Japan Travel Notes
We have planned for your trip to be enjoyable and a relaxing one with few concerns about either preparation or matters after arrival, but please read these important notes about travel in Japan.
Passports & Visas
Japan At A Glance377,829 sq km/145,877 sq. miles (nearly the size of California)
Population: 127 million
Density: 333.7 people per sq km.
Capital: Tokyo (13 million+)
Time: GMT + 9
Country Code Prefix: 81
Mobile: 3G compatibility
Electrical: 100 volts AC
USD$1 = ~100¥
GBP£1 = ~135¥
English: not widely spoken
No visa is required for travelers from E.U., U.K., Canada or U.S.A. Your passport must be valid for six (6) months beyond the ending date of your trip; please check your passport is indeed valid for this amount of time. Please carry a separate photocopy of your passport and mobile phone image of the informations page—invaluable for quick replacement of a lost passport
Immunizations and Vaccinations
None required, nor recommended
Safety & Security
You may be astonished the first time you see Japanese leaving their possessions unattended, including cameras and purses, even in the larger cities. Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world (its most common crime is bike theft, yet even then, Japanese police recover more than 50% of stolen bicycles).
Japan, like many Western countries, actually experiences four seasons:
Spring (March – May)
Appearance of the plum blossom is a good sign that the cold winter will soon end and spring is just around the corner, followed by the famous cherry blossoms blooming between the end of March and the beginning of April. Splendid views of mountains, fields and gardens all blanketed in gentle pink abound in this season. Clothing: light jackets, light sweaters and other similar kinds of tops.
Summer (June – August)
The Japanese summer begins in June with a three to four-week rainy season, an important time for farmers to plant rice. It becomes hot and humid from July onward and many Japanese enjoy bathing in the sea and relaxing at cool resorts in mountainous areas. Summer is when many interesting festivals and other events are held all over the country. Clothing: light clothes (cardigans and other similar kinds are handy, since indoors are mostly air-conditioned).
Fall (September – November)
Autumn always brings fresh light breezes and cool temperatures after the hot and humid summer. Forests explode in dyed pigments of glorious colors. Chrysanthemums create beautiful displays with their abundance of flowers to enchant visitors to parks and gardens. Autumn is also the season for many exhibitions, music concerts and sports tournaments in Japan. Clothing: light jackets, light sweaters and other similar kinds of tops.
Winter (December – February)
The temperature rarely drops below 0°C in the plains along the Pacific coast during wintertime but it is cold nonetheless. It is also quite dry and very often sunny and Southern Japan is optimal, comparatively mild and pleasant in winter. Clothing: overcoats, sweaters, long underwear, gloves.
General Travel Notes
- Surprising to most travelers to the most modern country in the world, is how easy it is to become lost. With most sgns in Japanese and English not widely spoken (even by taxi drivers), getting around can be confusing. Carry your guide, office, and hotel business cards with address in Japanese at all times (even in Tokyo, it's possible to get very lost).
- Locals rarely speak English with any fluency.
- Japan remains largely a cash-based society and credit cards are not accepted for most dining and in shops. Be prepared to exchange currency and withdraw from ATMs (easily accessible at every 7-11).
- Navigation an be difficult, with many street signs only in kanji. Most taxi drivers do not read English, have clear instructions for your destination written in Japanese. Your mobile GPS, which works great at home, may not work nearly as well in Japan.
- Pack with the expectation to be arriving into the world's greatest shopping city, Tokyo, where almost anything can be found and even Kyoto, which has fabulous shopping venues as well.
- Japan is a 3G mobile-friendly country and GSM-only phones do not work. In geek speak: local coverage is typically 3G UMTS 2100 MHz, 3G CDMA2000 800 MHz, or LTE band 1. Mobiles may easily be rented as well (inquire with us).
- Japan offers one of the healthiest and safest (and most efficient) travel destinations in the world. No vaccinations are required nor recommended and the country features world-class medical facilities.
STOPOVER: No visa is required for Japan, meet escort for private transfer to hotel (35 minutes). If you have a stopover in Tokyo, the airport has ATMs to obtain Yen before you transfer into the city which we recommend in this cash-based society. For longer layovers, consider a sightseeing and dining in nearby Narita itself.
TRANSIT: No visa required for Narita although you will pass through a quick immigration and security screening checkpoint. The airport is easy to navigate and efficient, although we may arrange a transit escort upon request. Narita offers free Wireless Internet access and charging stations (North American dual-flat prong plugs).
Note that if stopping briefly at places between Tokyo and Kyoto, it is customary and an interesting "only in Japan" experience to have luggage transported separately directly to your Kyoto hotel room, which we will arrange. As with many other carriers, checked bags are typically limited to 20 kilograms or 44 pounds per piece.
Notify your credit card company in advance you will be making charges in Japan. Plan on bringing currency for immediate exchange at the airport and ATM card for obtaining Yen (¥) during your trip.
You may use credit cards for fine dining and larger purchases in Japan, but be aware many places in Japan are strictly cash only, including finer, expensive restaurants. ATMs can be used at post offices (but not banks) and ubiquitous 7-11s, all of which have quick and simple to use ATMs (which accept foreign cards as well). Money can be changed at the airport, at most banks, hotels, and at post offices. For best rates and to avoid bank lines, exchange travelers checks at the airport. Quick tip: How much is the Yen equal to? About a penny, roughly 100 to the dollar.
Exchange Rate for Today's Date:
Internet & Mobile Phones
As almost any place else, public Wi-Fi or wireless LAN hot spots are available at Starbucks, major airports, stations, and hotels. 3G & 4G phones are compatible with local Japanese service. For iPhones, AT&T charges about US$1.70 per minute under their World Traveler program or you may prepay under their LTE Roaming add-on. Use iMessage rather than text messaging, which is charged per messaging. Kyoto offers free Wi-Fi throughout the city in public spaces.
Japan has 100 volts AC, similar to the U.S.. at 60Hz in the west (Osaka), 50Hz in the east and Tokyo. Flat 2-pin plugs are most common.
Two pin plugs (image right) from the US will work in almost all plug sockets in Japan which are identical. Only in very old sockets would you experience an issue but you are very unlikely to come across any of these
Out and About
Public toilets are common throughout Japan and like most public spaces, typically spotless and private. Electric toilets with all manner of functions may take some getting used with instructions in kanji and puzzling icons (image right), but there is usually a manual flush button as well if you look around.
Don't be adverse to public transport, your guide may recommend this option to reach places far more difficult by car and every traveler should experience the marvel of Tokyo's subway at least once during their visit.
Larger shopping mall food courts are famous for their incredible variety and artisanal quality of dishes and should also be considered as an option for lunches.
If out on your own, most restaurants and cafes will not English menus, but often have photos or examples of dishes made from realistic plastic (an art in Japan).
Service in Japan is immediate and attentive, however you may expect mixed results often with staff only able to provide basic information or assistance.
Only in Japan
- In Tokyo, many other urban places, museums, train stations, and even your hotel, be prepared for crowded and limited spaces. A visitor will never forget riding the Tokyo metro during peak hours. Rooms, public toilets and spaces are much more narrowly defined in Japan and as likely a much taller foreigner, you will have to watch your head.
- Many travelers are surprised not only by the advanced technology in everyday Japanese life from bullet trains to toilets with full operating panels, but equally surprised by lack of modernity that many outsiders become accustomed to, such as using credit cards.
- Many of our travelers, justifiably, say they do not want to do much or any shopping during their trip. However, the Japanese are devoted to shopping, their favorite activity. In a country where shopping has evolved into a fine art, there is astonishing variety and style of shops, malls, and even vending machines. One basement food court in Kyoto is called the "theater of food" featuring delicacies only found in Japan and in the same store one may view ancient crafts and $100,000 kimonos. Unlike most of Asia, bargaining is not done in Japan.
"Better to die than live in shame." —Japanese Proverb
As you've no doubt heard, Japan is even more of a challenge than France in regards to etiquette. The Japanese can be painfully polite with the phrase "suimasen" or excuse me being heard constantly, in a low voice of course. It's often difficult to interpret locals, when they live in a culture where public display of emotion is muted ("The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" is another, timeless Japanese saying). But don't worry too much about it—locals will not expect you to adhere to each and every custom nor be offended if you do not (largely a myth perpetrated by travel media e.g. "chopsticks symbolize death," "don't point," "don't touch children on the head..."). Here is our short list of the most common things to pay attention to:
- In Japan, being direct and personal are not cultural traits as they are in Western societies, including such simple gestures as making eye contact. It is better to stay with general chit chat until you spend enough time with a local to touch upon personal subjects. Japanese are also unaccustomed to engaging in unexpected conversations or meetings with foreigners making it difficult to cozy up to chefs and artists as one may elsewhere, for example. Even asking directions can become a formal process. In Japan, open expressions of anger are rarest of all and confrontation of any kind is always avoided, as are yelling or loud speech.
- Forgo the handshake (or any physical contact), simply incline your head slightly (with eyes down) to greet someone. Japanese are typically uncomfortable with physical contact touch such as hugging and you'll quickly notice eager displays of affection such as kissing, are also uncommon.
- Shoes should be taken off when entering a house, onsen (bath), temple, some restrooms or restaurant with traditional flooring. There may be slippers placed out for you to wear in such places.
- Japan has many places that off-limits or begrudgingly open to foreigners, such as bath houses where a single tattoo will eliminate you from entry. Many establishments have signs only in Japanese. Please don't be offended.
- Japan is more formal than any other Asian countries and while casual clothes, such as jeans, are perfectly fine for sightseeing, adult men in T-shirts, flip-flops and shorts are a no-no.
- Shoes come off when entering homes, baths, ryokans, for but a few examples.
- Onsen etiquette (bath houses): Some onsen do not allow foreigners. Many onsen do not allow tattoos. Remove everything (shoes, and yes, all of your clothing). Shower or bucket wash before entering the bath.
- Obsessive cleanliness: taxi drivers with gloves, face masks (worn by those who are sick, not those as you would imagine are trying to avoid sickness or pollution), bowing instead of handshakes, complete lack of litter on the streets... the Japanese take being clean to another level entirely.
- Saving face, like in much of Asia, is in full effect in Japan. Even if someone is absolutely wrong, it's not appropriate to call them on it. Likewise, you may find locals shy about questions, like directions, in order to avoid embarrassing themselves or simply may give a you a best guess.
- Japanese do not typically eat or drink while walking in public. This one may be good to adher to, because public trash bins are rare, and you may be left holding your trash for awhile. However, take this and other travel no-nos you may have heard or read about as far from being absolute. After all, you may exhibit perfect manners while traveling in Japan, you may have even spent decades in living there, but you will always be Gaijin (a foreigner), treated differently and not expected to adhere to Japanese customs. It's nothing personal, but the Japanese are steadfast in this cultural aspect more than almost an other people on Earth.
Dining Etiquette in Japan
Itadakimasu or "I will receive," which is polite to say before eating. Wait to drink until after someone has made a small toast. A small wet cloth used it to wash your hands (and never your face) before you dine.
- Since there is no tipping in Japan you are not assigned a dedicated waiter and may simply request service from any wait staff by yelling out "sumimasen!" Expect service to be outstanding despite the no tipping culture.
- In sushi restaurants, eat what is served without making special requests. In other places, eating is typically family style, sharing a mix of dishes.
- Pour drinks for your companion and they will do the same for you.
- Do drink and slurp soup out of your bowl with gusto.
- If you've been invited out, don't go Dutch—whomever invited whom out will pay the bill, but making a gesture to pay is appreciated. Also note, restaurants in Japan are unaccustomed to splitting checks.
Carry your hotel and guide telephone numbers at all times. You may dial 104 anytime and ask for an English operator. English is not as widely spoken in Japan as in many other Asian countries. In the major cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto there are more English speakers and in most situations you will usually find someone around who speaks English. However the further away from large urban areas you get the less English you will find spoken, and in rural areas you may struggle to find anyone who understands you
However there are often staff who speak some English at hotels, tourist sights and attractions. Signs in English follow a similar pattern – both in English and Japanese in the big cities, less so in smaller towns and rural areas. All but the tiniest train stations are signposted in English, including the whole rail and subway network in Tokyo. English explanations at sights and attractions vary; some have plenty of information in English, some have rather less. Menus in English can be found at some restaurants, again mainly those in the big cities with more regular non-Japanese trade. However, many restaurants that do not have English menus will have handy picture menus
- Japanese basics:
Yes = Hai
- Please = Kudasai
- Thank you = Arigato
Excuse me = Suimasen
Thanks, sorry, excuse me (informal, to a friend) = Domo
Hello = Kon-nichi-wa
- Goodbye = Sayonara
See you later (informal) = Ja mata
- Learn to pronounce these and other basic phrases in Japanese (YouTube)
Ryokan (Inn) Accommodation Notes
Ryokan lodging, at some point in your trip, provides the quintessential Japanese travel experience. However, some travelers skip the ryokan due to lack of comfort Western style hotel beds and furniture typically provide (Japanese futons lie flat on the floor) and rooms often feature minimalist, wooden furniture). Some ryokan do address this by offering Western beds. Urban-based ryokan also understand you may not want to be locked into having dinner included with so many options within a city and provide it as an optional part of your stay. Ask us for specific recommendations by location to best suit you.
Japan is famous for its no tipping culture in restaurants and for other services, but for Gaijin, "outside person" or foreigner, there are a few exceptions such as guides, drivers, and ryokan staff. In these cases, tipping should be made by envelope and not by giving cash directly from your pocket. Tipping is common when staying at a ryokan, with tip handed directly to your server or maid (1,000 yen in a small envelope is customary and up to 3,000 when staying consecutive nights), although a small souvenir gift from one's country is also acceptable. You can try to let a taxi driver "keep the change" but you may find that the driver at first refuses the tip, and tries to hand it back to you; it may take a couple of tries to get them to keep it. As in everywhere else in the world, guides and drivers are customarily tipped based on satisfaction.
Guides are tipped typically at 2,500 to 5,000 yen per day and drivers about half this amount.
Indochina and Other Important Contacts
Ms. Asami Shina | Client Services Manager
2311 Higashishinagawa, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo 140-8604
Tel: (81-3) 5796-5422
Tokyo Medical Clinic
32 Shiba Koen Building 2F, 3-4-30 Shiba-koen, Manato-Ku, TOKYO
Tel: (03) 3436-3028
Kyoto Furitsu Medical University Hospital
465 Kajii-cho Hirokoji, Kawaramachi-dori, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto-shi 602-8566
Ready to plan your perfect journey to Japan? Read trip ideas, call us San Francisco at (415) 680-3788 , or Tokyo at 011-813-090-3238 5493
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