Japan, known as Nihon or Nippon (日本) in Japanese, is an island nation in East Asia. Its insular character has allowed it to develop a unique and very intricate culture, while its closeness to other ancient Far Eastern cultures, in particular China, has left lasting influence. Despite belonging to a forever warring nation, both internally and overseas, Japan's people have always placed emphasis on inner balance, tranquility and natural beauty. These traditional values have become increasingly important now that Japan has grown to be one of the world's most densely-populated countries, and its legendary work ethic makes life in its cities quite hectic.
Japan's sophisticated cuisine has spread to all corners of the world by means of sushi (and the less-sophisticated instant ramen noodles), but it is only in the country of its birth where you can appreciate its true form. Even more fascinating is the country's popular culture, which has developed a fandom all over the world, in particular manga comics and anime cartoons — with the Japanese taking their affinity for their favorite characters and themes to the extreme.
In the 20th century, Japan enjoyed impressive economic growth, putting it among the world's most affluent nations today. This was mostly driven by rapid modernization and specialization in high technology in particular. Japan is now full of contrasts between the still alive tradition and much cherished heritage and the ultra-modern infrastructure, buildings and facilities. The country's numerous airports and the world-renowned shinkansen high-speed train system allow easy entry and convenient transport. While the Japanese are known to be reserved and their language skills are not their strongest asset, they will go out of their way to make you feel a welcome visitor. Japanese retail businesses are also known for their legendary customer service, and visitors from overseas are often surprised at the lengths service staff would go to satisfy the demands of customers.
Japan is conventionally divided into nine regions, listed here from north to south:
|Hokkaido (Central Circuit, Eastern Circuit, Northern Circuit, Southern Circuit)|
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.
- 1 Tokyo — the capital and main financial center, modern and densely populated.
- 2 Hiroshima — large port city, the first city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb
- 3 Kanazawa — historic city on the west coast
- 4 Kyoto — ancient capital of Japan, considered the cultural heart of the country, with many ancient Buddhist temples and gardens
- 5 Nagasaki — ancient port city with a unique blend of Chinese, Japanese, and European influences.
- 6 Nara — first capital of a united Japan, with many Buddhist shrines and historical buildings
- 7 Osaka — large and dynamic city located in the Kansai region
- 8 Sapporo — largest city in Hokkaido, famous for its snow festival
- 9 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.
- 1 Japan Alps — series of high snow-topped mountains in the center of Honshu
- 2 Miyajima — just off Hiroshima, site of the iconic floating torii
- 3 Mount Fuji — iconic snow-topped volcano, and highest peak in Japan (3776m)
- 4 Mount Koya — mountaintop headquarters of the Buddhist Shingon sect
- 5 Sado Island — island off Niigata, former home to exiles and prisoners, now a brilliant summer getaway
- 6 Shiretoko National Park — unspoiled wilderness at Hokkaido's northeasternmost tip
- 7 Yaeyama Islands — the farthest-flung bit of Okinawa, with spectacular diving, beaches and jungle cruising
- 8 Yakushima — UNESCO World Heritage site with enormous cedars and misty primeval forests
|Currency||Japanese yen (JPY)|
|Population||126.7 million (2017)|
|Electricity||100 volt / 50 hertz and 100 volt / 60 hertz (NEMA 1-15, NEMA 5-15)|
|Time zone||Japan Standard Time|
|Emergencies||119 (fire department), 110 (police), 118 (Japan Coast Guard)|
|edit on Wikidata|
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. 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.
- See also: Pre-modern Japan
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 the mid-19th century, 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 BCE. 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 CE, which was also when the Japanese first had significant contact with China and Korea. Japan then gradually became a centralized state during the Asuka Period (飛鳥時代), during which Japan extensively absorbed many aspects of Chinese culture, and saw the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism. During that period, Prince Shotoku, the regent of Japan, sent envoys to Tang China to learn more about Chinese culture and practices and introduce them to Japan. 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 Fujiwara clan of 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 modeled 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. Japan was gradually unified towards the end of the Warring States Period, known as the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (安土桃山時代), under the influence of the powerful warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ruling from their bases in Kiyosu and Osaka respectively. Tokugawa Ieyasu finally completed unification of 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 strict isolation 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 1868, 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, and becoming the first country in Asia to industrialise. 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.
Expansion and war
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–'05 Russo-Japanese War cemented its position of strength. With an increasingly totalitarian government controlled by the military, Japan overthrew the Korean monarchy and annexed Korea outright in 1910. During World War I, Japan participated in the war as part of the Allies, and would subsequently gain control of the German concessions in China. Japan would then stage the Mukden Incident as a pretext to occupy Manchuria in 1931, and subsequently launched a full-scale invasion of China in 1937. Japan would then proceed to invade British Hong Kong and Southeast Asia in 1941, and by the middle of 1942, had an empire stretching across much of eastern 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 Japan 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 Japanese government has never publicly acknowledged or apologised for the atrocities committed during World War II, which has often been a major bone of contention in diplomatic relations with other Asian countries, in particular its neighbours China and South Korea.
The Emperor kept his throne but was turned into a constitutional monarch. Thus converted to pacifism and democracy, with the U.S. 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 2,500 missing. 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."
In May 2019, Emperor Naruhito ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne after the abdication of his father, Emperor Emeritus Akihito. This marked the first Imperial succession from a living Emperor since Emperor Kōkaku abdicated the throne in 1817.
Government and politics
Japan is a constitutional monarchy, modeled after the British parliamentary system. The Imperial House of Japan is the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy house in the world, traditionally said to have began in 660 BC. The current Constitution, enacted in 1947 after WWII, redefined the Emperor's role to be entirely ceremonial; unlike European monarchs, he is not even the source of sovereign power, nor is it "his" government. The few government functions he performs are always done following instructions from the Cabinet.
The legislative branch is the National Diet (国会 kokkai), consisting of the upper House of Councillors and the larger and more powerful lower House of Representatives. Both are popularly elected under a parallel system, where some seats are filled by individual candidates and others are filled by a party. The Cabinet forms the executive branch of government. It is led by the prime minister, who is elected by the Diet; the prime minister appoints ministers to the Cabinet, a majority of whom must be members of the Diet. The Supreme Court and three tiers of lower courts form the judicial branch.
Many functions are delegated to prefectural and municipal governments, but they're constrained by national law as well as dependent on the national government for funding. This is often called "30 percent autonomy", as some 30% of funding for local government comes from the national government (though the actual amount varies widely by expenditure). The result is that policies are generally somewhat centralized and homogeneous, but prefectures, cities, and towns do retain some uniqueness.
Japan has several major political parties (and thousands in total), which have shifted, merged, and split over time — which probably explains their confusing names. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP, 自民党 Jimintō), which is generally conservative and pro-business, has been in power almost continuously since 1955. Smaller parties with significant representation include the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), Democratic Party for the People (DPFP or DPP), and Komeito ("Clean Government" or "Justice" Party). The dominance of the LDP doesn't tell the whole story, as the LDP has a number of factions; these sub-parties themselves sometimes split or merge just as national parties do. Factions are commonly referred to by the name of their current leader, whose policies each faction is aligned with.
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. Japan's population has begun to fall due to a low birth rate and a lack of immigration. 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 unique, if anything. 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 adopt a "Death before dishonor" attitude, and would typically commit suicide by self-disembowelment (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 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. Top sakura spots like Kyoto are packed with tourists. Peak hanami often coincides with the start of the new school & financial year on April 1, which means lots of people on the move and full hotels in major cities.
Japan's longest holiday is Golden Week (29 April to 5 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 7 July (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.
National Holiday Adjustments in 2020 and 2021
The Japanese government has made some adjustments to the national holidays for 2020 due to the Olympic Games:
With the Olympics and Paralympics delayed until 2021, the changes for 2020 will remain, and similar changes are made for 2021:
- 1 January — New Year's Day (ganjitsu 元日, gantan 元旦 or o-shōgatsu お正月)
- 2 and 3 January — New Year's Bank Holidays
- Second Monday in January — Coming-of-Age Day (seijin no hi 成人の日)
- 11 February — National Foundation Day (kenkoku kinen no hi 建国記念の日)
- 23 February — The Emperor's Birthday (tennō tanjōbi 天皇誕生日)
- 21 March — Vernal Equinox Day (shunbun no hi 春分の日)
- 29 April — Showa Day (shōwa no hi 昭和の日) — first holiday of Golden Week
- 3 May — Constitution Day (kenpō kinnenbi 憲法記念日)
- 4 May — Greenery Day (midori no hi みどりの日)
- 5 May — 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)
- * 11 August - Mountain Day (yama no hi 山の日)
- Third Monday in September— Respect-for-the-Aged Day (keirō no hi 敬老の日)
- 23 September — Autumnal Equinox Day (shūbun no hi 秋分の日)
- * Second Monday in October — Sports Day (supōtsu no hi スポーツの日)
- 3 November — Culture Day (bunka no hi 文化の日)
- 23 November — Labor Thanksgiving Day (kinrō kansha no hi 勤労感謝の日)
- 31 December — New Year's Bank Holiday
- * Holidays moved in 2020 and 2021; see infobox
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 when two dates for holidays are close together.
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 remain 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 Reiwa (令和), which began on 1 May 2019 with the ascension of Emperor Naruhito to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Reiwa 2 corresponds to 2020; the year may be written as "R2" or just "2", so "2/4/1" is 1 April 2020. The first year of Naruhito's reign, from 1 May until 31 December 2019, was referred to as Reiwa gannen (令和元年).
The Western Gregorian calendar is also well understood and frequently used. Japan has celebrated its festivals according to the Gregorian calendar since 1873 and no longer uses the Chinese calendar, with the exception of some festivals in the Ryukyu Islands.
Japan has two dominant religious traditions: Shinto (神道 Shintō) is the ancient animist religion of traditional Japan. At just over twelve hundred years in Japan, Buddhism (仏教 Bukkyō) is the more recent imported faith. Christianity (キリスト教 Kirisutokyō), introduced by European missionaries, was widely persecuted during the feudal era but is now accepted, and a small percentage of Japanese are Christian, concentrated in western Japan.
Generally speaking, the Japanese are not a particularly religious people. While they are strongly influenced by Buddhist philosophies and 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. Neither Buddhism nor Shinto demand exclusivity, so most Japanese practice a mix of both religions. 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 (神社 jinja) 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 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 (お寺 o-tera).
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. 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 or Japan Visitor. Some recommended books include:
- Untangling My Chopsticks (ISBN 076790852X), by Victoria Abbott Riccardi. Set mainly in Kyoto.
- My Mother is a Tractor (ISBN 1412048974), by Nicholas Klar. A former English teacher with a witty and informative take on Japanese society. Written from the depths of the Japanese countryside.
- Hitching Rides with Buddha (ISBN 1841957852), by Will Ferguson, is about a Canadian English teacher who hitches rides across the country, following the blooming cherry blossoms. At times hilariously funny and deathly serious, it gives a very honest evaluation of all sorts of aspects of Japanese culture.
- Culture Shock: Japan (ISBN 1558688528). A part of the "Culture Shock" series, this is an excellent overview of the culture and lifestyle of the Japanese. A good resource for a long or work-related stay in Japan or even for interaction with Japanese people.
- All-You-Can Japan (ISBN 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.
Television shows about Japan:
- Japanology Plus (and its prior incarnation Begin Japanology) – Produced by NHK World-Japan, these long-running series explore a plethora of topics in Japanese culture and customs, from arts and foods to robots and refrigerators, as well as some unexpected topics like batteries or scissors.
- Travel-oriented shows produced by NHK World-Japan include J-Trip Plan and Journeys in Japan.
- See also: Japanese phrasebook
The language of Japan is Japanese. 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 of the closely related Ryukyuan languages are spoken, mostly by the elderly, while many locals speak Okinawan Japanese, a dialect that borrows much vocabulary from Ryukyuan languages. 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. There are thousands of kanji in everyday use and even the Japanese spend years learning them, but the kana have only 46 characters 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: 手紙 (lit. "hand-paper"; Mandarin Chinese: shǒuzhǐ, Japanese: tegami), "toilet paper" to the Chinese, means "letter" (the kind you mail) in Japan!
Most younger Japanese have studied English for at least 6 years, but the instruction tends to focus on formal grammar and writing rather than actual conversation. Outside of major tourist attractions and large international hotels, it is rare to find people who are conversant in English. Reading and writing tends to come much better though, and many people are able to understand some written English without being able to speak it. If lost, it can be practical to write out a question on paper in simple words and someone 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, therefore it is worth to try to pick up at least basic greetings and thank yous to put people at ease.
Public facilities like trains almost universally include English signage, and the Shinkansen and other commonly-used trains also announce upcoming stops in English. Tourist attractions and large businesses also usually have at least some English signage, but as you get farther off the beaten path, English becomes more spotty (and the translations more questionable).
Some of the major tourist attractions and large international hotels in Tokyo have staff who are able to speak Mandarin or Korean, and many major airports and railway stations also have signs in Chinese and Korean as well. In Hokkaido, some people who live near the Russian border may be able to speak Russian.
Japanese Sign Language (JSL, 日本手話 nihon shuwa) is the dominant sign language. Its adoption has been slow, but it has a few strong proponents, including Kiko, Princess Akishino, who is a skilled sign interpreter and participates in many sign language and deaf events. It is mutually intelligible with Korean and Taiwainese Sign Languages, but not with Chinese Sign Language, Auslan, American Sign Language, or others.
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, UK, 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 a 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.
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.
Drug laws are stricter in Japan than in many other Western countries, and this would be an unpleasant surprise at customs. A number of over-the-counter and prescription drugs that are legal in other countries are not allowed in Japan. 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. (See also § Stay safe.)
- Some over-the-counter medications, notably pseudoephedrine (Actifed, Claritin-D, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers) and codeine (some cough medications), cannot be brought into Japan.
- Some items that may not be brought in are actually possible to find locally with restrictions: for example, Benza-Block L, a common cold medicine in Japan, contains pseudoephedrine, with the restriction that one person may only buy one box from one pharmacy at a time.
- Some prescription medicines (mostly strong painkillers) are also banned even if you have a prescription, unless you get a yakkan shoumei (薬監証明 "medicine certificate"), which typically takes 1-2 weeks to obtain; some drugs may need additional import/export certificates.
- You may also require permission in order to import drug-filled syringes, such as EpiPens.
- Drugs used to treat ADHD are restricted: amphetamine (Adderall) is completely illegal, while methylphenidate (Ritalin/Concerta) and atomoxetine (Strattera) may require permission depending on the amount.
- Cannabis and CBD/THC products, which are seeing increased used in certain parts of the world, are also illegal in Japan.
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.
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.
Trusted Traveler Program
Foreigners who travel frequently to Japan for business, pleasure or family visits may be able to take advantage of Japan's Trusted Traveler Program operated by the Bureau of Immigration. In order to use the service, you must:
- Have visited Japan two times in the last 12 months
- Possess a passport from a country that has visa-free arrangements with Japan
- Have never been deported from Japan
- Be working full-time in a major business, or visit on business related to the Japanese government or another Japanese business
If you are a United States citizen and are a member of Global Entry (the US Trusted Traveler Program), the business requirement is waived.
The fee to apply for Japan's Trusted Traveler Program is ¥2200. Upon approval, you will receive a registered user card valid for either 3 years or until the expiration date of your passport, whichever is sooner. The card will allow you to use the automated immigration kiosks at Haneda, Narita, Chubu and Kansai airports, bypassing the manned immigration counters.
Most international flights arrive at either Narita Airport (NRT IATA) near Tokyo or Kansai Airport (KIX IATA) near Osaka; a smaller number use Chubu International Airport (NGO IATA) near Nagoya. All three are significant distances from their respective city centers, but are linked to regional rail networks and also have numerous bus services to nearby destinations. Tokyo's other airport, Haneda Airport (HND IATA), the busiest in Japan, has been expanding and shifting from primarily domestic flights back to international, and by mid-2020 will have a sizeable network of international flights to destinations that see heavy business traffic. 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 both countries 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 flag carrier Japan Airlines (JAL, 日本航空 nihon kōkū) and All Nippon Airways (ANA, 全日本空輸 zen nippon kūyu, or just 全日空 zennikkū), both of which have received numerous accolades internationally for their customer service. Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and American Airlines also operate flights from numerous U.S. cities into Narita (mostly shifting to Haneda in March 2020), as does Air Canada from several Canadian cities. Finnair offers flights to Japan's major airports (Narita, Chubu, and Kansai) from most European countries via Helsinki airport, often code-sharing with British Airways and Japan Airlines. Low-cost carriers have become increasing popular with cheap domestic and international flights, with companies such as Jetstar (Australia), Skymark, and Peach (Osaka) offering competition to JAL and ANA.
- Ferries from South Korea's second city Busan offer an alternative to flying, with the Fukuoka service being a particularly quick and practical way to travel between the two countries. To Fukuoka, JR Kyushu Ferry, operates hydrofoil service several times each day;Camellia Line operates a slower ferry. To Shimonoseki, Kanbu Ferry has daily service. To Osaka, Pan Star Line offers thrice-weekly service. Tsushima Island is the closest part of Japan to South Korea, and day trips from Busan are practical.
- Service from Donghae, South Korea, to Sakai Minato is offered by DBS Cruise Ferry.
- Shanghai-Osaka/Kobe: Japan-China Ferry [dead link], weekly service that alternates between Kobe and Osaka.
- Tianjin-Kobe: China Express Line, weekly service.
- Suzhou-Shimonoseki: Shanghai-Shimonoseki Ferry, thrice weekly service.
- Keelung (Taiwan)-Ishigaki/Naha: Star Cruises offers cruises in summer high season only (May-Sep), but one-way fares are generally not available.
- Sakhalin-Wakkanai: Heartland Ferry. Service is suspended Oct–Apr due to sea ice. See our Russia to Japan via Sakhalin itinerary.
- Vladivostok-Sakai Minato: DBS Cruise Ferry via Donghae, South Korea.
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 probably one of the cleanest transport systems on earth. 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, 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. Google Maps can give detailed train and bus directions including platform numbers, but it too has few options for filtering results, making it more useful while you're there than for advanced planning.
Paper timetables in Japanese that just include limited express, sleeper and bullet trains (Shinkansen) are 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 Tabi-o-ji.
Both HyperDia and Tabi-o-ji offer schedule searches that exclude Nozomi and Mizuho trains, which will benefit holders of the Japan Rail Pass.
In most of Japan, addresses use a hierarchical scheme that's quite different from Western addresses. Most roads have no name; instead, cities are split into neighborhoods with names, which are divided into numbered districts (丁目 chōme), which are subdivided into numbered street blocks. Addresses are written in order from largest to smallest; an example address ending in 名駅4丁目5-6 or 名駅4-5-6 would be the neighborhood of Meieki (名駅), district 4, block 5, house 6. (Addresses are usually written in English as "Meieki 4-5-6" or "4-5-6 Meieki", although the post office recommends the confusing "5-6 Meieki 4-chome".) Additional numbers may be appended for the floor or room number.
Numbering for districts, blocks, and houses is often not sequential; numbers are usually assigned chronologically as buildings are built, or based on distance from the city center. Small signs near street corners display the ward/neighborhood and district in Japanese (such as 名駅4丁目, Meieki 4-chōme); they often include the block number, but sometimes not, in which case the signs are very unhelpful since a district could be a dozen or more blocks. A building's entrance will usually show the block and house number (such as 5-6, sometimes written 5番6号), but not the district.
The lack of road names makes it difficult to give directions; maps and especially satnav are a blessing in Japan. A minute spent checking a map can save you half an hour of aimlessly walking.
- 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).
- 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.
- Google Maps in Japan is very accurate, even showing the insides of buildings. However, it cannot be used offline (you must have an Internet connection), and it may occasionally misinterpret an address and lead you to the wrong location.
- See also: Rail travel in Japan § Smart cards
One of the first things any visitor to Japan should do is pick up a public transport smart card (スマートカード sumāto kādo), also called an IC card (ICカード ai shī kādo) or jōsha kādo (乗車カード, "boarding card"). Using a smart card, fares are calculated automatically no matter how complicated your journey or how often you transfer; just tap on and tap off at both ends. In addition to public transport, smart cards are increasingly used for all sorts of electronic payments, so they can be used at vending machines, convenience stores, fast food restaurants, etc. Smart cards are also accepted in lieu of paper tickets for some bullet trains when journeys are purchased online in advance.
Different cards are available in each region (such as Suica and Pasmo in and around Tokyo, and ICOCA in Kansai), but the major ones are fully interchangeable, meaning you can pick up a card in any major city and use it in virtually the entire country, the main exceptions being Shikoku and Okinawa.
These cards can be purchased from any station ticket counter, including those in airports, and many vending machines for a base deposit of ¥500 plus the amount you wish to load. Cards can be topped up in the same places. The deposit and any remaining value can be refunded when you leave Japan - provided you leave via the same region you arrived and bought the card in. For example, a Pasmo card bought on arrival in Tokyo can be used and recharged in Kansai, but you will not be able to refund it there before flying out of Osaka airport. You can keep the card for your next visit as they stay valid for 10 years from the last transaction.
- Main article: Rail travel in Japan
Japan offers one of the most efficient rail transportation systems in the world, the crowning jewel of which is the Shinkansen (新幹線), popularly known in English as the bullet train, the world's first ever high-speed rail line. Japan's railways can also be among the most complicated to navigate — Tokyo, for example, has thirteen subway lines, several private railways reaching the suburbs, and a circular route called the Yamanote Line holding everything in place.
A tourist who plans to travel a great deal around the country should consider investing in a Japan Rail Pass, which offers — with a few exceptions — unlimited travel on all Japan Railway (JR) services including bullet trains, limited express and regular commuter trains. Seat reservations can also be made for no charge by visiting a staffed JR ticket counter. Prices start at ¥33,610 for a regular adult pass covering 7 consecutive days of travel purchased through JR (¥29,650 if purchased through a travel agency), with costs increasing for 14 and 21-day passes and for Green Car (first class) passes. By comparison, a round-trip reserved ticket between Tokyo and Osaka costs ¥29,440. Children 6–11 years of age can obtain a pass for half the price. Japan Rail Passes have no blackout dates. Depending on where the pass is purchased, you will collect your actual pass in Japan after showing proof of payment (if purchased through JR) or an exchange voucher (if purchased through a travel agency).
There are also regional and local rail passes offered by the various JR companies (such as the JR East Rail Pass), as well as by the subway and private rail companies. Numerous discount tickets are also sold, such as the Seishun 18 Ticket.
For short distances, you can purchase a ticket from a vending machine. Stations will usually have a map above the ticket machines of the other stations along the line or within the vicinity, and the fare to each of those stations. If you are unsure, you can purchase the cheapest ticket at your origin station, and visit a fare adjustment machine at your destination station to pay the difference. In major cities or regions, you can also pay for your journey with a smart card and only have to worry about topping off your balance when you are low on funds.
Part of Japan's efficiency in rail travel lies in its punctuality, and average delays for Japanese trains are typically measured in seconds. All services aim to run promptly on the posted timetable, so arrive early if you know your train's departure time. If you are late by even a single minute, you will miss the train. If you're planning to stay out late, be sure to find out when the last train leaves the station nearest to you. Trains usually don't run during the late night hours, as that's when system maintenance is often carried out. The last train also may not run all the way to the end of the line.
With the exception of airport lines, Japanese trains typically do not have much space for luggage, meaning it is unlikely that you would be able to find space for anything larger than a small suitcase. Fortunately, Japan has very convenient and inexpensive courier services (see § Courier services) which you can use to send your luggage to the next hotel you will be staying at. The downside is that your luggage will generally take at least a day to arrive at the destination, so you should bring a small day bag to take the clothes you need for at least the first night on the train with you. Your hotel concierge will usually be able to arrange this for you, so enquire with them before you check out.
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 the Shinkansen network there is limited.
Tokyo's Narita Airport handles a few domestic flights, but most domestic flights leave from Haneda (HND IATA) to the south of the city. Similarly, while there are some domestic flights from Kansai International Airport, more use Itami (ITM IATA) 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 special fares where international visitors can fly domestic segments anywhere in the country at reduced rates. The most common discount ticket is called the Japan Explorer Pass (JAL) or the Experience Japan Fare (ANA), which offer a limited number of economy fares for ¥5400, ¥7560 or ¥10800 depending on the route. The ¥10800 fare is a particularly good deal for travel to Hokkaido or the remote southern islands of Okinawa. Alternatively, the airlines offer a Welcome to Japan Fare (JAL) or Visit Japan Fare (ANA) where flights cost ¥13,000 each (plus tax) with a minimum of two trips required. Some blackout periods or other restrictions during peak travel seasons may apply. If you reserve on the airlines' respective international websites, the offers for international travelers may be displayed as the cheapest ones... but if you try on the Japan website (in English and in yen), the regular discounts for a purchase in advance may be cheaper.
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, Vanilla Air (formerly Air Asia Japan) and Fuji Dream Airlines. The veteran low-cost carriers include Skymark Airlines, StarFlyer and Air DO. Some of these airlines offer online bookings in English (Fuji Dream and StarFlyer do not). StarFlyer offers a discounted fare of ¥7,000-9,000 per flight to foreigners on select routes. Be careful, their most basic offers may not include a checked baggage (which is sold as an option), and if you reserve via a third-party web site you may not be able to purchase the option.
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.
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.
- Main article: Bus travel in Japan
Buses are plentiful in Japan, and over the last few decades they have evolved into a major mode of intercity transportation, especially for overnight travel. Fierce competition between buses, trains and airplanes have resulted in affordable prices. While a few buses offer fixed fares between two stops, many have adopted a dynamic pricing model, where fares are based on the time of day, whether it's a daytime or overnight bus, the type of seating on the bus, and how far in advance the ticket is purchased.
Major operators of intercity, or highway buses (高速バス kōsoku basu; ハイウェイバス haiwei basu) include the JR Group and Willer Express. Regional transit operators (Seibu in Tokyo, Hankyu in Kansai, etc) also operate long-distance buses. Tickets for such buses can be purchased at the point of departure, or - with a command of some Japanese - at convenience stores or on the internet. A small but growing number of companies offer online reservations for bus routes in English and several other languages.
Willer Express, which operates around the country in its distinctive pink buses, offers online reservations for its buses in English, Korean and Chinese. In the past few years, they have also begun selling tickets for other bus operators as well. Willer Express' major strong point for foreigners is the Japan Bus Pass, which offers discounted bus travel all across the Willer network starting at ¥10200 for a 3-day weekday pass. A separate national pass is the JBL Pass, which is more expensive but covers a larger network of buses.
Another use of highway buses is for travel to and from airports. In major cities, these buses are known as Limousine Buses (リムジンバス rimujin basu), and travel to major train stations and hotels. Buses also travel frequently to their own terminals in the city which are strategically located to aim for consistent, on-time trips - one such example is the Tokyo City Air Terminal, or T-CAT, in Tokyo's Nihonbashi district.
Local buses (路線バス rosen basu) are the norm in big cities and small towns. Bus fares are either fixed (you pay once, when entering or exiting the bus) or distance-based (you board the rear of the bus, grab a numbered ticket, and match the number with the fare displayed on a board at the front of the bus when it's time to get off). Many buses are starting to accept smartcards, making payment easier. Buses are indispensable in less-populated areas, as well as in cities such as Kyoto where there is not much local rail transit. 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. 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.
Calling for a taxi using a smartphone app is becoming available in many cities. These apps will provide the approximate fare to travel between two locations, although trips are still charged by the meter and can fluctuate depending on routing and traffic. Many taxi companies will add a fee for immediate phone or app hails; this booking charge is higher for taxis reserved in advance. In late 2019, some taxi companies will be permitted to start offering fixed-fare rides for smartphone hails in an effort to increase taxi usage by foreigners.
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.
- See also: Driving in Japan
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. 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. Driving is on the left. Using a cell phone while driving without a hands-free kit can result in fines of up to ¥50,000. Driving drunk is not tolerated at all. While the minimum for "driving drunk" is a breath (not blood) content of 0.15 mg/L (equivalent to 0.03% BAC), "driving under the influence" has no minimum, meaning police can charge you with even a whiff of alcohol. Penalties include fines up to ¥1 million, up to 5 years in jail, and immediate suspension or revocation of your license. Refusal to take a breathalyzer test also carries fines up to ¥500,000 and up to 3 months jail. Passengers can also be charged (for allowing the drunk person to drive), with similarly severe fines and jail time.
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 Bikeway, which takes you from Onomichi on the main island to Imabari in Shikoku) have been set up specifically for bikers. Even very rural roads are well paved, but as Japan is quite mountainous, you'll need your lowest climbing gear a lot.
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.
You should learn Japan's somewhat extensive cycling laws, although not all of them are heavily enforced. Cycling drunk is illegal, with no blood alcohol limit, and you face fines of up to ¥1 million or up to 5 years in jail (the same as for driving!). Using your phone or listening to music are both illegal. Cycling on the sidewalk, even in big cities crowded with pedestrians, is normal. Helmets are required for children under 13, but neither children nor adults frequently wear helmets, not even police officers.
Ferries allow bikes for a small fee. Usually trains only allow bikes in a "rinko bag" (bike bag, 輪行袋 rinkō-bukuro or 輪行バッグ rinkō baggu). This requires a folding bike or removing one or both wheels, so it's not very convenient for short trips. Long-distance buses often don't allow bikes, and on local buses it may be at the driver's discretion; in both cases, a rinko bag would also be required. Avoiding inconvenience is key: don't go during busy commuting hours, pack your bike away from the station, keep things clean (bike, bag, and your hands), and don't take up too much space or impede other passengers. Booking a seat at the back of long-distance trains near the storage areas may be helpful.
Japan is an excellent country for hitchhiking, although some Japanese language ability is highly recommended. See Hitchhiking in Japan for a more detail and practical tips for this.
Accessibility and disability
- See also: Travellers with disabilities
Though the cramped cities and older buildings present many barriers to those with disabilities and other mobility issues, Japan is a very wheelchair accessible country. With the passing of the Act for Eliminating Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities in 2015 and preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, Japan has switched into high-gear to create a "barrier-free" society.
The vast majority of train and subway stations are wheelchair accessible. Anyone who needs special assistance, such as a wheelchair user, can inform station staff at the ticketing gates and will be guided to the train and helped off the train at their destination or any transfer mid-journey. Most trains and local buses (but not long-distance buses) have priority seats (優先席 yūsenseki) for the disabled, elderly, pregnant women, and people with infants. The Shinkansen generally does not, but you can always reserve a seat (for a fee, or for free with a Japan Rail Pass). On a wheelchair, you can park in the hallway between cars, reserve a wheelchair seat (which are limited; JR recommends booking 2 days in advance, and you should keep your travel times flexible), or reserve a private room.
The major tourist attractions are adapted within reason and generally provide some sort of accessible route. While discounts are available for those with disabilities, the tourist attraction may not accept disability identification cards not issued in Japan.
Hotels with accessible rooms can be hard to find and are often labeled "barrier free" (バリアフリー baria furii) or "universal" (ユニバーサル yunibāsaru) instead of "accessible". Additionally, even if an accessible room is available, most hotels require booking via phone or email.
Tactile paving was invented in Japan, and has been ubiquitous there for decades. These yellow tiles have dots and bars to help visually impaired people follow paths and identify steps and platforms.
- Accessible Japan - general information on accessible travel, database of hotels with accessible rooms, tourist attraction accessibility information
- Japan Guide: Basic Guide to Accessible Travel in Japan - general tips on traveling with a disability in Japan
- See also: Japanese castles
Like the English, the French and the Germans, the Japanese were also a nation of castle-builders. In its feudal days, you could find several castles in nearly every prefecture.
Because of bombings in World War II, fires, edicts to tear down castles, etc. only twelve of Japan's castles are considered to be originals, which have keeps or donjons (天守閣 tenshukaku) that date back to the days when they were still used. Four of them are 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:
Japan also 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. However, other structures may be original. For example, Nagoya Castle's southeast, southwest, and northwest turrets all date back to the castle's original construction. Okinawa's Shuri Castle is unique among Japan's castles, because it is not a Japanese castle; it was the royal palace of the Ryukyuan Kingdom and built in a distinctive Ryukyuan architectural style, with a much stronger Chinese influence than Japanese-style castles.
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.
Japan is famous for its gardens, known for its unique aesthetics 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.
Pure Land gardens dating back to the Heian Period were built to represent the Buddhist Paradise. They all feature a large central pond in front of the Amida Hall. They're simplistic to such an extent that those who are unaware would like not likely even view them as gardens at all. The Byodoin Temple in Uji, Motsuji Temple in Hiraizumi, and Joruriji Temple in Kizugawa are among the most famous of those that remain.
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 temples also offer meditation classes in English.
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 nation's 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 temples 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.
- See also: Christian sites in Japan
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. In Nagasaki, 26 Japanese Christians were crucified. There is a memorial for these martyrs in the city, and the Oura Church, the oldest church left in the nation, built in 1864.
The Shimabara Rebellion, a Christian uprising, led to the ousting of the Portuguese and Catholic practices from Japan, 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. Oyano's Amakusa Shiro Memorial Hall explains the Shimabara Rebellion and the persecution of Christians. There are less famous sites off the beaten path. When the nation reopened, some Christians assumed that meant that they were able to practice Christianity freely and openly, but it was still not legal and these Christians were tortured. You can see one of these sites at Maria Cathedral in Tsuwano.
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
- See also: Pacific War
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 in Itoman 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. Fifty-eight other places (including Tokyo, of course) were bombed, as well, so there are lesser-known memorials in those cities.
Many people are curious about the possibility of visiting Iwo Jima. The Military Historic Tours Company has exclusive rights to conduct tours of the island, and these tours are only open to US citizens.
- 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
The UNESCO World Heritage site "Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining" is made up of 23 individual sites around the country, most of them in Chugoku and Kyushu. These are places like mines, railroads, ironworks and ports from the Meiji era, which are among the most notable of Japan's first Western-style industrial sites. Separately listed is the silk mill of Tomioka.
It shouldn't be surprising that in a country where more than 70% of the terrain is forests and mountains, outdoor activities abound. Hiking is very traditional and popular in Japan. You can find many small trails across the country, as well as plenty of rugged terrain in Japan's many national parks. Hikes can also be part of a spiritual experience, such as climbing the 2446 stone steps of the holy Haguro mountain through an amazing primeval forest.
Ascending one of Japan's many mountains is within the capabilities of any traveller. You can reach the summit of some mountains almost entirely by car, or with only a short easy walk. Mount Aso is one of the world's largest volcanic calderas, and a paved road brings cars and pedestrians right up to the summit. Or, you can take the ropeway, which was promoted as the world's first ropeway over an active volcano.
Around 300,000 people every year climb Mount Fuji, a mountain so famous as an icon of Japan that it hardly needs introduction. On the most popular route, you will need to use your hands for support, but no actual climbing is required; you can easily climb Fuji with just adequate clothing, some basic gear (sunscreen, headlamp, etc.), and 1–2 days in your itinerary. It's no walk in the park, but it's easily doable if you're not too out of shape.
With its snowy mountainous terrain, Japan is an excellent destination for skiing and snowboarding, although it tends to be mostly domestic visitors. Japan's climate means that many ski resorts get excellent powder, and a lot of it: on average, resorts in the Japanese Alps get 10 m (33 ft) and Hokkaido slopes get a whopping 14 m (46 ft) or more! Skiing in Japan can be inexpensive compared to other countries, with cheaper lift tickets, budget accommodations, and cheap meals. Rental gear is reasonably priced, but as Japanese on average have smaller feet, you should consider bringing your own boots. The easiest way to get to many slopes is to take public transit (rail and buses), and ship your ski/snowboard gear to the slopes (see § Courier services).
Golf is popular with the Japanese, although it tends to be pretty expensive and therefore exclusive. Land is simply too valuable near cities, so golf courses have to pay a lot for land, and are typically 1–2 hours' drive outside the city. (Shuttles from the nearest train station are often available with a reservation.) Midweek prices can be found from ¥6,000 and up. Expect it to take the whole day, with travel time, a round of golf, and relaxing in a hot bath afterwards. Since most players are local businessmen, singles are not allowed on most courses (so make sure you have at least two players), and rental equipment will have a limited selection (better to bring your own clubs and shoes, which you can ship to the range cheaply; see § Courier services).
Despite being an island nation, Japan is not really known for its beaches. Many beaches simply don't exist as Japanese cities (many of which are coastal) expand right up to the coast line. Where there are beaches, they tend to only be visited in summer; as soon as 1 September comes, lifeguards stop patrolling the beaches, and Japanese beachgoers disappear as a result. Surfing is somewhat popular, as the surf can be very good on both coasts (during typhoon season [Aug-Oct] on the Pacific coast, and during winter on the Sea of Japan coast). There are also some excellent spots for snorkeling and diving. Aside from marine life, corals, and World War II wrecks, you can also visit Susami, outside Kushimoto, and send your friends a postcard from the world's deepest underwater mailbox, 10 meters underwater. While boating and river sports are not very common, a few fun activities can be found, such as going river rafting in some of the last wild rivers in Japan in the Iya Valley.
Baseball (野球 yakyū) has been hugely popular ever since it was introduced to Japan in 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. 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.
Tickets to baseball games are generally easy to get, even on the day of a game, although popular games should of course be reserved in advance. Tickets start around ¥2,000. If you are interested, be sure to leave 4–5 hours free. You can generally bring in outside food and drink, which is a good way to save some money instead of paying prices inside the stadium (¥800 for a pint of beer); you'll just need to have your bag inspected and pour your drinks into disposable cups. Especially in Osaka, it's also popular to visit local restaurants or bars where the entire store will be taken over by fans loudly singing, chanting, and cheering non-stop through the entire game. The rules in Japanese baseball are not much different from baseball in United States, although there are some minor variations. The biggest rivalry is between Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants (a national favorite, although equally disliked by many) and Osaka's Hanshin Tigers (widely known for having the most fanatical and dedicated fans, along with many cheers, songs, and traditions).
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 haru no kōshien, or センバツ senbatsu) – 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 natsu no kōshien) – 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.
Soccer (サッカー sakkā) is also popular in Japan. The official league is the Japan Professional Football League (日本プロサッカーリーグ nippon puro sakkā rīgu), known as the J.League (Jリーグ J rīgu), of which the top division is the J1 League. Japan is one of the most successful Asian soccer nations, and has been at or near the top of the Asian Football Confederation rankings for decades.
Sumo wrestling (相撲 sumō) is a popular Japanese sport. The rules are simple enough: be the first to get your opponent to step outside the ring or touch the ground with anything but the bottom of his feet. Almost anything goes except for a handful of forbidden moves, but most matches are won by pushing or grappling, which explains why girth is usually an advantage in a sport with no weight classes. 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, known as rikishi (力士), live a regimented life in training stables (部屋 heya, lit. "rooms", or 相撲部屋 sumō-beya), devoting themselves to nothing more than bulking up and competing. A few foreign wrestlers have been quite successful in the top ranks, although controversial rules have put a limit on how many foreign wrestlers each stable may train.
Sumo is organized by the Japan Sumo Association (日本相撲協会 Nihon Sumō Kyōkai). The biggest events are the six honbasho (本場所, "main tournaments") throughout the year, which are the only events that affect wrestlers' rankings. Each tournament is 15 days long; they're in Tokyo in January, May, and September, Osaka in March, Nagoya in July, and Fukuoka in November. With some planning, you could also arrange to visit a stable during training (稽古 keiko), although you'll need to speak Japanese or bring a Japanese guide, and strictly observe Japanese etiquette and rules from the stable. (For example, you'll be expected to sit silently for the entire duration of practice, which is usually several hours.) Training starts in the early morning, anytime from 05:00 to 08:00.
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 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 two-night show at the Tokyo Dome on January 4 and 5 each year, which has been promoted as Wrestle Kingdom since 2007, and is roughly analogous to WrestleMania in the U.S.
Horse racing (競馬 keiba) is a big business in Japan, and one of the few forms of legal gambling. The Japan Cup, held annually at Fuchu's Tokyo Racecourse, is one of the premier events on the international horse racing calendar, and regularly attracts the world's top jockeys and horses. The Hanshin Racecourse in Takarazuka, the Kyoto Racecourse in Fushimi, and the Nakayama Racecourse in Funabashi round off Japan's "big four" racecourses, and also host numerous internationally important races. The Japan Racing Association (JRA) organizes races at the 10 major racecourses in Japan, while those at the minor local racecourses are run by the National Association of Racing (NAR). Bets for all JRA races can be placed at any of the JRA-run racecourses, and at off-track betting facilities run by the JRA known as WINS.
Games and entertainment
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 carry-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. The major chains all have excellent English-language song selections. Old folks prefer singing enka ballads at small neighborhood bars.
You operate the karaoke machine yourself. It lets you queue up songs to be played in order. (At 4 minutes per song, 15 songs would keep you singing for an hour.) These days, many machines use a tablet or touchscreen which you can use to search for songs by a variety of criteria; if you can get one of these set to English, great. You can also look up songs in the phonebook-sized catalogs, which is what you'll have to do if you can't get an a tablet in English, or at older places that just have a large remote control. Once you find the song's 4- to 6-digit number, aim the remote at the karaoke machine like a TV remote, type in the number (it will appear on the screen, so you can check that it was entered correctly; if not press 戻る to go back), and press 転送 or "send" to confirm and add it to the queue.
Also ubiquitous are pachinko parlors. Pachinko (パチンコ) 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" (特殊景品 tokushu keihin) tokens which they sell back 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.) Even in a declining market, nearly 10% of all Japanese — mostly middle-age businessmen — play at least once a week, and pachinko generates more gambling revenue than Las Vegas, Macau, and Singapore combined.
Video arcades (ゲームセンター gēmu sentā, or ビデオ・アーケード bideo ākēdo; don't confuse with a regular ākēdo which means "shopping arcade/street"), though sometimes difficult to distinguish from pachinko parlors from the outside, have arcade games rather than gambling, and are often several floors high. Video games are the norm here, although you may be surprised at the sheer variety of games. Aside from the usual action and fighting games, there are also rhythm games such as Dance Dance Revolution or the much easier for beginners Taiko Drum Master (太鼓の達人 Taiko no Tatsujin), difficult-to-define oddities such as Derby Owners Club (which can only be described as a "multiplayer online card-collecting role-playing horse racing simulator"), and bizarre inventions like Chō Chabudai-Gaeshi! (超・ちゃぶ台返し! "Super Table-Flip!") where you literally bang on a table and flip it over angrily to relieve stress while racking up points. Game centers usually also have non-video games, which almost always include claw crane games (クレーンゲーム kurēn gēmu) where you can win anything from stuffed animals and trinkets to expensive smartphones and jewelry, and sophisticated photo sticker booths (プリクラ puri-kura, shortened from the brand name Print Club).
Japan's national game is Go (囲碁 igo, or just 碁 go), a strategy board game that originated in China. Players place their stones to surround the most territory on the board; stones can't be moved, but can be captured if they're surrounded in all four directions. While the rules are simple, the strategy and tactics are very complex. Despite its Chinese origins, due to the fact that it was initially introduced to and promoted in the West by the Japanese, it is by their Japanese and not Chinese names that the game itself and its in-game terminology are generally known outside East Asia. By no means everyone plays, but Go has newspaper columns, TV, and professional players. Go 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 shōgi) or Japanese chess. The general mechanics are similar to Western chess, with a few extra pieces that move in unique ways, but the most important difference is that after capturing a piece, you can later "drop" it back into play as one of your own pieces. The use of drops makes shogi a much more complex and dynamic game than Western chess.
Mahjong (麻雀 mājan) is also relatively popular in Japan, and frequently features in Japanese video and arcade games, although it's associated with illegal gambling, and mahjong parlors can be quite seedy. Mahjong uses tiles with a variety of Chinese symbols and characters. Players draw and discard tiles trying to complete a hand with particular sets of tiles (typically, four sets of either three identical tiles or three in a straight flush, plus one identical pair). While gameplay is similar, scoring is drastically different from the various Chinese versions.
- See also: Arts in Japan#Music
The Japanese love music (音楽 ongaku) in all styles.
Traditional Japanese music (邦楽 hōgaku) uses a variety of instruments, many of which originated in China, but developed into unique forms after being introduced to Japan. The most common instruments are the shamisen (三味線, a 3-string picked or plucked instrument), the shakuhachi (尺八, a bamboo flute), and the koto (箏, a 13-string picked zither). Taiko (太鼓) are drums that are unique to Japan, and range in size from small handheld drums to enormous 1.8-metre (5.9 ft) stationary drums. Taiko also refers to the performances, which are very common at festivals. Outside of traditional Japanese music, these instruments are not frequently used.
Western classical music (クラシック[音楽] kurashikku [ongaku]) is moderately popular in Japan with people of all ages. There are 1,600 professional and amateur orchestras (オーケストラ ōkesutora) in Japan; Tokyo is home to nearly half of them, including eight full-time professional orchestras. There are also well over 10,000 choirs (合唱 gasshō, コーラス kōrasu or クワイア kuwaia); the Japan Choral Association has more information.
With the arrival of Western pop music in the 20th century, Japan created its own forms of pop music. These have largely died out except for enka (演歌), sentimental ballads in Western pop styles composed to resemble traditional Japanese music, typically sung in an exaggerated emotional style.
Jazz (ジャズ jazu) has been very popular in Japan since the 1930s. Jazz coffee shops are a common way to listen to jazz.
J-pop and J-rock flood the airwaves. Punk, heavy metal, hip hop, electronic, and many other genres also find niches in Japan where they get their own Japanese interpretation. J-pop is often associated with idols (アイドル aidoru), young music stars manufactured by talent agencies. Although many are one-hit wonders, quite a few idol groups turn into long-lasting acts: SMAP and Morning Musume have been popular for decades, while AKB48 has rocketed to the top to become the best-selling female group in Japan.
Concerts (ライブ raibu, "live") are easy to find. Depending on the event, you may be able to buy tickets at convenience stores (using a numeric code to identify the right concert), online, at record stores, or in various pre-sale lotteries. (Some sellers may require you to have a Japanese credit card with a Japanese billing address, so you may need to try multiple methods to find one you can use.) You can buy day-of tickets at the venue, assuming the concert isn't sold out, but large venues may not even sell tickets at the door. Rather than doing general admission, tickets may be numbered to divide the audience into smaller groups which are admitted in order. Music festivals (ロック・フェスティバル rokku fesutibaru, shortened to ロックフェス rokku fesu or just フェス fesu) are also popular, drawing tens of thousands of people. Fuji Rock Festival is Japan's largest festival, and covers many genres. Rock In Japan Festival is the biggest festival where only Japanese artists are allowed to perform.
- See also: Arts in Japan#Performing arts
The most well-known types of traditional Japanese performing arts originated in medieval or pre-modern Japan, and feature melodramatic period stories of historical events, romance, or moral conflicts. While the old Japanese language they use can be off-putting, an important part of these art forms is the intricate visual aspects of their traditional costumes and emotional expressiveness. You may be more interested in the less well-known taishū engeki ("pop theater") or modern comedy, such as rakugo solo storytellers, extremely popular manzai stand-up duos, or Western-style comedy.
Bunraku (文楽) is a type of puppet theater. An actor and two stagehands precisely control each puppet, while a narrator performs the exposition and all dialogue with improvised shamisen accompaniment.
Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a popular type of dance-drama. It's known for the elaborate costumes and makeup that performers wear. Kabuki tells its stories through the expressions and dances. Actors fly above the audience on wires and make dramatic entrances and exits via aisles down the middle of the audience, complex revolving stages, and trap doors.
Noh (能 nō or 能楽 nōgaku) is an older type of musical drama. Minimalist and probably boring for the average visitor, noh uses wooden masks and stark movements on identical bare sets, and tells its emotional stories through the lyrics, which are in an old form of Japanese (difficult for even native speakers to understand). It's sometimes described as "Japanese opera", although it's closer to chanted poetry rather than actual singing.
Traditionally used as comic intermission between acts in a noh play, kyōgen (狂言) consists of short (10 minute) plays, often using stock characters such as servants and their master, or a farmer and his son.
Much less well-known is taishū engeki (大衆演劇), a vague term meaning "theater for the masses" or "popular theater". Superficially, it's similar to kabuki, with elaborate Edo-period costumes, but the melodrama is turned all the way up. Every performance is a new tale, as these plays are not scripted, but invented from scratch during the morning's rehearsal; the simple stories are easy to understand even without a translation, with the good guys obviously triumphing over the bad guys. Following the play, the second half showcases actors mostly solo performing traditional dances with modern flashing stage lights and fog machines. You may find these accessible shows to have cultural similarities to variety shows, revues, or even drag shows. Shows are much cheaper than kabuki or noh, around ¥2,000.
Comedy in Japan is markedly different from the Western style. Japanese are very sensitive about making jokes at the expense of others, so Western-style stand-up comedy isn't very common. Most Japanese comedy relies on absurdity, non sequiturs, and breaking the strict social expectations. Most Japanese also love puns and wordplay (駄洒落 dajare), although these can cross the line into groan-inducing oyaji gyagu (親父ギャグ "old man jokes"). Don't bother attempting irony or sarcasm; Japanese rarely use these, and they're likely to take your statement at face value instead.
- The most common and well-known type of stand-up comedy in Japan is manzai (漫才). This typically involves two performers misinterpreting each other and making puns at a breakneck pace.
- Another traditional type of Japanese comedy is rakugo (落語), comedic storytelling. A lone performer sits on stage, using tricks to convey actions like standing up or walking, and tells a long and usually complicated funny story which always involves dialog between two or more characters.
- A few troupes do Western style stand-up and improv comedy in English, which attracts a diverse international audience and even a lot of English-speaking Japanese.
Japanese cultural arts
- See also: Arts in Japan#Japanese cultural arts
Japan is famous for geisha, although they're often misunderstood by the West. Literally translated, the word 芸者 (geisha) means "artist" or "artisan". Geisha are entertainers, whether you're looking for song and dance, party games, or just some nice company and conversation. (Prostitution hasn't been part of their profession for almost a century.) Geisha train from a young age to be exquisite, high-class entertainers. They're often employed today by businesses for parties and banquets. Although traditionally expensive and exclusive, you may be able to see geisha perform for as little as ¥3,000, or for free at a festival. In the largest Japanese cities, it's easy to spot a geisha if you look in the right part of town.
In hostess clubs, a female hostess will provide conversation, pour drinks, entertain, and to some degree flirt with her male clients. (At a host club, roles are reversed with male hosts serving female clients, typically with a bit more overt flirting.) Hostesses work in bars and sing karaoke to entertain, compared to geisha coming to tea houses and restaurants to perform traditional Japanese arts. The hostesses are professional flirts, not prostitutes, and many hostess clubs have a prohibition on physical intimacy or sexual conversation topics. Maid cafés and other cosplay restaurants have employees dressed as French maids pamper their clients while serving them beverages and food.
Tea ceremony (茶道 sadō or chadō) is not unique to Japan, or even to Asia, but the Japanese version stands out for its deep connection to Japanese aesthetics. The focus of a Japanese tea ceremony is not so much the tea as making guests feel welcome and appreciating the season. Due to the influence of Zen Buddhism, Japanese tea ceremony emphasizes a uniquely Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi (侘寂). A very rough translation might be that wabi is "rustic simplicity" and sabi is "beauty that comes with age and wear". There are tea houses across Japan where you can be a guest at a tea ceremony. The most common type of "informal" ceremony usually takes 30 minutes to an hour; a "formal" ceremony can take up to 4 hours.
Japan has an estimated 200,000 festivals (祭 matsuri) throughout the year. Festivals are held for a variety of reasons, the most common being to give thanks (e.g. for a successful rice harvest) and bring good fortune. Although most festivals are small events sponsored by local shrines or temples, there are hundreds that are large city-wide affairs, any of which would be a nice addition to your itinerary if they overlap your schedule.
The main event at many large festivals is a parade of floats, which are usually lifted and carried by hand by several dozen men. Often a shrine's kami (spirit/deity) will be ritually put in a portable shrine (mikoshi) and carried around the neighborhood as part of the parade. At some festivals, anyone can take a turn helping to carry a float for a few minutes. Fireworks (花火 hanabi) are also a common event at festivals, particularly in the summer; in Japan, this is the most common use of fireworks. The rest of the time is spent enjoying the booths and entertainment. Food stalls have traditional festival foods like takoyaki, shaved ice (かき氷 kakigōri), and skewered hot dogs. A traditional game at festivals is goldfish scooping (kingyo sukui): if you can catch a goldfish using the flimsy paper scoop, you get to keep it. Other common games include ring toss and cork guns.
Festivals are a time for the neighborhood and community to come out and celebrate together, whether it's a family, young couples making a date of it, or just a group of friends. Nearly everyone will put on a colorful yukata robe, while many of the people working at the festival wear happi coats. (Street clothes are perfectly fine, too.)
The JNTO website has a list of several dozen festivals throughout the year in English. Some of the most well-known festivals are:
- Sapporo Snow Festival (さっぽろ雪まつり Sapporo Yuki-matsuri) in Sapporo (February, 7 days starting the second week) — elaborate snow and ice sculptures
- Hakata Dontaku in Fukuoka (May 3–4) — Japan's largest festival, drawing over 2 million people during the Golden Week holidays
- Kanda in Tokyo (May, Sa-Su closest to May 15 in odd-numbered years)
- Hakata Gion Yamakasa in Fukuoka (July 1–15) — famous for racing one-ton floats
- Gion in Kyoto (July, the whole month but particularly 14-17 and 21-24)
- Nebuta in Aomori (August 2–7)
- Awa-Odori in Tokushima (August 12–15) — folk dance festival
There are also several nationwide festivals:
- New Year's (正月 Shōgatsu) (December 31 - January 3)
- Hina matsuri (March 3) — during the "Doll festival", families pray for their girls, and arrange displays of dolls of the emperor and his court
- Tanabata (around July 7; in Sendai, August 5–8; some places based on lunar calendar) — sometimes called the "Star Festival", celebrates the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (the stars Vega and Altair) who could only meet on this day each year
- Obon or Bon (three days usually around August 15, but date varies by region) — when spirits of the deceased return to this world; families have reunions, and visit and clean ancestors' graves
- Shichi-Go-San ("Seven-Five-Three") (November 15) — for girls age 3 and 7 and boys age 3 and 5
Some local festivals are more eccentric. Hari Kuyō ("needle memorial") festivals are held throughout Japan to express thanks to old or broken needles and pins. Hadaka ("naked") festivals are actually common throughout Japan, but the most well-known one is the Eyō Hadaka matsuri at Saidai-ji in Okayama. Thousands of men wearing just loincloths scramble to catch lucky sacred items thrown into the crowd, which will bring them a year of happiness. Naki Sumō ("crying sumo") festivals throughout Japan have competitions where two sumo wrestlers holding babies see which baby will cry first as priests provoke them by making faces and putting on masks. And the Kanamara matsuri in Kawasaki is famous for celebrating the male genitalia.
Hot springs and public baths
- See also: Public baths in Japan
As a nation made of volcanic islands, it's not surprising that in Japan hot springs (温泉 onsen) are commonplace. Japanese have pondered for centuries what the best hot springs in the country are, and they've come up with quite a few. Bathing is a big deal in Japan, and be it a scenic onsen hot spring, a neighborhood sentō bath or just an ordinary household tub, bathing Japanese style is a pleasure. Whereas a Western "bath" is used for washing in, "baths" in Japan are for soaking and relaxing, more like a hot tub. Washing is done first outside the tub.
Onsen are the pinnacle of the Japanese bathing experience. Clusters of hot spring inns pop up wherever there's a suitable source of hot water. The most memorable onsen experience is often the rotenburo (露天風呂): outdoor baths with views of the surrounding natural scenery.
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. To find those off the beaten track inns, check out the Japan Association of Secluded Hot Spring Inns (日本秘湯を守る会 Nihon hitō o mamoru kai), which has 185 independent lodges throughout the country.
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. Some, however, have gone upmarket and turned into "spas" (スパ supa), which are 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 — beware any place advertising "esthe", "health", or "soap" — but most are surprisingly decent.
Foreign visitors typically visit hot springs by stopping at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, most of which feature hot springs as one of their main attractions (the other main attraction usually being the elaborate kaiseki meals). This requires some research and planning to decide where you want to go (most ryokan are in small towns in the country) and to fit it into your schedule. But don't focus exclusively on inns; many onsen have no lodging, making them cheap and quick to stop at, although many are hard to get to without a car or bicycle.
Many onsen and sento 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.
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. Baths in Japan are generally used naked, although if you really don't want to be seen by strangers and/or travel companions, you can instead use private baths (by reservation or attached to your room) or stay clothed in a foot bath.
Exchange rates for Japanese yen
As of 11 August 2020:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The Japanese currency is the Japanese yen, abbreviated ¥ (or JPY in foreign exchange contexts). 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. 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 (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 fundamentally a cash society. 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. Some machines, such as coin lockers, laundries and beach showers, only accept ¥100 coins, and some change machines may only accept ¥1,000 bills.
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. American Express and Discover are easier to use than Visa, MasterCard and UnionPay because of an agreement with the popular JCB card. Most merchants are only familiar with the JCB/AmEx agreement, but Discover will work if you can convince them to try.
The following two types of contactless payment terminals are used throughout the country:
- EMV - compatible with MasterCard PayPass/Visa PayWave and Apple Pay/Google Pay.
- FeliCa - compatible with Japan-specific cards such as Suica/Waon.
iOS devices (iPhone 8 and above and Apple Watch Series 3 and above) are able to store a Suica card in Apple Pay for transport ticketing in major cities and store purchases using the FeliCa terminals. To create a Suica card in Apple Pay you must set your device's region to Japan. You can change the region back after adding the card and it will still work. You can also create a new Suica card using the Suica or SuicaEng apps. Once loaded, simply tap your iOS device to a Suica terminal/gate for your mobile payment/travel to be accepted.
Android devices sold outside Japan cannot store a Suica card in Google Pay as they do not contain the FeliCa chip.
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 15-30 min, depending on how busy the branch gets, is not unusual. Other currencies accepted are euros, Swiss francs, British pounds, and Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand dollars. Singapore dollars are the most widely accepted Asian currency, followed by the Korean won, Chinese yuan, and Hong Kong dollars. Other Asian currencies are generally not accepted.
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). Japanese post offices can also cash traveller's checks or exchange cash for yen, at a slightly better rate than the banks. Traveller's checks also have a better rate of exchange than cash. If you are exchanging amounts in excess of US$1,000 (whether cash or traveller's checks), you will be required to provide identification that includes your name, address, and date of birth. 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. 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. In the event that you need a locally-issued "credit" card (for an online merchant that performs region checks, for instance), there are a multitude of online-only virtual Visa cards available, and some stores' point cards carry a prepaid Visa or JCB card function also.
Japanese bank branches will often only have ATMs available during office hours, though this is changing.
While foreigners used to have to go to a 7-Eleven Bank or Japan Post ATM to withdraw cash, cash is now available from a wider range of ATMs, known locally as "ATMs" (ē tī emu) or "cash corners" (キャッシュコーナー kyasshu kōnā).
The major banks and ATM operators accepting foreign cards are listed the Shopping in Japan article.
Many Japanese ATMs are closed at night and during the weekends, so it's best to get your banking done during office hours. Exceptions are convenience stores like 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, Lawson (for UnionPay users), and Ministop locations in larger cities.
Staff at some bank branches are unaware that their ATMs 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.
For information on setting up a bank account or getting a Japanese credit card, see Working in Japan#Money.
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). Cigarette vending machines require a Taspo card (age verification), which are not available 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 other general purposes, though they aren't interchangeable.
There is a 10% consumption tax on most sales in Japan. Tax is usually included in displayed prices. 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. Note that daily necessities, such as take-away food and non-alcoholic beverages, are subject to a lower 8% tax.
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 (they have an agreement with Daikokuya).
American Express cardholders have more emergency options: the AmEx office in Tokyo can print replacement cards for same-day pickup if lost, and they do have the ability to send emergency funds to certain locations in Japan for pick-up if needed.
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'. 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, though it is completely optional. 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 since the 1990s. Japan need not be outrageously expensive if you plan carefully and in fact, is 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 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.
Costs also differ from location to location, with the Tokyo metropolitan area being more expensive than the rest of the country.
Tips for budget shopping
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) in most cities like Daiso, 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 which carry sandwiches, drinks, vegetables and some ¥100 items.
- See also: Shopping in Japan
Japan is known for its upscale department stores (デパート depāto), the nicest of which feature beautiful interior architectural ornamentation and still employ uniformed women to operate the elevators while informing customers where to find items. Depāto typically have a food court and groceries in the basement, while the roof often has a garden (which doubles as a beer garden during the summer) and some affordable eateries.
Retail hours are surprisingly limited, 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. However, you will always find something you could need to buy at any time of day. Japan is crawling with 24/7 convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, Circle K, and Sunkus.
Many Westerners come to Japan in search of anime (animation), manga (comics), and video games. One of the best places to shop is Akihabara in Tokyo.
Battery-powered small electronics and still cameras made for sale in Japan will work anywhere in the world. There are no great bargains to be found, 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. Japanese AC runs at 100 volts, so check devices' ratings; if it's not rated for 100–120 V, using it without a step-down transformer can be dangerous. Blank media is a great deal; Blu-ray optical media for video and data is much, much cheaper than anywhere else.
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.
Japan's main contribution to jewelry is the cultured pearl. The pearls 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 kimonos 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 purchasing a kimono for buying your own.
- Main article: Japanese cuisine
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. Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso soup (味噌汁 miso shiru) served with many meals, but also tofu (豆腐 tōfu) bean curd and the ubiquitous soy sauce (醤油 shōyu). Seafood features heavily in Japanese cuisine, including creatures of the sea and many varieties of seaweed. 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).
The Michelin Guide is considered by many Western visitors to be the benchmark of good restaurants in Japan. But many top fine dining restaurants are not listed in it by choice. Tabelog is the go-to directory for Japanese people looking at restaurant reviews, but most of the reviews are posted in Japanese.
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.
- Never place or leave chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice; You can rest chopsticks across the edge of your bowl, plate or chopstick rest.
- Never pass something from your chopsticks to another person's chopsticks.
- Licking the ends of your chopsticks is considered low-class.
- Using chopsticks to move plates or bowls 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.
You shouldn't "whittle" your disposable chopsticks after breaking them apart (which would imply you think they're cheap), but for cleanliness it is good manners to put them back in their paper wrapper when you're finished eating.
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.
Many restaurants give you a hot towel (o-shibori) to wipe your hands with (not your face) as soon as you sit down.
Japanese never put soy sauce on a bowl of rice. Japanese don't like to waste food (including soy sauce, so don't pour more than you need), but it's fine in most restaurants if you leave some food on your plates.
In all types of Japanese restaurants, staff generally ignore you until you ask for something. Say "sumimasen" ("excuse me") and maybe raise your hand at a large restaurant. Restaurants will present you with the bill after the meal. Pay at the counter when leaving — do not leave payment on the table and walk out. Tipping is not customary in Japan, although many sit-down restaurants apply 10% service charges and 24-hour "family restaurants" usually have a 10% late-night surcharge.
The number of restaurants (レストラン resutoran) in Japan is stupendous, and you will never run out of places to go. Japanese almost never invite guests to their homes, so socializing nearly always involves eating out. 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. At the other end of the spectrum, fine dining can be very expensive indeed.
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. There may be photographs of the food labeled with names and prices.
Many cheap chain eateries have vending machines where you buy a ticket and give it to the server. At many of these restaurants, you'll have to be able to read Japanese or match the price from models or picture menus, along with some of the kana (characters) to the choices at the machine. Some other places have all-you-can-eat meals called tabehōdai (食べ放題), byuffe (ビュッフェ, "buffet"), or baikingu (バイキング "Viking", because "smorgasbord" would be too hard to pronounce in Japanese).
Shokudō (食堂 "cafeteria" or "dining hall") serve up simple, popular dishes and teishoku sets at affordable prices (¥500-1000). 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 staple of the shokudō is the donburi (丼), meaning a bowl of rice with a topping.
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".
Department store basements 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. You can also find restaurants in department stores, often on the top floors.
Japan is considered by many to be one of the world's centers of fine dining. Japan is tied with France for first place as the country with the most Michelin-star restaurants. Unfortunately, Japanese fine dining is notoriously inaccessible to foreign visitors; online bookings are typically not an option, staff typically speak little to no English, and most fine dining establishments do not accept reservations from new customers without an introduction from one of their regular diners. In some cases, if you are staying in a top-end luxury hotel, the concierge may be able to score you a reservation at one of these places provided you make the request well in advance.
Traditional Japanese inns (see § Ryokan) are a common way for travellers to enjoy a fine kaiseki meal. The elaborate meals featuring local seasonal ingredients are considered an essential part of a visit to a ryokan, and factor heavily into many people's choice of inn.
Practically every town and hamlet in Japan boasts its own "famous" noodle (麺 men) dish.
There are two major noodle types native to Japan: thin buckwheat soba (そば) and thick wheat udon (うどん). Chinese egg noodles or rāmen (ラーメン) are also very popular but more expensive (¥500 and up) and typically include a slice of grilled pork and a variety of vegetables. Slurping your noodles is acceptable and even expected. According to the Japanese, it cools them down and makes them taste better. Any remaining broth can be drunk directly from the bowl.
Sushi and sashimi
Perhaps Japan's most famous culinary exports are sushi (寿司 or 鮨), usually raw fish over vinegared rice, and sashimi (刺身), plain raw fish. Most sushi restaurants keep a handy multilingual decoding key on hand or on the wall.
At the finest sushi restaurants, the chef puts a dab of fiery wasabi radish into the sushi, and glazes the fish with soy sauce for you. Thus, such sushi restaurants don't have individual bowls of soy sauce or wasabi. Most restaurants, though, provide them at the table. (Turn nigiri sushi upside down before dipping, as the soy sauce is to flavor the fish, not to drown the rice.) Slices of pickled ginger (gari) refresh the palate.
When eating sushi, it's perfectly acceptable to use your fingers. Good sushi is always made such that you can put the entire piece into your mouth at once.
Grilled and fried dishes
The teppanyaki (鉄板焼き, confusingly known in the U.S. as "hibachi") and self-grill yakiniku (焼肉, Japanese-style "Korean barbecue") cooking methods, as well as the deep fried tempura (天ぷら) battered shrimp and vegetables originate here. Meat (especially beef) can be fiercely expensive, like the famous marbled Kobe beef, which can cost thousands per serving. Tempura has entered the Japanese fine dining repertoire, and there are numerous fine tempura omakase restaurants in which the chef deep-fries the dish in front of you and puts it directly on your plate to be eaten immediately.
Other uniquely Japanese foods include okonomiyaki (お好み焼き, "cook it how you like it", a batter with cabbage, meat, seafood, and vegetable fillings of your choice, often self-cooked at your table) and yakitori (焼き鳥, grilled skewers of every chicken part imaginable).
Japanese curry is very distinct from Indian curry. Curry powder was introduced to Japan in the late 19th century by the British. The Indian curry brought by the British was too spicy for Japanese tastes, but they altered the recipe to make it sweeter and thicker. Curry restaurants can be found throughout the country, but there are also localized versions, such as Kanazawa Curry, Bizen Curry, and Kuwana Curry. Soup curry is a famous dish in Hokkaido. Curry udon and other curry combinations are also quite popular.
Various types of hot pot (鍋 nabe), as well a number of stewed food items known as oden (おでん) are popular in Japan during the winter. You can often find pseudo-Western dishes, which were adapted from European and American cuisines, but often heavily Japanized. See the Japanese cuisine article for more details.
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. Fast food chains offer the range from classic Japanese food through to modern American junk food.
There are also a number of Japanese family restaurants (ファミレス famiresu or ファミリーレストラン famirii resutoran), 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.
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; they are everywhere and almost always open 24/7. Major chains include 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart. You can find instant noodles, sandwiches, meat buns, and some small prepared meals, which can be heated up in a microwave 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 ¥100-150 each (as of Mar 2019).
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 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.
Vegetarians (much less vegans) may have serious difficulty finding a meal that does not include animal products, 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. Soba and udon noodle soups 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.
A safe bet is to look for Buddhist cuisine (精進料理 shōjin ryōri), which is based on the cuisine eaten by Japanese Buddhist monks, and uses only the highest quality ingredients. As per Mahayana Buddhist tradition, it does not include dairy products, eggs or any other animals products. However, it is usually rather expensive.
An excellent option is the kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi shop. There are several kinds of rolled sushi available in these shops that do not include fish or other marine creatures. You may have to ask for the type of sushi you want and the sushi chef will prepare it for you.
Traditional Japanese cuisine contains an ample amount of protein through its great variety of soy products. 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.
Vegetarians may want to seek out Indian or Italian restaurants in larger cities.
Travelling in Japan with 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.
A serious soy (大豆 daizu) allergy is basically incompatible with Japanese food. The bean is used everywhere, including 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. Commercially prepared sushi vinegar and wasabi may both contain gluten. Avoiding dairy products is straightforward, as they are uncommon in traditional Japanese cuisine. Peanuts and other tree nuts are basically not used in Japanese cooking, with the exception of a few snacks and desserts. Peanut oil is rarely used.
Due to the very small size of the Muslim and Jewish communities, finding halal or kosher food is very difficult in Japan, and you will need to do some advanced planning before your trip. Muslim visitors can contact the Japan Islamic Trust, while Jewish visitors can contact either of Tokyo's Chabad Houses for more information; see here and here.
- See also: Japanese_cuisine#Beverages
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. The drinking age is 20. However, ID verification is almost never requested at restaurants, bars, or convenience stores, so long as the purchaser does not appear obviously underage. The main exception is in the large clubs in Shibuya, Tokyo, which during busy times will ID everyone entering the club.
Drinking in public is legal in Japan, as is public intoxication. It's especially common to drink at festivals and hanami. It's also not unusual to have a small drinking party on the bullet trains.
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. Food is invariably good and reasonably priced.
A common Japanese institution is the snack (スナック sunakku). These small neighborhood bars are usually run by an aging woman addressed as mama-san ("Ms. Mom"); besides serving food and a limited selection of drinks (often just beer and whiskey), she's a surrogate mother for patrons to converse with and get advice and even an occasional scolding from. Many are dive bars filled with cigarette-smoking regulars; an occasional visit from foreigners may be welcomed, but if you don't speak some Japanese you're undoubtedly missing some of the appeal. Somewhat related are hostess clubs (キャバクラ kyaba-kura, short for "cabaret club"), many of which describe themselves as 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.
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.
Karaoke parlors serve drinks and snacks. Orders are placed via a phone on the wall, by pressing a button to summon staff, or in high-tech ones using the karaoke machine's tablet or remote control.
If you're just looking for a jolt of caffeine, go to Starbucks or one of its Japanese competitors such as Doutor or Excelsior. But for a more calm and unique experience, the Japanese coffee shop, kissaten (喫茶店), has a long history. Most are one-of-a-kind affairs, and reflect the tastes of their clientele. A peculiar kind of kissaten is the jazz coffee shop; these moody joints for jazz buffs are strictly for quiet listening, and not for conversation.
Vending machines (自動販売機 jidōhanbaiki, or jihanki in slang) are omnipresent in Japan and serve up drinks 24 hours a day at the price of ¥120-150 a can/bottle. In addition to cans of soft drinks, tea and coffee, you can find vending machines that sell beer, sake and 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.
Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. The Japanese word sake (酒) can 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 contrary to popular belief, is usually not served hot, but often chilled; defaulting to room temperature is in most cases safe. Bottles and menus often show the nihonshu-do (日本酒度), a "sake level" that measures the sweetness or dryness of the brew, the average today being around +3 (slightly dry). When making a purchase, price is often a fair indicator of quality.
Shōchū (焼酎) is the big brother of sake, a stronger-tasting distilled type of alcohol. Traditional shōchū are most commonly made of rice, yam, or grain, but can be made of other materials like potatoes, too. Typically around 25% alcohol and often cheap at less than ¥1000 for a big 1L bottle, these can be served straight, on the rocks, or mixed with hot or cold water. Shōchū industrially made out of sugar is often used and served as a kind of cooler mixed with juice or soda known as a chū-hai, short for "shōchū highball".
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 (ロック rokku) or mixed with soda (ソダ割り soda-wari).
Japanese whisky ([ジャパニーズ] ウイスキー [japanīzu] uisukī), although popular domestically for over 150 years, has come to inernational attention and won numerous awards. It can be had neat/straight (ストレート sutorēto) or on the rocks (オン・ザ・ロック on za rokku or simply ロック rokku), but it's much more common to dilute it, the same as with shōchū. The most common preparation is a highball (ハイボール haibōru), 1 part whisky and 2 parts soda water over ice. Another common drink uses cold mineral water (水割り mizu-wari) in the same proportions, or in the winter, hot water (お湯割り o-yu-wari).
There are several large brands of Japanese beer (ビール biiru), including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory. Yebisu is also a popular beer brewed by Sapporo. In Japanese restaurants, beer is typically served in various sizes of bottles (瓶 bin), or draft (生 nama meaning "fresh"). Most Japanese beers are dry pilsners, with strengths averaging 5%, which pair well with Japanese food but are definitely light in flavor. Even the few dark beers like Asahi Super Dry Black are actually dark lagers, so despite their color they're still not very full-bodied. Microbreweries are quickly picking up steam, and their kurafuto bia (クラフトビア "craft beer") or ji-biiru (地ビール "local beer") bring some welcome diversity to the market. You'll likely have to hunt around to find them, though; besides brewpubs and good liquor stores like the widespread Yamaya (店舗 or やまや), another good place to look is department store basements.
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. Specialized stores and large department stores offer the most extensive offerings. 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. Unless specified, tea is usually Japanese green tea; Western-style black tea is called kōcha (紅茶), and Chinese oolong tea (ウーロン茶 ūron cha) is also popular. 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. 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 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.
There are many uniquely Japanese soft drinks and trying random drinks from vending machines is one of the little traveller's joys of Japan. Calpis (カルピス Karupisu) is a kind of yogurt-based soft drink that tastes better than it sounds. The famous Pocari Sweat (ポカリスエット Pokari Suetto) is 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.
American soft drink brands are widely available. The only choices for diet soda will be Diet Coke, Coke Zero, or Diet Pepsi. In Japan, the term "juice" (ジュース jūsu) is a catch-all term for any kind of soft drink — including even Coca-Cola and the like — so if it's fruit squeezings you want, ask for kajū (果汁). Extremely few are 100% juice. Water is commonly encountered in the form of plastic bottles of water. The tap water is safe to drink, and you can find filling stations for water bottles through Refill Japan, or by asking for water at a friendly restaurant.
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. 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 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. However, many Japanese hotels and third-party booking sites do not accept online bookings more than 3 to 6 months in advance, so if it's more than 3 months before your trip and you're not finding anything available, either contact the hotel directly or try again later.
Sizes of Japanese rooms are often measured in jō (畳 or sometimes 帖), the number of tatami (straw floor) mats that would cover the floor, regardless of the room's actual flooring material. Sizes vary by region, with 1 jō ranging from 1.445 to 1.824 m2, but a commonly used value is 1.652 m2 (17.8 sq ft). A typical room in a Japanese apartment is 6 jō (about 9.3 m2; 100 sq ft), big enough to sleep two people with their luggage spread out.
While Western-branded hotels (ホテル hoteru) 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 - the only Western-branded hotel chain with widespread Japanese presence, it operates Intercontinental Hotels, Crowne Plazas and Holiday Inns across Japan. Some ANA Hotels can be booked via IHG's reservation system.
- Okura Hotels & Resorts is a brand of upscale and luxury hotels. They also own the midscale chains Hotel Nikko and JAL Hotels.
- Rihga Royal
- Prince Hotels
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 in that price range.
However, there are several types of uniquely Japanese and far more affordable hotels:
Capsule hotels (カプセルホテル kapuseru hoteru) are the ultimate in space-efficient sleeping: for a small fee (normally between ¥3000 and ¥4000), the guest rents 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 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. 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 (ラブホテル rabu hoteru) is a 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. The entrance is usually quite discreet, and the exit is separated from the entrance (to avoid running into someone one might know). 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. Service charges, peak hour surcharges, and taxes 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 22:00, and overstaying may incur hefty additional "Rest" charges. Many rooms have simple food and drinks in a refrigerator, and often have somewhat high charges. Before entering a love hotel, it would be wise to take some food and drinks with you. The rooms often feature amenities such as jacuzzis, wild theme decoration, costumes, karaoke machines, vibrating beds, sex toy vending machines, and in some cases, video games. Most often, all toiletries (including condoms) are included. Sometimes the rooms have a book that acts as a log, where people record their tales and adventures for posterity. Popular love hotels may be entirely booked up in the cities on weekends.
Why are they everywhere? Consider the housing shortage that plagued post-war Japan for years, and the way people still live in extended families. If you are 28 years old and still live at home, do you really want to bring your mate back to your folks' house? If you are a married couple in a 40-square-metre (430 sq ft) 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.
Hidden cameras have been found in public and private spaces, including love hotels, planted 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 staged.
Business hotels (ビジネスホテル bijinesu hoteru) 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 REI Hotels, known for its generously sized rooms, Sunroute Hotels and Toyoko Inn. The latter have a club card, which at ¥1500, can pay for itself on a single Sunday night.
Local 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. Full payment is often expected on check-in, and check-out times are early (usually 10AM) 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 a trip to Japan for many. 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 ¥8,000 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. Take the time to research options to choose what's best for you; for the same price, the cheapest room at an upscale ryokan is likely a better deal than the most expensive room at a modest one, as the shared facilities in each ryokan are the same no matter what room you're in. And with careful searching, at some places you can find dinner-only or no-meal rates.
Ryokan usually operate on a fairly strict schedule and you will be expected to arrive by 17:00. 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. At this time, staff will ask your preferences for when to take dinner and breakfast, and any choices such as courses (such as a choice of Japanese or Western style breakfast) and drinks.
Before dinner you will be encouraged to take a bath — see Public baths in Japan for the full scoop. But first, you should change into your yukata robe, which you wear during your whole stay. 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"). If you're chilly, you can add a haori, a traditional coat, which often has long hanging sleeves that serve as pockets.
Once you have bathed, dinner will be served, either in your own room or in a dining room. Ryokan typically serve kaiseki cuisine, traditional meals that consist of a dozen or more small dishes. Kaiseki is very elaborately prepared and presented from carefully chosen seasonal ingredients. There is usually a simmered dish and a grilled dish, which you cook individually, as well as obscure items that most Westerners aren't usually familiar with; by all means ask if you are not sure how to eat a given item. Local ingredients and dishes are also showcased, sometimes replacing the kaiseki experience with oddities such as basashi (horse meat) or a meal cooked in an irori hearth. 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.) Geta are typically available near the entrances, or available by request from the desk. These wooden clogs have two supports to elevate them from the ground (a necessity in ancient Japan with muddy roads), which gives them a distinctive clacking sound. It takes a minute to get used to walking in them, but they're not very different from Western flip-flops. 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. A few Western-style rooms are available in some ryokan, but beds are always singles, and they lack the charm of a Japanese-style room.
Breakfast in the morning is more likely to be 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. Although a few ryokan offer a choice of a Western breakfast, usually a Japanese breakfast is the norm, meaning rice, miso soup and cold fish. If you're feeling adventurous, you can try the popular tamago kake gohan (卵かけご飯 "egg on rice", a raw egg and seasoning which you stir into a bowl of hot rice) or the disliked-even-by-some-Japanese nattō (納豆 fermented soybeans, which you stir vigorously with chopsticks for a minute or two until they become extremely stringy and sticky, and then eat over rice).
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 in disguise. The price will tell you the type of lodging it is.
Minshuku (民宿) are the budget version of ryokan, and similar in concept to a B&B. At these family-run houses, the overall experience is similar to ryokan 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 ¥5,000 to ¥10,000 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 ¥3,000.
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.
Pensions (ペンション penshon) are similar to minshuku but have Western-style rooms, just like their European namesake.
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 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 sometimes a lock-out period during the day when all guests must leave), and dorm rooms are often 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, sentō (public bath), or sauna is also an option. See Public baths in Japan.
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.
There are a number of guest houses (ゲストハウス) in Japan. Sometimes this is just a synonym for "hostel", but other guest houses are run from someone's private home. Whereas a minshuku is a destination unto itself, guest houses are simply places to stay, and often have convenient locations in cities or nearby suburbs. They may have shared dormitory-style accommodations, and unlike a minshuku or B&B usually don't offer meals. Most will have a curfew as well. Some cater to foreign visitors, although some Japanese language ability will be helpful for finding, booking, and staying at one.
Particularly in Japan's dense cities, hospitality exchange through sites like AirBnB has become very popular. Many of the listings will be for mansions (マンション manshon), which in Japanese is a common marketing term that really means "condominium". Mansions are typically in high-rise buildings with many amenities, unlike apartments (アパート apaato) which are usually inexpensive flats. Hospitality exchange can be a good way to find a great deal on premium lodging and experience what a typical home is like for many Japanese.
If you're staying for a longer period, you might be able to drastically reduce your living costs by staying in a gaijin house. 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. Renting an apartment is a ridiculously complex and expensive process. See Working in Japan#Accommodations for more information.
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.
- See also: Public baths in Japan
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.
- See also: Working and studying in Japan
There are hundreds of thousands of foreigners studying in Japan, either in language schools (to learn Japanese), in universities, or to study Japanese martial arts, or arts and crafts.
Many exchange programs bring foreigners to Japan, including at the university level. Students from many countries are exempt for obtaining a visa if they are coming to Japanese to study the Japanese language for up to 90 days, while visas sponsored by educational institutions are required for other students.
- See also: Working and studying in Japan
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.
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.
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. 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. North American accents are preferred, as well as an unspoken preference for teachers with a white appearance.
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.
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 risks, notably groping, harassment or worse.
Japan is a country obsessed with cleanliness and health hazards are few and far between. Food hygiene standards are very high. There are no communicable diseases of significance, and despite the name, Japanese encephalitis has been almost eradicated.
Tap water is safe and of good quality throughout the country. Domestic and foreign brands of bottled water are available for ¥100-200 everywhere (at least in tourist destinations). Most restaurants serve filtered tap water for free. Unless specifically labeled "mineral water" (ミネラルウォーター mineraru wōtā), water in Japan has a low mineral concentration in general. Radioactivity levels in the water supply have been closely monitored in some areas since the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster, but found negligible as far as water used by civilians is concerned; also see the U.S. Embassy's summary and Tokyo government's daily reports.
Many Japanese public toilets do not have soap, and some do not have toilet paper, although there are often vending machines nearby that sell toilet paper 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 limited 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. However, if you have not made arrangements prior to arrival for any reason, Sompo Japan sells travel insurance for visitors that can be applied for online after arrival.
Most Japanese doctors and nurses are unable to communicate in English. The website 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 most 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. This detention period may be extended for another 23 days each time indefinitely by simply amending the charge. 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 anything (Japanese equivalent of signing), 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. Over 99% of criminal trials in Japan end with a conviction, so if your case goes to trial, your conviction is largely a formality, and the main job of the judge is to decide your sentence. If you are convicted of a crime, you will be looking at a first-hand experience of Japan's notoriously harsh prison system.
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 for single female travellers late at night, but it is still no excuse to ditch your commonsense. 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. Some trains have female-only carriages during rush hour in an effort to combat sexual harassment. 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 極道 gokudō), the Japanese gangsters, 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 for drinks that they do not remember ordering (notably in the Roppongi and Kabukichō 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 Kabukichō).
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. 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, in which they can be identified with a flashing red light. 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. Some Japanese public phones have a red emergency button on the lower panel; press this and then dial. In Tokyo, operators proficient in English and other languages are available; elsewhere, they should usually be able to reach an English translator who will have a three-way conversation with you and the dispatcher. In Tokyo, you can report non-emergencies and get translation in English, Korean, and Chinese from the General Advisory Center at +81 3 3501-0110; it is available M-F 08:30-17:15 except on holidays. Similar services are available from any prefecture's police headquarters by calling #9110, although fewer foreign languages may be available.
Prostitution is illegal in Japan. However, enforcement is lax, and the law specifically defines prostitution as "sexual intercourse 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 Kabukichō (歌舞伎町) in Tokyo's Shinjuku district where many call girl booths and love hotels are located. The incidence of HIV has been rising in Japan. Some prostitutes will refuse to serve foreign customers, including those who are fluent in Japanese.
Contrary to its reputation for very efficient and comprehensive public transport, outside of Tokyo, Japan is a very car-centric culture. Street patterns in much of the country have remained unchanged for centuries, so many roads are small and full of blind corners.
Japanese drivers treat traffic lights differently than other drivers. When the light is green at a pedestrian crossing near an intersection, Japanese drivers will often turn onto you. Usually, they will turn halfway and then stop, allowing you to cross, though it is not unheard of for them to charge forwards at full speed, ignoring people who are crossing. Crossing the street when the light is red is illegal, and this is sometimes enforced.
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.
Although violent attacks against foreigners in Japan are almost unheard of, there is systemic discrimination, particularly against darker-skin people. Even white 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.
Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been a perceived spike in xenophobia, with some shops and restaurants having refused service to foreigners, especially Chinese people. Such establishments are in the minority however, and most foreign residents are able to go through their daily lives for the most part.
Earthquakes and tsunamis
Japan is prone to earthquakes (地震 jishin) which can sometimes cause tsunamis (津波 tsunami). 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. Every few days, somewhere in Japan is rattled by a quake large enough to be felt, but most of them are completely harmless. Japan is well-prepared for such disasters though, and has very strict building codes that require buildings to be engineered to withstand major earthquakes. Japan has an early warning system that detects earthquakes and notifies areas that will be affected, giving from a few seconds up to a minute's notice. Use this invaluable time to cover up before the actual jolt.
If you are by the sea and experience even a moderate quake, look 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. If you are near the sea and experience a major earthquake, evacuate to high ground immediately; do not wait for a warning.
Every neighborhood has an evacuation area, most often the local playground. Many schools are set up as temporary shelters. They 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.
Japan is extremely intolerant of drug offenders. Strict laws are in place for anyone that smuggles drugs. This applies even if you consumed drugs outside of the country, or if it is proven that you aren't aware the drugs are in your luggage. Checking your luggage beforehand is strongly recommended to prevent issues like this.
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 4 centimetres (1.6 inches) 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.
The Japanese-language national newspapers Yomiuri Shimbun (読売新聞) and Asahi Shimbun (朝日新聞) are the two most widely circulated newspapers in the world. Other major national newspapers include the Mainichi Shimbun (毎日新聞) and Sankei Shimbun (産経新聞). The Nikkei (日本経済新聞) is Japan's main financial newspaper, and the most widely-circulated financial newspaper in the world.
The Japan Times (¥200 daily, ¥250 Sunday) from Tokyo is Japan's largest and oldest English-language daily newspaper, and is sold bundled with The New York Times International Weekly. Yomirui Shimbun also prints English-language The Japan News daily, and The Nikkei Weekly (日経ウィークリー) covers business news from Japan every Monday. Many other English publications have gone online-only.
- See also: Public baths in Japan#Toilets
As elsewhere in Asia, you will find both Western-style porcelain thrones for sitting and floor-level units for squatting.
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.
Over half of Japan's homes are equipped with high-tech devices known as washlets (ウォシュレット), which incorporate seat warmers, hot air dryers and tiny arms that squirt water. The flush mechanism is usually not operated by the control panel: instead, there is a standard, Western-style lever, switch or knob somewhere, and it is thus possible to take care of your business without using the washlet features. (In rare cases, look for buttons labeled 大 or 小, meaning a big or small flush respectively, on a wireless control panel on the wall.) There is always a big red button labeled 止 with the standard "stop button" symbol ⏹ on the panel — pressing this will instantly stop everything. Older models have a lever nearby that controls the flow of a sprayer.
Typical controls include:
- Oshiri (おしり) - "buttocks", for spraying your rear - typically shown in blue with a stylized butt icon
- Bidet (ビデ) - for spraying your front - typically shown in pink with a female icon
- Kansō (乾燥) - "dry", for drying off - typically yellow with a wavy air icon
Other, smaller buttons can be used to adjust the pressure, angle, location and pulsation of the jet of water. Sometimes the seat of the toilet is heated, and this can also be regulated.
Using people's names
Names are a complicated matter in Japan. Most Japanese follow the Western naming order when writing their names in English. However, when names are written or spoken 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. Historical figures from before the Meiji restoration are an exception, such as Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康), whose name follows East Asian naming conventions even when written in English.
Using someone's given name when speaking to or about them is considered very personal, and is only used when addressing children of elementary school age or younger, and very close friends. At all other times, the default is to use family names plus -san (さん), a suffix approximately like "Mr." or "Ms." Most Japanese know that Westerners usually go by their given names, so they may call you "John" or "Mary" with no suffix, but unless they tell you otherwise, you should still call them "Family name-san" to be polite. (However, don't introduce yourself as "John-san". The point is to honor others; using a suffix on yourself generally sounds cocky and arrogant.)
San is the default suffix, but you may encounter a few others:
To avoid being overly familiar or formal, stick with "Family name-san" until someone asks you to call them differently.
In business settings, the title is often used in place of the family name when addressing a person; for instance, an employee may address his company's president as shachō-sama (社長様, "Honored Mr./Ms. President"), while a customer may address a shop owner (but not the other employees) as tenchō-san (店長さん, "Mr./Ms. Storekeeper").
Although often being used in Chinese as a honorific, the title kakka (閣下, your excellency) are mostly limited to heads of state and diplomats, and historically, for generals and admirals.
Lastly, the reigning Emperor is always called Tennō Heika (天皇陛下, "His (Imperial) Majesty the Emperor"), Kinjō Heika (今上陛下, "His Current Majesty") or simply Tennō ("the Emperor") or Heika ("His Majesty") in Japanese. Calling him "Emperor Reiwa", even in English, is a faux pas since this is strictly his future posthumous name. Calling him by his given name, Naruhito, is also not done and is considered vulgar.
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 appreciate 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, as it would damage the tatami.
- 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 Public baths in Japan 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; this ubiquitous gesture of respect is used for greeting, saying farewell, thanking, accepting thanks, apologizing, accepting apologies, etc. 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, and better than accidentally performing a deep formal bow (as U.S. President Obama once did). Many Japanese will gladly offer a handshake instead or in addition; just be careful that you don't bump heads when trying to do both at the same time.
- When you are handing something to someone, especially a business card, it is considered polite to present it holding it with both hands.
- Business cards in particular are treated very respectfully and formally. How you treat someone's business card is seen as representing how you will treat the person. When accepting a business card, use both hands to pick it up by the corners, and take the time to read the card and confirm how to pronounce the person's name. It's disrespectful to write on a card, fold it, or place it in your back pocket (where you'll sit on it!).
- 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, and 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.
- Some items are not given as gifts because of cultural associations. Some things to watch out for: black and white are important colors in funerals, scissors or knives may insinuate you want to cut off your relationship with someone, and certain flowers have particular connotations. Other taboos are based on homophones: for example, the word "four" (四 shi) sounds like "death", "nine" (九 ku) sounds like "suffering", and "comb" (櫛 kushi) sounds like "suffering death"! It's a good idea to consult a local for advice, or at least search the Internet for lists of taboo gifts before you purchase one.
- 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. Some priority seats (優先席 yūsenseki, or シルバーシート shirubā shīto, "silver seats") on many trains are set aside for the disabled, elderly, pregnant women, and people with infants.
- 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)
- Glass bottles (ビン bin)
- Metal cans (カン kan)
- Burnable trash (もえるゴミ moeru gomi)
- Non-burnable trash (もえないゴミ moenai gomi)
- Punctuality is highly valued, and generally expected thanks to Japan's reliable public transit. If you're meeting someone and it looks like you'll arrive even a few minutes late, Japanese prefer the reassurance of a phone call or message if you can send one. Being on time (which really means being early) is even more important in business; Japanese employees might get scolded for arriving even one minute late to work in the morning.
- When riding on Shinkansen and limited express trains, it is considered good manners to ask for permission from the person behind you before reclining your seat (「椅子を倒してもいいですか?」 "Isu o taoshite mo ii desu ka?"), to which they will almost always oblige. Likewise, the passenger sitting in front of you would often do the same to you, and you should respond with a nod of your head.
- Hospitality in Japan means giving visitors and guests the very best, no matter how much it inconveniences the host. For example, asking for directions on the street can sometimes prompt the stranger to go out of their way to walk you all the way to your destination. You'll particularly notice this during a homestay, where you'll be offered use of the bath before the rest of the family, and may be given the host's bed while they sleep on the couch. In Western culture it would be polite to refuse such accommodations, but in Japanese culture you should apologize for inconveniencing them, which serves as acceptance of their generosity. Similarly, while entertaining guests it's common for the host to putter around busily in the kitchen and elsewhere, which is meant to create an air of "all your needs are being met"; rather than offering to help them, you should just sit and enjoy the peaceful moment they're offering for you.
- 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.
- In some traditional settings, you may be expected to sit in seiza posture, kneeling on the floor. This is the traditional way to sit on tatami mats, with or without a cushion. However, today even most younger Japanese can't sit this way for more than a few minutes without their legs going numb, so most foreigners have no hope. Give it a try to be respectful, but when your legs start aching, say "Sumimasen" ("Excuse me") and change your posture to something less formal but still polite: men may sit cross-legged, and women usually sit with both legs to one side.
- The Japanese consider back slaps rude, especially if they're coming from someone they just met. Hugging is typically reserved only for romantic couples, and should also be avoided unless that situation applies to you.
- 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.
- Smoking is discouraged on many street corners and sidewalks around Tokyo. Most smokers will be found huddled around designated smoking areas. The Japanese are such a clean culture that many of the smokers won't even leave ash on the ground.
- Displaying an open mouth is traditionally considered impolite. Many Japanese women will at least partially cover their mouth with their hand when laughing, smiling, or sometimes eating. Don't feel obligated to do so yourself, although doing this in a formal setting (whether you're male or female) would probably make you seem sophisticated and polite.
- As in neighboring China and Korea, saving face is a very important concept in Japanese culture. Particularly in business settings, Japanese people will rarely say "no" if they are not interested in a deal, and would instead say something more indirect such as "I'll think about it" instead. Body language is also used for this in place of words; if your question is met by someone loudly breathing in through their teeth, sometimes accompanied by scratching the back of the head (a gesture that conveys embarrassment), the answer is actually "no". Unless it is by a boss or someone from a position of seniority, mistakes are typically not pointed out, and doing so will likely cause major embarrassment.
- While voter apathy is high, that's not to say Japanese don't care about politics, but it's not a common discussion topic among Japanese. They may in fact be interested to hear about your own politics back home (particularly from Americans), but might be much less welcoming of your thoughts on Japanese politics. Sensitive topics include:
- Japan's territorial disputes with China, South Korea and Russia
- World War II — a touchy and complicated topic, especially with older people, it is generally best avoided, but the vast majority of Japanese people bear no animosity against the United States, and American visitors will get a particularly warm welcome as most Japanese admire American culture
- Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which renounces war and forbids the establishment of a military (although the Japanese Self-Defense Forces are the world's fourth most-powerful de facto military)
- Bad behavior of some American soldiers stationed in Japan
- Japan's historical marginalization of the indigenous Ainu and Ryukyuan people
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) in suits and children in school 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. Dress shoes are acceptable as well, as are quality walking sandals (not flip-flops), although sandals are not common outdoor wear for locals. 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, or capri pants for keeping cool in warm weather. 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, bathing suits are allowed in some baths. For men, speedos or trunks are fine at a bath; for the beach, boardshorts are also okay. 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 (ハンカチ hankachi), use a fan (扇子 sensu for a folding fan, 団扇 uchiwa for a flat fan) to keep themselves cool, or (for women) use umbrellas (傘 kasa) 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 – you can find men's and women's handkerchiefs from high end designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Burberry 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.
Rain umbrellas are often cheap plastic, and available at every convenience store for about ¥500. Since they all look alike, they're sometimes treated as a communal resource. 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. Some stores instead have bags to keep your umbrella from dripping on the floor. Hostels usually have umbrellas to lend, as do some other lodgings and businesses. Rather than toting your own umbrella around, you may find it more convenient to buy a cheap one (if you even need to), "donate" it to your hostel, and buy a new one in your next city.
Japanese people are in general not very religious, and contemporary Japanese society is rather secular in daily life. That said, most Japanese people still practise a mix of Buddhism and Shinto to some degree, and will still visit Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines to offer prayers during important festivals or life events. You are expected to dress and behave in a respectful manner whenever you visit religious sites. Religious freedom is respected by most Japanese, and people of all faiths are generally able to practise their religion without any major problems.
As in many other Asian countries, swastikas are Buddhist symbols representing peace 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.
When visiting a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple, follow the appropriate cleansing procedure at the chōzuya or temizuya (手水舎) before you enter. Using your right hand, fill the dipper with water. Rinse your left hand, then your right hand. Then, cup your left hand and fill it with water, using it to rinse your mouth. Do not touch the dipper directly with your mouth. Spit the water onto the rocks. After that, rinse your left hand one more time. Finally, turn the dipper upright so the remaining water spills down to rinse the handle before returning the dipper.
A Christian minority exists in Japan and there was historically a group called "Kakure Kirishitan" (隠れキリシタン) or "hidden Christians" who went underground when Japan persecuted Christianity. However, this group is all but extinct nowadays, having become mainstream Christians or Shinto/Buddhist for the most part. Unlike South Korea, Japan does not have "megachurch" style denominations and while Christians have attained high political offices - including that of Prime Minister - at 1-2% of the Japanese population, Christianity is not very visible and most Japanese people will have wrong or no knowledge of even basic tenets of Christianity.
International dialing prefixes vary from company to company. Check with your operator for more details. For international calls to Japan, the country code is 81. Phone numbers in Japan have the format
+81 3 1234-5678 where "81" is the country code for Japan, the next digits are the dialing zone where the local number is located (can contain from one to three digits) and the remaining digits (six to eight digits) are the "local" part. When calling within Japan, the long-distance prefix (trunk code) is 0, and this is usually written in the number, like
03-1234-5678; when calling Japan from abroad, leave off the "0". Phone numbers starting with 0120 or 0800 are "free-dial" numbers, and are free to call from any landline (payphones included), while phone numbers starting with 0570 are "navi-dial" numbers, which are variable-rate numbers used by businesses (one number works nationwide, but you are charged based on the distance between your phone and the closest call center operated by the company).
To dial abroad from Japan, the international access code is 010 (or "+" on mobile phones).
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, which would cost ¥1000 if purchased from normal sales channels, would only cost around ¥650). 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.
Japan has had a tendency to develop technology that's initially superior to what's available elsewhere in the world, but either fails to catch on elsewhere or becomes incompatible with global standards. This has been called Galápagos syndrome, after the Galápagos Islands and their highly-specialized flora and fauna that led Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution.
Japanese mobile phones were the original example of Galápagos syndrome. With e-mail and web browsing available since 1999 and mobile payments since 2004, they were nearly a decade ahead of global competition. But when global standards for messaging, web browsing, and contactless communication were settled, they were incompatible with the existing Japanese technologies. As a result, the Japanese mobile phone market became isolated, and has had comparatively slow adoption of smartphones, which were initially a step backwards from Japanese-only Gara-kei (from "Galápagos" and "keitai") feature phones. The tide has turned, however, and smartphones (スマホ sumaho) are taking over.
Mobile phones aren't the only technology to suffer from Galapagosization. Smart cards for public transit, kei cars, digital television, and car satellite navigation are all examples of widespread technologies in Japan that either never caught on elsewhere, or developed incompatible standards that have left Japan isolated.
Modern Japanese mobile phones (携帯電話 keitai denwa or just keitai) use the global standards for 3G and LTE. In a nutshell:
- LTE phones should work, but check your device's compatibility: your device may not support the ones used in Japan.
- 3G phones using the UMTS standard and equipped with a 3G SIM card will most likely work.
- 3G CDMA phones should work on the AU network. You must make sure your phone's PRL is updated, however, or it will not be able to register on AU's towers.
- 2G phones (GSM) from the rest of the world do not work in Japan.
If your phone is up to spec, double-check with your carrier if they have a roaming agreement with SoftBank or NTT DoCoMo, or for 3G CDMA phones, AU. Coverage is generally excellent, unless you are heading to a 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. Be sure to double-check with your network provider before departing.
Data roaming works as well (subject to the above restrictions), allowing you to use wireless Internet on your phone (although it can be expensive!). Google Maps on your phone can be invaluable (although tower positioning may not work depending on the carrier you are using).
If you just need Internet and not phone calls, or if your phone and carrier support calling over Wi-Fi, the cheapest and easiest option is to rent a Pocket Wi-Fi, a battery-powered Wi-Fi access point that runs over the cellular networks. Alternatively, you can purchase a data-only SIM card more freely. Data-only SIM cards, unlike full voice+text+data SIM cards, do not require the purchaser to be a Japanese resident. See § Pocket Wi-Fi below.
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. Incoming calls are free in Japan. Beware of "free" rental as there is a catch: usually, there are very high call charges
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 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. If you have entered on a tourist visa or visa waiver, only SoftBank will sell you service on a phone, and you must purchase your SIM at an airport service counter. Other SoftBank stores are not yet able to sell prepaid SIMs to foreign tourists.
- 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 less than face value.
- A prepaid feature phone is available for as little as ¥5000 plus ¥3000 for a 60-90 day call time package (SoftBank also now sells stand-alone SIMs), 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 for feature phones. For smartphones, SoftBank is the only provider to offer prepaid service with data; ¥900 for 2 days of unlimited data and e-mail, ¥2.700 for a week of unlimited data and e-mail, and ¥5.400 for a month of unlimited data and e-mail, all on their LTE network.
- See also b-mobile for a 1GB prepaid data only SIM available in a visitor version at ¥3,980.
- Users of the latest iPads with Apple SIMs can simply choose to set up an AU or SoftBank account in the data settings menu using a credit card from home. Both providers charge ¥1620 per 1GB/30 days and in the case of AU, can be set to automatically add more data when you run low.
- 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 at the major providers, assuming light calling, but prices are beginning to fall. A cancellation fee may also apply if the contract is terminated early. However, there are MVNOs of the major providers that charge lower monthly fees (usually less than ¥2,000 and sometimes just below ¥1,000 if voice service is not necessary) and do not require a contract term, but do expect you to bring your own phone. These MVNOs also suffer lower priority on the host's network (mineo, an MVNO of AU, often sees its users' LTE speeds cut to a few percent of what they usually are at peak times as AU users continue to enjoy high-speed service).
- Electronics malls like Bic Camera have selection of prepaid data SIMs for tourists. You can choose between different data options and term.
As much as anywhere else, Japanese use their phones more for texting than phone calls. However, SMS and MMS text messages never caught on in Japan due to surcharges and limitations (even though those have since been eliminated). Instead, Japanese text by email (which in Japanese is just called メール mēru, without the "E-" prefix) using an email address tied to their mobile phone number.
The internationally popular messaging app WhatsApp is not popular in Japan, and most Japanese people use local Japanese app LINE instead.
You can send postcards to anywhere in the world for ¥70 (some postcards are sold with domestic postage of ¥52 included, so you may only have to pay for a supplemental ¥18 stamp when mailing). 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.
Several companies in Japan provide convenient and inexpensive courier service (宅急便 takkyūbin or 宅配便 takuhaibin). This is useful for sending packages and documents door-to-door, but also for getting luggage to/from airports, cities, and hotels, or even having golf clubs and skis/snowboards taken directly to the sporting destination. Couriers guarantee next-day delivery to practically all locations in Japan, excluding Okinawa and other far-flung islands, but including remote rural locations like ski resorts.
The largest courier is Yamato Transport, often called Kuro Neko (黒ねこ "black cat") after their logo. They're often synonymous with "takkyūbin", and in fact they call their service TA-Q-BIN in English. Other couriers include Sagawa Express and Nittsu (Nippon Express).
You can send and receive packages at many locations. Most convenience stores have delivery services. Hotels and airports also offer courier services.
Typing with a Japanese keyboard
On a PC, there may be several possible ways to switch between Japanese and Roman input:
On Macs, use the
For email, the
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.
Many train stations, including major JR stations, have Wi-Fi. 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.
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.
Public Wi-Fi availability is really hit and miss in Japan, but it is being expanded little by little. Cafes such as starbucks may require registering your email address and responding to an email before you can use the Wifi (requiring you to go, sign up, find another place with free wifi, then going back). Many major stations, airports, and conviniece stores also offer Wi-Fi, but will require you to register every time you use it. One simple way of getting around this is a Japan free Wi-Fi app, which will allow you to connect without having to register every time. You should be ready though, this free public wifi is usually weak and painfully slow.
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.