Thursday, May 26, 2022
Japan travel guide - Travel S helper


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Japan is an East Asian island nation. It is located in the Pacific Ocean, east of the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea, China, Korea, and Russia, and stretches from the Sea of Okhotsk to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south. Japan’s name is composed of characters that signify “sun origin,” and it is often referred to as the “Land of the Rising Sun.”

Japan is a 6,852-island stratovolcanic archipelago. Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku are the four biggest, accounting for about 97% of Japan’s geographical area. The nation is split into 47 prefectures, each of which is divided into eight regions. With a population of 126 million, it ranks ninth in the globe. Japanese people account for 98.5 percent of the total population of Japan. Around 9.1 million people reside in Tokyo’s core city, the country’s capital, which is the sixth biggest city proper in the OECD and the world’s fourth largest global metropolis. The Greater Tokyo Region, which encompasses Tokyo and many neighboring prefectures, is the world’s biggest metropolitan area, with a population of over 35 million and the world’s largest urban agglomeration economy.

Japan was populated as early as the Upper Paleolithic era, according to archaeological evidence. Japan is first mentioned in writing in Chinese historical books from the first century AD. Japan’s history has been defined by periods of influence from other areas, most notably China, followed by periods of isolation, most notably from Western Europe. Between the 12th and 18th centuries, Japan was governed by consecutive feudal military shoguns who ruled in the Emperor’s name.

Japan began a lengthy era of seclusion in the early 17th century, which ended in 1853 when a US navy pressed Japan to open to the West. After almost two decades of internal strife and rebellion, the Imperial Court reclaimed political control in 1868 with the assistance of numerous clans from Chsh and Satsuma, thus establishing the Empire of Japan. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Japan expanded its empire via victories in the First Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and World War I.

The Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 was extended into World War II in 1941 and ended in 1945 as a result of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. Japan has maintained a unitary constitutional monarchy with an Emperor and an elected legislature known as the National Diet since adopting its new constitution in 1947.

Japan is a member of the United Nations, the Group of Seven, the Group of Eight, and the Group of Twenty, and is regarded as a major power. The nation has the third-largest economy in the world in terms of nominal GDP and the fourth-largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity. Additionally, it is the fourth biggest exporter and fourth largest importer in the world. The nation benefits from a highly trained workforce and is one of the most educated in the world, having one of the highest rates of people with a tertiary education.

Although Japan has relinquished its authority to declare war, it retains a sophisticated military with the ninth biggest military budget in the world, which is utilized for self-defense and peacekeeping missions. Japan is a developed nation with a high quality of living and a high Human Development Index, with the greatest life expectancy and third lowest infant mortality rates in the world.

Tourism in Japan

Japan attracted 19.73 million international tourists in 2015. Japan has 19 world heritage sites, including Himeji Castle, historical monuments of ancient Kyoto and Nara. Popular overseas attractions include Tokyo and Hiroshima, Fuji, ski resorts such as Niseko in Hokkaido, Okinawa, Shinkansen and the Japanese network of hotels and hot springs.

In inbound tourism, Japan ranked 28th in the world in 2007. A modern listing of the most famous attractions in Japan has been published by Yomiuri Shimbun in 2009 under the name Heisei Hyakkei (the hundred views of the Heisei period). The 2015 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report ranked Japan 9th in the world out of 141 countries. This was the best in Asia. In almost all aspects, Japan performed relatively well, particularly in the fields of health and hygiene, safety, as well as cultural resources and business travel.

Domestic tourism remains an essential part of the Japanese economy and culture. Highlighting their school years for many high school students are a visit to Tokyo Disneyland or maybe Tokyo Tower, at the same time for many high school students Okinawa or Hokkaido is a common place to visit. The extensive railroad network and domestic flights, sometimes in airplanes with modifications to accommodate the relatively short distances for travel to Japan, allow for efficient and fast transportation.

In 2015, 19,737,409 foreign tourists visited Japan.

Neighboring South Korea is Japan’s main source of foreign tourists. In 2010, the 2.4 million arrivals accounted for 27% of the tourists visiting Japan. Chinese travelers are the top moneymakers in Japan by country. In 2011, Chinese tourists spent an estimated 196.4 billion yen (US$2.4 billion).

The Japanese government expects to welcome 40 million foreign tourists annually by 2020.

People in Japan

Japan is very homogeneous as an island state that was cut off from the rest of the world for a long time (with mild exceptions from China and Korea). Almost 99% of the population is of Japanese descent. Japan’s population has recently begun to decline due to a low birth rate and lack of immigration. The largest minority is Korean, about 1 million people, many in the 3rd or 4th generation. There are also significant populations of Chinese, Filipinos and Brazilians, although many are of Japanese descent. Although largely assimilated, the resident Chinese population is still present in the three Japanese Chinatowns in Kobe, Nagasaki and Yokohama. Indigenous ethnic minorities include the Ainu in Hokkaido, who have been gradually driven north over the centuries and now number about 50,000 (although the number varies greatly depending on the precise definition), and the Ryukyu people of Okinawa.

The Japanese are known for their courtesy. Many Japanese enjoy visitors to their country and are incredibly helpful to lost and confused-looking foreigners. Younger Japanese are often very interested in meeting and making friends with foreigners. Don’t be surprised if a Japanese person (usually of the opposite sex) approaches you in a public place and tries to start a conversation with you in some coherent English. On the other hand, many are not used to dealing with foreigners (外人 gaijin or the more politically correct ik gaikokujin) and are more reluctant and reluctant to communicate.

Visibly foreign visitors remain a rarity in many parts of Japan outside of the big cities, and you are likely to encounter moments when entering a store makes the staff seem to panic and fade into the background. Don’t take this as racism or other xenophobia: they are only afraid that you will try to address them in English, and they will be ashamed because they cannot understand or respond. A smile and a konnichiwa (“hello”) often helps.

Culture of Japan

Japan has gone through phases of openness and isolation in its history, so its culture is rather unique. Having spent much of their history in the Chinese cultural sphere, there are significant Chinese influences in Japanese culture, which seamlessly integrate with native Japanese customs to produce a culture that is distinctly Japanese.

Japanese culture had been strongly influenced by Confucianism during the Edo period. The Tokugawa shogunate introduced a rigid class system, with the shogun at the top, his followers below him and the other samurai below, followed by a large number of citizens at the bottom. The citizens were expected to show respect to the samurai (at the risk of being killed if they did not), and the women were expected to be submissive to the men. Samurai were expected to adopt a “death before dishonor” attitude and usually commit suicide by self-debasement (切腹 seppuku) rather than live in shame. Although the Edo period ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, their heritage lives on in Japanese society. In Japanese society, the concept of honor is still important, employees are expected to show unconditional obedience to their bosses, while women are still fighting to gain an equal treatment.

The Japanese are very proud of their heritage and culture and hold on to many old traditions that go back hundreds of years. At the same time, they also seem obsessed with the latest technology, and consumer technology in Japan is often several years ahead of the rest of the world. This paradox of being traditional yet ultramodern often serves to fascinate visitors, and many return to Japan again and again after their first visit to experience this.

Geography of Japan

Japan has a total of 6,852 islands along the Pacific coast of East Asia. The country, including all islands under its control, lies between 24° and 46° north latitude and 122° and 146° east longitude.Its main islands from north to south are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. The Ryukyu Islands, to which Okinawa belongs, are a chain south of Kyushu. Together they are often called the Japanese archipelago.

About 73% of the country is forested, mountainous and unsuitable for agricultural, industrial or residential use. As a result, the inhabitable areas, which are mainly located in the coastal areas, have an extremely high population density. Japan is one of the world’s most densely populated nations.

The Japanese islands are located in a volcanic area on the Pacific ring of fire. They are primarily the result of large oceanic movements that took place over hundreds of millions of years from the Middle Silurian to the Pleistocene. Originally Japan was connected to the eastern coast of the Eurasian continent. The subduction plates dragged Japan eastward and eventually created the Sea of Japan approximately 15 million years ago.

Japan has 108 active volcanoes. In the 20th century, a number of new volcanoes were created, which include Shōwa-shinzan on Hokkaido and Myōjin-shō off the Bayonnais Rocks on the Pacific Ocean. Destructive earthquakes, which often lead to tsunamis, occur several times a century. The 1923 earthquake in Tokyo killed more than 140,000 people. The most recent major earthquakes are the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and the Tōhoku earthquake of 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, 2011 and caused a major tsunami. Japan is very vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes due to its location on the Pacific ring of fire. It has the 15th highest natural catastrophe risk measured by the World Risk Index 2013.

Demographics of Japan

Japan’s population is estimated at about 127 million, with 80% of the population living at Honshū. The Japanese nation is linguistically and culturally homogeneous, consisting of 98.5% ethnic Japanese with only a small number of foreign workers. Zainichi Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, Brazilians of predominantly Japanese descent, Peruvians of predominantly Japanese descent and Americans are among the small minorities in Japan. There were approximately 134,700 non-Latin American Westerners in 2003 ( excluding more than 33,000 US military personnel and their families who are stationed throughout the country) and 345,500 Latin American expatriates, 274,700 of whom were Brazilians (allegedly mainly Japanese descendants or Nikkeijin). together with their spouses) the largest community of Westerners.

The most dominant indigenous ethnic group is the Yamato; primary minorities include the Ainu and Ryukyuan indigenous peoples and social minorities such as the Burakumin. Among the Yamato there are people of mixed descent, such as those from the Ogasawara archipelago. In 2014, non-native-born workers born abroad made up only 1.5% of the total population. Japan is generally considered ethnically homogeneous and does not compile ethnicity or race statistics for Japanese citizens. However, at least one analysis describes Japan as a multi-ethnic society. The majority of Japanese still consider Japan a monocultural society. The former Japanese prime minister and current finance minister Tarō Asō described Japan as a nation of “one race, one civilization, one language and one culture”, which was criticized by representatives of ethnic minorities such as the Ainu.

Japan has the second longest life expectancy at birth of any country in the world: 83.5 years for people born in the period 2010-2015. The Japanese population is aging rapidly due to a baby boom after World War II, followed by a decline in birth rates. In 2012, about 24.1 percent of the population was over 65 years old, and this figure is expected to rise to almost 40 percent by 2050.

Religion in Japan

Japan has two dominant religious traditions: Shinto (神道) is the old animistic religion of traditional Japan. With just over twelve hundred years in Japan, Buddhism is the newer imported faith. Christianity, which was introduced by European missionaries, was widely persecuted during the feudal period, but is accepted today, and a small percentage of Japanese are Christians.

In general, people in Japan are not particularly religious. Although they regularly visit shrines and temples to sacrifice coins and say silent prayers, their religious beliefs and beliefs play a minor role (if any at all) in the life of a typical Japonese. It would therefore be impossible to attempt to represent what percentage of the population is Shintoist, Buddhist or even Christian. According to a famous survey, Japan consists of 80% Shintoists and 80% Buddhists, and another often quoted statement is that Japanese are Shintoists when they live because weddings and celebrations are typically Shintoist, but Buddhists are Shintoists when they die because funerals usually use Buddhist rites. Most Japanese accept a little bit of each religion. Christianity is almost exclusively obvious in a commercial sense. During the season, variations of Santa Claus, Christmas trees and other non-religious Christmas symbols are displayed in malls and shopping centers in all urban areas.

Shintoism and Buddhism also have an enormous influence on the history and cultural life of the country. Shintoist religion focuses on the spirit of the country and is reflected in the exquisite gardens and peaceful shrines deep in the ancient forests of the country. If you visit a shrine (jinja 神社) with its simple torii gate (鳥 居), you will see Shintoist customs and styles. If you see an empty lot with white paper on a square, it is a Shintoist ceremony to inaugurate the land for a new building. Over the centuries, Buddhism has spread in many directions in Japan. Nichiren (日 蓮) is currently the largest branch of the Buddhist faith. Westerners probably know Zen (禅) Buddhism, which was introduced in Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries, best. Zen corresponded to the aesthetic and moral sensibilities of medieval Japan and influenced arts such as flower arrangement (生 け ke ikebana), tea ceremony (茶道 sadō), ceramics, painting, calligraphy, poetry and martial arts. Over the years, Shintoism and Buddhism have become considerably intertwined. You can find them side by side in the cities and in the lives of the people. It is by no means unusual to find a sparse Shintoist tori in front of an elaborate Buddhist temple (o-tera お 寺).

Economy of Japan

Japan is the world’s third largest economy after the US and China in terms of nominal GDP and the world’s fourth largest economy after the US, China and India in terms of purchasing power parity. Starting in 2014, Japan’s national debt was estimated to be more than 200 percent of annual gross domestic product, the largest of any country in the world. In August 2011, Moody’s lowered Japan’s long-term sovereign credit rating by one grade from Aa3 to Aa2 in accordance with the country’s deficit and debt levels. The large budget deficits and level of government debt incurred since the 2009 global recession, then the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, triggered the rating downgrade. The service sector accounts for three quarters of gross domestic product.

With a large industrial capacity, Japan has some of the largest as well as most technologically advanced producers of automobiles, electronics, machine tools, steel and non-ferrous metals, ships, chemicals, textiles, and processed foods. Agricultural enterprises in Japan manage 13 percent of the Japanese land, and Japan accounts for almost 15 percent of the world’s fishing after China. In 2010, about 65.9 million people were employed in Japan. Japan has a low unemployment rate of about four percent. About 20 million people, about 17 percent of the population, were below the poverty line in 2007. Housing construction in Japan is characterized by limited land supply in urban areas.

Japan’s exports amounted to USD 4,210 per capita in 2005. As of 2012, the main Japanese export markets have been China (18.1 percent), the USA (17.8 percent), South Korea (7.7 percent), Thailand (5.5 percent) and Hong Kong ( 5.1 percent). The main export goods are means of transport, motor vehicles, iron and steel products, semiconductors and car parts. Japan’s most important import markets in 2012 were China (21.3 percent), the United States (8.8 percent), Australia (6.4 percent), Saudi Arabia (6.2 percent), the United Arab Emirates (5.0 percent), South Korea (4.6 percent) and Qatar (4.0 percent).

Japan’s main imports are machinery and equipment, fossil fuels, food (especially beef), chemicals, textiles and raw materials for its industry. In terms of market share, the domestic markets are the least open of all OECD countries. The government of Junichirō Koizumi has introduced some pro-competitive reforms and foreign investment in Japan has increased.

Japan ranks 27th out of 189 countries in the Ease of Doing Business Index 2014 and has one of the lowest tax revenues of any developed country. The Japanese version of capitalism has many special features: Keiretsu companies are influential, and lifelong employment and seniority are relatively common in the Japanese work environment. Japanese corporations are famous for their management methods such as “The Toyota Way” while shareholder activity is a rarity.

Science and technology

Japan is a leading nation in scientific research, especially in the natural sciences and engineering. The country is among the most innovative countries in the Bloomberg Innovation Index. Almost 700,000 researchers share a research and development budget of 130 billion US dollars. The amount for research and development in relation to gross domestic product is the third highest in the world. The country is a world leader in basic scientific research and has produced 22 Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry or medicine and three Fields medal winners.

Scientists and engineers from Japan has contributed to the development of the agricultural sector, electronics, industrial robotics, optics, chemistry, semiconductors, biosciences and to variety of technological fields. Japan is the world leader in the manufacture and use of robots and had more than 20% (300,000 out of 1.3 million) of the world’s industrial robots in 2013 – although its share has historically been even higher, accounting for half of all industrial robots worldwide in 2000. Japan has the third highest number of scientists, technicians and engineers per 10,000 employees in the world, with 83 scientists, technicians and engineers per 10,000 employees.

Things To Know Before Traveling To Japan

Dress code in Japan

For most tourists, dressing for daily sightseeing in Japan is a disadvantage: You will most likely stand out no matter how you dress, alongside the throngs of salarymen (male office workers) and primary school students in uniforms. Japan is known for being very fashionable, whether in a kimono, a tailored suit or the latest trends from Harajuku.

First of all, wear shoes that you can easily put on and take off and have a pair of socks ready if needed. Sports shoes are acceptable, but keep them loosely tied so you can take them off and put them on. Suit shoes are also acceptable, as are good walking sandals (not flip-flops), although sandals are not common outdoor wear for locals. Japanese culture sees shoes as dirty, and before entering someone’s home, certain restaurants, changing rooms and temples (to name a few), you must remove your shoes. The older generation of Japanese tend to divide steps into two types: Wood (“clean”) and concrete or stone (“dirty”). When you step on a wooden staircase, take off your shoes and put them on the side; there may even be a small hole where you can put your shoes.

And don’t forget socks, as it is common practice to wear socks in temples and houses if you don’t have slippers available. Japanese are known for their love of socks, and most cities have sock shops that sell high-quality and colourful socks. Many of the socks sold in Japan are made there. So take a pair of socks in your bag if you don’t wear socks when sightseeing. Pantyhose are acceptable for women. Footies and socks below the ankle are practical, especially if you go for the “no socks” look.

Shorts are uncommon and generally only worn by children and teenagers. Although this is a common part of summer dress for tourists, choose stylish jeans or trousers or capri trousers instead to stay cool in warm weather. Women wear sundresses from trendy shops and breathable trousers made of fabrics like linen in summer. Keep it stylish and comfortable.

In business situations, suits are standard; companies will let you know if you can or should wear casual clothes. Suits are worn for drinks after work and for entertainment.

For clubbing and going out, dress casually cool. Japanese women do not usually wear skin-tight, super-short dresses and cleavage is rarely shown, except on the beach. Women in tight, short dresses and with very sexy looks are often stereotyped as sex workers or escorts. If you visit Tokyo, for example, you will see young women and men dressed in subculture styles such as Harajuku, Lolita and Punk. Japanese avoid making a scene to those who dress like one, but casual glances are often enough to make you feel you are being scrutinised.

If you plan to visit a hot spring or public bath, they are almost always used naked (except in the rare mixed-sex baths). Although you may get some questioning looks, a swimming costume works. For men, Speedos, trunks or board shorts. For women, a plain swimming costume is better than a skimpy bikini if you are visiting a hot spring or bath; for the beach, bikinis are fine. In public or private swimming pools you may need to wear a bathing cap; these may be provided or you can bring your own.


Japan in summer can be extremely hot and humid. Japanese don’t like visible sweat and often wipe sweat from their faces with a colourful handkerchief, use a fan (collapsible or flat) to keep cool, or (for women) use umbrellas to shade themselves in sunny weather. Acquiring one or all of these items is not only a smart way to stay cool, but can also be a lasting memento of your visit. In historic and tourist areas, you will find shops selling beautiful fans and umbrellas. Both are affordable investments, although they can be expensive if you want a real work of art. However, most Japanese use cheap but beautiful fans – many made in China – in their daily lives, only to replace them when they become difficult to close or worn out. Cheap flat paper fans are often given away for free at festivals and events.

Traditional umbrellas can be bought in gift shops, and stylish umbrellas for rain and shine can be purchased in women’s accessory and clothing shops across the country. Handkerchiefs are popular with both men and women. Some look like traditional cotton handkerchiefs you would blow your nose with, others are small towels. Japan’s fabulous depāto (department stores) stock all colours, brands and models of these necessities. It’s an affordable luxury – for both men and women, high-end designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Burberry make handkerchiefs and you can find them for ¥1,500 or less. You can also find locally made versions in gift shops and shops across the country. Keep them in your purse or pocket and wipe your brow when needed.

Functional umbrellas – to keep you dry and nothing else – are often made of cheap plastic and available in any supermarket for around ¥500. Because they all look the same, they are sometimes treated interchangeably. When you go into a shop, you leave yours at the door, and when you leave, you just grab an identical one, whether it was the one you brought or not.

Bathing in Japan

Bathing is a big deal in Japan, and whether it’s a picturesque hot onsen spring, a neighbourhood sentō bath or just an ordinary bathtub in the home, bathing the Japanese way is a pleasure. Japanese rave about the pleasures of hot water (湯 yu), dubbing even the ordinary tub with an honorific syllable (お風呂 o-furo), and a visit to a Japanese hot spring

While a Western “bath” is used for washing, “baths” in Japan are for soaking and relaxing. (Think of it more like a hot tub than a bath.) Washing is first done outside the tub, usually sitting on a stool in front of a tap, but showers are also available.

The difference that may strike you is that unlike a hot tub, baths in Japan are usually used in the nude. This sounds shocking to Western minds at first, but it is simply the norm in Japan; friends, colleagues, parents and children of all ages think nothing of it. The Japanese even use the term “naked communication” (裸の付き合い hadaka no tsukiai) to describe the way bathing together breaks down social barriers. You should really consider trying it, but if you refuse, then there are other options:

  • Foot baths (足湯 ashiyu) are a popular way to relax. Only the bare feet go into these baths, while one sits comfortably and clothed against the wall of the pool.
  • In mixed-gender (混浴 kon’yoku) baths, swimming costumes are sometimes allowed (but not required), and sometimes they are only allowed for women. Commercial establishments (i.e. public baths that are not part of a ryokan) with kon’yoku baths usually require swimming costumes for both sexes.
  • Some ryokan have “family baths” that you can reserve just for you and your group; these are designed for mum, dad and the kids to bathe together. Some of these allow swimming costumes, or you can use them to guarantee that you have the bath to yourself. Similarly, some ryokan offer high-end rooms with private bathrooms; swimming costumes may still not be allowed, but even if not, at least it means you don’t have to share the bathroom with strangers, or you can take turns solo bathing with your friends.


Onsen (温泉), literally “hot springs“, are the highlight of the Japanese bathing experience. Groups of onsen appear wherever there is a suitable source of hot water – and in volcanic Japan they are everywhere. The most memorable onsen experience is often rotenburo (露天風呂): outdoor baths overlooking the surrounding natural landscape. While the baths are usually large and shared, some swankier accommodations offer, often for an additional fee, reservable baths for you and yours truly, known as family baths, racier “romance baths” or simply reserved baths (貸切風呂 kashikiri-furo). Onsen baths can either be in detached buildings accessible to everyone (外湯 sotoyu), or private baths only for guests within your accommodation (内湯 uchiyu).

While most onsen are commercially operated and charge fees for entry (¥500-1000 is typical), there are free, publicly maintained baths, especially in remote areas, that offer minimal facilities but usually stunning views. Many of these baths are mixed (混浴 kon’yoku), but while men still like to enter them naked with a towel in front of their dangling legs, it is a rare woman who enters one without a swimming costume these days.

To find the truly remote hot springs, visit the Japanese Hidden Hot Spring Protection Association (日本秘湯を守る会 Nihon hitō wo mamoru kai), which consists of 185 independent shelters across the country.

Many onsen ban visitors with tattoos from entering. This rule is meant to keep out yakuza gangsters (who often have tattoos on their backs) and is usually applied with a common sense approach, but heavily tattooed visitors will at least earn curious looks and may be asked to leave.

Sentō and spas

Sentō (銭湯) are public bathhouses that can be found in every major city. They are meant for people who do not have their own bathtub at home. They are typically quite utilitarian and are slowly dying out as Japan continues its breakneck modernisation. Some, however, have morphed into spas (スパ supa), which in Japan doesn’t mean Balinese huts offering Ayurvedic massages while dotted with orchids, but public baths for stressed-out salarymen, often with a capsule hotel on the side. As you might expect, these baths vary in seriousness – beware in particular of places advertising “aesthetics”, “health” or “soap” – but most are surprisingly decent.


Japanese people are sympathetic to the strange idiosyncrasies of foreigners, but there is one rule where no exceptions are made: You have to wash and rinse off all the suds before entering the bathroom. The water in the tub is reused by the next person, and the Japanese think it’s gross to bathe in someone else’s dirt! Basically, wash yourself as well as you hope the guy next to you did.

Whether a fancy onsen or a simple sentō, the choreography of an entire visit goes something like this:

Common bathing areas are usually separated by gender. So look for the “man” (男) and “woman” (女) signs to find the right entrance. Men’s bathrooms also usually have blue curtains, while women’s bathrooms are red. Enter the changing room and leave your shoes or slippers at the door; public baths may have lockers.

In public baths (sentō), you either pay the lifeguard directly (often through the entrance of the changing room, and it is almost always a woman), or you use a vending machine at the entrance to buy tickets for entry and additional items such as towels or soap, which you then give to the lifeguard. Look for the Japanese words for “adult” (大人 otona) and “child” (子供 kodomo) in the vending machines above. (If the vending machine is too difficult to understand, you can probably go in and say sumimasen (“excuse me”) to the attendant and do the rest by gesturing).

In the changing room there are rows of clothes lockers or baskets. Choose a locker, undress completely and put all your clothes in the basket. Make sure you put your valuables in the lockers, if there are any, and take the key with you into the bathroom.

You get an itty-bitty flannel for free or sometimes for a small fee. It’s not very good for covering your private parts (it’s too small), and it’s not very useful for drying yourself either. Men should leave these in the changing room except when they are drying off and just use their flannel for privacy, but women can use their large towel to wrap themselves with outside the bathroom. If you want one, ask the lifeguard for a taoru.

After removing your clothes and entering the bathing area, take a small stool and a bucket, sit at a tap and clean yourself really, really well. Shampoo your hair, soap your whole body, repeat the process. Rinse off all the lather once you are clean. Try not to let the water run or splash other people with water.

The shocking truth
Some public baths in Japan have electric baths (電気風呂 denki-buro). It’s exactly what it sounds like: metal pads on the wall of the tub make a small electric current flow through it, giving you a tingling sensation (called piri-piri in Japanese). They are especially popular with older people to relax stiff and aching muscles. The electric baths are safe for most people, but should be avoided by people with pacemakers, heart problems or certain other conditions.

Only now can you enter the bathtub. Do this slowly as the water can often be very hot; if it is unbearable, try another tub. Once you have managed to get in, do not let your flannel come into contact with the water as it is dirty (even if you did not use it, it would leave lint in the tub); you can fold it over your head or simply put it to one side. When you are sufficiently cooked, you can wash again and repeat the process in reverse order; you can also save washing your hair for after the bath if you prefer. (In the case of natural hot springs, however, you should not rinse the bath water because it is full of minerals, which the Japanese consider a healthy folk medicine).

Note that the bath is only for soaking and light conversation; don’t scuffle, dunk your head or make a lot of noise. Japanese may be a little wary of foreigners in the bathroom, mainly because they are afraid you will try to talk to them in English and are embarrassed that they cannot communicate with you. Just nod at them, say ohayo gozaimasu, konnichiwa or konbanwa, depending on the time of day, and wait to see if they want to talk to you.

After the bath, you’ll almost always find a relaxation lounge (休憩室 kyūkeishitsu), which inevitably has a beer vending machine nearby. You can stretch out in your yukata, drink beer, talk to friends, take a nap.

Toilets in Japan

The Sound Princess
In public ladies’ toilets there is often a box that makes an electronic flushing noise when you press the button. What is that good for?

Well, many Japanese women don’t like the idea of being overheard in the toilet. To cover up their own noises, women used to flush the toilet repeatedly, wasting a lot of water. To prevent this, the electronic noisemaker was developed.
The most commonly used brand is called Otohime. Otohime is a goddess from Japanese mythology, but here the name is a play on words, written with kanji and meaning “sound princess”.

Some features of Japanese 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 not familiar with these, it’s simple: pull your pants down to your knees and squat facing the curved bonnet of the toilet. Get closer to the bonnet than you need to or you might miss).

In private households and domestic accommodation you will often find toilet slippers to be worn in the toilet and only in the toilet.

Most visitors, however, are impressed by the undeniable fact that Japan is the world leader in toilet technology. More than half of Japanese households are equipped with high-tech devices known as washlets (ウォシュレット), which include all kinds of handy features like seat warmers, hot air dryers and tiny robotic arms that spray water. The device is operated via a control panel with over 30 buttons (all labelled in Japanese), which at first glance bear more resemblance to a space shuttle navigation panel than your average toilet.

Don’t panic – help is at hand. The first key to solving the puzzle is that the actual flushing mechanism is not usually operated from the control panel: Instead, there’s a normal, familiar, Western-style lever, switch or knob somewhere, and it’s therefore perfectly possible to do your business without ever using the sink functions. (In rare cases, usually on very high-end units, the flush is built in; if lifting your buttocks off the seat isn’t enough, look for buttons marked 大 or 小, meaning large or small flush respectively, on a wireless control panel on the wall). The second key to explore is that there is always a big red button with 止 written on it on the control panel – if you press this, everything stops immediately. Older models simply have a lever nearby that controls the flow of a sprayer.

Armed with this knowledge, you can now start digging deeper. Typical controls include the following:

  • Oshiri (おしり) – “buttocks”, for spraying the buttocks – typically depicted in blue with a stylised buttocks symbol; this action can be unnerving, but travellers should not be afraid – on the second or third try it will appear normal
  • Bidet (ビデ) – for spraying the front – typically shown in pink with a female symbol
  • Kansō (乾燥) – “dry”, to dry off after finishing – typically yellow with a wavy air symbol

With further, smaller buttons, the pressure, angle, position and pulsation of the water jet can be precisely adjusted. Sometimes the seat of the toilet is heated, and this can also be regulated. One explanation for this is that, since houses are not usually centrally heated, heating the seat can make toileting a little more pleasant. To be polite and save energy, keep the lid down on heated toilet seats.

Learn in Japan

Many youth exchange programmes bring foreign teenagers to Japan, and the country also has a number of very active university exchange programmes. To obtain a student visa, you must have either one million yen or the equivalent in financial support to cover your living expenses. With a student visa, you can get additional permission from immigration to legally work up to 20 hours per week. Contact your local Japanese embassy or your home university’s exchange programme department for information on how to proceed.

The cheapest way to stay in Japan for an extended period is to study at a local school or university with a generous Monbusho (Ministry of Education) scholarship to pay for it all. A number of Japanese universities offer courses taught in English; some foreign universities also run independent programmes in Japan, the largest being the inter-faculty campus of Temple University in Tokyo.

Japan’s top universities are also highly regarded worldwide, but with the disadvantage that the courses are almost always taught exclusively in Japanese. Nevertheless, many of them have exchange agreements with other foreign universities, and you can apply for a semester or a year exchange. Japan’s most prestigious university is the University of Tokyo, which together with the University of Hong Kong is considered one of the two top universities in Asia. Other internationally renowned universities are Waseda University and Keio University in Tokyo and Kyoto University in Kyoto.

Martial arts

  • Judo (柔道 jūdō, literally “the gentle way”) focuses on grappling and throwing and was the first martial art to become a modern Olympic sport. There are many schools around the country where you can study it.
  • Karate (空手, literally “empty hand”) is a striking martial art – involving punches, kicks and open-hand techniques – that is popular around the world and has also had an influence on Western pop culture, as seen in the Hollywood film The Karate Kid (1984). There are schools all over the country where you can study different styles. It will be represented at the Olympic Games for the first time in 2020.
  • Kendo (剣道 kendō) is competitive sword fighting with bamboo or wooden swords, similar to fencing. While judo and karate are better known in much of the Western world, in Japan itself kendo remains an integral part of modern Japanese culture and is taught in Japanese schools.

Other Japanese martial arts are aikidō, another form of grappling, and kyūdō, Japanese archery.

Japanese arts and crafts

Traditional Japanese arts and skills include the tea ceremony (茶道 sadō or chadō), origami (折り紙 “paper folding”), flower arranging (生け花 ikebana), calligraphy (書道 shodō) and bonsai (盆栽).

Traditional performing arts include bunraku (文楽, puppet theatre), kabuki (歌舞伎, dance theatre) and noh (能 , music drama).

Work in Japan

The Tokyo region generally offers the widest range of jobs for foreigners, including positions for lawyers, accountants, engineers and other professionals. To work in Japan, a foreigner who is not already a permanent resident must receive a job offer from a sponsor in Japan and then apply for a work visa at an immigration office (if already in Japan) or an embassy or consulate (if abroad). It is illegal for foreigners to work in Japan on a tourist visa. Work visas are valid for a period of one to three years and can be used to find employment with any employer within the scope of work indicated on the visa (including employers other than the sponsor). Alternatively, if you have substantial financial resources, you can apply for an investor visa. This requires you to either invest a large sum of money in a local business or start your own business in Japan by contributing a large amount of start-up capital, and allows you to work for that particular company in a management capacity. Expect severe penalties if you overstay on a visa. Spouses of Japanese nationals can obtain a spouse visa, which has no restrictions on employment.

The Working Holiday Programme is open to young citizens (between 18 and 30) from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Korea, France, Germany, Ireland and the UK. Those eligible can apply for Working Holiday visas without first having a job offer.

Foreigners who have lived in Japan continuously for 10 years are eligible to apply for a permanent residence permit. You must prove that you are financially independent and have no criminal record. If you are granted the residence permit, you can live and work in Japan indefinitely.

A popular form of employment among foreigners from English-speaking countries is teaching English, especially in after-hours English conversation schools known as eikaiwa (英会話). The pay is quite good for young adults, but rather poor compared to a qualified educator already working in most Western countries. Working conditions can also be quite harsh compared to Western standards, and some companies have a very poor reputation. A Bachelor’s degree or ESL accreditation is essential for most sought-after positions. Interviews for English schools that belong to one of the larger chains usually take place in the applicant’s home country. Learning English is not quite as fashionable as it used to be and the boom years are long gone. Recently, more emphasis has been placed on the education of children. Besides English, Portuguese, French, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese are also popular foreign languages. If you are interested in this kind of work, keep in mind that North American accents are preferred, as is an unspoken preference for teachers with Caucasian looks.

The JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) programme offers young graduates the opportunity to teach in Japan. The programme is run by the Japanese government, but your employer is usually a local school board that will assign you to one or more public schools, often located deep in the countryside. No Japanese language skills or formal teaching qualifications are required and your plane ticket is provided. The pay is slightly better than at language schools and, unlike at such a school, if you have serious problems with your employer, you can turn to the people at the JET programme for help. The JET programme also has a small number of positions for international relations or sports coordinators, although these require some knowledge of Japanese.

Foreigners with postgraduate education may be able to find jobs teaching English (or 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 get paid for their time. While the pay can be good, it is difficult to impossible to get a visa for this work and most work illegally. The type of work also carries its own risks, notably poor career prospects, alcoholism, smoking, potential problems from customers such as groping and lewd questions, and even harassment or worse, as demonstrated by the kidnapping and murder of hostess Lucie Blackman in 2000.

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