I'm an aspiring writer with a strong interest in history, fantasy, and science fiction. I've lived in Japan for three years.
Japan is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, and it isn't hard to imagine why. With exciting, modern metropolises, beautiful nature spots, delicious food, various means of entertainment, and thriving geek culture, there is something for everyone. Japan is also known for its rich history, still visible in modern culture; shrines, temples, and castles can be found almost anywhere. Japan is an amazing country that's relatively safe to visit, though it's a little on the expensive side.
But tourists in any country ought to do their research before they get off that plane. From years of living in Japan, I advise eager visitors to be mindful of certain things and know what to avoid completely.
14 Things to Know Before Visiting Japan
- Remember to say "wasabi nashi"
- Watch out for scammers
- Be mindful of local authorities
- Get a train pass
- No, you didn't gain weight
- Be sure to carry cash
- Avoid "Japanese Only" establishments
- Beware of perverts on trains
- No, not everyone speaks English
- Get pocket WiFi or a SIM card
- Yes, the Yakuza are real (but don't worry)
- Have tattoos? Reserve a private bath
- Get used to cigarette smoke
- The season will affect your experience
1. Remember to Say "Wasabi Nashi"
Most sushi in Japan contains wasabi—that green mushy stuff that makes your sinuses burn—either inside a maki roll or between the fish and the rice of nigiri. It is rarely served on the side. Fortunately, it's usually possible to order sushi without wasabi ("wasabi nashi, onegaishimasu!"), or, if you are buying it at a supermarket, some containers will be labeled as "no-wasabi."
Other Things to Know About Sushi
A couple of other things to be wary of in the sushi scene: Japanese sushi relies on the fresh, natural flavor of fish rather than the extra (often fried) ingredients added to American sushi. Your roll will probably not include anything aside from fish, nori (seaweed), and rice. Avocado, cream cheese, or sauces rarely make an appearance.
If you want to try sushi but don't know where to start, head to a kaiten-sushi restaurant—that is, a conveyer-belt or sushi train restaurant. You can take as many plates as you like and pay after, all while having the luxury of seeing the options up close so you don't order something too shocking. And trust me, some Japanese dishes will shock the Western sushi lover!
2. Watch Out for Scammers
Until a Japanese friend pointed it out, I lived in Japan for years believing that the monks begging on the streets were legitimate. My mind was blown, but looking back, it's painfully obvious. (I'm not talking about the men and women who actually work at the temples, of course.)
The image is attractive, and that's probably why the scam works: traditionally dressed in orange robes and beaded necklaces, bearing staffs and chiming bells, this mystical acknowledgment of historic Japanese spirituality contrasts with the setting of a bustling train station or park. They don't "ask" for money—that's against monk rules—they just stand there, bells chiming every couple seconds, and people feel enticed to put money in their hands for good karma.
- Fake Cops: Think twice before handing over your passport or resident card to a cop. There have been reports of fake cops asking for personal information. You can always ask to see their badge or go to your nearest kōban (police box).
- Rip-Off Bars: Bars and certain clubs will entice you to enter their establishment for a reasonable, flat rate—but then hit you with a massive bill at the end of the night. These establishments will swipe your credit cards more than once, or try to get you inebriated enough so they can upcharge you for drinks without you noticing.
3. Be Mindful of Local Authorities
To be fair, this is going to depend on the person and situation. You can find kōban outside of train stations and along busy streets. I've asked for directions at them numerous times, and in my experience, officers are really helpful. However, it seems like some officers have trouble distinguishing between friendly but overwhelmed tourists, and gaijin (foreigners) that comes to Japan to cause trouble. Expats and tourists alike have had difficult experiences with the police—there are many accounts of being randomly stopped in the street to be frisked. Though this is not the case for everyone, Japanese police simply don't have a great reputation among the non-Japanese in Japan.
4. Get a Train Pass
In Tokyo, there are two train pass (or IC card) brands—Suica and Pasmo. Both work on any train just fine, and buses, too. You can even use them on shinkansen (bullet trains), which can be more convenient than flying when traveling in Japan. You can print one at the airport before you embark on your journey to wherever. The cost to make one is ¥2000 (about $20), but only ¥500 ($5) goes towards the physical card. The rest will be your starting balance.
Though public transportation is convenient, it can be confusing for newcomers. The advantage of the card is that you won't have to buy individual tickets each time you go somewhere. It can be a headache to locate your stop on a giant map above the ticket machines (often only in Japanese) and buy the appropriate ticket. And if you purchase the wrong amount, you'll have to deal with either paying off the balance or simply losing the extra yen if you bought too high. With a card, you won't have to worry about any of that. Another advantage of the card is that it also works on most vending machines and at convenient stores, so loading it with money before you start your day is in your best interest—and because it'll be printed with your name on it, it's a great souvenir.
5. No, You Didn't Gain Weight
Japanese fashion is world-famous, but buying cute clothes sounds better in theory than it is in practice. It's simply not true that all Japanese people—or Asian people for that matter—are tiny and slender. You'll see people of all sizes, tall and short, big and small. But the average sizes are still smaller than in many other countries.
A woman who wears size 8 jeans in America may have to squeeze into size "LL" (extra large) in Japan (which might be too small, or too big, depending on the particular article of clothing). Clothing at "one size fits all" shops are generally tailored to fit bodies with fewer curves, so a woman with bigger hips or breasts might find that clothes that look adorable on the mannequin don't flatter her figure at all.
Shoe sizes also run smaller in Japan than they do in America or Europe—my average size 8 1/2 feet in the US cursed me as bigfoot during my time in Japan, with many size LL shoes still too small for me (and they don't really run bigger than that, unless you shop online).
6. Be Sure to Carry Cash
The aforementioned train card is often the closest thing to a debit card you'll see in Japan. Foreigners may imagine that Japan is very futuristic—like everything is paid via retinal scans and biometric testing linked directly to a bank account or something. But in reality, Japan is still a cash-based country.
You can make credit card payments at some bigger establishments, but for tourists who have to worry about international charges, sticking to cash (or your train card) is the best option. ATMs are everywhere—post offices, convenience stores, and train stations. But be warned, they shut down at night, as well as on some weekends and holidays, and they don't always accept foreign cards. You'll have more luck with Visa or Mastercard, but you still might have to try a couple of machines to find a foreign-friendly one. Take out lots of cash when you get the chance—despite what your instincts tell you about carrying so much. On the bright side, Japan is relatively safe and your chances of getting mugged are pretty low.
7. Avoid "Japanese Only" Establishments
Although most people in Japan are friendly toward foreigners, there are those that are xenophobic. Expats are well familiar with the trials that come with not looking Japanese or having a Japanese name—housing is routinely denied, police randomly approach you, stereotypes abound and, of course, there is the threat of being barred from entering various establishments; restaurants, onsen (hot springs), and Japanese-style hotels or clubs. For a tourist, there isn't much you can do if you are shoved out of an eatery by someone shouting "Only Japanese!" Luckily, this isn't a common occurrence, and most places are happy to shove an English menu in your hands and ask you, in broken English, if you can use chopsticks.
8. Beware of Perverts on the Train
The image of a packed rush-hour train isn't a shock for most tourists if they've done their research, and many people might already be aware of train perverts—usually from some funny caricatures or anime. But there is nothing funny about it. While Japan has a low crime rate, sexual harassment on trains is shockingly high.
Known as chikan, targets of this kind of harassment are often girls (and sometimes boys) wearing school uniforms. One Japanese woman told me "of course" she was groped on the train when she was a student, as though surprised that I'd even ask. It's not only schoolgirls, though—everyone has to have reasonable suspicion of anyone getting too close to them on the train. Like any case of sexual harassment, it's easy to believe that if it happens to you, you'll scream and punch the offender, but many victims are so shocked that they freeze up and don't know what to do. Be careful, and don't be afraid to make a scene if something does happen.
9. No, Not Everyone Speaks English
Most Japanese people learn English in school, but not everyone has experience speaking with foreigners. To be safe, learn a few Japanese words and phrases or keep a list of common expressions written in both Japanese and English with you that you can reference or show them if all else fails.
It's also handy to carry around a Japanese-English dictionary if you'll be anywhere outside of Tokyo for you and the other person to reference. In smaller prefectures, it is less common for people to speak English. That being said, be prepared to be approached in English, as there are many people who are excited at the chance to speak with foreigners.
In a big city like Tokyo, there are English translations all over the place; on signs, trains, restaurants menus, and so forth, so it's relatively easy to get around without learning Japanese. Just remember to be respectful when approaching people for information, especially if you can't speak the language.
If you are especially ambitious, you can try a more comprehensive learning method such as the Genki series. With a CD full of listening exercises and a practice book, you'll be one step closer to fluency.
10. Get Pocket WiFi or a SIM Card
If you're traveling around a big city, chances are you're going to get lost. Public WiFi is available widely, but it isn't commonly found in train stations. All stops are written in English and announcements are often made in English, but all of those intersecting, colorful lines can get confusing. And as we learned from the last item, not everyone will be able to assist you in English. This is why having pocket WiFi or an international SIM card is a good call.
They are also useful when a pocket dictionary or your cheat sheet just don't cut it. if you're having trouble communicating with someone, using Google Translate's voice feature may help. The app also has a text-reading feature for signs and menus.
11. Yes, the Yakuza Are Real (But Don't Worry)
This really shouldn't be a problem at all—the Yakuza, that is, the Japanese mafia, tend to stay away from foreigners (to the point where I've heard amusing stories about foreign guys scaring them off). Most tourists will get around happily without even knowing they are out there. But be careful, especially if you like to frequent nightlife areas like Shinjuku's infamous Kabukicho district. It's unlikely one will approach you on the street if you look at him the wrong, but I would still recommend keeping out of their way. They might be hard to recognize, but if you go out at night to a red-light district, use common sense. Japan is a pretty safe country, but it is not absolutely safe, and things can happen.
12. Have Tattoos? Reserve a Private Bath
If you are traveling to a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) with tattoos, you better do some research first. Ryokans are well-known for their onsen, which is why tourists travel to remote areas of the country to take a soak. But Japan associates tattoos with the Yakuza (aka, trouble), and that does not exempt the casual tourist. If you do decide to go to a ryokan, be sure to book a room with a private bath, because chances are you will not be allowed to visit the public one. Or, if your tattoo is small enough, you can bandage it with waterproof, flesh-colored tape.
Note: The same rules apply to waterparks. You can bandage small tattoos with tape, and some people wear rash guards for full-sleeves.
13. Get Used to Cigarette Smoke
Amazingly, smoking inside is still legal in many Japanese establishments. There are designated smoking sections in restaurants, cafes, arcades, shopping centers, etc. You will even find enclosures on the street for people to dip in and have a cigarette (because you are not allowed to walk and smoke). If you can't tolerate smoke, be sure to say "kinnen desu" (non-smoking, please) when you are given the option. But it is important to know that in some areas, such as pachinko parlors and old-school cafes, it is completely unavoidable.
That being said, stricter smoking regulations are in development and certain establishments have been forced to implement a no-smoking policy. It is a gradual process, but the country is becoming less smoker-friendly.
14. The Season Will Affect Your Experience
When traveling to Japan, deciding what season to go is a big decision. Most people opt for springtime because the cherry blossoms are in bloom, but then you have to deal with heavy foot traffic basically everywhere you go. Opt for summer, and you may be stuck in a humid heatwave—which is not ideal for those looking to explore the outdoors. In the winter, you can expect most train cars to be sweltering hot—an intense contrast to the frigid temperature outside. So when is the best time to go? Well, all things considered, it's ultimately it's up to you. If you're only visiting once, braving the hanami (flower viewing) crowds in spring may be worth it. This guide can help you choose the time most suited for your needs.
Main Seasonal Pros / Cons
- Spring: Beautiful nature / Beware of crowds
- Summer: Water features / It's hot and humidity is off the charts
- Fall: Reasonable temperatures / Humid or rainy until October
- Winter: Tis' the season for beautiful illuminations / Weather is unpredictable
When visiting Japan, the most important thing to remember is to have fun! Most people are kind, the cities are relatively safe and clean, and there are tons of places to explore. With the information in this article as your guide, you're guaranteed to have a blast.
Gabriel on May 17, 2020:
I was born in another country, but my childhood was filled with Japanese mangas, animes, and lifestyle. And when I grow up, my favorite poems belong to haiku, and one of my favorite music genres is J-pop. Japanese remains as one of my favorite languages a long with English and Spanish. I also want to practice Shinto and learn Japanese martial arts. Thus, deep down, I have a Japanese soul. I have nothing for my ancestral land.
So, in your opinion, can Japanese people accept my case?
MixedExperiences on February 17, 2020:
If you can’t speak Japanese I would highly suggest you to try to learn or perhaps hire a guide. Workers will try to help to their best ability but don’t expect random civilians to go out of their way to help you out. My experience with people in Kyoto and other cities were more enjoyable than in Tokyo.
Kobayashi Amy on October 22, 2019:
And these are some reasons I work as a guide during the spring and summer months. If you cant speak or basic reading of japanese it will be embarrassing if you need to take out a language book infront of one. Some guides are cheap depending on where you want to go like just staying in tokyo. Another common mistake that i find at my job as a Waitress especially with american visitors dont tip us.
FukushimaJapan on October 17, 2019:
Don't worry about the radioactive contamination of foods.
The Japanese authority has exported all of them overseas.
Bij on May 13, 2019:
Thank you for the article Aliasis! If I were only to have ~9 days in Japan, where should I absolutely go?
Kat on March 16, 2019:
Visiting now and I find them quite rude to tourists!!!
Ste7930 on September 18, 2018:
Japan is a wonderful place to visit and you shouldn't be afraid at all to visit it. Of course, common sense is required especially for girls traveling alone. But that's required in every country you are going to visit.
I have been living in China for 12 years and I'm quite used to the fact that east Asian culture isn't very open to integration. Said that, I personally never felt xenophobic attitude against me while being in Japan. I'm sure it happens and in most of the cases it won't be shown directly to you.
Learning some Japanese is surely helpful, too!
Daniel on August 04, 2018:
I'm not going there.
user on May 12, 2018:
why is Japan so crowded
Doris Sorgar on April 20, 2018:
This was a super enjoyable read, and I'd have to agree with most of the points. Boy, do I miss Japan. I love it and can't wait to visit again, but your warnings are on point.
PS: As far as the ATMs are concerned, 7-eleven convenience stores tend to have ATMs accepting foreign cards, and work 24/7, so they are probably the safest bet if you need to make an emergency withdrawal.
Daniel on January 27, 2018:
As much I admire their culture such as electronics, video games, anime, etc. I don't think I ever want to visit Japan.
lilnikki on October 05, 2017:
Thank u I've been looking for information about Japan for too long.
Barbie on September 22, 2017:
I'm not sure what parts of Japan you were in but most of what your saying simply isn't true. I mean your entitled to your opinion but putting this on as a broad scale of Japan is called generalizing. I spent an entire month touring Japan and not once had any of these experiences.
John Carpenter on July 20, 2017:
I don't mean to sound like the language police here but you are always using the typically bad American habit of dropping the word "of" when using the word "couple" as in "Most people won't leave their home without a couple ¥10,000 yen bills in their wallets". It is really bad English to drop "of" and it drives me crazy. Only Americans do this and it has to stop!
HAN on May 30, 2017:
Thank you for sharing..noted on that.
Ali from Iran on April 05, 2017:
thanks. Japanese are very kindly people . i had visited some cities of japan for a month.they have very good relation with tourists and guest of another countries .
Martine Andersen on February 26, 2017:
A bunch of great tips here! I'm planning a trip to Japan, so this was very helpful. Well written and concise.
Afzal on October 01, 2016:
Scammers literally seem to be in prowl for their target and the easiest of the targets they get by way of innocent travellers and they have 1000 excuses to use them as tricks
Government should also encourage travellers to report of such tricks so that guilty can be punished
Tim on July 30, 2016:
Well, I'm traveling there solo in a couple of weeks. Thanks for the advice, reading your article only made me more curious then ever!
D fit on July 10, 2016:
I don't want to go there, my interest is gone, because scar me
SaikouEmpress on June 27, 2016:
Only from what they see on media.
Muhammad Shafiq on June 16, 2016:
Thank you very much for writing this article, i'm looking forward to visit japan, but i heard there is too much skepticism towards foreigner especially dark skin like mine, is it true??
Mohammed Karjatwala on February 12, 2016:
Sam Shepards from Europe on December 14, 2015:
Nice article. I'm planning to go to Japan in the near future. Probably by the end of 2016. Still got a few other destinations first. Thanks for the advice, some is very useful.
dreamer on November 03, 2015:
I love the way you caution us. Very nice article about what is to be and not to be done in Japan. I hope, I can visit Japan one day.
Arun Dev from United Countries of the World on August 06, 2015:
This was really unexpected! Thanks for sharing.
mikeydcarroll67 on May 15, 2015:
Never knew that Japan was the way that it was. I'll have to keep these in mind when I travel there!
peachy from Home Sweet Home on December 29, 2014:
thanks for the don't, i guess all countries have perverts
Russell Pittock from Nakon Sawan Province, Thailand. on September 05, 2014:
Here in Thailand we have wasabi coated peanuts. They can really take you by surprise.
knowhowadventure on August 26, 2014:
Great Hub, very well written and entertaining
aliasis (author) from United States on February 09, 2014:
Thank you for reading!!
SpaceShanty from United Kingdom on February 09, 2014:
Excellent, very interesting Hub, I learned lots!
NathaNater on February 09, 2014:
This is fascinating to learn about what it's like in another country.
Robert Lodge from East Yorkshire, UK on November 28, 2013:
A well written and well rounded article, an enjoyable and entertaining read. As a huge fan of sushi I found that part particularly enlightening. Hopefully, when I achieve my dream of travelling there, I will know what to look out for.
aliasis (author) from United States on November 26, 2013:
Suhail and my dog - Japan does have some beautiful national parks! I do know that some tourists go there for the hiking alone.
healthyfitness - the yakuza bit came from two separate Japanese people, but I've never heard it from any Western source... so who knows? Either way, save your coins for real temples and shrines, and therefore the real monks/nuns/etc, not the fakes!
Rick Grimes on November 26, 2013:
I loved the part about the scamming monks being in ties with the yakuza! That's so insane!
Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on November 24, 2013:
Written with a sense of humour, I liked the article immensely. I am interested in visiting Japan only for hiking in some of its national parks, yet lot of advice here can be helpful for me.
Thank you for sharing information and wits.
aliasis (author) from United States on November 22, 2013:
Aneegma - Japan really is a very safe place! But with any country, things aren't 100% perfect and you've got to use common sense wherever you go. But people are overall very honest and helpful, and I'd guess that most of the "bad" people are less likely to target foreigners. And really, that's stuff that happens everywhere and in any big city, I'd confidently say Tokyo is safer than most.
Jasmine S from Pennsylvania on November 22, 2013:
Damn, I always thought Japan was like the safest place to go to and after reading this, I've been scared to death but thanks for letting me know this. I'll have to go back to the drawing table to see if I'll still make the trip!
aliasis (author) from United States on November 21, 2013:
Thanks for the comments!
oldiesmusic - haha, Japanese porn is certainly... interesting. lol But yeah. About the train perverts, it isn't really "sex" (though I suppose someone could get raped on a train, or have sex on a train, but that would be really noticeable) it's groping and touching, both outside the clothes and in. In packed trains, people are jammed together so closely you can't move, and in those trains especially it's easy for these guys (and sometimes women, to be fair) to grab or touch you. I've heard some pretty gross and sad stories from Japanese women, and one Japanese guy, too. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is really underreported, though I guess that's true almost everywhere.
Still though, Japan is an awesome country and I hope you get the chance to visit it next year! :D Hopefully the article didn't make it sound too negative, because all in all it's amazing and I'd think most tourists wouldn't have any problems at all!
oldiesmusic from United States on November 20, 2013:
Jesus! I have come across Japanese porn (by accident) and they have sex on the buses or trains. I thought it wasn't beyond that, but oh my I found it it's real. Japan is one of my dream destinations and I plan to go there next year. Thanks for the "caveats". :)
JG11Bravo on November 20, 2013:
Very interesting and well-written. Hopefully Ill have the opportunity to put this to use one day. Up and sharing.