Tradition and modernity share space in this island nation where ancient shrines bump up against skyscrapers. Castles and palaces whisper of history, and bullet trains shuttle you through spectacular landscapes to cities packed with world-class restaurants and shopping. From Tokyo’s urban sprawl to the peacefulness of Kyoto, from boisterous Osaka nightlife to Hiroshima’s contemplative spirit, Japan’s big attractions never fail to dazzle first-time visitors. What keeps people coming back is astoundingly delicious food, a unique culture, and warm hospitality.
Flying time to Japan is 14 hours from New York, 13 hours from Chicago, and 10 hours from Los Angeles. Your trip east, because of tailwinds, can be about 45 minutes shorter.
You can fly nonstop to Tokyo from most major U.S. airports. While some airports offer nonstop flights to Osaka, many route through Tokyo or another Asian hub city. Fares to Japan usually run around $1,200 (more during peak travel times) but in the off-season there are often good deals to be found.
Both of Japan’s major carriers offer reduced prices for flights within the country, which are real cost- and time-savers if your trip includes destinations such as Kyushu or Hokkaido, though tickets must be booked outside Japan and there are restrictions on use in peak times. JAL offers the Yokoso Visit Japan Fare; ANA has the Experience Japan Fare.
The major gateway to Japan is Tokyo’s Narita Airport (NRT), 80 km (50 miles) northeast of the city. The Haneda Airport International Terminal, which opened in 2010, offers flights to major international cities and is only 20 km (12 miles) south of central Tokyo. The newer Centrair Airport (NGO) near Nagoya opened to take the strain off Narita. International flights also use Kansai International Airport (KIX) outside Osaka to serve the Kansai region, which includes Kobe, Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka. Fares are generally cheapest into Narita, however. A few international flights use Fukuoka Airport, on the island of Kyushu; these include Continental flights from Guam, JAL from Honolulu, and flights from other Asian destinations. New Chitose Airport, outside Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido, handles some international flights, mostly to Asian destinations such as Seoul and Shanghai. Most domestic flights to and from Tokyo are out of Haneda Airport.
Terminals 1 and 2 at Tokyo’s Narita Airport are for international flights while Terminal 3 is for low-cost carriers. Terminal 2 has two adjoining wings, north and south. When you arrive, your first task should be to convert your money into yen; you need it for transportation into Tokyo. In both wings ATMs and money-exchange counters are in the wall between the customs inspection area and the arrival lobby. Both terminals have a Japan National Tourism Organization tourist information center, where you can get free maps, brochures, and other visitor information. Directly across from the customs-area exits at both terminals are the ticket counters for airport limousine buses to Tokyo.
If you have a flight delay at Narita, take a local Keisei Line train into Narita town 15 minutes away, where a traditional shopping street and the beautiful Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple are a peaceful escape from airport noise.
Flying into Haneda provides visitors with quicker access to downtown Tokyo, which is a short monorail ride away. Stop by the currency exchange and Tourist Information Desk in the second-floor arrival lobby before taking a train into the city. There are also numerous jade-uniformed concierge staff on hand to help passengers with any questions.
If you plan to skip Tokyo and center your trip on Kyoto or central or western Honshu, Kansai International Airport (KIX) is the airport to use. Built on reclaimed land in Osaka Bay, it’s laid out vertically. The first floor is for international arrivals; the second floor is for domestic departures and arrivals; the third floor has shops and restaurants; and the fourth floor is for international departures. A small tourist information center on the first floor of the passenger terminal building is open daily 9–5. Major carriers are Air Canada, Japan Airlines, and Delta Airlines. The trip from KIX to Kyoto takes 75 minutes by JR train; to Osaka it takes 45–70 minutes.
Known as “The Gateway to Japan,” Narita is the easiest airport to use if you are traveling to Tokyo. It takes about 90 minutes—a time very dependent on city traffic—by taxi or bus. The Keisei Skyliner and Japan Railways NEX are the easiest ways to get into the city. If you are arriving with a Japan Rail Pass and staying in Tokyo for a few days, it is best to pay for the transfer into the city and activate the Rail Pass for travel beyond Tokyo.
Directly across from the customs-area exits at both terminals are the ticket counters for buses to Tokyo. Buses leave from platforms just outside terminal exits, exactly on schedule; the departure time is on the ticket. The Airport Limousine offer shuttle-bus service from Narita to Tokyo.
Japan Railways trains stop at Narita Airport terminals 1 and 2. The fastest and most comfortable is the Narita Limited Express (NEX), which makes 23 runs a day in each direction. Trains from the airport go directly to the central Tokyo Station in just under an hour, then continue to Yokohama and Ofuna. Daily departures begin at 7:44 am; the last train is at 9:44 pm. In addition to regular seats, there is a first-class Green Car and private, four-person compartments. All seats are reserved, and you’ll need to reserve one for yourself in advance, as this train fills quickly.
The Keisei Skyliner train runs every 20–30 minutes between the airport terminals and Keisei-Ueno Station. The trip takes around 40 minutes. The first Skyliner leaves Narita for Ueno at 7:28 am, the last at 10:30 pm. From Ueno to Narita the first Skyliner is at 5:58 am, the last at 6:20 pm. There’s also an early train from the airport, called the Morning Liner, which leaves at 7:49 am and costs ¥1,400.
Transfers Between Airports
Transfer between Narita and Haneda, the international and domestic airports, is easiest by the Friendly Limousine Bus, which should take 75 minutes and costs ¥3,000. The Keisei Access Express runs between the two airports but requires a transfer at Aoto Station.
Japan Airlines (JAL) and United Airlines are the major carriers between North America and Narita Airport in Tokyo; American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and All Nippon Airways (ANA) also link North American cities with Tokyo’s Haneda and Narita airports. Most of these airlines also fly into and out of Japan’s two other international airports, Kansai International Airport, located south of Osaka, and Centrair, near Nagoya.
Ferries connect most of the islands of Japan. Some of the more popular routes are from Tokyo to Tomakomai or Kushiro in Hokkaido; from Tokyo to Shikoku; and from Tokyo or Osaka to Kyushu. You can purchase ferry tickets in advance from travel agencies or before boarding. The ferries are inexpensive and are a pleasant, if slow, way of traveling. Private cabins are available, but it’s more fun to travel in the economy class, where everyone sleeps on the carpeted floor in one large room. Passengers eat, drink, and enjoy themselves in a convivial atmosphere. There is little English information for local ferries, apart from three companies serving the Inland Sea between Osaka/Kobe and Kyushu.
Japan Railways (JR) offers a number of long-distance buses that are comfortable and inexpensive. You can use Japan Rail Passes on some, but not all, of these buses. Routes and schedules are constantly changing, but tourist information offices will have up-to-date details. It’s now possible to travel from Osaka to Tokyo for as little as ¥5,000 one-way. Buses are nonsmoking, generally modern, and very comfortable, though overnight journeys still mean sleeping in your seat. Foreign travelers are not often seen on these buses, and they remain one of the country’s best-kept travel secrets. Japan Rail Passes are not accepted by private bus companies. City buses outside Tokyo are quite convenient, but be sure of your route and destination, because the bus driver probably won’t speak English.
Local buses have a set cost, anywhere from ¥100 to ¥200, depending on the route and municipality, in which case you board at the front of the bus and pay as you get on. On other buses, cost is determined by the distance you travel. You take a ticket when you board at the rear door of the bus; it bears the number of the stop at which you boarded. Your fare depends on your destination and is indicated by a board at the front of the bus. Japan Railways also runs buses in some areas that have limited rail service. These buses are covered by the JR Pass, even if some reservation clerks tell you otherwise. Bus schedules can be hard to fathom if you don’t read Japanese, however, so it’s best to ask for help at a tourist information office. The Nihon Bus Association has information about routes and which companies have English information online.
Reservations are not always essential, except at peak holiday times and on the most popular routes, like Tokyo–Osaka.
You need an international driving permit (IDP) to drive in Japan. IDPs are available from the American Automobile Association. These international permits, valid only in conjunction with your regular driver’s license, are universally recognized; having one may prevent problems with the local authorities. By law, car seats must be installed if the driver is traveling with a child under six.
Major roads in Japan are sufficiently marked in roman type, and on country roads there’s usually someone to ask for help. However, it’s a good idea to have a detailed map with town names written in kanji (Japanese characters) and romaji (romanized Japanese).
Car travel along the Tokyo–Kyoto–Hiroshima corridor and in other built-up areas of Japan is not as convenient as the trains. Roads are congested, gas is expensive (about ¥160 per liter), and highway tolls are exorbitant (tolls between Tokyo and Kyoto amount to ¥10,550). In major cities, with the exception of main arteries, English signs are few and far between, one-way streets often lead you off the track, and parking is often hard to find.
That said, a car can be the best means for exploring cities outside the metropolitan areas and the rural parts of Japan, especially Kyushu and Hokkaido. Consider taking a train to those areas where exploring the countryside will be most interesting and renting a car locally for a day or even half a day. Book ahead in holiday seasons. Car rental rates in Tokyo begin at ¥6,300 a day and ¥37,800 a week, including tax, for an economy car with unlimited mileage.
Gas stations are plentiful along Japan’s toll roads, and prices are fairly uniform across the country. Credit cards are accepted everywhere and are even encouraged—there are discounts for them at some places. Many stations offer both full and self-service and may offer a discount for pumping your own gas. Often you pay after putting in the gas, but there are also machines where you put money in first and then use the receipt to get change back. The staff will offer to take away trash and clean car windows. Tipping is not customary.
There is little on-street parking in Japan. Parking is usually in staffed parking lots or inside large buildings. Expect to pay upward of ¥300 per hour. Parking regulations are strictly enforced, and illegally parked vehicles are towed away. Recovery fees start at ¥30,000 and increase hourly.
Roads in Japan are often narrower than those in the United States, but they’re usually well maintained. Driving in cities can be troublesome, as there are many narrow, one-way streets and little in the way of English signage except on major arteries. Japanese drivers stick to the speed limit, but widely ignore bans on mobile phone use and dashboard televisions. Wild boars are not uncommon in rural districts, and have been known to block roads and ram into cars in the mountainous city of Kobe and in Kyushu, especially at night. From December to April northern and mountainous areas are often snowy.
Emergency telephones along highways can be used to contact the authorities. A nonprofit service, JHelp.com, offers a free, 24-hour emergency assistance hotline. Car-rental agencies generally offer roadside assistance services. Mobile phones are now so widespread that local drivers can call for help from the middle of nowhere.
Fire and Ambulance. 119.
Rules of the Road
In Japan people drive on the left. Speed limits vary, but generally the limit is 80 kph (50 mph) on highways, 40 kph (25 mph) in cities. Penalties for speeding are severe. By law, car seats must be installed if the driver is traveling with a child under six, while the driver and all passengers in cars must wear seat belts at all times. Driving while using handheld phones is illegal.
Many smaller streets lack sidewalks, so cars, bicycles, and pedestrians share the same space. Fortunately, considering the narrowness of the streets and the volume of traffic, most Japanese drivers are technically skilled. However, they may not allow quite as much distance between cars as you’re used to. Be prepared for sudden lane changes by other drivers. When waiting at intersections after dark, many drivers, as a courtesy to other drivers, turn off their main headlights to prevent glare.
Japan has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drinking and driving, so it’s wisest to avoid alcohol entirely if you plan to drive.
CRUISE SHIP TRAVEL
Japan is a popular cruise-ship destination, particularly for upscale and luxury cruise lines, many of which do an annual around-Japan cruise. In fact, you might very well find yourself visiting more off-the-beaten-path destinations on a cruise than on a land-based tour, though the trade-off often means spending considerably less time in each place.
Hakodate, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Osaka, and Kobe are among the Japanese ports welcoming foreign cruise ships.
Taxis are an expensive way of getting around cities in Japan, though nascent deregulation moves are easing the market a little. In Tokyo, for instance, the first 2 km (1 mile) costs ¥730 and it’s ¥90 for every additional 280 meters (400 yards). Between 10 pm and 5 am there is a 20% service charge. If possible, avoid using taxis during rush hours (7:30 am–9:30 am and 5 pm–7 pm).
In general, it’s easy to hail a cab: do not shout or wave wildly—simply raise your hand. Japanese taxis have automatic door-opening systems, so do not try to open the taxi door. Stand back when the cab comes to a stop—if you are too close, the door may slam into you. Only the curbside rear door opens. A red light on the dashboard (visible through the front window) indicates an available taxi, and a green light indicates an occupied taxi.
Drivers are for the most part courteous, though not necessarily chatty. Unless you’re going to a well-known destination such as a major hotel, it’s advisable to have a Japanese person write out your destination in Japanese. Your hotel concierge will do this for you. Remember, there is no need to tip.
Riding Japanese trains is one of the pleasures of travel in the country. Efficient and convenient, trains run frequently and on schedule. The Shinkansen (bullet train), one of the fastest trains in the world, connects major cities north and south of Tokyo. It is slightly less expensive than flying, and is in many ways more convenient because train stations are more centrally located than airports. If you have a Japan Rail Pass, it’s also extremely affordable.
Other trains, though not as fast as the Shinkansen, are just as convenient and substantially cheaper. There are three types of train services: futsu (local service), tokkyu (limited express service), and kyuko (express service). Both the tokkyu and the kyuko offer a first-class compartment known as the Green Car. Smoking is allowed only in designated carriages on long-distance and Shinkansen trains. Local and commuter trains are entirely no-smoking.
Because there are no porters or carts at train stations, it’s a good idea to travel light when getting around by train. Savvy travelers often have their main luggage sent ahead to a hotel that they plan to reach later in their wanderings. It’s also good to know that every train station, however small, has luggage lockers, which cost about ¥300 for 24 hours.
If you plan on traveling by rail, consider a Japan Rail Pass, which offers unlimited travel on Japan Railways (JR) trains. You can purchase one-, two-, or three-week passes. A one-week pass is less expensive than a regular round-trip ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Shinkansen. You must obtain a rail pass voucher prior to departure for Japan (you cannot buy them in Japan), and the pass must be used within three months of purchase. The pass is available only to people with tourist visas, as opposed to business, student, and diplomatic visas.
When you arrive in Japan, you must exchange your voucher for the Japan Rail Pass. You can do this at the Japan Railways desk in the arrivals hall at Narita Airport or at JR stations in major cities. When you make this exchange, you determine the day that you want the rail pass to begin, and, accordingly, when it ends. You do not have to begin travel on the day you make the exchange; instead, pick the starting date to maximize use. The Japan Rail Pass allows you to travel on all JR-operated trains (which cover most destinations in Japan) but not lines owned by other companies.
The JR Pass is also valid on buses operated by Japan Railways. You can make seat reservations without paying a fee on all trains that have reserved-seat coaches, usually long-distance trains. The Japan Rail Pass does not cover the cost of sleeping compartments on overnight trains (called blue trains), nor does it cover the newest and fastest of the Shinkansen trains, the Nozomi, which make only one or two stops on longer runs. The pass covers only the Hikari Shinkansen, which make a few more stops than the Nozomi, and the Kodama Shinkansen, which stop at every station along the Shinkansen routes. However, it can be used on all the Yamagata, Tohoku, Joetsu, and Hokuriku Shinkansen trains.
Japan Rail Passes are available in coach class and first class, and as the difference in price between the two is relatively small, it’s worth the splurge for first class, for real luxury, especially on the Shinkansen. A one-week pass costs ¥29,110 coach class, ¥38,800 first class; a two-week pass costs ¥46,390 coach class, ¥62,950 first class; and a three-week pass costs ¥59,350 coach class, ¥81,870 first class. Travelers under 18 pay lower rates. The pass pays for itself after one Tokyo–Kyoto round-trip Shinkansen ride. Contact a travel agent or Japan Airlines to purchase the pass.
Many travelers assume that rail passes guarantee them seats on the trains they wish to ride. Not so. If you’re using a rail pass, there’s no need to buy individual tickets, but you should book seats ahead. You can reserve up to two weeks in advance or just minutes before the train departs. If you fail to make a train, there’s no penalty, and you can reserve again.
Seat reservations for any JR route may be made at any JR station except those in the tiniest villages. The reservation windows or offices, midori-no-madoguchi, have green signs in English. If you’re traveling without a Japan Rail Pass, there’s a surcharge of approximately ¥500 (depending upon distance traveled) for seat reservations, and if you miss the train you’ll have to pay for another reservation. All JR trains are nonsmoking, although the Shinkansen have a few small, enclosed compartments that allow smoking. Your reservation ticket shows the date and departure time of your train as well as your car and seat number. Notice the markings painted on the platform or on little signs above the platform; ask someone which markings correspond to car numbers. If you don’t have a reservation, ask which cars are unreserved. Unreserved tickets can be purchased at regular ticket windows. There are no reservations for local service trains. For traveling short distances, tickets are usually sold at vending machines. A platform ticket is required if you go through the wicket gate onto the platform to meet someone coming off a train. The charge is between ¥120 and ¥160 depending on the station.
Most clerks at train stations know a few basic words of English and can read roman script. They are invariably helpful in plotting your route. The complete railway timetable is a mammoth book written only in Japanese; however, you can get an English-language train schedule from the Japan National Tourism Organization that covers the Shinkansen and a few of the major JR Limited Express trains. JNTO’s booklet The Tourist’s Language Handbook provides helpful information about purchasing tickets in Japan. The Jorudan Route Finder is a good online source for searching train times and prices.
Except for some traditional ryokan and minshiku, nearly all hotels have high-speed Internet access. Wireless Internet access (Wi-Fi) is increasingly available for free at coffee shops and in hotel lobbies across the country, however there are still a number of hotels that do not offer in-room Wi-Fi. There are Internet cafés in many cities, but they tend to be dark, cavelike halls focused more on manga (comic book) and computer games than checking email. Although free Wi-Fi is not as widespread as in the United States, there are some free services that allow tourists to access a number of hot spots around the country. Two of the most useful are Travel Japan Wi-Fi (throughout Japan) and Free Wi-Fi Japan (mostly Tokyo and the surrounding tourist sites).
The country code for Japan is 81. When dialing a Japanese number from outside Japan, drop the initial “0” from the local area code. The country code for the United States is 1.
Calling Within Japan
Public telephones are a dying species in cell-phone-happy Japan. But there are sometimes public telephones near convenience stores, train and bus stations, and, of course, in hotel lobbies. Phones accept ¥100 coins as well as prepaid telephone cards. Domestic long-distance rates are reduced as much as 50% after 9 pm (40% after 7 pm). Telephone cards, sold in vending machines, hotels, and a variety of stores, are tremendously convenient.
Operator assistance at 104 is in Japanese only. Weekdays 9–5 (except national holidays) English-speaking operators can help you at the toll-free NTT Information Customer Service Centre.
Calling Outside Japan
With payphones that can be used for international calls becoming more of a rarity, and high rates calling from hotels, the best way to call abroad is to use an Internet-based service like Skype or Google Voice. There are still a few telephone cards that can be used to call out of Japan such as the KDDI Super World Card. Each card has different access codes so follow the included instructions. Major U.S. cellular carriers also offer international voice and data plans. Check with your carrier for details.
Japan has several telephone companies for international calls, so make a note of all the possible access code numbers to use to connect to your U.S. server before departure.
Telephone cards for ¥1,000 can be bought at station kiosks or convenience stores and can be used in virtually all public telephones. For international calls, look for phones that accept KDDI prepaid cards valued between ¥1,000 and ¥7,000. Cards are available from convenience stores.
Japan is the world leader in mobile-phone technology, but overseas visitors cannot easily use their handsets in Japan because it is a non-GSM country. It’s best to rent a phone from one of the many outlets at Narita, Kansai, and Nagoya airports. Softbank sells SIM cards so you can use your own number in Japan. Most company rental rates start at ¥525 a day.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
Japan has strict regulations about bringing firearms, pornography, and narcotics into the country. Anyone caught with drugs is liable to be detained, refused reentry into Japan, and deported. Certain fresh fruits, vegetables, plants, and animals are also illegal. Nonresidents are allowed to bring in duty-free: (1) 400 cigarettes or 100 cigars or 500 grams of tobacco; (2) three 760-milliliter bottles of alcohol; (3) 2 ounces of perfume; (4) other goods up to ¥200,000 value.
Getting through customs at a Japanese airport goes more smoothly if you are well dressed, clean-shaven, and as conventional-looking as possible. Visitors arriving off flights from other Asian countries are particularly scrutinized for narcotics. Note that visitors must have a written prescription for any prescription medicine brought into Japan and that some over-the-counter medicines from the United States are not legal in Japan.
The electrical current in Japan is 100 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC) in eastern Japan, and 100 volts, 60 cycles in western Japan. The United States runs on 110-volt, 60-cycle AC current. Wall outlets in Japan accept plugs with two flat prongs, as in the United States, but do not accept U.S. three-prong plugs.
Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and mobile phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts), so require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturers’ instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked for shavers only for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
The following embassy and consulate is open weekdays, with one- to two-hour closings for lunch. Call for exact hours.
General Emergency Contacts
Ambulance and Fire. 119.
Japan is a safe, clean country for travelers with drinkable water and no major water- or insect-borne diseases. Condoms are sold widely, but they may not have the brands you’re used to. Speak with your physician and/or check the CDC or World Health Organization websites for health alerts, particularly if you’re pregnant or traveling with children or have a chronic illness.
Specific Issues in Japan
Tap water is safe everywhere in Japan. Medical treatment varies from highly skilled and professional at major hospitals to somewhat less advanced in small neighborhood clinics. At larger hospitals you have a good chance of encountering English-speaking doctors.
Mosquitoes can be a minor irritation during the rainy season, though you are never at risk of contracting anything serious. If you’re staying in a ryokan or any place without air-conditioning, anti-mosquito coils or an electric-powered spray will be provided. Dehydration and heatstroke could be concerns if you spend a long time outside during the summer months, but sports drinks are readily available from the nation’s ubiquitous vending machines.
Medication can only be bought at pharmacies in Japan, but every neighborhood seems to have at least one. Ask for the yakyoku (薬局). Pharmacists in Japan are usually able to manage at least a few words of English, and certainly are able to read some, so have a pen and some paper ready, just in case. In Japanese, aspirin is asupirin and Tylenol is Tairenoru. Following national regulations, Japanese drugs often contain less potent ingredients than foreign brands, so the effects can be disappointing; check advised dosages carefully.
Drugs and medications are widely available at drugstores, although the brand names and use instructions will be in Japanese, so if you’re on regular medication, take along enough supplies to cover the trip. As with any international travel, be sure to bring your prescription or a doctor’s note just in case.
HOURS OF OPERATION
General business hours in Japan are weekdays 9 to 5. Many offices also open at least half the day on Saturday, but are generally closed Sunday.
Banks are open weekdays from 9 until 4 or 5. As with shops, there’s a trend toward longer and later opening hours.
Gas stations follow usual shop hours, though 24-hour stations can be found near major highways.
Museums generally close Monday and the day following national holidays. They are also closed the day following special exhibits and during the weeklong New Year’s celebrations.
Department stores are usually open 10 to 7, but close one day a week, varying from store to store. Other shops are open from 10 or 11 to 8 or 9. There’s a trend toward longer and later opening hours in major cities, and 24-hour convenience stores, many of which now have ATM facilities, can be found across the entire country.
As elsewhere, peak times for travel in Japan tend to fall around holiday periods. Avoid traveling during the few days before and after New Year’s; during Golden Week, which follows Greenery Day (April 29); and in mid-July and mid-August, at the time of Obon festivals, when many Japanese return to their hometowns (Obon festivals are celebrated July or August 13–16, depending on the location). Note that when a holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is a holiday.
Japan’s national holidays are January 1 (Ganjitsu, New Year’s Day); the second Monday in January (Senjin-no-hi, Coming of Age Day); February 11 (Kenkoku Kinen-bi, National Foundation Day); March 20 or 21 (Shumbun-no-hi, Vernal Equinox); April 29 (Showa-no-hi, Showa Day); May 3 (Kempo Kinen-bi, Constitution Memorial Day); May 4 (Midori-no-hi, Greenery Day); May 5 (Kodomo-no-hi, Children’s Day); the third Monday in July (Umi-no-hi, Marine Day); the third Monday in September (Keiro-no-hi, Respect for the Aged Day); September 23 or 24 (Shubun-no-hi, Autumnal Equinox); the second Monday in October (Taiiku-no-hi, Sports Day); November 3 (Bunka-no-hi, Culture Day); November 23 (Kinro Kansha-no-hi, Labor Thanksgiving Day); December 23 (Tenno Tanjobi, Emperor’s Birthday).
Japan can be expensive, but there are ways to cut costs. This requires, to some extent, an adventurous spirit and the courage to stray from the standard tourist paths. One good way to hold down expenses is to avoid taxis (they tend to get stuck in traffic anyway) and use the inexpensive, efficient subway and bus systems. Instead of dining at restaurants with menus in English and Western-style food, head to places where you can rely on your good old index finger to point to the dish you want, and try food that locals favor.
ATMs and Banks
The easiest way to withdraw money is at convenience-store ATMs. 7-11 stores and 7 Bank ATMs accept most internationally branded cards. ATMs at many Japanese banks do not accept foreign-issue debit or credit cards. UFJ and Shinsei banks are members of the Plus network, as are some convenience store cash machines. ATMs at post offices and major convenience stores accept Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, and Cirrus cards. In more-rural areas, it can be difficult to find suitable ATMs so it is best to get cash before heading out into the countryside.
PIN codes in Japan are comprised of four digits. In Japanese an ATM is commonly referred to by its English acronym, while a PIN is ansho bango. If you need assistance, contact the bank staff by using the phone next to the ATM. Many machines also have English on-screen instructions.
MasterCard and Visa are the most widely accepted credit cards in Japan. When you use a credit card you’ll be asked if you intend to pay in one installment as most locals do, say hai-ikkai (Yes, one time) just to fit in, even if you plan differently once you get home. Many vendors don’t accept American Express. Cash is still king in Japan, especially at smaller businesses—even in large cities like Osaka and Tokyo.
Currency and Exchange
The unit of currency in Japan is the yen (¥). There are bills of ¥10,000, ¥5,000, ¥2,000, and ¥1,000. Coins are ¥500, ¥100, ¥50, ¥10, ¥5, and ¥1. Japanese currency floats on the international monetary exchange, so changes can be dramatic.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there’s some kind of huge, hidden fee. And as for rates, you’re almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.
Pack light, because porters can be hard to find and storage space in hotel rooms may be tiny. What you pack depends more on the time of year than on any dress code. For travel in the cities, pack as you would for any American or European city. At more expensive restaurants and nightclubs men usually need to wear a jacket and tie. Wear conservative-color clothing at business meetings. Casual clothes are fine for sightseeing. Jeans are as popular in Japan as they are in the United States, and are perfectly acceptable for informal dining and sightseeing.
Although there are no strict dress codes for visiting temples and shrines, you will be out of place in immodest outfits. For sightseeing leave sandals and open-toe shoes behind; you’ll need sturdy walking shoes for the gravel pathways that surround temples and fill parks. Make sure to bring comfortable clothing to wear in traditional Japanese restaurants, where you may need to sit on tatami-matted floors. For beach and mountain resorts pack informal clothes for both day and evening wear. Central and southern Japan are hot and humid June to September, so pack cotton clothing. Winter daytime temperatures in northern Japan hover around freezing, so gloves and hats are necessary, and clip-on shoe spikes can be bought locally.
Japanese do not wear shoes in private homes or in any temples or traditional inns. Having shoes you can quickly slip in and out of is a decided advantage. Take wool socks (checking first for holes!) to help you through those shoeless occasions in winter.
All lodgings provide a thermos of hot water and bags of green tea in every room. For coffee, you can call room service, buy very sweet coffee in a can from a vending machine, or purchase packets of instant coffee at local convenience stores. If you’re staying in a Japanese inn, they probably won’t have coffee.
Hotels in Japan require foreign guests to show passports at check-in, but police are unlikely to ask foreign visitors for on-the-spot identification, although crime crackdowns on nightlife areas of big cities and political tensions with neighboring countries can alter local circumstances in some areas.
Even in its major cities Japan is a very safe country, with one of the lowest crime rates in the world. You should, however, keep an eye out for pickpockets and avoid unlighted roads at night like anywhere else. Distribute your cash, credit cards, IDs, and other valuables between a deep front pocket, an inside jacket or vest pocket, and a hidden money pouch. Don’t reach for the money pouch once you’re in public.
The greatest danger is being caught in an earthquake and its resulting tsunami. Earthquake information is broadcast (in Japanese) as news flashes on television within minutes, and during major disasters national broadcaster N.H.K. broadcasts information in English on radio and television. Minor tremors occur every month, and sometimes train service is temporarily halted. Check emergency routes at hotels and higher ground if staying near coastal areas.
An 8% national consumption tax is added to all hotel bills. Another 3% local tax is added to the bill if it exceeds ¥15,000. You may save money by paying for your hotel meals separately rather than charging them to your bill.
At luxury hotels, a 10% service charge is added to the bill in place of individual tipping. At more expensive ryokan, where individualized maid service is offered, the service charge is usually 15%. At business hotels and other budget lodgings, no service charge is added to the bill.
There’s an across-the-board, nonrefundable 8% consumption tax levied on all sales, which is included in the ticket price. Authorized tax-free shops will knock the tax off purchases over ¥10,000 if you show your passport and a valid tourist visa. A large sign is displayed at such shops.
An 8% tax is also added to all restaurant bills. Another 3% local tax is added to the bill if it exceeds ¥7,500. At more expensive restaurants a 10% to 15% service charge is added to the bill. Tipping is not customary.
Tipping is not common in Japan. It’s not necessary to tip in taxis, hair salons, barbershops, bars, or nightclubs. A chauffeur for a hired car usually receives a tip of ¥500 for a half-day excursion and ¥1,000 for a full-day trip. Porters charge fees of ¥250 to ¥300 per bag at railroad stations and ¥200 per piece at airports. It’s not customary to tip employees of hotels, even porters, unless a special service has been rendered. In such cases, a gratuity of ¥2,000 to ¥3,000 should be placed in an envelope and handed to the staff member discreetly.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.