Things to know before traveling to Japan

Japan is truly a captivating country where the past meets the future in seamless harmony. Only in Japan can you go from having your dinner served by robots, to traveling through the picture-perfect and quiet countryside.

Discovering Japan is understanding the many nuances that make this country unique, so to help you prepare your trip we have gathered a list of important information you should know before your trip to the land of the Rising Sun.

Quick facts about Japan

Capital Tokyo
Language Japanese
Area 377,973 km2 (145,936 sq mi)
Population 126,150,000
Timezone UTC/GMT +9 hours
Currency Yen (¥ JPY)
Country Code +81
Electric Sockets 100 V AC, 50 / 60 HZ
Type A: U.S. style plug, commonly 2-prong without ground.
Type B: like type A but with an extra prong for grounding. This socket also works with plug A.

Do I need a visa to travel to Japan?

To visit Japan for touristic purposes, and depending on nationality, visitors are required to obtain a ‘temporary visitor’ visa before arrival. This visa is valid for up to 90 days and is placed in your passport on arrival.

However, citizens from 68 countries can visit Japan visa-free for up to 90-days, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Spain, Germany, and Singapore. No visa is required for a same-day transit between international flights at the same airport. However, you may not leave the secured area.

Accommodations and reservations

In Japan, you can stay in hotels, hostels, and inns, or you can stay in a Ryokan a traditional Japanese inn.

Unless you are a resident of Japan, when checking in to any accommodation, by law, they are required to make a copy of your passport. A useful tip, especially if you are traveling in groups, is to present the staff a photocopy of your passport to speed up check-in.

Tatami floored room in a ryokan
Tatami floored rooms are found in most ryokan

Keep in mind that especially during the national holidays you should book your accommodation in advance and that Japan is mostly a cash only country, and that many smaller forms of accommodation do not accept credit cards. We advise you to bring enough cash to be able to pay in advance.

Useful tip: if you are taking a day trip and you don’t know what to do with your luggage, we suggest you read our article about luggage forwarding and coin lockers

Traveling with children

Very little planning is necessary for travelers with children heading to Japan. It is a safe, easy to explore, kid-friendly destination. It is no wonder that it is increasingly gaining popularity as a top family vacation spot. There is an incredible array of activities and child-friendly tourist attractions.

From visiting the snow monkeys, petting the deer in Nara, riding the bullet train, climbing Mt.Fuji or a walk through the bamboo forest in Arashiyama. Seeing the amazing castles like the ones in Matsumoto, Hikone, Himeji, and Osaka, or even going to one of Japan’s theme parks including Fuji-Q Highland, Tokyo Disney & Disney Sea, and Sanrio Puroland (Hello Kitty). Japan really has something for everyone in the family!

Most museums, theme parks, amusement parks, trains, offer discounted prices for children under the age of 12. Children below the age of 6 usually get in for free. The JR Pass also has special prices for children.

Cash, not credit cards

Japan runs mostly on cash! While most big department stores and hotels accept credit cards, the most common method of payment in Japan is cash. Many businesses like bars, shops, restaurants, supermarkets, and cafés do not accept credit cards and even lack the technology to do so. Other businesses, while they may accept credit cards, will apply a minimum charge to accept payment with this method.

Japan is an extremely safe place, where it is possible to carry around large quantities of Yen in one’s wallet. You can easily find a 7-eleven to use the ATM in bigger cities. However, this could be almost impossible in smaller towns or more isolated areas. So always make sure to carry around plenty of money especially when traveling outside major cities.

Avoid tipping

The Japanese are well known for their remarkable service. However, unlike in the U.S., tipping is not customary in Japan. In fact, it does not exist and may be regarded as an insult. For example, if you leave a tip in a restaurant, the staff will probably run after you to return your money. The way they see it, they require no extra incentive to do their job properly. However, some restaurants may add a 10% service charge

Healthcare in Japan

Japan boasts a first-class affordable health care system. In general, there are no communicable diseases of significance and health hazards are few and far between. This is also due to Japan’s obsession with cleanliness. Tap water is safe to drink everywhere, and food hygiene standards are very high.

Because cities like Tokyo or Osaka are extremely congested metropolis where millions have already touched everything you touch, the Japanese encourage their visitors to wash their hands with soap throughout the day as often as possible.

For updates about advice regarding the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, please check our page on whether it is safe to travel to Japan.

Emergency numbers

In case of emergency here are all the important numbers you need to know. You can call using a mobile, landline or payphone, and they are toll-free.

  • 119 – Medical emergencyAmbulance / Fire
  • 110 – Police
  • 118- Coast Guard (Sea Rescue)
  • 03 3501 0110 – Tokyo English-speaking Police (weekdays 08:30-17:15)
  • 03 5276 0995 – Tokyo Emergency First Aid Association

The Tokyo Metropolitan Medical Institution Information Service provides an emergency translation service over the telephone – 03 5285 8185.

Japanese National Holidays

The most important holiday in Japan is New Year. The New Year celebrations go from December 30 to January 3.

From late March to early April on average (May in Hokkaido), Japanese celebrate the festival known as the cherry blossom (sakura) viewing. It is a truly magical season. It is almost impossible to predict exactly when it will happen until about a month beforehand. If you want to visit Japan during the cherry blossom season, please check our nifty cherry blossom forecast, which we update regularly starting February.

Himeji castle during the cherry blossom season
Himeji castle during the cherry blossom season

The longest holiday in Japan is Golden Week when there are four public holidays within a week. During this busy week, trains are overcrowded, that is why we highly recommend that you reserve your seats in advance.

The largest summer festival is Obon, which honors departed ancestral spirits. It is held in mid-July in eastern Japan (Kanto) and mid-August in western Japan (Kansai).

Except for New Year’s Day, if a holiday falls on a Sunday, it may be observed with a bank holiday the following Monday.

If the Respect-for-the-Aged Day falls on September 21 and the Autumnal Equinox Day on September 23, then September 22 will also be declared a holiday. This is known as the Silver Week.

The list below is accurate for national holidays in Japan for 2019:

  • January 1 – New Year’s Day
  • January 2 and 3 – New Year’s Bank Holidays
  • January 14 (Second Monday of January) – Coming-of-Age Day
  • February 11 – National Foundation Day
  • March 21 – Vernal Equinox Day (this holiday may vary between March 20 and March 21)
  • April 29 – Showa Day – first holiday of Golden Week
  • April 30 – Abdication of Emperor Akihito
  • May 1– Beginning of a new Era, “Coronation” of new Emperor Naruhito
  • May 3 – Constitution Memorial Day (part of the Golden Week)
  • May 4 – Greenery Day (part of the Golden Week)
  • May 6 – Children’s Day – last holiday of Golden Week (it’s actually day 5, but it moves to Monday as it falls on Sunday)
  • July 15 (third Monday of July) – Sea Day or Marine Day
  • August 12 – Mountain Day (it’s actually day 11, but it moves to Monday as it falls on Sunday)
  • September 16 (third Monday of September) – Respect-for-the-Aged Day
  • September 23 – Autumnal Equinox Day (this holiday may vary between September 23 and September 24)
  • October 14 (second Monday of October) Health-Sports Day
  • October 22 – Enthronement of Emperor Naruhito
  • November 4 – Culture Day (it’s actually day 3, but it moves to Monday as it falls on Sunday)
  • November 23 – Labor Thanksgiving Day (or following Monday if it falls on a Sunday)
  • December 31 – New Year’s Eve Bank holiday

Tattoos in Japan are banned in some places

Tattoos in Japan are considered taboo in many places. Although it is perfectly acceptable to walk in the street and visit attractions in the major cities, many Japanese people still associate tattoos with the Yakuza criminal gang.

Tattoos are outright banned in most public onsen baths. As no swimwear or clothing is permitted in these natural hot springs, covering up any ink is hard, but bandages are an acceptable option and it is also possible to visit a private onsen instead.

Tattoos are also expected to be covered up if visiting swimming pools and gyms, and most water parks and beaches. Covering up is also advised if visiting any temples, shrines, or ryokans (Japanese inns).

Removing shoes is a common courtesy

In Japan, as in many Asian countries, keeping shoes on when entering certain buildings is a sign of disrespect and should be avoided.

This custom initially arose because Japanese homes were traditionally fitted with ‘tatami’ flooring, which can be incredibly hard to clean. Additionally, Japanese people use flooring for much more than just walking on and both typically eat and sleep close to the floor.

Hoshinoya Ryokan, tokyo

Taking shoes off when entering someone’s home is essential, and may also be expected in certain restaurants and the dressing rooms of clothing stores. In public places, it’s a good idea to check for signs or a ‘shoe box’ to indicate whether this is necessary and to follow the lead of others in the vicinity.

Public transportation is incredibly reliable

With a wide variety of services available including Shinkansen bullet trains, buses, and extensive rail networks (including 150 lines and 2,000 stations of underground and overground rail in Toyko alone), Japan is well served by public transport.

Besides being widely available, Japanese public transportation has an excellent reputation for being efficient, clean, punctual, and extremely comfortable.

Getting around Tokyo by subway is incredibly easy, safe and convenient, and you can also download the Toyko Metro phone app to help you navigate the city.

For covering long distances, a JR Pass for traveling on Shinkansen is a must for getting around Japan cheaply, comfortably, and conveniently. The JR Pass can be used on a number of lines throughout the country, including Kyoto-Tokyo, Tokyo-Hiroshima, and Tokyo-Kanazawa.

Japanese wear surgical masks as a preventative measure

Travelers from the West who visit Japan for the first time are often surprised, and even alarmed, by the common sight of a busy street filled with pedestrians wearing surgical masks.

However, the sight of face masks in Japan does not necessarily mean a viral outbreak is underway. In fact, Japanese use of surgical masks is widespread on a day-to-day basis as a measure to protect from allergies and pollution, as well as to prevent the infection of others during the flu season.

Japan Coronavirus outbreak

Surgical masks are also increasingly being used as a fashion accessory, and the sight of brightly colored or branded face protection has become common in major cities. Face masks are also considered a good additional measure for keeping the cold off the cheeks in the winter months.

Disposing of garbage in Japan may be a mission

Although Japan is an immaculately clean country, you may be surprised to see that the streets are virtually empty of trash cans. In fact, on many occasions may find yourself carrying a piece of garbage around for some time before you can find a place to put it.

Trash cans are not common in Japan because of the cultural aversion to littering: Japanese do not typically eat or smoke while they are walking, and locals commonly carry pieces of rubbish with them until they can dispose of it at home.

If you do find a spot to get rid of trash in Japanese cities, you’ll find a group of different bins crowded together in which carefully separated bits and pieces have to be placed.

Oftentimes, the nearest place to dispose of plastic or paper quickly may be in the trash in the closest convenience store.

Getting around and understanding Japanese addresses

In Japan, it can be challenging to find streets and houses based solely on the address. Japanese addresses are completely different from anything you have ever seen. They are long and confusing, and if you don’t know how to read one correctly, you may find yourself lost and unable to reach your destination.

The Japanese address system is based on areas. These areas are divided from big to small. Contrary to most address systems in the Western World, which usually start with the most specific area and proceed to the largest, the Japanese system is the other way around. Japanese addresses start with the biggest geographical area and move to the smallest. They begin with the postal code, followed by the prefecture, city, and subarea(s), and end with the recipient’s name.

Except for major roads, Japanese streets are not named. Instead, cities and towns are subdivided into areas, subareas, and blocks. Houses within each subarea were formerly not numbered in geographical sequence but in the temporal order in which they were constructed.

Our tip for not getting lost? While in Japan online maps are your friends!

We suggest you read our 7 best apps to travel in Japan and also consider purchasing the SIM Card or the Pocket WiFi for your mobile phone since they will be your best allies while in Japan.

Public restrooms

Finding public restrooms in Japan’s metropolitan areas is easy. You can always find bathrooms inside train stations, department stores, and all the main tourist attractions.

There are three types of toilets in Japan: the familiar Western-style sitting toilets, the older Japanese-style squatting toilets, and the high-tech toilets.

The Japanese-style toilets have a sort of porcelain hole in the ground, and you must stand over them and squat. The most important thing to remember is the correct way to squat, usually with your back facing the door. This type of toilet can still be found throughout Japan, especially in remote areas and public parks.

The Western-style toilets are the most common style toilet, as found in the Western-world. You sit on them as if it was a chair. The washlet or high-tech toilets have a control panel so you can wash and dry yourself after doing your business.

Most bathrooms provide baby changing tables in both women’s and men’s toilets. Large multipurpose-bathrooms almost always provide a changing station and can be used by families with small children. There are also special rooms with private booths for nursing mothers.

Do not throw used the toilet paper into the trash can. Please flush it. However, do not flush anything other than toilette paper. Please throw used sanitary products in the garbage bin. In Japan, restrooms are usually spotless, so do your best to leave them the same way you found them.

Finally, keep in mind that each country has its own customs. Check out our Japanese etiquette article to find out other do’s and don’ts while traveling in Japan.

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