Welcome to my guide to visiting Japan. This is based off my experience visiting and living in Japan. It’s not a completely travel book by any means. It doesn’t cover specific places to go, but general knowledge on getting around the country. I know there are things that are not on here that probably should be. In which case, leave a comment to let me know, and I’ll try to include information about it.
I’ve been asked by several people the past few years for things to do when going to Japan. Things like using the subways, good Japanese phrases and words to know, price of things, etc. I love sharing my knowledge with others, but I find myself repeating myself, so rather than have to come up with a new list from time to time, here’s my compendium of things to know before going to Japan.
First, whenever you foreign country, obey its customs, laws, unwritten rules, etc. Just because you’re a foreigner doesn’t give you a license to act a fool. If you do something stupid, and it doesn’t embarrass you, there’s a good chance it’ll embarrass those around you. This applies not just to Japan, but any country you may ever visit. If you can’t/don’t do it at home, you’re probably better off not doing it in another country.
Almost all of my overseas travel has been to Japan. I’ve never been to Europe. I do however have friends who’ve done both, and they’ve told me that travel in Europe and Japan is very different. In Europe, these people were able to use English and get by without a problem. They really didn’t need to study, French, Spanish, German, Italian to get by, though it’s always makes things easier. Not so in Japan, they said. Something to note: Tipping is not required in Japan. Restaurants, bars, hair salons, etc. Don’t tip. Or if you insist, it can (usually) be done discretely, but usually only if the service was exceptional.
Japan is a cash-based society, as is much of the world still. What this means to you is that you cannot rely on your credit card for everything! ALWAYS have cash on you. I’ve had friends recommend carrying at least 20,000 yen on them at all times in the big cities. I don’t have a rule on how much to carry, but make sure you have enough for any travel and food expenses you may incur until you can get more money.
The easiest option, but probably not the cheapest, is to take a bunch of your own currency with you and exchange at the airport for yen. Currency exchange can be pretty crappy there though.
You can always try and go through an online service, such as XE.com. Or you can see if your own bank can help you exchange money.
The other option is using an ATM, though depending on where you’re at, that can be tricky. See, most ATMs in Japan that I’ve come across DO NOT ACCEPT FOREIGN CREDIT OR DEBIT CARDS! The only places I’ve found that’ll take them are various branches of CitiBank and ATM machines at Japanese post offices. I hear the JP (Japanese Post) ATMs charge a high fee. ;_; And CitiBank isn’t available outside of the big cities, or so has been the case with me.
If you’re in a large department store, a place that carries to foreigners or has high foot traffic from foreigners, then there’s a fair chance you can use your credit card with no issue… almost. Maybe it’s just been the places I’ve shopped at, but I find more places will accept Visa than MasterCard. Which has sucked for me, because I don’t have a Visa card. When in doubt, use cash in Japan.
And don’t expect to use your card at a Starbucks, McDonald’s, etc. I can’t stress this enough: USE CASH. Nothing worse than finding out you can’t pay for something in a place you’re foreign to and can’t speak the native tongue.
And remember, when you pay for something, you really don’t tip.
I’m not expecting you to become conversational in Japanese before you go, but the more of the Japanese language you can learn, the better off you’ll be. We’ll almost completely ignore kanji in this section. What are kanji? Those are the “crazy complicated symbols” that everyone sees and immediately things the language is too hard to learn. If you don’t mind sounding like a gaijin¸or foreigner, skip the next paragraph.
Japanese has four methods of writing. One uses the English alphabet. This one is known as romaji, it’s probably the easiest for you to read. Then there’s hiragana and katakana, two phonetic alphabets, each with the same sound.
Raamen ga arimasu – We have ramen (perhaps said at a restaurant)
Let’s instead focus on katakana (カタカナ). Katana are used to write words that don’t have kanji. What that means: Katakana is used to write foreign words… usually. Sometimes it’s used to write words to be trendy or some other reason I won’t go into.
カラオケ – ka-ra-o-ke – karaoke
ラーメン – ra-a-me-n – ramen
アメリカ – a-me-ri-ka – America (United States)
There are 40+ characters in the katakana set. Learn about 6 a day and you’re done in a week. It’s really not too bad. You can even do it over two or three weeks, but the sooner you learn, the more time you have to learn…
Hiragana is the other alphabet I highly recommend learning. It has the exact same number of characters as katakana, with the exact same sounds. Hiragana is used mostly for words that have kanji, and as particles in grammar. Don’t worry about grammar, I won’t really get into that.
So why learn this alphabet? Maybe there are a few Japanese words you know, but don’t know how to write. More than likely, they’re written in hiragana.
かわいい – ka-wa-i-I – cute
みず – mi-zu – water
べんとう – be-n-to-u – bento (boxed lunch)
I’ve found hiragana to be much more commonplace than katakana, so it’s definitely worth knowing. It’ll help you feel less overwhelmed by the feeling of illiteracy when you visit Japan, though you’ll probably freak a bit when you first see a lot of…
Kanji. They’re everywhere. Sorry, you won’t be able to not see them. But you don’t have to read them really to get by as a foreigner in Japan. Under Phrases and words to know, there’ll be some kanji I recommend you learn, but there won’t be too many.
And with any of this, make sure you learn proper pronunciation. When we say karaoke in America, we typically say keh-ree-oh-kee. In Japanese, it’s more like kah-rah-oh-keh. Think of the pronunciation of vowels the same was as in Spanish.
A – ah – father is a wonderful man
E – eh – eggs are delicious
I – ee – England is not close to Japan
O – oh – Oh! That’s grat!
U – oo – Luke, I am your father!
When you see things like とうきょう, don’t read it as “toh-u-kyo-u.” The う after the “oh” sound drags it out for two syllables. So it’s 4 syllables, not two.
The train and subway system in Japan is affordable and almost always on time. If you plan to be in one of the larger cities, you’ll become familiar with this pretty quickly. This section will not cover the buses, as I never really used them on my own, so I don’t know enough to comfortably offer advice on those. Buses were cheap though the few times I rode them.
First, if you’re in a larger city, GET A SUBWAY/TRAIN MAP! Carry it around with you at all times if you think there’s any chance you won’t know how to get somewhere. They’re written in English too, so you should be OK. That is, assuming you know English. And you do because you’re reading this, right? Also, if you’re using a mobile phone in Japan with internet access, or even if you’re just using a computer, bookmark the following site: http://www.jorudan.co.jp/english/norikae/ . It’ll easily, and in English, find you a comparison of different train/subway routes from one location to another, anywhere in Japan. It’ll compare time, price and the easiest (fewest transfers between trains).
If you plan to be in Japan at least a week and plan to travel between the larger cities, might I recommend the JR Rail Pass. It allows you to ride pretty much any train and bus that you’ll need in Japan. It comes in 7, 14 and 21-day pass varieties. It sounds expensive, but if you really do plan to use the inter-city travel, I highly recommend looking into this. The price is roughly $300 – $600 as of this posting. Note: You must purchase this outside of Japan. The JR Rail Pass website has all the info you need. Oh, and it’s only for foreigners not living in Japan. http://www.japanrailpass.net/
So first, there’s the shinkansen (新幹線), or the bullet train/high speed train known to many. It really is fast, and many of them are nice. It’s mostly used for intercity travel, such as from Tokyo to Hiroshima, for example. The shinkansen have reserved and non-reserved seating. I’d say that usually non-reserved is just fine, but if you’re traveling during Obon or Golden Week, two different weeks of national holidays, getting a reserved ticket might be better. Many of the shinkansen trains still have smoking cars. Make sure you’re not in one of these, as some of them can be equivalent to sitting in a bar—they’re pretty smokey.
But if you’re in Tokyo, and you want to get from Asakusa to Harajuku, you won’t be taking the shinkansen. You’ll use local and rapid trains. First, the difference between those. Local trains stop at every station along the track. On the other hand, rapid trains make select stops. Some of these can be called “express” or “limited-express” as well and only make select stops. Make sure the train you get on stops where you want!
If you plan to stick in the Tokyo-Yokohama-Chiba area and not venture further, I highly recommend the Suica & N’EX special available (http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/suica-nex/ ) at Narita Airport. It’ll get you to the Tokyo or Yokohama areas on the Narita Express train, and you’ll get a Suica card with 1,500 yen on it. And if this is your first time in Japan, that’ll be the easiest way for you to get to your hotel most likely.
So what is Suica? http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/suica.html If you’re too lazy to click that link, I’ll summarize it: rechargeable card that replaces the use of easy-of-lose paper tickets needed to ride trains/subways. Oh, and this will work at vending machines, many convenience stores and more. No need to figure out how much fare your train is—the Suica automatically deducts the correct amount needed. Of course, there is that initial 500 yen deposit for the card, but it’s trivial for the ease of use you get from it.
There are cards similar in other parts of Japan, but I’m not that familiar with them, so I can’t give any more information on how those work. ごめんね！
Whenever I travel, whether it’s domestic or international, I always love to eat out and try new foods. Japan is a fantastic place to do such a thing, but first I must say, and I cannot stress this enough, there’s more to Japanese food than sushi! You can find any type of food there like you would in America: burgers, steaks, Chinese, Korean, Italian, French cuisines and more. The only thing I’ve heard is hard to find is vegetarian food. If you’re in the larger cities, you’ll have the best luck. If you’re visiting a smaller area, you may have to make your own food or eat random things from convenience stores. If you’re vegan.. eh, good luck. I don’t know what else to say. ^^;;
Before we go any further, I highly suggest you learn to use chopsticks. Now, you don’t have be able to pick up single grains of uncooked rice with them, but you should to be able to get food into your mouth. OK, now that’s out of the way, continue reading.
Ordering food in Japan can be intimidating if you can’t read the menu. If it’s a chain restaurant, or something more upscale or caters to foreigner, ask the waitstaff for an English menu.
Eigo menu ga arimasu ka? – Do you have an English menu?
Sometimes there are display foods in the front of the restaurant. If there is no English menu, and no pictures on the menu, and you don’t mind embarrassing yourself, you can try and drag a waiter to the food and point to the display of what you want. Or if you’re adventurous, you can try to point at something at the menu and hope you get something you like. After you’ve ordered, you’ll probably have a paper ticket left at your table. Don’t lose this!
When it comes to paying, you might pay at the front register (a common thing), or maybe tableside. In my experience, paying up front is the most common. When you get up there, you’ll hand the cashier your ticket. If you’re by yourself, you’ll pay and that’s it. If you’re with a group, and you want to pay separately (and each person can identify what he or she ordered), simply say the following:
Betsu betsu de – Split it up. That’s not an exact translation by any means, but the cashier will understand.
Now, some restaurants (I’ve mostly seen this in ramen restaurants and gyuudon fast food chains) have machines at the front (or even outside) where you purchase a food ticket. So, you pay for your food first, and this leaves the restaurant staff to dealing with the food and not having to petty cash. You’ll then take the ticket to your seat and leave it in front of you on the counter/table. You may have several tickets, which is OK. One for ramen, one for a side dish of rice, etc.
Some of these machines don’t have pictures, so I really hope you can read some Japanese. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, just push a button and try something unexpected.
Many restaurants provide water or tea with the meal. Depending on the restaurant, you may be able to order something else to wash down your food.
There is another option when eating out that a few restaurants will have, and that’s called tabehoudai. It means all you can eat. Many times, it’s based off a time limit. That is, you might be given 30 minutes or an hour to eat all you want. I’ve seen it offered for all types of things: curry, sukiyaki, pizza, pastas, yakiniku. Not all options will have this as an option. In fact, I’d be willing to say that less than half will offer this as an option. In some instances, it may be referred to as バイキング (baikingu) or ヴァイキング (vaikingu)… or Viking. In my experience, that’s been more of a traditional buffet style though, whereas tabehoudai involves waitstaff bringing out additional plates of food you request.
And again, remember, you probably won’t need need to tip.
Drinking in Japan is wonderful. Unless you plan to drive afterward. There is absolutely zero tolerance for drinking and driving. The blood alcohol limit is something like 0.03. But really, don’t drink and drive in Japan! Punishment is a steep fine and prison time. Not jail, but prison time. I’ve even heard and read that being a passenger in a drunk driver’s car can get you in trouble. But that’s OK, because if you’re reading this, you more than likely won’t be driving in Japan anyway.
When people want to get together and drink in Japan, they don’t do it at home usually. They go out. Bars, pubs, restaurants, karaoke, vending machines, and izakaya, alcohol is available for consumption with little to impede you from getting your drink on.
I’ve heard izakaya compared to Spanish tapas restaurants, which I guess is partially true. At izakaya, you can go drink and even order food. The food can be ordered a la carte (hence the similarity to tapas), but you can also order full meals.
A popular option that always surprises my friends in the States is nomihoudai. It means all you can drink. Nomihoudai, in my experience, is usually done for one hour or two hours. That is, you order your food and your nomihoudai drink service, and you have an allotted time in which you can drink as much as you want. Once that time is up, you’re often asked to leave (if it’s busy, that is). I’ve seen it offered for as little as 1,800 yen a person, I believe.
When you want to get home, you can choose to walk, take a train, ride your bike or call a taxi. If you chose to drive to your place of drinking, you’re not out of luck either. When I was in the countryside of Japan, in Yamaguchi, there was a service called daikou. You called up the daikou company, and a taxi showed up with two people inside. One person would get out and drive your car back to your home, and the taxi followed. You and your friends can ride in either car, or split up between them. The cost wasn’t horrible from what I remember, and I’m pretty confident the option is available in most cities. Still, a train would be cheaper.
Note: smoking is allowed at many, many food and beverage establishments. If you have a disdain for smoke, whatever the reason, you have been warned.
Japan’s convenience stores, or conbini, truly are convenient. At the conbini, you can buy groceries, snacks, magazines, etc.. you know, like we have in the U.S. However, in addition to that you can pay your cell phone bill, internet bill, and many of the utility bills for no extra fee. But there’s one more thing. Most include photo copiers.
These aren’t your standard black and white copiers. These print in color, on standard or photo paper, can read from CD, flash memory, original documents, etc. Can also scan onto flash memory. There may even be an ability to fax, but I never had to. With this flexibility, I was able to print all sorts of documents whenever I needed because I didn’t have my own printer. And these were fairly inexpensive too.
About the only thing you can’t do at conbini is purchase gasoline. That’s because most of them don’t have gas dispeners. If you want gasoline, you’ll have to go to a service station.
When I first visited Japan, I really didn’t know any Japanese other than a few survival phrases. I couldn’t really read kana, and I relied on my native Japanese friend for everything. My next visit, I spoke a little Japanese and could read kana (albeit sloooowly). It was then I realized just how many karaoke places there are in the Tokyo-Yokohama area. A LOT.
Karaoke in Japanese is kah-reh-oh-keh, not care-ee-oh-kee. And it’s popular with people of all ages, men and women alike. My experience with karaoke prior to Japan was what I saw and participated in at bars and at home with a crappy CD+G audio CD. The way it’s done in Japan is completely different. There are entire companies set up around the idea of karaoke “bars”. I use bar loosely, because it’s not a bar like in the U.S.
Here, you go up to the receptionist, tell the person how many people in your group and for how many hours you’d like to sing. Then you’re handed two wireless microphones (often in a basket) and told a room to use. See, rather than sing in front of a group of strangers, you sing in front of people you go with, and you’re put in a room of varying size and quality.
Inside the room there is a TV, a karaoke machine with remote control(s), and a few song books. The books have English, Japanese and some other language listings. This means you don’t need to know Japanese to find your song and enter in the song’s code. You can then enter the song code on the karaoke machine itself, or using the de-facto choice, the wireless remote.
The remotes really are the more convenient option. They have song look-up information in them. This means you can enter in part of an artist’s name or a song name, and it’ll autocomplete (with confirmation). It’s a lot quicker than searching in one of the books. There should be an option to set the language to English on the remote, but how you do that is different with each one, so I can’t give instructions on that.
So that’ll get you going. But karaoke isn’t just about singing—it’s about singing while you drink! There may be food too, but it depends on the place. Inside each room there is a telephone. Pick it up and it’ll automatically ring the front desk, whereupon you’ll be able to order drinks of your choice to be added to your tab. Within a few minutes, someone will knock on your door and enter (even if it’s during a song) and give you your drinks.
After your allotted time is up (remember, you had to give a time estimate at the front desk when you entered), you’ll get a call on that same phone. Depending on how busy the place is, you may be offered a time extension (of course your cost will go up with this), or you may be told you have to pay and leave. Simply collect your microphones into the basket, and carry it down to the front where you’ll pay for your karaoke and drinks.
These are listed out in no particular order, and they include things that I personally think would be helpful to someone visiting Japan.
女 – おんな – onna – female
男 – おとこ – otoko – male
You might see those on bathrooms, so always good to get those right. ^^
東京 – とうきょう – toukyou – Tokyo
京都 – きょうと – kyouto – Kyoto
横浜 – よこはま – yokohama – Yokohama
広島 – ひろしま – hiroshima – Hiroshima
富士山 – ふじさん – Mt. Fuji
Ikura desu ka – How much does it cost?
Do you have XXXXX?/Do you carry XXXXXX? – (Helpful to ask this if you’re looking for something in particular.)
Tabehoudai – All you can eat
Nomihoudai – All you can drink – Yes, Japan does have all-you-can-drink options at various drinking establishments, but it’s most common at…
Izakaya – Japanese restaurant/bar combo. I hear it compared to a tapas restaurant. Buy lots of appetizers to eat
Arigatou – Thank you
Oishii – Delicious/tasty
Karaoke – Karaoke. In Japanese, it’s pronounced kah-reh-oh-keh, not care-ee-oh-kee.
Toire/oteari – Toilet/bathroom
XXXXX wa doko desu ka – Where is XXXXX?
電車 – でんしゃ
Densha – train
地下鉄 – ちかてつ
Chikatetsu – Subway/underground train
新幹線 – しんかんせん
Shinkansen – “Bullet train” or high-speed train.
温泉 – おんせん
Onsen – Hot spring/outdoor bath
Watashi no namae wa XXXXXX desu – My name is XXXXX.
Tabemono wa oishikatta desu – The food was delicious!
Irasshaimase – “Welcome!” Doubtful you’ll say this, but you’ll hear it in most shops you enter.
XXXXX ni ikitai desu – I want to go to XXXXX.
Eigo dake o hansemasu. Sumimasen – I only speak English. Sorry!
Nihongo – Japanese language
Tetsudatte kudasai – Help me, please.
Betsu betsu de – Split up the check/ticket/bill. I’ve rarely had a problem with this in Japan.
Here are the links in this post collected into one place.