Things Tourists Should Beware of in Japan

Japan is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, and it isn't hard to imagine why. With exciting, modern metropolises like Tokyo and Osaka, beautiful nature like Mt. Fuji and cherry blossoms, delicious food such as sushi, thriving geek culture for the game and anime fans, entertainment like karaoke or themed cafes, and a rich history still visible in modern culture, such as with shrines, temples and castles, there is something for everyone. Japan is an amazing country that's relatively quite safe to visit, if a little on the expensive side.

But tourists in any country ought to research before they get off that plan. From years of living in Japan, I advise eager visitors to be careful of several things, as well as things to avoid completely. From scams, dangers, and things that just aren't worth your time, these are things all tourists should bear in mind.

Packages of sushi can be bought even at convenience stores for a cheap price, but it's nothing gourmet.
Packages of sushi can be bought even at convenience stores for a cheap price, but it's nothing gourmet.

Don't chomp into sushi if you can't handle your wasabi. Most sushi in Japan contains wasabi, that green mushy stuff that makes your sinuses burn, either inside the roll or between the fish and the rice. It is rarely served on the side. Fortunately, even some Japanese people don't care for the stuff, and 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. A couple other things to be wary of in the sushi scene: Japanese sushi prides itself on being fresh, and doesn't contain as many flavoring ingredients as American sushi - your roll will probably not have much else besides fish, nori (seaweed) and rice, probably no avocado, cream cheese or extra sauces. If you want sushi but aren't sure what to try, head to a "kaiten-sushi" restaurant - that is, conveyer-belt sushi or sushi train place. 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 even the Western sushi lover!

Stick to the priests and priestesses actually in the shrine or temple area (and they probably won't be begging.)
Stick to the priests and priestesses actually in the shrine or temple area (and they probably won't be begging.)

The monks asking for money are scams. I lived in Japan for years and I believed the monks were legitimate for an embarrassingly long time, until a Japanese friend pointed it out. 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, but the probably-exclusively male priest standing where he clearly doesn't belong. The image is attractive, and that's probably why the scam works: traditionally dressed in orange and beads, bearing staffs and chiming bells, a mystical acknowledgement to historic Japanese spirituality contrasted by the setting of a bustling train station or park. They don't "ask" for money - that's against monk rules - but stand there, bells chiming every couple seconds, and people feel enticed to put money in their hands for good karma. But these guys are no better than any other begging scam - worse, if a Japanese source is to be believed, they have ties with the yakuza.

Pictured: scary foreigners, aka the force that poisons Japanese society
Pictured: scary foreigners, aka the force that poisons Japanese society

Don't have high expectations if you have to go to the police. To be fair, like with anyone, this is going to depend on the person and situation. Outside train stations sit the koban, or police box, and I've asked for directions there numerous times - and in my experience, people in general are really helpful. However, there's an unfortunate difference between the persona of the friendly but overwhelmed tourist, and the gaijin (foreigner) that comes to Japan to cause trouble. Expats and tourists both are full of horror stories with police, from being randomly stopped in the street and demanded identification, to police refusing to help when foreigners report crimes and turning them away. Worse still, assuming the foreigner is automatically the guilty party. Japan is sadly quite a xenophobic country, and to look at it with perspective, there aren't many countries on this planet that truly trust and welcome foreigners. But Japanese police simply don't have a great reputation among the non-Japanese in Japan.

Get a train pass immediately if you'll be in a big city like Tokyo. The train pass, or IC card, comes in two brands in Tokyo - Suica or Pasmo, but both work on any train just fine, and buses, too. You can create 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) is the actual card price, and 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 individually buy tickets each time you go somewhere, and 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.

Harajuku, a famous fashion district in Tokyo
Harajuku, a famous fashion district in Tokyo

Don't go clothes shopping unless you can take the blow to your self esteem. 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 many other countries, all English-speaking countries included, and most stores don't carry big sizes. A woman who wears size 8 jeans in America will 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 also is 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. Men's sizes are similar - currently, tight jeans are popular for young Japanese men, something foreign men might not be adventurous enough to try. Shoes 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).

Be sure to learn the currency exchange rate between Japan and your home country!
Be sure to learn the currency exchange rate between Japan and your home country!

Japan is a cash-only society, so plan accordingly. The aforementioned train card is the closest thing to a debit card you'll see in Japan. Foreigners often imagine that Japan is very futuristic, like everything is paid via retinal scans and biometric testing linked directly to a bank account or something. That'll be your first disappointment! Japan is very skeptical of cards, and cling on to cash. Most people won't leave their home without a couple ¥10,000 yen bills in their wallets - as they shouldn't, because most places only accept cash anyway. Credit card is possible 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 that they shut down at night and on some weekends and holidays, and don't always accept foreign cards. You'll have more luck with Visa or Mastercard, but you still might have to try a couple 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 chance of getting mugged is pretty low.

Beware of "Japanese Only" establishments. As I've said, Japan is a strange mix of friendly toward foreigners, and horribly xenophobic. Expats are well familiar with the trials of not looking Japanese or having a Japanese name - housing is routinely denied, police randomly approach you, stereotypes abound and, of course, the threat of being barred from entering various restaurants, onsen, 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. But if it does happen, I can't recommend much more than take as many pictures of the establishment - and the person yelling at you - as possible, then point at your camera and shout back, "Facebook!"

Sign near train station reads, "Beware of Perverts!"
Sign near train station reads, "Beware of Perverts!"

Perverts on the train: they are there and they aren't a joke. The image of a packed rush hour train isn't news for most tourists who didn't come to Japan on a whim, and many people might already be aware of perverts - usually funny caricatures from some anime. But there is nothing funny about it. While Japan has a low crime rate, sexual harassment is shockingly high and underreported. The perverts in question - called chikan or hentai - tend to target girls (and sometimes boys) wearing school uniforms to the point where it's almost an accepted rite of passage. 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.

People don't speak English (well), and approaching someone and asking a question in English can cause people to nearly wet themselves. Foreigners are okay for Japanese people when they are the ones approaching you, but approaching them will ignite a terrified deer-in-the-headlights look and clumsy random "Japangrish" - a mix between Japanese, and broken English with classic Engrish pronunciation. To be fair, going to any foreign country and demanding that the natives speak English is pretty rude, but Japanese people have a tendency to have little confidence in their English ability (as they should, though they study in school, they have practically zero speaking and conversation practice). It's much kinder to learn a few Japanese words, 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. 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. Tokyo also boasts English translations for signs, announcements, restaurant menus and so forth, so it's relatively easy to get around without learning Japanese.

Pictured: probably not a real yakuza. Remember, guns are illegal in Japan... and so are swords.
Pictured: probably not a real yakuza. Remember, guns are illegal in Japan... and so are swords. | Source

Yakuza - yes, they are real, yes, you should avoid them. 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 night life areas like Shinjuku's infamous Kabukicho district. They do exist, and they're a nasty bunch. They apparently have a ton of influence among the political realm and, if rumors are to be believed, control many chain stores. It's unlikely one will shoot you in 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 shady looking men with fancy cars and expensive business suits, possibly sporting tattoos and a slimy expression sums them up pretty well. 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.

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Comments 25 comments

JG11Bravo profile image

JG11Bravo 2 years ago

Very interesting and well-written. Hopefully Ill have the opportunity to put this to use one day. Up and sharing.

oldiesmusic profile image

oldiesmusic 2 years ago from United States

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". :)

aliasis profile image

aliasis 2 years ago from United States Author

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!

Aneegma profile image

Aneegma 2 years ago

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 profile image

aliasis 2 years ago from United States Author

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.

Suhail and my dog profile image

Suhail and my dog 2 years ago from Mississauga, ON

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.


healthyfitness profile image

healthyfitness 2 years ago

I loved the part about the scamming monks being in ties with the yakuza! That's so insane!

aliasis profile image

aliasis 2 years ago from United States Author

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!

robjlodge profile image

robjlodge 2 years ago from East Yorkshire, UK

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.

Arigato gozaimasu!

NathaNater profile image

NathaNater 2 years ago

This is fascinating to learn about what it's like in another country.

SpaceShanty profile image

SpaceShanty 2 years ago from United Kingdom

Excellent, very interesting Hub, I learned lots!

aliasis profile image

aliasis 2 years ago from United States Author

Thank you for reading!!

knowhowadventure profile image

knowhowadventure 2 years ago

Great Hub, very well written and entertaining

tom yam profile image

tom yam 2 years ago from Nakon Sawan Province, Thailand.

Here in Thailand we have wasabi coated peanuts. They can really take you by surprise.

peachpurple profile image

peachpurple 22 months ago from Home Sweet Home

thanks for the don't, i guess all countries have perverts

mikeydcarroll67 17 months ago

Never knew that Japan was the way that it was. I'll have to keep these in mind when I travel there!

adevwriting profile image

adevwriting 14 months ago from United Countries of the World

This was really unexpected! Thanks for sharing.

dreamer 11 months ago

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.

Sam Shepards profile image

Sam Shepards 10 months ago from Europe

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.

Mohammed Karjatwala 8 months ago


Muhammad Shafiq 4 months ago

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??

SaikouEmpress 3 months ago

Only from what they see on media.

D fit 3 months ago

I don't want to go there, my interest is gone, because scar me

Tim 2 months ago

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!

Afzal 3 weeks ago


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

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