The “Land of the Rising Sun” is a country where the past meets the future. Japanese culture stretches back millennia, yet has also been quick to adopt and create the latest modern fashions and trends.
Japan is often difficult to understand for those educated in the west. It can seem full of contradictions. Many Japanese corporations dominate their industries, yet if you read the financial news it seems like Japan is practically bankrupt. Cities are as modern and high tech as anywhere else, but tumbledown wooden shacks can still be spotted next to glass fronted designer condominiums. Japan has beautiful temples and gardens which are often surrounded by garish signs and ugly buildings. The most acclaimed restaurant in the country, which costs hundreds of dollars for dinner, is a small shop located in a subway station seating less than a dozen people. In the middle of modern skyscrapers you’ll discover sliding wooden doors which lead to traditional chambers with tatami mats, shoji screens, and calligraphy, suitable for traditional tea ceremonies. These juxtapositions can seem perplexing or jarring to those used to the more uniform nature of European and North American cities, but if you let go, and accept the layered aesthetics, you’ll find interesting and surprising places throughout the country.
Japan has often been seen in the West as a land combining tradition and modernity, and many traditional structures and practices are preserved, but modern structures and practices definitely dominate your experience in Japan. Japan was the first Asian country to independently modernize, and the country continues to embrace new technologies and aesthetics, but unlike in many countries, Japan does not feel a particular need to attack or remove older technologies, structures, or practices. New things are mostly just layered beside old things. That’s not to say that Japan embraces the large scale preservation of historical structures or that peopx`xle generally practice traditional ceremonies, but people generally believe that if a small number of people want to continue on a tradition or preserve a building that they own, they should be allowed to do that. In this way, development mostly happens in a piecemeal fashion, one building at a time, rather than in large redevelopment projects. Many urban blocks evolve to line up dozens of narrow buildings spanning fifty or more years of design history. Clothing styles evolve along a dozen paths at the same time rather than singular mass fashion trends. An individual that embraces a particular subculture and its fashions may alternately conform to vary different norms when working or at home, but there is little sense of conflict between these roles.
Japan’s location on islands at the outermost edge of Asia has had a profound influence on its history. Just close enough to mainland Asia, yet far enough to keep itself separate, much of Japanese history has seen alternating periods of closure and openness. Until recently, Japan has been able to turn on or off its connection to the rest of the world, accepting foreign cultural influences in fits and starts. It is comparable with the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe, but with a much wider channel.
Recorded Japanese history begins in the 5th century, although archaeological evidence of settlement stretches back 50,000 years and the mythical Emperor Jimmu is said to have founded the current Imperial line in the 7th century BCE. Archaeological evidence, however, has only managed to trace the Imperial line back to the Kofun Period during the 3rd to 7th centuries CE, which was also when the Japanese first had significant contact with China and Korea. Japan then gradually became a centralized state during the Asuka Period, during which Japan extensively absorbed many aspects of Chinese culture, and saw the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism. The popular board game of Go is also believed to have been introduced to Japan during this period.
The first strong Japanese state was centered in Nara, which was built to model the then Chinese capital Chang’an. This period, dubbed the Nara Period was the last time the emperor actually held political power, with power eventually falling into the hands of the court nobles during the Heian Period, when the capital was moved to Kyoto, then known as Heian-Kyo, which remained the Japanese imperial residence until the 19th century. Chinese influence also reached its peak during the early Heian Period, which saw Buddhism become a popular religion among the masses. This was then followed by the Kamakura Period, when the samurai managed to gain political power. Minamoto no Yoritomo, the most powerful of them, was dubbed shogun by the emperor and ruled from his base in Kamakura. The Muromachi Period then saw the Ashikaga shogunate come to power, ruling from their base in Ashikaga. Japan then descended into the anarchy of the Warring States period in the 15th century. Tokugawa Ieyasu finally reunified the country in 1600 and founded the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal state ruled from Edo, or modern-day Tokyo. A strict caste system was imposed, with the Shogun and his samurai warriors at the top of the heap and no social mobility permitted.
During this period, dubbed the Edo Period, Tokugawa rule kept the country stable but stagnant with a policy of almost total isolation (with the exception of Dutch and Chinese merchants in certain designated cities) while the world around them rushed ahead. US Commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Ships arrived in Yokohama in 1854, forcing the country to open up to trade with the West, resulting in the signing of unequal treaties and the collapse of the shogunate in the Meiji Restoration of 1867, during which the imperial capital was relocated from Kyoto to Edo, now re-named Tokyo. After observing Western colonization in Southeast Asia and the division and weakening of China, which the Japanese had for so long considered to be the world’s greatest superpower, Japan vowed not to be overtaken by the West, launching itself headlong into a drive to industrialize and modernize at frantic speed. Adopting Western technology and culture wholesale, Japan’s cities soon sprouted railways, brick buildings and factories, and even the disastrous Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which flattened large parts of Tokyo and killed over 100,000 people, was barely a bump in the road.
From day one, resource-poor Japan had looked elsewhere for the supplies it needed, and this soon turned into a drive to expand and colonize its neighbors. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 saw Japan take control of Taiwan, Korea and parts of Manchuria, and its victory against Russia in the 1904–5 Russo-Japanese war cemented its position of strength. With an increasingly totalitarian government controlled by the military, Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China via Manchuria in 1931 and by 1941 had an empire stretching across much of Asia and the Pacific. In 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, destroying a large portion of the US Pacific fleet but drawing America into the war, whose tide soon started to turn against Japan. By the time it was forced to surrender in 1945 after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1.86 million Japanese civilians and military personnel had died, well over 10 million Chinese and other Asians had been killed, many in atrocities committed by the Japanese military machine, and Japan was occupied for the first time in its history, until 1952. The Emperor kept his throne but lost his god-like position in the imposed constitution. Converted to pacifism and “democracy”, with the US mostly taking care of defense, Japan then directed its prodigious energies into peaceful technology and re-emerged from poverty to conquer the world’s marketplaces with an endless stream of cars and consumer electronics to attain the second-largest gross national product in the world.
But frenzied growth could not last forever, and after the Nikkei stock index hit the giddy heights of 39,000 in 1989, the bubble well and truly burst, leading to Japan’s lost decade of the 1990s that saw the real estate bubble 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 240% of GDP) and an increasing polarization of Japanese society into “haves” with permanent jobs and “have-not” part-time freeters drifting between temporary jobs. This has resulted in Japan losing its position as the world’s second largest economy to its larger neighbour, China. Japan still enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world.
As an island nation shut off from the rest of the world for a long time (with mild exceptions from China and Korea), Japan is very homogeneous. Almost 99% of the population is of Japanese ethnicity. The largest minority are Koreans, around 1 million strong, many in their 3rd or 4th generation. 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 popular sightseeing areas, and you may encounter moments when entering a shop causes the staff to seemingly panic. Don’t take this as racism or other xenophobia: they’re just afraid that you’ll try to address them in English and they’ll be embarrassed because they can’t understand or reply. A smile and a Konnichiwa (“Hello”) often helps.
As Japan has undergone periods of openness and isolation throughout its history, Japanese culture is if anything unique. While heavy Chinese influences are evident in traditional Japanese culture, it has also retained many native Japanese customs, resulting in a seemingly seamless blend. Japan has undergone many shifting when it comes to fashion and technological development that breaks some fo their stigmas and possibilities. Art, behaviour, and cuisine has influenced Japnese culture from the Western culture in that aspects.
Here are some Japanese culture you have to know before they opened their country to the Western world. (Some of these are not current Japanese customs. Japan opened its country to the world in the late Edo period, about 150 years ago.) :
The most important holiday in Japan is New Year’s (お正月 Oshōgatsu), which pretty much shuts down the country from December 30 to January 3. Japanese head home to their families (which means massive transport congestion), eat festive foods and head out to the neighborhood temple at the stroke of midnight to wish in the New Year. Some Japanese often travel to other countries as well, and prices for airfares are very high. Wild drunken parties are extremely rare, however, and Japanese don’t shoot off fireworks for the occasion (except for a few theme parks at midnight). Large cities with ex-pat bars are the only place for whooping it up. Expect banks and museums to be closed for the entire holiday period. Some restaurants may open right after New Year’s Day, and some stores trying to squeeze out more revenue may be open as well. Convenience stores are the only guaranteed places that don’t close, so they are always open to get food or yen at those with machines that take foreign ATM cards.
From late March to early April on average (in May in Hokkaido), Japanese head out en masse for hanami (花見, lit. “flower viewing”), a festival of 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. It is actually impossible to accurately predict when the blossoms will come out until about a month before they do, but there are several online sources to check on the forecasts, such as by the JNTO, Weather Map, and Rurubu. To chase the blossoms, try looking at these sites from around mid-February.
The longest holiday is Golden Week (27 April to 6 May, but varies slightly), when there are four public holidays within a week and everybody goes on extended vacation. Trains are crowded and flight and hotel prices are jacked up to multiples of normal prices, so it can be a bad time to travel in Japan, but the weeks immediately before or after Golden Week are excellent times. It is also wisteria and azalea season, which is extremely beautiful. What you need to know is that there is a big exodus of people from the big cities at the start of Golden Week and their return at the end. As long as you are not fighting the Japanese for the same seats on trains or rooms at hot spring resorts, etc., Golden Week can be easily navigated – and the big cities are in fact emptier than normal.
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.
Many cities and villages throughout Japan have their own unique seasonal matsuri. If you are visiting a specific place, it may be wise to check to see what is coming up and when it is taking place.
Lunar holidays such as equinoxes may vary by a day or two; the list below is accurate for 2012. Holidays that fall on a weekend may be observed with a bank holiday on the following Monday. Keep in mind that most Japanese people take additional time off around New Year’s, during Golden Week, and during Obon. The most important festival is New Year’s Day, and many shops and restaurants close for at least 2 days during this period, so it might not be an ideal time to visit. However, convenience stores remains open, and many temples conduct New Year’s Day fairs, so it’s still not difficult to find food to eat.
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) and Reiwa 2 corresponds to 2020. The year may be written as “R2” or just “2”, so “2/4/1” is April 1, 2020. Western years are also well understood and frequently used.
Japan has two dominant religious traditions: Shinto (神道) is the ancient animist religion of traditional Japan, and Buddhism officially arrived in 552 CE. For much of its history, the two faiths were not clearly differentiated, but there was a schism when Buddhism lost favor with the fall of the Shogun and the subsequent modernization of the country in the late 19th century. Today, the two faiths are clearly separated, most Buddhist elements have long since been removed from most Shinto shrines, and the ceremonies are clearly separated.
Christianity has never gained wide acceptance in Japan since Japan’s opening to the world, and while it is no longer persecuted, only a small percentage of Japanese are Christian.
Generally speaking, the Japanese are not a particularly religious people. It is common to visit shrines and temples to offer coins and make silent prayers, and many homes often have a small shrine or display religious artifacts from various temples, but there is little mention of religious faith or dogma in daily life. Japanese people also tend not to think of religion as a matter of dogma or faith but rather as a matter of particular practices, and they will follow practices from various religions as it suits them, thus it would be impossible to try to represent what percentage of the population is Shinto versus Buddhist. 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, Christian for weddings and Buddhist when they die, since funerals usually use Buddhist rites. Most Japanese accept a little bit of every religion. For example, Christmas decoration is probably more evident in Tokyo than New York, but there is little thought of Christ. In fact, Christmas in Japan is celebrated a lot more like Valentine’s Day in the West.
At the same time, Shinto and Buddhism have had an enormous influence on the country’s history and cultural life. The Shinto religion focuses on the spirit of the land, and is reflected in the country’s exquisite gardens and peaceful shrines deep in ancient forests. When you visit a shrine (jinja 神社) with its simple torii (鳥居) gate, you are seeing Shinto customs and styles. If you see an empty plot of land with some white paper suspended in a square, this is a Shinto ceremony to dedicate the land for a new building. Buddhism in Japan has branched out in numerous directions over the centuries. 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 Shinto sub-shrine within a Buddhist temple (o-tera お寺).
Karaoke (カラオケ) was invented in Japan and can be found in virtually every Japanese city. Pronounced kah-rah-oh-keh it is abbreviated from the words “Empty orchestra” in Japanese – many natives won’t have any idea what you’re talking about if you use the English keh-ree-oh-kee. Most karaoke places occupy several floors of a building. You and your friends have a room to yourself – no strangers involved – and the standard hourly rate often includes all-you-can-drink booze, with refills ordered through a phone on the wall or through the karaoke machine itself. The major chains all have good English-language song selections. Old folks prefer singing enka ballads at small neighborhood bars.
Also ubiquitous are pachinko parlors. Pachinko is a form of gambling that involves dropping little steel balls into a machine; prizes are awarded depending on where they land. Legally you can only win trinkets (from cigarette lighters up to computers) but in reality, most pachinko players opt for nondescript tokens, which they exchange off-site for cash, skirting anti-gambling laws. The air inside most pachinko parlors is quite harsh from tobacco smoke, sweat, and hot machinery — not to mention the ear-splitting noise. Video arcades, though sometimes difficult to distinguish from pachinko parlors from the outside, have video games rather than gambling, and are often several floors high. Unlike pachinko, they attract all ages from kids to adults, and are usually clean on the inside.
Japan’s national game is Go (囲碁 igo), a strategy board game that originated in China. By no means everyone plays, but the game has newspaper columns, TV, and professional players. The game is also played in the West, and there is a large and active English language wiki discussing it. On a sunny day, the Tennoji ward of Osaka is a good place to join a crowd watching two Go masters go at it. Besides Go, another popular board game in Japan is shogi (将棋) or Japanese chess.
Mahjong (麻雀 mājan) is also relatively popular in Japan, and frequently features on Japanese video and arcade games, although it’s associated with illegal gambling and mahjong parlors can be quite seedy. While gameplay is similar, scoring is drastically different from the various Chinese versions.
Baseball is hugely popular in Japan and the popularity is a historical one (baseball was first introduced in Japan around 1870s by an American professor). Baseball fans traveling internationally may find Japan to be one of the great examples of baseball popularity outside of United States. Baseball isn’t only played in many high schools and by professionals, but also referenced in many Japanese pop culture as well. In addition, many Japanese players have gone on to become top players in Major League Baseball. The official Japanese baseball league is known as Nippon Professional Baseball, or simply known as Puro Yakyū (プロ野球), meaning Professional Baseball. Travellers who are interested in baseball may watch professional baseball games once in while with a friend or a Japanese local. Just make sure you reserve your ticket in advance. The rules in Japanese baseball are not much different than baseball in United States, although there are some minor variations. The Japanese national baseball team is also considered to be one of the strongest in the world, having won the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, as well as the second edition in 2009.
These days, hand-drawn or CGI-based TV animation is also popular in Japan and also in the West, especially with people called otaku. Although TV animation (or “anime”) was regarded as childish before, today, many Japanese find it so exciting that they are proud of it as a part of their culture. Note that the Japanese do not distinguish between western visual animation and “nihon no anime.” Saying that you like anime could mean that you like Naruto, or Batman cartoons, or The Flintstones. The conversational context will dictate. Do not call it “Japanime.”
The Japanese are proud of their four seasons (and an astonishing number of them are firmly convinced that the phenomenon is unique to Japan), but the tourist with a flexible travel schedule should aim for spring or autumn.
There are multitudes of books written on Japan. Some great, some amazingly un-great. Some recommended books include:
Northernmost island and icy frontier. Famous for its wide open spaces and snowy 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, Kobe and Nara.
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. Largest cities Takamatsu and Matsuyama.
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.
Citizens of all EU & EEA member states, Andorra, Australia, Argentina, Bahamas, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Israel, Macau, Macedonia, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, New Zealand, San Marino, Singapore, South Korea, Suriname, Switzerland, Tunisia, United States/American Samoa, and Uruguay can visit visa-free for up to 90 days.
Citizens of Brunei and Thailand can visit visa-free for up to 15 days.
Citizens of Austria, Germany, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom can apply for a extended stay of 6 months with Japan’s Ministry of Justice.
Citizens of Barbados, Lesotho, Malaysia, Serbia, and Turkey can visit visa-free for up to 90 days with a biometric passport only.
Citizens of Taiwan can visit visa-free for 90 days if the passport includes a personal identification number.
Citizens of Indonesia with a biometric Indonesian passport who’ve been issued a Visa Waiver Registration Certificate from the Japanese Embassy or Consulate in Indonesia can visit visa-free for up to 15 days.
Citizens of China traveling via cruise ships do not require a visa, but must leave and get back on the same cruise ship in order to qualify.
All other nationalities must obtain a “temporary visitor” visa prior to arrival, which is generally valid for a stay of up to 90 days. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains an online 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.
All foreigners (except those on government business and certain permanent residents) at the age of 16 and over are electronically fingerprinted and photographed as part of immigration entry procedures. This may be followed by a short interview conducted by the immigration officer. Entry will be denied if any of these procedures are refused.
As of 2012, a new system is in place for foreigners staying for longer than 90 days where a Residence Card is issued at the port of entry, but the system currently applies only to arrivals at Narita, Chubu, Kansai, and Haneda airports. Arrival at other ports of entry will require that a residence card be obtained in a manner similar to the former alien registration system (and a stamp will be placed in your passport to note this). Under the rules in place as of 2012, a re-entry permit no longer needs to be held, in most cases, for temporary stays of less than one year outside Japan. However, the Residence Card needs to be surrendered upon the final departure from Japan. Previously-issued Certificates of Alien Registration (gaijin cards) have not been valid since 8 July 2015.
A customs issue that trips up some unwary travellers is that some over-the-counter medications, notably pseudoephedrine (Actifed, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers) and codeine (some cough medications) are prohibited in Japan. Some prescription medicines (mostly strong painkillers) are also banned even if you have a prescription unless you specifically apply for permission in advance. You may also require permission in order to import drug-filled syringes, such as EpiPens and the like. You can usually take up to one month’s supply of medicine (assuming that it is not restricted) without applying for an import certificate, known as a yakkan shoumei. If you need to take medicine regularly or carry an Epi-Pen/inhaler it’s strongly recommended you contact the Japanese consulate in your country, as the legislation surrounding medications can change at any time, and to plan ample time to receive an import certificate if required (the process involving sending an application form via post to Japan and receiving a certificate again via post after around two weeks). Ignorance is not considered an excuse, and you can expect to be jailed and deported if caught. See Japan Customs for details, or check with the nearest Japanese embassy or consulate.
Once in Japan, you must carry your passport (or Residence Card, if applicable) with you at all times. If caught in a random check without it (and nightclub raids are not uncommon), you’ll be detained until somebody can fetch it for you. First offenders who apologize are usually let off with a warning, but theoretically you can be fined up to ¥200,000.
Citizens of all former Soviet countries (Except Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) who cannot provide necessary financial guarantees and get a visa on your own must apply through a tourist company or resident in Japan.
Citizens of the Philippines and Vietnam who are traveling with a group through a registered Japanese travel agency can get a tourist visa good for up to 15 days.
The most common intercontinental flight destination is Narita Airport (NRT) which is about an hour east of Tokyo. Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (HND), while still primarily for domestic flights, has recently completing an expansion which has allowed for more international service, so many flights to this, more convenient, airport are also now available. There is a third airport north of Tokyo, Ibaraki (IBR) which is attempting to focus on discount carriers, but it has not yet attracted significant traffic.
The second most common destination is Kansai Airport (KIX) about an hour south of Osaka. Osaka International Airport (ITM), commonly referred to as Itami airport, is primarily a domestic airport, but it is often cheaper and/or more convenient to connect to Itami rather than Kansai.
A smaller number use Chubu International Airport (NGO) near Nagoya.
Fukuoka Airport (FUK), Naha Airport (OKA), and New Chitose Airport (CTS) also have significant international traffic, but it is primarily to larger cities in the region.
Just about every sizable city has an airport, but most are focused on domestic flights with only occasional service to Korea or China. A popular alternative for travellers to these cities is to fly via Seoul on Korean Air or Asiana Airlines: this can even be cheaper than connecting in Japan.
Narita, Haneda, and Kansai airports are generally easy to get through and not particularly crowded assuming you avoid the main holiday periods – namely New Year’s (end of December – beginning of January), Golden Week (end of April – beginning of May), and Obon (Mid-August), when things are more hectic and expensive.
Japan’s two major airlines are Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA). Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and American Airlines also operate sizable hubs at Narita, with flights to many destinations in the US and Asia. ANA offers domestic connections for Star Alliance carriers, and JAL offers domestic connections for OneWorld carriers. There are no domestic connections for SkyTeam carriers, so in this case, you may want to consider a discount domestic carrier.
There are a number of international ferries to Japan, but for a casual traveller, Busan is likely to be the only practical destination from which to take a boat to Japan. Except for the ferries from Busan to Fukuoka and Shimonoseki, boats are generally uncompetitive with air fares, schedules can be infrequent (and unreliable), and travel times long. Unless you’re travelling with cargo, spending two days on a ferry is likely not practical.
In roughly descending order of practicality:
For sorting through transport schedules and fares, Hitachi’s Hyperdia is an invaluable companion; it computes fares and directions including all the various connecting train options (NB: you must look at the Total Fare – this is the amount you will pay). It is also easy to tailor your search under its More Options for example by excluding trains ineligible for the JR Rail Pass, excluding bullet trains, including only or excluding JR trains, etc. While most useful for advanced planning of longer routes, it is also quite useful for navigating the complex networks of the major cities. You’ll also tend to get better results with this tool than ticket officers will find for you if you simply rely on them to choose your route. Google Maps is also great for navigating, but not all transit systems have schedules in the app. Jorudan is a similar service, but with fewer options for exploring alternate routes. The paper version of these is the Daijikokuhyō (大時刻表), a phonebook-sized tome available for browsing in every train station and most hotels, but it’s a little challenging to use as the content is entirely in microscopic Japanese. A lighter version that just includes limited express, sleeper and bullet trains (shinkansen) is available from the Japan National Tourist Organization’s overseas offices. English timetables are available on the websites of JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR Central and JR Kyushu. Timetables for the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu shinkansen can also be viewed in English at Macoto’s Tabi-o-ji timetable site. Both Hyperdia and Tabi-o-ji offer schedule searches that exclude Nozomi and Mizuho services, which will benefit holders of the Japan Rail Pass (see below). While the search tools find the best connections, having the timetable for an infrequently served station handy can make for a pleasant trip when going to more scenic destinations. Also note that as a tourist unfamiliar with the stations, the best connection might be tough to make. Especially for larger stations, figuring out where you are and where you need to go with luggage can take longer than the best connection time. If you have the JR Pass, there is no need to run for your train, you can always take the next one. You should also note that, in smaller stations, there is usually a large sign or poster with the timetable near the gate which you can quickly take a photo of with your phone or digital camera for easy reference later.
In Japanese cities, a place’s address is useful for mail, but it’s nearly useless for actually getting there. Most places are described in terms of the walking distance from the nearest train station, and relative to local landmarks. Business cards very often have little maps printed on the back to make navigation easier (at least if you can read Japanese). In addition, many train stations have maps of the local area that can help you find a destination if it is reasonably close to the station. Typical addresses are written as “1丁目 2-3” or “1-2-3”, which would be district 1, block 2, house 3.
Japan’s railways are fast, highly efficient and cover the majority of the country, making this the transport mode of choice for most visitors. The first and most confusing aspect of Japan’s railway system (especially within large cities like Tokyo) that you will encounter is the overlap of several private railway networks with the JR network. Tokyo also has two separate subway companies and these lines offer through service to lines of a half dozen other companies servicing locations further out. You can use Hyperdia or other search tools to simplify the confusion, but once you get the hang of it, the maps should be sufficient. When searching a route, you should also note that many companies have their own stations in similar locations to JR stations, and these usually have the company name as a prefix.
You should note that Japanese trains, and most other forms of mass transit, nearly always leave and arrive promptly on time, following the published schedule to the minute. If you are late, you will miss the train!
Note that most trains do not operate 24 hours, for example in Tokyo the last train will generally begin its run around midnight and the first train will generally begin its run around 05:00. If you are planning to be out late and are relying on the train to get home, be sure to find out when the last train is leaving and account for the last train of any connections. If you miss the last train, many bars, clubs, and Karaoke shops are open until the first train runs again in the morning, and there are often capsule hotels near the major stations if you don’t want to stay up until the trains start running again.
The JR network is extensive as one would expect from what used to be the national rail system (now privately owned and split into regional companies). The JR group operates the Shinkansen lines, as well as a multitude of regional and urban mass transit lines. In the countryside, the group companies also often run bus services to connect places that don’t have a rail service. However, the JR network is not a monopoly and urban lines are operated by other private rail networks. Often rural lines, even some that were formally part of JR, are operated by semi-private (often called third sector) entities owned by local governments. Typically, these lines would be the final leg of a journey, perhaps servicing a popular temple or other attraction.
Interestingly, people refer to JR in Japanese by its English initials, “Jay-Arru.” Hopefully, even non-English speakers can help you find a station if you ask.
Japan Rail Pass
One of the best options for visitors who plan to do a lot of traveling is the Japan Rail Pass, which allows unlimited travel on almost all JR trains, including the Shinkansen (bullet train), for a fixed period of 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days. Whereas a single round trip from Tokyo to Osaka costs ¥27,240 (adult, unreserved seat), the 7-day Rail Pass in Ordinary (Standard) Class is ¥29,110, making it close to the break-even point. The 14-day and 21-day ordinary passes are ¥46,390 and ¥59,350, respectively. Green Car Rail Passes cost ¥38,880, ¥62,950 and ¥81,870 for 7, 14 and 21 consecutive days, respectively, and include unlimited travel in Green Car seating (See “Green Cars” below). You should also note that there are other passes for particular regions, so if you are only or primarily interested in a certain area, you may want to consider a local or regional pass. It is important to remember as well that while you can save a lot of money using a rail pass, it is not a guaranteed money saver, and those traveling too little or at a very slow pace could, in fact, lose money using the pass.
The pass can be purchased outside of Japan from specific vendors, and from at least Mar 8, 2017 to Mar 31, 2020, as part of a trial basis, the Japan Rail Pass will be available for direct purchase in Japan at a select number of major airports and train stations, though at a higher price (¥33,000 for a 7-day ordinary pass). When purchasing outside of Japan, you are given an Exchange Order which can be exchanged at most larger JR stations in Japan as well as Narita, Haneda, and Chubu Airport, for the Rail Pass itself. At the time of exchange you will need to have your passport with you, and know the date upon which you will want the Rail Pass to start. You can designate it to start immediately, or a future date. However, the days of use start and end at midnight, so if you activate your pass immediately to use at 7 PM, your first “day”, would be just 5 hours long. Dedicated counters specifically for Rail Pass exchanges exist at some stations such as Tokyo and Nagoya stations, but most stations issue passes from the travel center, or occasionally, the main information desk; because this is separated from the main ticket office. Wait times vary from often long lines at Narita Airport to generally low in smaller cities and as soon as you receive the pass you can generally make all your planned reservation immediately with the same person giving you the pass. The seat reservations are free, so even if you are not entirely settled with your plans, you can reserve everything at the start and make changes later at no cost. Also, some trains fill up far in advance, particularly around holidays, and also many special excursion trains can sell out as well. You can only make advance reservations after receiving your pass, and even if the route is sold out, attempting to reserve your seats early will also allow you time make any changes to your plans that may be needed. You should also note that you can start your pass up to one month from the date you turn in the exchange order, but you can make reservations as soon as you receive the pass, so even if you want to, for example, spend a week in Tokyo before traveling to further locations, you should exchange for your pass and make reservations as early as possible if your schedule is fixed.
You can purchase/use a Japan Rail Pass if you are in Japan on a temporary visitor status (for 15, 30, or 90 days) and have the valid sticker/stamp in your passport to confirm this status or are a Japanese citizen and permanent resident abroad for more than 10 consecutive years. If you aren’t eligible, you cannot obtain a rail pass (and any Exchange Orders cannot be refunded by JR). Most places selling JR Passes can refund unused passes within a year of issue, but often charge a refund fee of 10-15%.
The rail pass does have a few exceptions:
Regional JR companies also sell their own passes that cover certain parts of the country. Most value can be obtained taking bullet trains over long distances (if the pass allows it) but the amount of time and/or travel required to at least break even varies. Passes like the Tokyo Wide Pass and Northern Kyushu Rail Pass are relatively easy, while the Hokkaido Rail Pass is far more difficult. Regional passes sometimes also cover private lines in the covered area, so if you are spending several days in a particular area, it may pay to consider a regional pass. All of these can be purchased in the country (at any major JR station in the coverage area), but they’re still nearly always limited to individuals with a temporary visitor visa status. From north to south:
Note that JR West regional rail passes which cover the Kansai and Chugoku Regions are more expensive if purchased in Japan, and while there is no restriction on the number of passes purchased before entering Japan, once in Japan a foreign tourist is limited to puchasing only one JR West pass of each type per Japan visit.
In addition, there are a few regional rail passes that span multiple regions, such as the Hokuriku Arch Pass, the JR Setouchi Area Pass, plus the Sanyo-San’in-Northern Kyushu Pass.
When you make any rail journey, you will need to show the Rail Pass at the manned ticket barrier. This is inconvenient if there is a queue, but it is usually acceptable to flash your pass at the ticket-taker as you slip past the other customers transacting business with JR. Occasionally, there is no window, and you’ll have to jump the gate and show the pass to the security guard if they stop you.
Japanican Discount Ticket
The most popular itinerary for travelers is spending some time seeing the Tokyo (Kanto) area, and then heading down to see the Kansai area (particularly Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Kobe, and Himeji). For those leaving Tokyo for Kansai and returning within a week, there is one good alternative to consider instead of the full JR Rail Pass. The Japanican Discount Ticket is considerably cheaper than the 7 day JR Rail Pass, allows you to take the fastest bullet train, the Nozomi, getting you there 30 minutes faster, and also includes one free day of local transportation. Ticket buyers must be on a temporary visitor status, and choose to purchase either the Kyoto ticket or Osaka ticket. There are some important differences though compared with the JR Pass. On the Japanican ticket you cannot stop off in between, nor go beyond your ticket destination. Seating on trains is unreserved only, and travel between cities in the Kansai area is not covered. That said, with the considerably cheaper price it is still easy to buy regular tickets for trains in the Kansai area and still save money over the JR Pass.
Platt Kodama Ticket
Another option is the Platt Kodama Ticket which offers a modest discount over regular rail fares traveling between Tokyo and Osaka. Travel must be by the Kodama bullet train, which stops at every single bullet train station. Tickets must be purchased at least one day prior to departure. This ticket is best for travelers on a tight budget, have an abundance of time, or plan to stop at one of the more minor stations that other bullet trains bypass. As an example, traveling from Tokyo to Osaka would take just over four hours, compared to 173-180 minutes by Hikari bullet train, and save ¥3840.
Seishun 18 ticket
The Seishun 18 Ticket (青春18きっぷ Seishun jūhachi kippu) is the most economic deal for travel in Japan, offering five days of unlimited train travel for just ¥11,500. Better yet, unlike the Rail Pass, the days do not have to be consecutive. You can even split a ticket so that (for example) one person uses it for two days and another for three days. The main catches are that tickets are only valid on local trains and that tickets are valid only during school holidays (March-April, July-September, December-January), so you need good timing and plenty of time on your hands to use it. It can take several times longer however to reach your destination than by express trains or Shinkansen, and the Seishun 18 Ticket is not suited for those with limited time.
Buying a ticket
Fares in Japan can be complicated, so for travel within big cities, the easiest thing to do is to pick up a rechargeable contactless smart card like Suica/Pasmo (in the Tokyo/Kanto area), the Icoca/PiTaPa (in the Kansai area), or 6 other IC cards used across the country – they are nearly completely interchangeable and will calculate the correct fares for you automatically. You can buy these at most stations, but if you buy it at the airport, you can often receive some discount. These passes work on many local buses and at some sightseeing ticket stands as well. There is negligible savings in using them, but they are very convenient and can be topped up at most station’s Fare Adjustment machines. Card balances are valid for ten years. Balances can also be refunded (all with a refund charge, except for Pasmo), but can only be refunded in the same region of their origin – if you land in Tokyo and buy a Suica card, you cannot refund it upon leaving Japan from a different city. Rural buses and private lines usually do not accept any electronic cards. While it is generally accepted, it can also happen that having entered the system with the card, you find yourself exiting at a point on a private railway where the card doesn’t work. If you find your exit gate does not have a card reader, try the window, they often have a reader in the office, but if that doesn’t work, you will have to pay cash for the whole journey, getting a receipt with which you can get your card cleared up at a ticket office the next time you want to use it. If you enter a station platform area but find you entered by mistake, you likewise need to go to a manned ticket desk and get them to undo it. Also make sure that the transaction is recorded when you enter and leave the stations – if it isn’t, your card will be useless until you get things straightened out, and if you are in a different faraway city, the card will become unusable and incapable of being fixed until you return. But if you’re traveling longer-distance and don’t have a JR pass, or are just passing through and don’t want a local smart card, then buying a ticket can get more complicated. To quickly check fares ahead of time, use a free site like Hyperdia. If you really don’t know what to do, just buy the cheapest ticket at the machine, and settle up with the window at the other end.
At major stations, there will be an obvious ticket office where you can buy your ticket from a human being (for JR, look for the little green sign of a figure relaxing in a chair or ask for the midori no madoguchi (みどりの窓口, literally “green window”). Since you probably need to know the train times and may want to reserve a seat as well this is a good thing. A large station will generally have staff that speaks English well enough (or can call over someone that does), but if they can’t understand you, simply repeat your destination slowly and if that doesn’t work, write it down. If you can search your route in advance and simply show them the output, you don’t even need to talk.
If you are at a local station (or a subway station) you will have more difficulty as you nearly always have to buy it using a machine whose instructions are in Japanese (although newer machines have an English mode). Most of these machines do not take credit cards although many JR East long-distance ticket machines do. Fortunately this is exactly the place where looking utterly bewildered is liable to lead to some nice Japanese offering to help. If they do then you are in luck, if not then here are some hints.
Firstly, there is usually a big map above all the machines that shows the current station in red, often marked with “当駅” (tōeki). Around it will be all other stations you can get to with a price below them. The nearer stations have the smaller numbers (e.g. the closest stations will probably be about ¥140, more distant ones rising to perhaps ¥2000.
If you recognize the characters of the station you want to get to, make a note of the amount you should pay and place that amount (or more) into the machine using coins or notes (most machines take ¥1000 notes, some also take ¥5000 and ¥10000 notes) the price you want will show up as one of the buttons to press. Note that some machines have large black buttons with nothing written on them. These are for different fare levels. Press the buttons until your fare level shows up, insert the money, and take your ticket.
If you cannot figure out the price, buy a minimum fare ticket and pay when you arrive at your destination. You can either present your ticket to the staff at the gate, or pay the balance at the “Fare Adjustment” machine. Look for a small ticket vending kiosk near the exit, but still inside the gate. Insert your minimum fare ticket and pay the balance indicated on the screen.
For express trains that require a surcharge and seating reservation, you will usually be able to find a staffed window. However, some trains have their own specific machines to do this. First, buy a regular train ticket to your destination. On the touchscreen machines, there will usually be a button for express services. Choose the name of the service you wish to travel on, your destination, preferred departure time and seating preferences, and then insert the surcharge amount. You will be issued a reservation card showing the departure time and your seat number. You must also have either a travel ticket, pass or smartcard to get through the ticket gates: a surcharge on its own is not valid for travel. Also, if you just buy an ordinary ticket, you can settle up with the staff on the train when they come to check your ticket. They will print a receipt which you should save until you clear the station.
At bigger stations, you will probably have the choice of more than one train line, or even more than one company operating different lines with different machines and staff. Therefore, always first find the line you want to use, and then get your ticket from the nearest machine, instead of jumping on the first ticket machine next to the station’s entrance. Otherwise, you might end up with a ticket for a different company and/or line. While you can usually choose your platform after going through the gate, and thereby activating your ticket, this is not always the case. If you notice later that you need to get to another platform, you might not be able to get out anymore without invalidating your ticket. So always have a good look at the signposts at every station.
JR pioneered the famous Bullet Train, known in Japanese as Shinkansen (新幹線), and with speeds nudging 300 kph on the main line, and speeds approaching 360 kph on the newest lines, these remain the fastest way to travel by train around the country. Note that Shinkansen do not run past midnight, and you need to allow for the entire trip to complete before 12 AM. That means that the last departures from Tokyo towards Kyoto and Osaka by a Nozomi bullet train are around 9:20 PM. If you want to go to Fukuoka from Tokyo, you’ll have to leave before 7 PM.
The most important, most-travelled shinkansen route in the country is the Tokaido Shinkansen, which links Tokyo with Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka. This line continues from Osaka to Okayama, Hiroshima and Fukuoka (Hakata Station) as the Sanyo Shinkansen, then to Kumamoto and Kagoshima as the Kyushu Shinkansen.
There are a total of six different types of services operating on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen lines. These can all be grouped into three types, reflecting the number of stops made:
These two services are the fastest, making stops only at major cities. The Nozomi is the primary service that runs through both the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines, though some other Nozomi trains run only between Tokyo and Osaka. A one-seat journey on the Nozomi from Tokyo to Osaka takes 2 hours 30 minutes, while trips from Tokyo to Fukuoka take 5 hours. Seamless transfers can be made at Fukuoka between the Nozomi and Kyushu Shinkansen trains: Tokyo to Kumamoto is 6 hours, and the full run from Tokyo to Kagoshima is about 7 hours.
The Mizuho, on the other hand, is restricted to services on the Sanyo and Kyushu shinkansen between Osaka and Kagoshima, with two daily round-trips in the morning and two in the evening. Mizuho trains run from Osaka to Kumamoto in 3 hours, and Osaka to Kagoshima in 3 hours, 45 minutes.
Most importantly for foreign tourists, the Japan Rail Pass is NOT valid on Nozomi or Mizuho trains.
These are the fastest services valid with the Japan Rail Pass, making a few more stops than the Nozomi or Mizuho. On the Tokaido Shinkansen, there are usually two Hikari trains per hour that depart from Tokyo: One train terminates in Osaka, and the other continues on the Sanyo Shinkansen, terminating in Okayama. West of Osaka there is generally one Sakura train per hour (two during commuting hours) that runs from Osaka to Fukuoka and on to Kagoshima. Other Sakura services run only between Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Kagoshima on the Kyushu Shinkansen.
If you use the Hikari or Sakura with a Japan Rail Pass you will typically need to transfer at least once for long journeys. For trips on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen, Shin-Osaka is the largest transfer location, but if you can make the same transfer at nearby Shin-Kobe, it will be much easier. Okayama or even Himeji are similarly easier stations, but because all trains stop at Shin-Kobe, you generally have more options there, though Himeji and Okayama offer more popular attractions if you don’t want to make the whole trip in one go. Departing Tokyo with these services you can reach Osaka in 3 hours, Fukuoka in 6 hours, Kumamoto in 7 hours and Kagoshima in 8 hours. From Osaka you can get to Fukuoka in less than 3 hours, Kumamoto in 3 hours 30 minutes and Kagoshima in 4 hours 15 minutes. For the longest trips, flying on low cost carriers, JAL, or ANA using special tourist airfares may make more sense, and you can arrive within 90-120 minutes.
Also valid with the Japan Rail Pass, these are the all-stations services stopping at every shinkansen station on the route. Tokaido Shinkansen Kodama services generally run from Tokyo to Osaka, or Tokyo to Nagoya. Separate all-station Kodama services run on the Sanyo Shinkansen, and Tsubame trains run only on the Kyushu Shinkansen between Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Kagoshima. While Tokaido Kodama trains mostly operate a full 16-car set, Sanyo Kodama services can operate with 16, 8 or 6-car trains. Kyushu Tsubame services operate with 6 or 8 cars. Be sure to check the signs on the platform floor for the proper car length as well as your car number before lining up for your train. You can find out the length of the train on the main electronic signboard which will also list which cars are non-reserve cars. On the newer and recently refurbished bullet trains, smoking is not permitted except in a designated smoking room located between cars.
These are the trains which travel north of Tokyo. They are classified by their destinations and are generally easier to use and less congested than the Tokaido Shinkansen. You can use the JR Pass on all trains, and you generally don’t have to worry about the trains selling out, but some trains like the Kagayaki and Hayabusa shinkansen, and Narita Express require reserved seating. For older or disabled travelers and those with luggage, you should note that a few trains are double decker, and you need to go up or down some narrow stairs to reach most seats. Fortunately, there are sections without stairs, and you can ask for these areas when booking.
Other JR services, particularly suburban ones, use the following generic labels:
Please note that for some JR rapid trains, they may start the first half of their run like an express train with few stops, but in the second half of their run may stop at every station like a local train.
While most trains are geared toward commuting or business travel, there are many trains that are designed for tourists. In Japan, this type of train is broadly referred to as Joyful Train (ジョイフルトレイン, joifuru torein). The most popular trains are the various steam trains that run on more scenic lines. These mostly run on weekends and holidays and many operate only in the summer months. A few, such as the SL Banetsu are steam locomotives and run in busy tourist seasons.
Many trains have been given unique designs to attract visitors to scenic locations. This started with trains featuring characters popular with children, but more recently, prominent industrial designers have been recruited to design unique trains more appealing to adults. This is most prominent in Kyushu, but many trains throughout Japan attempt to distinguish themselves with unique design elements.
Express services may offer first-class Green Car seats. Given that the surcharge of almost 50% gets you little more than a wider seat with extra legroom, most passengers opt for regular seats. However, for those who desire an extra level of luxury, the Green Seats may be what you want. Getting a Green Seat on an Ordinary Pass would be prohibitively expensive, however, and for those with Green Passes choosing to sit in an Ordinary Seat, there is no discount or refund.
Depending on where you travel in Japan, Green Cars do have some little perks. If you travel in the Green Car on JR East bullet trains north of Tokyo, for example, you are entitled to a free drink once you are on board. Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen Green Cars have softer lighting with access to six channels of in-cabin audio – mostly in Japanese, with the occasional English language lesson included. If travelling on the Hikari or Nozomi you will receive hot towel service. Only on the premium Nozomi will you will be greeted by a female attendant who will bow to you as you enter the train and check your tickets in place of the train conductor. Depending on the day and time that you travel, Green Cars can be less crowded and quieter than the regular cars, but, of course, during Golden Week and other high-peak travel periods, all bets are off.
Smoking is not allowed on suburban trains. While it is currently permitted on long-distance services in designated cars and vestibules, JR companies are starting to ban smoking on many routes.
Presently, smoking is not permitted on nearly all JR trains in Hokkaido and Kyushu, along with all JR East Shinkansen services north of Tokyo and most JR limited express trains in the Tokyo area, including the Narita Express to/from Narita Airport. The new N700-series bullet trains, now in service on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen, have segregated smoking compartments within the train; smoking is not permitted in the seating areas. Refurbished 500-series bullet trains in service on Sanyo Shinkansen Kodama runs also have separate smoking rooms.
Usually non-smoking trains are marked in timetables with the universal no-smoking sign, or with the Japanese kanji for no smoking (禁煙; kin’en). Note that if you do not smoke, sitting in a smoking car for a long trip can be very unpleasant.
Making a reservation
On Shinkansen and tokkyu trains, some of the carriages require passengers to have reserved their seats in advance (指定席 shiteiseki). For example, on the 16-carriage Hikari service on the Tokaido Shinkansen, only five of the carriages permit non-reserved seating, all of which are non-smoking (禁煙車 kin’ensha). On a busy train, making a reservation in advance can ensure a comfortable journey. Especially consider it if you’re travelling in a group, as you’re unlikely to find 2 seats together, let alone more, on a busy train.
Making a reservation is surprisingly easy, and is strongly advised for popular journeys (such as travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto on a Friday evening, or taking a train from Nagoya to Takayama). Look out for the JR Office at the train station, which bears a little green logo of a figure relaxing in a chair – and ask to make a reservation when you buy your ticket. The reservation can be made anywhere from a month in advance to literally minutes before the train leaves.
If you are a Japan Rail Pass holder, reservations are free: simply go to the JR Office (the “green window”), and present your Rail Pass when requesting a reservation for your journey. The ticket that you are given will not allow you to pass through the automated barriers though – you’ll still need to present your Japan Rail Pass at the manned barrier to get to the train.
Without a pass a small fee will be charged, so a non-reserved ticket may be preferable to a reserved ticket, particularly if you are boarding at Tokyo or another originating station where all the seats will be open anyway, provided you arrive early enough.
Foreigners can make train advanced reservations for JR East trains on the internet, in English, at the JR East Shinkansen Reservation website. This website allows regular travellers and Rail Pass holders alike to reserve seats on JR East-operated Shinkansen and Limited Express lines. On the other hand, it does not allow you to make a reservation on the Tokaido, Sanyo or Kyushu Shinkansen lines, which are operated by other companies. Seat reservations may be made anywhere from one month up to three days before the date of travel, and your ticket must be picked up at a JR East ticket counter anytime up to 21:00 on the day prior to departure. Also, the basic fare is NOT included in the seat reservation cost, unless you have a valid rail pass. One advantage to this website is that advance seat reservations can be made on the Narita Express from Tokyo to Narita Airport.
If the option is there for your journey, the private railways are often cheaper than JR for an equivalent journey. However this is not always the case and changing from one network to another generally increases the price. To add to the confusion, many companies operate trains through other company’s lines, so you can easily end up riding on three companies’ lines in one trip, but in this case, most tickets and electronic passes are fully interoperating, so while confusing, it’s generally not a problem. Most private railways, in cities, have also created department store chains of the same name which are primarily built around their major stations (e.g. Tokyu in Tokyo), so generally you can look for the department store signs (which are always very prominent) and find the station nearby or from within the store. These companies generally serve a particular region of suburbs near a major city. Private railways may interpret the service classes above differently, with some providing express services at no additional charge. Many offer their own regional passes for areas that may not be served by JR. Check purchase requirements. A few are:
Kobe, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, Sendai, Fukuoka, Tokyo and Yokohama also have subway (underground) services. For seeing the sights within a particular city, many offer a one or multi-day pass, often between ¥500 and ¥1000 for an adult, and often there is an option for pass covering other rail companies in addition to the subway. Tokyo has several types of day passes, some cover certain subway lines but not others. The Tokyo Metro subway pass (which does not include the JR Yamanote Line or Toei) is ¥600. For foreign tourists however, there are also 24, 48, and 72-hour all subway passes for ¥800, ¥1200, and ¥1500, respectively. It is generally very hard to make a one day pass pay off, but the others are not difficult and can give some good savings.
To provide a sense of safety and security for female passengers, many of the most crowded JR and private commuter rail lines in Japan reserve a car for women only during the morning and evening rush hour. These cars are identified by special placards and stickers on the train and platform, which also designate the times that women-only cars are in effect. Also, some limited express trains operated by JR West to and from the Kansai region have reserved seats specifically for women and their children. You will find men sitting in “women-only” seats, but they will make way if requested to do so. Normally, the first and last carriages are designated “women-only” during the morning rush time.
As other example, the middle of carriages are designated “women-only” in municipal management of Yokohama. The third carriages are designated “women-only” in Keihin Tohoku Line. It seems that they are allowed for only women, however, actually JR allows children under 6-year-old, people who are physically handicapped and their caregivers can get women-only cars.
Overnight by Train
Overnight trains in Japan, containing the prefix shindai (寝台) but more commonly known as Blue Trains because of the blue color of the sleeping cars, were once an icon of the entire country. Numerous services would run regularly, bringing the Japanese to different parts of the country in a timely, efficient manner. These days, however, with aging train equipment and other modes of transportation becoming easier and sometimes cheaper (i.e. Shinkansen trains and overnight buses), overnight trains have slowly been discontinued.
As of 2017, only these regularly-scheduled overnight train services remain:
For most of these services, three separate fares will have to be paid: The basic fare and limited express fare, which are both based on distance, and the accommodation charge, which is fixed over the entire journey. Lodging ranges from carpet spaces – where you literally sleep on the floor – to bunk bed-type compartments, to private rooms with a shower and toilet. The Japan Rail Pass will cover only the basic fare: if you sleep in a bunk bed or a private room, then the limited express and room fares will have to be paid. A few trains have seats or carpet spaces that are fully covered by the Rail Pass. On some trips that run over non-JR tracks, the basic and limited express fares for that portion of the trip will also have to be paid.
Some additional overnight services are added during periods of high demand, such as Golden Week, New Year’s and the summer months. Among these is the very popular Moonlight Nagara service between Tokyo and Ogaki (located between Nagoya and Kyoto). The Moonlight Nagara, and certain other extra services, are classified as Rapid trains with regular seating. As such, these trains can be used with the Seishun 18 Ticket – and tend to get crowded when they run.
There are a few drawbacks to overnight train travel. In most cases you cannot book the train until you arrive in Japan, by which point the train might be sold out (unless a helpful Japanese resident purchases the tickets for you in advance of your arrival). Some overnight trains are also subject to cancellation on the day of departure if inclement weather is expected along the route.
The alternative to travelling overnight by train is to travel by bus (see below) – but if you have a Japan Rail Pass, there is another way that you can go about travelling by night – and it can be relatively easy. The key is to split up your journey, stopping at an intermediate station en route to your destination and resting at a nearby (and preferably cheap) hotel. In the morning, take another train toward your destination to complete the trip. The Rail Pass will cover your train journey: your only responsibility is paying for the hotel room. If you can find accommodations in a smaller city, the chances are good that you will pay less for it compared to lodging in bigger cities such as Tokyo… not to mention you will have your own bed, bathroom and toilet. Toyoko Inn business hotels are the largest chain with over 250 across Japan – most of them near train stations – and are a great example.
With careful planning and research, you will be able to find an overnight itinerary that works for you. For example, using the Shinkansen you could sleep in Hamamatsu on a trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, or in Himeji on a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima. For a trip north from Tokyo to Hokkaido you could choose to rest in Aomori. That said, you would need to get up earlier the next morning or else lose some daylight sightseeing time.
If you have some extra money, consider forwarding some of your luggage to your destination using a luggage delivery service called takuhaibin (宅配便); this will make the trip much easier. Trying to take several bags on a crowded train (especially during rush hour) would be an unparalleled nightmare. Nearly all airports and major train stations have an office with a luggage forwarding company. In addition, many convenience stores are also drop off points. Costs vary by size and weight, but a bag delivered by noon can often be delivered to your hotel within the same city by that evening, or to other cities in 1-2 days. A medium sized bag within the same city may cost around ¥1300 and to another city around ¥2400. The offices in train stations can also hold your bag there for the day in case the storage lockers are full or too small. Costs are usually a bit higher than the lockers and often cost around ¥800 for the day – however, most offices close around 6 or 7 PM, so to avoid extra charges you’ll need to retrieve your bag by then.
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, Okinawa, and service to Kyushu to and from Tokyo. Flying is also useful for getting around sparsely populated Hokkaido, as the Shinkansen network there currently ends in Hakodate.
Tokyo’s Narita Airport handles a few domestic flights, but most domestic flights leave from Haneda (HND). Similarly, while there are some domestic flights from Kansai International Airport, KIX, more use Itami (ITM), and Kobe’s airport also fields some flights. Narita to Haneda or Kansai to Itami is quite a trek, so allow at least two and preferably three hours to transfer. Nagoya’s Chubu has many domestic flights in addition to its international traffic, and was built from the ground up for easy interchange (its older airport at Komaki is rarely used).
Full fares for domestic flights are very expensive to areas without discount carriers, 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 “Discover Japan” fares where the purchaser of an international return ticket to Japan can fly a number of domestic segments anywhere in the country for only about ¥7600-10000 each plus tax. These are a particularly good deal for travel to Hokkaido or the remote southern islands of Okinawa. Ticketing must be done at least 7 days in advance. Date or route changes, and waitlisting are not allowed. For cancelations, they must be done before departure, and only half the fare is refunded.
Another cheap option is ANA’s Experience Japan Fare, cloned by JAL a few years later as its Japan Explorer Pass. These cost ¥5400-10,000 for each flight plus tax. That said, ticketing must be done at least 3 days before the flight, there are no refunds, nor date or route changes permitted.
The low-cost carrier concept is slowly making inroads into Japan, but they are mostly available for trips to from Sapporo, Naha, Fukuoka, and a few other cities in Kyushu from Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. Air DO focuses on the Tokyo and Sapporo route, while Skymark Airlines and StarFlyer focus on Fukuoka. Usually, these airlines offer lower walk-up fares than the majors but they limit advance discounts to a small number of seats. Also, these carriers generally don’t appear on flight search websites and can only be booked within two or three months of travel. Other carriers include Jet Star, Peach and Vanilla Air, and may offer extremely inexpensive fares within Japan, as low as USD$50 one way (and some specials for even less), as well as flights to Korea, China, Taiwan, and SE Asia. There are often very limited baggage allowances, however, and these should be checked before purchasing a ticket.
ANA, JAL, and their subsidiaries offer a special standby fare, the Skymate Stand By Fare for JAL and Smart U25 Fare for ANA, to young passengers (up to the age of 21 for JAL and 25 for ANA). Passengers can fly standby at half of the full published fare, which is usually less than the equivalent express train fare. JAL requires you to have a JALCARD credit card as well as a Skymate Card and be a member of its frequent flier club. ANA only requires you to be a member of its mileage club, and both require ID proving your age.
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. Ferries are mostly limited to connections between areas with fairly low population. There are some long-distance ferries from Tokyo and Osaka to distant cities, even Okinawa and Hokkaido, but the fares are usually higher than discounted airline tickets and the ferries are mostly used by people and companies wanting to transport their cars.
For some smaller islands, however, boats may well be the only practical option. More popular islands may also have jet ferries or hovercrafts offering faster but more expensive service, with prices varying between ¥2000-5000 for an hour-long trip. Slow cargo boats are more affordable, a rule of thumb being ¥1000 per hour in second class, but departures are infrequent. There are also some inexpensive and convenient short-distance intercity ferries such as the Aomori-Hakodate ferry.
These boats are typically divided into classes, where second class (２等 nitō) is just a giant expanse of tatami mat, first class (１等 ittō) gets you a comfy chair in large shared room and only special class (特等 tokutō) gets you a private cabin. Vending machines and simple restaurant fare are typically available on board, but on longer trips (particularly in second class) the primary means of entertainment is alcoholic — this can be fun if you’re invited in, but less so if you’re trying to sleep.
Long-distance highway buses (高速バス kōsoku basu; ハイウェイバス haiwei basu) serve many of the inter-city routes covered by trains at significantly lower prices, but take much longer than the Shinkansen. Especially on the route between Tokyo and Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe triangle the high competition broke down the prices: as low as ¥3500 one-way. There is a multitude of operators, including Star Express and Willer Express, Kansai Bus, as well as companies of the JR group.
Note that your JR Rail Pass is not valid on all JR Highway Buses despite being valid for some local JR buses.
Many of these are overnight runs (夜行バス yakō basu), which allows you to save on a night’s accommodation. It may be worth it to pay a premium to get a better seat; remember that it is less fun to sightsee after a sleepless night. Look out for ３列シート sanretsu shiito, meaning there are only three seats per row instead of four. Intercity buses usually have significantly less legroom than intercity trains, so passengers over about 175 cm may be uncomfortable.
A few buses offer more luxurious Premium Seating. These seats are bigger, offer more legroom, and are exclusive, with only a few seats allocated to an entire bus. Examples include the first floor seating on JR Bus’ Premium Dream service, and Cocoon seats on Willer Express services. Expect to pay around ¥10000 for such a seat on an overnight service between Tokyo and Kansai.
Like their railroad counterparts, a few overnight buses can be used only by women (an example is the Plumeria or Cherish bus service between Tokyo and Osaka).
Japan Bus Pass
Bus operator Willer Express offers a Japan Bus Pass for travel on their network of highway buses. It is available to both Japanese and foreigners, but must be purchased outside of Japan. The cost of a Bus Pass is ¥10000 for 3 days, ¥12500 for 5 days or ¥15000 for 7 days for travel Monday-Thursday, and somewhat higher for no day restrictions. Travel days are non-consecutive but passes must be used up within two months. You are limited to a maximum of two bus trips per day and you cannot travel twice on one route in the same day. Passes are not transferable and photo identification is required when boarding the buses.
If you have a lot of time on your hands, want to visit several major cities in a single trip, and do not mind the time spent on buses (including sleeping), then the Bus Pass is worth considering. The more trips you take, the more cost-effective the pass will be. You can potentially ride Willer Express buses for as little as ¥1400-1600 per trip.
There are a couple of small drawbacks to using the Bus Pass: You are restricted to using buses that seat four to a row, as opposed to three (see above). You also cannot use the Bus Pass during Japan’s major holidays (New Year’s, Golden Week, Obon) and certain other weekends, unlike train passes (Japan Rail Pass), which have no blackout dates.
You won’t need to use local buses (路線バス rosen basu) much in the major cities, but they’re common in smaller towns and the idiosyncratic payment system is worth a mention. On most buses, you’re expected to board from the back and grab a little numbered slip as you enter, often just a white piece of paper automatically stamped by the dispenser as you pull it. In the front of the bus, above the driver, is an electronic board displaying numbers and prices below, which march inexorably higher as the bus moves on. When it’s time to get off, you press the stop button, match your numbered slip to the electronic board’s current price, deposit the slip and corresponding payment in the fare machine next to the driver, then exit through the front door. Note that you must either use your IC card if you can, or pay the exact fare: to facilitate this, the machine nearly always has bill exchanger built in, which will take ¥1,000 bills and spew out ¥1,000 worth of coins in exchange. If you’re short on change, it’s best to exchange before it’s time to get off.
Increasingly, buses accept smartcards such as PASMO and Suica – you will need to tap your card against a scanner by the entrance (usually above the ticket dispenser) and then again using the scanner next to the fare machine by the driver when you exit. If you fail to ‘tap on’ when boarding, you will be charged the maximum fare when alighting.
The electronic board almost always includes a display and recorded voice announcements of the next stop — usually only in Japanese, although some cities (like Kyoto) make a welcome exception. However, if asked most drivers will be glad to tell you when you’ve reached your destination.
You will find taxis everywhere in Japan, not only in the city but also in the country. Taxis are clean, convenient, and completely safe, though expensive: starting fees are usually in the ¥640-710 range and the meter ticks up frantically after the first 1½ km or so (typically about ¥90 every 200 meters). But sometimes, they are the only way to get where you are going. The maximum number of passengers (aside from the driver) in an ordinary taxi is four. While fares can be high, if short of time and there are several of you together, it can be a good way to get around quickly. 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; he/she is only doing you a favour. Taxi fares are also higher at night. Some taxis can also accept credit cards – those that do usually have a small logo sticker of the accepted card on the side window. Tipping is not customary and would most likely be refused; unless there is an exceptional reason why you should offer a tip, it is probably best you spare the cabbie the embarrassment of having to refuse.
In the city, you can hail a taxi on just about any main street (a light on the roof indicates it’s available – just stick your arm out as it approaches), but outside train stations and other transfer points you should board at a taxi stand. (The taxi stand will usually either have a long line of patient passengers, or a long line of idle taxis.) If the destination is a well-known location, such as a hotel, train station, or public facility, the name alone should be enough. Note that even in the major cities, extremely few taxi drivers can speak English, so carrying a pamphlet or card of your hotel or destination with the address on it can be very helpful. Likewise, have staff at your hotel write down the names and addresses of places you want to visit in Japanese to show your taxi driver.
An interesting feature of Japanese taxis is that the driver controls the opening and closing of the rear left passenger door. Try to avoid the habit of closing your door when you board the taxi. Taxi drivers also have a reputation for speeding and aggressive driving, but there are very few accidents involving bad drivers.
The legal driving age in Japan is 18.
Rental cars and driving in Japan are unnecessary 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 in isolated places, plus on the vast island of Hokkaido, Okinawa, and the Noto Peninsula. Due to Hokkaido’s cooler climate it is a very popular destination in summer, so if you are considering renting a car at this time be sure to do so well in advance of your planned travel date as they are often unavailable at this time. Often the most feasible option is to combine the two: take the train out to the countryside and then pick up a rental car at a station. JR’s Ekiren has outlets at most larger train stations and often has discounted train and car packages.
An international driver’s permit with your regular license, (or for residents, a Japanese license) will be required if you wish to rent a car or drive in Japan, and must be carried at all times. Rental rates typically start from ¥5000 a day for the smallest car. Purchasing insurance from the rental car company is highly recommended as any rental car insurance from your home country (especially through most credit cards) is unlikely to be valid in Japan, check your policy before heading out. Including insurance for a Non-Operation Charge (a surcharge when a damaged car is unrentable) is also worth considering. Club ToCoo! offers an online booking service in English for most major rental car companies, and often provides rental specials and discounts.
Driving is on the left as normally found in UK/Australia/NZ/India/Singapore, opposite to continental Europe/USA/Canada. There is no “left turn on red” rule in Japan, however in rare cases a sign with a blue arrow on a white background will indicate where turning on red is legal (not to be confused with the white arrow on a blue background, which indicates one-way traffic). Drivers are required to make a complete stop at all at-grade railway crossings. Driving while drunk can result in fines of up to ¥500,000 and instant loss of licence, at above the official “drunk driving” blood-alcohol limit of 0.25 mg. It’s also an offence to “drive under the influence” with no set minimum that can be fined up to ¥300,000, with a suspension of license. Using a cell phone while driving without a hands-free kit can result in fines of up to ¥50,000.
Tolls for the expressways (高速道路 kōsoku-dōro) are generally significantly higher than the cost of a train ride, even on the bullet train. So for one or two people it’s not cost-effective for direct long distance travel between cities. In major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, a flat rate toll is paid when entering the expressway system. On inter-city expressways, tolls are based on distance travelled, a ticket is issued when you enter the system and the toll is calculated when you exit. Avoid the purple ETC lanes at toll plazas (unless you have the ETC device fitted) as they are reserved for electronic toll collection, any other lane will accept either yen in cash (exact change not required) or major credit cards. Inter-city expressways are well-serviced with clean and convenient parking areas at regular intervals, but be wary of travelling into large cities on Sunday evenings or at the end of a holiday period, as traffic jams at these times can reach up to 50 km long. Using local roads to travel between cities has the advantages of being toll-free and offering more opportunities for sightseeing along the way, but traffic jams and numerous traffic lights slow things down considerably. Covering 40 km in 1 hour is a good rule of thumb to follow when planning an itinerary on local roads, generally more on Hokkaido. For foreign tourists, there are also tollway passes that may be beneficial, such as the Kyushu Expressway Pass, the Hokkaido Expressway Pass, the Central Nippon Expressway Pass, the Tohoku Expressway Pass, the San’in-Setouchi-Shikoku Expressway Pass, and full Japan Expressway Pass. Also do not be fooled by the lack of police cars on the highways meaning you can speed. Many areas have extensive photo-taking radar speed traps – some even a few hundred meters apart. Since the traps are stationary, some car navi systems actually tell you where they are before approaching.
Both rental costs and fuel are more expensive than those in the USA, but fuel is generally cheaper than found in Europe. Most fuel stations are self service, to fill up the tank with regular fuel at a full service place, say regulaa mantan to the attendant. Rental car companies generally offer smaller cars from ¥5,000 a day, and a full size sedan will cost around ¥10,000 a day. Most rental cars have some kind of satellite navigation (“navi”) thus you can ask the rental car company to set your destination before your first trip. Some models (specifically newer Toyotas) have an English language mode, so it doesn’t hurt to ask the staff to change it before you head out. However unless you read Japanese you may need to ask for assistance to make full use of the navigation computer. Japanese driving habits are generally as good as anywhere else, and usually better than other Asian countries. Japanese roads are generally of good quality, with smooth bitumen surfaces. Gravel roads are very limited, usually forest roads, and unlikely to be on the itinerary of too many tourists. Roadworks are frequent however, and can cause annoying delays. Certain mountain passes are shut over winter, those that are not usually require either snow chains or a combination of studless winter tires and 4-wheel drive. If you rent a car in mountainous/northern areas they will generally come with this equipment already included. Most rental places require you to refill the tank before returning the car, or face an extra charge.
Navigating within cities can be confusing and parking in them costs ¥300-400/hour. Larger hotels in the cities and regional hotels normally offer car parking, but it would be wise to check car parking however before you book. Validated parking is available at some car parks that are attached to major department stores in large cities, but don’t count on getting more than 2-3 hours free. The best car to use in Tokyo is a taxi.
Japan has horizontal traffic lights, with any arrows appearing beneath the main lights. The color-blind should note that the red (stop) is on the right and the green (go) is on the left. There are usually only one or two traffic lights per intersection pointing the same way, which can make it hard to see when the signals change. However some prefectures, such as Toyama and Niigata, have vertical lights (this is supposedly due to the amount of snow they get).
Japanese signs follow a mixture of European and North American conventions, but most should not pose any difficulty in understanding. “Stop” is indicated by a downward-pointing red triangle, not to be confused with the similar looking Yield sign found in North America. On the highways and around major cities English signage is very good; however in more remote locales it may be spotty. Electronic signs are everywhere on expressways and major arterial roads, and provide helpful real-time information on road conditions, unfortunately they are displayed exclusively in Japanese. The following is a brief list of the most common messages and their translations:
Warning hazards for repair, breakdown and construction are always well illuminated at night and tend to also appear at least once before the main obstacle on higher speed roads such as expressways. Other road hazards to be aware of are taxis, who feel they have a god-given right to stop wherever and whenever they like, long-distance truckers (especially late at night) who may often be hepped up on pep pills and tend to ride the bumper of any slower car in front, and country farmers in their ubiquitous white mini-trucks, who never seem to go above a crawl and may pop out of rural side roads unexpectedly.
Road speed limits are marked in kilometres per hour. They are 40 kph in towns (with varying areas: some at 30, roads by schools usually at 20), 50 to 60 in the countryside (if unmarked, the limit is 60), and 80-100 on the expressways. There is usually a fair bit of leeway in terms of speeding – about 10 kph on normal roads, for example. If you go with the flow you should not have any problems, as the Japanese often pay speed limits no more attention than they have to.
Japan has many great opportunities for cyclists. Bicycle rentals can be found throughout the country, especially near popular routes. Some routes (like the Kibi Plain in Okayama, or Shimanami Kaido which takes you from the mainland (Onomichi) to Shikoku (Imabari)) have been set up specifically for cyclists.
If you will be spending an extended period of time in Japan, you may want to consider purchasing a bike. If you choose to do this, be aware that you need to have it registered. If your bike does not have the proper sticker, your bike can be confiscated. It is important that any bike that is not a rental bike is registered under the rider’s name. If you are caught borrowing a bike registered under someone else’s name, it is considered stolen in Japan, and you will likely be taken to the police station. The police often check bikes, so avoid problems by obeying the law.
Japan is a safe country for hitchhiking, although there is no Japanese custom for this, and some Japanese language ability is almost mandatory. See Hitchhiking in Japan for a more detailed introduction and practical tips for this fine art.
Japanese is a language with several distinct dialects, although standard Japanese (hyōjungo 標準語), which is based on the Tokyo dialect, is used in all school textbooks, magazines, newspapers, TV programs, and known by all people throughout the country. The slang-heavy dialect of the Kansai region is particularly famous in Japanese pop culture. The Kagoshima dialect is completely unintelligible to other Japanese. Likewise, on the southern islands of Okinawa, many dialects of the closely related Ryukyuan languages are spoken, mostly by the elderly, while in northern Hokkaido a rare few still speak Ainu.
Japanese is written using a convoluted mix of three different scripts: kanji (漢字) or Chinese characters, together with “native” hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ) syllabaries, which were in fact derived from Chinese characters more than one thousand years ago. However, hiragana and katakana do not carry the meaning of the original Chinese characters they were derived from and are simply phonetic characters. There are thousands of kanji in everyday use and the Japanese spend years learning them, but the kana have only 50 syllables each and can be learned with a reasonable amount of effort. Of the two, katakana are probably more useful for the visitor as they are used to write words of foreign origin other than Chinese, and thus can be used to figure out words like western foods on menus, or basu (バス, bus), kamera (カメラ, camera) or konpyu-ta- (コンピューター, computer). However, some words like terebi (テレビ, television), depa-to (デパート, department store), and su-pa- (スーパー, supermarket) may be harder to figure out. Knowing Chinese will also be a great head start for tackling kanji, but not all words mean what they seem: 大家 (Mandarin Chinese: dàjiā, Japanese: ōya), “everybody” to the Chinese, means “landlord” in Japan!
Names are a complicated matter in Japanese language. Using someone’s given name when speaking to or about them is considered very personal, and is only common among grade-school children and very close friends. At all other times, the default is to use family names plus -san, a suffix approximately like “Mr.” or “Ms.” Most Japanese know that Westerners usually go by their given names, so they may call you “John” or “Mary” with no suffix, but you should still call them “Tanaka-san” to be polite. In the Japanese language, though, names are frequently avoided altogether by using pronouns or just grammatically omitting them.
San is the default name suffix, but you may encounter a few others: -sama (people socially above you, from bosses up to deities, as well as customers); -kun (young boys, subordinates and good male friends); and -chan (young children and close (usually female) friends). To avoid being overly familiar or formal, stick with -san until someone asks you to call them differently. Also do not use -san or other suffixes after your own name when introducing yourself.
When most Westerners think of castles, they naturally think of their own in places like England and France. However, Japan too was a nation of castle-builders. In its feudal days, you could find multiple castles in nearly every prefecture.
Because of bombings in WWII, fires, edicts to tear down castles, etc. only twelve of Japan’s castles are considered to be originals, which have donjons that date back to the days when they were still used. Four of them are located on the island of Shikoku, two just north in the Chugoku region, two in Kansai, three in the Chubu region, and one in the northern Tohoku region. There are no original castles in Kyushu, Kanto, Hokkaido, or Okinawa.
The original castles are:
(Nijo Castle is an original however, it was actually an Imperial residence rather than a castle, so it is not included on the list of originals)
Reconstructions and Ruins
Japan has many reconstructed castles, many of which receive more visitors than the originals. A reconstructed castle means that the donjon was rebuilt in modern times, but many of these still have other original structures within the castle grounds. For example, three of Nagoya Castle’s turrets are authentic. Reconstructions still offer a glimpse into the past and many, like Osaka Castle are also museums housing important artifacts. Kumamoto Castle is considered to be among the best reconstructions, because most of the structures have been reconstructed instead of just the donjon. The only reconstructed castle in Hokkaido is Matsumae Castle. Okinawa’s Shuri Castle is unique among Japan’s castles, because it is not a “Japanese” castle; it is from the Ryukyuan Kingdom and was built with the Chinese architectural style, along with some original Okinawan elements.
Ruins typically feature only the castle walls or parts of the original layout are visible. Although they lack the structures of reconstructed castles, ruins often feel more authentic without the concrete reconstructions that sometimes feel too commercial and touristy. Many ruins maintain historical significance, such as Tsuyama Castle, which was so large and impressive, it was considered to be the best in the nation. Today, the castle walls are all that remain but the area is filled with thousands of cherry blossoms. This is common among many ruins, as well as reconstructions. Takeda Castle is famed for the gorgeous view of the surrounding area from the ruins.
Japan is famous for its gardens, known for its unique aesthestics both in landscape gardens and Zen rock/sand gardens. The nation has designated an official “Top Three Gardens”, based on their beauty, size, authenticity (gardens that have not been drastically altered), and historical significance. Those gardens are Kairakuen in Mito, Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, and Korakuen in Okayama. Other worthwhile historical traditional gardens are Sankei-en in Yokohama, Shukkei-en in Hiroshima, Sengan-en in Kagoshima, and the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto. The largest garden is actually Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu. And in spite of its reputation as a concrete jungle, Tokyo actually has a number of gardens to see. A few of the best are Koishikawa Korakuen, Rikugien, Kiyosumi, Kyu-Shiba Rikyu, Denboin, Shinjuku Gyoen, and Hama Rikyu.
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 Saihoji (Koke-dera), also in Kyoto, has one of the nation’s best. Reservations are required to visit so they can prevent overcrowding.
Regardless of your travel interests, it’s difficult to visit Japan without at least seeing a few shrines and temples. Buddhist and Shinto sites are the most common, although there are some noteworthy spiritual sites of other religions, as well.
Buddhism has had a profound impact on Japan ever since it was introduced in the 6th century. Like shrines, temples can be found in every city, and many different sects exist.
Some of the holiest sites are made up of large complexes on mountaintops and include Mount Koya (Japan’s most prestigious place to be buried and head temple of Shingon Buddhism), Mount Hiei (set here when Kyoto became the capital to remove Buddhism from politics, the head of the Tendai sect of Buddhism), and Mount Osore (considered to be the “Gateway to Hell”, it features many monuments and graves in a volcanic wasteland).
Many of the nations head temples are located in Kyoto, like the Honganji Temples and Chion-in Temple. Kyoto also has five of the top Zen temples named in the “Five Mountain System” (Tenryuji, Shokokuji, Kenninji, Tofukuji, and Manjuji), along with Nanzenji Temple, which sits above all the temples outside of the mountain system. Although there are “five” temples, Kyoto and Kamakura both have their own five. The Kamakura temple’s are Kenchoji, Engakuji, Jufukuji, Jochiji, and Jomyoji Temples. Eiheiji Temple is also a prominent Zen temple, although it was never part of the mountain system.
Nara’s Todaiji Temple and Kamakura’s Kotokuin Temple are famous for their large Buddhist statues. Todaiji’s is the largest in the nation, while the Kamakura Daibutsu is the second largest, meditating outside in the open air.
Horyuji Temple in Horyuji, just south of Nara, is the world’s oldest wooden structure. The beautiful Phoenix Hall in Uji is seen by most visitors to Japan on the back of the ten yen 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. Kyoto also has many important historic shrines, such as Shimogamo Shrine, Kamigamo Shrine, and Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Japan’s introduction to Christianity came in 1549 by way of the Portuguese and Saint Francis Xavier. He established the first Christian church in Yamaguchi at Daidoji Temple, whose ruins are now part of Xavier Memorial Park and the Xavier Memorial Church was built in his honor.
When Toyotomi Hideyoshi came into power, Christianity was banned and Christians were persecuted. Nagasaki is the most famous persecution site where 26 Japanese Christians were crucified. They are saints today and you can visit the memorial for these martyrs in the city. The Shimabara Rebellion is the most famous Christian uprising in Japan, and it was this rebellion that led to the ousting of the Portuguese and Catholic practices from Japan (although Christianity had already been banned by this time), along with approximately 37,000 beheadings of Christians and peasants. In Shimabara, you can visit the ruins of Hara Castle, where the Christians gathered and were attacked, see old Portuguese tombstones, and the samurai houses, some of which were occupied by Christian samurai. Oyano’s Amakusa Shiro Memorial Hall contains videos of the Shimabara Rebellion and great displays related to Christian persecution. Less famous sites may be off the beaten path, like the Martyrdom Museum and Memorial Park for martyrs in Fujisawa. When the nation reopened, some Christians assumed that meant that they were able to practice Christianity freely and openly, so they came out after 200 years of practicing secretly. Unfortunately, it was still not legal and these Christians were brought together in various parts of the country and tortured. You can see one of these sites at Maria Cathedral in Tsuwano, built in the Otome Pass in the area where Christians were put into tiny cages and tortured.
Along with the Martyrdom Site, Nagasaki is also home to Oura Church, the oldest church left in the nation, built in 1864. Because of Nagasaki’s status for many years as one of the nation’s ports for the Portguese and Dutch, the city is rich in Japanese Christian history, so many museums here have artifacts and information about the Christian community.
Japan has a few well-known Confucian Temples. As Japan’s gateway to the world for many centuries, Nagasaki’s Koshibyo 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.
The three must-visit places for World War II buffs are Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the capital of Okinawa, Naha. Okinawa is where some of the most brutal battles occurred between Japan and the United States, and the area is crawling with remnants from its dark past. The Peace Park, Prefectural Peace Museum, Himeyuri Peace Museum, and the Peace Memorial Hall are some of the best places to learn more, see artifacts, and hear accounts of the battles that took place here.
While Hiroshima and Nagasaki are important World War II sites, because the bombings of these cities led to the end of the Pacific War, the sites and museums found in these cities also speak to many as visions of a grim future, should nations continue supporting nuclear weapons programs and nuclear proliferation. These two cities are the only cities in the world that have ever been hit by nuclear bombs, and each city has its own Peace Park and Memorial Museum where visitors can get a feel for just how destructive and horrific atomic warfare truly is. For many travellers in Japan, visiting at least one of these cities is a must.
Some other possibilities are in Tachiarai, Fukuoka at the Chikuzenmachi Tachiarai Peace Memorial Museum which was a former airfield for training kamikaze, plus in Minamikyushu, Kagoshima the Chiran Peace Museum where most kamikaze took off on their one way missions, and in Kure, Hiroshima the Yamato Museum. Note however that at the kamikaze museums photography is mostly prohibited.
Many people are curious about the possibility of visiting Iwo Jima. Currently, the Military Historic Tours Company has exclusive rights to conduct tours of the island.
Kanoya, Kagoshima is home to the Kanoya Air Base Museum（鹿屋航空基地史料館） which holds documents of kamikazes and other Japanese war history. The most kamikazes in the whole Pacific War took off from Kanoya and Kushira Naval Air Base. There are various other war remains throughout the city such as underground bunkers, pillboxes at Takasu Beach, and sites of former kamikaze lodgings in Nozato.
Mt. Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan located in both Shizuoka Prefecture and Yamanashi Prefecture. It is a symbol of Japan. Every year it has been visited by many people for sightseeing and mountain climbing. It is famous for its amazing view seen from the top of the mountain. It has various faces, for example, Diamond Fuji.
The currency of Japan is the Japanese yen (pronounced en in Japanese). In Japan, the symbol for the yen is 円 (also the Kanji symbol for circle). In foreign exchange contexts it’s more common to see the ¥ or JPY symbolisations used. The value of the yen has been up and down significantly over the past few years. As of November 2018, it stands at 110 yen to the US dollar. Since there is an 8% tax on most sales, it’s easy enough to just figure 100 yen equivalent to about $1.
Japan is fundamentally a cash society. Although most stores and hotels serving foreign customers take credit cards, many businesses such as cafés, bars, grocery stores, and even smaller hotels and inns do not. Even businesses that do take cards often have a minimum charge as well as a surcharge, although this practice is disappearing. The most popular credit card in Japan is JCB, and due to an alliance between Discover and JCB, Discover cards can be used anywhere that accepts JCB. This means that Discover cards are more widely accepted than Visa/Mastercard/American Express. Most merchants are not familiar with this, but it will work if you can convince them to try! It’s not a guarantee though as some places with the JCB logo declined Discover cards. Always carry an alternate if you want to pay by card.
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. There are also a number of NFC-based payment systems like Suica, Pasmo, QuicPay, Edy, and others in use in major cities, for transport (Suica/Pasmo) or purely for payments (QuicPay/Edy). These are generally credit-card sized charge cards that can be recharged in exchange for cash (in 1000 yen increments), either at metro ticket vending machines or at convenience store cash registers for no additional fee. An IC card is a very convenient way to pay for everyday purchases and can be obtained for a 500 yen deposit and the initial charge amount from ticket vending machines at rail and subway stations. Balances are valid for ten years. The remaining charge and half of the deposit is refunded upon returning the card to station staff (Pasmo has no refund charge), however refunds can only be done in the region the card originates from. Since the introduction of nationwide cross-compatibility, cards purchased in most major cities can be used anywhere that shows the letters “IC” in gold and red (note that this does not extend to PiTaPa e-money compatibility; this means that a good number of vending machines in Osaka will not take, say, a Suica or Pasmo as payment).
Some people also use mobile phones to pay for their purchases where the mobile phone either has a built-in chip that allows it to function like a stored value card (e.g. Suica) or like credit cards whereby the cost is billed to them with their mobile phone bill. However, a Japanese phone and SIM card is required to make use of this service so it’s typically not available to foreigners on short visits. If you already have a Japanese phone, be aware that initializing the prepaid card function on a rental SIM will incur data charges, though this will most likely be less than the cost of a physical card. This can be avoided by using WiFi. Mobile phone-based stored value systems can be charged either by credit card (typically only American Express or JCB cards from overseas are accepted) or at convenience store cash registers.
Almost any major bank in Japan will provide foreign currency exchange from US dollars (cash and traveller’s checks). Rates are basically the same whichever bank you choose. Having to wait 15-30min, depending on how busy the branch gets, is not unusual. Other currencies accepted are euros; Swiss francs; Canadian, Australian New Zealand dollars and British pounds. Among other Asian currencies, Singapore dollars seem to be the most widely accepted, followed by the Korean won and Chinese yuan.
Exchange rates for US dollars and euros are typically good (about 3% below the inter-bank rate quoted in the news). Exchange rates for other currencies are very poor (up to 15% below the official rate). Other Asian currencies are generally not accepted (currencies from nearby countries, like won, yuan, and Hong Kong dollars, are exceptions). Japanese post offices can also cash traveller’s checks or exchange cash for yen at a slightly better rate than the banks, however, it can take 20-30 minutes of waiting. Traveller’s checks also have a better rate of exchange than cash. If you are exchanging amounts in excess of US$1,000 (whether cash or T/C), you will be required to provide identification that includes your name, address, and date of birth (to prevent money laundering and the funding of terrorism). Since passports usually do not show your address, bring along another form of ID such as a driver’s license that shows your address.
Japanese ATMs generally do not accept foreign cards and the availability of credit card advances, known as cashing (キャッシング kyasshingu), is spotty. The major exceptions are:
Other chains like Lawson’s and Family Mart convenience stores are also adding ATMs that take foreign ATM cards.
Notice the trend of “local” Japanese banks going with UnionPay (and MUFG accepting Discover as well). While 7-Elevens are everywhere, having more options is always recommended, so try to get either a UnionPay or Discover debit card before arrival for increased convenience (for instance, at Narita Airport, there are the “usual” foreign-capable ATMs on the 1st floor of Terminal 2 that get crowded when the international arrivals start coming, whereas the Mitsubishi-UFJ ATMs on the 2nd floor are wide open during most hours).
One thing to beware: many Japanese bank ATMs are closed at night and during the weekends, and post office ATM hours are limited, so it’s best to get your banking done during office hours! An exception is convenience stores, which are open 24 hours.
Also, three notes for those with UnionPay cards:
1. 7-Bank and Yucho both take an additional ATM fee of ¥110 in addition to the fee charged by the issuer. SMBC only takes 75. Aeon and MUFG charge nothing at all, so it’s best to withdraw cash while their ATMs are active.
2. Your UnionPay card number MUST start with 6. If the first digit is something else and it does not have the logo of another network it will not function at all in Japan. Change it out for another one. If the initial digit is 3/4/5 AND it carries the logo of another network (Visa/MasterCard/AmEx) it will NOT function in SMBC/MUFG/Aeon ATMs, only in the ATMs of the other network (Yucho/7-Bank/Citi/Shinsei).
3. The illustration on the SMBC/MUFG/Aeon ATMs show the card being inserted mag-stripe up. This is only for Japanese cards; UnionPay (and Discover for MUFG) cards are to be inserted the usual way.
On top of these, there are cash dispensers (abbreviated to CDs in Japan), intended for credit card cash advances. Some will work with foreign-issued ATM/debit/credit cards, however their numbers are dwindling near to non-existence.
Note the difference between CDs and ATMs, even for the same financial institution. For example, for foreign-issued cards SMBC and MUFG bank ATMs take UnionPay (MUFG also takes Discover), while SMBC and Mitsubishi UFJ Credit cash dispensers take only Visa/Mastercard.
A note for those using SMBC/MUFG/Aeon ATMs: on-site staff at most branches are still unaware that their ATMs now accept foreign cards at all. If you’re having trouble, pick up the handset next to the machine to talk to the central ATM support staff.
Vending machines in Japan are known for their pervasiveness and the (notorious) variety of products they sell. Most will take ¥1,000 bills, and some types such as train ticket machines will take up to ¥10,000; none accept ¥1 or ¥5 coins, nor ¥2,000 notes. Many vending machines, especially at or near train stations also accept Suica/Pasmo payment. Even the most high-tech vending machines do not take credit cards, save for certain ones in train stations (though there are limitations — for example, JR East ticket vending machines require a PIN of four digits or less; most credit card customers would be better off purchasing from a ticket window). Note that cigarette vending machines require a Taspo card (age verification), which are unfortunately off limits to non residents, but local smokers are usually happy to lend you theirs. But if you find a beer vending machine (rare, but they exist), they do not require age verification.
Prepaid electronic cards are quite popular in Japan for small purchases. There are cards for train fares, convenience store purchases, and public telephones, though they aren’t interchangeable.
There is a 8% consumption tax on all sales in Japan. Stores can now choose to display prices either inclusive or exclusive of tax. 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 now tax-excluded.
Always keep a sizeable stack of reserve money in Japan, as if you run out for any reason (wallet stolen, credit card blocked, etc), it can be difficult to have any wired to you. Western Union has a very limited presence even in the larger metropolitan areas (their agreement with Suruga Bank ended in 2009, and they have just started a new agreement with Daikokuya as of April 2011), banks will not allow you to open accounts without local ID, and even international postal money orders require proof of a residential address in Japan.
Tipping effectively does not exist in Japan, and attempting to offer tips can often be seen as an insult. Japanese service is legendary, and you do not need to bribe the waiters/waitresses to do their job properly — if you leave a tip in a restaurant, the staff will probably come running after you to return the money you “forgot”. Even bellhops in high end hotels usually do not accept tips. The only exceptions are high-end ryokan (see Sleep) and English-speaking tour guides. Some tourist serving companies may have a tip jar, but it is not expected to tip.
That said, some restaurants do add a 10% service charge, and family restaurants may add a 10% late-night charge after midnight.
Japan is not as expensive as its reputation implies. It is cheaper to eat a full meal at a moderately priced restaurant in Tokyo than in Australia, Canada and most Western European countries. Lodging and transport will be your biggest expenses. Yet even in Tokyo and Osaka, there are some very inexpensive foreigner friendly place to stay – many from about ¥3000 per night for your own room with AC and fridge. In Tokyo, there are many such places south of Minami-Senju Stn in Taito-ku, such as the New Koyo Hotel, Juyoh Hotel, and Kangaroo Hotel. In Osaka, there are many places in the Chuo Group. For long-distance travel, the Japan Rail Pass, Japan Bus Pass, and Visit Japan flights (see Get around) can save you a bundle.
You will find it possible to travel on less than ¥5,000 per day, if you stay in hostels or cheap hotels, plus avoid bars and high-cost transportation like taxis, high-speed airport connections or the Shinkansen. Typical prices for moderate budget travel would be ¥5,000 for a hotel or ¥2,500 for a hostel, ¥1,000 for a meal, and ¥2,000 again for entry fees and local transport. As a rule of thumb, popular temples charge an entrance fee but shrines do not. There are a few exceptions however, such as the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo and the Daishoin Temple on Miyajima which do not, and the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima, which does.
Tips for budget shopping
Japan is expensive in the central high-end shopping and eating areas. Since tourists often flock to these areas, consider purchasing lunch or snacks at a local supermarket before starting your day. A glass of orange juice at a cafe in the centre can cost you more than your entire lunch at the supermarket. Instead of shopping at the well-publicized shopping districts such as Isetan in Shinjuku and Matsuya in Ginza, consider the convenience stores, department store basements (especially after 6 PM), supermarkets, and suburban shopping malls or Aeon / Ito-Yokado. Don Quijote stores are similar to Wal-Mart style shopping with inexpensive food, clothing, gifts, etc.
If you find yourself a little short on cash, you can get your essential items in one of the many ¥100 shops (百円店 hyaku-en ten) located in most cities. Daiso is Japan’s largest ¥100 shop chain, with 2,500 shops across Japan. Other large chains are Can Do (キャンドゥ), Seria (セリア), and Silk (シルク). There are also convenience-store-like ¥100 shops such as SHOP99 and Lawson Store 100 where you can buy sandwiches, drinks, and vegetables in addition to selected ¥100 items.
The consumption tax imposed is not refundable for purchases of consumable items such as food and beverages that you consume in the country. Certain stores have tax free purchases for consumables over a certain amount, but you will get them in a sealed bag with a warning not to consume them in the country or be subject to tax. However, for non-consumable items like clothing and electronics, the tax may avoided for purchases of ¥10,000 or more before tax in a single receipt if you are not a resident and intend to bring the items out of Japan when you leave.
At many department stores like Isetan, Seibu and Matsuzakaya, you typically pay the full cost at the cashier and go to a tax refund (税金還付 zeikin kanpu or 税金戻し zeikin modoshi) counter, usually located at one of the higher floors, and present your receipt and passport to the counter to get reimbursed. In some other stores advertising “duty free” (免税 menzei), you just present your passport to the cashier when making payment and the tax is deducted on the spot.
When making tax free purchases or tax refund claims, counter staff would staple or tape the receipt in your passport, which you should keep with you until you leave Japan. This piece of paper is to be surrendered to the customs counter at your point of departure just before you pass through immigration and checks may be done to ensure that you are bringing the items out of Japan. It is a confusing process though and not well signed at the airport. Just drop the receipts in the bin and head toward immigration.
Despite the saying that Japanese cities never sleep, retail hours are surprisingly limited by North American standards. Opening hours of most shops are typically 10AM-8PM, though most shops are open on weekends and public holidays except New Year, and close on one day a week. Restaurants typically stay open until late at night, though smoking would usually be allowed after 8PM so those who can’t stand cigarette smoke should have your meals before then.
However, you will always find something you could need to buy at any time of day. Japan is crawling with 24/7 convenience stores (コンビニ konbini), such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, Circle K, and Sunkus. In central Tokyo you will never be more than 400 meters away from a convenience store. They often offer a much wider range of products than convenience stores in the US or Europe, often have a small ATM and are often open all day all week (unless they are part of a larger mall that has a closing hour)! Many convenience stores also offer services such as fax, takkyubin luggage delivery, a range of non-international postal services, payment services for bills (including topping up international phone cards such as Brastel) and some online retailers (e.g. Amazon.jp), and ticket sales for events, concerts and cinemas.
Of course, establishments related to night life such as karaoke lounges and bars stay open well into the night: even in small towns it is easy to find an izakaya open until 5 am. Pachinko parlours are obliged to close at 11 pm.
Anime and manga
To many Westerners, anime (animation) and manga (comics) are the most popular icons of modern Japan. Many visitors come to Japan in search of merchandise relating to their favorite anime and manga titles, which are often released in different versions in Japan and the West; the Western versions edit out taboo references in the Japanese version. Most anime fans will even try to find Japanese-language anime DVDs, but there are difficulties to doing so: there are usually no subtitles on domestic releases (with the exception of Studio Ghibli releases, which all offer English subtitles), and Japan is in DVD Region 2 and uses NTSC video formatting, so if you live outside of Region 2 and/or use PAL or SECAM, you may not be able to play the DVDs. You can get around this with special, often expensive equipment such as multi-system televisions and all-region DVD players. More commonly, a computer with region-lock bypassing software installed (i.e. VLC Media Player) should allow the more tech-savvy to view such DVDs. You may also be surprised by the prices: new DVD releases regularly cost over ¥3,000 and there are usually only 2 episodes per DVD. The mecca of anime goods in Japan is in Akihabara, with another good source at Nakano Broadway, both in Tokyo.
Blu-ray releases are more expensive than DVDs (starting at ¥4,000). Note, however, that Blu-ray regions are much less restrictive than DVD regions. Japan shares its code (Region A) with North and South America, Korea, Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong (but not mainland China). Some discs are also released without any region coding at all, and can be used with any NTSC-compatible player.
Be mindful about the content of any anime or manga that you purchase and try to bring back to your home country, especially if it contains sexually explicit material. The content of some anime and manga may be illegal under certain laws in your country. A well documented case involves an American who in 2007, ordered manga from Japan and was arrested after American postal workers opened his parcel prior to his receipt of the package. The manga he ordered were declared illegal under U.S. obscenity laws as they were said to contain cartoon images of underage characters in sexual situations. While this cannot be charged under child pornography laws (being drawings, no children can be said to have been involved in their creation), they are still illegal in the U.S and several other countries under laws regarding obscenity. A similar incident occurred with Canadian customs agents, although charges were dropped in this case but only after a two year ordeal. Check your local laws before trying to import any titles that might be questionable.
Video and PC games
Video games are a huge business in Japan, but Japan’s NTSC-J region code is incompatible with consoles in Europe, North America, Australia and mainland China, so you will need to buy a Japanese console to play these games. In South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau or Southeast Asia, these games should work fine on your console. Of course, the language will still be in Japanese (unless the game has multilingual options).
Here is a list of modern consoles and their interoperability:
There have been a lot of game consoles made in Japan. Here is a list of old consoles and their release dates in Japan.
PC games, on the other hand, will usually work fine, as long as you understand enough Japanese to install and play them. Only-in-Japan genres include the visual novel (ビジュアルノベル), which are interactive games with anime style art, somewhat similar to dating sims, and its subset the erotic game (エロゲー eroge), which is just what the name says.
Generally the best places for Video Game shopping are Akihabara in Tokyo, and Den Den Town in Osaka (in terms of deals, you can purchase video games from almost anywhere in Japan).
Electronics and cameras
Battery-powered small electronics and still cameras made for sale in Japan will work anywhere in the world, though you might have to deal with an owner’s manual in Japanese. Some of the larger stores will provide you with an English manual (英語の説明書 eigo no setsumeisho) on request, or you can find one online. There are no great deals to be found pricewise compared to the US, 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 universal or “overseas” configurations, many of which can be found in Tokyo’s Akihabara. You can get PAL/NTSC region-free DVD players, for example. Also, keep in mind that Japanese AC runs at 100 volts (50/60 Hz), so using “native” Japanese electronics outside Japan without a step-down transformer can be dangerous. Even the US standard 110V voltage may be too much for some devices.
Prices are lowest and shopping is the easiest at giant discount stores like Bic Camera, Yodobashi Camera, Sakuraya, Sofmap and Yamada Denki. They usually have English-speaking staff on duty and accept foreign credit cards. For common products the prices at any are virtually identical, so don’t waste time comparison shopping. Bargaining is possible in smaller shops, and even the larger chains will usually match their competitors’ prices.
Most of the big chains have a “point card” that gets you points that can be used as a discount on your next purchase, even just a few minutes later. Purchases tend to earn points between 5 percent and even 20 percent of the purchase price, and 1 point is worth ¥1. Some stores (the biggest being Yodobashi Camera)) require you to wait overnight before being able to redeem points. The cards are handed out on the spot and no local address is needed. However, some stores may not allow you to earn points and receive a tax refund on the same purchase.
Also, major stores tend to deduct 2 percent from points earned if paid using a credit card (if using a UnionPay credit card, Bic and Yodobashi will disallow you from earning points entirely, though you get an instant 5% discount as compensation). If you know you will buy something else at the same store (which is likely given that you almost always pay on the floor the item is found on), choose to earn points as most items, earn at least 10 percent in points, compared to the 5 percent tax refund.
While you may be better off heading for France or Italy for high end fashion, when it comes to casual fashion, Japan is hard to beat. Tokyo and Osaka in particular are home to many shopping districts, and there is an abundance of stores selling the latest fashion, particularly those catering to youths. Just to name a few, Shibuya in Tokyo and Shinsaibashi in Osaka are known throughout Japan as centers of youth fashion. The main problem is that Japanese shops cater to Japanese-sized customers, and finding larger or curvier sizes can be real challenge.
Japan is also famous for its beauty products such as facial cream and masks, including many for men. While these are available in almost every supermarket, the Ginza district of Tokyo is where many of the most expensive brands have their own shops.
Japan’s main contribution to jewelry is the cultured pearl, invented by Mikimoto Kōkichi in 1893. The main pearl growing operation to this day is in the small town of Toba near Ise, but the pearls themselves are widely available — although there is little if any price difference to buying them outside Japan. For those who insist on getting their hands on the “authentic” stuff, Mikimoto’s flagship store is in the Ginza district of Tokyo.
Then of course there is kimono. While very expensive new, second hand kimono can be had at a fraction of the price. There is a separate Kimono buying guide on Wikitravel for those who would like to buy their very own.
Smoking cigarettes remains very popular in Japan, especially among men. While cigarettes are sold at some of the many vending machines dotting Japan, visitors to Japan who wish to purchase them must do so at a convenience store or duty-free. As a result of the Japanese tobacco industry cracking down on minors (the legal age is 20), you now need a special age-verifying IC card, called a TASPO card, to purchase cigarettes from a vending machine. TASPO cards are issued only to residents of Japan.
Cigarettes generally come in 20-cigarette king-size hard packs and are fairly cheap, around ¥300-400. Japan has few domestic brands: Seven Stars and Mild Seven are the most common local brands. American brands such as Marlboro, Camel and Lucky Strike are extremely popular although the Japanese-produced versions have a much lighter taste than their western counterparts. Also, look out for unusual flavoured cigarettes, light cigarettes with flavour-enhancing filter technology although they taste very artificial and have little effect, mostly popular with female smokers.
Despite the high (for a developed country) smoking rates in Japan, smoking itself can be very restricted. Indoors smoking laws are enforced strictly and quite a few busy streets even do not allow smoking. Look around before lighting up.
One of the joys of getting out of Tokyo and travelling within Japan is to discover the local specialties. Every region within the country has a number of delightful dishes, based on locally available crops and fish. In Hokkaido try the fresh sashimi and crab. In Osaka don’t miss the okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) stuffed with green onions and the octopus balls (たこ焼き takoyaki).
Most Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks (箸 hashi). Eating with chopsticks is a surprisingly easy skill to pick up, although mastering them takes a while. Some chopstick guidelines to be aware of:
Disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) are provided in all restaurants as well as with bentō and other take-out foods. You shouldn’t “whittle” your chopsticks after breaking them apart. Many restaurants give you a hot towel (o-shibori) to wipe your hands with as soon as you sit down; use it for your hands, and not your face.
While some tourist-friendly restaurants in larger cities may have forks to use (if you ask), many restaurants do not. If you do not know how to use chopsticks, it may be useful to carry some disposable plastic forks in your backpack or purse.
Many Japanese dishes come with different sauces and garnishes. Japanese never put soy sauce on their rice; they eat bowls of rice plain, or sometimes with furikake, a blend of crumbled seaweed, fish, and spices. Soy sauce is used for dipping sushi in before eating, and they pour it on grilled fish and tofu as well. Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) comes with a thicker sauce, tempura comes with a lighter, thinner sauce made from soy sauce and dashi (fish and seaweed soup base), while gyōza (potstickers) are usually dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil.
Most soups and broths, especially miso, are drunk directly out of the bowl after you’ve chopsticked out the larger bits, and it’s also normal to pick up a bowl of rice for easier eating. For main-dish soups like rāmen you will be given a spoon. Curry rice and fried rice are also eaten with spoons.
The number of restaurants in Japan is stupendous, and you will never run out of places to go. For cultural and practical reasons, Japanese almost never invite guests to their homes, so socializing nearly always involves eating out.
According to the world famous Michelin Guide, which rates restaurants in major cities around the world, Tokyo is the most “delicious” city in the world with over 150 restaurants that received at least one star (out of three). In comparison, Paris and London received a total of 148 between them.
Most Japanese-style restaurants have lunchtime teishoku (定食), or fixed set meals. These typically consist of a meat or fish dish, with a bowl of miso soup, pickles, and rice (often with free extra helpings). These can be as inexpensive as ¥600 yet ample enough even for large appetites. Menus will, for most establishments, be in Japanese only; however, many restaurants have models (many in exquisite detail) of their meals in their front window, and if you can’t read the menu it may be better to take the waiter or waitress outside and point at what you would like.
Restaurants will present you with the check after the meal, and you are expected to pay at the counter when leaving — do not leave payment on the table and walk out. The phrase for “bill” is kanjō or kaikei. When it’s getting late, a server will usually come to your table to tell you it’s time for the “last order.” When it’s really time to go, Japanese restaurants have a universal signal — they start to play “Auld Lang Syne”. (This is true across the country, except at the most expensive places.) That means “pay up and move out.”
Many cheap chain eateries have vending machines where you buy a ticket and give it to the server. At most of these restaurants, you’ll have to be able to read Japanese to use them, though. At some of these restaurants, there will be plastic displays or photographs of the food with varying prices in front of them. It is often possible to match the price, along with some of the kana (characters) to the choices at the machine. If you’re open-minded and flexible, you might get shōyu (soy sauce) ramen instead of miso (fermented soy bean) ramen or you might get katsu (pork cutlet) curry instead of beef curry. You’ll always know how much you’re spending so you’ll never overpay. If your Japanese language skills are limited or non-existent, these restaurants with vending machines are really quite comfortable places because there is limited or no conversation required at these establishments. Most of the customers will be in a hurry, the hired help will usually not be interested in making conversation and will just read your order when they take your ticket and the water/tea, napkins, and eating utensils are either supplied automatically or self-service. Some other places have all you can eat meals called tabehōdai (食べ放題) or viking (バイキング).
Tipping is not customary in Japan, although fancy restaurants apply 10% service charges and 24-hour “family restaurants” such as Denny’s and Jonathan’s usually have a 10% late-night surcharge.
While most restaurants in Japanese specialize in a certain type of dish, each neighborhood is guaranteed to have a few shokudō (食堂), serving up simple, popular dishes and teishoku sets at affordable prices (¥500-1000). Try ones in government buildings: often open to the public as well, they are subsidised by taxes and can be very good value, if uninspiring. When in doubt, go for the daily special or kyō no teishoku (今日の定食), which nearly always consists of a main course, rice, soup and pickles.
A closely related variant is the bentō-ya (弁当屋), which serves takeout boxes known as o-bentō (お弁当). While travelling on JR, don’t forget to sample the vast array of ekiben (駅弁) or “station bento”, many unique to the region – or even the station.
A staple of the shokudō is the donburi (丼), literally “rice bowl”, meaning a bowl of rice with a topping. Popular ones include:
You will also frequently encounter Japan’s most popular dish, the ubiquitous curry rice (カレーライス karē raisu) — a thick, mild, brown paste that most Indians would hardly recognize. Often the cheapest dish on the menu, a large portion (大盛り ōmori) is guaranteed to leave you stuffed.
At the other extreme of the spectrum are super-exclusive ryōtei (料亭), the Michelin three-star restaurants of the Japanese food world, which serve gourmet kaiseki (会席) meals prepared from the very best seasonal ingredients. Should they condescend to let you in — and many require introductions — you will be looking at upwards of ¥30,000 per head for an experience, which, quite frankly, will go right over the heads of most mere mortals visiting Japan for the first time.
Even Japanese want something other than rice every now and then, and the obvious alternative is noodles (麺 men). Practically every town and hamlet in Japan boasts its own “famous” noodle dish, and they are often well worth trying.
There are two major noodle types native to Japan: thin buckwheat soba (そば) and thick wheat udon (うどん). Typically all dishes below can be ordered with either soba or udon depending on your preference and a bowl will cost only a few hundred yen, especially at the standing-room-only noodle joints in and near train stations.
Chinese egg noodles or rāmen (ラーメン) are also very popular but more expensive (¥500+) due to the greater effort involved and the condiments, which typically include a slice of grilled pork and a variety of vegetables. Ramen can be considered to be the defining dish of each city, and practically every sizable city in Japan will have its own unique style of ramen. The four major styles of ramen are:
In Tokyo, there is a brand of chinese noodles called “Jirou.” The soup is pork based and very greasy. The restaurants that handle this usually only handle “Jirou” type of noodles. If you tell the waiter “mashimashi” they well add great amounts of vegetables for free. Left overs are unacceptable so be sure to have an empty stomach.
There is an another type of Ramen noodle in Tokyo which is called “Aburasoba”(油そば). Aburasoba do not have soups like usual Ramen noodle do but instead, it has sauce in it. You eat Aburasoba by mixing the noodle and the sauce first and then you add some Chinese oil and some vinegar. The way of eating Aburasoba depends on the restaurant so you should check out many different kinds of Aburasoba restaurants in Tokyo. As a topping, it usually has welsh onion, garlic, eggs, roasted pork, and boiled bamboo shoots. Aburasoba started from 1985 in a restaurant in Musashino, Tokyo and you can find Aburasoba restaurants anywhere in Tokyo.
Slurping your noodles is acceptable and even expected. According to the Japanese it both cools them down and makes them taste better. Any remaining broth can be drunk directly from the bowl.
Sushi and sashimi
Perhaps Japan’s most famous culinary exports are sushi (寿司 or 鮨), usually raw fish over vinegared rice, and sashimi (刺身), plain raw fish. These seemingly very simple dishes are in fact quite difficult to prepare properly: the fish must be extremely fresh, and apprentices spend years just learning how to make the vinegared rice for sushi correctly, before moving on to the arcane arts of selecting the very best fish at the market and removing every last bone from the fillets.
There is enough arcane sushi terminology to fill entire books, but the most common types are:
Nearly anything that swims or lurks in the sea can and has been turned into sushi, and most sushi restaurants keep a handy multilingual decoding key on hand or on the wall. A few species more or less guaranteed to feature in every restaurant are maguro (tuna), sake (salmon), ika (squid), tako (octopus), and tamago (egg). More exotic options include uni (sea urchin roe), toro (fatty tuna belly, very expensive) and shirako (fish sperm). Tuna belly comes in two different grades: ō-toro (大とろ), which is very fatty and very expensive, and chū-toro (中とろ), which is slightly cheaper and less fatty.
If you somehow ended up in a sushi restaurant, but can’t or don’t want to eat raw fish, there are usually several alternatives. For instance the above mentioned tamago, various vegetables on rice, or the very tasty inari (rice in a sweet wrap of deep fried tofu). Or order the kappa maki which is nothing more than sliced cucumber, rolled up in rice and wrapped in nori.
Even in Japan, sushi is a bit of a delicacy and the most expensive restaurants, where you order piece by piece from a chef, can run you bills into tens of thousands of yen. You can limit the damage by ordering a fixed-price moriawase (盛り合わせ) set, where the chef will choose whatever he thinks is good that day. Cheaper yet are the ubiquitous kaiten (回転, lit. “revolving”) sushi shops, where you sit by a conveyor belt and grab whatever strikes your fancy, at prices that can be as low as ¥100 per plate. Even in these cheaper places, it’s still quite acceptable to order directly from the chef. While in some areas like Hokkaido, kaiten sushi is of consistently good quality, in larger cities (especially Tokyo and Kyoto) the quality varies considerably from place to place with the low end restaurants serving little more than junk-food.
When eating sushi, it’s perfectly acceptable to use your fingers; just dip the piece in a little soy sauce and pop the whole thing in your mouth. In Japan, the pieces typically have a dab of fiery wasabi radish already lurking inside, but you can always add more according to your taste. Slices of pickled ginger (gari) refresh the palate and infinite refills of green tea are always available for free.
Despite fish sashimi being the most well known, there is no shortage of other types of sashimi for the adventurous ones. Hokkaido crab sashimi and lobster sashimi are considered delicacies and are definitely worth a try. Whale is also occasionally available, although it’s not very common, and Kumamoto is famous for horse meat sashimi.
Fugu (ふぐ) or puffer fish is considered a delicacy in Japan despite being highly poisonous. It can be rather pricy due to the tremendous skill required to prepare it, which requires complete removal of the internal organs in which the poison is found. Despite the potential danger, it is highly unlikely that you will be poisoned to death by it as chefs are assessed very stringently every year to ensure their preparation skills are up to the mark, and the Japanese government requires new chefs to undergo years of apprenticeship under experienced chefs before they are licensed to prepare the dish. Because of the skill required, fugu is typically served only in speciality restaurants known as fugu-ya (ふぐ屋). As a side note, the emperor is banned from eating this dish for obvious reasons.
Grilled and fried dishes
The Japanese didn’t eat much meat before the Meiji era, but they have picked up the habit and even exported a few new ways to eat it since then. Keep an eye on the price though, as meat (especially beef) can be fiercely expensive and luxury varieties like the famous marbled Kobe beef can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of yen per serving. Some options, usually served by specialist restaurants, include:
One Japanese specialty worth seeking out is eel (うなぎ unagi), reputed to give strength and vitality in the drainingly hot summer months. A properly grilled eel simply melts in the mouth when eaten, and takes over ¥1000 from your wallet in the process.
A rather more infamous Japanese delicacy is whale (鯨 kujira), which tastes like fishy steak and is served both raw and cooked. However, most Japanese don’t hold whale in much esteem; it’s associated with school lunches and wartime scarcity, and it’s rarely found outside speciality restaurants such as kujira-ya in Shibuya, Tokyo. Canned whale can also be found in some grocery stores at a huge price for a small can.
Particularly in the cold winter months various “hot pot” stews (鍋 nabe) are popular ways to warm up. Common types include:
Throughout Japan you can find cafés and restaurants serving Western food (洋食 yōshoku), ranging from molecular-level carbon copies of famous French pastries to hardly recognizable Japanized dishes like corn-and-potato pizza and spaghetti omelettes. A few popular only-in-Japan dishes include:
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. These beer gardens are often taken place at Ebisu. Ebisu is the neighbor area of Shibuya, near Roppongi and Hiroo. Near by Ebisu Station (Hibiya line, JR Yamanote line) is Yebisu Garden Place(恵比寿ガーデンプレイス): a compound square of shopping, offices, restaurants & cafes.
Japanese fast food restaurants offer decent quality at reasonable prices. Many chains offer interesting seasonal choices that are quite tasty. Some chains to look out for include:
American fast food chains are also ubiquitous, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. McDonald’s restaurants are almost as ubiquitous as vending machines.
There are also a number of Japanese “family restaurants”, serving a wide variety of dishes, including steak, pasta, Chinese style dishes, sandwiches, and other foods. Though their food is relatively uninteresting, these restaurants usually have illustrated menus, so travellers who cannot read Japanese can use the photos to choose and communicate their orders. Some chains across the country are:
Though Starbucks has planted its flag in Japan almost as well as in the United States, the Japanese kissaten (喫茶店) has a long history. If you’re really looking for a jolt of caffeine, go to Starbucks or one of its Japanese predecessors such as Doutor. But if you’re trying to get out of the rain, the heat or the crowds for a while, the kissaten is an oasis in an urban jungle. Most coffee shops are one-of-a-kind affairs, and reflect the tastes of their clientele. In a Ginza coffee shop, you’ll find a soft “European” decor and sweet pastries for upscale shoppers taking a load off their Ferragamos. In an Otemachi coffee shop, businessmen in suits huddle over the low tables before meeting their clients. In Roppongi’s all-night coffee shops, the night owls pause between clubs, or doze until the trains start running again in the morning.
A peculiar kind of kissaten is the jazz kissa (ジャズ喫茶), or jazz coffee shop. These are even darker and more smoke-filled than normal kissaten, and frequented by extremely serious-looking jazz buffs who sit motionless and alone, soaking in the bebop played at high volumes from giant audio speakers. You go to a jazz kissa to listen; conversation is a no-no.
Another offshoot is the danwashitsu (談話室, or lounge). The appearance is indistinguishable from a pricy kissaten, but the purpose is more specific: serious discussions over matters such as business or meeting prospective spouses. All tables are in separate booths, reservations are usually required, and the drinks are pricey. So don’t wander into one if you’re just looking for a cup of coffee.
If you’re travelling on the cheap, Japan’s numerous convenience stores (コンビニ konbini) can be a great place to grab a bite to eat, and they’re almost always open 24/7. Major chains include 7-Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart, Popura, and Circle K. You can find instant noodles, bento trays, sandwiches, meat buns, and even some small prepared meals, which can be heated up in a microwave right in the store. An excellent option for food on the go is onigiri (or omusubi), which is a large ball of rice stuffed with (say) fish or pickled plum and wrapped in seaweed, and usually cost around ¥100 each. Some stores now offer chairs and tables to sit and eat, though not all do.
Most convenience stores in Japan also have a restroom located in the back. While most of the stores located in suburban and rural areas will let customers use their bathrooms, many in large cities, especially those in downtown areas and amusement districts of Tokyo and Osaka, will not. Therefore, you should ask whether you can use the bathroom at the cashier first, then buy an item later if you want to show your appreciation.
For those really on a budget, most supermarkets (sūpā) have a wide variety of ready-to-eat meals, bentos, sandwiches, snacks and the like, generally cheaper than convenience stores. Some supermarkets are even open 24 hours a day.
One Japanese institution worth checking out is the depachika (デパ地下) or department store basement food court, featuring dozens of tiny specialist stalls dishing up local specialties ranging from exquisitely packed tea ceremony candies to fresh sushi and Chinese takeaway. They’re often a little upmarket pricewise, but almost all offer free samples and there are always a few reasonably priced ones in the mix. In the evenings, many slash prices on unsold food, so look for stickers like hangaku (半額, “half price”) or san-wari biki (3割引, “30% off”) to get a bargain. 割 means “1/10” and 引 means “off”.
Despite its image as light and healthy cuisine, everyday Japanese food can be quite heavy in salt and fat, with deep-fried meat or seafood being prominent. Vegetarians (much less vegans) may have serious difficulty finding a meal that does not include animal products to some degree, particularly as the near-ubiquitous Japanese soup stock dashi is usually prepared with fish and often pops up in unexpected places like miso, rice crackers, curry, omelettes (including tamago sushi), instant noodles and pretty much anywhere salt would be used in Western cuisine. (There is a kelp variant called kombudashi, but it’s fairly uncommon.) Soba and udon noodle soups, in particular, virtually always use bonito-based katsuodashi, and typically the only vegetarian-safe item on the menu in a noodle shop is zarusoba, or plain cold noodles — but even for this the dipping sauce typically contains dashi.
One possibility for vegetarian/ vegan options is the kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi shop. Westerners tend to associate sushi with fish, but there are several kinds of rolled sushi available in these shops that does not include fish or other marine creatures: kappa maki (cucumber rolls), nattō maki (sushi filled with stringy fermented soy beans, an acquired taste for many), kanpyō maki (pickled-gourd rolls), and, occasionally, yuba sushi (made with the delicate, tasty ‘skin’ of tofu). These types of sushi tend to be less popular than the sushi using marine animal products, so you may not see them revolving in front of your eyes on the conveyor belt. Just shout out the name of the type of sushi you want and the sushi chef will prepare it for you right away. When you are ready to leave, call the waitress over and she’ll count your plates. The vegetarian sushi options are always inexpensive.
For anyone living in big cities, especially Tokyo, an excellent option is organic or macrobiotic food, often loosely called “natural food”, shizenshoku (自然食). While “vegetarian food” may sound boring or even unappetizing to Japanese ears, shizenshoku is quite in vogue as of late, although meals may cost about ¥3000 and menus may still contain seafood items. While considerably harder to find, it’s worth looking out for a restaurant (often run by temples) that offers shōjin ryori (精進料理), the purely vegetarian cuisine developed by Buddhist monks. This cuisine is highly regarded and thus often very expensive, but is often available at reasonable prices if you stay at temples.
Fortunately, traditional Japanese cuisine contains an ample amount of protein through its great variety of soy products: tofu, miso, natto, and edamame (tender green soy beans in their pods), for example. In the prepared food sections of supermarkets and department store basements, you can also find many dishes including various types of beans, both sweet and savory.
The number of vegetarian restaurants and even vegetarian food festivals (such as the Tokyo VegeFood Festa that takes place in the autumn) are increasing. Some vegetarians have been networking to help each other find suitable places to eat. For example, since 2006, a vegan meet-up group in Tokyo has been holding monthly buffets at local restaurants. Vegetarians in Tokyo or travellers passing through, can find out about the feast at the vegan meet-up page. The Happy Cow is a website that provides information about vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Japan and all over the world, and has almost 600 listings in Japan. They have an excellent paid app for the iOS and Android systems, and a simple ad-supported Android-only app.
For those of you who like Indian vegetarian fare, there’s a small chain of vegetarian Indian restaurants in Tokyo that have a satisfying lunch-time buffet every weekday. They have branches in Gaien Mae, Ginza and Ogikubo. The restaurant is called Nataraj. Nearly half the menu offers vegan options, including nan made from a Japanese green, leafy vegetable (komatsuna). The hors d’oeuvres are especially good.
Some vegetarians or vegans might be interested in a smoke-free and completely vegan place where they can drink as well as eat. One such restaurant is a new one that was made by the owners of the Pure Cafe. It is called 8Ablish. A rather elegant restaurant, with a wine list and chic decor, it is a place to come for a special occasion or when you have the time for a leisurely and creatively-prepared meal. The restaurant is just a 10-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station or a 5-minute walk from Omotesando Station.
Every October in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo there is an event called the VegeFesta. It takes place in an area called the NHK Hiroba (Square). Dozens of vegetarian and vegan businesses are showcased there and you can sample vegetarian foods from different cultural traditions. Representatives from animal protection groups, such as those that arrange the adoption of abandoned pets, also participate, along with eco-conscious companies such as North Face and Patagonia. There is a “low carbon footprint” policy for the event and they achieve that by utilizing re-usable tableware which the patrons have to pay a deposit for, which they get back after washing the utensils themselves.
In Japan, the drinking age is 20 (as is the age of majority and smoking age, for that matter). This is notably higher than most of Europe and the Americas (excepting the United States). However, ID verification is almost never requested at restaurants, bars, convenience stores or other purveyors of liquor, so long as the purchaser does not appear obviously underage. The main exception is in the large clubs in Shibuya, Tokyo, which are popular with young Tokyoites and during busy times will ID everyone entering the club. However, most clubs will accept any form of ID. They will normally ask for a passport, but if you show them a driver’s license (legitimate or non-legitimate), they will accept it.
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 (US$10) for 90 min (on average), although you will be limited to certain types of drinks. Very convenient, an izakaya will usually have a lively, convivial atmosphere, as it often acts as a living room of sorts for office workers, students and seniors. Food is invariably good and reasonably priced, and in all, they are an experience not to be missed.
・鳥貴族(Torikizoku) This is an izakaya(居酒屋) where you can eat food and drink alcohol cheaply. The cost of each of menu is only 280 yen. You can eat not only 焼き鳥(yaki-tori), but also, rice, salad, and tempura and more. Moreover, you can choose drink from more than 70 kinds of alcohol. This izakaya placed in most of the main city in Japan, so it is certain easy to go there.
While Western-style bars can also be found here and there, typically charging ¥500-1,000 for drinks, a more common Japanese institution is the snack (スナック sunakku). These are slightly dodgy operations where paid hostesses pour drinks, sing karaoke, massage egos (and sometimes a bit more) and charge upwards of ¥3,000/hour for the service. Tourists will probably feel out of place and many do not even admit non-Japanese patrons.
Note that izakaya, bars and snacks typically have cover charges (カバーチャージ kabā chāji), usually around ¥500 but on rare occasions more, so ask if the place looks really swish. In izakayas this often takes the form of being served some little nibble (お通し otōshi) as you sit down, and no, you can’t refuse it and not pay. Some bars also charge a cover charge and an additional fee for any peanuts you’re served with your beer.
Vending machines (自動販売機 jidōhanbaiki) are omnipresent in Japan and serve up drinks 24 hours a day at the price of ¥120-150 a can/bottle, although some places with captive customers, including the top of Mount Fuji, will charge more. In addition to cans of soft drinks, tea and coffee, you can find vending machines that sell beer, sake and even hard liquor. Some machines will also dispense hot drinks regardless of season — 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 11PM. Also, more and more of these machines, especially those near a school, require the use of a special “Sake Pass” obtainable at the city hall of the city the machine is located in. The pass is available to anyone of 20 years of age or over. Many vending machines at stations in the Tokyo metropolitan area accept payment using the JR Suica or PASMO cards.
Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. Though often called rice wine, in fact the sake making process is completely different from wine or beer making. The fermentation process uses both a mold to break down the starches and yeast to create the alcohol. The Japanese word sake (酒) can in fact mean any kind of alcoholic drink, and in Japan the word nihonshu (日本酒) is used to refer to what Westerners call “sake”.
Sake is around 15% alcohol, and can be served at a range of temperatures from hot (熱燗 atsukan), to room temperature (常温jo-on), down to chilled (冷や hiya). Contrary to popular belief most sake is not served hot, but often chilled. Each sake is brewed for a preferred serving temperature, but defaulting to room temperature is in most cases safe. If you are inclined to have one hot or chilled in a restaurant, asking your waiter or bartender for a recommendation would be a good idea. In restaurants, one serving can start around ¥500, and go up from there.
Sake has its own measures and utensils. The little ceramic cups are called choko (ちょこ) and the small ceramic jug used to pour it is a tokkuri (徳利). Sometimes sake will be poured into a small glass set in a wooden box to collect the overflow as the server pours all the way to the top and keeps pouring. Just drink from the glass, then pour the extra out of the box and back into your glass as you go. Occasionally, particularly when drinking it cold, you can sip your sake from the corner of a cedar box called a masu (枡), sometimes with a dab of salt on the edge. Sake is typically measured in gō (合, 180 mL), roughly the size of a tokkuri, ten of which make up the standard 1.8 L isshōbin (一升瓶) bottle.
The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as wine, but the one indicator worth looking out for is nihonshudo (日本酒度), a number often printed on bottles and menus. Simply put, this “sake level” measures the sweetness of the brew, with positive values indicating drier sake and negative values being sweeter, the average being around +2.
Sake is brewed in several grades and styles that depend upon how much the rice is milled to prevent off flavors, if any water is added, or if additional alcohol is added. Ginjō (吟醸) and daiginjō (大吟醸) are measures of how much the rice has been milled, with the daiginjo more highly milled and correspondingly more expensive. These two may have alcohol added primarily to improve the flavor and aroma. Honjōzō (本醸造) is less milled, with alcohol added, and may be less expensive; think of it as an everyday kind of sake. Junmai (純米), meaning pure rice, is an additional term that specifies that only rice was used. When making a purchase, price is often a fair indicator of quality.
A few special brews may be worth a try if you feel like experimenting. Nigorizake (濁り酒) is lightly filtered and looks cloudy, with white sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Turn the bottle gently once or twice to mix this sediment back into the drink. Though most sake ages badly, some brewers are able to create aged sake with a much stronger flavor and deep colours. These aged sake or koshu (古酒) may be an acquired taste, but worthwhile for the adventurous after a meal.
Worth a special mention is amazake (甘酒), similar to the the lumpy homebrewed doburoku (どぶろく) version of sake, drunk hot in the winter (often given away free at shrines on New Year’s Eve). Amazake has very little alcohol and it tastes pretty much like fermented rice glop (better than it sounds), but at least it is cheap. As its name implies, it is sweet.
If you are curious about sake, the Japan Sake Brewers Association has an online version of its English brochure. You can also visit the Sake Plaza in Shinbashi, Tokyo and taste a flight of different sakes for just a few hundred yen.
Shōchū (焼酎) is the big brother of sake, a stronger tasting distilled type of alcohol. There are largely two types of shōchū; traditional shōchū are most commonly made of rice, yam, or grain, but can be made of other materials like potatoes, too. The other is rather industrially made out of sugar through multiple consecutive distillation, often used and served as a kind of cooler mixed with juice or soda known as a chū-hai, short for “shōchū highball”. (Note however that canned chū-hai sold on store shelves do not use shōchū but even cheaper alcoholic material.)
Shōchū is typically around 25% alcohol (although some varieties can be much stronger) and can be served straight, on the rocks, or mixed with hot or cold water at your choice. Once solely a working-class drink, and still the cheapest tipple around at less than ¥1000 for a big 1L bottle, traditional shōchū has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years and the finest shōchū now fetch prices as high as the finest sake.
Imo-jochu （芋焼酎）, sweet potato/Satsuma-imo shochu, is very popular and famous in Kagoshima, Southern Kyushu. Some famous brands are Kojika and Taikai, distilled in Kanoya, Kagoshima.
Umeshu (梅酒), inaccurately called “plum wine”, is prepared by soaking Japanese ume plums (actually a type of apricot) in white liquor so it absorbs the flavor, and the distinctive, penetrating nose of sour dark plum and sweet brown sugar is a hit with many visitors. Typically about 10-15% alcohol, it can be taken straight, on the rocks (rokku) or mixed with soda (soda-wari).
There are several large brands of Japanese beer (ビール biiru), including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory. A bit harder to find is an Okinawan brand, Orion, which is excellent. Yebisu is also a popular beer brewed by Sapporo. Microbrewed beers are also starting to appear in Japan, with a few restaurants offering their own micros or ji-biiru (地ビール) but these are still few in number. Most varieties are lagers, with strengths averaging 5%. Non-alcohol beers are also widely available.
You can buy beer in cans of all sizes, but in Japanese restaurants, beer is typically served in bottles (瓶 bin), or draft (生 nama meaning “fresh”). Bottles come in three sizes, 大瓶 ōbin (large, 0.66 L), 中瓶 chūbin (medium, 0.5 L) and 小瓶 kobin (small, 0.33 L), of which medium is the most common. Larger bottles give you the opportunity to engage in the custom of constantly refilling your companions’ glasses (and having yours topped off as well). If you order draft beer, you each receive your own mug (jokki). In many establishments, a dai-jokki (“big mug”) holds a full liter of brew.
Some Japanese bartenders have an annoying habit of filling half of your mug with head so that you only have half a glass of actual beer. Though the Japanese like their draft beer poured that way, you may find it irritating, especially when you pay ￥600 for a glass of beer as in many restaurants and bars. If you have the gumption to ask for less head, say awa wa sukoshi dake ni shite kudasai (“please, just a little foam”). You will baffle your server, but you may get a full glass of beer.
Guinness pubs have started appearing all over the country recently, which is nice for those who like Irish drinks. Many large and medium sized cities also have at least a few ex-pat bars with many international brands for the homesick residents.
For those with a more humourous tastes in beer, try kodomo biiru (こどもビール, literally Children’s Beer), a product that looks just like the real thing but was actually invented with children in mind (there is 0% alcohol content).
Happōshu and third beer
Thanks to Japan’s convoluted alcohol licensing laws, there are also two almost-beers on the market: happōshu (発泡酒), or low-malt beer, and the so-called third beer (第3のビール dai-san no biiru), which uses ingredients like soybean peptides or corn instead of malt. Priced as low as ¥120, both are considerably cheaper than “real” beer, but lighter and more watery in taste. Confusingly, they are packaged very similarly to the real thing with brands like Sapporo’s “Draft One” and Asahi’s “Hon-Nama”, so pay attention to the bottom of the can when buying: by law, it may not say ビール (beer), but will instead say 発泡酒 (happoshu) or, for third beers, the unwieldy moniker その他の雑酒(2) (sono ta no zasshu(2), lit. “other mixed alcohol, type 2”). Try to drink moderately as both drinks can lead to nightmare hangovers.
Japanese wine is actually quite nice but costs about twice as much as comparable wine from other countries. Several varieties exist, and imported wine at various prices is available nationwide. Selection can be excellent in the larger cities, with specialized stores and large department stores offering the most extensive offerings. One of Japan’s largest domestic wine areas is Yamanashi Prefecture, and one of Japan’s largest producers, Suntory, has a winery and tours there. Most wine, red and white, is served chilled and you may find it hard obtaining room-temperature (常温 jō-on) wine when dining out. Convenience stores also sell inexpensive screw-top red and white wines, starting from around ¥400 a bottle.
Many stores also offer various alcoholic drinks in cans, such as whiskey highballs. Other drinks like ales or cocktails with various liqueurs are also on sale. In convenience stores there are also fizzy sodas spiked with vodka that are about 9% alcohol and as low as ¥100 each. Such cheap swill is made mostly for impoverished university students drinking for the pharmaceutical effects.
The most popular beverage by far is tea (お茶 o-cha), provided free of charge with almost every meal, hot in winter and cold in summer. There is a huge variety of tea in bottles and cans in convenience-store fridges and vending machines. Western-style black tea is called kōcha (紅茶); if you don’t ask for it specifically you’re likely to get Japanese brown or green tea. Chinese oolong tea is also very popular.
The major types of Japanese tea are:
Just like Chinese teas, Japanese teas are always drunk neat, without the use of any milk or sugar. However, Western-style milk tea can also be found in most of the American fast food chains.
Coffee (コーヒー kōhī) is quite popular in Japan, though it’s not part of the typical Japanese breakfast. It’s usually brewed to the same strength as European coffee; weaker, watered down coffee is called American. Canned coffee (hot and cold) is a bit of a curiosity, and widely available in vending machines like other beverages for about ¥120 per can. Most canned coffee is sweet, so look for brands with the English word “Black” or the kanji 無糖 (“no sugar”) if you want it unsweetened. Decaffeinated coffee is very rare in Japan, even at Starbucks, but is available in some locations.
There are many coffee shops in Japan, including Starbucks. Major local chains include Doutor (known for its low prices) and Excelsior. A few restaurants, such as Mister Donut, Jonathan’s and Skylark, offer unlimited refills on coffee for those who are particularly addicted to caffeine (or want to get some late-night work done).
There are many uniquely Japanese soft drinks and trying random drinks on vending machines is one of the little joys of Japan. A few of note include Calpis (カルピス), a kind of yogurt-based soft drink that tastes better than it sounds and the famous Pocari Sweat (a Gatorade-style isotonic drink). A more traditional Japanese soft drink is Ramune (ラムネ), nearly the same as Sprite or 7-Up but noteworthy for its unusual bottle, where one pushes down a marble into an open space below the spout instead of using a bottle opener.
Most American soft drink brands (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew) are widely available. The only choices for diet soda will be Diet Coke, Coke Zero, or Diet Pepsi. Root Beer or Dr. Pepper is nearly impossible to find outside of speciality import food shops or Okinawa. Ginger ale is very popular however, and a common find in vending machines. Caffeinated energy drinks are available in many local brands (usually infused with ginseng). Red Bull is also commonly found in vending machines.
In Japan, the term “juice” (ジュース jūsu) is catch-all term for any kind of fruity soft drink – sometimes even Coca-Cola and the like – and extremely few are 100% juice. So if it’s fruit squeezings you want, ask for kajū (果汁). Drinks in Japan are required to display the percentage of fruit content on the label; this can be very helpful to ensure you get the 100% orange juice you were wanting, rather than the much more common 20% varieties.
Onsen (温泉), quite literally “hot springs“, are the pinnacle of the Japanese bathing experience. Clusters of hot spring inns pop up wherever there’s a suitable source of hot water, and in volcanic Japan, they’re everywhere. The most memorable onsen experience is often the rotenburo (露天風呂): outdoor baths with views of the surrounding natural scenery. While baths are usually large and shared, some swankier accommodations offer, often for an additional fee, reservable baths for you and yours alone, known as family baths, racier “romance baths” or just plain old reserved baths (貸切風呂 kashikiri-furo). Onsen baths can be either in standalone buildings available for anybody (外湯 sotoyu), or private guest-only baths inside your lodgings (内湯 uchiyu).
While most onsen are run commercially and charge fees for entry (¥500-1000 is typical), especially in remote areas there are free publicly maintained baths that offer minimal facilities but, more often than not, stunning views to make up for it. Many of these are mixed (混浴 kon’yoku), but while men still happily traipse into these naked, if holding a towel in front of their dangly bits, it’s a rare woman who’ll enter one without a bathing suit these days. Commercial operations with kon’yoku baths tend to enforce bathing suits for both sexes.
To find those really off the beaten track hot spring inns, check out the Japanese Association to Protect Hidden Hot Springs (日本秘湯を守る会 Nihon hitō wo mamoru kai), which consists of 185 independent lodges throughout the country.
Many onsen prohibit the entry of visitors with tattoos. Intended to keep out yakuza gangsters (who often sport full-back tattoos), the rule is usually applied with a modicum of common sense, but heavily tattood visitors will, at the very least, receive curious looks and may be asked to leave.
Sentō (銭湯) are public bath houses found in any large city. Intended for people without their own home tub, they are typically quite utilitarian and are slowly dying out as Japan continues its break-neck modernization. Some, however, have gone upmarket and turned into spas (スパ supa), which, in Japan, does not mean Balinese huts offering Ayurvedic massage while getting sprinkled with orchids, but public baths for stressed-out salarymen, often with a capsule hotel (see Sleep) bolted on the side. As you might expect, these come in varying degrees of legitimacy — in particular, beware any place advertising “esthe”, “health”, or “soap” — but most are surprisingly decent.
Japanese are understanding of the funny ways of foreigners, but there’s one rule where no exceptions are made: you have to wash yourself and rinse off all foam before entering the bath. The water in the tub will be reused by the next person, and the Japanese consider it disgusting to soak in someone else’s dirt! Basically, wash up as well as you hope the guy next to you has done.
Be it a fancy onsen or a barebones sentō, the choreography of an entire visit goes roughly as follows:
Shared bathing areas are usually sex-segregated, so look for the characters “man” (男) and “woman” (女) to pick the correct entrance. Men’s baths also typically have blue curtains, while women’s are red. Enter the changing room, leaving shoes or slippers at the doorway; at public baths there may be keyed lockers.
At public baths (sentō), you either pay the attendant directly (often through the changing room entrance, and it’s almost always a woman), or use a vending machine in the entrance to buy tickets for entry and extra items such as towels or soap, which you then give to the attendant. On vending machines, look near the top for the Japanese words for “adult” (大人 otona) and “child” (子供 kodomo). (If the vending machine is too difficult to figure out, you can probably walk in and say sumimasen (“excuse me”) to the attendant and accomplish the rest by gesturing.)
Inside the changing room, there will be rows of clothes lockers or baskets. Pick a locker and undress completely, placing all your garments in the basket. Be sure to place your valuables in lockers, if there are any, and take the key with you into the bath.
You’ll be given a teeny-weeny washcloth for free, or sometimes a token fee. It’s not particularly good for covering your privates (it’s too small) and it’s not much use for drying off, either. Larger towels are available, again sometimes for a fee; men should leave these in the changing room and take only their washcloth, but women can use these to wrap up with. If you’d like one, ask the attendant for a taoru.
After removing your clothes and entering the bathing area, take a little stool and a bucket, sit down at a faucet, and clean yourself really, really well. Shampoo your hair, soap your entire body, repeat. Rinse all foam off once clean. Try not to leave the water running, or get water on other people.
Only now can you enter the bath tub. Do so slowly, as the water can often be very hot indeed; if it’s unbearable, try another tub. If you do manage to get in, don’t let your washcloth touch the water, as it’s considered mildly bad form; you may wish to fold it atop your head, or just lay it aside. When sufficiently cooked, you may wash yourself once again if you’re so inclined and repeat the process in reverse; it’s fine to save washing your hair for after the bath, too, if you prefer. (At natural hot springs, though, you shouldn’t rinse off the bath water, which is full of minerals that the Japanese consider healthy folk medicine.)
Note that the bath is for soaking and light conversation; don’t roughhouse, submerge your head, or make a lot of noise. Japanese people may be a bit wary of foreigners in the bath, mostly because they’re afraid you’ll try to talk to them in English and they’ll be embarrassed that they can’t communicate with you. Just give them a token nod/bow, say ohayo gozaimasu, konnichiwa, or konbanwa depending on the time of day, and wait to see if they’re interested in talking to you.
After your bath is finished, you can nearly always find a relaxation lounge (休憩室 kyūkeishitsu), inevitably equipped with a beer vending machine nearby. Feel free to sprawl out in your yukata, sip beer, talk with friends, take a nap.
Some features of Japan’s toilets are worth mentioning. As elsewhere in Asia, you will find both Western-style porcelain thrones for sitting and floor-level units for squatting. (If you’re unfamiliar with these, it’s simple: pull your pants down to your knees, and squat facing the curved hood of the toilet. Get closer to the hood than it looks like you need to, or else you might miss.)
In private homes and home-style accommodations, you will often find toilet slippers, which are to be worn inside the toilet and only inside the toilet.
However, most visitors come away impressed by the undeniable fact that Japan is the world’s leader in toilet technology. Over half of Japan’s homes are equipped with high-tech devices known as washlets (ウォシュレット), which incorporate all sorts of handy features like seat warmers, hot air dryers and tiny robotic arms that squirt water. The device is operated via a control panel and may incorporate over 30 buttons (all labeled in Japanese) at first glance bearing more resemblance to a Space Shuttle navigation panel than your average WC.
Don’t panic — help is at hand. The first key to solving the puzzle is that the actual flush mechanism is usually not operated by the control panel: instead, there is a standard, familiar, Western-style lever, switch or knob somewhere and it is thus entirely possible to take care of your business without ever using the washlet features. (In rare cases, mostly with very high-end gear, flushing is integrated; if lifting your bottom off the seat doesn’t do the trick, look for buttons labeled 大 or 小, meaning a big or small flush respectively, on a wireless control panel on the wall.) The second key to exploration is that there is always a big red button labeled 止 on the panel — pressing this will instantly stop everything. Older models simply have a lever nearby that controls the flow of a sprayer.
Armed with this knowledge you can now begin to dig deeper. Typical controls include the following:
Other, smaller buttons can be used to adjust the exact pressure, angle, location and pulsation of the jet of water. Sometimes the seat of the toilet is heated, and this can also be regulated. One explanation is that since houses are not usually centrally heated, the toilet business can be made a little more convenient by heating the seat. To be polite and save energy, you should leave the cover down on heated toilet seats.
Many of the toilets also have a button to turn on sounds to mask your activities. This can be useful if you are making embarrassing noises. Some of the toilets do this automatically when you lift the seat or close the door to the toilet.
Also something to note, public restrooms generally have sinks, but soap is rare as is a method of drying your hands. Given the excellent toilets, your hands hopefully shouldn’t be getting too messy. Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer handy and maybe a small towel if you don’t want to use your pants to dry your hands.
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. Note that prices are almost always given per person not per room. Otherwise, you may have a rather unpleasant shock when your party of five tries to check out..
When checking in to any type of accommodation, the hotel is, by law, required to make a copy of your passport unless you are a resident of Japan. It is a good idea, especially if you are travelling in groups, to present the clerk a photo copy of your passport to speed up check-in. Aside from this, remember that Japan is mostly a cash only country, and credit cards are usually not accepted in smaller forms of accommodation, including, but not limited to, small business hotels. Bring enough cash to be able to pay in advance.
One thing to beware in wintertime: traditional Japanese houses are designed to be cool in summer, which all too often means that they are freezing cold inside in winter. Bulk up on clothing and make good use of the bathing facilities to stay warm; fortunately, futon bedding is usually quite warm and getting a good night’s sleep is rarely a problem.
While accommodation in Japan is expensive, you may find that you can comfortably use a lower standard of hotel than you would in other countries. Shared baths will usually be spotless, and theft is very unusual in Japan. Just don’t expect to sleep in late: check-out time is invariably 10 AM, and any extensions to this will have to be paid for.
You may have difficulty finding rooms at the busiest holiday times, such as “Golden Week” at the beginning of May; and prices are commonly higher on Saturday nights.
Western-branded hotels are rare outside Tokyo and Osaka; elsewhere, it’s Japanese brands like ’’’ANA IHG, JAL Nikko or Okura, Rihga Royal, New Otani, and Prince that rule the roost. Full-service five-star hotels can turn pampering into an artform, but tend to be rather bland and generic in appearance, despite steep prices starting from ¥20,000 per person (not per room). However, there are several types of uniquely Japanese and far more affordable hotels:
Capsule hotels are the ultimate in space-efficient sleeping: for a small fee (normally between ¥3,000 and ¥4,000), the guest rents himself a capsule, sized about 2x1x1 meters and stacked in two rows inside a hall containing tens if not hundreds of capsules. Capsule hotels are segregated by sex, and only a few cater to women. While a night in one might be an interesting experience, in Tokyo and Osaka there are cheap clean hotels with your own room you can stay in for about the same money.
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. Having to deal with others snoring around you may be an issue, and in the humid summer months in some places you may not find the room temperature comfortable and with no way to change it.
Many if not most capsule hotels are attached to a spa of varying degrees of luxury and/or dubiosity, often so that entry to the spa costs (say) ¥2,000 but the capsule is only an additional ¥1,000. Other, cheaper capsule hotels will require feeding in ¥100 coins even to get the shower to work. This being Japan, there are always vending machines on hand to dispense toothpaste, underwear and such sundries.
Once you retire into your capsule, you will usually find a simple control panel for operating the lights, the alarm clock and the inevitable built-in TV. If you oversleep, you may be hit with another day’s charge.
In Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya districts the capsule hotels run at least ¥3,500, but have excellent free massage chairs, saunas, public baths, disposable razors and shampoo, magazines, and coffee in the morning. Despite all that, keep in mind that your capsule “door” is just a curtain that keeps light out. You will likely hear a steady stream of drunk and sleepy business men crawling into their capsules above and across from you before falling into a mild snore.
Love hotel is a bit of a euphemism; a more accurate term would be sex hotel. They can be found in and near red light districts, but most are not in those areas. Many of them are often clustered around highway interchanges or main train stations out of the city and back to the suburbs. The entrance is usually quite discreet, and the exit is separated from the entrance (to avoid running into someone one might know). Basically, you rent a room by the night (listed as “Stay” or 宿泊 shukuhaku on the rate card, usually ¥6000-10000), a couple of hours (“Rest” or 休憩 kyūkei, around ¥3000), or off hours (“No Time Service”), which are usually weekday afternoons. Beware of service charges, peak hour surcharges and taxes, which can push your bill up by 25%. Some will accept single guests, but most will not allow same-sex couples or obviously underaged guests.
They are generally clean, safe, and very private. Some have exotic themes: aquatics, sports, or Hello Kitty. As a traveller, rather than a typical client, you (usually) cannot check in, drop your bags, and go out exploring. Once you leave, that is it, so they are not as convenient as proper hotels. “Stay” rates also tend to start only after 10 PM, and overstaying may incur hefty additional “Rest” charges. Many rooms have simple food and drinks in a refrigerator, and often have somewhat high charges. Before entering a love hotel, it would be wise to take some food and drinks with you. The rooms often feature amenities such as jacuzzis, wild theme decoration, costumes, karaoke machines, vibrating beds, sex toy vending machines, and in some cases, video games. Most often, all toiletries (including condoms) are included. Sometimes the rooms have a book that acts as a log, where people record their tales and adventures for posterity. Popular love hotels may be entirely booked up in the cities on weekends.
Why are they everywhere? Consider the housing shortage that plagued post-war Japan for years, and the way people still live in extended families. If you are 28 years old and still live at home, do you really want to bring your mate back to your folks’ house? If you are a married couple in a 40m² (400 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 fulfill a social need.
One word of caution: there has been an increase in hidden cameras being planted in public and private spaces, including love hotels, either by other guests or even occasionally the hotel management. Videos of these supposed tousatsu (hidden camera) are popular in adult video stores, although many such videos are actually staged.
These are usually around ¥6,000+ per night and have a convenient location (often near major train stations) as their major selling point, but rooms are usually somewhat cramped. On the upside, you’ll get a (tiny) ensuite bathroom and, quite often, free internet (ethernet cable, wi-fi, or both, with speeds typically 10 Mbs both up and down). Some major chains of business hotels include Toyoko Inn, Hotel Smile, Superhotel, Comfort Inn, Route Inn, Hotel 1-2-3, Richmond Hotel and Dormy Inn. Most throw in a breakfast buffet for free.
Local, “unadvertised” business hotels, farther from major stations, can be significantly cheaper (from ¥5000/double room/night) and can be found in the phone book (which also tells prices), but you will need a Japanese-speaking assistant to help, or better yet, pre-book online. For two or more, the price can often compete with youth hostels if you share a twin or double room. Note that full payment is often expected on check-in, and check-out times are early (usually 10 AM) and non-negotiable unless you are willing to pay extra. At the very bottom end are dirt-cheap hotels in the labourers’ districts of the major cities, such as Kamagasaki in Osaka, or Senju in Tokyo, where prices start from as little as ¥1500 for a tiny three-mat room that literally has only enough room to sleep. Walls and futons can be thin as well.
Ryokan (旅館) are traditional Japanese inns, and a visit to one is the highlight of many a trip to Japan. There are two types: the small traditional-style one with wooden buildings, long verandahs, and gardens, and the more modern high-rise sort that are like luxury hotels with fancy public baths.
Since some knowledge of Japanese mores and etiquette is required to visit one, many will hesitate to take non-Japanese guests (especially those who do not speak Japanese), but some cater specially to this group. A night at a ryokan for one with two meals starts at about ¥8000 and goes up into the stratosphere. ¥50,000 a night per person is not uncommon for some of the posher ones, such as the famous Kagaya Wakura Onsen near Kanazawa.
Ryokan usually operate on a fairly strict schedule and you will be expected to arrive by 5PM. On entry, take off your shoes and put on the slippers you will wear inside the house. After checking in you will be led to your room, simply but elegantly decorated and covered in tatami matting. Be sure to take off your slippers before stepping on tatami.
Before dinner you will be encouraged to take a bath — see Bathe for the full scoop. You will probably wish to change into your yukata bathrobe before bathing and it’s a simple enough garment: just place the left lapel atop the right when closing it. (The other way, right-over-left, is a faux pas, as yukata are closed that way only for burial!) If the yukata provided are not big enough, simply ask the maid or the reception for ‘tokudai’ (特大), outsize. Many ryokan also have colour-coded yukata depending on sex: pinkish tones for women and blue for men, for example.
Once you have bathed, dinner will be served in your room. In most ryokan dinner is very elaborately prepared and presented from carefully chosen seasonal ingredients; by all means ask if you are not sure how to eat a given item. The food in a good ryokan is a substantial part of the experience (and the bill), and is an excellent way to try some high-class Japanese cuisine.
After you have finished you are free to head out into town; in hot spring towns it is perfectly normal to head out dressed only in yukata and geta clogs, although doing so as a foreigner may attract even more attention than usual. (Hint: wear underwear underneath.) Many ryokan have curfews, so make sure that you get back on time.
When you return you will find that futon bedding has been rolled out for you on the tatami (a real Japanese futon is simply a mattress, not the low, flat bed often sold under the name in the West). While slightly harder than a Western bed, most people find sleeping on a futon very pleasant. Pillows may be remarkably hard, filled with buckwheat chaff.
Breakfast in the morning is usually served communally in a dining hall at a fixed time, though the high-class places will again serve it in your room after the maid tidies away the bedding. It’s invariably Japanese style, meaning rice, miso soup and cold fish, although staff may agree to cook your raw egg on request.
High-end ryokan are one of the few places in Japan that accept tips, but the kokorozuke system is the reverse of the usual: around ¥3000 is placed in an envelope and handed to the maid bringing you to your room at the very beginning of your stay, not the end. While never expected (you’ll get great service anyway), the money serves both as a token of appreciation and an apology of sorts for any difficulty caused by special requests (eg. food allergies) or your inability to speak Japanese.
A last word of warning: some establishments with the word “ryokan” in their name are not the luxurious variety at all but just minshuku (see below) in disguise. The price will tell you the type of lodging it is.
Minshuku (民宿) are the budget version of ryokan: the overall experience is much the same but the food is simpler, dining is communal, bathrooms are shared, and guests are expected to lay out their own futon (although an exception is often made for foreigners). Consequently minshuku rates are lower, hovering around ¥5000 with two meals (一泊二食 ippaku-nishoku). Cheaper yet is a stay with no meals (素泊まり sudomari), which can go as low as ¥3000.
Minshuku are more often found in the countryside, where virtually every hamlet or island, no matter how small or obscure, will have one. The hardest part is often finding them, as they rarely advertise or show up in online booking engines, so asking the local tourist office is often the best way.
Kokuminshukusha (国民宿舎), a mouthful that translates quite literally into “people’s lodges”, are government-run guest houses. They primarily provide subsidized holidays for government employees in remote scenic spots, but they are usually happy to accept paying guests. Both facilities and prices are usually more comparable to ryokan than minshuku standards; however, they are almost invariably large in size and can be rather impersonal. Popular ones need to be booked well in advance for peak seasons: sometimes almost a year in advance for New Year’s and the like.
Shukubō (宿坊) are lodgings for pilgrims, usually (but not always) located within a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. Again, the experience is broadly similar to a ryokan, but the food will be vegetarian and you may be offered a chance to participate in the temple’s activities. Some Zen temples offer meditation lessons and courses. Shukubo can be reluctant to accept foreign guests, but one place where that will not be a problem is the major Buddhist center of Mt. Koya a few hours from Osaka. Note however that some places have a 9 PM curfew, and those who wish to see the ancient cemetery at night would do better to choose a place without one.
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 ¥2000 to ¥4000. It can become more expensive if you opt for dinner and breakfast and are not an HI member, in which case the price for a single night may be over ¥5000. For HI members, a simple stay can cost as little as ¥1500 depending on location and season. As elsewhere, some are concrete cellblocks run like reform schools, while others are wonderful cottages in scenic spots. There are even a number of temples that run hostels as a sideline. Do some groundwork before choosing where to go, the Japan Youth Hostel page is a good place to start. Many have curfews and dorms and some are sex-segregated.
Camping is (after nojuku, see below) the cheapest way to get a night’s sleep in Japan. There is an extensive network of camping grounds throughout the country; naturally, most are away from the big cities. Transportation to them can also be problematic, as few buses may go there. Prices may vary from nominal fees (¥500) to large bungalows that cost more than many hotel rooms (¥13000 or more).
Camping wild is illegal in most of Japan, although you can always try asking for permission, or simply pitch your tent late and leave early. Many larger city parks may in fact have large numbers of blue tarp tents with homeless in them.
Campsites in Japan are known as kyanpu-jo (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 (¥5000 or so) and should be avoided by those setting out on foot unless they also have lower-key accommodations available. Campsites are often located near onsen, which can be quite convenient.
The National Camping Association of Japan helps maintain Campjo.com, a Japanese-only database of nearly all campsites in Japan. The JNTO website has a fairly extensive list (in PDF format) of campgrounds in English, and local tourist offices are often well informed.
For the real budget traveller wanting to get by on the cheap in Japan is the option of nojuku (野宿). This is Japanese for “sleeping outside“, and although it may seem quite strange to Westerners, a lot of young Japanese do this when they travel. Thanks to a low crime rate and relatively stable climate, nojuku is a genuinely viable option if you’re travelling in a group or feel confident doing it on your own. Common nojuku places include train stations, michi no eki (road service stations), or basically anywhere that has some kind of shelter and public toilets nearby.
Those worrying about shower facilities will be delighted to know that Japan is blessed with cheap public facilities pretty much everywhere: notably onsen or hot springs. Even if you cannot find an onsen, sento (public bath), or sauna is also an option.
Bear in mind that nojuku is really viable only in the summer months, although in the northern island of Hokkaido, even in summer the temperature may dip during the night. On the other hand, there’s much more scope for nojuku on Okinawa (although public facilities on the smaller islands are lacking).
Nojuku is not really recommended for first-time travellers to Japan, but for those with some experience, it can be a great way to get into the ‘onsen’ culture, meet other fellow nojuku travellers, and most of all travel very cheaply when coupled with hitchhiking.
Gaijin houses (a.k.a. Guest Houses or Share Houses)
If you’re staying for a longer period, say a month and longer, you might be able to drastically reduce your living costs by staying in a “gaijin house”. These establishments cater specifically towards foreigners and offer at least minimally furnished and usually shared apartments at reasonable prices, and without the hefty deposits and commissions of apartments (often up to 8 months rent) paid before moving in. It will almost certainly be cheaper than staying in a hotel for a month, and for those coming to Japan for the first time they are also great for networking and getting to know a few locals. The downside is that facilities are often shared and the transient population can mean poor maintenance and dodgy neighbors.
Gaijin houses are concentrated in Tokyo, but any other big city will have a few. They can be anything from ugly cramped apartment complexes with new tenants every week, to nice family run businesses in private houses, so try to get a look at the place before you decide to move in. Two of the biggest letting agencies for gaijin houses in Tokyo are Sakura House and Oak House.
Traditionally, renting an apartment in Japan is a ridiculously complex and expensive process, involving getting a Japanese resident to act as your guarantor (literally–trash up the place and run away, and they will get stuck with the bill) and paying half a year’s rent or more in advance. This is thus essentially impossible for anyone who is not both familiar with the culture and there to live and work for a few years at least.
In recent years, though, weekly mansions (short-term apartments) have become popular for residents (typically businessmen on long-term assignment or young singles) and are accessible even to visitors. Most are 1 or 2 person rooms, though larger ones for 3 or 4 are sometimes available. Apartments fees are around ¥5000 for a single, around ¥6000-7000 for a two person room per day. Most of these apartment rental agencies will offer all apartments with shower, toilet and bath. They usually have air conditioning, microwave and cooking amenities. Reservations can be made on English website, and they have various promotional offers on their website.
Real Estate Co has several apartment buildings across Japan. Other choices are Weekly Monthly, Tokyo Room Finder, Leo Palace, and Borderless House. Sometimes a deposit is required for some of the apartments. This deposit can usually be waived if you have stayed with them a few times without any trouble. The apartments are always kept clean and often have much more space and flexibility than a hotel and are priced in the Youth hostel range.
Even in Tokyo, the trains completely stop running around 1AM, so if you are out after then and want to avoid paying for a cab or even a capsule hotel, there are a few options for killing the hours until the first morning train. If you need to find one of these options fast, station attendants will typically be able to point you in the right direction. Conveniently, many of these facilities are usually clustered around train stations, and they are used to accepting people who have missed the last train home.
Internet and manga cafés
In bigger cities, especially around the major stations you can find Internet or Manga cafés. Membership costs around ¥300 one time. Here you can also watch TV, play video games, read comics and enjoy the free drink bar. Price varies but usually around ¥400/hour. They often have a special night fare for the period when no trains are running (from around 00:10-05:00 for ¥1500). Customers are typically given the choice between a computer-equipped or TV-equipped cubicle, while others offer amenities such as a massage chair, a mat to sleep on or even a shower.
It is not an especially comfortable option, but it is perfect for checking the next day’s train schedule, downloading pictures from your digital camera, writing home, and resting a bit. Often, you may be surrounded by snoring locals who have missed the last train home.
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 ¥1500-2500. Works only with at least 3 people.
Some onsen or sento stay open all night. These are usually known as “super” sentos. Usually there is a ‘relaxing area’ with tatami mats, TV, vending machines, etc. Though occasionally they are multi story bath and play houses. Often, for a reasonable fee (on top of the bathing cost), you will be allowed to crash the night on the tatami or in a room with large reclining chairs.
In the warmer months, people sleeping or napping on streetsides outside the bigger train stations is a common sight. Many of them just missed their last trains and prefer spending three or four hours waiting for the first train on the asphalt rather than three or four thousand yen for a short-term stay in a hotel or public bath.
While this is definitely the least comfortable way to sleep through the night, it is especially popular with college students (who have no money), and absolutely tolerated by police and station staff; even drunkards sleeping close to their own vomitus 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.
The Tokyo region generally offers the widest array of jobs for foreigners, including positions for lawyers, accountants, engineers and other professionals. To work in Japan, a foreigner must receive a job offer from a guarantor in Japan, and then apply for a working visa at an embassy or consulate outside the country. Working visas are valid for a period of 1 to 3 years, and may be used to secure employment at any employer within the scope of activities designated on the visa (including employers other than the guarantor). Expect strict penalties if you overstay on any visa. Spouses of Japanese nationals can obtain spousal visas, which carry no restrictions on employment.
The Working Holiday program is open to young citizens (between 18 and 30) from Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, South Korea, France, Germany, Ireland and the UK: those eligible may apply for working holiday visas without having a job offer.
The most common form of employment among foreigners is teaching English, especially in after-hours English conversation schools known as eikaiwa (英会話). Pay is fairly good for young adults, but rather poor compared to a qualified educator already at work in most Western countries. Working conditions can also be quite strict compared to Western standards, and some companies have very bad reputations. An undergraduate degree or ESL creditation is essential for most desirable positions. For the larger chain English schools most teachers would have been interviewed in their home countries before coming to work in Japan. Learning English is no longer quite as fashionable as it once was and the boom years are long since over. North American accents tend to be preferred over other accents. Recently there has been greater emphasis on children’s education. Besides English, other foreign languages that are popular include Portuguese, French, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese.
The JET Program (Japan Exchange and Teaching) offers young university graduates a chance to teach in Japan. The program is run by the Japanese government but your employer would typically be a local Board of Education who assigns you to one or more public schools, often deep in the countryside. No Japanese skills or formal teaching qualifications are required and your airfare is provided. Pay is slightly better than the language schools and, unlike at such a school, if you have a serious problem with your employer you can appeal to the JET program people for help. The JET program also has a small number of positions for international relations or sports co-ordinators, although these require some Japanese ability.
Foreigners with postgraduate education may be able to find jobs teaching English (or even other subjects) at Japanese universities, which offer better pay and working conditions than the eikaiwa industry.
Quite a few young women choose to work in the hostess industry, where they entertain Japanese men over drinks in tiny bars known as sunakku (スナック) and are paid for their time. While pay can be good, visas for this line of work are difficult if not impossible to obtain and most work illegally. The nature of the work also carries its own risks, notably poor career prospects, alcoholism, smoking, potential problems from clients such as groping and lewd questions, and even harassment or worse, exemplified by the abduction and murder of hostess Lucie Blackman in 2000.
Minimum wage laws are under the authority of the parliamental government. The minimum wage in Japan is currently 702-954 JPY, depending on a prefectural and industry basis. Employees are not allowed be paid less than the minimum wage. Also, the cost for commuting, extra pay (such as working on holidays, at night, overtime, etc.) and temporary pay (bonus, tips, etc.) can possibly also be paid additionally (depending on circumstances there are exceptions to this) and cannot be used to calculate towards minimum wage
Japan Police utilizes white and black patrol vehicles. Japan Police and other emergency vehicles utilizes red emergency lights on their vehicles only. Japan Police officers operate differently then most police. If found guilty of a crime or a offence you will be arrested and they will determine that you are found guilty untill proven otherwise. Japan police will interrogate you severly with sometimes brute force aganist the offender.
Street crime is extremely rare, even late at night. Of course, little crime does not mean no crime, and it is no excuse to ditch your common sense. Women travelling alone should take care as they would in their home countries and should never hitchhike alone.
Pickpocketing does sometimes happen: if you take your usual precautions in crowded places such as trains and at Narita Airport, you should be fine. Women on crowded rush-hour trains should be aware of the existence of chikan (痴漢) or molesters. A lot of heavy drinking goes on in the evenings and occasionally drunks may be a nuisance, although alcohol-related violence is extremely rare.
The infamous yakuza (ヤクザ) (Japanese gangsters) may have earned a partly undeserved reputation of being a bunch of violent, psychopathic criminals due to their portrayal in various films. However, in reality, they almost never target people not already involved in organized crime. Just do not find trouble with them, and they will not bother you.
Red-light districts in large cities can be seedy but are rarely dangerous for visitors, but some smaller backstreet bars have been known to lay down exorbitant cover charges or drink prices. In some extreme cases, foreigners have reported being drugged at such establishments and then charged for as much as ¥700,000, or close to $7000, for drinks that they do not remember ordering (notably in the Roppongi and Kabuki-cho districts of Tokyo). Never go into a place that is suggested by someone that you just met, and you will avoid that problem. Both areas have many African touts looking out for western tourists – avoid them and never go where they suggest.
Note that drug laws in Japan are draconian compared to 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, then deportation and being banned for life. Do not assume that just because you have a prescription from your home country that you can take it to Japan. If you have prescription drugs, check with the Japanese Embassy prior to your departure to find out whether or not your medicine is allowed in Japan. If it is illegal, they should also be able to give you information regarding what medicines you can buy in Japan to use in place of your prescription while you are there. Note that importing psuedoephedrine or opiods is banned.
Police boxes (交番 kōban) can be found on every other street corner. The police are generally helpful (although they rarely speak English), so ask if you get lost or have any trouble. They usually have a detailed map of the area around showing not only the difficult-to-understand numbering system but also the names of office or public buildings or other places that help to find your way.
Also, if you carry travel insurance, report any thefts or lost items at the kōban. They have forms in English and Japanese, often referred to as the “Blue Form”. For lost items, even cash, filling out this form is not wasted effort, as Japanese people will very often take lost items, even a wallet full of cash, to the kōban. If you happen to find such an item, take it to the kōban. If the item is not claimed within six months, it is yours. If it is claimed, you may be due a reward of 5-15%.
Japan has two emergency numbers. To call the police in an emergency, dial 110 (百十番 hyakutoban). To call for an ambulance or fire truck, dial 119 (a reversal of the US 911). In Tokyo, the police have an English help line (03-3501-0110), available Monday through Friday except on holidays 08:30-17:15.
Prostitution is illegal in Japan. However, enforcement is lax, and the law specifically defines prostitution as “sex in exchange for money.” The most famous red-light district is Kabukicho (歌舞伎町) in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district where many call girl booths and love hotels are located. The incidence of HIV is getting higher in Japan in recent years. Some prostitutes will refuse to serve foreign customers, including those who are fluent in Japanese.
Despite being a grey area, by law racial discrimination in Japan is illegal. Although violent attacks against foreigners in Japan are almost unheard of, there is an abundance of discrimination against foreigners in regards to employment and housing. Western visitors will most often be refused entrance into certain onsen (in Japan, often tattoo equals yakuza) 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. These places are fairly uncommon, although not all will display the said signs. Such prohibitions are due to foreigners’ social incompatibility (for example, foreigners may not understand proper bathhouse etiquette, table manners or speaking in loud volumes etc).
Banks are generally unwilling to give cash advances to foreigners, stemming mainly from stereotypes of untrustworthiness. If you need to get a cash advance from your bank, care of a Japanese bank, Japanese language proficiency, or a Japanese friend to vouch for you will strongly help your case.
Japanese people are mostly welcoming to foreign visitors, but occasionally some can be annoyed at the mere sight of them, and may go to great lengths to avoid them (such as not getting on the same elevator as a foreigner, refusing to sit next to a foreigner in public transportation, or risk jaywalking just to avoid walking past a foreigner on the sidewalk). Some establishments, notably restaurants, tend to tuck away foreigners from the Japanese guests, and English menu often do not have any specials that the Japanese guests have. Chefs or bartenders that converse with customers sometimes show no interest in dealing with foreigners, regardless if they understand English.
Japanese people commonly have a stereotype against other Asians, especially those of Chinese ethnicity (regardless of what their nationality is) and Koreans. This is due to the fact that they’re occasionally perceived to be the less successful Asians, loud, vulgar and rude.
Japan is prone to earthquakes. On 11 March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Miyagi prefecture, triggering a very large tsunami and bringing havoc to the city of Sendai and the surrounding area. The quake (and its aftershocks) were palpable throughout Japan, with the death toll numbering over 15,000, mostly due to the tsunami. The previous large quake hit Kobe in 1995 and killed over 5000. Every few days, somewhere in Japan is rattled by a quake large enough to be felt, but most of them are completely harmless. Even though electronic devices are now being introduced to detect earthquakes (both the earthquake intensity and the amount of seconds it will take for the tremors to reach a certain location), be aware of a few basic safety procedures:
Every neighborhood has an evacuation area, most often the local playground. Many schools are set up as temporary shelters. Both of these will be labeled in English. If you are travelling with others, plan to meet there and be aware that portable telephones will likely not work.
Volcanoes, storms and typhoons are primarily a potential issue if you are mountain-climbing or sailing, so check the latest information before heading out. Stick to designated footpaths in volcanic areas as volcanic gas may be an issue. Typhoons are rarely physically dangerous, but they still wreak havoc with planes, ferrys, and even (if there are landslides) trains and buses schedules.
There are venomous snakes called habu in Okinawa although not in unusual numbers. You are unlikely to be bitten by one, but if you are, seek medical help immediately as antivenoms are available. If you are hiking in Hokkaido and Honshu, be aware of possible bear activity, especially in autumn. Attacks are rare, but in areas such as the Shiretoko Peninsula, attach bells to your backpack to scare them away.
Especially in the countryside, be aware of the Asian giant hornet; it is about 5 cm (2 in) long and can sting repeatedly and painfully. Every year, 20-40 people die in Japan after being stung by giant hornets. A hornet defending its nest or feeding spot will make a clicking sound to warn away intruders; if you encounter one, retreat. If you are stung, receive prompt medical attention, as prolonged exposure to the venom could cause permanent damage or even death.
Foreign credit cards are accepted mostly at major hotels, chain stores, and places that deal with many foeign tourists. However, other Japanese stores may not be able to accept them. It is advised that enough cash is kept for emergencies at all times.
Japanese people understand that visitors may not be aware of the intricacies of Japanese etiquette and tend to be tolerant of blunders in this regard by foreigners. There are a few serious etiquette breaches, however, that will meet with universal disapproval, even with foreigners, and they should be avoided at all costs:
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, but same-sex relationships are not recognized by the government, and open displays of your orientation are still likely to draw stares and whispers. In addition, national and regional Japanese law does not say that public accommodations have to be open to gays so don’t be surprised if they turn you away.
International dialling prefixes vary from company to company. Check with your operator for more details. For international calls to Japan, the country code is 81.
Emergency 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.
Mobile Phones and WiFi Routers
Modern Japanese mobile phones (携帯電話 keitai denwa or just keitai) tend to operate on unique cellular standards not always compatible with the rest of the world. For instance, most Japanese 2G mobile phones operate on the Personal Digital Cellular (PDC) standard, which was developed and is used exclusively in Japan. In a nutshell:
If your phone is up to spec, double-check with your carrier if they have a roaming agreement with either SoftBank or NTT DoCoMo. Coverage is generally excellent, unless you are heading to some remote mountainous areas.
If you have no 3G phone but still have a 3G-compatible SIM card, you can rent a 3G phone in Japan and slot in your card, allowing you to keep your home phone number in Japan. Carrier restrictions may apply: for instance, O2-UK (operating in Japan via NTT DoCoMo) requires you to dial *111*#, wait for a callback; then, dial the actual number you wish to connect. Be sure to double-check with your network provider before departing.
Options available to you are summed up in this table:
|SIM card||Phone||Roaming||SIM rental||Phone rental,|
|GSM SIMa||GSM phone||No||No||No||Yes|
|GSM SIMa||3G/UMTS phone||No||Yes||No||Yes|
|GSM/3G USIMb||GSM phone||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|GSM/3G USIMb||3G/UMTS phone||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|None||CDMA phone (Verizon/Sprint)||Limited||No||No||Yes|
|iDEN||iDEN phone (Nextel)||No||No||Yes|
a GSM-only SIMs are issued by providers that don’t have their own 3G network. If your home operator have no 3G network, or if you got your phone before their 3G network was introduced, this may apply to you. Call and ask your operator if their SIM cards are USIM compatible.
b USIM cards are issued by providers that have a 3G network or plan to introduce one. Any European who got their SIM card after 2003 has one of these. Call and ask your operator if their SIM cards are USIM compatible.
Data roaming works as well (subject to the above restrictions), allowing you to use wireless internet on your phone (although it can be expensive!). Google Maps on your phone can be invaluable (although note that tower positioning does not work).
For a short visit, your cheapest option for mobile access is to rent a phone. A number of companies provide this service. Rental rates and call charges vary, the best one can depend on how long you are renting and how much you will call.
Beware of “free” rental as there is a catch: usually, there are very high call charges. Incoming calls are free in Japan.
|Company||Pickup Locations||Domestic Rates|
|Mobal Communications Inc.|
|SoftBank Global Rental|
|Global Advanced Communications|
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).
You can send postcards to anywhere in the world for ¥70. Public mail deposit boxes are found throughout Japan. They have two slots, one for regular domestic mail, and the other for overseas and express mail.
Internet cafés (インターネットカフェ) can be found in or around many train stations. Here, you can upload your pictures from a digital camera, and if you forgot your cable, some cafés will lend you a memory card reader for free. Manga coffee shops (漫画喫茶 manga-kissa) usually have Internet PCs as well. When you get tired of browsing the web, you can browse comic books, watch TV or a variety of movies-on-demand, or play video games. The cost is typically around ¥400/hour, with free (non-alcoholic) drinks, and possibly more. Often they have special night fares: around ¥1500 for the 4-5 hour period when no trains are running. Internet cafés can be a safe and inexpensive place to spend the night if you miss the last train.
Some larger train stations and airports also have rental PCs to surf and send e-mail, usually about ¥100 (coin) for 10 min.
A number of business hotels have Internet access available if you have your own computer, sometimes for free. In most cases, access is usually provided by a VDSL modem connected to the hotel telephone system. Some of the hotels that offer free Internet access do not include the rental for the modem in the “free” part of the service, so check before you use. Setting up your network interface for DHCP is usually all that is required to gain access to the Internet in such situations. Many also tend to have rental or free PC’s available for hotel guests.
When using public access PC’s, the Alt-Shift keys pressed together typically switch between Japanese and Roman input methods. If you accidentally switch the input method or if the last person left the computer this way and you are looking to type in English, you can use this key combination to switch back to the Roman alphabet. There may also be a language-switch key at the top left of the keyboard – above the Tab key and to the right of the space bar. If you hit one by accident, just hit it again to switch back. For email, note that the @ key is usually on the right side of the keyboard, next to the ‘P’.
It is also possible to find Wi-Fi “hot spots” around many large cities in Japan, especially near tech-related businesses and large corporate buildings with unsecured wireless networks (the Apple store in Ginza, Tokyo has a fast, open 802.11n connection).
3G Wireless Data is available, and if you have international data roaming, you should roam with no problem. GPRS does not work in Japan. Please see the section on mobile phones for additional information including phone/data card compatibility. Remember, the same restrictions on phones apply to 3G Data.
Pocket WiFi is another affordable option for people wanting to use their WiFi enabled devices (smartphone, iPhone, iPad, laptops etc.) A Pocket WiFi device is about the size of a Zippo lighter and fits in your pocket or bag. It makes available a mobile wifi hotspot you can connect your devices to. Several of the phone companies offer Pocket WiFi rentals. It is very easy to pick one up at Narita airport with a credit card and cost about $900 yen/day. This is a great way to have internet for multiple devices wherever you go.
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