Sunday, May 28, 2023
Japan travel guide - Travel S helper


travel guide

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.

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Japan - Info Card




Japanese yen (¥)

Time zone

UTC+09:00 (JST)


377,975 km2 (145,937 sq mi)

Calling code


Official language


Japan | Introduction

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.

Weather & Climate in Japan

While the Japanese pride themselves on having four seasons, for the tourist with a flexible itinerary, they should focus on spring or fall.

  • Spring is one of the best times of the year in Japan. Temperatures are warm but not hot, it does not rain too much, and March-April brings the famous cherry blossoms (sakura) and is a time of festivals and celebrations.
  • Summer begins with a sad rainy season (known as Tsuyu or Baiu) in June and turns into a steam bath with extreme humidity and temperatures of up to 40° C from July to August. Avoid or direct it You drive north to Hokkaido or into the mountains of Chubu and Tohoku to escape. The advantage, however, is a series of fireworks shows (花火 大会 Hanabi Taikai) and large and small festivals.
  • Autumn,  which begins in September, is also a great time to be in Japan. Temperatures and humidity become more bearable, sunny days are frequent and autumn colors can be as breathtaking as cherry blossoms. However, in early fall typhoons often hit southern Japan and brought everything to a halt.
  • Winter is a great time to ski or jump in the hot springs, but some buildings do not have central heating and it is often very cold inside. The way south towards Okinawa brings relief. In Hokkaido and northeastern Japan there is usually a lot of snow due to the cold gusts of wind from Siberia. Be aware that the Pacific coast of Honshu ( the area where most of the major cities are located) has milder winters than the shoreline of the Sea of Japan: For example, it may snow in Kyoto while it is cloudy or raining in Osaka. just one hour away.

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).

Language in Japan

The language of Japan is Japanese. Japanese is a language with several different dialects, although standard Japanese (hyōjungo 標準語), based on the Tokyo dialect, is taught in schools and is known to most people throughout the country. The slangy dialect of the Kansai region is particularly well known in Japanese pop culture. On the southern islands of Okinawa, many dialects of the closely related Ryukyuan languages are spoken, mostly by older people, while in northern Hokkaido a few still speak Ainu.

Japanese is written with a convoluted mixture of three different scripts: Kanji (漢字) or Chinese characters, along with “native” Hiragana (ひらがな) and Katakana (カタカナ) syllabic scripts, which were in fact derived from Chinese characters more than a thousand years ago. However, hiragana and katakana do not carry the meaning of the original Chinese characters from which they were derived, but are simply phonetic characters. There are thousands of kanji in everyday use and even the Japanese spend years learning them, but the kana have only 46 characters each and can be learned with a reasonable amount of effort. Of the two, the katakana are probably more useful to the visitor, as they are used to spell loan words from languages other than Chinese and can be used to figure out words like basu (バス, bus), kamera (カメラ, camera) or konpyūtā(コンピューター, computer). However, some words like terebi (テレビ, television), depāto (デパート, department stores’), wāpuro (ワープロ, word processor) and sūpā (スーパー, supermarket) can be more difficult to decipher. Knowledge of Chinese is also a good start to tackle kanji, but not all words mean what they seem: 大家 (Mandarin Chinese: dàjiā, Japanese: ōya), “everyone” to the Chinese, means “landlord” in Japan!

Many Japanese have studied English for at least 6 years, but lessons tend to focus on formal grammar and writing rather than actual conversation. Outside of the major tourist attractions and large international hotels, it is rare to find people who can speak English. Reading and writing usually work much better, and many people are able to understand some written English without being able to speak it. If you get lost, it can be handy to write a question in simple words on paper and someone will probably be able to point you in the right direction. It can also be helpful to carry a hotel business card or matchbook to show a taxi driver or someone if you get lost. Take comfort in the fact that many Japanese will go to extraordinary lengths to understand what you want and to help you, so it’s worth learning at least basic greetings and thank yous to put people at ease.

Some of the major tourist attractions and large international hotels in Tokyo have staff who can speak Mandarin or Korean, and many major airports and train stations also have signs in Chinese and Korean. In Hokkaido, some people living near the Russian border may be able to speak Russian.

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 gozaimasukonnichiwa 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.

Holidays in Japan

The most important holiday in Japan is the New Year (お正月 Oshōgatsu), which largely paralyses the country from 30 December to 3 January. Japanese go home to their families (which means massive traffic jams), eat festive food and go to the neighbourhood temple at midnight to welcome the New Year. Many Japanese also often travel to other countries, and air ticket prices are very high.

In March or April, the Japanese head out en masse for hanami (花見, literally “flower viewing”), a festival of outdoor picnics and drunken debauchery in parks cleverly disguised as cherry blossom viewing (桜 sakura). The exact timing of the famous fleeting blossoms varies from year to year and Japan’s TV channels obsessively track the progress of the cherry blossom front from south to north. Top sakura spots like Kyoto are packed with tourists. The peak Hanami period often coincides with the start of the new school and financial year on 1 April, which means many people are out and about and hotels in major cities are full.

Japan’s longest holiday is Golden Week (29 April to 5 May), when there are four public holidays in one week and people go on an extended holiday. Trains get crowded and airfare and hotel prices rise to many times normal, so this is a bad time to travel in Japan, but the weeks immediately before or after Golden Week are excellent choices.

Summer brings a flood of festivals to distract people from the unbearable heat and humidity (comparable to the US Midwest). All over the country there are local festivals (祭 matsuri) and impressive fireworks competitions (花火 hanabi). Tanabata (七夕), on 7 July (or early August in some places), commemorates a story of lovers who could only meet on that day.

The biggest summer festival is Obon (お盆), which takes place in mid-July in eastern Japan (Kanto) and mid-August in western Japan (Kansai) to honour the ancestral spirits who have died. Everyone makes their way home to visit the village cemeteries and the transport is full.

National holidays in Japan

  • 1 January – New Year’s Day (ganjitsu 元日, gantan 元旦 or o-shōgatsu お正月)
  • 2 and 3 January – New Year holidays
  • Second Monday in January – Coming of Age Day (seijin no hi 成人の日)
  • 11 February – National Foundation Day (kenkoku kinen no hi 建国記念の日)
  • 21 March – Spring Equinox Day (shunbun no hi 春分の日)
  • 29 April – Showa Day (showa no hi 昭和の日) – first holiday of the Golden Week.
  • 3 May – Constitution Day (kenpō kinnenbi 憲法記念日)
  • 4 May – Greenery Day (midori no hi みどりの日)
  • 5 May – Children’s Day (kodomo no hi こどもの日) – last holiday of the Golden Week.
  • Third Monday in July – Navy Day (umi no hi 海の日)
  • 11 August – Mountain Day (yama no hi 山の日)
  • Third Monday in September – Day of Respect for Elders (keirō no hi 敬老の日)
  • 23 September – Autumn Equinox Day (shuubun no hi 秋分の日)
  • Second Monday in October – Sports Day (taiiku no hi 体育の日)
  • 3 November – Culture Day (bunka no hi 文化の日)
  • 23 November – Workers’ Harvest Festival (kinrō kansha no hi 勤労感謝の日)
  • 23 December – The Emperor’s Birthday (tennō tanjōbi 天皇誕生日)
  • 31 December – New Year’s holiday

Holidays based on the seasons, such as the equinox, may vary by one or two days. Additional holidays, also called compensatory holidays, are usually added when a public holiday falls on a Sunday and in cases where two dates for public holidays are close to each other.

Remember that most Japanese take extra time off around New Year, during Golden Week and during Obon. The main festival is New Year’s Day, and many shops and restaurants close for at least 2 days during this time, so it may not be an ideal time to visit. However, shops remain open and many temples hold New Year fairs, so it is not difficult to find something to eat.

Internet & Communications in Japan


International dialling codes vary from company to company. Check with your network operator for more details. For international calls to Japan, the country code is 81. Landline numbers in Japan have the format +81 3 1234-5678, where “81” is the country code for Japan, the next digit is the area code where the local number is located (may contain one to three digits), and the remaining digits (usually four to eight digits) are the “local” part. For calls within Japan, the long distance prefix (trunk code) is 0, and this is usually written in the number, such as 03-1234-5678.

Emergency call

Emergency calls can be made free of charge from any telephone: Call 110 for the police or 119 for the fire brigade and ambulance.


Pay phones (公衆電話 kōshū denwa) are easy to find, especially near train stations, although with the popularity of mobile phones, public pay phones are not quite as numerous as they once were. Grey and green payphones accept ¥10 and ¥100 coins and prepaid cards. Note that not all places with public phones have phones that accept coins, so it may be worth buying a phone card for emergencies. Some of the grey phones, as shown on the display, can make international calls. Prepaid cards can be bought in grocery shops, train station kiosks 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 cheap alternative. An intermediate solution is to buy phone cards from discount ticket shops, which usually sell phone cards for 35-45% of face value (e.g. a 105-unit phone card that would cost ¥1000 in normal sales costs only about ¥650). This may be so cheap for some that they don’t want to bother with a third-party card. If you use a phone card to call abroad directly, NTT’s international dialling code is 0033+010.

Mobile phones

Galápagos Syndrome
Japan has a tendency to develop technologies that are initially better than those available in other parts of the world, but either fail to catch on or are incompatible with global standards. This has been called the Galápagos Syndrome, after the Galápagos Islands and their highly specialised flora and fauna that led Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution.

Japanese mobile phones were the original example of the Galápagos syndrome. With email and web browsing since 1999 and mobile payments since 2004, they were almost a decade ahead of the global competition. However, when global standards for messaging, web browsing and contactless communication were established, they were not compatible with existing Japanese technologies. As a result, the Japanese mobile phone market became isolated and had a comparatively slow uptake of smartphones, which initially represented a step backwards from Japan’s gara-kei (from “galápagos” and “keitai”) feature phones. Recently, the tide has turned and smartphones have finally begun to gain the upper hand.

Mobile phones are not the only technology suffering from Galapagosisation. Smart cards for public transport, kei cars, digital television and satellite navigation in cars are all examples of technologies widely used in Japan that either never caught on elsewhere or developed incompatible standards that have isolated Japan.

Modern Japanese mobile phones (携帯電話 keitai denwa or simply keitai) tend to work with unique mobile phone standards that are not always compatible with the rest of the world. For example, Japanese 2G mobile phones worked with the Personal Digital Cellular (PDC) standard, which was developed and used exclusively in Japan. Fortunately, this is no longer such a big problem with 3G and 4G. In a nutshell:

  • 2G phones (GSM) from the rest of the world do not work in Japan. The last 2G network in Japan was switched off in 2012.
  • Since AU is switching its CDMA network to the “new” 800 MHz network (used in the rest of the world), foreign 3G CDMA phones can be used for roaming purposes in Japan (but not 2G-only phones). However, you MUST have your phone’s PRL updated or it will not be able to register with AU’s towers.
  • 3G phones that use the UMTS/WCDMA2100 standard and are equipped with a 3G SIM card will most likely work.

If your phone meets the requirements, ask your provider if they have a roaming agreement with SoftBank or NTT DoCoMo. Network coverage is generally excellent unless you are travelling to remote mountainous areas.

Note that Sprint customers with GSM/UMTS-enabled phones can use the SoftBank network in Japan for free text and data at 64 kbit/s due to their affiliation with SoftBank, or pay an additional $5/month for unlimited talk/text/high-speed data, essentially treating the SoftBank network like a second home network. This approach is highly recommended for those who use Sprint as their home provider, unless a Japanese number is required.

If you don’t have a 3G phone but have a 3G-compatible SIM card, you can rent a 3G phone in Japan and plug in your card so you can keep your home phone number in Japan. Carrier restrictions may apply: O2-UK (through NTT DoCoMo in Japan), for example, requires you to dial *111*#, wait for a callback and then dial the actual number you want to be connected to. Check with your network operator before you go.

Data roaming also works (subject to the above restrictions), so you can use wireless internet on your phone (although it can be expensive!). Google Maps on your phone can be invaluable (but note that tower positioning may not work depending on your provider).

For a short visit, it is most convenient to rent a phone to be reachable on the move. A number of companies offer this service. Rental prices and call charges vary, the best one may depend on how long you rent and how much you will be calling.

Beware of “free” rentals, because there is a catch: very high call charges usually apply. Incoming calls are free in Japan.

Japanese phones have an email address linked to the phone number and most of the above companies allow you to send and receive emails. Your usual email provider may offer redirection to another email address (Gmail does) so that you receive all emails on the mobile phone. Be aware that companies charge for incoming and outgoing emails.

For a longer trip, you can also buy a phone, but you will need an Alien Registration Card (or a helpful Japanese friend willing to pay for you) if you want to buy anything other than SoftBank prepaid phones, which are available directly from Global Rental counters in major airports.

  • The easier way is to get a prepaid (プリペイド) phone. Prepaid phones are sold in most SoftBank and au shops (NTT DoCoMo no longer offers prepaid phone services). Shops in key areas of major Japanese cities often have English-speaking staff who can help foreigners, but you should confirm this before visiting the shop. If you already have a 3G phone, you should contact Softbank, as they can sell SIM cards, unlike au, whose prepaid service is phone-based, like most CDMA providers. Note that if you entered on a tourist visa or visa waiver, only SoftBank will sell you service and you MUST buy your SIM card at an airport service desk. Other SoftBank shops are not yet able to sell prepaid SIMs to foreign tourists.
  • Prepaid phones use a “card” with a pass button to “top up” a phone with minutes. These prepaid cards, unlike the phone itself, are available at most grocery shops as well as discount ticket shops for ¥100-¥200 less than face value.
  • A prepaid feature phone is available for as little as ¥5000 plus ¥3000 for a 60-90 day call package (SoftBank now sells standalone SIMs), billed at ¥100 per minute (¥10 per 6 seconds for AU’s prepaid service).
  • Both SoftBank and au offer prepaid phones. Details on prices, phone models and the procedure to get them can be found on their English websites. For email/text-heavy users, SoftBank is the better choice due to the introduction of “Unlimited Mail”, which offers unlimited email and text messaging for ¥300/month for feature phones. For smartphones, SoftBank is the only provider offering prepaid service with data; ¥900 for 2 days unlimited data and email, ¥2,700 for a week unlimited data and email and ¥5,400 for a month unlimited data and email, all on their LTE network.
  • See also b-mobile for a 1GB prepaid data SIM, available in a visitor version for ¥3,980.
  • The cheaper way is a monthly contract, but for that you need proof of a longer stay (=visa). You can expect to pay around ¥5,000 per month with the major providers, assuming light calls, but prices are starting to fall. There may also be a termination fee if the contract is cancelled early. However, there are MVNOs from the major providers that charge lower monthly fees (usually less than ¥2,000 and sometimes just under ¥1,000 if no voice service is required) and do not require a contract term, but expect you to bring your own phone. These MVNOs also suffer from lower priority on the host network (mineo, an au MVNO, often sees its users’ LTE speeds reduced to a few percent of what they normally are at peak times, while au users continue to enjoy high-speed services).


For ¥70 you can send postcards all over the world. There are public post boxes all over Japan. They have two slots, one for normal domestic mail and the other for overseas and express mail.

Courier services

Several companies in Japan offer a convenient and inexpensive courier service (宅急便 takkyūbin or 宅配便 takuhaibin). This is useful for sending parcels and documents door-to-door, but also for taking luggage to/from airports, cities and hotels, or even having golf clubs and skis/snowboards delivered directly to your sporting destination. Couriers guarantee next-day delivery to virtually anywhere in Japan, except Okinawa and other far-flung islands, but including remote rural locations such as ski resorts.

The largest courier is Yamato Transport, often called Kuro Neko (黒ねこ “black cat”) after their logo. They are often synonymous with “takkyūbin“, and in fact they call their service TA-Q-BIN in English. Other couriers are Sagawa Express and Nittsu (Nippon Express).

You can send and receive parcels at many places. Most grocery shops have delivery services. Hotels and airports also offer courier services.


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 forget your cable, some cafés will lend you a memory card reader for free. Manga cafés (漫画喫茶 manga-kissa) usually have internet PCs too. When you get tired of surfing the Internet, you can browse comics, watch TV or a range of movies on demand, or play video games. The cost is typically ¥400/hour, with free (non-alcoholic) drinks, and possibly more. There are often special night-time rates: around ¥1,500 for the 4-5 hour period when there are no trains. Internet cafés can be a safe and cheap place to spend the night if you miss the last train.

Some larger train stations and airports also have rental PCs for surfing and sending emails, usually around ¥100 (coin) for 10 minutes.

A number of business hotels offer internet access if you have your own computer, sometimes even free of charge. In most cases, access is provided via a VDSL modem connected to the hotel’s telephone system. In some hotels that offer free internet access, the rental for the modem is not included in the “free” part of the service, so check before using it. Setting up your network interface for DHCP is usually all that is required to access the internet in such situations. Many also have loaner or free PCs available for hotel guests.

Computers in Japan usually have a Japanese keyboard. On a PC, there may be several ways to switch between Japanese and Latin input: the 漢字 or 半角/全角 key (usually top left, just above the tab key); the 英数 key (for Caps Lock); the left Alt key (or perhaps CtrlShift or AltShift); or sometimes Alt or CtrlShift and the ローマ字 or ひらがな/カタカナ key (bottom, right of the space bar). On Macs, use the 英数 key (below, to the left of the space bar). For e-mails, note that the @ key is usually on the right side of the keyboard, next to the P; some other punctuation marks are also shifted.

It is also possible to find Wi-Fi “hot spots” in many major 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 be able to roam without problems. GPRS does not work in Japan. Please see the section on mobile phones for more information, including phone and data card compatibility. Remember that the same restrictions on phones also apply to 3G data.

The availability of public wifi varies widely in Japan, but is gradually being expanded. Cafés like Starbucks may require you to register your email address and reply to an email before you can use the wifi (which means you have to go there, register, find another place with free wifi and then go back). Many major train stations, airports and conviniece stores also offer wifi, but require you to register each time you use it. An easy way around this is to use the Japan free Wi-Fi app, which allows you to connect without having to register each time. However, you should be prepared that this free public Wi-Fi is usually weak and painfully slow.

Pocket Wi-Fi is another affordable option for people who want to use their Wi-Fi enabled devices (smartphone, iPhone, iPad, laptops, etc.). A Pocket Wi-Fi device is about the size of a Zippo lighter and fits in your pocket or bag. It provides a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot to which you can connect your devices.

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.

Entry Requirements For Japan

Visa restrictions
All foreign nationals (except those travelling on government business and certain permanent residents) who are 16 years or older are electronically fingerprinted and photographed as part of the entry process. This may be followed by a brief interview by the immigration officer. Entry will be denied if any of these procedures are refused.
  • Visa-free entry: 15, 30 or 90 days for citizens of certain countries
  • Transit visa: 15 days
  • Temporary visitor visa: max. 90 days (for short-term stays such as tourism and business)
  • Work visa: max. 3 years
  • General visa: max. 3 years (to accept training)
  • Special visa: max. 3 years (for long-term stay)

You can contact the nearest Japanese embassies and consulates for more information.

Citizens of most developed countries, including all the usual suspects (USA, Canada, EU, etc.) can obtain an entry permit without a visa on arrival. This is usually valid for a stay of up to 90 days, although Mexicans and some European nationalities may stay for 180 days if they apply for a longer stay on entry. All other nationalities must apply for a “temporary visitor visa” before entering the country, which is usually valid for a stay of 90 days. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains an online guide to Japanese visas. A visa is not required for a one-day transit between international flights at the same airport, as long as you do not leave the secured area.

Foreigners usually need to fill in an embarkation/embarkation form for immigration and a declaration form for customs. Those entering from certain countries may also need to complete a quarantine form.

Travellers entering Japan on anything other than a temporary visitor visa must obtain a “residence card” (在留カード), colloquially known as a gaijin card, within 90 days of arrival and carry it with them at all times in place of their passport. Those staying for 90 days or less can register this, but are not required to do so. This card must be surrendered when leaving Japan, unless you have a re-entry permit.

One customs issue that trips up some unwary travellers is that some over-the-counter medicines, especially pseudoephedrine (Actifed, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers) and codeine (some cough suppressants), are banned in Japan. Some prescription drugs (especially strong painkillers) are also banned, even if you have a prescription, unless you apply for special permission in advance. You may also need permission to bring in syringes filled with medication, such as EpiPens and the like. Ignorance is not an excuse and you face imprisonment and deportation if you are caught. For more information, visit the Japan Customs website or contact your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate.

Once in Japan, you must carry your passport with you at all times. If you are caught without it during a random check (and nightclub raids are not uncommon), you will be detained until someone can get it for you. First-time offenders who apologise usually get off with a warning, although you could theoretically be fined up to ¥200,000.

How To Travel To Japan

Get In - By plane

The majority of intercontinental flights use either Narita Airport (NRT) near Tokyo or Kansai Airport (KIX) near Osaka, and a fewer arrive at Chubu International Airport (NGO) in the vicinity of Nagoya. All three airports are far from their respective city centres, but they are connected to the regional rail network and also offer numerous bus services to nearby destinations. Tokyo’s other airport, Haneda Airport (IATA: HND), is still mainly used for domestic flights, but has started to attract an increasing number of international flights away from Narita.

Just about every major city has an airport, although most offer only domestic flights and a few connections to China and South Korea. Transit via Seoul with Korean Air or Asiana Airlines can sometimes be cheaper than connecting in Japan.

Generally, both Narita and Kansai airports can be reached easily and aren’t especially crowded, assuming you avoid the peak holiday periods – specifically, New Year (late December – early January), Easter Week (late April – early May), as well as Obon ( in mid-August), when it’s more crowded and more expensive.

Japan’s two largest airlines are Japan Airlines (JAL) (日本航空) and All Nippon Airways (ANA) (全日本空輸, or simply 全日空). Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines are also running major hubs at Narita, offering flights across many destinations in the U.S. as well as Asia. Low-cost carriers (LCCs) have become increasingly popular with low-cost domestic and international flights, with companies such as Jetstar (Australia), Skymark, Peach (Osaka) giving competition to JAL and ANA.

Get In - By boat

A number of international ferries are available to Japan coming from South Korea, China, Taiwan and Russia. These are not particularly competitive in price with airline tickets and also often have long travel times.

South Korea

Ferries from South Korea’s second largest city Busan offer an alternative to flying, with the Fukuoka service being a particularly fast and convenient way to travel between the two countries.

  • Busan-Fukuoka: JR Kyushu Ferry, +81 92 281-2315 (Japan) or +82 51 469-0778 (Korea), operates a hydrofoil ferry several times a day that takes about 3.5 hours and costs ¥13,000 each way. Camellia Line, +81 92 262-2323 (Japan) or +82 51 466-7799 (Korea), operates a ferry that takes about 8 hrs and costs from ¥9,000; if it sails overnight, it can stop outside Busan port in the morning and wait for Korean immigration to open. (Compared to most airports, there should be relatively few security problems on this route).
  • Busan-Shimonoseki: Kanbu Ferry, +81 83 224-3000 (Japan) or +82 51 464-2700 (Korea), daily service. 13.5 hrs; ¥9,000+.
  • Busan-Osaka: Barnstar Line, +81 66 271-8830 (Japan) or +82 51 469-6131 (Korea), offers services three times a week. 18 hrs; ¥13,700+.
  • Busan – Tsushima Island: Tsushima is the closest part of Japan to South Korea, and day trips from Busan are convenient.
  • Donghae – Sakai Minato: DBS Cruise Ferry, 1600-5646 (Japan) or +82 33 531-5611 (Korea). Economy ¥15,000, ₩195,000, USD180.


  • Shanghai-Osaka/Kobe: Japan-China Ferry, +81 78 321-5791 (Japan) or +86 21 6326 4357 (China), three times weekly service. 45 hours; CNY17,000 from China, ¥20,000+ from Japan.
  • Tianjin-Kobe: China Express Line, +81 3 3537-3107 (Japan) or +86 22 2420 5777 (China), weekly service. 50 hours; ¥22,000+.
  • Suzhou-Shimonoseki: Shanghai-Shimonoseki Ferry, +81 83 232-6615 (Japan) or +86 512 53186686 (China), three times weekly service. ¥15,000+.


  • Keelung (Taiwan)-Ishigaki/Naha: Star Cruises+886-2-27819968 (Taiwan) or +81 3 6403-5188 (Japan), irregular cruises only in peak summer season (May-Sep), not available every year. One-way fares usually not available.


  • Sakhalin-Wakkanai: Heartland Ferry. 5.5 hours; ¥21,000+. Service suspended Oct-Apr due to sea ice. see our Russia to Japan via Sakhalin itinerary.
  • Vladivostok-Sakai Minato: DBS Cruise Ferry, +81 1600 5646 (Japan) or +7 4232 302 704 (Russia). Via Donghae, South Korea. USD265 from Vladivostok.

How To Travel Around Japan

Japan has one of the best transport systems in the world and getting around is usually a breeze, with trains being by far the most popular option. Trains are rarely or never late and are one of the cleanest transport systems in Asia. Although travelling in Japan is expensive compared to other Asian countries, there are a variety of passes that can be used to limit the damage.

For sorting timetables and fares, HitachisHyperdia is an invaluable companion; it calculates up-to-the-minute directions, including connecting trains, as well as buses and planes. Jorudan is a similar service, but with fewer options for exploring alternative routes. The printed version is the Daijikokuhyō (大時刻表), which is a phone book-sized tome that is available to flip through at every train station as well as most hotels, although it is a bit difficult to use because the contents are completely in microscopic Japanese. A lighter version, which includes only limited express, sleeper and bullet (Shinkansen) trains, is available from overseas offices of the Japan National Tourist Organization. English timetables are available from the JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR Central and JR Kyushu websites. Timetables for the Tokaido, San’yo and Kyushu Shinkansen can also be viewed in English at Macoto Tabi-o-jieHyperdia and Tabi-o-ji are both providing a schedule search excluding Nozomi and Mizuho services, which is advantageous for holders of the Japan Rail Pass.

In Japanese cities, the address of a place is useful for the post office, but almost useless for actually getting there. Most streets have no name; instead, street blocks are numbered and then grouped into districts. Typical addresses are written as “上目黒2丁目3-4” or “上目黒 2-3-4”, which would be Kamimeguro Neighbourhood, District (丁目 chōme) 2, Block 3, House 4. (Addresses are usually written in English as “Kamimeguro 2-3-4” or “2-3-4 Kamimeguro”; numbers joined by hyphens remain in the same order as in Japanese). The numbering of districts, blocks and houses is often not consecutive; numbers are usually assigned when buildings are built, chronologically or based on distance from the city centre. Small signs near street corners indicate the ward and district in Japanese (e.g. 上目黒2丁目, Kamimeguro 2-chōme); they often include the block number, but sometimes not, in which case the signs are very unhelpful, as a district can be a dozen or more blocks.

Most places are described in terms of walking distance from the nearest station and in terms of local attractions. Very often, business cards include small maps on their backs to help you navigate (at least if you can read Japanese). There are also maps of the surrounding area at many stations, which can help you find a destination if it is reasonably close to the station. Police boxes (交番 kōban) include more detailed maps of the area; Going to a kōban asking for directions is completely normal ( which is why they are there), despite the fact that the police officers don’t usually know much English.

Get Around - Smart cards

One of the first things every visitor to Japan should do is get a smart card for public transport. The main brands are Pasmo and Suica in the Kanto region around Tokyo and ICOCA/PiTaPa in the Kansai region around Osaka, but since 2013 all major brands are fully interchangeable, which means you can pick up a card in Tokyo and use it virtually anywhere in the country.

Fares are calculated fully automatically, no matter how complicated your journey or how many times you change trains, you just have to tap on and off at both ends. As well as buying tickets, smart cards are increasingly being used for all kinds of electronic payments, so they can be used in vending machines, convenience stores, fast food restaurants and so on. They are however not valid for Shinkansen high-speed trains.

These cards can be purchased at any station counter, including airports, and at many vending machines for a basic deposit of ¥500 plus the amount you wish to top up. The cards can be reloaded at the same places. The deposit and remaining value can be refunded when you leave Japan, or you can keep the card for your next visit as it is valid for 10 years.

Get Around - With the rail

With one of the world’s most efficient rail systems, Japan’s crowning achievement is the Shinkansen (新幹線), popularly known as the Bullet Train, the world’s first high-speed rail line. Japan’s railways can also be some of the most complicated to navigate – Tokyo, for example, has thirteen underground lines, several private railways that reach the suburbs, and a circular line, the Yamanote Line, that keeps everything in place.

A tourist planning to travel extensively throughout the country should consider investing in a Japan Rail Pass,  which offers unlimited travel on all Japan Railways (JR) services, including bullet trains, limited express trains and regular commuter trains, with a few exceptions. Seat reservations can also be made free of charge at a staffed JR ticket office. Prices start at ¥29,110 for a regular adult pass covering 7 consecutive days of travel, with the cost increasing for 14-day, 21-day and Green Car (first class) passes. For comparison, a return trip between Tokyo and Osaka costs ¥27,240, and children aged 6 to 11 can get a pass for half the price. There are no blackout dates, but passes must be bought abroad before arriving in Japan. There are plans to start selling the Japan Rail Pass within the country on a trial basis in the near future.

There are also regional and local rail passes offered by the various JR companies (e.g. the JR East Rail Pass), as well as by the metro and private rail companies. Many discounted tickets are also sold, such as the Seishun 18 ticket.

For short distances, you can buy a ticket from a ticket machine. At the stations, you will usually find a map above the ticket vending machine showing the other stations along the route or nearby, and the fare to each of them. If you are not sure, you can buy the cheapest ticket at your origin station and visit a fare adjustment machine at your destination station to pay the difference. In larger cities or regions, you can also pay for your journey with a chip card and only have to worry about topping up your credit if you are low on money.

Some of Japan’s railroad efficiency lies in punctuality, and the average delay of JR trains is only 10 seconds! All trains aim to run on time according to the published timetable, so arrive early if you know your train’s departure time. If you are even one minute late, you will miss your train. If you plan to be out longer, find out when the last train leaves the nearest station. Trains do not usually run in the late hours of the night, as maintenance work is often carried out on the system at this time. Also be careful as the last train may not run to the end of the line.


With the exception of airport lines, Japanese trains don’t usually have much space for luggage, which means it’s unlikely you’ll be able to find room for anything larger than a small suitcase. Fortunately, there are very convenient and inexpensive courier services in Japan that you can use to send your luggage to the nearest hotel where you will be staying. The downside is that your luggage usually takes at least a day to arrive at your destination. Therefore, you should take a small day bag to carry at least your clothes for the first night on the train. Your hotel concierge can usually arrange this for you, so ask them before checking out.

Get Around - By plane

Japan’s excellent Shinkansen network means that flying is usually a luxury rather than a necessity. Nevertheless, flying remains the most practical way to reach Japan’s remote islands, especially for connections from the mainland to Hokkaido and/or Okinawa. Flying is also useful for reaching sparsely populated Hokkaido, where the Shinkansen network is limited.

Narita Airport in Tokyo handles some domestic flights, but most domestic flights depart from Haneda (IATA: HND) in the south of the city. Similarly, while there are some domestic flights from Kansai International Airport, most use Itami (IATA: ITM) in the north of Osaka, and Kobe Airport also has some flights. Narita-Haneda or Kansai-Itami is quite a walk, which means you should plan at least three, ideally four hours for the transfer. On the other hand, Chubu has many domestic flights and is built from the ground up for easy transfers.

List fares for domestic flights are very expensive, but there are significant discounts if bought in advance. Japan’s two largest airlines, Japan Airlines (JAL, 日本航空 Nihon Kōkū) and All Nippon Airways (ANA, 全日空 Zennikkū) offer “Visit Japan” fares, in which the buyer of a round-trip international ticket to Japan will be able to fly a variety of domestic segments anywhere in the country for as little as about ¥10,000 each (plus taxes). These are particularly good value for travel to Hokkaido or the remote southern islands of Okinawa. Blackout periods or other restrictions may apply during peak travel times.

In recent years, low-cost carriers have begun to establish themselves in the Japanese domestic airline market. Newer start-ups include Jetstar JapanPeach Aviation and VanillaAir (formerly Air Asia Japan). Long-established low-cost carriers include Skymark AirlinesStarFlyer and Air DO. All of the above airlines, except StarFlyer and Air DO, offer online booking in English.

ANA, JAL and their subsidiaries offer young passengers (up to the age of 22) a special standby card, the Skymate Card. The card allows passengers to take standby flights at half the full published fare, which is usually lower than the corresponding fast-track fare. The card can be purchased at any JAL or ANA counter with a passport photo and a one-time fee of ¥1000.

If you want to take a domestic flight in Japan (e.g. from Tokyo to Osaka), don’t be surprised if a Boeing 747 Jumbo or 777 is used for the short 50-minute flight you are booked on. Japan is known for being the only country in the world that uses jumbo jets on short domestic flights of one hour or less, mainly on the Tokyo to Osaka sector.

Get Around - With the boat

Given that Japan is an island nation, boats are a surprisingly rare form of transport, as all the major islands are connected by bridges and tunnels. There are some long-distance ferries connecting Okinawa and Hokkaido to the mainland, but prices are usually higher than discounted airline tickets and pretty much the only advantage is that you can take your car with you.

For some smaller islands, however, boats may be the only practical option. Hovercrafts and jet ferries are fast but expensive, with prices ranging from ¥2000-5000 for a one-hour trip. Slow cargo boats are more affordable, a rule of thumb being ¥1000 per hour in second class, but departures are irregular. There are also some cheap and convenient short-distance ferries between cities, such as the Aomori-Hakodate ferry.

These boats are typically divided into classes, with second class (2等 nitō) being just a giant tatami mat, first class (1等 ittō) giving you a comfortable chair in a large common room, and only special class (特等 tokutō) giving you a private cabin. Vending machines and basic restaurant food are usually available on board, but on longer journeys (especially in second class) the primary means of entertainment is alcoholic – this can be fun if you’re invited, but less so if you’re trying to sleep.

Get Around - By bus

Buses are plentiful in Japan, and in recent decades they have become an important means of transport between cities, especially for overnight travel. Fierce competition between buses, trains and planes has resulted in affordable fares. While some buses offer fixed fares between two stops, in recent years many have adopted a dynamic pricing model where fares depend on the time of day, whether it is a day or night bus, the type of seats on the bus and how far in advance the ticket is purchased.

Major operators of intercity or long-distance buses (高速バス kōsoku basu; ハイウェイバス haiwei basu) include JR Group and Willer Express. Regional transport companies (Seibu in Tokyo, Hankyu in Kansai, etc.) also operate long-distance buses. Tickets for these buses can be bought at the departure point or – with some knowledge of Japanese – in shops or on the internet. Recently, some of the JR bus companies have started offering online reservations for their routes in English.

Willer Express, which travels all over the country with its distinctive pink buses, offers online reservations for its buses in English, Korean and Chinese. In recent years, they have also started selling tickets for other bus operators. Willer Express’ great strength for foreigners is the Japan Bus Pass, which offers discounted bus travel throughout the Willer network. The more the pass is used, the cheaper it is; for example, a 3-day weekday bus pass costs ¥10000, and if all available rides on that pass are used, each ride costs about ¥1100. The bus pass used to be limited to foreign tourists, but now it can be used by anyone with a foreign pass.

Another use of motorway buses is to travel to and from airports. In big cities, these buses are known as limousine buses (リムジンバス rimujin basu) and travel to large train stations and hotels. Buses also frequently travel to their own terminals in the city, which are strategically located to run on time – one example is the Tokyo City Air Terminal, or T-CAT, in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district.

Local buses (路線バス rosen basu) are the norm in big cities and small towns. Bus fares are either fixed (you pay once when you get on or off the bus) or distance-based (you get on the back of the bus, take a numbered ticket and match the number with the fare displayed on a board at the front of the bus when it’s time to get off). Many buses now also accept smart cards, making payment even easier. Buses are indispensable in less populated areas as well as in cities like Kyoto, where there are few local trains. 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 happy to tell you when you have reached your destination.

Get Around - By taxi

You will find taxis everywhere in Japan, not only in the city but also in the countryside. Taxis are clean and perfectly safe, if a bit expensive: starting fees are usually in the range of ¥640-710 and the meter ticks up frantically after the first 2 km or so. But sometimes they are the only way to get where you want to go. Taximeters are strictly regulated and clearly visible to the passenger. If you are not sure if you have enough money for the ride, your driver may be able to guess the approximate cost of a ride beforehand. Even if money is no object, if you get an estimate beforehand, some taxi drivers will stop the meter at the estimated price, regardless of how far away the destination may be, which can save you money. Although it is quite nice when it happens, you should not expect this treatment from every taxi driver. Taxi fares are also higher at night. Tipping is not common and would most likely be refused.

In the city you can hail a taxi almost anywhere, but outside stations and other transfer points you should get in at a taxi rank. (The taxi rank usually has either a long queue of patient passengers or a long queue of unused taxis). If the destination is a well-known place, such as a hotel, train station or public facility, the name alone should be sufficient. Note that even in the larger cities it is very unlikely to encounter a taxi driver who speaks English, so it can be very helpful to have a piece of paper or a map with the address of your hotel or destination on you. Also, ask the staff at your hotel to write down the names and addresses of the places you want to visit in Japanese to show the 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 get into the taxi. Taxi drivers also have a reputation for driving too fast and aggressively, but there are very few accidents involving bad drivers.

All licensed taxis in Japan have green number plates. Unlicensed taxis have standard white or yellow plates and should be avoided.

Get Around - By car

Car hire and driving are rare in Japan in or around the big cities, as public transport is generally excellent and will take you almost anywhere. Also, the streets of big cities like Tokyo are plagued by massive traffic jams and parking is expensive and hard to find, so driving there is more of a hindrance than anything else. However, many rural areas can really only be explored by personal transport, so driving should certainly not be dismissed out of hand, especially on the large, sparsely populated island of Hokkaido. Due to the cooler climate, Hokkaido is a very popular destination in summer. So if you are considering renting a car at this time, do so well in advance of your planned travel date, as vehicles are often unavailable at this time. It often makes the most sense to combine the two: travel by train to the countryside and then pick up a rental car at a station. JR’s Ekiren has branches at most major stations and often offers discounted train & car packages.

An international driving licence (or Japanese driving licence) is required when renting or driving a car in Japan and must be carried at all times. Rental prices usually start at ¥6000 per day for the smallest car. It is strongly recommended that you take out insurance with the car rental company, as car rental insurance from your home country (especially via most credit cards) is unlikely to be valid in Japan; check your policy before you set off. ClubToCoo! provides an online booking service in English for most major car rental companies and often offers rental specials and discounts.

Driving on the left is common in the UK/Australia/NZ/India/Singapore, as opposed to continental Europe/USA/Canada. There is no “right turn on red” (or rather left turn) rule in Japan, but in rare cases a sign with a blue arrow on a white background indicates where turning on red is allowed (not to be confused with the white arrow on a blue background indicating one-way traffic). Drivers must stop completely at all level crossings. Driving under the influence of alcohol can result in fines of up to ¥500,000 and immediate loss of licence if the official blood alcohol limit of 0.25 is exceeded. It is also an offence to “drive under the influence” for which there is no minimum limit and which can be punished by a fine of up to ¥300,000 and licence revocation. Using a mobile phone while driving without a hands-free device can result in fines of up to ¥50,000.

The tolls for the motorways (高速道路 kōsoku-dōro) are usually much higher than the cost of a train journey, even for the bullet train. So for one or two people, it is not cost-effective for direct long-distance travel between cities. In major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, a flat toll is charged when entering the motorway system. On motorways between cities, the toll is based on the distance travelled, a ticket is issued on entry to the system and the toll is charged on exit. Avoid the purple ETC lanes at the toll booths (unless you have an ETC device) as these are reserved for electronic toll collection, all other lanes accept either yen cash (exact change is not required) or major credit cards. The motorways between the cities are well developed and offer clean and convenient parking at regular intervals. However, be careful when travelling to large cities on Sunday evenings or at the end of the holiday season, as traffic jams can be up to 50 km long at these times. Using local roads for inter-city travel has the advantage of being toll-free and offering more opportunities for sightseeing along the way, but traffic jams and numerous traffic lights slow down the journey considerably. Covering a distance of 40 km in 1 hour is a good rule of thumb for planning an itinerary on local roads, generally more so on Hokkaido.

Both rental costs and fuel are more expensive than in the US, but fuel is usually cheaper to find than in Europe. Most petrol stations are full-service stations, to fill your tank with regular fuel, say regulaa mantan to the attendant. Car rental agencies usually offer smaller cars from ¥5,000 per day, a full-blown sedan costs around ¥10,000 per day. Most rental cars have some form of satellite navigation (“sat nav”), so you can ask the car rental company to set your destination before the first trip. Some models (especially newer Toyotas) have an English language mode, so it doesn’t hurt to ask the staff to change it before you drive. However, if you cannot read Japanese, you may need to ask for help to make full use of the navigation computer. Japanese driving habits are generally as good as anywhere else, and usually better than in other Asian countries. Japanese roads are generally of good quality, with smooth bitumen surfaces. Gravel roads are very few, mostly forest roads, and are unlikely to be on the itinerary of many tourists. Road works are frequent, however, and can cause annoying delays. Some mountain passes are closed in winter, for the others you need either snow chains or a combination of studless winter tyres and four-wheel drive. If you rent a car in mountainous/northern areas, this equipment is usually already included.

Navigating within the cities can be confusing and parking in them costs ¥300-400/hour. Larger hotels in the cities and regional hotels usually offer parking, but it would be advisable to find out about parking options before booking. Paid parking is available in some car parks attached to large department stores in major cities, but don’t expect to get more than 2-3 hours free. The best car in Tokyo is a taxi.

In Japan, there are horizontal traffic lights, with the arrows appearing below the main traffic light. Colour-blind people should note that the red (stop) is on the right and the green (go) is on the left. Usually there are only one or two traffic lights per intersection pointing in the same direction, which can make it difficult to see when the signals change. However, some prefectures, such as Toyama and Niigata, have vertical traffic lights (this is supposedly because of the amount of snow they get).

Japanese signs follow a mixture of European and North American conventions, but most should not cause any difficulty in understanding. “Stop” is indicated by a downward-pointing red triangle, not to be confused with the similar-looking Yield sign in North America. English signage is very good on motorways and near major cities, but can be patchy in more remote areas. Electronic signs can be found everywhere on motorways and major arteries and provide helpful real-time information on road conditions, unfortunately they are only displayed in Japanese. Below is a short list of the most common messages and their translations:

  • 通行止 – Road closed
  • 渋滞 – Congestion (with indication of length and/or delay)
  • 事故 – Accident
  • 注意 – Caution
  • Chain control – chains required

Warning signs for repairs, breakdowns and road works are always well lit at night and usually appear at least once before the main obstacle, even on higher speed roads such as motorways. Other road hazards include taxis who think they have a God-given right to stop anywhere at any time, long-distance drivers (especially late at night) who are often pumped up on stimulants and prone to hitting the bumper of any slower car in front of them, and farmers in their ubiquitous white mini-trucks that never seem to get beyond a crawl and can emerge unexpectedly from rural side roads.

The speed limits on the roads are in kilometres per hour. They are 40 km/h in cities (with different ranges: some at 30, roads by schools usually at 20), 50 to 60 in the countryside (if not marked, the limit is 60) and 100 on the motorways. There is usually quite a bit of leeway in terms of speeding – about 10 km/h on normal roads, for example. If you go with the flow, you should have no problems, as the Japanese often pay no more attention to speed limits than they have to.

Get Around - By bike

Japan has many great options for cyclists. Bike rentals are available throughout the country, especially near popular routes. Some routes (such as the Shimanami Kaido, which runs from the mainland (Onomichi) to Shikoku (Imabari)) have been set up specifically for cyclists.

If you are spending an extended period of time in Japan, you should consider buying a bicycle. If you decide to do so, be aware that you will need to register it. If your bike does not have the proper sticker, it can be confiscated. It is important that any bike that is not a rental bike is registered in the rider’s name. If you are caught renting a bike that is registered in someone else’s name, it is considered stolen in Japan and you will likely be taken to the police station. Police often check bicycles, so avoid problems by obeying the law.

Riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, even in large cities with many pedestrians, is normal and helmets are not considered mandatory for adults.

Get Around - By thumb

Japan is an excellent country for hitchhiking, although there are no Japanese customs for this and some Japanese language skills are almost mandatory.

Destinations in Japan

Regions in Japan

Japan is conventionally divided into nine regions, listed here from north to south:

  • Hokkaido(Central Circuit, Eastern Circuit, Northern Circuit, Southern Circuit). Northernmost island and snowy borderland. Famous for its vast landscapes and cold winters.
  • Tohoku(Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Miyagi, Yamagata, Fukushima) The largely rural northeastern part of the main island of Honshu, best known for seafood, skiing, and hot springs.
  • Kanto (Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Tokyo, Kanagawa). The coastal plain of Honshu includes the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama.
  • Chubu (Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, Yamanashi, Nagano, Shizuoka, Aichi, Gifu) The mountainous central region of Honshu, dominated by the Japanese Alps and Japan’s fourth-largest city Nagoya.
  • Kansai (Shiga, Mie, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Wakayama, Hyogo). The western region of Honshu, the ancient capital of culture and trade, including the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe.
  • Chugoku (Tottori, Shimane, Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi) Southwesternmost 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.
  • Okinawa Semi-tropical island chain in the south extending to Taiwan; formerly independent Ryukyu Kingdom until annexed by Japan in 1879. Traditional customs and architecture are very different from the rest of Japan.
  • Kyushu (Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Oita, Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Kagoshima). Southernmost of the four main islands, the birthplace of Japanese civilization; largest cities Fukuoka and Kitakyushu

Cities in Japan

Japan has thousands of cities; these are nine of the most important for the traveler.

  • Tokyo – the capital and main financial center, modern and densely populated.
  • Hiroshima – large port city, the first city destroyed by an atomic bomb
  • Kanazawa – historic city on the west coast
  • Kyoto – the ancient capital of Japan, considered the cultural heart of the country, with many ancient Buddhist temples and gardens.
  • Nagasaki – an old port city in Kyushu, the second city destroyed by an atomic bomb
  • Nara – the first capital of unified Japan, with many Buddhist shrines and historic buildings.
  • Osaka – large and dynamic city in the Kansai region
  • Sapporo – the largest city in Hokkaido, famous for its snow festival
  • Sendai – the largest city in the Tohoku region, known as the City of Forests for its tree-lined avenues and forested hills

Other destinations in Japan

  • Japanese Alps – a range of high snow-capped mountains in the centre of Honshu
  • Miyajima – just outside Hiroshima, site of the iconic floating torii
  • Mount Fuji – iconic snow-capped volcano and highest peak in Japan (3776m)
  • Mount Koya – headquarters of the Buddhist Shingon sect
  • Sado Island – island off Niigata, once home to exiles and prisoners, today a brilliant summer holiday
  • Shiretoko National Park – untouched wilderness at Hokkaido’s north-easternmost tip
  • Yaeyama Islands – the most remote part of Okinawa, with spectacular diving, beaches and jungle cruises
  • Yakushima – UNESCO World Heritage Site with giant cedars and misty primeval forests

Accommodation & Hotels in Japan

In addition to the usual youth hostels and business hotels, there are various types of uniquely Japanese accommodation, ranging from noble ryokan inns to strictly functional capsule hotels and completely over-the-top love hotels.

When booking Japanese accommodation, bear in mind that many smaller establishments are reluctant to accept foreigners for fear of language difficulties or other cultural misunderstandings. This is institutionalized to some extent: large travel agency databases note the few hotels willing to handle foreigners, and they can tell you that all accommodation is booked when only they are full. Instead of calling in English, it may be better to ask a Japanese acquaintance or the local tourist office to make the booking for you.

When checking in to any type of accommodation, the hotel is required by law to make a copy of your passport unless you are a resident of Japan. It is a good idea, especially if you are traveling in groups, to show the clerk a photocopy of your passport to speed up check-in. Apart from that, keep in mind that cash is mostly the only currency accepted in Japan and credit cards are usually not accepted in smaller accommodation, especially in small business hotels. Bring enough cash to pay in advance.

One thing to note in winter: traditional Japanese houses are designed to be cool in summer, which all too often means they are freezing cold inside in winter. Pack plenty of clothes and take advantage of the bathing facilities to keep warm. Fortunately, futon bedding is usually quite warm and a good night’s sleep is rarely a problem.

Although accommodation in Japan is expensive, you may find that you can comfortably use a lower standard of hotel than in other countries. The shared bathrooms will usually be spotless, and theft is very uncommon in Japan. Just don’t expect to be able to sleep in for long: Check-out time is always at 10:00 and any extra time must be paid for.

It can be difficult to find rooms during the busiest holiday periods, such as the “Golden Week” in early May. However, many Japanese hotels and third-party booking sites do not accept online bookings more than 3 to 6 months in advance. So if nothing is available more than 3 months before your trip, either contact the hotel directly or try again later.

Hotels in Japan

While Western-branded hotels can be found all over Japan, it is Japanese brands that set the tone. Some of the Japanese hotel chains are:

  • ANA IHG Hotels – a joint venture between All-Nippon Airlines (Japan’s second-largest airline and Star Alliance member) and the Intercontinental Hotel Group, which operates a number of Intercontinentals, Crowne Plazas and Holiday Inns throughout Japan. Some hotels, branded simply as “ANA Hotels”, can be booked through IHG’s reservation system. This is the only Western-branded hotel chain widely available in Japan.
  • Okura Hotels & Resorts is a brand of upscale and luxury hotels, with properties in Japan and abroad. They also own the mid-range Hotel Nikko and JAL Hotels chains, which are operated as a joint venture with Japan Airlines, Japan’s flag carrier, and a member of oneworld.
  • Rihga Royal

Five-star, full-service hotels can turn pampering into an art form, but tend to look rather bland and generic, despite steep prices starting at ¥20,000 per person (not per room). On the other hand, three- and four-star business hotels (see below) are relatively inexpensive compared to prices in major European or North American cities, and even two-star hotels offer impeccable cleanliness and facilities rarely found in the West at this price.

However, there are several types of uniquely Japanese and far less expensive hotels:

Capsule Hotels

Capsule hotels are the ultimate in space-saving sleeping: for a small fee (usually between ¥3000 and ¥4000), guests rent a capsule, about 2 x 1 x 1m, stacked in two rows in a hall containing dozens if not hundreds of capsules. Capsule hotels are segregated by gender, and only a few offer accommodation to women.

When entering a capsule hotel, take off your shoes, put them in a locker, and put on a pair of slippers. You often have to hand in your locker key when you check in to make sure you don’t leave without paying! When you check-in, you will be given a second locker to put your belongings in, as there is no room for them in the capsule and security is poor as most capsules only have a curtain and no door. However, be careful if there is a curtain as groping hands can enter it.

Many, if not most, capsule hotels are attached to a spa of varying luxury and/or legitimacy, often such that entry to the spa may cost ¥2000, but the capsule only costs an additional ¥1000. In the cheapest capsule hotels, you even have to insert ¥100 coins to get the shower to work. This being Japan, there are always vending machines dispensing toothpaste, underwear, and other things.

Once you retire to your capsule, you will usually find a simple control panel to control the lights, alarm clock, and the inevitable built-in TV. If you oversleep, you may be asked to pay for another day.

In Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya districts, capsule hotels cost at least ¥3500 but have excellent free massage chairs, saunas, public baths, disposable razors and shampoo, magazines and coffee in the morning. Despite all this, remember that your capsule “door” is just a curtain to keep the light out. You will probably hear a steady stream of drunk and sleepy business men crawling into their capsules above and across from you before falling into a light snore.

Love Hotels

Love hotel is a bit of a euphemism; a more accurate term would be sex hotel. They can be found in and near red light districts, but most are not in these areas. Many of them are often located near motorway interchanges or main railway stations leading out of the city and into the suburbs. The entrance is usually quite discreet, and the exit is separate from the entrance (to avoid running into anyone you might know). Basically, you rent a room for the night (listed on the price list as “Stay” or 宿泊 shukuhaku, usually ¥6000-10,000), for a few hours (“Rest” or 休憩 kyūkei, about ¥3000) or out of hours (“No Time Service”), which are usually weekday afternoons. Watch out for service charges, peak-time surcharges and taxes, which can drive up your bill by 25%. Some accept single guests, but most do not allow same-sex couples or obviously underaged guests.

They are usually clean, safe and very private. Some have exotic themes: Water sports, sports, or Hello Kitty. As a traveller, rather than a typical customer, you can’t (usually) check in, drop off your luggage and go exploring. Once you leave, that’s it, so they’re not as convenient as real hotels. “Stay” rates also tend not to start until after 10pm, and there can be hefty additional “rest” charges if you overstay. Many rooms have basic food and drink in a fridge, and often the charges are a little high. Before entering a love hotel, it would be advisable to take some food and drinks with you. Rooms often have amenities such as hot tubs, wild themed decorations, costumes, karaoke machines, vibrating beds, sex toy machines and in some cases video games. Usually all toiletries (including condoms) are included. Sometimes there is a book in the rooms that serves as a logbook where guests record their stories and adventures for posterity. Popular love hotels can be completely booked up in the cities on weekends.

Why are they everywhere? Think of 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 living at home, do you really want to bring your partner back to your parents’ house? If you are a married couple living in a 40m² flat with two primary school children, do you really want to start dating at home? So there is the love hotel. They can be shabby, but mainly they are just practical and fulfil a social need.

A word of caution: There is an increase in hidden cameras being placed in public and private spaces, including love hotels, either by other guests or even occasionally by the hotel management. Videos of these supposed tousatsu (hidden camera) are popular in erotic video stores, although many such videos are actually staged.

Business Hotels

They usually cost around ¥10,000 per night and have a convenient location (often near major train stations) as their main selling point, but the rooms are usually incredibly cramped. In return, you get a (tiny) private bathroom and often free internet. Large chains of cheap business hotels include Tokyu Inn, known for its spacious rooms, Sunroute Hotelsand Toyoko Inn. The latter offer a club card that can pay ¥1500 on a single Sunday night.

Local business hotels further from the major stations can be much cheaper (doubles from ¥5000/night) and can be found in the phone book (which also gives prices), but you need a Japanese-speaking assistant to help you, or better still, pre-book online. For two or more people, the price can often rival youth hostels if you share a twin or double room. Note that full payment is often expected at check-in, and check-out times are early (usually 10am) and non-negotiable unless you’re willing to pay extra. At the lowest end of the scale are filthy hotels in the working-class areas of major cities, such as Kamagasaki in Osaka or Senju in Tokyo, where prices start from ¥1500 for a tiny three-mat room that is literally just space to sleep. The walls and futons can also be thin.

Inns in Japan


Ryokan (旅館) are traditional Japanese inns, and a visit to one is the highlight of a trip to Japan. There are two types: the small, traditional-style ones with wooden buildings, long verandas and gardens, and the more modern high-rise ones that are like luxury hotels with fancy public baths.

As some knowledge of Japanese customs and etiquette is required to visit a ryokan, many are reluctant to take non-Japanese guests (especially those who don’t speak Japanese), but some are specifically geared towards this group; websites such as Japanese Guest Houses list such ryokan and help you book. A night in a ryokan for one person with two meals starts at around ¥8000 and goes into the stratosphere. ¥50,000 per night per person is not uncommon for some of the fancier ones, like the famous Kagaya Wakura Onsen near Kanazawa.

Ryokan usually operate on a fairly strict schedule and you are expected to arrive by 5pm. When you enter, take off your shoes and put on the slippers you will wear in the house. After checking in, you will be shown to your room, which is simply but elegantly furnished and covered with tatami mats. Make sure you take off your slippers before entering the tatami. At this point, the staff will ask you about your preferences for when you would like to have dinner and breakfast, as well as your choice of food (e.g. a choice between a Japanese or Western breakfast) and drinks.

Before dinner, you will be asked to take a bath. You will probably want to put on your Yukata bathrobe before the bath. It’s a very simple garment: just put the left lapel over the right when you close it. (The other way, right-over-left, is a faux pas as yukata are only closed this way for burial!) If the yukata provided are not big enough, just ask the maid or reception for tokudai (特大 “oversize”). Many ryokan also have colour-coded yukata according to gender: pink shades for women and blue for men, for example.

After you have bathed, dinner is served, either in your own room or in a dining room. Ryokan typically serve kaiseki cuisine, traditional multi-course meals that can consist of 9 to 18 small dishes. Kaiseki is very elaborately prepared and presented from carefully selected seasonal ingredients. There is usually one boiled dish and one grilled dish that you prepare separately, as well as obscure dishes that are unfamiliar to most Westerners; be sure to ask if you are not sure how to eat a particular dish. Local ingredients and dishes are also showcased, sometimes replacing the kaiseki experience with oddities like basashi (horse meat) or a meal cooked in an irori oven. Dining in a good ryokan is an essential part of the experience (and the bill) and is an excellent way to sample high-class Japanese cuisine.

After you are done, you are free to go into town. In cities with hot springs, it is perfectly normal to go out dressed only in yukata and geta shoes, although as a foreigner this may attract even more attention than usual. (Tip: wear underwear underneath.) Geta are typically available near the entrances, or on request at reception. These wooden shoes have two supports to lift them off the ground (a necessity in ancient Japan with muddy streets), giving them a distinctive clattering sound. It takes a minute to get used to walking in them, but they are not very different from western flip-flops. Many ryokan have curfew hours, so make sure you’re 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 that name in the West). Although it is slightly harder than a Western bed, most people find sleeping on a futon very comfortable. The pillows can be remarkably hard, filled with buckwheat chaff.

Morning breakfast tends to be served communally in a dining room at a set time, although in the more upmarket accommodation it is served back in the room after the maid has put the bedding away. Although a few ryokan offer a choice of Western breakfast, a Japanese breakfast is usually the norm, i.e. rice, miso soup and cold fish. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try the popular tamago kake gohan (卵かけご飯 “egg on rice”, a raw egg and spices that you stir into a bowl of hot rice) or the unpopular – even by some Japanese – nattō (納豆 fermented soybeans that you stir vigorously with chopsticks for a minute or two until they become extremely fibrous and sticky, then eat over rice).

High-end ryokan are one of the few places in Japan that accept tips, but the kokorozuke system is the opposite of the usual: about ¥3000 is put in an envelope and given to the maid who takes you to your room at the very beginning of your stay, not at the end. The money is never expected (you get great service anyway), but it serves both as a token of appreciation and as a kind of apology for difficulties caused by special requests (e.g. food allergies) or your inability to speak Japanese.

A final word of warning: some accommodation with the word “ryokan” in the name is not the luxury version at all, but only a minshuku in disguise (see below). The price will tell you what kind of accommodation it is.


Minshuku (民宿) are the budget version of ryokan: the overall experience is similar, 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 prices are lower, at around ¥5000 with two meals (一泊二食 ippaku-nishoku). Even cheaper is a stay without meals (素泊まり sudomari), which can go as low as ¥3000.

Minshuku are more common in the countryside, where virtually every hamlet or island, no matter how small or insignificant, 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 to go.


Kokuminshukusha (国民宿舎), a swear word that literally means “lodges of the people”, are government-run guesthouses. They primarily offer subsidised holidays for government employees in scenically remote areas, but 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 and can be quite impersonal. Popular accommodation needs to be booked well in advance for the high season: sometimes almost a year in advance for New Year and the like.


Shukubō (宿坊) are accommodations for pilgrims, usually (but not always) inside a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. Again, the experience is broadly similar to a ryokan, but the food is vegetarian and you may have the opportunity to participate in temple activities. Some Zen temples offer meditation classes and lessons. Shukubo can be reluctant to accept foreign guests, but one place where this won’t be a problem is the large Mt Koya Buddhist centre near Osaka.

Hostels and camping in Japan

Youth hostels

Youth hostels (ユースホステル yūsu hosuteru, often simply called yūsu or abbreviated as “YH”) are another cheap option in Japan. Hostels are found all over the country, so they are popular with budget travellers, especially students. Hostels typically range in price from ¥2,000 to ¥4,000, and can be more expensive if you opt for dinner and breakfast and are not a member of Hostelling International (HI). In this case, the price for a single night can be over ¥5000. For HI members, a single stay can cost as little as ¥1500, depending on the location and season. As elsewhere, some accommodation is concrete cells run like reform schools, while others are wonderful cottages in scenic areas. There are even a number of temples that run hostels on the side. Do your research before choosing a hostel, the Japan YouthHostel site is a good place to start. Many have curfews and dormitories and some are gender segregated.

Riders’ houses

Cabs (ライダーハウス raidā hausu) are super-budget dormitories primarily for bikers, both motorised and pedal-powered. Although everyone is welcome, they are usually located deep in the countryside and are difficult or impossible to reach by public transport. Usually run as a hobby, cabs are very cheap (¥300/night is typical, free is not uncommon) but facilities are minimal; you are expected to bring your own sleeping bag and there may not even be a kitchen or bathroom. Long stays are also discouraged and some prohibit stays of more than one night. These are particularly common in Hokkaido, but can be found here and there throughout the country. The authoritative directory is Hatinosu(Japanese only).


Camping is (after Nojuku, see below) the cheapest way to stay in Japan. There is an extensive network of campsites throughout the country; most are, of course, away from the big cities. Transport to them can also be problematic, as few buses go there. Prices vary from small fees (¥500) to large bungalows that cost more than many hotel rooms (¥13,000 or more).

Wild camping is illegal in most parts of Japan, although you can always try to ask permission, or simply pitch your tent late and leave early. In fact, in many larger city parks, there may be a large number of blue plastic sheet “tents” where homeless people live.

Campsites in Japan are known as kyanpu-jo (キャンプ場), while places designed for cars are known as ōto-kyanpu-jo. The latter are usually much more expensive than the former (¥5,000 or so) and should be avoided by hikers unless they also have cheaper accommodation available. Campsites are often located near onsen, which can be quite convenient.

The National Camping Association of Japan helps maintain, an all-Japanese database of almost all campsites in Japan. The JNTO website has a fairly extensive list (in PDF format) of campsites in English, and local tourist offices are often well informed.


For the real budget traveler who wants to get by cheaply in Japan, there is the option of nojuku (野宿). This is Japanese for “sleeping outside“, and although it may seem quite strange to Westerners, many young Japanese do this when they travel. Thanks to the low crime rate and relatively stable climate, nojuku is really viable option if you’re traveling in a group or feel safe doing it alone. Common nojuku places are train stations, michi no eki (roadside rest stops) or basically any place that has some kind of shelter and public toilets nearby.

Those worried about shower options will be pleased to learn that Japan is blessed with inexpensive public facilities pretty much everywhere: especially onsen or hot springs. Even if you can’t find an onsen, a sento (public bath) or sauna is an option.

Bear in mind that nojuku is only really feasible in the summer months, although on the northern island of Hokkaido the temperature can drop at night even in summer. On the other hand, there are many more opportunities for nojuku on Okinawa (although there is a lack of public facilities on the smaller islands).

Nojuku is not really recommended for first-time travelers to Japan, but for those with some experience, it can be a great way to immerse yourself in the “onsen” culture, meet other Nojuku travelers and, most importantly, travel very cheaply if you combine it with hitchhiking.

Long-term staying in Japan

Gaijin houses

If you are staying for an extended period, say a month or more, you may be able to drastically reduce your cost of living by staying in a “gaijin house”. These establishments cater specifically to foreigners and offer at least minimally furnished and usually shared flats at reasonable prices and without the hefty deposits and commissions of flats (often up to 8 months’ rent) that have to be paid before moving in. It’s certainly cheaper than staying in a hotel for a month, and for those coming to Japan for the first time, they’re also great for socializing and meeting some locals. The downside is that the facilities are often shared and the transient population can mean poor maintenance and dodgy neighbors.

Gaijin houses are mostly in Tokyo, but there are a few in every other major city. They can be anything from ugly, cramped apartment complexes with new tenants every week to nice family-run private homes, so try to have a look before you decide to move in. Two of the biggest rental agencies for gaijin houses in Tokyo are Sakura House and Oak House, while Gaijin House Japan has listings and classifieds for the whole country.


Traditionally, renting a flat in Japan is a ridiculously complex and expensive process that requires you to get a Japanese resident to act as a guarantor (literally – if you trash the place and run away, they’re stuck with the bill) and pay the rent for half a year or more in advance. So it’s basically impossible for anyone who is not both familiar with the culture and wants to live and work there for at least a few years.

In recent years, however, weekly villas (short-term flats) have become popular for residents (typically business people on long-term assignments or young singles) and are also open to visitors. Most are 1- or 2-person rooms, although larger ones for 3 or 4 people are sometimes available. The cost of a flat is around ¥5000 for a single room, about ¥6000-7000 for a two-person room per day. Most of these flat rental agencies all offer flats with shower, toilet, and bathroom. They usually have air conditioning, microwave, and cooking facilities. Reservations can be made through an English language website and they have various special offers on their website. WMT has more than 50 apartment buildings in Tokyo and Yokohama, as well as in Osaka. A deposit is required for some of the flats. This deposit can usually be waived if you have stayed with them a few times without any problems. The flats are always kept clean and often have much more space and flexibility than a hotel and are priced in the youth hostel range.

Last resorts in Japan

Even in Tokyo, the trains stop running at 01:00. So if you are traveling after that time and don’t want to pay for a taxi or even a capsule hotel, there are a few ways to bridge the hours until the first-morning train. If you need to find one of these quickly, station staff can usually point you in the right direction. Conveniently, many of these establishments are located near train stations and are used to accommodating people who missed the last train home.

Internet and Manga Cafés

In larger cities, especially around the major train stations, you will find internet or manga cafés. Membership costs about ¥300 once. Here you can also watch TV, play video games, read comics and enjoy the free drinks bar. Prices vary but are usually around ¥400/hour. There is often a special night fare (from about midnight to 05:00 for ¥1,500) for the time when there are no trains. Customers usually have a choice of a cabin equipped with a computer or TV, while others offer amenities such as a massage chair, a mat to sleep on, or even a shower.

It’s not a particularly comfortable option, but it’s perfect for checking the next day’s train schedule, downloading pictures from your digital camera, writing home, and getting some rest. You will often be surrounded by snoring locals who missed the last train home.

Karaoke bar

This is only an emergency option if you can’t find anything else and are freezing outside. Karaoke bars offer entertainment rooms until 05:00 (“free time”) for ¥1,500-2,500. Only works with at least 3 people.

Public baths

Some onsen or sentos stay open all night. These are usually known as “super” sentos. Usually, there is a “relaxation area” with tatami mats, TV, vending machines, etc.. Occasionally, however, they are also multi-story bathing and playhouses. For a reasonable fee (in addition to the bathing fee), you are often allowed to spend the night on the tatamis or in a room with large deck chairs.


In the warmer months, people sleeping or napping on the side of the road in front of major stations are a common sight. Many of them have just missed the last trains and would rather spend three or four hours waiting for the first train on the tarmac than spend three or four thousand yen on a short-term stay in a hotel or public bath.

While this is definitely the most uncomfortable way to sleep through the night, it is especially popular with students (who have no money) and absolutely tolerated by the police and station staff; even drunks sleeping next to their own vomit are not disturbed in their alcohol-induced sleep.

On trains

Similarly, you don’t need to sweat when you fall asleep on a local train after a long night of partying. Compared to sleeping outside, train sleeping 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 traveling back and forth on the same train for two or three cycles before waking up and getting off at their original destination with the ticket they bought three hours ago. If the train is not crowded, you can even stretch out on the bench: Remember to take off your shoes, though.

Of course, you have to obey the instructions of the train staff, who tend to gently wake people up at the terminus, especially if the train is not returning. Sometimes it turns out that this station is two hours away from the city.

Things To See in Japan

Castles in Japan

When most Westerners think of castles, they naturally think of their own in places like England and France, but Japan was also a nation of castle builders. In its feudal days, you could find several castles in almost every prefecture.

Original castles

Due to World War II bombings, fires, decrees to demolish castles, etc., only twelve of Japan’s castles are considered to have original donjons (天守閣 tenshūkaku), which date back to when they were still in use. Four of them are on Shikoku Island, two further 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.

  • Uwajima Castle
  • Matsuyama Castle
  • Kochi Castle
  • Marugame Castle
  • Matsue Castle
  • Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
  • Himeji Castle
  • Hikone Castle
  • Inuyama Castle
  • Maruoka Castle
  • Matsumoto Castle
  • Hirosaki Castle

Reconstructions and ruins

Japan has many reconstructed castles, many of which receive more visitors than the originals. A reconstructed castle means that the keep has been rebuilt in modern times, but many of them still have other original structures within the castle grounds. For example, three of the towers of Nagoya Castle are authentic. The structures of Nijo Castle are also authentic, but they are palace buildings, with the donjon having burnt down and not been rebuilt, so it is not listed as original.

Reconstructions nevertheless offer a glimpse into the past and many, like Osaka Castle, are also museums housing important artefacts. Kumamoto Castle is considered one of the best reconstructions because most of the structures have been reconstructed, not just the donjon. The only reconstructed castle in Hokkaido is Matsumae Castle. Shuri Castle on Okinawa is unique among Japan’s castles in that it is not a “Japanese” castle; it was the royal palace of the Ryukyuan Kingdom and was built in a distinctive Ryukyuan architectural style, with a much stronger Chinese influence than Japanese-style castles.

With ruins, typically only the castle walls or parts of the original complex 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 retain their historical significance, such as Tsuyama Castle, which was so large and impressive that it was considered the best in the country. Today, only the castle walls remain, but the grounds are filled with thousands of cherry blossoms. This is common with many ruins, but also with reconstructions. Takeda Castle is famous for the magnificent view of the surrounding area from the ruins, earning it the nickname “castle in the sky”.

Gardens in Japan

Japan is famous for its gardens, known for their unique aesthetics in both landscape gardens and Zen stone/sand gardens. The nation has named an official “Top Three Gardens” based on their beauty, size, authenticity (gardens that have not been drastically altered) and historical significance. These gardens are Kairakuen in Mito, Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, and Korakuen in Okayama. The largest garden, and the favourite of many travellers, is Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu.

Rock and sand gardens are typically found in temples, especially those of Zen Buddhism. The most famous of these is the Ryoanji temple in Kyoto, but such temples can be found all over Japan. Moss gardens are also popular in Japan and Koke-dera, also in Kyoto, has one of the best in the country. Reservations are required for a visit to ensure that the moss is always in bloom and not trampled.

Spiritual sites in Japan

Whatever your travel interests, it is difficult to visit Japan without seeing at least a few shrines and temples. Buddhist and Shinto sites are the most common, although there are also some notable spiritual sites of other religions.


Buddhism has profoundly influenced Japan since its introduction in the 6th century. Like shrines, temples can be found in every city and there are many different sects.

Some of the holiest sites consist of large complexes on mountain peaks and include Mount Koya (Japan’s most prestigious burial site and the main temple of Shingon Buddhism), Mount Hiei (built here when Kyoto became the capital to keep Buddhism out of politics, the head of the Tendai sect of Buddhism) and Mount Osore (considered the “gateway to hell” and featuring many monuments and tombs in a volcanic wasteland).

Many of the nation’s main temples are located in Kyoto, such as the Honganji temples and the Chion-in temple. Kyoto also has five of the top Zen temples called in the “Five Mountain System” (Tenryuji, Shokokuji, Kenninji, Tofukuji and Manjuji), along with the Nanzenji Temple, which towers over all the temples outside the mountain system. Although there are “five” temples, Kyoto and Kamakura each have their own five. The Kamakura temples are the Kenchoji, the Engakuji, the Jufukuji, the Jochiji and the Jomyoji temples. The Eiheiji temple is also a prominent Zen temple, although it was never part of the mountain system.

The Todaiji Temple in Nara and the Kotokuin Temple in Kamakura are famous for their large Buddhist statues. That of Todaiji is the largest in the nation, while that of the Kamakura Daibutsu is the second largest and meditates in the open air.

The Horyuji Temple in Horyuji, just south of Nara, is the oldest wooden structure in the world. The beautiful Phoenix Hall in Uji is what most visitors to Japan see on the back of the ¥10 coin, though not in real life.


Shintoism is the “native” religion of Japan. So if you want to experience things that are “quintessentially Japanese”, you should especially enjoy them, as they truly embody the Japanese aesthetic. The holiest Shinto shrine is the Great Ise Shrine, while the second holiest is the Izumo Shrine, where the gods gather for an annual assembly. Other famous sacred shrines include Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Kumano Sanzan and Dewa Sanzan, Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, and Shimogamo ShrineKamigamo Shrine and Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.


Japan’s introduction to Christianity came in 1549 through the Portuguese and Saint Francis Xavier. He founded the first Christian church in Yamaguchi at the Daidoji Temple, whose ruins are now part of the Xavier Memorial Park and in whose honour the Xavier Memorial Church was built.

When Toyotomi Hideyoshi came to power, Christianity was banned and Christians were persecuted. Nagasaki is the most famous place of persecution, where 26 Japanese Christians were crucified. They are now saints and you can visit the memorial to these martyrs in the city. The Shimabara Uprising is the most famous Christian uprising in Japan, and it was this uprising that led to the ousting of the Portuguese and Catholic practices from Japan (although Christianity was already banned by this time), along with some 37,000 beheadings of Christians and peasants. In Shimabara you can visit the ruins of Hara Castle, where Christians gathered and were attacked, see old Portuguese tombstones, and the samurai houses, some of which were inhabited by Christian samurai. The Amakusa Shiro Memorial Hall in Oyano contains videos about the Shimabara Uprising and great displays about the persecution of Christians. Lesser-known sites may be off the beaten track, such as the Martyrs’ Museum and Memorial Park in Fujisawa. When the nation opened up again, some Christians assumed this meant they could practice Christianity freely and openly, so they came out after 200 years of clandestine practice. Unfortunately, it was still not legal and these Christians were rounded up and tortured in different parts of the country. You can see one of these sites in the Cathedral of Mary in Tsuwano, which was built at Otome Pass in the area where Christians were put in tiny cages and tortured.

In addition to the martyrdom site, Nagasaki is also home to Oura Church, the nation’s oldest surviving church, built in 1864. As Nagasaki was for many years one of the country’s only ports of entry for outsiders, the city is rich in Japan’s Christian history, so much so that even museums here display artefacts and information about the Christian community.

Strangely enough, Christian objects are often found in temples and shrines all over the country. This is because many of these objects were hidden in temples and shrines when Christianity was still forbidden.


Japan has a handful of well-known Confucian temples. As Japan’s gateway to the world for many centuries, the Confucian temple in Nagasaki is the only Confucian temple in the world built by Chinese outside China. Yushima Seido in Tokyo was a Confucian school and one of the country’s first institutions of higher learning. The country’s first integrated school, Shizutani School in Bizen, also taught on the basis of Confucian teachings and principles. The school building itself was even modelled on Chinese architectural styles. The first public school in Okinawa was a Confucian school, which was given to the Ryukyuan Kingdom along with the Confucian Shiseibyo 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 have been held here. Asumui in Kongo Sekirinzan Park is a large rock formation believed to be the oldest in the area. As a religious site, shamans used to come here to talk to the gods.

World War II Sites in Japan

The three must-visit places for World War II fans are Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the main island of Okinawa. Okinawa is where some of the most brutal battles between Japan and the United States took place, and the area is full of remnants of the dark past. The Peace Park, the Prefectural Peace Museum, the Himeyuri Peace Museum and the Peace Memorial Hall are some of the best places to learn more, see artefacts and hear accounts of the battles that took place here.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are important places in many ways. Hiroshima is the first city ever to be attacked by an atomic bomb, and also the deadliest. After Hiroshima was devastated, the bombing of Nagasaki days later led to the surrender of the Japanese and ended the Second World War. Even those who are not particularly interested in World War II may find the atomic bomb sites interesting, as the issues surrounding nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war are still an issue today. These sites show how powerful, devastating and damaging atomic bombs can be, not only to the country and those who die, but also to the survivors.

Many people are curious about the possibility of visiting Iwo Jima. Currently, the Military Historic Tours Company has exclusive rights to conduct tours on the island.

Pilgrimage routes in Japan

  • 88 Temple Pilgrimage – a strenuous 1,647 km walk around the island of Shikoku
  • Chugoku 33 Kannon Temple Pilgrimage
  • Narrow Road to the Deep North – a route through northern Japan immortalised by Japan’s most famous haiku poet.

Industrial heritage in Japan

The UNESCO World Heritage Site “Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution in Japan: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining” consists of 23 individual sites across the country, most of them in Chugoku and Kyushu. These are sites such as mines, railways, ironworks and ports from the Meiji era, which are among the most notable of Japan’s first Western-style industrial sites. Listed separately is the Tomioka Silk Factory.

Things To Do in Japan

Nature in Japan

It should come as no surprise that in a country where more than 70% of the terrain is forests and mountains, outdoor activities abound.

Climbing one of Japan’s many mountains is within the means of any traveller. You can reach the top of some mountains almost entirely by car, or with just a short, easy walk. Mount Aso is one of the largest volcanic calderas in the world, and a paved road takes cars and pedestrians right to the top. Or take the cable car, advertised as the world’s first cable car over an active volcano.

About 300,000 people climb Mount Fuji every year, a mountain so famous as an icon of Japan that it hardly needs an introduction. On the most popular route, you need to use your hands for support, but no real climbing is required; you can easily climb Mount Fuji with proper clothing, basic equipment (sunscreen, headlamp, etc.) and 1-2 days in your itinerary. It is not a walk in the park, but it is easily doable if you are not too out of shape.

  • Visit one of Japan’s top 100 cherry blossom spots or take a walk amid thousands of cherry blossoms in Yoshino
  • Climb the 3776 m high Mount Fuji, an icon of Japan.
  • Climb Mount Aso to see one of the largest volcanic calderas in the world
  • Visit the snow-capped peaks of the country’s largest national park, Daisetsuzan.
  • Climb the 2446 stone steps of the sacred mountain Haguro through an amazing jungle.
  • Take a rafting tour on some of Japan’s last wild rivers in the Iya Valley

Recreational sport in Japan

Golf is popular with the Japanese, although it tends to be quite expensive and therefore exclusive. Land is just too valuable near cities, so golf courses have to pay a lot of money for land and are typically 1-2 hours’ drive outside the city. (Shuttles from the nearest train station are often available with a reservation). Midweek prices can be found from ¥6,000 upwards. Expect it to take all day, with travel time, a round of golf and relaxing in a hot bath afterwards. As most players are local businessmen, singles are not allowed on most courses (so make sure you have at least two players with you), and rental equipment has a limited selection (better to bring your own clubs and shoes, which you can send to the range cheaply.

With its snow-covered mountainous terrain, Japan is an excellent destination for skiing and snowboarding, even if it’s mostly local visitors. Japan’s climate means that many ski resorts get excellent powder snow, and lots of it: On average, ski resorts in the Japanese Alps get 10 metres and Hokkaido slopes get a whopping 14 metres or more! Skiing in Japan can be cheap compared to other countries, with cheaper lift tickets, cheap accommodation and cheap meals. Rental equipment is cheap, but as Japanese have smaller feet on average, consider bringing your own boots. The easiest way to get to many slopes is by public transport (trains and buses), and bring your ski/snowboard equipment to the slopes.

Although Japan is an island nation, it is not really known for its beaches. There simply aren’t many beaches, as Japanese cities (many of which are on the coast) extend right up to the shoreline. Where there are beaches, they tend to be visited only in summer; once September 1 arrives, lifeguards stop patrolling the beaches and Japanese beachgoers disappear as a result. Surfing is reasonably popular as the surf can be very good on both coasts (during typhoon season [Aug-Oct] on the Pacific coast and in winter on the Sea of Japan coast).

Spectator sports in Japan

Baseball (野球 yakyū) is very popular in Japan and the popularity is historical (baseball was first introduced to Japan around 1870 by an American professor). For internationally travelling baseball fans, Japan is one of the great examples of baseball’s popularity outside the United States. Baseball is not only played in many high schools and by professionals, but is also referenced in many parts of Japanese pop culture. In addition, many Japanese players have risen to become top players in Major League Baseball. The official Japanese baseball league is known as Nippon Professional Baseball or simply Puro Yakyū (プロ野球), which means professional baseball, and it is considered by many to be the strongest professional baseball league outside the United States. The Japanese national baseball team is also considered one of the strongest in the world and won the first World Baseball Classic in 2006 and the second edition in 2009.

Tickets for baseball games are usually easy to get, even on the day of the game, although popular games should of course be booked in advance. Tickets start at around ¥2,000, so if you’re interested, leave 4-5 hours free. You can usually bring food and drinks from outside, which is a good way to save some money instead of paying stadium prices (¥800 for a pint of beer); just have your bag checked and put your drinks in disposable cups. Especially in Osaka, it’s also popular to visit local restaurants or bars where the entire place is taken over by fans who sing, chant and cheer loudly throughout the game. The rules in Japanese baseball are not very different from baseball in the United States, although there are some minor variations. The biggest rivalry is between the Yomiuri Giants from Tokyo (a national favourite, although equally disliked by many) and the Hanshin Tigers from Osaka (widely known for having the most fanatical and dedicated fans, along with many cheers, songs and traditions).

It is also worth noting that there are two national high school tournaments in Japan each year that may attract more attention than the professional game. Both are played at Kōshien Stadium, a stadium in Nishinomiya City near Kobe that holds over 50,000 spectators and is also home to the NPB’s Hanshin Tigers.

  • The National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament, commonly known as Spring Kōshien (春の甲子園 haru no kōshien, or センバツ senbatsu) – Takes place in March, with 32 teams invited from around the country.
  • The National High School Baseball Championship, commonly known as Summer Kōshien (夏の甲子園 natsu no kōshien) – A two-week event in August, it is the final stage of a nationwide tournament structure. A total of 49 teams are taking part in the final phase – one from each prefecture in Japan, with second teams from Hokkaido and Tokyo.

Football (サッカー sakkā; “[club] football” to some English speakers) is also popular in Japan. The official league is the Japan Professional Football League (日本プロサッカーリーグ nippon puro sakkā rīgu), known as the J.League (Jリーグ J rīgu), whose highest division is the J1 League. Japan is one of the most successful Asian football leagues and has been at or near the top of the Asian Football Confederation rankings for decades.

Sumo wrestling (相撲 sumō) is a popular Japanese sport. The biggest events are the six top tournaments (本場所 honbasho) a year, each lasting 15 days. Sumo retains many traditions from its Shinto origins, and a single bout usually consists of many minutes of ritual and mental preparation, followed by only 10-30 seconds of wrestling. Sumo wrestlers lead regimented lives in training stables and devote themselves to nothing but building muscle and competing. A few foreign wrestlers are quite successful in the upper ranks, although new rules have put a limit on how many foreign wrestlers each stable can train.

Professional wrestling (プロレス puroresu) is also very popular. While it is similar to professional wrestling in other parts of the world in that the results are predetermined, its psychology and presentation are uniquely Japanese. Puroresu matches are treated as legitimate fights, with stories strongly emphasising the wrestlers’ fighting spirit and perseverance. As many Japanese professional wrestlers have a legitimate martial arts background, full-contact strikes and realistic submission holds are commonplace. The country has many promotions (companies that organise shows), the biggest being New Japan Pro Wrestling, All Japan Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling NOAH. The biggest single event in the puroresu is New Japan’s show on 4 January (currently promoted as Wrestle Kingdom) at the Tokyo Dome, which is roughly comparable to WrestleMania in the US.

Games and entertainment in Japan

Karaoke (カラオケ) was invented in Japan and can be found in practically every Japanese city. Pronounced kah-rah-oh-keh, it is an abbreviation from the words “empty orchestra” in Japanese; many locals will have no idea what you are talking about when you use the English keh-ree-oh-kee. Most karaoke venues take up several floors of a building. You and your friends have a room to yourselves – no strangers – and the standard hourly rate often includes all-you-can-drink alcohol, with refills ordered from a phone on the wall or from the karaoke machine itself. The big chains all have an excellent selection of English-language songs. Old people prefer to sing Enka ballads in small neighbourhood bars.

You operate the karaoke machine yourself. You can queue up songs to be played one after the other. (Remember that at 4 minutes per song, you could sing for an hour with 15 songs). These days, many machines use a tablet or touch screen that allows you to search for songs by various criteria; if you can set one of them to English, great. You can also search for songs in the phonebook-sized catalogues, which is what you need to do if you can’t get an English-language tablet, or on older machines that only have a big remote. Once you find the 4-6 digit number of the song, point the remote at the karaoke machine like a TV remote, enter the number (it will appear on the screen so you can check if it’s entered correctly; if not, press 戻る to go back), and press 転送 or “Send” to confirm and add the song to the queue.

Also ubiquitous are pachinko machines. Pachinko (パチンコ) is a form of gambling in which small steel balls are thrown into a machine; more balls are awarded depending on where they land. The air in most pachinko parlours is quite rough from tobacco smoke, sweat and hot machines – not to mention the deafening noise. (Legally, the balls can only be exchanged for prizes, but players always opt for “special prize” tokens, which they exchange for cash at a separate booth elsewhere in the building or in a nearby alley. As the stall is outside the premises, it is a separate transaction and therefore not illegal).

Video arcades (ゲームセンター gēmu sentā, or ビデオ・アーケード bideo ākēdo; not to be confused with a regular ākēdo, meaning “shopping arcade/street”), although sometimes difficult to distinguish from pachinko parlours from the outside, have arcade games rather than games of chance and are often several floors high. Video games are the norm here, although you may be surprised by the variety of games. In addition to the usual action and fighting games, there are rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution or the much easier-for-beginners Taiko Drum Master (太鼓の達人 Taiko no Tatsujin), hard-to-define oddities like Derby Owners Club (which can only be described as a “multiplayer online card-collecting role-playing horse racing simulator”), and bizarre inventions like Chō Chabudai-Gaeshi! (超・ちゃぶ台返し! “Super Table-Flip! “), where you literally bang on a table and flip it furiously to relieve stress while collecting points. Game centres also usually have non-video games, which almost always include claw raffles (usually UFOキャッチャー yūfō kyacchā or simply yūfō [note: UFO is pronounced like “you-foe” and not “you-eff-oh” as in English] from the popular Sega brand) where you can win anything from stuffed animals and jewellery to expensive smartphones and trinkets, as well as sophisticated photo sticker booths (プリクラ puri-kura, shortened from the brand name Print Club).

Japan’s national game is Go (囲碁 igo, or simply 碁 go), a strategic board game that originated in China. Players place their pieces so that they enclose as much territory on the board as possible; pieces cannot be moved but can be captured if they are enclosed in all four directions. Despite its Chinese origins, the game is usually known outside East Asia by its Japanese rather than its Chinese name, as it was originally introduced and promoted by the Japanese in the West. Not everyone plays Go by a long shot, but there are newspaper columns, television and professional players. On a sunny day, the Tennoji district of Osaka is a good place to watch two Go masters play.

Besides Go, another popular board game in Japan is Shogi (将棋) or Japanese Chess. The general mechanics are similar to Western chess, with a few extra pieces that move in unique ways, but the main difference is that after capturing a piece, you can later “drop” it back into play as one of your own pieces. The use of discards makes shogi a much more complex and dynamic game than Western chess.

Mahjong (麻雀 mājan) is also relatively popular in Japan and is often played in Japanese video and arcade games, although it is associated with illegal gambling and mahjong parlours can be quite seedy. Mahjong uses tiles with a variety of Chinese symbols (such as bamboo and flowers) and characters. Players draw and place tiles and try to complete a hand with specific sets of tiles (four sets of 3 identical tiles or 3 in a straight flush, plus an identical pair). While the gameplay is similar, the scoring is drastically different from the various Chinese versions.

Music in Japan

The Japanese love music (音楽 ongaku) in all styles.

Japanese traditional music (邦楽 hōgaku) uses a variety of instruments, many of which originated in China but developed into unique forms after being introduced to Japan. The most commonly used instruments are

  • the shamisen (三味線) – a 3-stringed plucked instrument similar in some respects to a banjo
  • the shakuhachi (尺八) – a bamboo flute
  • the koto (箏) – a 13-stringed plucked zither (like a dulcimer)

Taiko (太鼓) are Japanese drums. (In Japanese, taiko simply means “drum”. Wadaiko (和太鼓, “Japanese drums”) is more specific, but taiko is usually understood to mean “Japanese drums” as it is in the rest of the world. A Western drum set would be called doramu settodoramu kitto or doramusu). Taiko drums are unique to Japan and range in size from small hand drums to huge 1.8 metre (72 inch) stationary drums. Taiko also refers to the performance itself; these physically demanding instruments can be played solo or in a kumi daiko ensemble and are very common at festivals.

Traditional Japanese music can be divided into several categories. Gagaku is instrumental or vocal music and dance performed for the imperial court. Several forms of Japanese theatre use music. Jōruri (浄瑠璃) is narrative music with the shamisen, and min’yō (民謡) is folk music such as work songs, religious songs and children’s songs.

Outside of traditional Japanese music, these instruments are not widely used, and the more obscure instruments are slowly dying out. However, a few popular artists like the Yoshida Brothers and Rin’ have combined traditional instruments with modern western musical styles.

Western classical music (クラシック[音楽] kurashikku [ongaku]) is popular in Japan among people of all ages; although it is not heard every day, it is certainly more popular than in many Western countries. There are 1,600 professional and amateur orchestras in Japan. Almost half of these are based in Tokyo, including eight full-time professional orchestras with confusingly similar names such as NHK Symphony OrchestraYomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Concert dress is casual, except for business people coming straight from work.

With the arrival of Western pop music, Japan created its own unique forms of pop music. These have largely died out, with the exception of enka (演歌), sentimental Western pop-style ballads composed to resemble traditional Japanese music and typically sung in an overly emotional style. Enka is also on the decline; it is often sung by older people at karaoke, but it is rare to find a young person who enjoys it.

Jazz (ジャズ jazu) has been very popular in Japan since the 1930s, with the exception of a brief hiatus during World War II. Often there are recordings only in Japan that cannot be found in other countries. Jazz cafés are a common way to listen to jazz. Decades ago, it was forbidden to talk in most jazz cafés, as only serious enjoyment of the music was expected, but today most jazz cafés are more relaxed and less moody.

Of course, the most popular kind of music today is pop music. J-pop and J-rock are flooding the airwaves and are sometimes even internationally popular: L’Arc~en~Ciel and X Japan have played sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden, while The’s cover of “Woo Hoo” has found its way into the UK Singles Chart after being used in Kill Bill: Volume 1 and some TV commercials. Punk, heavy metal, hip-hop, electronic and many other genres also find niches in Japan where they get their own Japanese interpretation.

J-pop is often associated with idols (アイドル aidoru), music stars produced by talent agencies. Typically marketed as “up-and-coming” artists, most idols achieve only brief fame with a single hit song that is typically repetitive, catchy and does not require much skill to sing; yet the public eagerly welcomes each new idol, just as they did last month and will do again next month. A few idol groups, however, are emerging as long-lasting acts: SMAP and Morning Musume have been popular for decades, with more than 50 top 10 singles each, while AKB48 has risen to become the best-selling female group in Japan.

Concerts (ライブ raibu, “live”) are easy to find. Depending on the event, you can buy them in shops (with a numerical code to identify the right concert), online, in record shops or in various advance lotteries. (Some sellers require a Japanese credit card with a Japanese billing address, so you may have to try several methods to find one you can use). You can buy day tickets at the venue, provided the concert is not sold out, but large venues may not even sell tickets at the door. Instead of general admission, tickets may be numbered to divide the audience into smaller groups that are admitted one at a time. Music festivals (ロック・フェスティバル rokku fesutibaru, abbreviated ロックフェス rokku fesu or simply フェス fesu) are also popular and attract tens of thousands of people. The Fuji Rock Festival is the largest festival in Japan and actually covers many genres. The RockInJapan Festival is the largest festival where only Japanese artists are allowed to perform.

Japanese fans can be just as fanatical as music lovers elsewhere. They follow their favourite bands on tour and work together to get front row tickets; they may have spent more than you to attend the same concert, so don’t feel like you “deserve” a good seat just because you paid to come from abroad! If there are several bands on the programme and you don’t like the one playing, Japanese fans consider it natural to leave your seat so others can enjoy it up close; staying in your seat just so you can save it for later is inconsiderate. Many songs feature furitsuke, ritualised hand gestures that the crowd performs along with the music, these days often with handheld lights. The band may create some of the movements, but most is organically generated by the fans (usually those in the front rows). The moves are unique to each song, which makes for an impressive sight when you realise the entire audience has memorised them; you can try to learn a few moves by watching closely, or just relax and enjoy the show.

Performing Arts in Japan

Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a type of dance drama. It is known for the elaborate costumes and make-up worn by the performers.

Noh (能 ) is a type of musical drama. While the costumes superficially resemble kabuki, Noh relies on masks to convey emotion and tells its story through the lyrics, which are written in an older form of Japanese (difficult to understand even for native speakers).

Traditionally used as a comic pause between acts in a noh play, kyōgen (狂言) consists of short (10-minute) plays that often use stock characters. These are much more accessible than noh, as they use more of a speaking voice and are typically in early modern Japanese, which is easier for modern audiences to understand (much like Shakespearean English).

Bunraku (文楽) is a type of puppet theatre.

Comedy in Japan is very different from the Western style. Japanese are very sensitive about making jokes at the expense of others, so Western-style stand-up comedy is not very common. Most Japanese comedy is based on absurdity and non-sequiturs. Most Japanese also love puns (駄洒落 dajare), although these can cross the line into groan-inducing oyaji gyagu (親父ギャグ “old man gags/jokes”, or in other words, “dad jokes”). Don’t even try sarcasm; it is almost never used by Japanese people and they will probably take your statement at face value instead.

The most common and well-known type of stand-up comedy in Japan is manzai (漫才). There are usually two performers, the “straight man” (tsukkomi) and the “funny man” (boke). The jokes are based on the funny man misinterpreting or finding funny the straight man’s lines, and are delivered at a breakneck pace. Manzai is typically associated with Osaka, and many Manzai performers use an Osaka accent, but Manzai performances are popular throughout the country.

Another traditional type of Japanese comedy is rakugo (落語), comedic storytelling. A lone performer sits on stage and tells a long and usually complicated funny story. He never gets up from a sitting, kneeling position, but uses tricks to convey actions such as standing up or walking. The story always involves a dialogue between two or more characters, which the storyteller portrays with voice pitch and body language. Rakugo translates very well; a few performers have made a career out of performing in English, but they mostly perform at special events as a form of cultural education and in videos on the internet. Still, you may be able to find a performance in English to attend.

A few troupes do Western-style stand-up and improv comedy in English. These attract an international audience: foreign visitors, expats and even a lot of English-speaking Japanese. In Tokyo, the main groups include Pirates of Tokyo Bay, Stand-Up Tokyo and the long-running Tokyo Comedy Store. Other groups include ROR Comedy and Pirates of the Dotombori in Osaka, Comedy Fukuoka, NagoyaComedy and Sendai Comedy Club.

Japanese culture

Japan is famous for geisha, although they are often misunderstood in the West. Literally translated, the word 芸者 (geisha) means “artist” or “artisan”. Geishas are entertainers, whether you are looking for singing and dancing, party games or just nice company and conversation. While some (but not all) geishas may have been prostitutes more than a century ago, this is no longer part of their profession. (To add to the confusion, some prostitutes called themselves “geisha girls” during World War II to attract American troops.) Geisha train from a young age to be exquisite, high-class entertainers. Maiko apprentices have it the hardest; they wear colourful, multi-layered kimonos and extravagant obi sashes, and always wear the labour-intensive all-white face make-up. As they mature, except on special occasions, geishas wear more discreet clothing and make-up, letting their natural beauty and charm shine through instead. Geishas are now often hired by companies for parties and banquets. Traditionally, it takes an introduction and connections to hire a geisha, but nowadays many geishas make more of an effort to showcase their talents in public appearances. In Japan’s largest cities, it’s easy to spot a geisha if you look in the right part of town. Kyoto is home to the oldest and most famous geisha community in the world; Tokyo and Osaka, of course, have their own. Yamagata and Niigata are known for their historically prestigious connections to geisha, although the scene is less active these days. You can also find geisha in some cities like Atami and Kanazawa, where they tend to be less exclusive and cheaper to book.

The tea ceremony (茶道 sadō or chadō) is not unique to Japan or even Asia, but the Japanese version stands out for its deep connection to Japanese aesthetics. Indeed, the focus of a Japanese tea ceremony is less on the tea and more on making guests feel welcome and appreciative of the season. Because of the influence of Zen Buddhism, the Japanese tea ceremony emphasises a uniquely Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi (侘寂). A very rough translation might be that wabi means “rustic simplicity” and sabi means “beauty that comes with age and wear”. The rustic bowls used in the tea ceremony, usually in a handmade style that is not quite symmetrical, are wabi; the wear to the glaze of the bowl from use and the nicks in the pottery, often done intentionally, are sabi. Seasonality is also extremely important; a tea ceremony venue is typically small and simple, with sparse decoration chosen to match the season, and usually a picturesque view of a garden or the great outdoors.

The tea used in the tea ceremony is matcha (抹茶). During the ceremony, the host adds this tea powder to water and stirs it vigorously to obtain a foamy consistency. The bright green matcha is quite bitter, so the tea ceremony also includes one or two small sweets (菓子 kashi); their sweetness balances the bitterness of the tea, and the snacks are also chosen to match the seasons. Both the tea and the food are presented on seasonal serving dishes that are as much a part of the experience as the food.

There are tea houses all over Japan where you can be a guest at a tea ceremony. The most common type of ‘informal’ ceremony usually lasts 30 minutes to an hour; a ‘formal’ ceremony can last up to 4 hours, although it includes a much more extensive kaiseki menu. It might be worth looking for a ceremony that is at least partially conducted in English, or hiring a local guide, otherwise you may find the finer details of the ceremony quite obscure. While casual dress may be acceptable at informal ceremonies today, you should check if there is a dress code and probably try to dress up a little anyway. Trousers or long skirts would certainly suit well, but more formal ceremonies would require a suit; muted clothing is best so as not to distract from the ceremony itself.

Uji is often called the “tea capital of Japan”; it is famous for matcha, which has been produced here for over a thousand years. Shizuoka grows 45% of Japan’s tea crop, and more than 70% of Japanese teas are processed there (even though they are grown elsewhere). Kagoshima is the second largest grower, where the warm, sunny climate and different varieties of the tea plant produce teas known for their distinctive, full-bodied flavour.

Festivals in Japan

In Japan, there are an estimated 200,000 festivals (祭 matsuri) during the year. Festivals are held for a variety of reasons, the most common being to give thanks (e.g. for a successful rice harvest) and to bring good luck. Although most festivals are small events sponsored by local shrines or temples, there are hundreds that are large citywide affairs, any of which would be a nice addition to your itinerary if they overlap with your schedule.

The main event at many large festivals is a parade of floats, usually lifted by several dozen men and carried by hand. Often the kami (spirit/deity) of a shrine is ritually placed in a portable shrine (mikoshi) and carried through the neighbourhood as part of the parade. At some festivals, anyone can help carry a chariot for a few minutes. Fireworks (花火 hanabi) are also a common event at festivals, especially in summer; in Japan, this is the most common use of fireworks. The rest of the time is spent enjoying the stalls and entertainment. Food stalls offer traditional festival dishes such as takoyaki, shaved ice (かき氷 kakigōri) and skewered hot dogs. A traditional game at the festivals is goldfish scooping (kingyo sukui): whoever can catch a goldfish with the flimsy paper scoop gets to keep it. Other common games are ring toss and cork shooting.

Festivals are a time for the neighbourhood and community to come together and celebrate, whether it’s a family, young couples dating or just a group of friends. Almost everyone dons a colourful yukata, while many of the people working the festival wear Happi coats. (Street clothes are also perfectly fine).

List of known festivals:

  • Sapporo Snow Festival (さっぽろ雪まつり Sapporo Yuki-matsuri) in Sapporo(February, 7 days from the second week) – artistic snow and ice sculptures.
  • Hakata Dontaku in Fukuoka (3-4 May) – Japan’s largest festival, attracting over 2 million people during Golden Week.
  • Kanda in Tokyo (May, Sat-Sun closest to May 15 in odd-numbered years)
  • Hakata Gion Yamakasa in Fukuoka (1-15 July) – famous for speeding one-ton cars
  • Gion in Kyoto (July, the whole month, but especially 14-17 and 21-24)
  • Nebuta in Aomori (2-7 August)
  • Awa-Odori in Tokushima (12-15 August) – Folk Dance Festival

There are also several nationwide festivals:

  • New Year (正月 Shōgatsu) (31 December – 3 January)
  • Hina matsuri (3 March) – during the “doll festival” families pray for their girls and display dolls of the emperor and his court
  • Tanabata (around 7 July; in Sendai, 5-8 August; some places are based on the lunar calendar) – sometimes called the “star festival”, celebrates the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (the stars Vega and Altair), who could only meet on this day of the year
  • Obon or Bon (three days, usually around 15 August, but date varies by region) – when the spirits of the deceased return to this world; families have reunions and visit and cleanse the graves of ancestors
  • Shichi-Go-San (“Seven-Five-Three”) (15 November) – for girls between 3 and 7 years and boys between 3 and 5 years.

Some local festivals are more eccentric. Hari Kuyō (“needle memorial”) festivals are held all over Japan to give thanks to old or broken needles and pins. Hadaka (“naked”) festivals are actually common throughout Japan, but the most famous is the Eyō Hadaka matsuri at Saidai-ji in Okayama. Thousands of men, clad only in loincloths, scramble to catch auspicious sacred objects that are thrown into the crowd to bring them a year of good luck. Naki Sumō (“crying sumo”) festivals across Japan have competitions where two sumo wrestlers holding babies see which baby cries first, while priests provoke them by making faces and putting on masks. And the Kanamaramatsuri in Kawasaki is famous for celebrating male genitalia.

Hot springs in Japan

As a nation made up of volcanic islands, it is not surprising that hot springs are commonplace in Japan. Foreign visitors usually visit hot springs by staying at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, most of which offer hot springs as one of their main attractions (the other main attraction is usually the elaborate kaiseki meals). This requires some research and planning to decide where you want to go (most ryokan are in small rural towns) and to fit it into your schedule (a visit to a ryokan usually lasts from 5pm to 10am, plus travel time, which is often lengthy), but is a popular holiday activity for foreigners and locals alike.

Visiting hot springs is also possible during the day. Many hot springs are independent baths open to the public, and ryokan typically sell day passes for access to their private baths.

Japanese have pondered for centuries what the best hot springs in the country are, and they have come up with quite a few. Beppu is famous for its hot spring hells, a series of hot springs in a variety of colours from thick, slippery grey (from suspended mud) to blue-green (from dissolved cobalt) to blood-red (from dissolved iron and magnesium). The hells are not suitable for bathing (they are just too hot, although there is a footbath next to one with some pale red and still very hot water), but many others in the Beppu Onsen are. Hakone may not be the best hot springs in Japan, but it’s about an hour outside Tokyo and on the way to Kyoto and Osaka, so it’s a popular destination. Shibu Onsen in Yamanouchi near Nagano is famous for wild monkeys that come down from the snow-capped mountains to sit in the hot springs. (Don’t worry, there are separate baths for humans).

Food & Drinks in Japan

Food in Japan

Japanese cuisine, known for its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, has taken the world by storm. The main ingredient in most meals is white rice, usually served steamed. In fact, the Japanese word gohan (ご飯) also means “meal”. Soybeans are an important source of protein and come in many forms, most notably miso soup (味噌), which is served with many dishes, but also in tōfu (豆腐), a bean curd, and the ubiquitous soy sauce (醤油 shōyu). Seafood plays a major role in Japanese cuisine, including not only sea creatures but also many types of seaweed, and a complete meal is always rounded off with some pickles (漬物 tsukemono).

One of the joys of getting out of Tokyo and travelling within Japan is discovering the local specialities. Each region in the country has a range of delicious dishes based on locally available plants and fish. In Hokkaido, try the fresh sashimi and crab. In Osaka, don’t miss the okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) filled with green onions and the squid balls (たこ焼き takoyaki).

Most Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks (箸 hashi). Eating with chopsticks is surprisingly easy to learn, even if it takes a while to master. Some guidelines for eating with chopsticks that you should follow:

  • Never place chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice and never pass anything from your chopsticks to another person’s chopsticks. These are associated with funeral rites. If you want to give someone a piece of food, let them take it from your plate or put it directly on their plate.
  • When you have finished using chopsticks, you can place them over the edge of your bowl or plate. Most upscale restaurants place a small wooden or ceramic chopstick tray (hashi-oki) at each place setting. You can also fold the paper wrapper that the chopsticks come in to make your own hashi-oki.
  • Licking the ends of chopsticks is considered undignified. Instead, take a bite of your rice.
  • Using chopsticks to move plates or bowls (really anything that is not part of the meal) is rude.
  • Pointing at things with chopsticks is rude. (Pointing at people is rude in general; with chopsticks even more so).
  • Impaling food with chopsticks is generally impolite and should only be used as a last resort.

Disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) are provided in all restaurants as well as at bentō and other take-away meals. You should not “chop” your chopsticks after you have broken them apart. Many restaurants will give you a hot towel (o-shibori) to wipe your hands with as soon as you sit down; use it for your hands and not your face.

Many Japanese dishes are served with different sauces and garnishes. Japanese never put soy sauce on a bowl of rice; in fact, it is bad manners and indicates that the rice is not well prepared! Bowls of steamed rice are eaten plain, sometimes with furikake (a mixture of crumbled seaweed, fish and spices), or especially in bentō with umeboshi (very sour pickled ume plums). Soy sauce is used to dip sushi before eating, and it is also poured over grilled fish and tofu. Tonkatsu (pork chop) is served with a thicker sauce, tempura with a lighter, thinner sauce of soy sauce and dashi (fish and seaweed soup), while gyōza (potato sticks) are usually dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chilli oil.

Most soups and broths, especially miso, are drunk directly from the bowl after you have cut out the larger pieces, and it is also normal to take a bowl of rice with you to make it easier to eat. For main course soups like rāmen, you are handed a spoon. Curry rice and fried rice are also eaten with spoons.

Restaurants in Japan

The number of restaurants in Japan is overwhelming and you will never run out of places to eat. For cultural and practical reasons, Japanese people almost never invite guests to their homes, so socialising almost always involves eating out. As a result, eating out is generally cheaper than in Western countries (although still expensive by Asian standards) if you stick to a simple rice or noodle dish at a local eatery, although at the other end of the spectrum, upscale cuisine can be very expensive indeed.

According to the Michelin Guide, which rates restaurants in major cities around the world, Tokyo is the “tastiest” city in the world with over 150 restaurants receiving at least one star (out of three). In comparison, Paris and London together received a total of 148.

Most Japanese restaurants offer teishoku (定食), or set menus, for lunch. These typically consist of a meat or fish dish with a bowl of miso soup, pickles and rice (often with free extra portions). These can be as cheap as ¥600, but are also sufficient for a large appetite. Menus in most places are in Japanese only; however, many restaurants have models (many with exquisite detail) of their dishes in the window, and if you can’t read the menu, it may be better to ask the waiter or waitress outside and point to what you’d like. You might also find this type of set meal at dinner. If you choose à la carte, you may have to pay a fee (usually ¥1000) to order à la carte.

Restaurants present you with the bill after your meal and you are expected to pay at the counter when you leave – don’t leave the payment on the table and walk out. The expression for “bill” is kanjō or kaikei. When it gets late, a waiter will usually come to your table to tell you that it is time for the “last order”. When it’s really time to go, Japanese restaurants have a universal signal – they start playing “Auld Lang Syne”. (This is true all over the country, except in the most expensive places.) It means “pay up and leave”.

Many cheap restaurant chains have vending machines where you buy a ticket and give it to the waiter. However, in most of these restaurants you need to be able to read Japanese to use them. Some restaurants have amazingly lifelike plastic samples or photos of the food, labelled with names and prices. It is often possible to compare the price along with some of the kana (characters) with the selection on the machine. If you are open-minded and flexible, you might get shōyu (soy sauce) ramen instead of miso (fermented soybean) ramen, or you might get katsu (pork chop) curry instead of beef curry. You will always know how much you are spending so you will never overpay. If your Japanese language skills are limited or non-existent, these vending machine restaurants are really enjoyable places to eat as there is little or no conversation required in these places. Most customers are in a hurry, the staff employed are usually not interested in conversation and just read your order when they take your ticket, and the water/tea, napkins and eating utensils are either delivered automatically or for self-service. Some other places have all-you-can-eat meals called tabehōdai (食べ放題) or “Viking” (バイキング baikingu, because “Smorgasbord” would be too hard to pronounce in Japanese).

Tipping is not common in Japan, although many sit-down restaurants charge a 10% service charge and 24-hour “family restaurants” such as Denny’s and Jonathan’s usually charge a 10% late fee.

All-round meal

While most Japanese restaurants specialise in a particular type of dish, every neighbourhood is guaranteed to have a few shokudō (食堂) serving simple, popular dishes and teishokusets at affordable prices (¥500-1000). Try the eateries in government buildings: they are often also open to the public, subsidised by taxes and can be very cheap, if uninspired. If in doubt, go for the daily special or kyō no teishoku (今日の定食), which almost always consists of a main dish, rice, soup and pickles.

A closely related variation is the bentō-ya (弁当屋), which serves takeaway boxes known as o-bentō (お弁当). When travelling with JR, don’t forget to try the wide selection of ekiben (駅弁) or “station bento”, many of which are unique to the region – or even the station.

A staple of the shokudō is the donburi (丼), literally “rice bowl”, i.e. a bowl of rice with a topping. Popular dishes include:

  • oyakodon (親子丼) – lit. “parent-child dish”, usually chicken and egg (but sometimes also salmon and roe).
  • katsudon (カツ丼) – a fried pork cutlet with egg
  • gyūdon (牛丼) – beef and onions
  • chūkadon (中華丼) – literally: “Chinese bowl”, stir-fried vegetables and meat in a thick sauce.

You’ll also often 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 barely recognise. Often the cheapest dish on the menu, a large portion (大盛り ōmori) is guaranteed to fill you up. For about ¥100 more, you can upgrade to katsu karē to add a roasted pork cutlet.

Another great place to find cheap and overwhelming amounts of food: Department stores’ basements. They are often huge spaces filled with large quantities of fresh food from all over the country and local dishes. Here you can find bento boxes, takeaway food on sticks, bowls of soup and often samples of goodies to try. Desserts are also plentiful, and the department stores are great places to browse with the locals. You can also find restaurants in every single department stores’, often on the upper floors, serving a variety of genres of food in nice settings and varying prices.

Fine Dining

Japan, along with France, is considered by many to be one of the world’s centres of fine dining and there is an abundance of upscale dining options in Japan. There are more Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo than in any other city in the world, and Japan ranks joint first with France as the country with the most Michelin-starred restaurants. There are a number of restaurants that try to serve French-Japanese fusion cuisine, using the best ingredients from both countries, often with interesting and surprisingly tasty results. Of course, there are also many options for Japanese cuisine, with some specialised sushi restaurants charging more than ¥20,000 per person.

For those who want to experience top Japanese gastronomy, there are the super exclusive ryōtei (料亭), the Michelin three-star restaurants of the Japanese food world that serve gourmet kaiseki (会席 or 懐石) meals with a dozen or more small courses prepared from the very best and freshest seasonal ingredients. An introduction is usually required for a visit, and you can expect to pay upwards of ¥30,000 per person for an experience.


Even Japanese people want something other than rice from time to time, and the obvious alternative is noodles (麺 men). Practically every town and hamlet in Japan has its own “famous” noodle dish, and they are often worth trying.

There are two main types of noodles that are native to Japan: thin buckwheat soba (そば) and thick wheat udon (うどん). Usually all the dishes below can be ordered with either soba or udon, whichever you prefer, and a bowl costs only a few hundred yen, especially at the noodle restaurants with standing room in and near train stations.

  • Kake Soba (かけそば) – simple broth and maybe a little spring onion on top.
  • tsukimi soba (月見そば) – soup with a raw egg dripped into it, called “moon viewing” because of its resemblance to a moon behind clouds
  • kitsune soba (きつねそば) – soup with sweetened thin sheets of fried tofu.
  • zaru soba (ざるそば) – chilled noodles served with a dipping sauce, scallions and wasabi; popular in summer.

Chinese egg noodles or rāmen (ラーメン) are also popular but more expensive (¥500+) due to the greater effort and spices, typically containing a slice of barbecued pork and a variety of vegetables. Ramen can be considered the signature dish of any city, and virtually every major city in Japan has its own unique style of ramen. The four main types of ramen are:

  • shio rāmen (塩ラーメン) – salty broth made from pork (or chicken).
  • shōyu rāmen (醤油ラーメン) – soy broth, popular in Tokyo.
  • miso rāmen (味噌ラーメン) – miso (soybean paste) broth, originally from Hokkaido.
  • tonkotsu rāmen (豚骨ラーメン) – thick pork broth, a speciality from Kyushu.

Another popular dish is yakisoba (焼きそば, “fried soba“), which is similar to Chinese chow mein and features noodles fried with vegetables and pork, garnished with aonoriseawe powder and pickled ginger. Despite the name “soba“, wheat noodles are actually used, similar to ramen. A variation called yakisoba-pan (焼きそばパン, “yakiso bread“) stuffs yakisoba into a hotdog bun.

Slurping the noodles is acceptable and even expected. According to the Japanese, it cools the noodles and makes them taste better. The remaining broth can be drunk directly from the bowl. In Japan, it is common for noodle dishes to be served with a spoon. Simply pick up your noodles with the chopsticks and place them in the spoon, this way you can drink as much of the broth as possible and combine the noodles with other flavours in your bowl

Sushi and Sashimi

Perhaps Japan’s most famous culinary exports are sushi (寿司 or 鮨), usually raw fish on vinegared rice, and sashimi (刺身), simply raw fish. These seemingly very simple dishes are actually quite difficult to prepare: The fish must be extremely fresh, and apprentices spend years learning how to properly prepare the vinegar rice for sushi before moving on to the arcane arts of selecting the very best fish in the market and removing every last bone from the fillets.

There is enough obscure sushi terminology to fill entire books, but the most common types are:

  • Nigiri (握り) – the canonical sushi form, consisting of rice with fish pressed onto it.
  • maki (巻き) – fish and rice rolled in noriseaweed and cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • temaki (手巻き) – fish and rice rolled up in a large cone of nori
  • Gunkan (軍艦) – “battleship” sushi, like nigiri but with nori wrapped around the edge to hold the contents in place
  • chirashi (ちらし) – a large bowl of vinegar-soaked rice with seafood scattered on top.

Almost anything that swims or lurks in the sea can and has been made into sushi, and most sushi restaurants have a handy multilingual decoding key at hand or hanging on the wall. A few species that are more or less guaranteed to be found in any 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 qualities: ō-toro (大とろ), which is very fatty and very expensive, and chū-toro (中とろ), which is slightly cheaper and less fatty. Another way to prepare it is negi-toro (葱とろ), chopped tuna belly mixed with chopped spring onions and wasabi.

If you somehow ended up in a sushi restaurant but cannot or do not want to eat raw fish, there are usually several alternatives. For example, the aforementioned tamago, various vegetables on rice, or the very tasty inari (rice in a sweet coating of fried tofu). Or order the Kappa Maki, which is nothing more than sliced cucumber rolled up in rice and wrapped in nori.

Even in Japan, sushi is a bit of a delicacy and the most expensive restaurants, where you order piece by piece from a chef, can run up bills in the tens of thousands of yen. You can limit the damage by ordering a fixed-price moriawase (盛り合わせ) or omakase (お任せ) set, where the chef chooses whatever he thinks is good that day. In many of the top sushi restaurants, this is the only option, although you can be more or less sure that only the freshest seasonal ingredients go into your sushi. The chef usually adds wasabi to the sushi and glazes the fish with soy sauce for you. A separate saucer of soy sauce and wasabi is not usually provided, and it would be bad form to ask for one, as it implies that the chef is not doing a good job and not putting the right amount of soy sauce on the fish. Good sushi is always prepared so that you can put the whole piece in your mouth at once. You should eat the sushi immediately when the chef puts it on your plate and not wait until everyone in your group has had theirs, because part of the experience of eating fine sushi is that the rice and the fish are at different temperatures. Unlike in other countries, fine sushi restaurants in Japan itself usually serve only sushi and no starters or desserts.

Cheaper still are the ubiquitous kaiten (回転, literally “spinning”) sushi shops, where you sit on an assembly line and take what you like at prices that can be as high as ¥100 per plate. (The plates are colour-coded by price; when you’re done, you call a waiter who counts your plates and tells you how much you owe). Even in these cheaper places, it is perfectly acceptable to order directly from the chef. While in some areas like Hokkaido the kaiten sushi is of consistently good quality, in larger cities (especially Tokyo and Kyoto) the quality varies considerably from place to place, with restaurants at the lower end of the scale serving little more than junk food.

On the other hand, if you are adventurous, you can tell the chef, “Omakase onegaishimasu” (“I’ll leave it up to you”), and he will choose what is freshest that day. This may mean that you get a single full plate, or that you are served one piece at a time until you are full. In either case, keep in mind that you probably won’t know how much you’re spending unless you’ve specified an amount when you order.

When eating sushi, it’s perfectly fine 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 already have a blob of fiery wasabi radish inside, but you can always add more to your taste. Slices of pickled ginger (gari) refresh the palate and endless green tea is always available for free.

Although fish sashimi is the most famous, there is no shortage of other types of sashimi for the adventurous. Hokkaido crab sashimi and lobster sashimi are considered delicacies and are definitely worth a try. Whale is also occasionally offered, although it is not very common, and Kumamoto is famous for horse meat sashimi.


Fugu (ふぐ) or puffer fish is highly poisonous and is considered a delicacy in Japan. Its preparation requires a high degree of skill, as the internal organs containing the poison have to be removed. Despite the potential danger, it is highly unlikely that you will be poisoned to death as licensed chefs are tested very rigorously every year to ensure that their preparation skills are up to scratch, and the Japanese government requires new chefs to undergo years of training under experienced chefs before they are licensed to prepare the dish. Actual deaths are very rare and are almost always from fishermen who have tried to prepare their own caught fugu. Fugu is usually only served in speciality restaurants known as fugu-ya (ふぐ屋). Incidentally, the Japanese emperor is forbidden to eat this dish for obvious reasons.

Grilled and fried dishes

Before the Meiji era, the Japanese didn’t eat much meat, but since then they have picked up the habit and even exported a few new ways of eating it. Watch the price, however, as meat (especially beef) can be very expensive and luxury options like the famous marbled Kobe beef can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of yen per serving. Some options usually served by specialised restaurants are:

  • okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) – literally “cook it how you like it”, it is a Japanese pancake pizza based on a wheat and cabbage dough with your choice of meat, seafood and vegetable fillings, spread with sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes, dried seaweed and pickled ginger; in many places you cook it yourself at your table
  • Teppanyaki (鉄板焼き) – meat grilled on a hot iron plate, confusingly known in America as “hibachi”.
  • Tempura (天ぷら) – lightly fried prawns, fish and vegetables that are deep fried very quickly, served with a dipping broth.
  • Tonkatsu (豚カツ) – deep-fried, breaded pork cutlets elevated to an art form.
  • yakiniku (焼肉) – “Korean barbecue” in the Japanese style, prepared at the table itself.
  • Yakitori (焼き鳥) – grilled skewers with every imaginable chicken part, a classic side dish with alcohol.

A must-try Japanese speciality is eel (うなぎ unagi), which is said to give strength and vitality during the hot summer months. A properly grilled eel simply melts in your mouth when eaten, taking over ¥3000 out of your wallet. (You can find it for less, but these are usually imported frozen and are not nearly as tasty).

A rather infamous Japanese delicacy is whale (鯨 kujira), which tastes like a fish steak and is served both raw and cooked. However, most Japanese do not particularly appreciate whale; it is associated with school lunches and wartime shortages and is rarely found outside of speciality restaurants such as Kujiraya in Shibuya, Tokyo. Canned whale is also available in some grocery shops at a huge price for a small can.

Stewed dishes

Especially in the cold winter months, various “hot pot” stews (鍋 nabe) are a popular way to warm up. Common types are, for example:

  • chankonabe (ちゃんこ鍋) – a very popular steamer among sumo wrestlers.
  • Oden (おでん) – a variety of skewered fish cakes, daikon radish, tofu and other ingredients cooked in fish soup for days. Mainly a winter dish, often sold in grocery shops and on the street in makeshift yatai tents with blue tarpaulins.
  • sukiyaki (すき焼き) – a stew with beef, tofu, noodles and more, often somewhat sweet. Well known in the West, but not so common in Japan.
  • shabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) – a hot pot of clear water or very light broth; very thin slices of meat (traditionally beef, but there are also seafood, pork and other variations) are briefly tossed through the hot water to cook immediately, and then dipped in a flavoured sauce

Pseudo-Western dishes

All over Japan, you’ll find cafés and restaurants serving Western food (洋食 yōshoku), ranging from molecular copies of famous French pastries to barely recognisable Japaneseised dishes like corn-and-potato pizza and spaghetti omelettes. Popular only-in-Japan dishes include:

  • hambāgu (ハンバーグ) – not to be confused with a McDonald’s hambāgā, this version of hamburger steak is a stand-alone hamburger patty with sauce and toppings.
  • omuraisu (オムライス) – rice wrapped in an omelette with a blob of ketchup.
  • wafū sutēki (和風ステーキ) – Japanese style steak served with soy sauce.
  • korokke (コロッケ) – croquettes, usually stuffed with potatoes, along with some meat and onions.
  • karē raisu (カレーライス) – Japanese-style curry, a mild brown curry served with rice; also available as katsu karē with a fried pork chop.

Beer gardens

In the summer months, when it’s not raining, many buildings and hotels have restaurants on their roofs, serving dishes such as fried chicken and fries, as well as light snacks. The speciality is, of course, draught beer (生ビール nama-biiru). You can order large pitchers of beer or pay a fixed price for an all-you-can-drink course (飲み放題 nomihōdai) that lasts a set amount of time (usually up to 2 hours). Cocktails and other drinks are also often available as part of all-you-can-drink sets.

Fast food in Japan

Japanese fast food restaurants offer decent quality at reasonable prices. Many chains offer an interesting seasonal selection that is very tasty. Some chains to look out for:

  • Yoshinoya (吉野家), Matsuya (松屋) and Sukiya (すき家) are specialists in gyūdon (beef bowl). While beef was off the menu for a while because of mad cow disease, it is now back.
  • Tenya (てんや) serves the best tempura you’ll ever eat for less than ¥500.
  • MOS Burger seems like just another fast food chain, but actually has a pretty interesting menu – for burgers with a twist, how about grilled eel between two rice buns? Also note the list of local produce suppliers displayed in each shop. Made to order, so guaranteed fresh, and unlike some fast food places, MOS Burger’s products generally look like they do in the promotional photos. A bit more expensive than McDonald’s, but worth the extra charge. By the way, MOS stands for “Mountain, Ocean, Sun”.
  • Freshness Burger tries to be a little less fast food and more like an “all-American” place. The food is decent, but be prepared for the smallest burgers you’ve ever seen.
  • Beckers, fast food burger restaurants operated by JR, are often found in and near JR stations in the Tokyo and Yokohama area. Beckers offers made-to-order burgers and menchi burgers (minced black pork). Unlike most shops, the buns are fresh and baked in-store. Unused buns are thrown away if not used 1.5 hours after baking. Their Pork Teriyaki Burger is fantastic. They also offer Poutine, a French-Canadian snack that consists of fries, gravy and cheese. The chilli topping is a must try. Most of the time you can pay with your JR Suica train card.
  • Ootoya (大戸屋) is really too good to be called fast food, with a menu and atmosphere to match any “homemade” Japanese restaurant. There are pictorial menus on signs, but ordering can be confusing: In some places you order at the counter before being seated, while in others the waitress comes to the table.
  • Soup Stock Tokyo is a trendy soup kitchen chain that serves delicious soups all year round, with a selection of cold soups in summer. It is a little more expensive than most other fast food chains, but you can consider it a healthier alternative to burgers.
  • Lotteria is a standard burger joint.
  • First Kitchen offers a few dishes outside the standard fast food fare, including pasta, pizza and fries with a wide range of flavours.
  • Coco Ichibanya serves Japanese-style curry rice with a wide variety of ingredients. English menus available.

American fast food chains are also ubiquitous, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. McDonald’s restaurants are almost as ubiquitous as vending machines.

There are also a number of Japanese “family restaurants” that serve a wide variety of dishes, including steak, noodles, Chinese-style dishes, sandwiches and other food. Although the food is relatively uninteresting, these restaurants usually have illustrated menus so that travellers who cannot read Japanese can use the photos to select and communicate their orders. Some chains around the country are:

  • Jonathan’s is probably the most widely available local chain. Skylark is part of the same company and offers similar food, including a cheap and unlimited “drinks bar”, making these restaurants good places to read or rest for long periods. Denny’s also has many branches in Japan.
  • Royal Host tries to market itself as something more upmarket.
  • Sunday Sun is reasonable, with decent food and menus.
  • Volks specialises in steaks and offers a large salad bar.

Coffee houses in Japan

Although 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 caffeine boost, head to Starbucks or one of its Japanese predecessors like Doutor. But if you want to escape the rain, the heat or the crowds for a while, Kissaten is an oasis in the urban jungle. Most coffee shops are unique and reflect the tastes of their clientele. At a Ginza coffee shop, you’ll find soft “European” décor and sweet pastries for upscale customers recovering from their Ferragamos. At a coffee shop in Otemachi, businessmen in suits sit at the low tables before meeting their customers. In the all-night coffee shops of Roppongi, revellers take a break between clubs or snooze until the trains start running again in the morning.

A special kind of kissat is the jazz kissa (ジャズ喫茶), or jazz café. These are even darker and smokier than normal kissats and are frequented by extremely serious-looking jazz fans who sit motionless and alone, enjoying the bebop played at high volume from huge speakers. You go to a jazz kissa to listen; conversation is a big no-no.

Another offshoot is the danwashitsu (談話室, or lounge). The appearance is indistinguishable from an expensive kissaten, but the purpose is more specific: serious discussions about matters such as business or meetings with future spouses. All tables are in separate booths, reservations are usually required, and drinks are very expensive. So don’t go to such a place if you just want a cup of coffee.

Convenience Stores in Japan

If you’re on a budget, Japan’s many convenience stores (コンビニ konbini) can be a great place to grab a bite and they’re almost always open 24/7. Major chains include 7-ElevenLawson and Family Mart. They have instant noodles, sandwiches, meat rolls and even some small ready meals that you can heat up in the microwave right in the shop. An excellent option for food on the go is onigiri (or omusubi), which are large rice balls filled with (say) fish or pickled plums and wrapped in seaweed, usually costing around ¥100 each.

Most convenience stores in Japan also have a toilet in the back. While most shops in suburban and rural areas let their customers use the toilets, this is not the case in many shops in big cities, especially in the inner cities and entertainment districts of Tokyo and Osaka. Therefore, you should first ask at the checkout if you can use the toilet, and then buy an item later if you want to show your appreciation.

Supermarkets in Japan

For those who are really on a budget, most supermarkets (sūpā) have a wide selection of ready meals, bentos, sandwiches, snacks and the like, usually cheaper than convenience stores. Some supermarkets are even open 24 hours a day.

One Japanese institution worth visiting is Depachika (デパ地下), or the food court in the basement of a department store, with dozens of tiny speciality stalls offering local delicacies, from exquisitely packaged tea ceremony sweets to fresh sushi and Chinese takeaway. Prices are often a little upmarket, but almost all offer free samples and there are always a few budget stalls. In the evenings, many lower prices on unsold food, so look out for stickers like hangaku (半額, “half price”) or san-wari biki (3割引, “30% off”) for a bargain. 割 means “1/10” and 引 means “off”.

Dietary restrictions in Japan

Eating vegetarian

Despite its image as a light and healthy cuisine, everyday Japanese food can be quite high in salt and fat, with fried meat or seafood to the fore. Vegetarians (let alone vegans) might have serious trouble finding a meal that doesn’t contain animal products to some degree, especially since the almost ubiquitous Japanese soup broth dashi is usually made with fish and often shows up in unexpected places like miso, rice crackers, curries, omelets (including tamago sushi), instant noodles, and pretty much anywhere salt would be used in Western cooking. (There is a seaweed variation called kombudashi, but it’s pretty unusual). Soba and udon noodle soups in particular almost always use bonito-based katsuodashi, and the only vegetarian-safe dish on a noodle shop menu is usually zarusoba, or plain cold noodles – but even for that, the dipping sauce usually contains dashi.

An excellent option is the kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi shop. Westerners tend to associate sushi with fish, but there are several types of rolled sushi in these shops that do not contain fish or other seafood: kappa maki (cucumber rolls), nattō maki (sushi filled with stringy fermented soybeans, an acquired taste for many), kanpyō maki (pickled pumpkin rolls) and occasionally yuba sushi (with the tender, tasty “skin” of tofu). These types of sushi tend to be less popular than the sushi with animal-based sea products, so you may not see them rotating on the conveyor belt right before your eyes. Just call 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 will count your plates. The vegetarian sushi options are always good value.

For those living in big cities, especially Tokyo, an excellent option is the organic or macrobiotic food known as shizenshoku (自然食). While “vegetarian food” may sound boring or even unappetising to Japanese ears, shizenshoku has become quite fashionable recently, although meals cost around ¥3000 and menus may still include seafood. Considerably harder to find, but it’s worth looking for a restaurant (often run by temples) that serves shōjin ryori (精進料理), the pure vegetarian cuisine developed by Buddhist monks. This cuisine is highly regarded and therefore often very expensive, but often available at reasonable prices when staying at temples.

Fortunately, traditional Japanese cuisine contains a large amount of protein through its wide variety of soy products: tofu, misoNattō and edamame (tender green soybeans in their pods), for example. In the ready meal sections of supermarkets and department stores’ basements, you will also find many dishes with different types of beans, both sweet and savoury.


Travelling in Japan with life-threatening food allergies (アレルギー arerugī) is very difficult. Awareness of severe allergies is low and restaurant staff are rarely aware of trace ingredients in their menu items. Japanese law requires seven allergens to be listed on product packaging: Eggs (卵 tamago), milk (乳 nyū), wheat (小麦 komugi), buckwheat (そば or 蕎麦 soba), peanuts (落花生 rakkasei or ピーナッツ pīnattsu), shrimp (えび ebi) and crab (かに kani). Sometimes these are listed in a handy table, but more often you just have to read the small print in Japanese. The packaging is also often unhelpful for anything other than the seven mentioned, with ingredients like “starch” (でんぷん denpun) or “salad oil” (サラダ油 sarada-abura), which can contain basically anything.

A severe soy (大豆 daizu) allergy is basically incompatible with Japanese food. The bean is used everywhere, not just the obvious soy sauce and tofu, but also things like soy powder in crackers and soy oil for cooking.

strict gluten-free diet when eating out is also almost impossible, as coeliac disease is very rare in Japan. Most common brands of soy sauce and mirin contain wheat, while miso is often made with barley or wheat. While sushi is traditionally prepared with 100% rice vinegar and pure wasabi root, commercially prepared sushi vinegar and wasabi can both contain gluten. However, if you have a certain tolerance, Japan and its wide variety of rice dishes is quite manageable. While udon and ramen noodles are both made from wheat and soba noodles are usually 80:20 buckwheat/wheat, tōwari or jūwari (十割り) soba is pure buckwheat and thus gluten-free, although the broth in which it is cooked or served usually contains traces of it.

Avoiding dairy products is easy, as none are used in traditional Japanese cuisine. Butter (バター bataa) appears occasionally, but is usually only mentioned by name.

Peanuts or other tree nuts are generally not used in Japanese cuisine, except for a few snacks and desserts where their presence should be obvious (and labelled in the ingredients). Peanut oil is rarely used.

Drinks in Japan

The Japanese drink a lot: not only green tea in the office, at meetings and with meals, but also all kinds of alcoholic drinks in the evening with friends and colleagues. Many social scientists have theorised that in a strictly conformist society, drinking is a much-needed outlet to vent feelings and frustrations without losing face the next morning.

In Japan, the drinking age is 20 (as is the age of majority and the smoking age). This is significantly higher than in most countries in Europe and America (with the exception of the United States). However, ID checks are almost never required in restaurants, bars, convenience stores or other vendors of alcohol, as long as the purchaser is not obviously underage. The main exception is the large clubs in Shibuya, Tokyo, which are very popular with young Tokyoites and at peak times identify everyone who enters the club.

Drinking in public is legal in Japan, as is public drunkenness. It is especially common to drink at festivals and hanami. It is also not uncommon to have a small drinking party on the bullet trains.

Where to drink in Japan

If you are looking for an evening of food and drink in a relaxed, traditional atmosphere, go to an izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese-style pub), easily recognisable by red lanterns marked with the sign “酒” (alcohol). Many of them offer an all-you-can-drink (飲み放題 nomihōdai) deal for about ¥1,000 for 90 minutes (on average), although you are limited to certain types of drinks. An izakaya is very convenient and usually has a lively, convivial atmosphere, often serving as a sort of living room for office workers, students and senior citizens. The food is invariably good and reasonably priced, and all in all they are an experience not to be missed.

While you can find Western-style bars here and there that typically charge ¥500-1,000 for drinks, a more common Japanese institution is the snack bar (スナック sunakku). These are slightly dodgy establishments where paid hostesses pour drinks, sing karaoke, massage egos (and sometimes a bit more) and charge upwards of ¥3,000/hour for service. Tourists are likely to feel out of place here and many don’t even let non-Japanese guests in.

Dedicated gay bars are comparatively rare in Japan, but the districts of Shinjuku ni-chome in Tokyo and Doyama-cho in Osaka have a lively gay scene. Most gay/lesbian bars cater to a small niche (muscular men, etc.) and don’t let anyone in who doesn’t fit that mould, including the opposite sex. While a few bars are for Japanese only, foreigners are welcome in most bars.

Note that izakaya, bars and snack bars usually charge a cover (カバーチャージ kabā chāji), usually around ¥500 but in rare cases more, so ask if the place looks really fancy. In izakayas, you’ll often be served a small bite (お通し otōshi) when you sit down, and no, you can’t turn it down or pay for it. Some bars also charge a cover charge and an additional fee for the peanuts served to you with your beer.

Vending machines (自動販売機 jidōhanbaiki) are ubiquitous in Japan, serving drinks around the clock at ¥120-150 per can/bottle, although some places with captive customers, including the top of Mount Fuji, charge more. In addition to cans of soft drinks, tea and coffee, there are also vending machines selling beer, sake and even hard liquor. In winter, some vending machines also dispense hot drinks – look for a red label with the words あたたかい (atatakai) instead of the usual blue つめたい (tsumetai). Vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages are usually shut down at 11:00 pm. In addition, more and more of these vending machines, especially those near a school, require the use of a special “sake pass”, which is available at the town hall of the town where the vending machine is located. The pass is available to anyone 20 years old or older. Many vending machines at stations in the Tokyo area accept payment with JR Suica or PASMO cards.

What to drink in Japan


Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. Although it is often referred to as rice wine, the process of making sake is completely different from making wine or beer. The fermentation process uses both a mould to break down the starch and yeast to produce 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 has about 15% alcohol and can be served at different temperatures, from hot (熱燗 atsukan), to room temperature (常温 jō-on, or “cool” 冷や hiya), to chilled (冷酒 reishu). Contrary to popular belief, most sake is not served hot, but often chilled. Each sake is brewed for a preferred serving temperature, but a standard room temperature is safe in most cases. If you tend to drink a sake hot or chilled in a restaurant, it would be a good idea to ask your waiter or bartender for a recommendation. In restaurants, a serving can start at around ¥500 and go up from there.

Sake has its own measurements and utensils. The small ceramic cups are called choko (ちょこ) and the small ceramic jug for pouring is a tokkuri (徳利). Sometimes sake is poured into a small glass that sits in a wooden box to catch the overflow as the waiter pours all the way to the top and keeps pouring. Just drink from the glass and then pour the excess from the box back into your glass as you go. Occasionally, especially if you drink it cold, you may sip your sake from the corner of a cedar box called a masu (枡), sometimes with a dab of salt on the rim. Sake is typically measured in gō (合, 180 mL), which is roughly the size of a tokkuri, ten of which make up the standard isshōbin (一升瓶) 1.8 L bottle.

The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as that of wine, but the one indicator to look out for is nihonshu-do (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 a drier sake and negative values being sweeter, the average today being +3 (slightly dry).

Sake is brewed in different degrees and styles depending on how much the rice is ground to avoid off-flavours, whether water is added or whether additional alcohol is added. Ginjō (吟醸) and daiginjō (大吟醸) are measures of how heavily the rice has been milled, with daiginjo being more heavily milled and correspondingly more expensive. Alcohol can be added to both of these, mainly to improve the flavour and aroma. Honjōzō (本醸造) is less heavily milled, has alcohol added and can be less expensive; consider it an everyday type of sake. Junmai (純米), meaning pure rice, is an additional term indicating that only rice was used. When buying, the price is often a good indicator of quality.

A few special brews might be worth a try if you feel like experimenting. Nigorizake (濁り酒) is slightly filtered and looks cloudy, with white sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Gently turn the bottle once or twice to mix this sediment back into the drink. Although most sake ages poorly, some brewers are able to produce aged sake with a much stronger flavour and deep colours. These aged sake or koshu (古酒) can be an acquired taste, but worthwhile for the adventurous after a meal.

Worth a special mention is amazake (甘酒), similar to the lumpy home-brewed doburoku(どぶろく) version of sake that is drunk hot in winter (and often given away at shrines on New Year’s Eve). Amazake has very little alcohol and tastes pretty much like fermented rice porridge (better than it sounds), but at least it’s cheap. As the name suggests, it is sweet.

If you are curious about sake, the Japan Sake Brewers Association has an online version of their English brochure. You can also visit the Sake Plaza in Shinbashi, Tokyo, and try a flight of different sakes for just a few hundred yen.


Shōchū (焼酎) is sake’s big brother, a stronger-tasting distilled type of alcohol. There are two main types of shōchū; traditional shōchū are usually made from rice, sweet potato or grain, but can also be made from other materials such as potatoes. The other is more industrially made from sugar through multiple successive distillations and 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 in shops does not use shōchū, but even cheaper alcohol).

Shōchū typically has around 25% alcohol (although some varieties can be much stronger) and can be served neat, on ice or mixed with hot or cold water. Once exclusively a working-class drink and still the cheapest beverage on the market at less than ¥1000 for a large 1-litre bottle, traditional shōchū has regained popularity in recent years and the finest shōchū now fetch prices as high as the finest sake.


Umeshu (梅酒), incorrectly called “plum wine”, is prepared by soaking Japanese plums (actually a type of apricot) in white liquor so that they absorb the flavour, and the distinctive, penetrating nose of sour dark plums and sweet brown sugar is a hit with many visitors. It typically has about 10-15% alcohol and can be drunk neat, on ice (rokku) or mixed with soda (soda-wari).


There are several major brands of Japanese beer (ビール biiru), including KirinAsahiSapporo and Suntory. A little 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 some restaurants offering their own micros or ji-biiru (地ビール), but these are still very rare. Most varieties are lagers, with an average strength of 5%.

You can buy beer in cans of all sizes, but in Japanese restaurants beer is typically served in bottles (瓶 bin), or on tap (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 the medium is the most common. Larger bottles give you the opportunity to cultivate the custom of constantly refilling your companions’ glasses (and having your own refilled as well). If you order draught beer, everyone gets their own mug (jokki). In many pubs, a dai-jokki (“big mug”) holds a whole litre of beer.

Some Japanese bartenders have an annoying habit of filling half your cup with foam, leaving you with only half a glass of real beer. Although the Japanese like to pour their draft beer this way, you may find it irritating, especially if you are paying ¥600 for a glass of beer, as in many restaurants and bars. If you have the guts to ask for less foam, say awa wa sukoshi dake ni shite kudasai (“please, just a little foam”). You will stun your waiter, but you may get a full glass of beer.

Guinness pubs have been popping up all over the country lately, which is nice for those who like Irish drinks.

For those with a more humorous taste 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 (it has 0% alcohol).

Happōshu and third beer

Thanks to Japan’s convoluted alcohol licensing laws, there are also two near-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 such as soybean peptides or corn instead of malt. With prices starting at ¥120, both are significantly cheaper than “real” beer, but lighter and more watery in taste. Confusingly, with brands like Sapporo’s “Draft One” and Asahi’s “Hon-Nama”, they are packaged very similarly to real beer, so pay attention to the bottom of the can when buying: by law, it must not say ビール (beer) but 発泡酒 (happoshu) or, for third beers, the unwieldy name その他の雑酒(2(sono ta no zasshu(2), literally “other mixed alcohol, type 2”). Try to drink moderately, as both drinks can lead to nightmarish hangovers.

Western wine

Japanese wine is actually quite nice, but costs about twice as much as comparable wine from other countries. There are several varieties, and imported wine at various prices is available nationwide. The selection can be excellent in the larger cities, with specialist shops and large department stores offering the most extensive range. One of Japan’s largest domestic wine-growing areas is Yamanashi Prefecture, and one of Japan’s largest producers, Suntory, has a winery there and offers tours. Most wine, both red and white, is served chilled and it can be difficult to get room temperature wine (常温 jō-on) when dining out.


By far the most popular drink is tea (お茶 o-cha), which is offered free with almost every meal, hot in winter and cold in summer. There is a huge selection of tea in bottles and cans in the refrigerators of supermarkets and vending machines. Western-style black tea is called kōcha (紅茶); if you don’t specifically ask for it, you’ll probably get Japanese brown or green tea. Chinese oolong tea is also very popular.

The main types of Japanese tea are:

  • Sencha (煎茶), the common green tea
  • Matcha (抹茶), soup-like powdered ceremonial green tea. The cheaper varieties are bitter and the more expensive ones slightly sweet.
  • hōjicha (ほうじ茶), roasted green tea
  • genmaicha (玄米茶), tea with roasted rice, tastes popcorn-like.
  • mugicha (麦茶), a drink made from roasted barley, served iced in summer

Just like Chinese teas, Japanese teas are always drunk pure, without the use of milk or sugar. In most American fast-food chains, however, you can also find Western-style milk tea.


Coffee (コーヒー kōhī) is very popular in Japan, although it is not part of the typical Japanese breakfast. It is 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, like other drinks, is available in vending machines for around ¥120 per can. Most canned coffee is sweet, so look for brands with the English word “black” or the kanji 無糖 (“without sugar”) if you want it unsweetened. Decaffeinated coffee is very rare in Japan, even at Starbucks, but is available in some places.

There are many coffee shops in Japan, including Starbucks. Major local chains include Doutor (known for its low prices) and Excelsior. Some restaurants such as Mister Donut, Jonathan’s and Skylark offer unlimited refilled coffee for those who are particularly addicted to caffeine (or want to get some work done late at night).

Soft drinks

There are many unique Japanese soft drinks and trying random drinks at vending machines is one of Japan’s little pleasures. Some of them are Calpis (カルピス), a kind of yoghurt-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), almost the same as Sprite or 7-Up, but notable for its unusual bottle, where you push a marble into an open space under the spout instead of using a bottle opener.

Most American soft drink brands (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew) are widely available. The only diet soda choices are Diet Coke, Coke Zero or Diet Pepsi. Root Beer is almost impossible to find outside of special import shops or Okinawa. Ginger ale, however, is very popular and is often available in vending machines. Caffeinated energy drinks are available in many local brands (usually laced with ginseng).

In Japan, the term “juice” (ジュース jūsu) is a collective term for any kind of fruity soft drink – sometimes even Coca-Cola and the like – and extremely few are 100% juice. So if you want fruit juice drinks, ask for kajū (果汁). Drinks in Japan are required to list the percentage of fruit on the label; this can be very helpful in making sure you get the 100% orange juice you wanted, rather than the much more common 20% varieties.

Money & Shopping in Japan

Money in Japan


The Japanese currency is the Japanese yen, abbreviated ¥ (or JPY in foreign exchange contexts). In April 2015, the yen was trading at around 120 to the US dollar. In the Japanese language itself, the symbol 円 (pronounced: en) is used.

  • Coins: ¥1 (silver), ¥5 (gold with centre hole), ¥10 (copper), ¥50 (silver with centre hole), 100 (silver), and ¥500. There are two ¥500 coins, distinguished by their colour. (The new ones are made of gold, the old ones of silver).
  • Notes: ¥1,000 (blue), ¥2,000 (green), ¥5,000 (purple) and ¥10,000 (brown). ¥2,000 notes are rare. New designs for all notes except ¥2,000 were introduced in November 2004, so there are now two versions in circulation. Most traders will not mind receiving a ¥10,000 note even for a small purchase.

Japan is essentially a cash society. Although most shops and hotels serving foreign customers accept credit cards, many businesses such as cafés, bars, grocery shops and even smaller hotels and inns do not. Even shops that do accept cards often charge a minimum fee and surcharge, although this practice is decreasing. The most popular credit card in Japan is JCB, and because of an alliance between Discover, JCB and American Express, Discover and AmEx cards can be used anywhere JCB is accepted. This means that these cards have a wider acceptance than Visa/MasterCard/UnionPay. Most merchants are only familiar with the JCB/AmEx agreement, but Discover works too if you can convince them to try it!

The Japanese usually carry around large amounts of cash – it is quite safe and almost a necessity, especially in smaller towns and more remote areas. In many cities, the Japanese can also pay for their purchases with their mobile phones, where the phone works like a credit card and the cost is charged to the mobile phone bill, or the phone can work as a prepaid card independent of the operator account. However, a Japanese phone and SIM card is required to use this service, so it is not usually available to foreigners on short visits.

If you already have a Japanese phone, be aware that initialising the prepaid card with a loaner SIM will incur data charges, which can be avoided by using Wi-Fi. Only feature phones require a Japanese SIM card to start the service. Smartphones in the Japanese market, once unlocked, can be initialised via any data service, be it Wi-Fi, your own SIM card or a rental SIM card. This means that it is possible to set it up before you arrive. Mobile Suica and Edy, the two main prepaid card apps included on Japanese smartphones, can be paid for with a credit card instead of a phone bill (and although Mobile Suica requires an annual fee of ¥1000, it is the only way to top up a Suica with a credit card not issued by JR). However, the only foreign-issued cards that accept these apps are JCB and American Express. Note that for larger purchases paid for with a Suica or Edy linked in this way, AmEx benefits (purchase protection, extended warranty, etc.) do not apply.

Almost every major bank in Japan offers foreign currency exchange into US dollars (cash and travellers cheques). The rates are basically the same no matter which bank you choose (rates may be better or worse at private exchange offices). Waiting times of 15-30 minutes, depending on how busy the branch is, are not uncommon. Other accepted currencies include euros, Swiss francs, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand dollars, and British pounds. Of the other Asian currencies, Singapore dollars seem to be the most widely accepted, followed by the Korean won and the Chinese yuan.

Exchange rates for US dollars and euros are usually very good (about 2 % below the official rate). Exchange rates for other currencies are very poor (up to 15 % below the official rate). Other Asian currencies are often not accepted (exceptions are currencies from neighbouring countries such as Korean won, Chinese yuan and Hong Kong dollars). Japanese post offices can also cash travellers’ cheques or exchange cash for yen at a slightly better rate than at banks. Travellers’ cheques also have a better exchange rate than cash. When exchanging amounts over US$1,000 (whether cash or travellers’ cheques), you must present identification that includes your name, address and date of birth (to prevent money laundering and the financing of terrorism). Since passports do not typically show an address, you should bring another form of ID, such as a driver’s licence, that shows your address.


Banking in Japan is a notoriously tedious process, especially for foreigners. You need an Alien Resident Card (ARC) and proof of a Japanese address. This means that while foreigners who are in Japan for an extended period of time (e.g. on a student, family or work visa) can open an account, this option is not available for those on a short trip for tourism or business. Many banks also require a Japanese seal (印鑑 inkan) to stamp your documents, and signatures are often not accepted as a substitute. Bank staff often do not speak English or other foreign languages. Unlike most other countries in the world, Japanese bank branches often only have ATMs available during business hours, although this is changing (for example, some Mitsubishi UFJ branches now keep their ATMs available until 23:00).

In case you need a locally issued “credit” card (e.g. for an online merchant doing regional checks), there are a variety of virtual Visa cards available online only, and some shops’ loyalty cards also offer a prepaid Visa or JCB card feature.

A growing number of Japanese ATMs, known locally as cash corners (キャッシュコーナー kyasshu kōnā), are beginning to accept foreign debit cards, but the availability of credit card advances known as cashing (キャッシング kyasshingu) remains patchy. The main banks and ATM operators that accept foreign cards are listed below.

Maestro EMV chip cards
If you have a Maestro-issued EMV card with chip (also called IC or chip-and-pin) issued outside the Asia/Pacific region, you can only withdraw cash from 7-Eleven/Seven Bank, AEON and E-Net ATMs and Mizuho ATMs in Tokyo.
Other ATMs, such as those at Japan Post, do not currently accept these EMV cards.

Note that since June 2016, some ATMs have reduced withdrawal limits for foreign cards, partly due to recent security breaches by banks. The limit at Seven Bankmachines is ¥50,000 per transaction and the limit at E-Net is ¥40,000 per transaction.

UnionPay cards
– 7-Bank and Yucho both charge an additional ATM fee of ¥110 on top of the issuer’s fee. E-Net charges ¥108, while SMBC and Aeon only charge ¥75. Lawson, Mizuho and MUFG do not charge any fees at all, so it is best to withdraw from one of their ATMs during opening hours.

– 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 work at all in Japan. Replace it with another one. If the first digit is 3/4/5 and it has the logo of another network (Visa/MasterCard/AmEx), it will not work at SMBC/MUFG/Mizuho/Lawson/UnionPay-only AEON ATMs, but only at the ATMs of the other network (Yucho/7-Bank/Prestia/Shinsei/E-Net/international-enabled AEON).

The illustration on SMBC/MUFG ATMs shows that the card is inserted with the magnetic strip facing up. This only applies to Japanese cards; UnionPay cards (and Discover/JCB for MUFG) are to be inserted in the usual way.

Note the trend of “local” Japanese banks paying with UnionPay (and MUFG also accepting Discover). Although there are 7-Elevens everywhere, it is always advisable to have more options. So try to get either a UnionPay or Discover debit card before arrival for convenience (Narita Airport, for example, has the “usual” ATMs for foreigners on the first floor of Terminal 2, which are crowded when international arrivals start, while the Mitsubishi UFJ ATMs on the second floor are wide open during most hours).

One thing to note: many Japanese ATMs are closed at night and on weekends, so it’s best to do your banking during office hours! Exceptions are convenience stores like 7-Eleven, which are open 24/7, FamilyMart (some have Yucho ATMs with free withdrawals, most have E-Net ATMs that charge a fee), Lawson (for UnionPay users) and ministop branches in major cities where international card acceptance has been enabled at in-store ATMs.

A note to those who use SMBC/MUFG/Mizuho/Aeon ATMs: Local staff at most branches still do not know that their ATMs now accept foreign cards at all. If you have problems, pick up the phone next to the machine to speak to central ATM support. Also note that the fancier features are only for domestic ATM card users; don’t expect to be able to buy lottery tickets or make transfers from home with your debit card.

Vending machines in Japan are known for their ubiquity and the (notorious) variety of products they sell. Most take ¥1,000 notes, and some types, such as train ticket vending machines, take up to ¥10,000; none accept ¥1 or ¥5 coins, and only some accept ¥2,000 notes. And even the most modern machines do not accept credit cards, with the exception of some machines in stations (although there are restrictions – for example, JR East and West ticket machines require a PIN of four digits or less; most credit card customers are better off buying at a ticket counter). Note that cigarette machines require a Taspo (age verification) card, which are unfortunately off-limits to non-residents, but local smokers are usually happy to lend you theirs.

Electronic prepaid cards are very popular in Japan for small purchases. There are cards for train tickets, purchases in shops and other general purposes, but they are not interchangeable. If you plan to return frequently and/or need to be able to top up your prepaid cards with a credit card, it may be worth buying a cheap, second-hand Japanese smartphone (~¥5000) and using the prepaid card apps included via WiFi. Both Mobile Suica (usable nationwide since system integration in 2014) and Mobile Edy accept foreign JCB/American Express credit cards for top-up, although Mobile Suica charges an annual fee of ¥1000, while Mobile Edy requires a two-day waiting period after credit card details are submitted before top-up is possible.

An 8% excise tax is levied on all sales in Japan. The tax is usually, but not always, included in the displayed prices, so pay attention. The word zeinuki (税抜) means “without tax”, zeikomi (税込) means “with tax”. If you don’t find a word in the price card, most of it is “tax-inclusive”. This tax is expected to increase to 10% in October 2019.

Always keep a larger stack of spare money in Japan, because if you run out of money for any reason (wallet stolen, credit card blocked, etc.), it can be difficult to get anything transferred. Western Union has a very limited presence even in the larger metropolitan areas (the contract with Suruga Bank ended in 2009, and there has been a new contract with Daikokuya since April 2011), banks do not allow accounts to be opened without local ID, the few physical Visa prepaid cards open to foreigners cannot accept transfers, and even international postal money orders require proof of a residential address in Japan.

If this is not possible, you should at least carry an American Express card. AmEx can print replacement cards at their Tokyo office that can be collected the same day if lost, and they have the ability to send emergency money to certain locations in Japan for collection if needed.

Tipping in Japan

In Japan, tipping is not part of the culture. Japanese people are uncomfortable with being tipped and are likely to be confused, amused or possibly even offended if tipped. The Japanese take pride in the service provided to customers and adding another financial incentive is unnecessary. If you leave a tip in a restaurant, the staff will probably run after you to return the money you “forgot”. Note that many western-style hotels and restaurants charge a 10% service charge and family restaurants may charge a 10% fee after midnight.

Occasionally, the hotel or inn will leave a small tip envelope for you to tip the maids. Never leave a tip in cash on a table or hotel bed, because the Japanese consider it rude if it is not hidden in an envelope. Even bellboys in upscale hotels do not usually accept tips. Exceptions are upscale ryokan and interpreters or tour guides.

Prices in Japan

Japan has a reputation for being extremely expensive – and it can be. However, many things have become much cheaper in the last decade. Japan doesn’t have to be outrageously expensive if you plan carefully, and in fact it’s probably cheaper than Australia and most European Union countries for basic expenses. Food in particular can be a bargain, and while still expensive by Asian standards, eating out in Japan is generally cheaper than in Western countries, with a simple meal consisting of rice or noodles starting at around ¥300 per serving. At the other end of the spectrum, fine dining can of course be very expensive, with prices in the region of ¥30,000 per person not uncommon. Especially for long-distance travel, you can save a lot of money with the Japan Rail Pass, Japan Bus Pass and Visit Japan flights.

As a rough guide, it will be very difficult to travel on less than ¥5,000 per day (but if you plan carefully, it is certainly possible) and you can only expect a certain level of comfort from ¥10,000. If you stay in fancy hotels, eat fancy meals or just go on a long-distance trip, this amount will easily double again. Typical prices for a moderate budget trip would be ¥5,000 for the hotel, ¥2,000 for meals and another ¥2,000 for entrance fees and local transport.

However, if you are a little short on cash, you can stock up on essentials at one of the many ¥100 shops (百円ショップ hyaku-en shoppu) in most cities. Daiso is Japan’s largest ¥100 shop chain with 2,680 shops across Japan. Other large chains include 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 as well as selected ¥100 items.

Shopping in Japan

In many department stores such as Isetan, Seibu and Matsuzakaya, you usually pay full price at the checkout and then go to a tax refund counter (税金還付 zeikin kanpu or 税金戻し zeikin modoshi), usually located on one of the higher floors, and present your receipt and passport to get a refund. In some other shops advertising “duty free” (免税 menzei), you simply present your passport when paying and the tax will be deducted on the spot.

Japan also has a growing number of designated tax-free shops. New rules that recently came into effect for foreign tourists allow for the reimbursement of the 8% excise tax on consumer goods (food and beverages), in addition to non-consumer goods (clothing, electronics, etc.). The minimum purchase is ¥5,000 from each location in a single receipt. To qualify, you must visit a shop where a “Tax Free” sign is displayed. Note that any food or drink that receives a tax refund may not be consumed in Japan – you must take it home at the end of your trip.

For tax-free purchases or tax refund claims, counter staff would staple a piece of paper in your passport that you should keep with you until you leave Japan. This piece of paper is to be handed in at the customs counter at your point of departure just before you pass through immigration and checks may be carried out to ensure that you take the items out of Japan.

Despite the adage that Japanese cities never sleep, shop opening hours are surprisingly limited. Opening hours for most shops are typically 10:00-20:00, although most shops are open on weekends and public holidays except New Year’s Day, and close one day a week. Restaurants tend to stay open late, although smoking is usually not allowed until after 20:00, so those who can’t stand cigarette smoke should have their meals beforehand.

However, you will always find something to buy at any time of the day. Japan is teeming with 24/7 convenience stores (コンビニ konbini), such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, Circle K and Sunkus. They often offer a much larger selection of products than convenience stores in the US or Europe, sometimes have a small ATM and are often open all day! Many convenience stores also offer services such as fax, takkyubin luggage delivery, a limited range of postal services, bill payment services (including international phone card top-ups such as Brastel) and some online retailers (e.g., as well as selling tickets to events, concerts and cinemas.

Of course, nightlife-related establishments such as karaoke lounges and bars stay open late: even in small towns, it is easy to find an izakaya that is open until 05:00. Pachinko parlours are obliged to close at 23:00.

Anime and Manga

For many Westerners, anime (cartoons) and manga (comics) are the most popular icons of modern Japan. Manga are popular with both children and adults and cover all genres; it is not uncommon to see businessmen reading manga on the underground or in a busy lunch restaurant. Most manga are published in magazines such as Weekly Shōnen Jump and Ribon in serial form and later reprinted in volumes. Although anime used to be considered childish, many Japanese adults, as well as children, now find it so exciting that they are proud of it as their culture. Most adults in Japan do not watch anime regularly, apart from otaku, nerds whose interest often borders on the obsessive, but some titles have mass appeal. Many of the highest-grossing films in Japan are animated, including 5 by industry giant Hayao Miyazaki.

Many visitors come to Japan in search of merchandise related to their favourite anime and manga titles. One of the best places to shop is Akihabara in Tokyo. Widely known as an otaku mecca, the shops and stalls there offer anime, manga and merchandise, of course, but also video games, household electronics, old film cameras and lenses and many other obscure goods.

For rare or vintage items, shops like Mandarake have several floors of anime/manga collectibles. There are also shops filled with display cases, each featuring a figure from an anime or manga. In addition to these shops, you will find small shops selling figures from various anime and manga all over Akihabara. Another option in Tokyo is Ikebukuro. The original Animate shop is near the east exit of Ikebukuro, and there are cosplay shops and another Mandarake shop nearby.

A very well-known shopping place among the locals are the Book-Off shops. They specialise in second-hand books, manga, anime, video games and DVDs. The quality of the products can range from almost brand new (read once) to more well loved. Be sure to check out the ¥105 section, where the quality of the books may be a little better, but there are many great finds. There is a small selection of English-translated manga, but most are in Japanese.

Anime is available on DVDs and/or Blu-rays, depending on the title. Unless you find pirated copies, the DVDs are all Region 2 NTSC. This makes them unplayable in most DVD players in the US (Region 1) and Europe (PAL or SECAM). Blu-rays are Region A, which includes North and South America and East Asia except mainland China. With the exception of the major studios (such as Studio Ghibli’s Blu-rays), most releases do not have English subtitles.

Unfortunately, anime DVDs and Blu-rays are quite expensive in Japan. Most releases cost somewhere between ¥4000-8000 per disc, and usually only have 2-4 episodes per disc. Even “discount” editions, if they exist at all, rarely cost less than ¥3000 per disc, and still rarely have more than 4 episodes per disc.

Video and PC games

Video games are huge business in Japan, but the Japanese NTSC-J video standard is not compatible with PAL and SECAM televisions used in much of the world. In countries that use other NTSC standards (North America, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia), the NTSC-J versions work with only a slight difference in brightness. Of course, the language is still Japanese (unless the game has multilingual options). For handheld consoles, the television standards do not apply.

Many consoles are also region locked, which prevents you from playing them on your home console even if the video is compatible. This can be enforced by hardware (e.g. physically incompatible cartridges) or firmware/software (e.g. DVD and Blu-ray regions). Here is a list of modern consoles and their interoperability:

  • TV consoles
    • Microsoft Xbox One – region-free
    • Microsoft Xbox 360 and original Xbox – locked, but it’s up to each game whether it enforces region locking
    • Nintendo Wii U, Wii and GameCube – locked; even Korean and Japanese systems fall under different regions and are not compatible
    • Sony PlayStation 4 – region-free
    • Sony PlayStation 3 – All but three games (Joysound DrivePersona 4 Arena and on Slim PS3s Way of the Samurai 3) are region-free, although some games restrict download content or online multiplayer by region. Many games are multilingual, with language selection in the console settings.
    • Sony PlayStation 2 and Original PlayStation – locked
  • Handheld consoles
    • Nintendo 3DS and DSi – locked for 3DS and DSi specific games and download content; region-free for DS games.
    • Nintendo DS, Game Boy Advance und Game Boy – region-free
    • Sony PS Vita – Region-free for physical games; tied to your PSN account region for download games (you can create a PSN account in a different region, but can only link one account to a Vita and must factory reset the account to change it); 3G connectivity may also be tied to a specific provider
    • Sony PSP – region-free for games; locked for movies

PC games, on the other hand, usually work fine as long as you understand enough Japanese to install and play them. The “only-in-Japan” genres include the visual novels (ビジュアルノベル), interactive anime-style games that resemble dating simulations, and their subgroup, the erotic games (エロゲー eroge), which are exactly what the name implies.

In general, the best places to shop for video games are Akihabara in Tokyo and Den Town in Osaka (in terms of shops, you can buy video games almost anywhere in Japan).

Electronics and cameras

Battery-powered small electronics and photo cameras for sale in Japan will work anywhere in the world, but you may have to deal with an instruction manual in Japanese. (Some of the larger shops will provide you with an English manual (英語の説明書 eigo no setsumeisho) upon request). Price-wise, there are no great deals to be found, but the selection is incomparable. However, if you want to buy other home electronics, it’s best to shop at shops that specialise in “overseas” configurations, many of which can be found in Tokyo’s Akihabara. You can buy PAL/NTSC-free DVD players there, for example. Also remember that Japanese AC voltage is 100 volts, so using “domestic” Japanese electronics outside Japan without a step-down transformer can be dangerous. Even the standard US voltage of 120 volts is too much for some equipment. Conversely, some units are built as 100-120V units to accommodate this possibility. Always check before you buy. Probably the best deal is not the electronics themselves, but blank media. Blu-ray optical media for video and data in particular are much, much cheaper than elsewhere.

Prices are lowest and shopping is easiest at the big discount shops like Bic Camera, Yodobashi Camera, Sofmap and Yamada Denki. They usually have English-speaking staff on duty and accept foreign credit cards. For common products, prices are virtually identical at all of them, so don’t waste time comparison shopping. Haggling is possible in smaller shops, and even the larger chains will usually match their competitors’ prices.

Most of the big chains have a “points card” that gives you points that you can use as a discount on your next purchase, even just a few minutes later. Purchases are usually worth between 5% and even 20% of the purchase price in points, and 1 point is worth ¥1. In some shops (the biggest is Yodobashi Camera) you have to wait overnight before you can redeem the points. Cards are given out on the spot and no local address is required. However, in some shops it is not possible to collect points and get a tax refund for the same purchase.

Also, the big shops tend to deduct 2% from the points collected when paid with a credit card (if you use a UnionPay credit card, Bic and Yodobashi will refuse to allow you to collect points altogether, although you will get an immediate 5% discount as compensation). As the excise duty has now been increased to 8%, it depends on how you pay and whether you plan to come back. If you pay with cash or e-money and plan to come back, it may still be worth collecting points. If you pay with a credit card, the benefit is the same either way at 8%, and the tax rebate may be more useful.


While you might be better off going to France or Italy for high-end fashion, Japan is hard to beat when it comes to casual fashion. Tokyo and Osaka in particular have many shopping districts and an abundance of shops selling the latest fashions, especially those aimed at young people. To name but a few: Shibuya and Harajuku in Tokyo and Shinsaibashi in Osaka are known throughout Japan as centres of youth fashion. The main problem is that Japanese shops are aimed at customers with Japanese sizes, and it can be a real challenge to find larger or curvier sizes.

Japan is also famous for its beauty products such as face cream and masks, including many for men. While these are available in almost every supermarket, many of the most expensive brands have their own shops in the Ginza district of Tokyo.

Japan’s most important contribution to jewellery making is the cultured pearl, invented by Mikimoto Kōkichi in 1893. The main pearl farming operation is still located in the small town of Toba, near Ise, but the pearls themselves are widely available – although there is little or no price difference compared to buying them outside Japan. For those who insist on buying the “real” pearls, Mikimoto’s flagship store is located in the Ginza district of Tokyo.

Then of course there is the kimono, the classic Japanese garment. While a new kimono is very expensive, you can get a second-hand kimono at a fraction of the price, or opt for a much cheaper and easier-to-wear yukata dressing gown.


Smoking cigarettes is still popular in Japan, especially among men. While cigarettes are sold at some of the many vending machines in Japan, visitors to Japan who wish to buy them must do so at a convenience store or in the duty-free area. Because the Japanese tobacco industry is cracking down on minors (the legal age is 20), you now need a special proof-of-age card called a TASPO card to buy cigarettes from a vending machine. TASPO cards are only issued to residents of Japan.

Cigarettes usually come in hard packs of 20 cigarettes and are relatively cheap at around Y300-400. Japan has few domestic brands: Seven Stars and Mild Seven are the most common local brands. American brands such as Marlboro, Camel and Lucky Strike are popular, although the Japanese-made versions have a much lighter flavour than their Western counterparts. Also look out for unusually flavoured cigarettes, light cigarettes with flavour-enhancing filter technology, although they taste very artificial and have little effect, which are particularly popular with female smokers.

Tips for budget shopping

As mentioned above, Japan can be expensive. You may feel that every item or meal in Japan has a high price tag. The main reason for this is that you have chosen a top inner-city shopping or dining district. If you want to shop more cheaply, you should carefully consider whether you are necessarily looking for upscale products or only want to buy everyday goods and groceries. The former should try the inner-city premium department stores, boutiques and restaurants in the well-known shopping districts such as Isetan in Shinjuku and Matsuya in Ginza, while the latter would be better off turning to the shopping centres or supermarkets on the outskirts of the city such as Aeon or Ito-Yokado.

Traditions & Customs in Japan

Most, if not all, Japanese are very understanding of a foreigner (gaijin or gaikokujin) who does not immediately adapt to their culture; indeed, the Japanese like to boast (with questionable credibility) that their language and culture are among the most difficult in the world to understand, so they are generally quite happy to help you if you seem to be having difficulty. However, Japanese will appreciate it if you at least follow the following rules, many of which boil down to the social norms of strict cleanliness and avoiding assaulting others (迷惑 meiwaku).

  • Shoes (and feet in general) are considered very dirty by the Japanese. Avoid pointing the soles of your feet at anyone (e.g. putting your foot on the opposite knee when sitting) and try to prevent children from standing up in seats. It is very rude to bang your feet against another person’s clothes, even if it is just an accident.
  • In many buildings, you are expected to remove your shoes when entering and deposit them in a lowered entrance area or shoe locker. If available, you can borrow slippers (though usually only in sizes for typically smaller Japanese feet), wear socks or go barefoot. Wearing shoes inside such a building is considered disrespectful as it brings dirt and/or evil spirits inside. For similar reasons, it is preferable to be able to take your shoes off and put them on with your hands as little as possible.
  • The Japanese consider a pat on the back rude, especially if it comes from someone they have just met. As it is not common in Japan, hugging should also be avoided unless you are in a romantic relationship with the other person. It is typically very awkward and uncomfortable for Japanese people.
  • Point with your open hand, not your finger, and ask people to come by waving your hand down, not up.
  • Avoid shouting or talking loudly in public. Talking on a mobile phone on the train is considered rude and many trains have signs saying not to use them. (However, sending text messages is considered de rigueur).
  • Sniffing in public is considered rude, similar to flatulence. It is okay to walk around sniffing until you find a private place to blow your nose.
  • As in Germany, the Second World War is a sensitive and complicated subject, especially among older people, and is generally best avoided. More intellectual and alternative circles tend to discuss it, especially when visiting Hiroshima.
  • As in India and China and other countries, swastikas are Buddhist symbols that represent happiness and in no way represent Nazism or anti-Semitism, and you will find that the symbol actually points in the opposite direction. Swastikas are often used on maps to mark the locations of Buddhist temples and monasteries.
  • Smoking is prohibited on many street corners and pavements in Tokyo. Although you see people smoking everywhere, most find themselves in designated smoking areas. The Japanese are such a clean culture that many of the smokers do not even leave ashes on the ground.
  • Showing an open mouth is considered impolite.
  • As in neighbouring China and Korea, saving face is a very important concept in Japanese culture. Especially in a business environment, Japanese people rarely say “no” if they are not interested in a deal, and would instead say something more indirect like “I will think about it”. Unless it is a boss or someone from a higher position, mistakes are not usually addressed and if you do, you are likely to be greatly embarrassed.
  • Avoid talking about politics, especially Japan’s territorial disputes with China, South Korea and Russia, as many locals have very strong feelings about these issues.

Things to avoid

Japanese understand that visitors do not know the intricacies of Japanese etiquette and tend to tolerate foreigners’ mistakes in this regard. There are a few serious breaches of etiquette that meet with general disapproval (even if committed by foreigners) and should be avoided if possible:

  • Never step on a tatami mat with shoes or even slippers.
  • Never leave your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice (this is how rice is sacrificed to the dead).

Never enter a bathtub without first washing thoroughly.

Things to do

  • Learn a little of the language and try to use it. They will compliment you if you try and there is no reason to be ashamed. They realise that Japanese is very difficult for foreigners and are tolerant of your mistakes; on the contrary, they will like you more if you try.
  • The average Japanese person bows over 100 times a day; this ubiquitous gesture of respect is used to greet, to say goodbye, to thank, to accept thanks, to apologise, to accept apologies, and so on. Men bow with their hands at their sides. Women bow with their hands in front of each other. Women’s hands look as if they are placed in their lap when bowing (not in a prayer posture as in wai in Thailand). The exact degree of bowing depends on your position in society relative to the recipient of the bow and on the occasion: the largely unwritten rules are complex, but for foreigners a “symbolic bow” is fine and better than accidentally doing a deep formal bow (as US President Obama once did). Many Japanese are happy to offer a handshake instead or in addition; just be careful not to bump heads if you try to do both at the same time.
  • When you hand something to someone, especially a business card, it is considered polite to hold it with both hands.
    • Business cards (名刺 meishi) in particular are treated very respectfully and formally. How you treat someone’s business card is seen as representative of how you will treat the person. Be sure to pack more than you need, because not carrying a business card is a serious faux pas. As with bowing, there is a lot of nuanced etiquette, but here are some basics:

When handing over a business card, orient it so that it is legible to the person you are giving it to and hold it with both hands at the corners so that everything is visible. When accepting a business card, grasp it with both hands at the corners and take the time to read the card and make sure you know how to pronounce the person’s name (this is more of a problem in Japanese, as the characters for a person’s name can be pronounced in different ways). It is impolite to write on a card, fold it or put it in your back pocket (where you sit on it!). Instead, arrange the cards on the table (in order of seniority) so you can remember who is who. When it’s time to leave, you can put the cards in a nice case to keep them untouched; if you don’t have one, hold on to them until you’re out of sight before pocketing them.

  • On the other hand, cash is traditionally considered “dirty” and is not passed from hand to hand. Cash registers often have a small tray that is used to give your payment and receive change.

If you give money as a gift (e.g. as a tip in a ryokan), you should get unused notes from the bank and present them in a formal envelope.

  • When drinking sake or beer in a group, it is considered polite not to fill your glass yourself, but to allow someone else to do so. Usually, glasses are refilled before they are empty. To be extra polite, hold up your own glass with both hands while one of your companions fills it. (It is okay to refuse, but you must do it frequently, otherwise an older person at your table might fill your glass when you are not looking).
  • Gift-giving is very common in Japan. You may find that as a guest you are showered with gifts and dinners. Foreign guests are of course exempt from this sometimes annoying system of give and take (kashi-kari), but it would be a nice gesture to offer a gift or souvenir (omiyage), including one that is unique or representative of your country. A gift that is “consumable” is advisable due to the smaller size of Japanese homes. Items such as soap, sweets, alcohol or stationery go down well, as the recipient is not expected to always have them to hand on subsequent visits. Re-gifting” is a common and accepted practice, even for items such as fruit.
  • Expressing gratitude is different from giving an obligatory gift. Even if you have brought a gift for your Japanese host, it is a sign of good etiquette to send a handwritten thank-you card when you return: it will be much appreciated. Japanese guests always exchange photos they have taken with their hosts. So you should expect to receive some snapshots and be prepared to send yours back (of you and your hosts together). Depending on the age of the host and the nature of your relationship (business or personal), an online exchange may be sufficient.
  • Older people are accorded special respect in Japanese society and are used to the privileges that come with it. Visitors waiting to board a train may be surprised to be pushed aside by a fearless obaa-san who has her eye on a seat. Note that certain seats (“silver seats”) on many trains are reserved for disabled and elderly people.
  • If you visit a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple, follow the appropriate purification procedure at the chōzuya (手水舎) before entering. After filling the ladle with water, rinse your left hand, then your right hand. Then fill your left hand with water and rinse your mouth with it. Do not touch the ladle directly with your mouth. Finally, turn the ladle upright so that the remaining water sloshes down to rinse the handle before returning the ladle.
  • There are not many bins in public places; you may have to carry your rubbish around for a while before you find one. When you do find one, you will often see 4 to 6 of them together; Japan is very conscious of recycling. Most disposable containers are labelled with a recycling symbol in Japanese indicating what type of material it is. Some types of recycling containers you will often see are:
    • Paper (紙 kami)
    • PET/plastic (PET PETTO or PLA PURA)
    • Glass bottles (ビン dustbin)
    • Metal cans (カン kan)
    • Combustible waste (moeru gomi)
    • Non-combustible waste (moenai gomi)
  • Punctuality is highly valued and, thanks to Japan’s reliable public transport, expected. If you’re meeting someone and it looks like you’re going to be even a few minutes late, Japanese prefer the reassurance of a phone call or a message if you can send one. Being on time (which really means being early) is even more important in business; Japanese employees might be scolded if they are even a minute late for work in the morning.

Gay and lesbian travelers

Japan is considered very safe for gay and lesbian travellers, and violence against homosexuals is quite rare. There are no laws against homosexuality in Japan and major cities like Tokyo and Osaka have a large gay scene, but same-sex relationships are not recognised by the government and open displays of your orientation are still likely to attract stares and whispers.

Culture Of Japan

Japanese culture has evolved greatly since its origins. Contemporary culture combines influences from Asia, Europe and North America. Traditional Japanese arts include crafts such as ceramics, textiles, lacquerware, swords and dolls; performances of bunraku, kabuki, noh, dance and rakugo; and other practices that include tea ceremony, ikebana, martial arts, calligraphy, origami, onsen, geisha and games. Japan has a developed system for the protection and promotion of tangible and intangible cultural assets and national treasures. Nineteen sites have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, fifteen of which are of cultural significance.

Architecture in Japan

Japanese architecture is a great combination of local and other influences. It is traditionally characterised by wooden structures that are slightly above the ground and have tiled or thatched roofs. Sliding doors (fusuma) were used instead of walls, allowing the internal configuration of a room to be adapted for different occasions. People traditionally sat on cushions or on the floor; chairs and high tables were not widely used until the 20th century. 20th century. Since the 19th century, however, Japan has adopted much of Western, modern and postmodern architecture in construction and design, and is now a leader in cutting-edge architectural design and technology.

The introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century was a catalyst for large-scale temple construction using intricate techniques in wood. Influences from the Chinese Tang and Sui dynasties led to the establishment of the first permanent capital at Nara. Its chessboard-like street layout used the Chinese capital Chang’an as a model for its design. Gradual enlargement of the buildings led to standardised units of measurement and refinement of layout and garden design. The introduction of the tea ceremony emphasised simplicity and modest design as a counterpoint to the excesses of the aristocracy.

During the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the history of Japanese architecture was radically changed by two important events. The first was the 1868 Law for the Separation of Kami and Buddhas, which formally separated Buddhism from Shintoism and Buddhist temples from Shinto shrines, severing a link between the two that had lasted well over a thousand years.

Secondly, Japan was then going through a phase of intense westernisation in order to compete with other developed countries. Initially, architects and styles were imported to Japan from abroad, but gradually the country trained its own architects and began to develop its own style. Architects who returned from studying with Western architects introduced the International Style of Modernism to Japan. But it was only after the Second World War that Japanese architects made their mark on the international scene, first with the work of architects like Kenzo Tange and then with theoretical movements like Metabolism.

Art in Japan

The shrines of Ise have been hailed as the prototype of Japanese architecture. Traditional dwellings and many temple buildings are largely wooden, using tatami mats and sliding doors that eliminate the distinction between rooms and indoor/outdoor spaces. Japanese sculpture, largely made of wood, and Japanese painting are among the oldest Japanese arts, with early figurative paintings dating back to at least 300 BC. The history of Japanese painting shows the synthesis and competition between indigenous Japanese aesthetics and the adaptation of imported ideas.

The interaction between Japanese and European art was significant: for example, ukiyo-e prints that began to be exported in the 19th century in the movement known as Japonism had a significant influence on the development of modern art in the West, especially Post-Impressionism. Famous ukiyo-e artists include Hokusai and Hiroshige. Hokusai coined the term manga. Japanese comics, now known as manga, developed in the 20th century and became popular worldwide. The Japanese animated film is called anime. Video game consoles made in Japan have been popular since the 1980s.

Literature in Japan

Among the earliest works of Japanese literature are the chronicles Kojiki and Nihon Shoki and the collection of poems Man’yōshū, all dating from the 8th century and written in Chinese characters. In the early Heian period, the system of phonograms known as kana (hiragana and katakana) was developed. The tale of the bamboo cutter is considered the oldest Japanese tale. An account of Heian court life is found in the “Pillow Book” by Sei Shōnagon, while “The Story of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu is often referred to as the world’s first novel.

During the Edo period, the chōnin (“townspeople”) overtook the samurai aristocracy as producers and consumers of literature. The popularity of the works of Saikaku, for example, shows this change in readership and authorship, while Bashō revived the poetic tradition of the Kokinshū with his haikai (haiku) and wrote the poetic travelogue Oku no Hosomichi. The Meiji era saw the decline of traditional literary forms as Japanese literature integrated Western influences. Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ōgai were Japan’s first “modern” novelists, followed by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima and, more recently, Haruki Murakami. Japan has two Nobel Prize-winning authors – Jasunari Kawabata (1968) and Kenzaburō Ōe (1994).

Japanese philosophy

Japanese philosophy has historically been a fusion of both foreign, especially Chinese and Western, and uniquely Japanese elements. In its literary forms, Japanese philosophy began about fourteen centuries ago.

Archaeological evidence and early historical accounts suggest that Japan was originally an animistic culture that saw the world as permeated by kami (神) or sacred presence as taught by Shinto, although not a philosophy as such, it has strongly influenced all other philosophies in their Japanese interpretations.

Confucianism came to Japan from China around the 5th century AD, as did Buddhism. Confucian ideals are still evident today in the Japanese concept of society and the self, as well as in the organisation of government and the structure of society. Buddhism has profoundly influenced Japanese psychology, metaphysics and aesthetics.

Neo-Confucianism, which came to the fore in the 16th century during the Tokugawa era, shaped Japanese notions of virtue and social responsibility and stimulated Japanese study of the natural world through its emphasis on the study of the principle or configuration of things. Also from the 16th century onwards, certain indigenous notions of loyalty and honour were shaped. Western philosophy has only been influential in Japan since the mid-19th century.

Cuisine in Japan

Japanese cuisine is based on combining staple foods, typically Japanese rice or noodles, with soup and okazu – dishes of fish, vegetables, tofu and the like – to enhance the taste of the staple. In the early modern period, ingredients such as red meat were introduced that had not been widely used in Japan before. Japanese cuisine is known for its emphasis on seasonality of food, quality of ingredients and presentation. Japanese cuisine offers a wide range of regional specialities that use traditional recipes and local ingredients. The term ichijū-sansai (一汁三菜, “one soup, three sides”) refers to the composition of a typical meal served, but has its roots in classic kaisekihonzen and yūsoku cuisine. The term is also used to describe the first course served in standard kaiseki cuisine today.

Traditional Japanese sweets are known as wagashi. Ingredients such as red bean paste and mochi are used. More modern flavours include green tea ice cream, a very popular flavour. Almost all manufacturers produce a version of it. Kakigori is a shaved ice dessert flavoured with syrup or condensed milk. It is usually sold and eaten at summer festivals. Popular Japanese drinks such as sake, a brewed rice drink that typically contains 15%~17% alcohol and is made by fermenting rice several times. Other drinks such as beer are produced in some regions, such as Sapporo Brewery, the oldest beer brand in Japan. The Michelin Guide has awarded restaurants in Japan with more Michelin stars than in the rest of the world combined.

Stay Safe & Healthy in Japan

Stay safe in Japan

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, the crime rate is significantly lower than in western countries.

Volcanoes, storms and typhoons are a potential problem especially if you are mountaineering or sailing, so check the latest information before you go. In volcanic areas, stick to designated trails as volcanic gas can be a problem. Typhoons are rarely physically dangerous, but they can affect planes, ferries and even (in landslides) trains and buses.

There are poisonous snakes called habu (波布) in Okinawa, although not in unusual numbers. It is unlikely that you will be bitten by one, but if you are bitten, seek medical attention immediately as there are antivenoms. When hiking in Hokkaido and Honshu, be aware of possible bear activity, especially in autumn. Attacks are rare, but in areas like the Shiretoko Peninsula, you should attach bells to your backpack to scare them away.

Especially in the countryside, watch out for the Japanese giant hornet (大雀蜂 or 大スズメバチ ōsuzumebachi), a subspecies of the Asian giant hornet; it is about 4 cm long and can sting repeatedly and painfully. Every year in Japan, 20-40 people die after being stung by giant hornets. A hornet defending its nest or feeding site will make a clicking sound to warn intruders; if you encounter one, retreat. If you are stung, seek medical treatment immediately, as prolonged exposure to the venom can cause permanent damage or even death.

Crime and fraud in Japan

Police and the law
Police in Japan can hold people for up to 23 days before a prosecutor formally presses charges, and you may be subjected to continuous interrogation during this time. You can only hire a lawyer if someone from the outside pays the fees in advance, and your lawyer is not allowed to be present during the interrogations.

Insist on an interpreter and consular access, and do not fingerprint (the Japanese equivalent of signing), especially if you do not fully understand what you are signing. A signed confession will result in a guilty verdict at your trial. By far the most common pattern of how foreign tourists end up on the cold, yellow walls of a Japanese jail cell is getting drunk and then getting into a fight. Standard police procedure is to arrest everyone first and sort things out later. If someone accuses you on even the flimsiest of grounds, you can expect an unpleasant extension of your leave. If you are convicted of a crime, you will experience the notoriously harsh Japanese prison system first hand.

Japan is exotic and mysterious; what seems foreign and even attractive to you during the day can become uncomfortable and annoying at night, especially if there is some alcohol running through your veins, so control your temper and alcohol level. The police patrol the party areas heavily at night and are ready to “rescue” a Japanese from a violent foreigner.

Street crime is extremely rare, even late at night, but you should still use common sense. Women travelling alone should be careful, as in their home countries, and never hitchhike alone.

Pickpocketing sometimes happens: If you take your usual precautions in crowded places like trains and Narita Airport, you should be fine. Women and men on crowded trains at rush hour should be aware of the existence of male chikan (痴漢) and female chijo (痴女) or harassers. Be careful on these trains as well, as you could be blamed and possibly arrested for such incidents. There is a lot of drinking in the evening and occasionally drunks can be a nuisance, although alcohol-related violence is extremely rare.

The notorious yakuza (ヤクザ, also known as 極道 gokudō), the Japanese gangsters, may have acquired a sometimes undeserved reputation as a gang of violent, psychopathic criminals due to their portrayal in various films. In reality, however, they almost never target people who are not already involved in organised crime. Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.

Red-light districts in big cities can be seedy but are rarely dangerous to visitors, but some smaller bars in back alleys have been known to charge exorbitant entrance fees or drink prices. In some extreme cases, foreigners have reported being drugged in such establishments and then having to pay up to ¥700,000 or almost USD7,000 for drinks they could not remember ordering (especially in the Roppongi and Kabuki-cho districts of Tokyo). Never go to a place recommended by someone you have just met. This is especially true for street vendors (which do not exist in Japan except in places like Kabuki-cho).

Note that drug laws in Japan are stricter than in many Western countries. The Japanese do not distinguish between hard and soft drugs, so even possession of soft drugs for personal use can result in a prison sentence of several years. Do not assume that just because you have a prescription from your home country, you can take the drugs to Japan. If you have prescription drugs, check with the Japanese embassy before you leave to see if they are allowed in Japan or not. If it is illegal, they should also be able to give you information on what medicines you can buy in Japan to use in place of your prescription while you are there.

Police boxes (交番 kōban) can be found on every other street corner. The police are generally helpful (although they rarely speak English), so ask if you get lost or have any problems. They usually have a detailed map of the area, showing not only the hard-to-understand numbering system, but also the names of office or public buildings or other places to help find your way.

Even if you have travel insurance, report thefts or lost items to the kōban. They have forms in English and Japanese, often called the “Blue Form”. For lost items, even cash, filling out this form is not a wasted effort, as Japanese people very often bring lost items, even a wallet full of cash, to the kōban. If you happen to find such an item, bring it to the kōban. If the item is not claimed within six months, it is yours. If it is claimed, you may be entitled to a reward of 5-15%.

There are two emergency numbers in Japan. To call the police in an emergency, dial 110 (百十番 hyakutoban). To call an ambulance or fire truck, dial 119 (a reversal of the American 911). In Tokyo, the police have an English emergency number (03-3501-0110), which is available from 08:30 to 17:15 Monday to Friday except public holidays.

Prostitution in Japan

Prostitution is illegal in Japan. However, enforcement is lax and the law explicitly defines prostitution as “sex in exchange for money”. In other words: If you pay for another “service” and then have sex by “private agreement”, the law does not recognise this as prostitution. So Japan still has one of the most vibrant sex industries in the world. The most famous red light district is Kabukicho (歌舞伎町) in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, where many call girl booths and love hotels are located. The incidence of HIV has increased in Japan in recent years. Some prostitutes refuse to serve foreign clients, even those who speak fluent Japanese.

Traffic in Japan

Contrary to its reputation for very efficient and comprehensive public transport, Japan is a very car-centric culture outside of Tokyo.

As the road layout in large parts of the country has remained unchanged for centuries, many roads are rather small and full of blind corners. One should always be alert when travelling off the main roads.

Moreover, traffic lights have a different meaning in Japan than in the rest of the world. When the traffic light is green at a pedestrian crossing near an intersection, Japanese drivers often don’t think about coming towards you yet. They often turn halfway and then stop to allow you to cross, although it is not uncommon for them to speed ahead at full speed, ignoring the people crossing.

You should also be aware that crossing the road at a red light is illegal in Japan and this law is sometimes enforced.

Discrimination in Japan

Although violent attacks against foreigners are almost unheard of in Japan, discrimination against foreigners in employment does exist. Even Western visitors have been denied entry to certain onsen and restaurants, especially in rural areas. Some flats, motels, nightclubs and public baths in Japan have been known to post signs stating that foreigners are not allowed or that they may only enter if accompanied by a Japanese person. Such places are rare, however, and many Japanese claim that the bans are due to perceived social incompatibility (e.g. foreigners may not understand proper bathhouse etiquette) rather than racism.

Banks are often reluctant or unwilling to give cash advances to foreigners, mainly due to stereotypes of unreliability. If you need a cash advance from your bank, Japanese language skills or a Japanese friend to vouch for you will help a lot.

Earthquakes in Japan

Japan is prone to earthquakes (地震 jishin). On 11 March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, triggering a very large tsunami that affected the city of Sendai and the surrounding area. The quake (and its aftershocks) were felt throughout Japan, and the death toll was over 15,000, mainly from the tsunami. The previous major quake hit Kobe in 1995 and killed over 5000 people. Every few days a quake big enough to be felt is felt somewhere in Japan, but most of them are completely harmless. Even though electronic devices are now being introduced to detect earthquakes (both the magnitude of the quake and the number of seconds it takes for the tremors to reach a particular location), you should follow some basic safety measures:

  • Do not place heavy objects in high places, especially above your bed.
  • Japan has an early warning system that sends information that an earthquake is about to hit a certain area. Use this invaluable time to protect yourself before the actual quake.
  • If you are inside a house and feel a strong shaking, the standard advice is that you are far safer staying indoors: Falling roof tiles and masonry outside usually pose the deadliest danger.
  • While it is extremely important to extinguish all flames (burners, candles, etc.) immediately if you have time, be aware that your immediate danger is from falling objects and overturning furniture. Be aware of what is above you and seek shelter under furniture or in a doorway if necessary.
  • If you are in a house and feel a strong shaking, try to open the door or a window as quickly as possible and keep it open by using something like a doorstop in case it is stuck. Again, remember that your immediate danger is from falling objects and overturning furniture.
  • If you are outdoors, stay away from brick walls, glass panes and vending machines, and watch out for falling objects, telegraph cables, etc. Falling roof tiles from older and traditional buildings are particularly dangerous as they can fall long after the quake has stopped.
  • If you are by the sea and experience even a moderate quake, look out for tsunami warnings (also in English) on NHK TV (channel 1) and Radio 2 (693 kHz). For most tremors and small quakes, only a message in Japanese will be displayed at the top of the screen, as they are not considered particularly newsworthy. If you are near the sea and experience a major earthquake, evacuate immediately to higher ground; do not wait for a warning.
  • Know exactly where your passport, travel tickets, documents, credit cards and money are and take them with you when you leave the building as you may not be able to go back in.

Every neighbourhood has an evacuation area, usually the local playground. Many schools are set up as temporary shelters. Both are labelled in English. If you are travelling with others, plan to meet there and be aware that portable phones will probably not work.

Drug smuggling in Japan

Japan is extremely intolerant of drug offenders. There are strict laws for anyone who smuggles drugs. This applies even if you have consumed the drugs outside the country, or if you are proven to be unaware that the drugs are in your luggage. It is strongly recommended that you check your luggage beforehand to avoid such problems.

Stay healthy in Japan

Japan is a country obsessed with cleanliness and health hazards are rare. Tap water is drinkable everywhere and food hygiene standards are very high. There are no communicable diseases of any significance; despite the name, Japanese encephalitis has almost been eradicated.

Some Japanese public toilets do not have toilet paper, although there are often vending machines nearby that sell some at coin prices. Do as the Japanese do and use the tissue packets that advertisers hand out for free at major train stations.

Although it may be “common sense” for people who have lived in urban areas, many newcomers to Tokyo or Osaka are not familiar with living in an extremely crowded metropolis where almost everything they touch has already been touched by hundreds of other people on the same day. If newcomers to large Japanese cities do not take precautions, they may be more susceptible to common illnesses such as colds. As in any other urban area, you should wash your hands with soap and water as often as possible in a major Japanese city such as Tokyo or Osaka, especially after taking public transport and before eating.

Be sure to take a small umbrella for the frequent rainy days. Don’t rely too much on the weather forecasts, especially from the day before yesterday. If you forget, you can always go to the nearest supermarket and buy one for ¥500.

Japan has its share of dirty areas. In the cities, the streets and curbs are just as dirty as anywhere else because of the high volume of traffic. The obsession with cleanliness and taking off shoes before entering a house makes sense because of the conditions in the outside world.

If you come down with a cold or other illness, get a mouth guard, a surgical cloth mask. You will find that people often wear these on trains and at work. This filters your sneezing and coughing so you don’t spread it to others.

Second-hand smoke is a major health risk in almost all Japanese restaurants and public areas; this applies to multinational food chains as well as local venues. Non-smoking areas are not often offered and are sometimes substandard when they are available.

Healthcare in Japan

Medical facilities in Japan are on par with the West, and the better-known hospitals are usually equipped with the latest medical technology. For Japanese citizens and residents, the cost of medical treatment is affordable through the government’s national health insurance system. However, for those who are uninsured, the cost of medical treatment is expensive. While foreigners staying in Japan for a longer period of time (e.g. on a work or student visa) have limited access to the national health insurance system, it is not available to tourists on short visits.

Most Japanese doctors and nurses are not able to communicate in English. The US Embassy website has a list of hospitals and clinics that have English-speaking staff available.



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