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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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!"
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.
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.