|Population||127,960,000 (2011 est.)|
|Electricity||100V/50 or 60Hz (American plug, commonly 2-prong without ground)|
|Emergencies||Dial 119 for Ambulance and Fire
110 for Police
Also known as the "Land of the Rising Sun", Japan 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 still 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seen in the West as a land combining tradition and modernity, and juxtapositions definitely exist, part of this idea is obsolete, and is a product of Japan being the first major Asian power to modernize as well as Western patronization and heavy promotion by the travel industry.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's 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 BC. Archeological evidence, however, has only managed to trace the Imperial line back to the Kofun Period (古墳時代) during the 3rd to 7th centuries AD, 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 (飛鳥時代), 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.
The first strong Japanese state was centered in Nara, then known as Heijo-kyo (平城京), which was built to model the then Chinese capital Chang'an. This period, dubbed the Nara Period (奈良時代) was the last time the emperor actually held political power, with power eventually falling into the hands of the court nobles during the Heian Period (平安時代), when the capital was moved to Kyoto, then known as Heian-Kyo (平安京), also modelled after the Chinese capital Chang'an, 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. This was then followed by the Kamakura Period (鎌倉時代), 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. The Muromachi Period (室町時代) then saw the Ashikaga shogunate come to power, ruling from their base in Ashikaga. Japan then descended into the chaos of the Warring States Period (戦国時代) in the 15th century. Tokugawa Ieyasu finally reunified the country in 1600 and founded the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal state ruled from Edo, or modern-day Tokyo. Although the emperor continued to rule in name from the imperial capital in Kyoto, in practice absolute power was concentrated in the hands of the Tokugawa shogun. 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 (江戸時代), 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 (明治維新) of 1867, during which the imperial capital was relocated from Kyoto to Edo, now renamed Tokyo. 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 small 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, 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 after the United States.
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 stock market 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. National anxiety has also increased due to neighboring China's more assertive regional stance as well overtaking Japan to become the world's second largest economy. Nevertheless, Japan continues to be home to many of the world's leading high technology corporations, and the Japanese maintain one of the highest standards of living in the world.
Tragedy struck again in March 2011 with the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. Japan's worst disaster since World War II claimed the lives of over 15,000 people with another 2,600 missing as of February 2014. Like previous disasters, Japan is recovering and the impacted areas — save for a small perimeter around a damaged nuclear power plant outside of Fukushima — are open once again. Many cities and towns in northern Tohoku located along the Pacific coast were severely damaged or destroyed. A few locations, however, were lucky — in Matsushima it is believed that the pine-clad islands that are offshore helped mitigate the impact of the tsunami and saved the city from substantial damage. The islands are a famous attraction in Matsushima, and are said to be one of Japan's "Three Great Views."
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 (外人 gaijin, or the more politically correct 外国人 gaikokujin) 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.
Japan has gone through periods of openness and isolation during its history, therefore its culture is if anything unique. Having been in the Chinese cultural sphere for much of its history, substantial Chinese influences can be seen in Japanese culture, and these have been seamlessly blended with native Japanese customs to give rise to a culture that is distinctly Japanese.
During the Edo period, Japanese culture had been strongly influenced by Confucianism. The Tokugawa Shogunate instituted a rigid class system, with the Shogun at the apex, his retainers below him, and the other samurai below that, followed by a vast population of commoners at the bottom. Commoners were expected to pay respect to samurai (at the risk of being killed if they didn't), and women were expected to be subservient to men. Samurai were expected to a adopt a "Death before dishonour" attitude, and would typically commit suicide by self disembowlment (切腹 seppuku) rather than live in shame. Although the Edo period ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, its legacy still lives on in Japanese society. Honor still remains an important concept in Japanese society, employees are still expected to be unquestioningly obedient to their bosses, and women continue to struggle for equal treatment.
Japanese people are fiercely proud of their heritage and culture, and hold on to many ancient traditions that go back hundreds of years. At the same time, they also seem to be obsessed with the latest technology, and consumer technology in Japan is often several years ahead of the rest of the world. This paradox of being traditional, yet ultramodern often serves to intrigue visitors, and many keep returning to Japan to experience this after their first visit.
The most important holiday in Japan is the New Year (お正月 Oshōgatsu), which pretty much shuts down the country from 30 December to 3 January. 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 (花見, lit. "flower viewing"), a festival of outdoors picnics and drunken revelry in parks, cleverly disguised as cherry blossom (桜 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.
Japan's longest holiday is Golden Week (27 April to 6 May), when there are four public holidays within a week and people go on an extended vacation. Trains become 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 (祭 matsuri) and impressive fireworks competitions (花火 hanabi) throughout the country. Tanabata (七夕), on July 7 (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 (お盆), 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.
- January 1 — New Year's Day (ganjitsu 元日, gantan 元旦 or o-shōgatsu お正月)
- January 2 and 3 — New Year's Bank Holidays
- Second Monday in January — Coming-of-Age Day (seijin no hi 成人の日)
- February 11 — National Foundation Day (kenkoku kinen no hi 建国記念の日)
- March 21 — Vernal Equinox Day (shunbun no hi 春分の日)
- April 29 — Showa Day (showa no hi 昭和の日) — first holiday of Golden Week
- May 3 — Constitution Day (kenpō kinnenbi 憲法記念日)
- May 4 — Greenery Day (midori no hi みどりの日)
- May 5 — Children's Day (kodomo no hi こどもの日) - last holiday of Golden Week
- Third Monday in July — Marine Day (umi no hi 海の日)
- Third Monday in September— Respect-for-the-Aged Day (keirō no hi 敬老の日)
- September 23 — Autumnal Equinox Day (shuubun no hi 秋分の日)
- Second Monday in October — Sports Day (taiiku no hi 体育の日)
- November 3 — Culture Day (bunka no hi 文化の日)
- November 23 — Labor Thanksgiving Day (kinrō kansha no hi 勤労感謝の日)
- December 23 — The Emperor's Birthday (tennō tanjōbi 天皇誕生日)
- December 31 — New Year's Bank Holiday
A new holiday, Mountain Day (yama no hi 山の日), will be celebrated every August 11 beginning in 2016.
Holidays based on the seasons, such as equinoxes, may vary by a day or two. Additional bank holidays, also known as compensation holidays, are usually added if any holiday falls on a Sunday, and in cases where two dates for holidays are close together. In 2015, a bank holiday will be added on May 6 since Constitution Day (May 3) falls on a Sunday, and another will be added on September 22 in between Respect for the Aged Day (September 21) and the Autumnal Equinox (September 23).
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.
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 (平成) and Heisei 27 corresponds to 2015. The year may be written as "H27" or just "27", so "27/4/1" is 1 April 2015. The Western Gregorian calendar is also well understood and frequently used. Japan has celebrated its festivals according to the Gregorian calendar since 1873, and with the exception of the Ryukyu Islands, no longer uses the Chinese calendar.
Japan has two dominant religious traditions: Shinto (神道) 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 神社) with its simple torii (鳥居) 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 (日蓮) is currently the largest branch of Buddhist belief. Westerners are probably most familiar with Zen (禅) 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 (生け花 ikebana), tea ceremony (茶道 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 お寺).
Karaoke (カラオケ) 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 alcohol, 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; more balls are awarded depending on where they land. The air inside most pachinko parlors is quite harsh from tobacco smoke, sweat, and hot machinery - not to mention the ear-splitting noise. (Legally you can only trade the balls for prizes, but gamblers always opt for "special prize" tokens which they exchange for cash at a separate booth elsewhere in the building or in a nearby alley. Because the booth is off-site, it's a separate business and therefore not illegal.) 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.
Japan's national game is Go (囲碁 igo, or just 碁 go), 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 (将棋) or Japanese chess.
Mahjong (麻雀 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 (野球 yakyū) is hugely popular in Japan and the popularity is a historical one (baseball was first introduced in Japan around the 1870s by an American professor). Baseball fans travelling internationally may find Japan to be one of the great examples of baseball popularity outside of the United States. Baseball is not only played in many high schools and by professionals, but also referenced in much 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 (プロ野球), meaning Professional Baseball, and it is regarded by many to be the strongest professional baseball league outside of the United States. Travellers 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. Tickets can cost around ¥2,000. If you are interested, be sure to leave 4-5 hours free. The rules in Japanese baseball are not much different from 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.
Also of note is that Japan has two national high school tournaments each year that draw possibly more attention than the professional game. Both are held at Kōshien Stadium, a stadium in Nishinomiya City near Kobe that seats over 50,000 and also hosts NPB's Hanshin Tigers.
- The National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament, commonly known as Spring Kōshien (春の甲子園) – Held in March, featuring 32 teams invited from throughout the country.
- The National High School Baseball Championship, commonly known as Summer Kōshien (夏の甲子園) – A two-week event in August, it is the final phase of a nationwide tournament structure. A total of 49 teams participate in the final phase—one from each of Japan's prefectures, with second teams from Hokkaido and Tokyo.
Sumo wrestling (相撲 sumō) is a popular Japanese sport. The biggest events are the six top tournaments (本場所 honbasho) throughout the year, each 15 days long. Sumo has retained many traditions from its Shinto origins, and a single bout usually consists of many minutes of rituals and mental preparation, followed by just 10-30 seconds of wrestling. Sumo wrestlers live a regimented life in training stables, devoting themselves to nothing more than bulking up and competing. A few foreign wrestlers have been quite successful in the top ranks, although new rules have put a limit on how many foreign wrestlers each stable may train.
Professional wrestling (プロレス puroresu) also enjoys major popularity. While it is similar to professional wrestling elsewhere in the world in that the outcomes are predetermined, its psychology and presentation are uniquely Japanese. Puroresu matches are treated as legitimate fights, with stories strongly emphasizing the wrestlers' fighting spirit and perseverance. Also, because many Japanese pro wrestlers have legitimate martial arts backgrounds, full-contact striking and realistic submission holds are commonplace. The country has many promotions (companies that organize shows), with the largest being New Japan Pro Wrestling, All Japan Pro Wrestling, and Pro Wrestling NOAH. The biggest single event in puroresu is New Japan's January 4 show (currently promoted as Wrestle Kingdom) at the Tokyo Dome, roughly analogous to WrestleMania in the U.S.
These days, TV animation, or anime, is also popular in Japan especially with nerds known as otaku. Although anime was regarded as childish before, today, many Japanese adults as well as children find it so exciting that they are proud of it as their culture. Manga (comics) are also popular with both kids and adults, and cover all genres. Most manga are serialized in magazines like "Weekly Shonen Jump" and "Ribon", and later republished in volumes. Akihabara is a very popular place for anime- and manga-related products but also check out Nakano and Ikebukuro in Tokyo. Don't forget to stop by a "book-off", a great place to get your hands on good quality second-hand books, manga, anime, or live-action DVDs. ("-off" is a name for second-hand stores.) Products are usually in excellent condition; some have only been read once.
The Japanese are proud of their four seasons, 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 steam bath in July–August, with extreme humidity and the temperature heading as high as 40°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. A good place to begin is one of the many recommended reading lists such as sites like The Crazy Japan Times, Japan Review or Japan Visitor. Some recommended books include:
- 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 1453666354), by Josh Shulman is a unique travel guide to Japan that offers a wise and economical travel strategy rather than references to various points of interest. The author was born and raised in Japan, and writes this short guide in a casual, easy-to-read language.
Japan is conventionally divided into nine regions, listed here from north to south:
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.
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.
Japan has thousands of cities; these are nine of the most important to the traveller.
- Tokyo — the capital and main financial center, 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 atomic 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
See 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 policy overview
You can contact your nearest Japanese embassies and consulates for more details.
Citizens of most developed countries, including all the usual suspects (US, Canada, EU, etc) can obtain entry permission on arrival without a visa. This is usually valid for a stay of up to 90 days, although Mexicans and some European nationalities are permitted to stay for 180 days if they ask for 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 on-line Guide to Japanese Visas. 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.
Foreigners must typically fill out an embarkation/disembarkation form for immigration, and a declaration form for customs. Those arriving from certain countries may also be required to fill out a quarantine form. All foreigners (except those on government business and certain permanent residents) age 16 and older 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.
Travellers entering Japan with anything other than a temporary visitor visa are required to obtain a "Residence Card" (在留カード), colloquially known as a gaijin card, within 90 days of arrival and carry it at all times in lieu of their passport. Those staying for 90 days or less may complete this registration, but they are not obligated to. This card must be surrendered upon exit from Japan, unless a re-entry permit is held.
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 website for details, or check with the nearest Japanese embassy or consulate.
Once in Japan, you must carry your passport 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, although theoretically you could be fined up to ¥200,000.
Most intercontinental flights arrive at either Narita Airport (IATA: NRT) near Tokyo or Kansai Airport (IATA: KIX) near Osaka; a smaller number use Chubu International Airport (IATA: 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 (IATA: 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 although most only offer domestic flights and a few services to China and South Korea. Transiting via Seoul with Korean Air or Asiana Airlines can sometimes be cheaper than making a connection 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. Low cost carriers (LCC) have become increasing popular with cheap domestic and international flights, with companies such as Jetstar (Australia), Skymark, Peach (Osaka) offering competition to JAL and ANA.
- Busan-Fukuoka: JR Kyushu Ferry, +81 92 281-2315 (Japan) or +82 51 469-0778 (Korea), operates hydrofoil service several times each day, taking about 3.5 hr and costing ¥13,000 one way. Camellia Line, +81 92 262-2323 (Japan) or +82 51 466-7799 (Korea), operates a ferry that takes about 8 hr and starts at ¥9,000; 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, +81 83 224-3000 (Japan) or +82 51 464-2700 (Korea), daily service. 13.5 hr; ¥9,000+.
- Busan-Osaka: Barnstar Line, +81 66 271-8830 (Japan) or +82 51 469-6131 (Korea), offers thrice weekly service. 18 hr; ¥13,700+.
- Busan - Tsushima Island: Tsushima is the closest part of Japan to South Korea, and day trips from Busan are practical.
- Donghae - Sakai Minato: DBS Cruise Ferry, ☎ 1600-5646 (Japan) or +82 33 531-5611 (Korea). Economy ¥15,000, ₩195,000, USD180.
- Shanghai-Osaka/Kobe: Japan-China Ferry, ☎ +81 78 321-5791 (Japan) or +86 21 6326 4357 (China), thrice weekly service. 45 hours; CNY17,000 from China, ¥20,000+ from Japan.
- Tianjin-Kobe: China Express Line, ☎ +81 3 3537-3107 (Japan) or +86 22 2420 5777 (China), weekly service. 50 hours; ¥22,000+.
- Qingdao-Shimonoseki: Orient Ferry, ☎ +81 83 232-6615 (Japan) or +86 532 8387 1160 (China), thrice weekly service. 38 hours, ¥15,000+.
- Suzhou-Shimonoseki: Shanghai-Shimonoseki Ferry, ☎ +81 83 232-6615 (Japan) or +86 512 53186686 (China), thrice weekly service. ¥15,000+.
- Keelung (Taiwan)-Ishigaki/Naha: Star Cruises, +886-2-27819968 (Taiwan) or +81 3 6403-5188 (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 Oct–Apr due to sea ice. see our Russia to Japan via Sakhalin itinerary
- Vladivostok-Sakai Minato: DBS Cruise Ferry, +81 1600 5646 (Japan) or +7 4232 302 704 (Russia). Via Donghae, South Korea. USD265 from Vladivostok.
- Vladivostok-Takaoka (Fushiki): Far East Shipping Co c/o United Orient Shipping, +81 3 5640-3901 (Tokyo) roughly weekly. 42 hours; USD320+.
Japan has one of the world's best transport systems, and getting around is usually a breeze, with the train being overwhelmingly the most popular option. Trains are rarely or never late, and are one of the cleanest transport systems found in Asia. Although travelling 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 (大時刻表), 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. Both Hyperdia and Tabi-o-ji offer schedule searches that exclude Nozomi and Mizuho services, which will benefit holders of the Japan Rail Pass (see below).
In Japanese cities, a place's address is useful for mail, but it's nearly useless for actually getting there. Most roads have no name; instead, street blocks are numbered, which are then grouped into districts. Typical addresses are written as "上目黒2丁目3-4" or "上目黒 2-3-4", which would be Kamimeguro neighborhood, district (chōme) 2, block 3, house 4. Numbers for districts, blocks, and houses are often not sequential; they're usually assigned as buildings are built, chronologically, or based on distance from the city center. Small signs near street corners display the ward/neighborhood and district (such as 上目黒2丁目, Kamimeguro 2-chōme), which is not always helpful since a district could be a dozen or more blocks.
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. Police boxes (交番 kōban) also have detailed maps of the area; going to a kōban to ask for directions is perfectly normal (it's why they're there), although the policemen usually don't speak much English.
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 in the early morning c. 01:00-05:00. 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 (map of Japan Rail Pass coverage). The 7-day Rail Pass in Ordinary (Standard) Class is ¥29,110; by comparison a round-trip between Tokyo and Osaka on the bullet train costs around ¥26,000 if round-trip tickets are purchased. The 14-day and 21-day ordinary passes cost ¥46,390 and ¥59,350, respectively. Green Car Rail Passes cost ¥38,880, ¥62,950 and ¥81,870 for 7, 14 and 21 days, respectively, and include unlimited travel in Green Car seating (See "Green Cars" below). Note that arriving to an airport and leaving from another (i.e. arriving in Tokyo and leaving from Osaka) can save you from making a round-trip or a loop, and can make these passes less attractive.
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:
- If you travel on the Tokaido, San'yo, or Kyushu Shinkansen you are not allowed to travel on the faster Nozomi or Mizuho services - the full fare has to be paid.
- Most Tohoku Shinkansen services (Tokyo-Sendai-Aomori) and a few Nagano Shinkansen services (Tokyo-Nagano) have a premium first class cabin known as "GranClass". You cannot use GranClass with a rail pass unless you pay the limited express fare and GranClass fare (i.e. about ¥16,500 between Tokyo and Aomori on the faster Hayabusa).
- 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); JR East Kanto Area Pass (ONLY 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 (青春18きっぷ 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.
See also: Seishun 18 Ticket
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 みどりの窓口, 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 hand waving 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 ¥2,000).
If you recognize 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 ¥1,000 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.
JR pioneered the famous Bullet Train, known in Japanese as Shinkansen (新幹線), and with speeds nudging 320 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 e.g. the last departures from Tokyo towards Kyoto and Osaka are around 21:00.
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 (のぞみ), Mizuho (みずほ)
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 trips operated during the morning and evening "peak" hours. 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 (ひかり), Sakura (さくら)
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 (こだま), Tsubame (つばめ)
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 and Kyushu Tsubame services may operate with fewer cars, so 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.
Also, many of the long-distance trains on the Tokaido and San'yo Shinkansen are no longer equipped with vending machines. Food and beverage services for the faster trains are generally available through an at-seat wagon cart service, although slower trains (like the Kodama) do not have food or beverage service at all, which means you will have to purchase items for consumption before boarding.
Other JR services, particularly suburban ones, use the following generic labels:
- Regular (普通 futsū, 各停 kakutei or 各駅 kakueki) - local service, stops at every station
- Rapid (快速 kaisoku) - skips approximately 2 out of 3 stops, no surcharge
- Express (急行 kyūkō) - skips approximately 2 out of 3 stops, requires a surcharge
- Liner (ライナー rainaa) - skips approximately 2 out of 3 kyuko stops, requires a surcharge
- Limited Express (特急 tokkyū) - skips approximately 2 out of 3 kyuko stops, requires a surcharge and usually a reserved seat as well
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 offer hot towel service on the faster routes. Only on the premium Nozomi and Mizuho 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.
Most trains operating on the Tohoku Shinkansen between Tokyo, Sendai and Aomori, as well as a growing number of Nagano Shinkansen services between Tokyo and Nagano, offer a premium Green Class experience known as GranClass (グランクラス). The service can be equated to international business class on an airline and features 18 wide, power-reclining "shell seats" in a 2+1 configuration.
GranClass on the Tohoku Shinkansen also offers a personal in-cabin attendant, an increased selection of soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, and premium quality food items made with local ingredients from across the Tohoku region. Presumably, similar additional services will be expanded in 2015 to the Nagano Shinkansen when the line is extended to Toyama and Kanazawa.
A special GranClass fare structure is in place for these services. If you wish to travel in such a luxurious fashion when visiting, note that the Japan Rail Pass and JR East Rail Pass only cover the base fare. You will need to pay the limited express fare AND the GranClass fare to travel in GranClass. Even if you have a Green Car version of the rail pass, it will still cover just the basic fare - however, trains with GranClass also offer regular Green Car seating which can be used for no extra charge with the Green Car pass.
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 (禁煙; 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 tokkyū trains, some of the carriages require passengers to have reserved their seats in advance (指定席 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 (禁煙車 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. Note that the opening hours of these offices (dedicated to long distance travels) are more limited than the ones for local trains: they may be closed early in the morning or late in the evening.
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 travellers 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 any time up to 21:00 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 you are in Tokyo, you can also take advantage of a new JR East Travel Service Center for foreigners. You can easily exchange rail pass vouchers, purchase tickets or make seat reservations with staff that speak English, Chinese and Korean. The service center is open every day 07:30-20:30, and an international ATM can be accessed 07:30-22:00.
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.
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 (寝台) 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 ageing train equipment and other modes of transportation becoming easier and sometimes cheaper (e.g. Shinkansen trains and overnight buses), overnight trains have slowly been discontinued.
As of 2014, only these regularly-scheduled overnight train services remain:
- Cassiopeia deluxe sleeper, Tokyo - Hakodate - Sapporo
- Hokutosei, Tokyo - Hakodate - Sapporo
- 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 (will discontinue in March 2015, but as of January 2015 it is virtually impossible to purchase tickets any more)
- Hamanasu, Aomori - Sapporo (Technically not a shindai train but operates overnight)
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 accommodation 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, trains running along the Sea of Japan, including the Twilight Express, are the most prone to cancellation if heavy snow or high winds are in the forecast.
The alternative to travelling 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 travelling 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 accommodations 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 (IATA: HND) to the south of the city. Similarly, while there are some domestic flights from Kansai International Airport, more use Itami (IATA: ITM) to the north of Osaka, and Kobe's airport also fields some flights. Narita–Haneda or Kansai–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, 日本航空 Nihon Kōkū) and All Nippon Airways (ANA, 全日空 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.
In recent years, low-cost carriers have begun to make an impact in Japan's domestic air market. Among the newer start-ups are Jetstar Japan, Peach Aviation and Vanilla Air (formerly Air Asia Japan). The veteran low-cost carriers include Skymark Airlines, StarFlyer and Air DO. All of the above airlines, except StarFlyer and Air DO, offer online bookings in English.
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 is used for 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 (２等 nitō) is just a giant expanse of tatami mat, first class (１等 ittō) gets you a comfy chair in large shared room and only special class (特等 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.
Long-distance highway buses (高速バス kōsoku basu; ハイウェイバス 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.
Many of these are overnight runs (夜行バス 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 ３列シート 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.
More buses are now offering 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 or ¥15000 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.
You won't need to use local buses (路線バス 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, you are very unlikely to encounter a taxi driver who 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.
All licensed taxis in Japan have green license plates. Unlicensed cabs will have standard white or yellow plates and should be avoided.
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 (高速道路 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 travelling 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. The following is a brief list of the most common messages and their translations:
- 通行止 — Road Closed
- 渋滞 — Traffic Jam (with length and/or delay indicated)
- 事故 — Accident
- 注意 — Caution
- チェーン規制 — Chains Required
Warning hazards for repair, breakdown and construction are always well illuminated at night and tend to also appear at least once before the main obstacle on higher speed roads such as expressways. Other road hazards to be aware of are taxis, who feel they have a god-given right to stop wherever and whenever they like, long-distance truckers (especially late at night) who may often be hepped up on pep pills and tend to ride the bumper of any slower car in front, and country farmers in their ubiquitous white mini-trucks, who never seem to go above a crawl and may pop out of rural side roads unexpectedly.
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.
- See also: Japanese phrasebook
The language of Japan is Japanese. 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 標準語), 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 (漢字) or Chinese characters, together with "native" hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ) 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 loanwords from foreign languages other than Chinese, and thus can be used to figure out words like basu (バス, bus), kamera (カメラ, camera) or konpyūtā (コンピューター, computer). However, some words like terebi (テレビ, television), depāto (デパート, department store), wāpuro (ワープロ, word processor) and sūpā (スーパー, supermarket) may be harder to figure out. Knowing Chinese will also be a great head start for tackling kanji, but not all words mean what they seem: 大家 (Mandarin Chinese: dàjiā, Japanese: ōya), "everybody" to the Chinese, means "landlord" in Japan!
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.
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
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. The structures of Nijo Castle are also authentic, but they are palace buildings with no donjon, so it is not listed as an original. 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.
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 travellers, 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.
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.
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 ¥10 coin, if not in real-life.
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, Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, and Shimogamo Shrine, Kamigamo Shrine, and Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.
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.
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 main island of Okinawa. 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.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki are important sites in many ways. Hiroshima is the first city ever to be attacked by an atomic bomb, as well as the deadliest. After Hiroshima was devastated, the bombing of Nagasaki days later led the Japanese to surrender, ending WWII. Even those who are not particularly interested in World War II may find the atomic bomb sites interesting, as issues surrounding nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war remain a concern to this day. These sites show how powerful, devastating, and harmful atomic bombs can be, not only to the land and those who die, but also for the survivors.
- 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
- Visit one of Japan's Top 100 Cherry Blossoms Spots or take a walk amidst thousands of cherry blossoms in Yoshino
- Climb the 3776m Mount Fuji, an icon of Japan.
- Ascend Mount Aso to see one of the world's largest volcanic calderas
- Visit the snowy peaks of the country's largest national park, Daisetsuzan.
- Climb the 2446 stone steps 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 snow of Hokkaido or in the Japan Alps.
- Overnight in one of the holy temples of Mount Koya.
- Spot a geisha in Kyoto, home to the oldest geisha community in the world.
- Sightsee through Japan on board one of the world's fastest and busiest trains, the Shinkansen.
The Japanese currency is the Japanese yen, abbreviated ¥ (or JPY in foreign exchange contexts). As of January 2014, the yen hovers at around 100 to the US dollar. The symbol 円 (pronounced en) is used in the Japanese language itself.
- Coins: 1 (silver), 5 (gold with a center hole), 10 (copper), 50 (silver with a center hole), 100 (silver), and 500 yen. There are two ¥500 coins, distinguishable by their color. (The new ones are gold, the old ones are silver).
- Bills: 1,000 (blue), 2,000 (green), 5,000 (purple), and 10,000 yen (brown). ¥2,000 bills are rare. New designs for all the bills except ¥2,000 were introduced in November 2004, so there are now two versions in circulation. Most merchants will not object to receiving a ¥10,000 bill even for a small purchase.
Japan is still 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, JCB, and American Express, Discover and AmEx cards can be used anywhere that accepts JCB. This means that these cards are more widely accepted than Visa/MasterCard/UnionPay. Most merchants are only familiar with the JCB/AmEx agreement, but Discover 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 many cities, the Japanese can also use mobile phones to pay for their purchases where mobile phones function like credit cards and the cost is billed to them with their mobile phone bill, or the phone can function as a prepaid card independent of the carrier account. 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 which can be avoided by using Wi-Fi. Only feature phones require a Japanese SIM to initiate the service; Japan-market smartphones, once unlocked, can be initialized using any data service, be it Wi-Fi, your own SIM, or a rental. This means it is possible to set it up before arrival. Mobile Suica and Edy, the two major prepaid card apps included on Japanese smartphones, can be tied to credit cards for payment instead of a phone bill (and while Mobile Suica requires a 1000 yen annual fee, it is the only way to load a Suica with a credit card not issued by JR). However, the only foreign-issued cards these apps take are JCB and American Express, and note that for large purchases paid for with a Suica or Edy linked in this way, AmEx benefits (purchase protection, extended warranty, etc) do not apply.
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 (rates may be better or worse at private exchange counters). Having to wait 15-30min, 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 Korean won, Chinese yuan, and Hong Kong dollars, 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 USD1,000 (whether cash or traveller's checks), 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.
Banking in Japan is a notoriously cumbersome process, especially for foreigners. You will need an alien resident card (ARC) and proof of a Japanese address. This means that while foreigners in Japan on an extended period (i.e. those on student, dependent or work visas) may open an account, this option is not available to those on short trips for tourism or business. Many banks also require you to have a Japanese seal (印鑑 inkan) to stamp your documents with and signatures are often not accepted as a substitute. Bank staff often do not speak English or any other foreign languages. Unlike most other countries in the world, Japanese bank branches will often only have ATM's available during office hours, though this is changing (for instance, some Mitsubishi-UFJ branches now keep their ATMs available until 11PM).
Japanese ATMs, known locally as cash corners (キャッシュコーナー kyasshu kōnā), generally do not accept foreign cards and the availability of credit card advances, known as cashing (キャッシング 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 Mastercard, Visa, American Express, JCB and UnionPay (for a ¥110 surcharge), and ATM cards with the Cirrus, Maestro and Plus logos. These are the most useful for non-UnionPay users as they are everywhere and are accessible 24/7.
- JP Bank (ゆうちょ 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. Do note that their ATMs within post offices have limited hours.
- Citibank has ATMs at the major airports as well as a limited network in major cities, but these are expected to close in the fall of 2015 as Citibank finalizes the sale of their personal banking business in Japan.
- Shinsei Bank (新生銀行) ATMs, which accept Plus and Cirrus, are located at major Tokyo Metro and Keikyu stations, as well as in downtown areas of major cities. However, be aware that not all Shinsei ATMs take non-Japanese cards.
- SMBC (三井住友銀行) 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(三菱東京UFJ銀行) 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.
- Mizuho (みずほ銀行) ATMs now also take UnionPay, and most will accept UnionPay transactions even if you do not press the "UnionPay" button before inserting your card.
- AEON (イオン銀行) ATMs will take UnionPay (and in Aeon Mall Makuhari, Narita, and Kansai airports, Visa/MasterCard as well) for no surcharge. Here you must press the "International Cards" button.
EMV ATM cards: Almost all Japanese ATMs currently do not accept EMV ATM cards (also known as IC or "Chip-and-Pin") issued by Maestro. There are two exceptions:
- EMV cards issued in Canada and the Netherlands can be used at the above ATMs where Maestro is accepted.
- Most Aeon ATMs accept all EMV Maestro cards. Check this link for a list of other ATMs that accept Maestro cards.
For those with UnionPay cards
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, and Ministop locations in larger cities where international card acceptance has been activated on the in-store ATMs.
A note for those using SMBC/MUFG/Mizuho/Aeon ATMs: on-site staff at most branches are still unaware that their ATMs now accept foreign cards at all. If you're having trouble, pick up the handset next to the machine to talk to the central ATM support staff. Also note that the more fancy functions are for domestic ATM card users only; don't expect to buy lotto tickets or do bank transfers with your debit card from home.
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, and only some accept ¥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 and West 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. If you plan on returning frequently and/or need to be able to add funds to your prepaid cards with a credit card, it may be worth it to buy a cheaper, used Japanese smartphone (~¥5000) and use the included prepaid card apps. Both Mobile Suica (usable nationwide since system integration in 2014) and Mobile Edy accept foreign JCB/American Express credit cards for funding, although Mobile Suica carries an annual fee of ¥1000 while Mobile Edy requires a two-day wait from submission of credit card details before it will allow loading.
There is an 8% consumption tax on all sales in Japan. Tax is usually, but not always, included in displayed prices, so pay attention. The word zeinuki (税抜) means tax-excluded, zeikomi (税込) means tax-included. If you cannot find out any words in the price card, most of them are tax-included.
Always keep a sizable 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.
In Japan tipping is not a part of the culture. Japanese people are uncomfortable with being tipped and are likely to be confused, amused or possibly even offended if tipped. The Japanese pride themselves on the service given to customers, and a further financial incentive is unnecessary. If you leave a tip in a restaurant, the staff will probably come running after you to return the money you 'forgot'. Note that many Westernised hotels and restaurants may add a 10% service charge, and family restaurants may add a 10% late-night charge after midnight.
Occasionally the hotel or inn will leave a small gratuity envelope for you to tip the maids. Never leave a cash tip on a table or hotel bed because the Japanese consider it impolite if it is not concealed in an envelope. Even bellhops in high end hotels usually do not accept tips. Exceptions are high-end ryokan (see Sleep) and interpreters or tour guides.
Japan has a reputation for being extremely expensive — and it can be. However, many things have become significantly cheaper in the last decade. Japan need not be outrageously expensive if you plan carefully and in fact, is probably cheaper than Australia and most European Union countries for basic expenses. Food in particular can be a bargain, and while still expensive by Asian standards, eating out in Japan is generally cheaper than eating out in Western countries, with a basic meal consisting of rice or noodles starting from about ¥300 per serve. Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, fine dining can be very expensive, with prices on the order of ¥30,000 per person not unheard of. For long-distance travel, in particular, the Japan Rail Pass, Japan Bus Pass, and Visit Japan flights (see Get around) can save you a bundle.
As rough guidelines, you will find it very difficult to travel on less than ¥5,000 per day (but if you plan carefully, it is certainly possible) and you can expect a degree of comfort only if you pay 10,000. Staying in posh hotels, eating fancy meals or just travelling long-distance will easily double this yet again. Typical prices for moderate budget travel would be ¥5,000 for hotel, ¥2,000 for meals, and ¥2,000 again for entry fees and local transport.
However, if you find yourself a little short on cash, you can get your essential items in one of the many ¥100 shops (百円ショップ hyaku-en shoppu) 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 (キャンドゥ), Seria (セリア), and Silk (シルク). 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.
Tips for budget shopping
As noted above, Japan can be expensive. You might feel every item or meal comes with a high price tag in Japan. The main reason for this is that you have chosen an inner-city top-end shopping or eating district. If you wish to buy more reasonably priced items, consider carefully whether you are desperately looking for upmarket products, or just want daily commodities and groceries. The former should try intown premium department stores, boutiques and restaurants in the well-publicized shopping districts such as Isetan in Shinjuku and Matsuya in Ginza, the latter would be better off turning their sights toward suburban shopping malls or supermarkets such as Aeon or Ito-Yokado.
At many department stores like Isetan, Seibu and Matsuzakaya, you typically pay the full cost at the cashier and go to a tax refund (税金還付 zeikin kanpu or 税金戻し 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" (免税 menzei), you just present your passport to the cashier when making payment and the tax is deducted on the spot.
Japan also has a growing number of designated tax-free stores. New rules that recently went into effect for foreign toursts allow refunds of the 8% consumption tax on consumable products (food and beverages), in addition to non-consumables (clothing, electronics, etc). The minimum purchase is ¥5,000 from each location in a single receipt. To qualify, you must visit a store with a "Tax Free" sign displayed. Note that any food or beverages that receive a tax refund are not allowed to be consumed in Japan - you must take them home with you at the end of your trip.
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. Opening hours of most shops are typically 10:00-20:00, 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 20:00 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 (コンビニ konbini), such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, Circle K, and Sunkus. They often offer a much wider range of products than convenience stores in the US or Europe, sometimes have a small ATM and are often open all day all week! Many convenience stores also offer services such as fax, takkyubin luggage delivery, a limited range of postal services, payment services for bills (including topping up international phone cards such as Brastel) and some on-line 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 05:00. Pachinko parlours are obliged to close at 23:00.
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. One of the best places to shop is Akihabara in Tokyo. Widely known as an otaku mecca, the stores and booths there peddle anime, manga, and merchandise, of course, but also video games, household electronics, vintage film cameras and lenses, and many more obscure goods.
For rare or vintage items, stores like Mandarake house multiple floors of anime/manga collectibles. There are also stores filled with showcases; each one hosting a cast from an anime or manga. Besides these stores, all throughout Akihabara you will find little shops selling figures from various anime and manga. Another option in Tokyo is Ikebukuro. The original Animate store is located near Ikebukuro East exit, and nearby are cosplay stores and another Mandarake store.
A well known shopping spot to locals are the Book-Off chain stores. They specialize in second-hand books, manga, anime, video games, and DVDs. The quality of the products can range from almost brand new (read once) to more well loved. Be sure to check out the ¥105 area where the quality of the books may be more well-loved, but there are many great finds. There is a small range of English translated manga but the majority are in Japanese.
Anime is available in DVDs and/or Blu-rays, depending on the title. Unless you find bootleg copies, DVDs are all region 2 NTSC. This makes them unplayable in most DVD players in the US (which is region 1) and Europe (which uses PAL or SECAM). Blu-rays are region A, which includes North and South America, and East Asia except mainland China. Except for the biggest studios (such as Studio Ghibli's Blu-rays), most releases do not have English subtitles.
Unfortunately, anime DVDs and Blu-rays are quite expensive in Japan (the history of why is interesting). Most releases cost anywhere from ¥4000-8000 per disc, and usually only have 2-4 episodes per disc. Even "discount" editions, when they exist at all, are rarely less than ¥3000 per disc, and still rarely have more than 4 episodes per disc.
Video and PC games
- See also Regional coding
Video games are a huge business in Japan, but Japan's NTSC-J video standard is incompatible with PAL and SECAM televisions used in much of the world. In countries that use other NTSC standards (North America, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia), the NTSC-J versions will work with just a minor difference in brightness. Of course, the language will still be in Japanese (unless the game has multilingual options). For handheld consoles, the television standards don't apply.
Many consoles are also region-locked, preventing you from playing them on your console at home even if the video is compatible. This may be enforced by the hardware (e.g., physically incompatible cartridges) or by firmware/software (e.g., DVD and Blu-ray regions). Here is a list of modern consoles and their interoperability:
- Television consoles
- Microsoft Xbox One — region-free
- Microsoft Xbox 360 — case-by-case basis
- Nintendo Wii U, Wii, and GameCube — locked; even Korean and Japanese systems fall under different regions and are incompatible
- Sony PlayStation 4 — region-free
- Sony PlayStation 3 — All games are region-free except for three (Joysound Drive, Persona 4 Arena, and on Slim PS3s Way of the Samurai 3), although some games limit download content or online multiplayer by region. Many games are multilingual, choosing the language of your console settings.
- Handheld consoles
- Nintendo 3DS and DSi — locked for 3DS- and DSi-specific games and download content; region-free for DS games
- Nintendo DS — region-free (DS and GBA)
- Sony PS Vita — region-free for physical games; locked to the region of your PSN account for download games (you can create a PSN account in a different region, but can only have one account associated with a Vita, and must factory reset to change accounts); 3G connectivity may also be SIM-locked to a particular carrier
- Sony PSP — region-free for games; locked for movies
PC games, on the other hand, will usually work fine, as long as you understand enough Japanese to install and play them. Only-in-Japan genres include the visual novel (ビジュアルノベル), which are interactive games with anime style art, somewhat similar to dating sims, and its subset the erotic game (エロゲー eroge), which is just what the name says.
Generally the best places for Video Game shopping are Akihabara in Tokyo, and Den Den Town in Osaka (in terms of deals, you can purchase video games from almost anywhere in Japan).
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 (英語の説明書 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 120V voltage is too much for some devices. Conversely, some are being built as 100-120V devices to account for this possibility. Always check before buying. Probably the best deal is not electronics per se, but blank media. In particular, Blu-ray optical media for video and data is much, much cheaper than anywhere else.
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% and even 20% 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% from points earned if paid using a credit card (if using a UnionPay credit card, Bic and Yodobashi will disallow you from earning points entirely, though you get an instant 5% discount as compensation). With the consumption tax now raised to 8%, whether you choose to get the tax waived or to earn points will depend on how you pay and whether you plan on returning; if you plan on paying with cash or e-money and plan on returning, it may still be worth it to earn points. If paying by credit card, it becomes a wash with 8% advantage either way, and the tax refund may be more useful.
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 and Harajuku 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, the classic Japanese garment. While very expensive new, second hand kimono can be had at a fraction of the price, or you can opt for a much cheaper and easier to wear casual yukata robe. See the Kimono buying guide for buying your 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 flavored cigarettes, light cigarettes with flavor-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 (ご飯) also means "meal". Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso (味噌) soup served with many meals, but also tōfu (豆腐) bean curd and the ubiquitous soy sauce (醤油 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 (漬物 tsukemono).
One of the joys of getting out of Tokyo and travelling 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 (お好み焼き) stuffed with green onions and the octopus balls (たこ焼き takoyaki).
Most Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks (箸 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. As a result, eating out is generally cheaper than in Western countries (though still expensive by Asian standards) if you stick to a basic rice or noodles meal at a local joint, though at the other end of the spectrum, fine dining can be very expensive indeed.
According to the 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 (定食), 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. You might also find these types of set meals at dinner. If you opt for à la carte, you may be charged a fee (generally ¥1000) to order à la carte.
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 restaurants, there will be surprisingly lifelike plastic samples or photographs of the food labeled with names and prices. 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 (食べ放題) or viking (バイキング, because "smorgasbord" would be too hard to pronounce in Japanese).
Tipping is not customary in Japan, although many sit-down 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 (食堂), 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 (今日の定食), which nearly always consists of a main course, rice, soup and pickles.
A closely related variant is the bentō-ya (弁当屋), which serves takeout boxes known as o-bentō (お弁当). While travelling on JR, don't forget to sample the vast array of ekiben (駅弁) or "station bento", many unique to the region - or even the station.
A staple of the shokudō is the donburi (丼), literally "rice bowl", meaning a bowl of rice with a topping. Popular ones include:
- oyakodon (親子丼) - lit. "parent-and-child bowl", usually chicken and egg (but sometimes salmon and roe)
- katsudon (カツ丼) - a fried pork cutlet with egg
- gyūdon (牛丼) - beef and onion
- chūkadon (中華丼) - literally: "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 (カレーライス karē raisu) — a thick, mild, brown paste that most Indians would hardly recognize. Often the cheapest dish on the menu, a large portion (大盛り ōmori) is guaranteed to leave you stuffed. For about ¥100 more you can upgrade to katsu karē to add a fried pork cutlet.
Another great place to find affordable and overwhelming amounts of food: department store basements. They are often huge spaces filled with expansive amounts of fresh food from throughout the country and local dishes. You can get bento boxes, take out food on a stick, bowls of soup, and often find samples of treats to try. Desserts are also plentiful, and department stores are great places to browse with the locals. You can also find restaurants in every single department store, often on the top floors, serving a variety of genres of food in nice settings and varied prices.
Japan, along with France, is considered by many to be one of the world's centers of fine dining and there is an abundance of fine dining options in Japan. Tokyo is home to more Michelin star restaurants than any other city in the world, and Japan is tied with France for first place as the country with the most Michelin star restaurants. There are a number of restaurants which attempt to serve French-Japanese fusion cuisine, using the finest ingredients from both, often with interesting and surprisingly tasty results. Of course, there are also plenty of fine dining Japanese cuisine options, with some specialist sushi restaurants charging more than ¥20,000 per person.
For those who wish to experience top end Japanese style fine dining, there are the super exclusive ryōtei (料亭), the Michelin three-star restaurants of the Japanese food world, which serve gourmet kaiseki (会席) meals prepared from the very best and freshest seasonal ingredients. In order to visit an introduction is typically required, and you will be looking at upwards of ¥30,000 per head for an experience.
Even Japanese want something other than rice every now and then, and the obvious alternative is noodles (麺 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 (そば) and thick wheat udon (うどん). 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 (かけそば) - plain broth and maybe a little spring onion on top
- tsukimi soba (月見そば) - soup with a raw egg dropped in, named "moon-viewing" because of the resemblance to a moon behind clouds
- kitsune soba (きつねそば) - soup with sweetened thin sheets of deep-fried tofu
- zaru soba (ざるそば) - chilled noodles served with a dipping sauce, shallot and wasabi; popular in summer
Chinese egg noodles or rāmen (ラーメン) 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 (塩ラーメン) - salty pork (or chicken) broth
- shōyu rāmen (醤油ラーメン) - soy broth, popular in Tokyo
- miso rāmen (味噌ラーメン) - miso (soybean paste) broth, originally from Hokkaido
- tonkotsu rāmen (豚骨ラーメン) - thick pork broth, a speciality of Kyushu
Another popular dish is yakisoba (焼きそば, "fried soba") is similar to Chinese chow mein, containing noodles stir-fried with vegetables and pork, garnished with aonori seaweed powder and pickled ginger. Despite the name "soba", it actually uses wheat noodles similar to ramen. A variation called yakisoba-pan (焼きそばパン, "yakisoba bread") stuffs yakisoba in to a hot dog bun.
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. It is commonplace in Japan for noodle dishes to be served with a spoon, simply pick up your noodles with your chopsticks and place them in your spoon, this will allow you drink as much of the broth as possible and combine the noodles with other tastes things in your bowl
Sushi and sashimi
Perhaps Japan's most famous culinary exports are sushi (寿司 or 鮨), usually raw fish over vinegared rice, and sashimi (刺身), 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 (握り) - 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 (手巻き) - fish and rice rolled up in a big cone of nori
- gunkan (軍艦) - "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 (大とろ), which is very fatty and very expensive, and chū-toro (中とろ), which is slightly cheaper and less fatty. Another method of preparation is negi-toro (葱とろ), minced tuna belly mixed with chopped, spring onions and wasabi.
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 up bills into tens of thousands of yen. You can limit the damage by ordering a fixed-price moriawase (盛り合わせ) set, where the chef will choose whatever he thinks is good that day. Cheaper yet are the ubiquitous kaiten (回転, 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. (Plates are color-coded by price; when you're done, call a waiter who will count your plates and tell you how much you owe.) 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.
On the other hand, if you're adventurous you can tell the chef "Omakase onegaishimasu" ("I leave it in your hands"), and he'll select whatever is freshest that day. This could mean a single full plate, or it could mean they may keep feeding you one piece at a time until you're full. In either case, keep in mind that you probably won't know how much you're spending, unless you indicated an amount when you ordered.
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 (ふぐ) or puffer fish is highly poisonous and considered a delicacy in Japan. It requires a tremendous amount of skill in its preparation, involving the removal of the internal organs in which the poison is found. Despite the potential danger, it's highly unlikely you'll be poisoned to death as licensed 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. Actual fatalities are very rare, and almost all are from fishermen who tried to prepare fugu they caught by themselves. Fugu is typically served only in speciality restaurants known as fugu-ya (ふぐ屋). Incidentally, the Japanese emperor is banned from eating this dish for obvious reasons.
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 (お好み焼き) - literally "cook it how you like it", it's a Japanese pancake-pizza, based on a wheat-cabbage batter with meat, seafood, and vegetable fillings 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 (鉄板焼き) - meat grilled on a hot iron plate, confusingly known in America as "hibachi"
- tempura (天ぷら) - light-battered shrimp, fish and vegetables deep-fried very quickly, served with a dipping broth
- tonkatsu (豚カツ) - deep-fried breaded pork cutlets elevated into an art form
- yakiniku (焼肉) - Japanese-style "Korean barbecue", cooked by yourself at your table
- yakitori (焼き鳥) - grilled skewers of every chicken part imaginable, a classic accompaniment to alcohol
One Japanese specialty worth seeking out is eel (うなぎ 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 ¥3000 from your wallet in the process. (You can find it for less, but these are usually imported frozen, and not nearly as tasty.)
A rather more infamous Japanese delicacy is whale (鯨 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 Kujiraya in Shibuya, Tokyo. Canned whale can also be found in some grocery stores at a huge price for a small can.
Particularly in the cold winter months various "hot pot" stews (鍋 nabe) are popular ways to warm up. Common types include:
- chankonabe (ちゃんこ鍋) - a hotchpotch steamboat much favored by sumo wrestlers.
- oden (おでん) - 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 (すき焼き) - 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
Throughout Japan you can find cafés and restaurants serving Western food (洋食 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 (ハンバーグ) - 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 (和風ステーキ) - steak served Japanese-style with soy sauce
- korokke (コロッケ) - croquettes, usually filled with potato, along with some meat and onion
- karē raisu (カレーライス) - Japanese-style curry, a mild brown curry served with rice; also available as katsu karē with a fried pork cutlet
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 (生ビール nama-biiru). You can order large mugs of beer or pay a fixed price for an all-you-can-drink (飲み放題 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.
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 (吉野家), Matsuya (松屋), and Sukiya (すき家) 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) serves 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, fast-food burger restaurants operated by JR, 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, a French Canadian snack consisting of french fries, gravy and cheese. The chili topping needs to be tried. More often than not, you can pay with the JR Suica traincard.
- Ootoya (大戸屋) 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 is a standard burger-type place.
- First Kitchen 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 is reasonable, with decent food and menus.
- Volks specializes in steaks, and offers a large salad bar.
Though Starbucks has planted its flag in Japan almost as well as in the United States, the Japanese kissaten (喫茶店) 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 (ジャズ喫茶), 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 big no.
Another offshoot is the danwashitsu (談話室, or 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.
If you're travelling on the cheap, Japan's numerous convenience stores (コンビニ 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.
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 (デパ地下) 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 (半額, "half price") or san-wari biki (3割引, "30% off") to get a bargain. 割 means "1/10" and 引 means "off".
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.
An excellent option 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 (自然食). 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 (精進料理), 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, nattō, 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.
Travelling in Japan with life-threatening food allergies (アレルギー arerugī) is very difficult. Awareness of severe allergies is low and restaurant staff are rarely aware of trace ingredients in their menu items. Japanese law requires that seven allergens be listed on product packaging: eggs (卵 tamago), milk (乳 nyū), wheat (小麦 komugi), buckwheat (そば or 蕎麦 soba), peanuts (落花生 rakkasei or ピーナッツ pīnattsu), shrimp (えび ebi) and crab (かに kani). Sometimes these are listed in a handy table, but more often you'll need to read the tiny print in Japanese only. Packaging is also often less than helpful for anything outside these seven, with ingredients like "starch" (でんぷん denpun) or "salad oil" (サラダ油 sarada-abura) that can contain basically anything.
A serious soy (大豆 daizu) allergy is basically incompatible with Japanese food. The bean is used everywhere, not just the obvious soy sauce and tofu, but also things like soybean powder in crackers and soybean oil for cooking.
Keeping a strict gluten-free diet while eating out is also close to impossible. Most common brands of soy sauce and mirin contain wheat, while miso is often made with barley or wheat. While sushi is traditionally made with 100% rice vinegar and pure wasabi root, commercially prepared sushi vinegar and wasabi may both contain gluten. If you have some tolerance, though, Japan and its vast variety of rice dishes is quite navigable. While udon and ramen noodles are both made from wheat, and soba noodles are usually 80:20 buckwheat/wheat, tōwari or jūwari (十割り) soba is pure buckwheat and thus gluten-free, although the stock it's cooked in or served with will usually have trace quantities.
Avoiding dairy products is straightforward, as none are used in traditional Japanese cuisine. Butter (バター bataa) does make an occasional appearance, but is usually mentioned by name.
Peanuts or other tree nuts are basically not used in Japanese cooking, with the exception of a few snacks and desserts, where their presence should be obvious (and marked in the ingredients). Peanut oil is rarely used.
See Eating vegetarian above for the difficulty of avoiding fish and shellfish.
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 (居酒屋, Japanese-style pub), easily identified by red lanterns with the character "酒" (alcohol) hanging out front. Many of them have an all-you-can-drink (飲み放題 nomihōdai) deals at about ¥1,000 for 90 minutes (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 (スナック 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 (カバーチャージ 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 (お通し 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 (自動販売機 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 あたたかい (atatakai) instead of the usual blue つめたい (tsumetai). Vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages are usually switched off at 23:00. 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 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 (酒) can in fact mean any kind of alcoholic drink, and in Japan the word nihonshu (日本酒) 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 (熱燗 atsukan), to room temperature (常温jo-on), down to chilled (冷や 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 (ちょこ) and the small ceramic jug used to pour it is a tokkuri (徳利). 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 (枡), sometimes with a dab of salt on the edge. Sake is typically measured in gō (合, 180 mL), roughly the size of a tokkuri, ten of which make up the standard 1.8 L isshōbin (一升瓶) bottle.
The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as wine, but the one indicator worth looking out for is nihonshudo (日本酒度), 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 (吟醸) and daiginjō (大吟醸) 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 (本醸造) is less milled, with alcohol added, and may be less expensive; think of it as an everyday kind of sake. Junmai (純米), 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 (濁り酒) 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 (古酒) may be an acquired taste, but worthwhile for the adventurous after a meal.
Worth a special mention is amazake (甘酒), similar to the lumpy homebrewed doburoku (どぶろく) 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.
Shōchū (焼酎) 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.
Umeshu (梅酒), 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).
There are several large brands of Japanese beer (ビール 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 (地ビール) 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 (瓶 bin), or draft (生 nama meaning "fresh"). Bottles come in three sizes, 大瓶 ōbin (large, 0.66 L), 中瓶 chūbin (medium, 0.5 L) and 小瓶 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 humorous tastes in beer, try kodomo biiru (こどもビール, 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 (発泡酒), or low-malt beer, and the so-called third beer (第3のビール 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 ビール (beer), but will instead say 発泡酒 (happoshu) or, for third beers, the unwieldy moniker その他の雑酒(2) (sono ta no zasshu(2), lit. "other mixed alcohol, type 2"). Try to drink moderately as both drinks can lead to nightmare hangovers.
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 (常温 jō-on) wine when dining out.
The most popular beverage by far is tea (お茶 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 (紅茶); 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 (煎茶), the common green tea
- matcha (抹茶), soupy powdered ceremonial green tea. The less expensive varieties are bitter and the more expensive varieties are slightly sweet.
- hōjicha (ほうじ茶), roasted green tea
- genmaicha (玄米茶), 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 (コーヒー 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 無糖 ("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).
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 (カルピス), 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 (ラムネ), 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 specialty 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" (ジュース 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 (果汁). 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.
Being comfortable in your own skin
Westerners sometimes hesitate to try Japanese-style baths because you have to be naked. Don't worry, it's really not awkward at all! The Japanese even use the phrase "naked communication" (裸の付き合い hadaka no tsukiai) to the way bathing together breaks down social barriers.
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 (湯 yu) and dub even the ordinary tub with an honorific prefix (お風呂 o-furo), and a visit to a Japanese hot spring — marked as ♨ on maps — should be on the agenda of every visitor.
Onsen (温泉), 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 (露天風呂): 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 (貸切風呂 kashikiri-furo). Onsen baths can be either in standalone buildings available for anybody (外湯 sotoyu), or private guest-only baths inside your lodgings (内湯 uchiyu).
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 (混浴 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 (日本秘湯を守る会 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 tattooed visitors will, at the very least, receive curious looks and may be asked to leave.
Sentō and spas
Sentō (銭湯) 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 (スパ 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" (男) and "woman" (女) 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" (大人 otona) and "child" (子供 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 (休憩室 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 (ウォシュレット), 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. (In rare cases, mostly with very high-end gear, flushing is integrated; if lifting your bottom off the seat doesn't do the trick, look for buttons labeled 大 or 小, meaning a big or small flush respectively, on a wireless control panel on the wall.) The second key to exploration is that there is always a big red button labeled 止 on the panel — 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 (おしり) - "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 (ビデ) - for spraying your front - typically shown in pink with a female icon
- Kansō (乾燥) - "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 required by law 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 10:00, 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.
While Western-branded hotels are to be found all across Japan, it's Japanese brands like that rule the roost. Some of the Japanese hotel chains include:
- ANA IHG Hotels - a joint venture between All-Nippon Airlines (Japan's second-largest airline and Star Alliance member) and Intercontinental Hotel Group, who operate a number of Intercontinentals, Crowne Plazas and Holiday Inns across Japan. Some hotels branded simply "ANA Hotels" can be booked via IHG's reservation system. This is the only Western-branded hotel chain with widespread Japanese presence.
- Okura Hotels & Resorts is a brand of upscale and luxury hotels, with properties in Japan and abroad. They also own the midscale chains Hotel Nikko and JAL Hotels operated as a joint venture with Japan Airlines, Japan's flag carrier and member of oneworld.
- Rihga Royal
- Sunroute Hotels
- Toyoku Inn - inexpensive limited-service hotels with wide presence across Japan
Full-service five-star hotel 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). On the other hand, three- and four-star business hotels are relatively reasonably priced when compared to prices in major European or North American cities, and even two-star hotels provide impeccable cleaniness and features rarely found in the West at the price.
However, there are several types of uniquely Japanese and far more affordable hotels:
Capsule hotels are the ultimate in space-efficient sleeping: for a small fee (normally between ¥3000 and ¥4000), the guest rents himself a capsule, sized about 2 x 1 x 1m 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 legitimacy, often so that entry to the spa costs perhaps ¥2000 but the capsule is only an additional ¥1000. The cheapest 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 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 ¥3500, 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 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 宿泊 shukuhaku on the rate card, usually ¥6000-10,000), a couple of hours ("Rest" or 休憩 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 40m² (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 fulfil 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.
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) en suite 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 (double room from ¥5000/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 (旅館) 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; sites like Japanese Guest Houses list such ryokan and will help you book. 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 (特大 "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 (e.g. 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 (民宿) 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 (一泊二食 ippaku-nishoku). Cheaper yet is a stay with no meals (素泊まり 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 (国民宿舎), 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.
- See also: Meditation in Japan
Shukubō (宿坊) 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.
Hostels and camping
Youth hostels (ユースホステル 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 travellers, especially students. Hostels typically range in price from ¥2,000 to ¥4,000. It can become more expensive if you opt for dinner and breakfast and are not a Hostelling International (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 cell blocks 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 gender segregated.
Riders' houses (ライダーハウス raidā hausu) are super-budget dorms intended primarily for bikers, both motorized and pedal-powered. While anybody is generally welcome, these are generally located deep in the countryside and access by public transport is impractical or impossible. Generally run as a hobby, riders' houses are very cheap (¥300/night is typical, free is not unheard of), but facilities are minimal; you're expected to bring your own sleeping bag and there may not even be a kitchen or a bath. Long stays are also discouraged and some ban stays of more than one night. These are particularly common in Hokkaido, but can be found here and there around the country. The definitive directory is Hatinosu (Japanese only).
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 (¥13,000 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, plastic tarpaulin "tents" with homeless in them.
Campsites in Japan are known as kyanpu-jo (キャンプ場), while sites designed for cars are known as ōto-kyanpu-jo. The latter tend to be far more expensive than the former (¥5,000 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 camp grounds in English, and local tourist offices are often well informed.
- See also Urban camping in Japan article.
For the real budget traveller wanting to get by on the cheap in Japan is the option of nojuku (野宿). 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.
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.
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. It 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, although larger ones for 3 or 4 are sometimes available. Apartment 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 an English language website, and they have various promotional offers on their website. WMT has more than 50 apartment buildings in Tokyo and Yokohama, together with 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 01:00, 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. Prices vary but usually are around ¥400/hour. They often have a special night rate for the period when no trains are running (from around midnight until 05:00 for ¥1,500). 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.
This is only an emergency option if you cannot find anything else and you are freezing outside. Karaoke bars offer entertainment rooms until 05:00 ("free time") for ¥1,500-2,500. Works only with at least 3 people.
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.
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.
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.
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. Japan's most prestigious university is the University of Tokyo, which together with the University of Hong Kong is considered to be one of the two top ranked universities in Asia. Other universities of good standing internationally include Waseda University and Keio University in Tokyo, as well as Kyoto University in Kyoto.
- Judo (柔道 jūdō) focuses on grappling and throws, and was the first martial art to become a modern Olympic sport. There are many schools all over the country in which you can study it.
- Karate (空手, literally "empty hand") is a striking martial art — using punches, kicks, and open-hand techniques — that is popular all over the world, and also has an influence on Western pop culture as can be seen in the Hollywood movie The Karate Kid (1984). There are schools all over the country in which you can study various styles.
- Kendo (剣道 kendō) is competitive swordfighting using bamboo or wooden swords, akin to fencing. While judo and karate are better known in much of the Western world, in Japan itself, kendo remains an integral part of modern Japanese culture, and is taught to students in Japanese schools.
Other Japanese martial arts include aikidō, another grappling form, and kyūdō, Japanese archery.
Japanese arts and crafts
Traditional Japanese arts and crafts include tea ceremony (茶道 sadō or chadō), flower arrangement (生け花 ikebana), and calligraphy (書道 shodō).
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 who is not already a permanent resident must receive a job offer from a guarantor in Japan, and then apply for a working visa at an immigration office (if already in Japan) or an embassy or consulate (if abroad). It is illegal for foreigners to work in Japan on a tourist visa. Working visas are valid for a period of one to three 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). Alternatively, if you have substantial funds, you may apply for an investor visa. This requires you to either invest a large sum of money in a local business, or start your own business in Japan by contributing a large amount of start-up capital and allows you to work for that particular company in a management capacity. Expect strict penalties if you overstay on any visa. Spouses of Japanese nationals can obtain spouse visas, which carry no restrictions on employment.
The Working Holiday program is open to young citizens (between 18 and 30) from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Korea, France, Germany, Ireland and the UK. Those eligible may apply for working holiday visas without having a prior job offer.
Foreigners who have lived in Japan for 10 years continuously are eligible to apply for permanent residency. You need to prove that you are financially independent and have no criminal record. If granted, then you can live and work in Japan indefinitely.
A popular form of employment among foreigners from English speaking countries is teaching English, especially in after-hours English conversation schools known as eikaiwa (英会話). 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 accreditation is essential for most desirable positions. Interviews for English schools belonging to one of the larger chains would usually be held in the applicant's home country. 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. 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 Programme (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 coordinators, 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 (スナック) 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 with cleanliness and removing shoes before entering someone's home makes sense because of the conditions of the outside 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 on par with the West, and the better known hospitals are usually equipped with the most cutting edge medical technology. For Japanese citizens and residents, the cost of medical treatment is made affordable by the government's national health insurance system. However, for those not covered by it, the cost of medical treatment is expensive. While foreigners in Japan for an extended period (eg. those on Work or Student visas) are allowed access to the national health insurance system, it is not available to tourists on short visits, so be sure to have your travel insurance in order before your trip.
Most Japanese doctors and nurses are unable to communicate in English. The web-site of the US embassy maintains a list of hospitals and clinics which have English-speaking staff available.
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, with crime rates significantly lower than that of Western countries.
Crimes and scams
Police and the law
Police in Japan may and do detain people up to 23 days before a prosecutor formally files charges, and you may be subjected to nonstop interrogation during this period. You can hire a lawyer only if somebody outside pays the fees in advance, and 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. A signed confession will result in a guilty verdict at your trial. 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 and then involved in a fight. 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, however still exercise common sense. Women travelling alone should take care as they would in their home countries and 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 and men on crowded rush-hour trains should be aware of the existence of male chikan (痴漢) and female chijo (痴女) or molesters. Be careful in these trains too, as you could be blamed for such occurrences, and possibly arrested. 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 (ヤクザ, Also known as gokudō (極道)) (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. Don't bother them and they will not bother you.
Red-light districts in large cities can be seedy although 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 $7,000 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. This goes especially for the street touts (absent in Japan except in places like Kabuki-cho).
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 (交番 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 (百十番 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 08:30 to 17:15.
Prostitution is illegal in Japan. However, enforcement is lax, and the law specifically defines prostitution as "sex in exchange for money". In other words, if you pay for some other "service" and proceed to have sex by "private agreement," the law does not recognize it as prostitution. As such, Japan still has one of the most vibrant sex industries in the world. The most famous red-light district is Kabukicho (歌舞伎町) 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.
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.
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 then Japanese language proficiency, or a Japanese friend to vouch for you will strongly help your case.
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.
- Japan has an early warning system that sends information that an earthquake will shake a specific area. Use this invaluable time to cover up before the actual jolt.
- 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 travelling 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, ferries, and even (if there are landslides) trains and buses.
There are venomous snakes called habu (波布) in Okinawa although not in unusual numbers. You are unlikely to be bitten by one, but if you are, seek medical help immediately as anti-venoms 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 Japanese giant hornet (大雀蜂 or 大スズメバチ ōsuzumebachi), a sub-species of the Asian giant hornet; it is about 1.5 inches (4 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 injury or even death.
For most tourists, dressing for daily sightseeing in Japan puts you at a disadvantage: you will most likely stand out, no matter how you dress, next to the throngs of salarymen (male office workers) and gradeschoolers in uniforms. Japan is known for being very fashionable, whether dressing in kimono, tailored suits, or the latest trends from Harajuku.
First and foremost: wear shoes that can easily slip off and on, and keep a pair of socks handy as needed. Athletic shoes are acceptable, but keep them tied loosely so you can slip them off and on. Quality walking sandals (not flip-flops) and dress shoes are acceptable as well. Japanese culture sees shoes as being dirty, and before entering someone's house, certain restaurants, dressing rooms, and temples (to name a few), you must remove your shoes. The older generation of Japanese tend to group steps into two types: wooden ("clean") and concrete or stone ("dirty"). If you are going to be stepping on to wood, take your shoes off and place them to the side; there might even be a cubby hole for you to put your shoes in.
And don't forget socks, as it's generally more common to wear socks when in temples and houses, if you don't have slippers available. Japanese people are known for their love of socks, and sock stores selling high quality and colorful socks are found in most cities. Many of the socks sold in Japan are made there. So, bring a pair of socks in your bag while you're sightseeing, if you aren't wearing them. Tights are acceptable for women. Footsies and under the ankle socks are handy, especially if you're going for the "no socks" look.
Shorts are uncommon, and generally only worn by children and teens. Though a common item in tourist summer apparel, instead try stylish jeans or slacks. In the summer, women wear sun dresses from trendy stores and breathable slacks made of fabrics like linen. Keep it stylish and comfortable.
In business situations, suits are standard; companies will let you know if you can or should wear casual dress. Suits are worn out for after work drinks and entertainment.
For clubbing and nights out, dress casual cool. Japanese women generally do not wear skin tight, super short dresses and cleavage is rarely shown, unless at the beach. Women dressed in tight short dresses and very sexy looks are often stereotyped as sex workers or escorts. When visiting Tokyo, for example, you will see young women and men dressed in subculture styles, such as Harajuku, Lolita, and punk. Japanese avoid making a scene of those who dress like a scene, but, casual glances are often enough for you feel like you're being checked out.
If you plan on visiting a hot spring or public bath, they're almost always used nude (except for rare mixed-gender baths). Although you may get some questioning looks, a bathing suit works. For men, speedos, trunks, or boardshorts. For women, a modest swimsuit is better than a skimpy bikini if you're visiting a hot spring or bath; for the beach, bikinis are okay. At public or private pools, you may have to wear a swimming cap; they may be provided for you, or you can bring your own.
Japan in the summer can be extremely warm and humid. Japanese don't like visible sweat, and will frequently wipe sweat from their face with a colorful handkerchief, use a fan (folding or flat) to keep themselves cool, or (for women) use umbrellas to shade themselves during sunny weather. Purchasing one or all of these items is not only a smart way to stay cool, but can provide a lasting memento from your visit. In historic and tourism areas you will find shops selling beautiful fans and umbrellas. Both are affordable investments, though they can be pricey if you wish to have a real work of art. However, most Japanese use cheap but beautiful fans – many made in China – in their every day life, only to replace them when they become hard to close or worn. Cheap flat paper fans are often distributed for free at festivals and events.
Traditional umbrellas can be bought at gift shops, and stylish umbrellas for rain and shine can be purchased at women's accessory and clothing stores throughout the country. Handkerchiefs are popular for both men or women. Some look like traditional cotton handkerchiefs you'd use to blow your nose, others are small towels. Japan's fabulous depāto (department stores) carry all colors, makes and models of these necessities. It's an affordable luxury – for both men and women high end designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Burberry make handkerchiefs and you can find them for ¥1,500 or less. You'll also find locally made versions in gift shops and stores throughout the country. Keep them in your purse or pocket, and wipe your brow when necessary.
Functional umbrellas – for keeping you dry, and nothing else – are often cheap plastic, and available at every convenience store for about ¥500. Since they all look alike, they're sometimes treated interchangeably. When you go in a store, you leave yours at the door, and when you leave, you simply grab an identical one, whether or not it was the one you brought.
Using people's names
Names are a complicated matter in Japan. While most Japanese follow the Western naming order when writing their names in English, when names are written in Japanese, they always follow the East Asian naming order of family name followed by given name. Therefore someone called Taro Yamada in English would be called 山田太郎 (Yamada Tarō) in Japanese. The exception to this rule would be historical figures from before the Meiji restoration, such as Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康), whose name follows East Asian naming conventions even when written in English.
Using someone's first 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 last names plus -san (さん) , a suffix approximately like "Mr." or "Ms." Most Japanese know that Westerners usually go by their first names, so they may call you "John" or "Mary" with no suffix, but you should still call them "Last name-san" to be polite. San is the default suffix, but you may encounter a few others: -sama (様) (people above you, from bosses up to deities, as well as customers); -kun (君) (young boys, subordinates and good male friends); and -chan (ちゃん) (young children and close (usually female) friends). To avoid being overly familiar or formal, stick with "Last name-san" until someone asks you to call them differently.
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 (迷惑 meiwaku).
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 that will meet with universal disapproval (even when demonstrated by foreigners) and should be avoided if at all possible:
- Never walk on a tatami mat wearing shoes or even slippers.
- Never leave your chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of rice (This is how rice is offered to the dead).
- Never enter a bathtub without washing yourself thoroughly first. (See Bathe for details.)
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.
- The average Japanese person bows over 100 times a day. 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 wai 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 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.
- On the other hand, cash is traditionally considered "dirty", and is not passed hand to hand. Registers often have a small dish used to give your payment and receive change.
- When giving money as a gift (such as a tip at a ryokan), you should get pristine unused bills from the bank, and present them in a formal envelope.
- 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. (It's fine to refuse, but you have to do so frequently, otherwise a senior person at your table might fill your glass when you're not looking.)
- 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 (手水舎) 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. Some types of recycling bins you'll often see are:
- Paper (紙 kami)
- PET/Plastic (ペット petto or プラ pura)
- Bottles and cans (ビン・カン bin, kan)
- Burnable trash (もえるゴミ moeru gomi)
- Non-burnable trash (もえないゴミ moenai gomi)
- Shoes (and feet in general) are considered very dirty by the Japanese. Avoid pointing your soles at anybody (such as resting your foot on the opposite knee when seated) and try to restrain children from standing up on seats. Brushing your feet against somebody's clothing, even by accident, is very rude.
- In many buildings, you're expected to take your shoes off when you enter, leaving them in a lowered entryway or a shoe locker. You can borrow slippers if any are available (although they are usually only in sizes for typically smaller Japanese feet), wear socks or go bare foot.
- Wearing shoes inside such a building is seen as disrespectful, as it brings dirt and/or evil spirits inside the building. For related reasons, it's preferred if you can both remove and put on your shoes using your hands as little as possible.
- 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.
- As in Germany, World War II is a touchy and complicated topic, especially with older people and is generally best avoided. More intellectual and alternative circles are prone to discussing it, especially when visiting Hiroshima.
- As in India and China and other countries, swastikas are Buddhist symbols representing good luck and do not represent Nazism or antisemitism in any way, and you will notice the symbol is actually pointing in the opposite direction. Swastikas are often used on maps to mark the locations of Buddhist temples and monasteries.
- Smoking is discouraged on many street corners and side-walks around Tokyo. Although you will see people smoking all over the place, most will be found huddle around designated smoking areas. The Japanese are such a clean culture that many of the smokers won't even leave ash on the ground.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Japan is considered to be very safe for gay and lesbian travellers, and violence against homosexuals is quite rare. There are no laws against homosexuality in Japan and major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka have a large gay scene, 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. Landline numbers in Japan have the format
+81 3 1234-5678 where "81" is the country code for Japan, the next digit is the dialing zone where the local number is located (can contain from one to three digits) and the remaining digits (typically four to eight digits) are the "local" part.
Emergency calls can be made from any phone free of charge: call 110 for police or call 119 for fire and ambulance.
Payphones (公衆電話 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. An in-between solution is to purchase phone cards from discount ticket shops, which typically sell phone cards for 35-45% off face value (for example, a 105-unit phone card would only cost around 600 yen). This may be sufficiently cheap for some to decide not to bother with a third-party card. If directly dialing internationally with a phone card, NTT's international access code is 0033+010.
Modern Japanese mobile phones (携帯電話 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" 800 MHz (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.
Options available to you are summed up in this table:
|SIM card||Phone||Roaming||SIM rental||Phone rental,
|GSM SIMa||GSM phone||No||No||No||Yes|
|GSM SIMa||3G/UMTS phone||No||Yes||No||Yes|
|GSM/3G USIMb||GSM phone||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|GSM/3G USIMb||3G/UMTS phone||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Nonec||CDMA phone (Verizon/Sprint)||Yes||No||No||Yes|
|iDEN||iDEN phone (Nextel)||No||No||Yes|
a GSM-only SIMs are issued by providers that don't have their own 3G network. If your home operator have no 3G network, or if you got your phone before their 3G network was introduced, this may apply to you. Call and ask your operator if their SIM cards are USIM compatible.
b USIM cards are issued by providers that have a 3G network or plan to introduce one. Any European who got their SIM card after 2003 has one of these. Call and ask your operator if their SIM cards are USIM compatible.
c With the introduction of LTE, CDMA carriers in North America are starting to use SIMs as well; if your phone has a SIM card it can be inserted into an unlocked/rental Japanese phone for use.
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 may not work depending on the carrier you are using).
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.
|Company||Pickup Locations||Domestic Rates|
|eConnect Japan||Delivery within Japan||
|Mobal Communications Inc.||Narita Airport Terminal 1 only.||
|Rentafone Japan||Delivery overseas and within Japan, including all airports.||
|Japan Mobile Rental||Mobile Wi-Fi Router rentals for your PC and smartphone||
|SoftBank Global Rental||Narita, Haneda, KIX, Chubu (Nagoya),Fukuoka, Shin-Chitose Airports & SoftBank stores. Delivery also possible (extra charge).||
|MyJapanPhone||Delivery within USA or Japan.
No airport pick-up.
|Telecom Square||Narita, KIX, Chubu (Nagoya). Delivery also possible (extra charge).||
|go mobile||Delivery within Japan.
No airport pick-up.
|Inphonix||Narita, KIX. Delivery also possible (extra charge).||
|Air's||Narita Terminal 1 only.||
|Mobile Phone Japan||Delivery within Japan.
No airport pick-up.
|Global Advanced Communications||Delivery within Japan, including airports.||
|JCR||Delivery within USA or Japan, including airports.||
|Sally's Rental||Delivery within Japan, including airports.||
|OCN Mobile ONE||Delivery within Japan, including airports.||
|cdjapan||Delivery within Japan, including airports.||
|Japan Wifi Rental Service||Pickup and return at airports: Chitose (Sapporo), Narita Terminal 1 & 2 (Tokyo), Kansai International Airport (Osaka), Haneda Airport (Tokyo), Fukuoka Airport (Fukuoka).|
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) if you want anything other than SoftBank prepaid purchased directly from their Global Rental counters located in major airports.
- The easier way is to get a prepaid (プリペイド) phone. Prepaid phones are sold in most SoftBank and au stores (NTT DoCoMo does not have prepaid phone services any more). 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. Note that if you have entered on a tourist visa or visa waiver, only SoftBank will sell you service and you MUST buy their SIM+phone package from their airport service counters (currently 15000 yen for a phone, SIM card, and 4000 yen credit).
- 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 as well as discount ticket shops for 100-200 yen less than face value.
- A prepaid cell phone is available for as little as ¥5000 plus ¥3000 for a 60-90 day call time package (unless you're getting SoftBank's passport-only prepaid service package as noted above), 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.
- See also b-mobile for a 1GB prepaid data only SIM available in a visitor version at ¥3,980.
- 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 ¥5,000 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 (インターネットカフェ) 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 (漫画喫茶 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 ¥1,500 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 minutes.
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 Wi-Fi is another affordable option for people wanting to use their Wi-Fi enabled devices (smartphone, iPhone, iPad, laptops etc.) A Pocket Wi-Fi device is about the size of a Zippo lighter and fits in your pocket or bag. It makes available a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot you can connect your devices to.