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Japan travel guide
The ultimate guide to navigating Nihon like a native.
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From anime to ancient shrines, Tokyo Midtown to Mt. Fuji, Japan’s historical richness and modern mindset invoke curiosity in travelers around the globe. Case in point: The nation expects over 35 million tourists in 2019 alone. Join the ranks of locals and foreign wanderers alike by participating in otsukimi (moon-viewing) or hanami (cherry blossom-viewing) in the Land of the Rising Sun.
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Tips for first time visitors to Japan
1. Keep cash on hand.
Japan is primarily a cash culture — even McDonalds won’t take cards. Plus, you won’t want to miss out on street food and handmade goods from local vendors. Having yen on-hand will help you purchase goods with ease.
2. Brush up on Japanese etiquette.
While most Japanese locals won’t expect you to know exact etiquette, exhibiting basic knowledge about traditional customs indicates respect. Keep these tips in mind:
- Don’t stand chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice. Instead, lean them on the chopstick rest or lay them flat across the bowl. Also, don’t pass food to others with the chopstick end that touches your food. Use the back end to share a taste instead.
- Don’t serve your own booze. Refilling your own glass of sake or other alcohol in Japan implies that your host is ungracious. Instead, wait for a friend to fill it up and clink cups with a hearty kampai, or cheers.
- Don’t thrust your hand out for a shake. You don’t have to understand the complexities of Japanese bowing, but withhold a western-style handshake unless the other party offers one first. Instead, incline your head whenever you meet someone, say thanks or bid adieu.
- Don’t talk on the phone on public transportation. Announcers encourage riders to switch mobile devices on silent mode while riding the bus or train. It’s considered rude to talk loudly in confined public spaces.
3. Eat like a local and embrace convenience stores.
Convenience stores in Japan are renowned for delicious eats, friendly staff and low prices. You’ll find thousands of items at a typical shop, from matcha Kit-Kats to Konnyaku Batake Jellies. You can even buy a boxed meal, or bento, for less than $10 and pick up some manga to read while you eat.
Get cash from an ATM and take advantage of usually-free Wi-Fi.
And no authentic experience is complete without trying street food in Japan — try meat or fish grilled shioyaki-style, yakitori hot off a charcoal stove and dango for something sweet.
4. Understand taboos about tattoos.
Japan has a long and harried history with tattoos, from branded punishment to filial piety. While the official ban against tattoos was lifted in 1948, they’re still a bit stigmatized because of association with the organized crime group Yakuza. Many onsen (natural spring baths) don’t allow tattooed individuals to use their facilities, so folks with body art might consider booking a private spa instead.
5. Remove your shoes when appropriate.
When you enter a building, look for a genkan, or entryway, with shelves containing shoes by the door. This indicates that you should remove your shoes. You should also take your shoes off at ryokans (traditional inns), temples and restaurants with woven straw matting, called tatami.
You’ll usually be given a pair of slippers after taking off your shoes — though tatami requires socks or bare feet.
Pro tip: Wear shoes you can easily slip on or off when visiting a private home.
6. Hold the tip.
Not only is leaving a tip at restaurants a faux pas, many establishments actually consider it rude. That applies to cab and bus rides too. Good service and hospitality is ingrained in Japanese culture and considered a given.
However, it’s acceptable to tip a guide after an excellent tour.
7. BYOHS (Bring your own hand sanitizer.)
Many public bathrooms in Japan don’t supply soap or paper towels. Hand sanitizer will help stave off germs. It also doesn’t hurt to keep a handkerchief handy in case you need to wipe away dirt on the go.
8. Take along a garbage bag.
US visitors might be surprised by the lack of public trash cans in Japan. An old shopping market tote or recycled plastic bag can be a great makeshift garbage to tote along. Most Tokyo dwellers do this out of habit, as it’s seen as good citizenship. You can usually dump trash for good in subway restaurants, convenience stores or department stores.
Speak the language (even if you butcher it)
Japanese people certainly won’t expect you to be fluent in their native tongue, but offering a few basic phrases can show good intentions. Keep these short-and-sweet translations handy:
- Sumimasen. It means “excuse me” and can also be used as “sorry.”
- Arigatō. Thank you.
- Kōnnichiwa. Hello.
- O-negai shimasu.Please.
- Hai. Yes.
- Lie. No.
- Oishii. Delicious!
Transportation in Japan
You’re halfway across the world from your daily commute — time to plot your way around Japan. Here’s a quick guide to your options for Japanese transportation.
Traveling from city to city
Cross-country transport in Japan is generally considered punctual and efficient. Though subway “pushers” fit passengers onto trains within larger cities, you can likely evade being crammed in by avoiding rush hour altogether.
Japan Railways (JR) runs the nation’s most extensive public train system: from Hokkaido to Kyushu, connecting all major cities in between. JR also owns the famous bullet trains, called shinkansen. You can buy a one-week pass for about $269 (standard) or $360 (first class).
Consider using the Odakyo Railway to reach Enoshima, Kamakura, Hakone, Lake Kawaguchi (at the base of Mount Fuji) or the Izu Peninsula. You can find special day pass deals, like a round-trip ticket from Kamakura to Enoshima for just $13.58.
Japan’s buses can transport you to spots unreachable by train, and tend to be cheaper for city-to-city travel. JR’s highway buses are a dependable option, though trips on Willer Express, a smaller operator, can be cheaper. You can buy a three-day Japan Bus Pass with Willer for as little as $92.
Since Japan is comprised of four main islands and thousands of little ones, a ferry can take you to far-off reaches quickly and cheaply. Popular lines include Osaka (Kobe) to Beppu (Oita), and Niigata to Sado Island.
You have your pick of several major airports to fly out of. Domestic carriers include JAL Group — which contains Japan Airlines — All Nippon Airways, Skymark Airlines, Peach Aviation, Vanilla Air and more.
Traveling within a city
If you’re navigating within a city or nearby metropolitan areas, you can usually choose between riding the subway or hiring a taxi, rideshare, bicyle, rickshaw or even a tour bus.
The subway system in Japan is extensive, and usually the speediest way around the city. Stations operate in Fukuoka, Kōbe, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, Tokyo and Yokohama for fast travel between Japanese cities. The Tokyo and Kansai metro areas are even linked through JR and private rail lines, with signs and names posted in English..
All cabs run by the meter in Japan. Fares are fairly uniform with a flat fee for the first mile or two. In Tokyo, use the S.Ride mobile app to hail cars from five major taxi companies throughout the city.
Uber is available in Japan, but it’s not as popular as it is in the US since the taxi service is so convenient.
Taking a coach, or charter bus, in Japan is an option if you can’t get to your destination by bus or train. Some travelers enjoy sightseeing tours via coach with a local guide. But these can be quite expensive — a chartered tour of Mount Fuji for a party of six is around $739 plus tax.
Cycling through Japan is rather popular, both on old-school bicycles and new e-bikes. Community Cycle and CogiCogi, two popular e-bike sharing services, have docking ports throughout Tokyo.
Though rickshaws originated in the late 1800s, tourists can still catch a ride via manpower through Tokyo’s historic Asakusa quarter. Kyoto, Nara and Kamakura all have rickshaw lines. On average, a 30-minute rickshaw tour for two is about 9,000 yen, or $83.
Car rentals in Tokyo
Renting a car can be a wonderful way to see rural Japan, where public transportation may fall short. But keep in mind that a rental car can be inconvenient in major cities, where bus and train routes are plentiful.
Japan’s major car rental companies include:
- Toyota Rentacar
- Nippon Rentacar
- Orix Rentacar
- Times Car Rental
- Nissan Rentacar
Expect to pay about $46 to rent a car per day in Tokyo. To get the best prices on car rental, book your ride at least one week before your trip.
Driving in Japan
- Traffic laws. Similar to most European countries, cars drive on the left side of the road in Japan (and steering wheels are planted on the right.) Most road signs are posted in English as well as Japanese.
- Tolls. Most Japanese roads are toll-free, except for the expressways and certain scenic routes. For example, tolls between Tokyo and Kagoshima on the Tokyo Expressway cost about 27,500 yen — that’s $254.
- Driving requirements. In order to rent or drive a car in Japan, you must have either an International Driving Permit (IDP) or Japanese driver’s license. The IDP must be obtained in your home country in advance. Apply at your local AAA branch.
- Parking. While parking in the countryside and small towns is usually free, expect to pay hundreds of yen per hour in major cities. National parks and tourist attractions generally charge a flat fee for parking, as do hotels. But again, this might cost hundreds per night.
- Gas stations. You’ll find both self-service and full-service gas stations in Japan. If you stop at a full-service spot, tell the attendant which kind of gas you need (futsu no for “regular”), how much you want and how you’re planning to pay.
Though there are over 90 airports in Japan, international travelers will want to consider its four main international hubs:
- Haneda Airport (HND).
- Narita International Airport (NRT).
- Kansai International Airport (KIX).
- Chubu Centrair International Airport (NGO).
As Japan’s biggest domestic hub (and the second largest airport in all of Asia), Haneda is just 11 miles south of Tokyo. Hop on the Tokyo Monorail, which’ll take you to Tokyo in less than a half-hour.
Japan’s largest international airport is about 40 miles east of Tokyo. The JR Narita Express train will get you to central Tokyo in about an hour, though you could also take a bus, taxi or Uber.
Kansai is closest to Kyoto and Osaka, which you can reach in an hour or two on an express train.
Chubu refers to central Japan. Travelers can expect easy access to manufacturing and shipping hub Nagoya. Limited express lines will get you to the city in 40 to 50 minutes.
Private and shared shuttle airport transfer deals
Japan travel deals
Frequently asked questions
You’re not alone in your wanderlust for Japan — nearly three million people visited the Land of the Rising Sun in April 2019. Get your Japan travel FAQs answered to stay in-the-know when planning your next south Pacific adventure.
- Can I get money from an ATM in Japan? Yes, in major cities. Japan Post Office ATMs are fairly common and accept western credit cards. Keep in mind the withdrawal limit is 200,000 yen (around $1856) per day. You’ll also find Citibank ATMs and Seven Bank locations within 7-Elevens in urban areas. It’s a good idea to scout an ATM locator before you go to see if there’ll be an ATM nearby.
- What’s the national currency in Japan? The yen, abbreviated as JPY or JP¥. Its symbol is ¥. For reference, 1,000 JPY equates to $9.28*.
*As of July 18, 2019. Exchange rates are volatile and change often. As a result, the exchange rate listed on Finder may vary to the actual exchange rate quoted for the brand.
- Are credit cards widely accepted in Japan? No. While most big hotels and major retailers likely have the tools to process credit cards, Japan’s cash culture still reigns — especially among local shops and restaurants. While it’s always best tokeep cash on you at all times, in some cases you’re able to use a credit card in Japan.
- What should I know about using cash in Japan?Cash is the most popular way to pay for things in Japan, as many shops and nearly all street food vendors don’t accept credit cards. Keep cash handy at all times. As a backup plan, learn the cash transfer requirements in Japan ahead of time for easy access in a pinch.
- What is the national airline in Japan? Japan Airlines is the flag carrier preferred by the government while All Nippon Airways (ANA) is the second largest overall. Learn more about major Japanese airlines and centrally located airports.
- Do I need a visa to visit Japan? Nope. US citizens can visit Japan “visa free” for up to 90 days at a time. However, note that it’s illegal to work on “visa free” entry. To stay for longer than 90 days without a visa, you’ll have to depart and re-enter the country with the appropriate visa.
- What are the names of Japan’s regions? Japan is traditionally divided into eight different regions, from north to south: Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kinki, Chugoku, Shikoku and Kyushu-Okinawa. Tokyo is in the Kanto District.
Health and safety
- Is Japan safe? Yes. As far as crime rates, Japan is one of the safest nations in the world. In 2017, there were just 915,042 recorded crimes committed overall. It’s generally safe to walk around at night, so Japan is a good choice for solo travelers. However, just because the statistics indicate safety doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. World travelers should remain alert at all times, regardless of which country they’re in.
And keep the natural elements in mind:
- Earthquakes. When traveling to Tohoku, Kanto and Shizuoka, take heed: These areas, among others, are more prone to earthquakes.
- Typhoons. Okinawa, Kyushu and Hokkaido are a few areas more likely to be affected by typhoons, or tropical cyclones.
- Volcanoes. You’ll find active volcanoes in Japan, including its most famous, Mount Fuji, and Mount Unzen in Shimabara.
- Radiation. Following the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011, radiation is still present at the disaster point. Levels are said to be low, but caution is advised near the site.
- Is the water safe to drink in Japan? Yes, in general. Japan’s tap water must pass strict quality control tests before it’s approved for drinking, and businesses that serve tap water have to be approved by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare before operating. In fact, Japan is one of 15 countries worldwide with drinkable tap water, next to Germany and Finland.
However, old lead pipes still exist in certain areas of Japan — as in the US — so it’s recommended that apartment and condo dwellers use a filtering system.
- Do I need any vaccines to visit Japan? Yes. All travelers should be vaccinated against measles and rubella in Japan, as there are outbreaks within the nation. You may also need a COVID-19 vaccine when the border opens up to US tourists again. The World Health Organization (WHO) and CDC recommend staying up-to-date on routine vaccinations before visiting Japan. These include:
- Measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine
- Diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine
- Varicella (chickenpox) vaccine
- Polio vaccine
- Yearly flu shot
Depending on your travel plans within Japan, your doctor may also recommend the following vaccinations:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Japanese Encephalitis
However, required vaccinations change based on the current medical climate in Japan. Check the CDC’s updated list of required vaccinations before your trip.
Top spots for travel
- Where are the best ski resorts in Japan? Japan’s most popular ski resorts by total run length are Shigakogen Mountain Resort (59 lifts), Happo-One in Hakuba Valley (22 lifts) and Niseko United (31 lifts). Compare Japan’s top ski resorts in our powder guide.
- Where’s the best shopping in Japan? Shopaholics should head to Ginza, Tokyo for a luxury shopping experience chock full of designer goods. Shinjuku in Tokyo is the next-best destination, with large department stores and malls.
- Where’s the best nightlife in Japan? The best nightlife varies by city and your preferences. But here are popular late-night neighborhoods in the nation’s three largest metropolises:
- Shibuya is a central district illuminated by neon lights. It’s packed with arcades, karaoke bars, clubs, eateries and more. Visit the Nonbei Yokocho neighborhood for hole-in-the-wall bars and restaurants open late.
- Shinjuku contains red-light entertainment plus Tokyo’s vibrant LGBT neighborhood, Ni-Chome. There, you’ll find the famous adults-only robot restaurant and izakayas (informal pubs) aplenty.
- Though Kyoto is more known for quiet shrines than bumping clubs, visitors can find lively nightlife near the Kamo River, in between Gion-Shijo and Sanjo stations. Check out Kiyamachi Dori for the main action, then head over to Pontocho Alley for a charming and intimate atmosphere.
- Namba Station, Minami is a major entertainment district in southern Osaka where locals and travelers alike dance the night away at lively clubs and bars. In the Umedaneighborhood up north, you can find high-energy shows at Billboard Live or hit up LGBT club Explosion. Dotonbori, Shinsaibashi and Souemoncho offer excellent restaurants and shopping into the wee hours.
- Where are the best beaches in Japan? Being an island nation, beautiful beaches in Japan aren’t hard to come by. In fact, there are literally hundreds to lounge on.
Here are some popular ones:
- Yonaha Maehama beach.It’s 400 miles off the Japanese mainland on Miyako island. You’ll have to hop on a plane to get to this one.
- Enoshima beach.An island beach conveniently accessed by bridge from Kamakura.
- Kondoi beach.Enjoy a ferry ride from Ishigaki to the longest beach on Taketomi island.
- Ibusuki beach.Escape to the seaside town of Ibusuki from Kagoshima city via train, and sink your feet into volcanic sand.
- Jodogahama beach. Jodogahama, meaning “pure land,” lies just outside of Miyako city in northern Japan. Explore caves, rock formations and take in mountain views.
- Onjuku beach. Take an hour train ride from Tokyo to Chiba on the Pacific Ocean and dip in the warm water.
- Wakasa Aada beach. North of Kyoto, beach bums get a clear view of Mount Aoba.
After you’ve chosen a beach, book a hotel nearby for close proximity to salt-soaked fun.
Pro tip for nightlife in Japan:
Look for spots that advertise nomihoudai, which means all-you-can-drink in English. You can find two-hour nomihodai deals for as low as 1,200 yen ($11).
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