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 of 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 come 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.
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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 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.
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.