, like nigiri but with nori wrapped around the edge to contain the contents, chirashi (ちらし) – a large bowl of vinegared rice with seafood scattered on top.
Nearly anything that swims or lurks in the sea can and has been turned into sushi, and most sushi restaurants keep a handy multilingual decoding key on hand or on the wall. A few species more or less guaranteed to feature in every restaurant are maguro (tuna), sake (salmon), ika (squid), tako (octopus), and tamago (egg). More exotic options include uni (sea urchin roe), toro (fatty tuna belly, very expensive) and shirako (fish sperm). Tuna belly comes in two different grades: ō-toro, which is very fatty and very expensive, and chū-toro, which is slightly cheaper and less fatty.
If you somehow ended up in a sushi restaurant, but can’t or don’t want to eat raw fish, there are usually several alternatives. For instance the above mentioned tamago, various vegetables on rice, or the very tasty inari (rice in a sweet wrap of deep fried tofu). Or order the kappa maki which is nothing more than sliced cucumber, rolled up in rice and wrapped in nori.
Even in Japan, sushi is a bit of a delicacy and the most expensive restaurants, where you order piece by piece from a chef, can run you bills into tens of thousands of yen. You can limit the damage by ordering a fixed-price moriawase set, where the chef will choose whatever he thinks is good that day. Cheaper yet are the ubiquitous kaiten (lit. “revolving”) sushi shops, where you sit by a conveyor belt and grab whatever strikes your fancy, at prices that can be as low as ¥100 per plate. Even in these cheaper places, it’s still quite acceptable to order directly from the chef. While in some areas like Hokkaido, kaiten sushi is of consistently good quality, in larger cities (especially Tokyo and Kyoto) the quality varies considerably from place to place with the low end restaurants serving little more than junk-food.
When eating sushi, it’s perfectly acceptable to use your fingers; just dip the piece in a little soy sauce and pop the whole thing in your mouth. In Japan, the pieces typically have a dab of fiery wasabi radish already lurking inside, but you can always add more according to your taste. Slices of pickled ginger (gari) refresh the palate and infinite refills of green tea are always available for free.
Despite fish sashimi being the most well known, there is no shortage of other types of sashimi for the adventurous ones. Hokkaido crab sashimi and lobster sashimi are considered delicacies and are definitely worth a try. Whale is also occasionally available, although it’s not very common, and Kumamoto is famous for horse meat sashimi.
Fugu. Fugu or puffer fish is considered a delicacy in Japan despite being highly poisonous. It can be rather pricy due to the tremendous skill required to prepare it, which requires complete removal of the internal organs in which the poison is found. Despite the potential danger, it is highly unlikely that you will be poisoned to death by it as chefs are assessed very stringently every year to ensure their preparation skills are up to the mark, and the Japanese government requires new chefs to undergo years of apprenticeship under experienced chefs before they are licensed to prepare the dish. .
Grilled and fried dishes. The Japanese didn’t eat much meat before the Meiji era, but they have picked up the habit and even exported a few new ways to eat it since then. Keep an eye on the price though, as meat (especially beef) can be fiercely expensive and luxury varieties like the famous marbled Kobe beef can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of yen per serving. Some options, usually served by specialist restaurants, include: okonomiyaki – Japanese pancake-pizza, based on a wheat-cabbage batter with meat or seafood of your choice, slathered with sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes, dried seaweed and pickled ginger; at many places you cook it yourself at your table, teppanyaki – meat grilled on a hot iron plate, tempura – light-battered shrimp, fish and vegetables deep-fried very quickly, served with a dipping broth, tonkatsu – deep-fried breaded pork cutlets elevated into an art form, yakiniku – Japanese-style “Korean barbeque”, cooked by yourself at your table, yakitori – grilled skewers of every chicken part imaginable, a classic accompaniment to alcohol.
Eel. One Japanese specialty worth seeking out is eel (unagi), reputed to give strength and vitality in the drainingly hot summer months. A properly grilled eel simply melts in the mouth when eaten, and takes over ¥1000 from your wallet in the process.
Whale. A rather more infamous Japanese delicacy is whale (kujira), which tastes like fishy steak and is served both raw and cooked. However, most Japanese don’t hold whale in much esteem; it’s associated with school lunches and wartime scarcity, and it’s rarely found outside speciality restaurants such as kujira-ya in Shibuya, Tokyo. Canned whale can also be found in some grocery stores at a huge price for a small can.
Stewed dishes. Particularly in the cold winter months various “hot pot” stews (nabe) are popular ways to warm up. Common types include: chankonabe – a hotchpotch steamboat much favored by sumo wrestlers, oden – a variety of skewered fishcakes, daikon radish, tofu, and other ingredients simmered in fish soup for days. Primarily a winter dish, often sold in convenience stores and on the street in makeshift blue-tarp yatai tents, sukiyaki – a hotpot of beef, tofu, noodles and more, often somewhat sweet. Well known in the West, but not that common in Japan, shabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) – a hotpot of clear water or very light broth; very thin slices of meat (traditionally beef, but seafood, pork, and other variations exist) are briefly swished through the hot water to instantly cook them, then dipped in flavoured sauce
Pseudo-Western dishes. Throughout Japan you can find cafés and restaurants serving Western food (yōshoku), ranging from molecular-level carbon copies of famous French pastries to hardly recognizable Japanized dishes like corn-and-potato pizza and spaghetti omelettes. A few popular only-in-Japan dishes include: hambāgu – not to be confused with a McDonald’s hambāgā, this version of Hamburg steak is a standalone hamburger patty with gravy and toppings, omuraisu (オムライス) – rice wrapped in an omelette with a dollop of ketchup, wafū sutēki – steak served Japanese-style with soy sauce, korokke – croquettes, usually filled with potato, along with some meat and onion, karē – Japanese-style curry, a mild brown curry served with rice; also available as katsu karē with a pork cutlet
Beer gardens. During the summer months when it’s not raining, many buildings and hotels have restaurants on their rooftops and serve dishes like fried chicken and french fries, as well as light snacks. The specialty is, of course, draft beer (nama-biiru). You can order large mugs of beer or pay a fixed price for an all-you-can-drink (nomihōdai) course lasting for a set period of time (usually up to 2 hours). Cocktails and other drinks are also often available as part of all-you-can-drink sets.
Fast food. Japanese fast food restaurants offer decent quality at reasonable prices. Many chains offer interesting seasonal choices that are quite tasty. Some chains to look out for: Yoshinoya, Matsuya, and Sukiya are gyūdon (beef bowl) specialists. While beef was off the menu for a while due to the mad cow scare, it’s back now, Tenya (てんや), the best tempura you’ll ever eat for less than ¥500. MOS Burger seems like just another fast food chain, but actually has a pretty interesting menu — for hamburgers with a twist, how about grilled eel between two rice buns? Notice also the list of local produce suppliers posted in each shop. Made to order, so guaranteed fresh, and unlike some fast-food places, MOS Burger products generally look like their advertising photos. A bit more expensive than McDonald’s, but worth the extra. MOS stands for “Mountain, Ocean, Sun,” by the way. Freshness Burger tries to be a bit less fast-foody and more like an “all-American” joint. The food’s decent, but just be prepared for the tiniest burgers you’ve ever seen. Beckers Operated by JR, these fastfood burger restaurants are often found in and near JR stations in greater Tokyo and Yokohama. Beckers offers made to order burgers and Menchi burgers (minced black pork). Unlike most shops, their buns are fresh and baked inside the stores. Unused buns are thrown away if not used 1.5 hours after baking them. Their Pork Teriyaki burger is awesome. They also offer Poutine, which is of course a French Canadian snack consisting of french fries, gravy and cheese. The chilli topping needs to be tried. More often than not, you can pay with the JR Suica pre-paid re-chargeable multi use traincard. Ootoya is really too good to call fast food, with a menu and atmosphere that matches any “home-style” Japanese restaurant. While there are illustrated menus on signboards, ordering can be confusing: at some stores you order at the counter before taking a seat, while at others servers come to your table. Soup Stock Tokyo is a trendy soup kitchen chain that serves delicious soup all-year round, with a selection of cold soups in summer. It is a bit more expensive than most other fast food chains but you may consider it a healthier alternative to burgers. Lotteria Standard burger-type place. First Kitchen This chain offers a few dishes outside of the standard fast-food fare, including pasta, pizza, and fries with a wide assortment of flavorings.
Coco Ichibanya serves Japanese style curry rice with a vast array of ingredient choices. English menus available. American fast food chains are also ubiquitous, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. McDonald’s restaurants are almost as ubiquitous as vending machines.
There are also a number of Japanese “family restaurants”, serving a wide variety of dishes, including steak, pasta, Chinese style dishes, sandwiches, and other foods. Though their food is relatively uninteresting, these restaurants usually have illustrated menus, so travellers who cannot read Japanese can use the photos to choose and communicate their orders. Some chains across the country are: Jonathan’s is probably the most ubiquitous local chain. Skylark is owned by the same company and has similar fare, including a cheap and unlimited “drink bar,” which makes these restaurants good places for reading or resting over extended periods. Denny’s also has many stores in Japan. Royal Host – tries to market itself as a bit up-scale. Sunday Sun – reasonable, decent food and menus. Volks – specializes in steaks, and offers a large salad bar.
Coffee shops. Though Starbucks has planted its flag in Japan almost as well as in the United States, the Japanese kissaten has a long history. If you’re really looking for a jolt of caffeine, go to Starbucks or one of its Japanese predecessors such as Doutor. But if you’re trying to get out of the rain, the heat or the crowds for a while, the kissaten is an oasis in an urban jungle. Most coffee shops are one-of-a-kind affairs, and reflect the tastes of their clientele. In a Ginza coffee shop, you’ll find a soft “European” decor and sweet pastries for upscale shoppers taking a load off their Ferragamos. In an Otemachi coffee shop, businessmen in suits huddle over the low tables before meeting their clients. In Roppongi’s all-night coffee shops, the night owls pause between clubs, or doze until the trains start running again in the morning. A peculiar kind of kissaten is the jazz kissa, or jazz coffee shop. These are even darker and more smoke-filled than normal kissaten, and frequented by extremely serious-looking jazz buffs who sit motionless and alone, soaking in the bebop played at high volumes from giant audio speakers. You go to a jazz kissa to listen; conversation is a no-no. Another offshoot is the danwashitsu (lounge). The appearance is indistinguishable from a pricy kissaten, but the purpose is more specific: serious discussions over matters such as business or meeting prospective spouses. All tables are in separate booths, reservations are usually required, and the drinks are pricey. So don’t wander into one if you’re just looking for a cup of coffee.
Convenience stores. If you’re traveling on the cheap, Japan’s numerous convenience stores (konbini) can be a great place to grab a bite to eat, and they’re almost always open 24/7. Major chains include 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart. You can find instant noodles, sandwiches, meat buns, and even some small prepared meals, which can be heated up in a microwave right in the store. An excellent option for food on the go is onigiri (or omusubi), which is a large ball of rice stuffed with (say) fish or pickled plum and wrapped in seaweed, and usually cost around ¥100 each. Most convenience stores in Japan also have a restroom located in the back. While most of the stores located in suburban and rural areas will let customers use their bathrooms, many in large cities, especially those in downtown areas and amusement districts of Tokyo and Osaka, will not. Therefore, you should ask whether you can use the bathroom at the cashier first, then buy an item later if you want to show your appreciation.
Supermarkets. For those really on a budget, most supermarkets (sūpā) have a wide variety of ready-to-eat meals, bentos, sandwiches, snacks and the like, generally cheaper than convenience stores. Some supermarkets are even open 24 hours a day.
One Japanese institution worth checking out is the depachika or department store basement food court, featuring dozens of tiny specialist stalls dishing up local specialties ranging from exquisitely packed tea ceremony candies to fresh sushi and Chinese takeaway. They’re often a little upmarket pricewise, but almost all offer free samples and there are always a few reasonably priced ones in the mix. In the evenings, many slash prices on unsold food, so look for stickers like hangaku (“half price”) or san-wari biki ( “30% off”) to get a bargain. means “1/10” and means “off”.
Eating vegetarian. Despite its image as light and healthy cuisine, everyday Japanese food can be quite heavy in salt and fat, with deep-fried meat or seafood being prominent. Vegetarians (much less vegans) may have serious difficulty finding a meal that does not include animal products to some degree, particularly as the near-ubiquitous Japanese soup stock dashi is usually prepared with fish and often pops up in unexpected places like miso, rice crackers, curry, omelettes (including tamago sushi), instant noodles and pretty much anywhere salt would be used in Western cuisine. (There is a kelp variant called kombudashi, but it’s fairly uncommon.) Soba and udon noodle soups, in particular, virtually always use bonito-based katsuodashi, and typically the only vegetarian-safe item on the menu in a noodle shop is zarusoba, or plain cold noodles — but even for this the dipping sauce typically contains dashi.
One possibility for vegetarian/ vegan options is the kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi shop. Westerners tend to associate sushi with fish, but there are several kinds of rolled sushi available in these shops that does not include fish or other marine creatures: kappa maki (cucumber rolls), nattō maki (sushi filled with stringy fermented soy beans, an acquired taste for many), kanpyō maki (pickled-gourd rolls), and, occasionally, yuba sushi (made with the delicate, tasty ‘skin’ of tofu). These types of sushi tend to be less popular than the sushi using marine animal products, so you may not see them revolving in front of your eyes on the conveyor belt. Just shout out the name of the type of sushi you want and the sushi chef will prepare it for you right away. When you are ready to leave, call the waitress over and she’ll count your plates. The vegetarian sushi options are always inexpensive. For anyone living in big cities, especially Tokyo, an excellent option is organic or macrobiotic food, known as shizenshoku. While “vegetarian food” may sound boring or even unappetizing to Japanese ears, shizenshoku is quite in vogue as of late, although meals may cost about ¥3000 and menus may still contain seafood items. While considerably harder to find, it’s worth looking out for a restaurant (often run by temples) that offers shōjin ryori, the purely vegetarian cuisine developed by Buddhist monks. This cuisine is highly regarded and thus often very expensive, but is often available at reasonable prices if you stay at temples.
Fortunately, traditional Japanese cuisine contains an ample amount of protein through its great variety of soy products: tofu, miso, natto, and edamame (tender green soy beans in their pods), for example. In the prepared food sections of supermarkets and department store basements, you can also find many dishes including various types of beans, both sweet and savory.
The number of vegetarian restaurants and even vegetarian food festivals (such as the Tokyo VegeFood Festa that takes place in the autumn) are increasing. Some vegetarians have been networking to help each other find suitable places to eat. For example, since 2006, a vegan meet-up group in Tokyo has been holding monthly buffets at local restaurants. Vegetarians in Tokyo or travelers passing through, can find out about the feast at the vegan meet-up page. The Happy Cow is a website that provides information about vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Japan and all over the world. They now have an excellent free app for the iOS and Android systems.
The Japanese drink a lot: not only green tea in the office, at meetings and with meals, but also all types of alcoholic beverages in the evening with friends and colleagues. Many social scientists have theorized that in a strictly conformist society, drinking provides a much-needed escape valve that can be used to vent off feelings and frustrations without losing face the next morning.
In Japan, the drinking age is 20 (as is the age of majority and smoking age, for that matter). This is notably higher than most of Europe and the Americas (excepting the United States). However, ID verification is almost never requested at restaurants, bars, convenience stores or other purveyors of liquor, so long as the purchaser does not appear obviously underage. The main exception is in the large clubs in Shibuya, Tokyo, which are popular with young Tokyoites and during busy times will ID everyone entering the club. However, most clubs will accept any form of ID. They will normally ask for a passport, but if you show them a driver’s license (legitimate or non-legitimate), they will accept it.
Where to drink. If you’re looking for an evening of food and drink in a relaxed traditional atmosphere, go to an izakaya (Japanese-style pub), easily identified by red lanterns with the character (alcohol) hanging out front. Many of them have an all-you-can-drink (nomihōdai) deals at about ¥1,000 (US$10) for 90 min (on average), although you will be limited to certain types of drinks. Very convenient, an izakaya will usually have a lively, convivial atmosphere, as it often acts as a living room of sorts for office workers, students and seniors. Food is invariably good and reasonably priced, and in all, they are an experience not to be missed.
While Western-style bars can also be found here and there, typically charging ¥500-1,000 for drinks, a more common Japanese institution is the snack (sunakku). These are slightly dodgy operations where paid hostesses pour drinks, sing karaoke, massage egos (and sometimes a bit more) and charge upwards of ¥3,000/hour for the service. Tourists will probably feel out of place and many do not even admit non-Japanese patrons.
Dedicated gay bars are comparatively rare in Japan, but the districts of Shinjuku ni-chome in Tokyo and Doyama-cho in Osaka have busy gay scenes. Most gay/lesbian bars serve a small niche (muscular men, etc) and will not permit those who do not fit the mold, including the opposite sex, to enter. While a few are Japanese only, foreigners are welcome at most bars.
Note that izakaya, bars and snacks typically have cover charges (kabā chāji), usually around ¥500 but on rare occasions more, so ask if the place looks really swish. In izakayas this often takes the form of being served some little nibble (otōshi) as you sit down, and no, you can’t refuse it and not pay. Some bars also charge a cover charge and an additional fee for any peanuts you’re served with your beer.
Vending machines (jidōhanbaiki) are omnipresent in Japan and serve up drinks 24 hours a day at the price of 120-150 a can/bottle, although some places with captive customers, including the top of Mount Fuji, will charge more. In addition to cans of soft drinks, tea and coffee, you can find vending machines that sell beer, sake and even hard liquor. In winter, some machines will also dispense hot drinks — look for a red label with the writing(atatakai) instead of the usual blue (tsumetai). Vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages are usually switched off at 11PM. Also, more and more of these machines, especially those near a school, require the use of a special “Sake Pass” obtainable at the city hall of the city the machine is located in. The pass is available to anyone of 20 years of age or over. Many vending machines at stations in the Tokyo metropolitan area accept payment using the JR Suica or PASMO cards.
Sake/nihonshu. Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. Though often called rice wine, in fact the sake making process is completely different from wine or beer making. The fermentation process uses both a mold to break down the starches and yeast to create the alcohol. The Japanese word sake (can in fact mean any kind of alcoholic drink, and in Japan the word nihonshu (is used to refer to what Westerners call “sake”.
Sake is around 15% alcohol, and can be served at a range of temperatures from hot (atsukan), to room temperature (o-on), down to chilled (hiya). Contrary to popular belief most sake is not served hot, but often chilled. Each sake is brewed for a preferred serving temperature, but defaulting to room temperature is in most cases safe. If you are inclined to have one hot or chilled in a restaurant, asking your waiter or bartender for a recommendation would be a good idea. In restaurants, one serving can start around ¥500, and go up from there.
Sake has its own measures and utensils. The little ceramic cups are called choko and the small ceramic jug used to pour it is a tokkuri. Sometimes sake will be poured into a small glass set in a wooden box to collect the overflow as the server pours all the way to the top and keeps pouring. Just drink from the glass, then pour the extra out of the box and back into your glass as you go. Occasionally, particularly when drinking it cold, you can sip your sake from the corner of a cedar box called a masu, sometimes with a dab of salt on the edge. Sake is typically measured in gō (180 mL), roughly the size of a tokkuri, ten of which make up the standard 1.8 L isshōbin (bottle).
The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as wine, but the one indicator worth looking out for is nihonshudo, a number often printed on bottles and menus. Simply put, this “sake level” measures the sweetness of the brew, with positive values indicating drier sake and negative values being sweeter, the average being around +2.
Sake is brewed in several grades and styles that depend upon how much the rice is milled to prevent off flavors, if any water is added, or if additional alcohol is added. Ginjō (and daiginjō (are measures of how much the rice has been milled, with the daiginjo more highly milled and correspondingly more expensive. These two may have alcohol added primarily to improve the flavor and aroma. Honjōzō (is less milled, with alcohol added, and may be less expensive; think of it as an everyday kind of sake. Junmai (meaning pure rice, is an additional term that specifies that only rice was used. When making a purchase, price is often a fair indicator of quality.
A few special brews may be worth a try if you feel like experimenting. Nigorizake is lightly filtered and looks cloudy, with white sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Turn the bottle gently once or twice to mix this sediment back into the drink. Though most sake ages badly, some brewers are able to create aged sake with a much stronger flavor and deep colors. These aged sake or koshu (may be an acquired taste, but worthwhile for the adventurous after a meal.
Worth a special mention is amazake (similar to the the lumpy homebrewed doburoku) version of sake, drunk hot in the winter (often given away free at shrines on New Year’s Eve). Amazake has very little alcohol and it tastes pretty much like fermented rice glop (better than it sounds), but at least it is cheap. As its name implies, it is sweet.
If you are curious about sake, the Japan Sake Brewers Association has an online version of its English brochure. You can also visit the Sake Plaza in Shinbashi, Tokyo and taste a flight of different sakes for just a few hundred yen.
Shochu. Shōchū (is the big brother of sake, a stronger tasting distilled type of alcohol. There are largely two types of shōchū; traditional shōchū are most commonly made of rice, yam, or grain, but can be made of other materials like potatoes, too. The other is rather industrially made out of sugar through multiple consecutive distillation, often used and served as a kind of cooler mixed with juice or soda known as a chū-hai, short for “shōchū highball”. (Note however that canned chū-hai sold on store shelves do not use shōchū but even cheaper alcoholic material.)
Shōchū is typically around 25% alcohol (although some varieties can be much stronger) and can be served straight, on the rocks, or mixed with hot or cold water at your choice. Once solely a working-class drink, and still the cheapest tipple around at less than ¥1000 for a big 1L bottle, traditional shōchū has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years and the finest shōchū now fetch prices as high as the finest sake.
Liquor. Umeshu (inaccurately called “plum wine”, is prepared by soaking Japanese ume plums (actually a type of apricot) in white liquor so it absorbs the flavor, and the distinctive, penetrating nose of sour dark plum and sweet brown sugar is a hit with many visitors. Typically about 10-15% alcohol, it can be taken straight, on the rocks (rokku) or mixed with soda (soda-wari).
Beer. There are several large brands of Japanese beer (biiru), including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory. A bit harder to find is an Okinawan brand, Orion, which is excellent. Yebisu is also a popular beer brewed by Sapporo. Microbrewed beers are also starting to appear in Japan, with a few restaurants offering their own micros or ji-biiru (but these are still few in number). Most varieties are lagers, with strengths averaging 5%.
You can buy beer in cans of all sizes, but in Japanese restaurants, beer is typically served in bottles (bin), or draft (nama meaning “fresh”). Bottles come in three sizes, ōbin (large, 0.66 L), chūbin (medium, 0.5 L) and kobin (small, 0.33 L), of which medium is the most common. Larger bottles give you the opportunity to engage in the custom of constantly refilling your companions’ glasses (and having yours topped off as well). If you order draft beer, you each receive your own mug (jokki). In many establishments, a dai-jokki (“big mug”) holds a full liter of brew.
Some Japanese bartenders have an annoying habit of filling half of your mug with head so that you only have half a glass of actual beer. Though the Japanese like their draft beer poured that way, you may find it irritating, especially when you pay ￥600 for a glass of beer as in many restaurants and bars. If you have the gumption to ask for less head, say awa wa sukoshi dake ni shite kudasai (“please, just a little foam”). You will baffle your server, but you may get a full glass of beer.
Guinness pubs have started appearing all over the country recently, which is nice for those who like Irish drinks.
For those with a more humourous tastes in beer, try kodomo biiru (literally Children’s Beer), a product that looks just like the real thing but was actually invented with children in mind (there is 0% alcohol content).
Happōshu and third beer. Thanks to Japan’s convoluted alcohol licensing laws, there are also two almost-beers on the market: happōshu (or low-malt beer, and the so-called third beer (dai-san no biiru), which uses ingredients like soybean peptides or corn instead of malt. Priced as low as ¥120, both are considerably cheaper than “real” beer, but lighter and more watery in taste. Confusingly, they are packaged very similarly to the real thing with brands like Sapporo’s “Draft One” and Asahi’s “Hon-Nama”, so pay attention to the bottom of the can when buying: by law, it may not say (beer), but will instead say(happoshu) or, for third beers, the unwieldy moniker (sono ta no zasshu(2), lit. “other mixed alcohol, type 2”). Try to drink moderately as both drinks can lead to nightmare hangovers.
Western wine. Japanese wine is actually quite nice but costs about twice as much as comparable wine from other countries. Several varieties exist, and imported wine at various prices is available nationwide. Selection can be excellent in the larger cities, with specialized stores and large department stores offering the most extensive offerings. One of Japan’s largest domestic wine areas is Yamanashi Prefecture, and one of Japan’s largest producers, Suntory, has a winery and tours there. Most wine, red and white, is served chilled and you may find it hard obtaining room-temperature (jō-on) wine when dining out.
Tea. The most popular beverage by far is tea (o-cha), provided free of charge with almost every meal, hot in winter and cold in summer. There is a huge variety of tea in bottles and cans in convenience-store fridges and vending machines. Western-style black tea is called kōcha; if you don’t ask for it specifically you’re likely to get Japanese brown or green tea. Chinese oolong tea is also very popular.
The major types of Japanese tea are: sencha, the common green tea, matcha, soupy powdered ceremonial green tea. The less expensive varieties are bitter and the more expensive varieties are slightly sweet, hōjicha, roasted green tea, genmaicha, tea with roasted rice, tastes popcorn-y, mugicha (麦茶), a drink of roasted barley, served iced in summer. Just like Chinese teas, Japanese teas are always drunk neat, without the use of any milk or sugar. However, Western-style milk tea can also be found in most of the American fast food chains.
Coffee. Coffee (kōhī) is quite popular in Japan, though it’s not part of the typical Japanese breakfast. It’s usually brewed to the same strength as European coffee; weaker, watered down coffee is called American. Canned coffee (hot and cold) is a bit of a curiosity, and widely available in vending machines like other beverages for about ¥120 per can. Most canned coffee is sweet, so look for brands with the English word “Black” or the kanji (“no sugar”) if you want it unsweetened. Decaffeinated coffee is very rare in Japan, even at Starbucks, but is available in some locations.
There are many coffee shops in Japan, including Starbucks. Major local chains include Doutor (known for its low prices) and Excelsior. A few restaurants, such as Mister Donut, Jonathan’s and Skylark, offer unlimited refills on coffee for those who are particularly addicted to caffeine (or want to get some late-night work done).
Soft drinks. There are many uniquely Japanese soft drinks and trying random drinks on vending machines is one of the little joys of Japan. A few of note include Calpis a kind of yogurt-based soft drink that tastes better than it sounds and the famous Pocari Sweat (a Gatorade-style isotonic drink). A more traditional Japanese soft drink is Ramune nearly the same as Sprite or 7-Up but noteworthy for its unusual bottle, where one pushes down a marble into an open space below the spout instead of using a bottle opener.
Most American soft drink brands (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew) are widely available. The only choices for diet soda will be Diet Coke, Coke Zero, or Diet Pepsi. Root Beer is nearly impossible to find outside of speciality import food shops or Okinawa. Ginger ale is very popular however, and a common find in vending machines. Caffeinated energy drinks are available in many local brands (usually infused with ginseng).
In Japan, the term “juice” (jūsu) is catch-all term for any kind of fruity soft drink – sometimes even Coca-Cola and the like – and extremely few are 100% juice. So if it’s fruit squeezings you want, ask for kajū. Drinks in Japan are required to display the percentage of fruit content on the label; this can be very helpful to ensure you get the 100% orange juice you were wanting, rather than the much more common 20% varieties.
Bathing is a big deal in Japan, and be it a scenic onsen hot spring, a neighhorbood sentō bath or just an ordinary household tub, bathing Japanese style is a pleasure. Japanese wax lyrical about the joys of hot water and dub even the ordinary tub with a honorific and a visit to a Japanese hot spring — marked as ♨ on maps — should be on the agenda of every visitor.
Onsen. Onsen (quite literally “hot springs”, are the pinnacle of the Japanese bathing experience. Clusters of hot spring inns pop up wherever there’s a suitable source of hot water, and in volcanic Japan, they’re everywhere. The most memorable onsen experience is often the rotenburo outdoor baths with views of the surrounding natural scenery. While baths are usually large and shared, some swankier accommodations offer, often for an additional fee, reservable baths for you and yours alone, known as family baths, racier “romance baths” or just plain old reserved baths (kashikiri-furo). Onsen baths can be either in standalone buildings available for anybody (sotoyu), or private guest-only baths inside your lodgings
While most onsen are run commercially and charge fees for entry (¥500-1000 is typical), especially in remote areas there are free publicly maintained baths that offer minimal facilities but, more often than not, stunning views to make up for it. Many of these are mixed (kon’yoku), but while men still happily traipse into these naked, if holding a towel in front of their dangly bits, it’s a rare woman who’ll enter one without a bathing suit these days. Commercial operations with kon’yoku baths tend to enforce bathing suits for both sexes.
To find those really off the beaten track hot spring inns, check out the Japanese Association to Protect Hidden Hot Springs (Nihon hitō wo mamoru kai), which consists of 185 independent lodges throughout the country.
Many onsen prohibit the entry of visitors with tattoos. Intended to keep out yakuza gangsters (who often sport full-back tattoos), the rule is usually applied with a modicum of common sense, but heavily tattood visitors will, at the very least, receive curious looks and may be asked to leave.
Sentō and spas. Sentō are public bath houses found in any large city. Intended for people without their own home tub, they are typically quite utilitarian and are slowly dying out as Japan continues its break-neck modernization. Some, however, have gone upmarket and turned into spas (supa), which, in Japan, does not mean Balinese huts offering Ayurvedic massage while getting sprinkled with orchids, but public baths for stressed-out salarymen, often with a capsule hotel (see Sleep) bolted on the side. As you might expect, these come in varying degrees of legitimacy — in particular, beware any place advertising “esthe”, “health”, or “soap” — but most are surprisingly decent.
Japanese are understanding of the funny ways of foreigners, but there’s one rule where no exceptions are made: you have to wash yourself and rinse off all foam before entering the bath. The water in the tub will be reused by the next person, and the Japanese consider it disgusting to soak in someone else’s dirt! Basically, wash up as well as you hope the guy next to you has done.
Be it a fancy onsen or a barebones sentō, the choreography of an entire visit goes roughly as follows: Shared bathing areas are usually sex-segregated, so look for the characters “man” and “woman” to pick the correct entrance. Men’s baths also typically have blue curtains, while women’s are red. Enter the changing room, leaving shoes or slippers at the doorway; at public baths there may be keyed lockers.
At public baths (sentō), you either pay the attendant directly (often through the changing room entrance, and it’s almost always a woman), or use a vending machine in the entrance to buy tickets for entry and extra items such as towels or soap, which you then give to the attendant. On vending machines, look near the top for the Japanese words for “adult” (otona) and “child” (kodomo). (If the vending machine is too difficult to figure out, you can probably walk in and say sumimasen (“excuse me”) to the attendant and accomplish the rest by gesturing. Inside the changing room, there will be rows of clothes lockers or baskets. Pick a locker and undress completely, placing all your garments in the basket. Be sure to place your valuables in lockers, if there are any, and take the key with you into the bath. You’ll be given a teeny-weeny washcloth for free, or sometimes a token fee. It’s not particularly good for covering your privates (it’s too small) and it’s not much use for drying off, either. Larger towels are available, again sometimes for a fee; men should leave these in the changing room and take only their washcloth, but women can use these to wrap up with. If you’d like one, ask the attendant for a taoru. After removing your clothes and entering the bathing area, take a little stool and a bucket, sit down at a faucet, and clean yourself really, really well. Shampoo your hair, soap your entire body, repeat. Rinse all foam off once clean. Try not to leave the water running, or get water on other people. Only now can you enter the bath tub. Do so slowly, as the water can often be very hot indeed; if it’s unbearable, try another tub. If you do manage to get in, don’t let your washcloth touch the water, as it’s considered mildly bad form; you may wish to fold it atop your head, or just lay it aside. When sufficiently cooked, you may wash yourself once again if you’re so inclined and repeat the process in reverse; it’s fine to save washing your hair for after the bath, too, if you prefer. (At natural hot springs, though, you shouldn’t rinse off the bath water, which is full of minerals that the Japanese consider healthy folk medicine.)
Note that the bath is for soaking and light conversation; don’t roughhouse, submerge your head, or make a lot of noise. Japanese people may be a bit wary of foreigners in the bath, mostly because they’re afraid you’ll try to talk to them in English and they’ll be embarrassed that they can’t communicate with you. Just give them a token nod/bow, say ohayo gozaimasu, konnichiwa, or konbanwa depending on the time of day, and wait to see if they’re interested in talking to you. After your bath is finished, you can nearly always find a relaxation lounge (kyūkeishitsu), inevitably equipped with a beer vending machine nearby. Feel free to sprawl out in your yukata, sip beer, talk with friends, take a nap.
Some features of Japan’s toilets are worth mentioning. As elsewhere in Asia, you will find both Western-style porcelain thrones for sitting and floor-level units for squatting. (If you’re unfamiliar with these, it’s simple: pull your pants down to your knees, and squat facing the curved hood of the toilet. Get closer to the hood than it looks like you need to, or else you might miss.) In private homes and home-style accommodations, you will often find toilet slippers, which are to be worn inside the toilet and only inside the toilet.
However, most visitors come away impressed by the undeniable fact that Japan is the world’s leader in toilet technology. Over half of Japan’s homes are equipped with high-tech devices known as washlets, which incorporate all sorts of handy features like seat warmers, hot air dryers and tiny robotic arms that squirt water. The device is operated via a control panel and may incorporate over 30 buttons (all labeled in Japanese) at first glance bearing more resemblance to a Space Shuttle navigation panel than your average WC.
Don’t panic — help is at hand. The first key to solving the puzzle is that the actual flush mechanism is usually not operated by the control panel: instead, there is a standard, familiar, Western-style lever, switch or knob somewhere and it is thus entirely possible to take care of your business without ever using the washlet features. The second key to exploration is that there is always a big red button — pressing this will instantly stop everything. Older models simply have a lever nearby that controls the flow of a sprayer.
Armed with this knowledge you can now begin to dig deeper. Typical controls include the following: Oshiri – “buttocks”, for spraying your rear – typically shown in blue with a stylized butt icon; this action can be unnerving, but travellers should not be afraid – by the second or third attempt it will seem normal, Bidet – for spraying your front – typically shown in pink with a female icon, Kansō – “dry”, for drying off when finished – typically yellow with a wavy air icon. Other, smaller buttons can be used to adjust the exact pressure, angle, location and pulsation of the jet of water. Sometimes the seat of the toilet is heated, and this can also be regulated. One explanation is that since houses are not usually centrally heated, the toilet business can be made a little more convenient by heating the seat. To be polite and save energy, you should leave the cover down on heated toilet seats.
In addition to the usual youth hostels and business hotels, you can find several kinds of uniquely Japanese accommodation, ranging from rarefied ryokan inns to strictly functional capsule hotels and utterly over-the-top love hotels.
When reserving any Japanese accommodations, bear in mind that many smaller operations may hesitate to accept foreigners, fearing language difficulties or other cultural misunderstandings. This is to some extent institutionalized: large travel agency databases note the few hotels are prepared to handle foreigners, and they may tell you that all lodgings are booked if only these are full. Instead of calling up in English, you may find it better to get a Japanese acquaintance or local tourist office to make the booking for you. Alternatively, for cheap Internet rates, Rakuten’s English search tool  is a valuable utility. Note that prices are almost always given per person not per room. Otherwise, you may have a rather unpleasant shock when your party of five tries to check out..
When checking in to any type of accommodation, the hotel is, by law, required to make a copy of your passport unless you are a resident of Japan. It is a good idea, especially if you are travelling in groups, to present the clerk a photo copy of your passport to speed up check-in. Aside from this, remember that Japan is mostly a cash only country, and credit cards are usually not accepted in smaller forms of accommodation, including, but not limited to, small business hotels. Bring enough cash to be able to pay in advance.
One thing to beware in wintertime: traditional Japanese houses are designed to be cool in summer, which all too often means that they are freezing cold inside in winter. Bulk up on clothing and make good use of the bathing facilities to stay warm; fortunately, futon bedding is usually quite warm and getting a good night’s sleep is rarely a problem.
While accommodation in Japan is expensive, you may find that you can comfortably use a lower standard of hotel than you would in other countries. Shared baths will usually be spotless, and theft is very unusual in Japan. Just don’t expect to sleep in late: check-out time is invariably 10 AM, and any extensions to this will have to be paid for.
You may have difficulty finding rooms at the busiest holiday times, such as “Golden Week” at the beginning of May; and prices are commonly higher on Saturday nights. But Toyoko-inn business hotels in towns not listed in your guidebook often have vacancies, and their website is excellent.
Hotels. Western-branded hotels are rare outside Tokyo and Osaka; elsewhere, it’s Japanese brands like JAL/Nikko, Rihga Royal and Prince that rule the roost. Full-service five-star hotels can turn pampering into an artform, but tend to be rather bland and generic in appearance, despite steep prices starting from ¥20,000 per person (not per room). However, there are several types of uniquely Japanese and far more affordable hotels:
Capsule hotels. Capsule hotels are the ultimate in space-efficient sleeping: for a small fee (normally between ¥3,000 and ¥4,000), the guest rents himself a capsule, sized about 2x1x1 meters and stacked in two rows inside a hall containing tens if not hundreds of capsules. Capsule hotels are segregated by sex, and only a few cater to women.
On entry to a capsule hotel, take off your shoes, place them in a locker and put on a pair of slippers. You will often have to surrender your locker key at check-in to insure that you do not slip out without paying! On checking in you will be given a second locker for placing your belongings, as there is no space for them in the capsule and little security as most capsules have simply a curtain, not a door. Beware though if there is a curtain, since probing hands may enter it. Many if not most capsule hotels are attached to a spa of varying degrees of luxury and/or dubiosity, often so that entry to the spa costs (say) ¥2,000 but the capsule is only an additional ¥1,000. Other, cheaper capsule hotels will require feeding in ¥100 coins even to get the shower to work. This being Japan, there are always vending machines on hand to dispense toothpaste, underwear and such sundries. Once you retire into your capsule, you will usually find a simple control panel for operating the lights, the alarm clock and the inevitable built-in TV. If you oversleep, you may be hit with another day’s charge. In Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya districts the capsule hotels run at least ¥3,500, but have excellent free massage chairs, saunas, public baths, disposable razors and shampoo, magazines, and coffee in the morning. Despite all that, keep in mind that your capsule “door” is just a curtain that keeps light out. You will likely hear a steady stream of drunk and sleepy business men crawling into their capsules above and across from you before falling into a mild snore.
Love hotels. Love hotel is a bit of a euphemism; a more accurate term would be sex hotel. They can be found in and near red light districts, but most are not in those areas. Many of them are often clustered around highway interchanges or main train stations out of the city and back to the suburbs. The entrance is usually quite discreet, and the exit is separated from the entrance (to avoid running into someone one might know). Basically, you rent a room by the night (listed as “Stay” or shukuhaku on the rate card, usually ¥6000-10000), a couple of hours (“Rest” or kyūkei, around ¥3000), or off hours (“No Time Service”), which are usually weekday afternoons. Beware of service charges, peak hour surcharges and taxes, which can push your bill up by 25%. Some will accept single guests, but most will not allow same-sex couples or obviously underaged guests.
They are generally clean, safe, and very private. Some have exotic themes: aquatics, sports, or Hello Kitty. As a traveller, rather than a typical client, you (usually) cannot check in, drop your bags, and go out exploring. Once you leave, that is it, so they are not as convenient as proper hotels. “Stay” rates also tend to start only after 10 PM, and overstaying may incur hefty additional “Rest” charges. Many rooms have simple food and drinks in a refrigerator, and often have somewhat high charges. Before entering a love hotel, it would be wise to take some food and drinks with you. The rooms often feature amenities such as jacuzzis, wild theme decoration, costumes, karaoke machines, vibrating beds, sex toy vending machines, and in some cases, video games. Most often, all toiletries (including condoms) are included. Sometimes the rooms have a book that acts as a log, where people record their tales and adventures for posterity. Popular love hotels may be entirely booked up in the cities on weekends.
Why are they everywhere? Consider the housing shortage that plagued post-war Japan for years, and the way people still live in extended families. If you are 28 years old and still live at home, do you really want to bring your mate back to your folks’ house? If you are a married couple in a 40 m² (400 ft²) apartment with two grade school children, do you really want to get down to it at home? Thus, there is the love hotel. They can be seedy, but mainly they are just practical and fulfill a social need.
One word of caution: there has been an increase in hidden cameras being planted in public and private spaces, including love hotels, either by other guests or even occasionally the hotel management. Videos of these supposed tousatsu (hidden camera) are popular in adult video stores, although many such videos are actually staged.
Business hotels. They are usually around ¥10,000 per night and have a convenient location (often near major train stations) as their major selling point, but rooms are usually unbelievably cramped. On the upside, you’ll get a (tiny) ensuite bathroom and, quite often, free Internet. Some major chains of cheaper business hotels include Tokyu Inn, known for its generously sized rooms, and Toyoko Inn. The latter have a club card,which at ¥1500,can pay for itself on a single Sunday night.
Local, “unadvertised” business hotels, farther from major stations, can be significantly cheaper (from ¥5000/double room/night) and can be found in the phone book (which also tells prices), but you will need a Japanese-speaking assistant to help, or better yet, pre-book online. For two or more, the price can often compete with youth hostels if you share a twin or double room. Note that full payment is often expected on check-in, and check-out times are early (usually 10 AM) and non-negotiable unless you are willing to pay extra. At the very bottom end are dirt-cheap hotels in the labourers’ districts of the major cities, such as Kamagasaki in Osaka, or Senju in Tokyo, where prices start from as little as ¥1500 for a tiny three-mat room that literally has only enough room to sleep. Walls and futons can be thin as well.
Ryokan breakfast. Clockwise from top left: miso soup, rice, cold grilled fish, vegetables, pickles, natto fermented soybeans, nori seaweed, a raw egg and more vegetables.
Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns, and a visit to one is the highlight of many a trip to Japan. There are two types: the small traditional-style one with wooden buildings, long verandahs, and gardens, and the more modern high-rise sort that are like luxury hotels with fancy public baths. Since some knowledge of Japanese mores and etiquette is required to visit one, many will hesitate to take non-Japanese guests (especially those who do not speak Japanese), but some cater specially to this group. A night at a ryokan for one with two meals starts at about ¥8000 and goes up into the stratosphere. ¥50,000 a night per person is not uncommon for some of the posher ones, such as the famous Kagaya Wakura Onsen near Kanazawa.
Ryokan usually operate on a fairly strict schedule and you will be expected to arrive by 5PM. On entry, take off your shoes and put on the slippers you will wear inside the house. After checking in you will be led to your room, simply but elegantly decorated and covered in tatami matting. Be sure to take off your slippers before stepping on tatami.
Before dinner you will be encouraged to take a bath — see Bathe for the full scoop. You will probably wish to change into your yukata bathrobe before bathing and it’s a simple enough garment: just place the left lapel atop the right when closing it. (The other way, right-over-left, is a faux pas, as yukata are closed that way only for burial!) If the yukata provided are not big enough, simply ask the maid or the reception for ‘tokudai’, outsize. Many ryokan also have colour-coded yukata depending on sex: pinkish tones for women and blue for men, for example.
Once you have bathed, dinner will be served in your room. In most ryokan dinner is very elaborately prepared and presented from carefully chosen seasonal ingredients; by all means ask if you are not sure how to eat a given item. The food in a good ryokan is a substantial part of the experience (and the bill), and is an excellent way to try some high-class Japanese cuisine.
After you have finished you are free to head out into town; in hot spring towns it is perfectly normal to head out dressed only in yukata and geta clogs, although doing so as a foreigner may attract even more attention than usual. (Hint: wear underwear underneath.) Many ryokan have curfews, so make sure that you get back on time.
When you return you will find that futon bedding has been rolled out for you on the tatami (a real Japanese futon is simply a mattress, not the low, flat bed often sold under the name in the West). While slightly harder than a Western bed, most people find sleeping on a futon very pleasant. Pillows may be remarkably hard, filled with buckwheat chaff.
Breakfast in the morning is usually served communally in a dining hall at a fixed time, though the high-class places will again serve it in your room after the maid tidies away the bedding. It’s invariably Japanese style, meaning rice, miso soup and cold fish, although staff may agree to cook your raw egg on request.
High-end ryokan are one of the few places in Japan that accept tips, but the kokorozuke system is the reverse of the usual: around ¥3000 is placed in an envelope and handed to the maid bringing you to your room at the very beginning of your stay, not the end. While never expected (you’ll get great service anyway), the money serves both as a token of appreciation and an apology of sorts for any difficulty caused by special requests (eg. food allergies) or your inability to speak Japanese.
A last word of warning: some establishments with the word “ryokan” in their name are not the luxurious variety at all but just minshuku (see below) in disguise. The price will tell you the type of lodging it is.
Minshuku. Minshuku are the budget version of ryokan: the overall experience is much the same but the food is simpler, dining is communal, bathrooms are shared, and guests are expected to lay out their own futon (although an exception is often made for foreigners). Consequently minshuku rates are lower, hovering around ¥5000 with two meals (ippaku-nishoku). Cheaper yet is a stay with no meals (sudomari), which can go as low as ¥3000. Minshuku are more often found in the countryside, where virtually every hamlet or island, no matter how small or obscure, will have one. The hardest part is often finding them, as they rarely advertise or show up in online booking engines, so asking the local tourist office is often the best way.
Kokuminshukusha. Kokuminshukusha (a mouthful that translates quite literally into “people’s lodges”, are government-run guest houses. They primarily provide subsidized holidays for government employees in remote scenic spots, but they are usually happy to accept paying guests. Both facilities and prices are usually more comparable to ryokan than minshuku standards; however, they are almost invariably large in size and can be rather impersonal. Popular ones need to be booked well in advance for peak seasons: sometimes almost a year in advance for New Year’s and the like.
Shukubō. Shukubō (are lodgings for pilgrims, usually (but not always) located within a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. Again, the experience is broadly similar to a ryokan, but the food will be vegetarian and you may be offered a chance to participate in the temple’s activities. Some Zen temples offer meditation lessons and courses. Shukubo can be reluctant to accept foreign guests, but one place where that will not be a problem is the major Buddhist center of Mt. Koya near Osaka.
Youth hostels. Youth hostels (yūsu hosuteru, often just called yūsu or abbreviated “YH”) are another cheap option in Japan. Hostels can be found throughout the country, so they are popular among budget travelers, especially students. Hostels typically range in price from ¥2000 to ¥4000. It can become more expensive if you opt for dinner and breakfast and are not an HI member, in which case the price for a single night may be over ¥5000. For HI members, a simple stay can cost as little as ¥1500 depending on location and season. As elsewhere, some are concrete cellblocks run like reform schools, while others are wonderful cottages in scenic spots. There are even a number of temples that run hostels as a sideline. Do some groundwork before choosing where to go, the Japan Youth Hostel page is a good place to start. Many have curfews and dorms and some are sex-segregated.
Camping. Camping is (after nojuku, see below) the cheapest way to get a night’s sleep in Japan. There is an extensive network of camping grounds throughout the country; naturally, most are away from the big cities. Transportation to them can also be problematic, as few buses may go there. Prices may vary from nominal fees (¥500) to large bungalows that cost more than many hotel rooms (¥13000 or more).
Camping wild is illegal in most of Japan, although you can always try asking for permission, or simply pitch your tent late and leave early. Many larger city parks may in fact have large numbers of blue tarp tents with homeless in them.
Campsites in Japan are known as kyanpu-jo (while sites designed for cars are known as ōto-kyanpu-jo. The latter tend to be far more expensive than the former (¥5000 or so) and should be avoided by those setting out on foot unless they also have lower-key accommodations available. Campsites are often located near onsen, which can be quite convenient.
The National Camping Association of Japan helps maintain Campjo.com, a Japanese-only database of nearly all campsites in Japan. The JNTO website has a fairly extensive list (in PDF format) of campgrounds in English, and local tourist offices are often well informed.
Nojuku. For the real budget traveller wanting to get by on the cheap in Japan is the option of nojuku. This is Japanese for “sleeping outside”, and although it may seem quite strange to Westerners, a lot of young Japanese do this when they travel. Thanks to a low crime rate and relatively stable climate, nojuku is a genuinely viable option if you’re travelling in a group or feel confident doing it on your own. Common nojuku places include train stations, michi no eki (road service stations), or basically anywhere that has some kind of shelter and public toilets nearby.
Those worrying about shower facilities will be delighted to know that Japan is blessed with cheap public facilities pretty much everywhere: notably onsen or hot springs. Even if you cannot find an onsen, sento (public bath), or sauna is also an option.
Bear in mind that nojuku is really viable only in the summer months, although in the northern island of Hokkaido, even in summer the temperature may dip during the night. On the other hand, there’s much more scope for nojuku on Okinawa (although public facilities on the smaller islands are lacking).
Nojuku is not really recommended for first-time travellers to Japan, but for those with some experience, it can be a great way to get into the ‘onsen’ culture, meet other fellow nojuku travellers, and most of all travel very cheaply when coupled with hitchhiking.
Gaijin houses. If you’re staying for a longer period, say a month and longer, you might be able to drastically reduce your living costs by staying in a “gaijin house”. These establishments cater specifically towards foreigners and offer at least minimally furnished and usually shared apartments at reasonable prices, and without the hefty deposits and commissions of apartments (often up to 8 months rent) paid before moving in. It will almost certainly be cheaper than staying in a hotel for a month, and for those coming to Japan for the first time they are also great for networking and getting to know a few locals. The downside is that facilities are often shared and the transient population can mean poor maintenance and dodgy neighbors.
Gaijin houses are concentrated in Tokyo, but any other big city will have a few. They can be anything from ugly cramped apartment complexes with new tenants every week, to nice family run businesses in private houses, so try to get a look at the place before you decide to move in. Two of the biggest letting agencies for gaijin houses in Tokyo are Sakura House and Oak House, while Gaijin House Japan has listings and classified ads covering the entire country.
Apartments. Traditionally, renting an apartment in Japan is a ridiculously complex and expensive process, involving getting a Japanese resident to act as your guarantor (literally–trash up the place and run away, and they will get stuck with the bill) and paying half a year’s rent or more in advance. This is thus essentially impossible for anyone who is not both familiar with the culture and there to live and work for a few years at least.
In recent years, though, weekly mansions (short-term apartments) have become popular for residents (typically businessmen on long-term assignment or young singles) and are accessible even to visitors. Most are 1 or 2 person rooms, though larger ones for 3 or 4 are sometimes available. Apartments fees are around ¥5000 for a single, around ¥6000-7000 for a two person room per day. Most of these apartment rental agencies will offer all apartments with shower, toilet and bath. They usually have air conditioning, microwave and cooking amenities. Reservations can be made on English website, and they have various promotional offers on their website. WMT has more than 50 apartment buildings in Tokyo and Yokohama,and Osaka. Sometimes a deposit is required for some of the apartments. This deposit can usually be waived if you have stayed with them a few times without any trouble. The apartments are always kept clean and often have much more space and flexibility than a hotel and are priced in the Youth hostel range.
Even in Tokyo, the trains completely stop running around 1AM, so if you are out after then and want to avoid paying for a cab or even a capsule hotel, there are a few options for killing the hours until the first morning train. If you need to find one of these options fast, station attendants will typically be able to point you in the right direction. Conveniently, many of these facilities are usually clustered around train stations, and they are used to accepting people who have missed the last train home.
Internet and manga cafés. In bigger cities, especially around the major stations you can find Internet or Manga cafés. Membership costs around ¥300 one time. Here you can also watch TV, play video games, read comics and enjoy the free drink bar. Price varies but usually around ¥400/hour. They often have a special night fare for the period when no trains are running (from around 12AM until 5AM for ¥1500). Customers are typically given the choice between a computer-equipped or TV-equipped cubicle, while others offer amenities such as a massage chair, a mat to sleep on or even a shower.
It is not an especially comfortable option, but it is perfect for checking the next day’s train schedule, downloading pictures from your digital camera, writing home, and resting a bit. Often, you may be surrounded by snoring locals who have missed the last train home.
Karaoke bar. This is only an emergency option if you cannot find anything else and you are freezing outside. Karaoke bars offer entertainment rooms until 5AM (“free time”) for ¥1500-2500. Works only with at least 3 people.
Public baths. Some onsen or sento stay open all night. These are usually known as “super” sentos. Usually there is a ‘relaxing area’ with tatami mats, TV, vending machines, etc. Though occasionally they are multi story bath and play houses. Often, for a reasonable fee (on top of the bathing cost), you will be allowed to crash the night on the tatami or in a room with large reclining chairs.
Outside. In the warmer months, people sleeping or napping on streetsides outside the bigger train stations is a common sight. Many of them just missed their last trains and prefer spending three or four hours waiting for the first train on the asphalt rather than three or four thousand yen for a short-term stay in a hotel or public bath. While this is definitely the least comfortable way to sleep through the night, it is especially popular with college students (who have no money), and absolutely tolerated by police and station staff; even drunkards sleeping next to their own puke will not be disturbed in their booze-induced sleep.
On trains. Similarly, no need to sweat if you fall asleep on a local train after a long party night. Compared to sleeping outside, the train sleep is more of a gaijin thing. There are no time limits on how long you can stay on a train as long as you have a ticket; many long-term residents have had the pleasure of going back and forth on the same train for two or three cycles before waking up and getting off at the initial destination with the ticket bought three hours ago. If the train is not likely to get crowded, you may even consider stretching out on the bench: remember to take off your shoes though. Of course, you have to obey the orders of the train staff, who tend to gently wake up people at the terminus, especially if the train is not going back. Sometimes, that station turns out to be two hours away from the city.
Meditation. Many temples in Japan offer English instruction for meditation.
Many youth exchange programs bring foreign teenagers to Japan, and the country also has a number of very active university exchange programs. In order to obtain a student visa, you will be required to either have one million yen, or the equivalent in financial aid awards, to cover your living expenses. With a student visa, you may obtain an additional permission form from Immigration to legally work up to 20 hours per week. Contact your local Japanese embassy or home university’s exchange program department for information on how to proceed.
The cheapest way to stay in Japan for a longer period of time is to study at a local school or university with a generous Monbusho (Ministry of Education) grant to pay for it all. A number of Japanese universities offer courses taught in English; some foreign universities also operate independent programs in Japan, the largest being Temple University’s multi-faculty campus in Tokyo. Japan’s top universities are also very well regarded worldwide, though the downside is that degree programmes are almost always conducted exclusively in Japanese. Nevertheless, many of them have exchange agreements with other foreign universities, and you can apply to go on exchange for a semester or a year. Among the most prestigious are the University of Tokyo, Waseda University and Keio University in Tokyo, as well as Kyoto University in Kyoto.
The Tokyo region generally offers the widest array of jobs for foreigners, including positions for lawyers, accountants, engineers and other professionals. To work in Japan, a foreigner must receive a job offer from a guarantor in Japan, and then apply for a working visa at an embassy or consulate outside the country. Working visas are valid for a period of 1 to 3 years, and may be used to secure employment at any employer within the scope of activities designated on the visa (including employers other than the guarantor). Expect strict penalties if you overstay on any visa. Spouses of Japanese nationals can obtain spousal visas, which carry no restrictions on employment.
The Working Holiday program is open to young citizens (between 18 and 30) from Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, South Korea, France, Germany, Ireland and the UK: those eligible may apply for working holiday visas without having a job offer.
The most common form of employment among foreigners is teaching English, especially in after-hours English conversation schools known as eikaiwa. Pay is fairly good for young adults, but rather poor compared to a qualified educator already at work in most Western countries. Working conditions can also be quite strict compared to Western standards, and some companies have very bad reputations. An undergraduate degree or ESL creditation is essential for most desirable positions. For the larger chain English schools most teachers would have been interviewed in their home countries before coming to work in Japan. Learning English is no longer quite as fashionable as it once was and the boom years are long since over. North American accents tend to be preferred over other accents. Recently there has been greater emphasis on children’s education. Besides English, other foreign languages that are popular include Portuguese, French, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese.
The JET Program (Japan Exchange and Teaching) offers young university graduates a chance to teach in Japan. The program is run by the Japanese government but your employer would typically be a local Board of Education who assigns you to one or more public schools, often deep in the countryside. No Japanese skills or formal teaching qualifications are required and your airfare is provided. Pay is slightly better than the language schools and, unlike at such a school, if you have a serious problem with your employer you can appeal to the JET program people for help. The JET program also has a small number of positions for international relations or sports co-ordinators, although these require some Japanese ability.
Foreigners with postgraduate education may be able to find jobs teaching English (or even other subjects) at Japanese universities, which offer better pay and working conditions than the eikaiwa industry.
Quite a few young women choose to work in the hostess industry, where they entertain Japanese men over drinks in tiny bars known as sunakku and are paid for their time. While pay can be good, visas for this line of work are difficult if not impossible to obtain and most work illegally. The nature of the work also carries its own risks, notably poor career prospects, alcoholism, smoking, potential problems from clients such as groping and lewd questions, and even harassment or worse, exemplified by the abduction and murder of hostess Lucie Blackman in 2000.
Japan is a country obsessed with cleanliness and health hazards are few and far between. Tap water is potable everywhere and food hygiene standards are very high. There are no communicable diseases of significance, as despite the name, Japanese encephalitis has been almost eradicated.
Some Japanese public toilets do not have toilet paper, although there are often vending machines nearby that sell some at token prices. Do as the Japanese do and use the tissue packets handed out free by advertisers at major train stations.
Though it may be “common sense” for people who have lived in urban areas, many newcomers to Tokyo or Osaka are unfamiliar with life in an extremely congested metropolis, where almost everything they touch has been touched by hundreds of other people that same day. When newcomers to large Japanese cities take no precautions, they may be more susceptible to ordinary illnesses like the common cold. As in any other urban area, when in a large Japanese city like Tokyo or Osaka, wash your hands with soap and water as often as possible, especially after travelling on public transportation and before meals.
Be sure to bring a small umbrella for the frequent rainy days. Don’t rely too much on the weather forecasts, especially from a day or two ago. Then again, if you forget, you can always go into the nearest convenience store and pick one up for ¥500.
Japan has its share of dirty areas. In cities, because of the sheer magnitude of traffic, the streets and curbs are just as dirty as anywhere. The obsession of cleanliness and removing shoes before entering someone’s home makes sense because of the conditions of the outer world.
If you do become ill with a cold or other sickness, purchase a mouth covering, cloth surgical mask. You will find that people frequently wear these out on trains and on the job. This filters your sneezing and coughing so you do not transmit to others.
Passive smoking is a major health hazard in nearly all Japanese restaurants and public areas; this includes Multi-national food chains as well as local eateries. Non-smoking areas are not often provided and are sometimes substandard if they are.
Medical facilities in Japan are largely on par with the West, and the better known hospitals are usually equipped with the most cutting edge medical technology. However, few doctors can communicate in English. Better known hospitals in the major cities are more likely to be staffed by doctors who can speak English.
Japan is probably one of the safest countries in the world, with crime rates significantly lower than that of most Western countries.
Police and the law. Police in Japan may and do detain people up to 23 days before a prosecutor formally files charges, a privilege unrivalled in the Western world (except during terrorism investigations). During this period, you may be subjected to nonstop interrogation. You can hire a lawyer only if somebody outside pays the fees in advance. Your lawyer is not allowed to be present during interrogations. Insist on an interpreter and consular access, and do not fingerprint (Japanese equivalent of signing) anything, especially if you do not fully understand what you sign: if you sign a confession, you will be found guilty at trial.
So how to avoid this unpleasant fate? By far the most common pattern of how foreign tourists end up staring at the cold, yellow walls of a Japanese detention cell is getting drunk first and into a fight, or even near one, later. Standard police procedure is to detain everybody first and to sort out things later. If anybody accuses you of anything even on the flimsiest grounds, you may be looking at an unpleasant extension to your vacation.
Japan is exotic and mysterious; what seems strange and even appealing to you during daytime, can get obnoxious and annoying to you at night, especially with some booze running through your veins, so control your temper and alcohol level. Police patrol party areas heavily at night and they will be willing to “rescue” a fellow Japanese from a violent foreigner.
Street crime is extremely rare, even late at night. Of course, little crime does not mean no crime, and it is no excuse to ditch your common sense. Women travelling alone should take care as they would in their home countries and should never hitchhike alone.
Pickpocketing does sometimes happen: if you take your usual precautions in crowded places such as trains and at Narita Airport, you should be fine. Women on crowded rush-hour trains should be aware of the existence of chikan ( molesters. A lot of heavy drinking goes on in the evenings and occasionally drunks may be a nuisance, although alcohol-related violence is extremely rare.
The infamous yakuza (Japanese gangsters) may have earned a partly undeserved reputation of being a bunch of violent, psychopathic criminals due to their portrayal in various films. However, in reality, they almost never target people not already involved in organized crime. Just do not find trouble with them, and they will not bother you.
Red-light districts in large cities can be seedy but are rarely dangerous for visitors, but some smaller backstreet bars have been known to lay down exorbitant cover charges or drink prices. In some extreme cases, foreigners have reported being drugged at such establishments and then charged for as much as ¥700,000, or close to $7000, for drinks that they do not remember ordering (notably in the Roppongi and Kabuki-cho districts of Tokyo). Never go into a place that is suggested by someone that you just met, and you will avoid that problem.
Note that drug laws in Japan are stricter than those in many Western countries. The Japanese do not distinguish between hard and soft drugs, so possession of even personal-use quantities of soft drugs can land you a prison sentence of several years. Do not assume that just because you have a prescription from your home country that you can take it to Japan. If you have prescription drugs, check with the Japanese Embassy prior to your departure to find out whether or not your medicine is allowed in Japan. If it is illegal, they should also be able to give you information regarding what medicines you can buy in Japan to use in place of your prescription while you are there.
Police boxes (kōban) can be found on every other street corner. The police are generally helpful (although they rarely speak English), so ask if you get lost or have any trouble. They usually have a detailed map of the area around showing not only the difficult-to-understand numbering system but also the names of office or public buildings or other places that help to find your way.
Also, if you carry travel insurance, report any thefts or lost items at the kōban. They have forms in English and Japanese, often referred to as the “Blue Form”. For lost items, even cash, filling out this form is not wasted effort, as Japanese people will very often take lost items, even a wallet full of cash, to the kōban. If you happen to find such an item, take it to the kōban. If the item is not claimed within six months, it is yours. If it is claimed, you may be due a reward of 5-15%.
Japan has two emergency numbers. To call the police in an emergency, dial 110 (hyakutoban). To call for an ambulance or fire truck, dial 119 (a reversal of the US 911). In Tokyo, the police have an English help line (03-3501-0110), available Monday through Friday except on holidays from 8:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m.
Prostitution. Prostitution is illegal in Japan. However, enforcement is lax, and the law specifically defines prostitution as “sex in exchange for money.” The most famous red-light district is Kabukicho in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district where many call girl booths and love hotels are located. The incidence of HIV is getting higher in Japan in recent years. Some prostitutes will refuse to serve foreign customers, including those who are fluent in Japanese.
Discrimination. Racial discrimination in Japan is legal. Although violent attacks against foreigners in Japan are almost unheard of, there is discrimination against foreigners in employment. Even Western visitors have been refused entrance into certain onsen and restaurants, especially in rural areas. Some apartments, motels, night clubs, and public baths in Japan have been known to put up signs stating that foreigners are not allowed or that they must be accompanied by a Japanese person to enter. Such places are rare, however, and many Japanese claim that the prohibitions are due to perceived social incompatibility (for example, foreigners may not understand proper bathhouse etiquette) and not racism. However, there is still significant discrimination against non-white foreigners, especially Asians and black people.
Banks are often reluctant or unwilling to give cash advances to foreigners, stemming mainly from stereotypes of untrustworthiness. If you need to get a cash advance from your bank, care of a Japanese bank, Japanese language proficiency, or a Japanese friend to vouch for you will strongly help your case.
Earthquakes. Japan is prone to earthquakes. On 11 March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Miyagi prefecture, triggering a very large tsunami and bringing havoc to the city of Sendai and the surrounding area. The quake (and its aftershocks) were palpable throughout Japan, with the death toll numbering over 15,000, mostly due to the tsunami. The previous large quake hit Kobe in 1995 and killed over 5000. Every few days, somewhere in Japan is rattled by a quake large enough to be felt, but most of them are completely harmless. Even though electronic devices are now being introduced to detect earthquakes (both the earthquake intensity and the amount of seconds it will take for the tremors to reach a certain location), be aware of a few basic safety procedures:
Do not put heavy objects in high places, especially above your bed. If you are indoors and you feel a strong shake, the standard advice is that you are far safer if you stay indoors: falling roof tiles and masonry outside usually present the deadliest hazard. While it is extremely important to extinguish all flames (burners, candles, etc.) immediately if you have time, be aware that your immediate danger is from falling objects and toppling furniture. Be aware of what is above you and shelter under furniture or a doorway if necessary. If you are indoors and feel a large shake, try to open up the door or a window as soon as possible and keep it open by using something such as a doorstop in case it jams. Again, keep in mind that your immediate danger is from falling objects and toppling furniture. If you are outdoors, stay away from brick walls, glass panels and vending machines, and beware of falling objects, telegraph cables, etc. Falling roof tiles from older and traditional buildings are particularly dangerous, as they can drop long after the quake has ended. If you are by the sea and experience even a moderate quake, keep an eye out for tsunami warnings (also in English) on NHK TV (channel 1) and Radio 2 (693 kHz). Most tremors and small quakes will merit only a scrolling announcement in Japanese at the top of the screen, as they are not considered particularly newsworthy. If you are near the sea and experience a major earthquake, evacuate to high ground immediately: do not wait for a warning.
Know exactly where your passport, travel tickets, documents, credit cards, and money are and take them with you if you leave the building as you may not be able to go back in.
Every neighborhood has an evacuation area, most often the local playground. Many schools are set up as temporary shelters. Both of these will be labeled in English. If you are traveling with others, plan to meet there and be aware that portable telephones will likely not work.
Volcanoes, storms and typhoons are primarily a potential issue if you are mountain-climbing or sailing, so check the latest information before heading out. Stick to designated footpaths in volcanic areas as volcanic gas may be an issue. Typhoons are rarely physically dangerous, but they still wreak havoc with planes, ferrys, and even (if there are landslides) trains and buses schedules.
There are venomous snakes called habu in Okinawa although not in unusual numbers. You are unlikely to be bitten by one, but if you are, seek medical help immediately as antivenoms are available. If you are hiking in Hokkaido and Honshu, be aware of possible bear activity, especially in autumn. Attacks are rare, but in areas such as the Shiretoko Peninsula, attach bells to your backpack to scare them away.
Especially in the countryside, be aware of the Asian giant hornet; it is about 2 in (5 cm) long and can sting repeatedly and painfully. Every year, 20-40 people die in Japan after being stung by giant hornets. A hornet defending its nest or feeding spot will make a clicking sound to warn away intruders; if you encounter one, retreat. If you are stung, receive prompt medical attention, as prolonged exposure to the venom could cause permanent damage or even death.
Dress. For everyday dress as a tourist, you are already at a disadvantage: no matter how you dress, you will stand out next to throngs of salarymen in suits and gradeschoolers in uniforms. And keeping track of Japan’s rapidly-changing fashions is far too much work for a tourist.
First and foremost: wear shoes that you can slip off easily, as you may be doing this several times a day. Athletic shoes are perfectly acceptable; just lace them very loosely so you can get in and out of them without using your hands. Sandals and flip-flops are uncommon; when you do see them, they are usually zōri sandals made from straw, resembling tatami.
Shorts are also uncommon, even in summer, and are very touristy; you’ll blend in better in a pair of trendy jeans and an unbuttoned dress shirt over a T-shirt (preferably one with big loud text, or abstract images). While we’re at it, don’t trudge around town with a big backpack like some kind of urban camper; you will stand out very badly, your backpack will get in everyone’s way (including your own), and it’s just inconsiderate.
Young Japanese females often dress in a manner that could be considered quite sexually provocative by Western standards, even during the daytime. This style of dress is not necessarily expected of foreign women but is not likely to be frowned upon either, so wearing what one is most comfortable with should suffice. Be warned however that exposed cleavage is virtually never seen in Japan and could attract a lot of wandering eyes, and even bare shoulders are frowned upon.
In business, suits are still the standard at most companies unless you know otherwise. Plan to wear your suit into the evening for drinks and entertainment.
Although everyone bathes naked at hot springs, for the beach or pool, you still need a bathing suit of some kind. Swim trunks or speedos for men are fine, but long boardshorts will stand out. If you will be using a pool, you will likely be required to have a swimming cap as well.
Most if not all Japanese are very understanding of a foreigner (gaijin or gaikokujin) who does not conform instantly to their culture; indeed, the Japanese like to boast (with debatable credibility) that their language and culture are among the most difficult to understand in the world, so they are generally quite happy to assist you if you appear to be struggling. However, Japanese will appeciate it if you follow at least the following rules, many of which boil down to social norms of strict cleanliness and avoiding intruding on others (meiwaku).
Things to do
Learn a little of the language, and try to use it. They will be complimentary if you try, and there is no reason to be embarrassed. They realize that Japanese is very difficult for foreigners and are tolerant about your mistakes; on the contrary, they will like you more for trying.
Bowing: men bow with their hands to their sides. Women bow with their hands together in front. Women’s hands look like they are settled in their lap when bowing (not in a prayer position such as the Waii in Thailand). The exact degree of the bow depends on your position in society relative to the receiver of the bow and on the occasion: the largely unwritten rules are complex, but for foreigners, a “token bow” is fine. Many Japanese will, in fact, gladly offer a handshake instead.
When you are handing something to someone, especially a business card, it is considered polite to present it holding it with both hands.
When you are drinking sake or beer in a group, it is considered polite not to fill your own glass but to allow someone else to do it. Typically, glasses are refilled well before they are empty. To be especially polite, hold up your own glass with both hands while one of your companions fills it.
Gift-giving is very common in Japan. You, as a guest, may find yourself inundated with gifts and dinners. Foreign guests are, of course, outside of this sometimes burdensome system of give-and-take (kashi-kari), but it would be a nice gesture to offer a gift or souvenir (omiyage), including one unique to or representative of your country. A gift that is “consumable” is advisable due to the smaller size of Japanese homes. Items such as soap, candies, alcohol, stationery will be well-received as the recipient will not be expected to have it on hand on subsequent visits. “Re-gifting” is a common and accepted practice, even for items such as fruit.
Expressing gratitude is slightly different from obligatory gift-giving. Even if you brought a gift for your Japanese host, once you return, it is a sign of good etiquette to send a handwritten thank-you card: it will be much appreciated. Japanese guests always exchange photos that they have taken with their hosts so you should expect to receive some snapshots and should prepare to send yours (of you and your hosts together) back to them. Depending on their age and the nature of your relationship (business or personal), an online exchange may suffice.
The elderly are given special respect in Japanese society, and they are used to the privileges that come with it. Visitors waiting to board a train may be surprised to get shoved aside by a fearless obaa-san who has her eye on a seat. Note that certain seats (“silver seats”) on many trains are set aside for the disabled and the elderly.
If visiting a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple, follow the appropriate cleansing procedure at the chōzuya before you enter. After filling the dippers with water, rinse your left hand, then your right hand. Thereafter, cup your left hand and fill it with water, using it to rinse your mouth. Do not touch the dipper directly with your mouth. Finally, rinse your left hand again with the water remaining in the dipper.
There are not many trash cans in public; you may have to carry around your trash for a while before finding one. When you do, you’ll often see 4 to 6 of them together; Japan is very conscious of recycling. Most disposable containers are labelled with a recycling symbol in Japanese indicating what type of material it is.
Things to avoid
Japanese people understand that visitors may not be aware of the intricacies of Japanese etiquette and tend to be tolerant of blunders in this regard by foreigners. There are a few serious etiquette breaches, however, that will meet with universal disapproval, even with foreigners, and they should be avoided at all costs:
Never walk on a tatami mat wearing shoes or even slippers.
Never leave your chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of rice as that is how rice is offered to the dead.
Never enter a bathtub without washing up first.
Shoes (and feet in general) are considered very dirty by the Japanese. Avoid pointing your soles at anybody (such as when sitting on the train) and try to restrain children from standing up on seats. Brushing your feet against somebody’s clothing, even by accident, is very rude.
The Japanese consider back slaps rude, especially if they’re coming from someone they just met. As it is not common practice in Japan, hugging should also be avoided. For Japanese it is typically very awkward and uncomfortable.
Point with an open hand, not a finger, and tell people to come by waving your hand facing down, not up.
Avoid shouting or talking loudly in public. Talking on a mobile phone on a train is considered rude, and many trains have signs advising you not to use them. (Sending text messages, however, is considered de rigueur.)
Blowing your nose in public is considered rude, much like flatulence. It is fine to walk around sniffling until you can find a private place to blow your nose.
World War II is a touchy and complicated topic. Be considerate.
Like in India, China and Taiwan, swastikas are Buddhist symbols representing good luck and do not represent Nazism or anti-Semitism. As such, Western visitors should not feel offended seeing a swastika in Buddhist temples or in their host’s home.
Gay and lesbian travelers
Japan is considered to be very safe for gay and lesbian travelers, and violence against homosexuals is quite rare. There are no laws against homosexuality in Japan, but same-sex relationships are not recognized by the government, and open displays of your orientation are still likely to draw stares and whispers.
International dialling prefixes vary from company to company. Check with your operator for more details. For international calls to Japan, the country code is 81.
Emergency call can be made from any phone at free of charge: call 110 for police or call 119 for fire and ambulance.
Pay telephones. Payphones (kōshū denwa) are easily found, particularly near train stations, although with the popularity of mobile phones, public pay phones are not quite as numerous as they once were. Gray and green pay phones accept ¥10 and ¥100 coins and prepaid cards. Be aware that not all places with public telephones have phones that accept coins, so it may be worthwhile to buy a phone card for emergency use. Some of the gray phones, as indicated on the display, can make international calls. Pre-paid cards can be purchased at convenience stores, train station kiosk stores and sometimes in vending machines next to the phone. International phone charges from pay phones can be unusually high; third-party phone cards are a reasonable alternative.
Modern Japanese mobile phones (keitai denwa or just keitai) tend to operate on unique cellular standards not always compatible with the rest of the world. For instance, most Japanese 2G mobile phones operate on the Personal Digital Cellular (PDC) standard, which was developed and is used exclusively in Japan. In a nutshell:
Most 2G phones (GSM) from the rest of the world do not work in Japan. Even Quad-band GSM phones are useless.
As AU switches its CDMA network to “new” 800MHz (used in the rest of the world), foreign CDMA phones (2G and 3G alike) will be able to be used in Japan for roaming purposes. You MUST have your phone’s PRL updated, however, or it will not be able to register on AU’s towers.
3G phones using the UMTS/WCDMA2100 standard and equipped with a 3G SIM card will most likely work.
If your phone is up to spec, double-check with your carrier if they have a roaming agreement with either SoftBank or NTT DoCoMo. Coverage is generally excellent, unless you are heading to some remote mountainous areas.
If you have no 3G phone but still have a 3G-compatible SIM card, you can rent a 3G phone in Japan and slot in your card, allowing you to keep your home phone number in Japan. Carrier restrictions may apply: for instance, O2-UK (operating in Japan via NTT DoCoMo) requires you to dial *111*#, wait for a callback; then, dial the actual number you wish to connect. Be sure to double-check with your network provider before departing.
Data roaming works as well (subject to the above restrictions), allowing you to use wireless internet on your phone (although it can be expensive!). Google Maps on your phone can be invaluable (although note that tower positioning does not work).
For a short visit, your cheapest option for mobile access is to rent a phone. A number of companies provide this service. Rental rates and call charges vary, the best one can depend on how long you are renting and how much you will call.
Beware of “free” rental as there is a catch: usually, there are very high call charges. Incoming calls are free in Japan.
Japanese phones have an email address linked to the phone number, and most of the above companies allow you to send and receive emails. Your usual email provider may offer redirection to another email address (Gmail does), so that you receive all emails on the cellphone. Beware that companies charge for incoming and outgoing emails.
For a longer trip, you can also purchase a phone, but doing this legally requires an Alien Registration Card (or an obliging Japanese friend willing to front for you).
The easier way is to get a prepaid phone. Prepaid phones are sold in most SoftBank and au stores (NTT DoCoMo does not have prepaid phone services anymore). Stores located in important areas of major cities in Japan often have English-speaking staff to help foreigners, but this should be confirmed prior to visiting the store. If you already have a 3G phone, go with Softbank as it can sell SIMs as opposed to au whose prepaid service is phone-based like most CDMA carriers.
Prepaid phones use a “card” with a pass key to “charge” a phone with minutes. These prepaid calling cards, unlike the phone itself, can be found in most convenience stores.
A prepaid cell phone is available for as little as ¥5000 plus ¥3000 for a 60-90 day call time package, which will get drained at a rate of ¥100 per minute (¥10 per 6 seconds for AU’s prepaid service.)
Both SoftBank and au offer prepaid phones. Details on pricing, phone models, procedure to get them and can be found on their English websites. For e-mail/text-heavy users Softbank is the better choice due to its introduction of “unlimited mail”, which gives unlimited e-mail and text messaging at ¥300/month.
The cheaper way is to get a monthly contract, but for this you’ll need proof of longer stay (=visa). You can expect to pay around around ¥5000 per month, assuming light calling, but prices are beginning to fall. A cancellation fee may also apply if the contract is terminated early.
You can send postcards to anywhere in the world for ¥70. Public mail deposit boxes are found throughout Japan. They have two slots, one for regular domestic mail, and the other for overseas and express mail.
Internet cafés can be found in or around many train stations. Here, you can upload your pictures from a digital camera, and if you forgot your cable, some cafés will lend you a memory card reader for free. Manga coffee shops (manga-kissa) usually have Internet PCs as well. When you get tired of browsing the web, you can browse comic books, watch TV or a variety of movies-on-demand, or play video games. The cost is typically around ¥400/hour, with free (non-alcoholic) drinks, and possibly more. Often they have special night fares: around ¥1500 for the 4-5 hour period when no trains are running. Internet cafés can be a safe and inexpensive place to spend the night if you miss the last train.
Some larger train stations and airports also have rental PCs to surf and send e-mail, usually about ¥100 (coin) for 10 min.
A number of business hotels have Internet access available if you have your own computer, sometimes for free. In most cases, access is usually provided by a VDSL modem connected to the hotel telephone system. Some of the hotels that offer free Internet access do not include the rental for the modem in the “free” part of the service, so check before you use. Setting up your network interface for DHCP is usually all that is required to gain access to the Internet in such situations. Many also tend to have rental or free PC’s available for hotel guests.
When using public access PC’s, the Alt-Shift keys pressed together typically switch between Japanese and Roman input methods. If you accidentally switch the input method or if the last person left the computer this way and you are looking to type in English, you can use this key combination to switch back to the Roman alphabet. There may also be a language-switch key at the top left of the keyboard – above the Tab key and to the right of the space bar. If you hit one by accident, just hit it again to switch back. For email, note that the @ key is usually on the right side of the keyboard, next to the ‘P’.
It is also possible to find Wi-Fi “hot spots” around many large cities in Japan, especially near tech-related businesses and large corporate buildings with unsecured wireless networks (the Apple store in Ginza, Tokyo has a fast, open 802.11n connection).
3G Wireless Data is available, and if you have international data roaming, you should roam with no problem. GPRS does not work in Japan. Please see the section on mobile phones for additional information including phone/data card compatibility. Remember, the same restrictions on phones apply to 3G Data.
Pocket WiFi is another affordable option for people wanting to use their WiFi enabled devices (smartphone, iPhone, iPad, laptops etc.) A Pocket WiFi device is about the size of a Zippo lighter and fits in your pocket or bag. It makes available a mobile wifi hotspot you can connect your devices to.