10 Letdowns For Foreigners Visiting Japan

10 Letdowns for Foreigners Visiting Japan

Have you ever been to Japan? If so, maybe you had a swell time. Maybe you had an awful time. Let's see if any of your complaints match up to this recent poll.

Respected newspaper Nikkei asked 100 foreigners visiting Japan to name what they found disappointing about their trip. With the 2020 Olympics approaching, expect the country and its media to obsess over Japanese "hospitality", or "omotenashi" (おもてなし).

Below, you can see the responses of those polled (note that Nikkei included quotes for some of the results and there were multiple replies):

10. There aren't many souvenir shops: 6 votes

10. There's no flexibility in interactions/dealings with people: 6 votes (tied)

9. Withdrawing and exchanging money are difficult: 8 votes

8. Many stores over package and over wrap: 9 votes

7. Some restaurants don't have non-smoking sections: 11 votes

6. Food portions are small: 12 votes

5. Lots of places were cash only: 15 votes

"Even though it's a developed country, I was surprised that lots of small shops don't take credit card." - Australian female, age 28

4. Not being told the way to eat certain dishes at restaurants: 17 votes

"At a beef bowl restaurant, my meal came with a raw egg. The waiter didn't explain anything, and I didn't know what to do with it." - Chinese male, age 27

3. Unable to understand "meal ticket systems" at restaurants: 19 votes

"There was a ticket machine at the restaurant, but I couldn't understand it and the staff only spoke Japanese, so I gave up and left." - American male, age 39

2. Free Wi-Fi lacking: 31 votes

"Compared to other countries, there's not much free Wi-Fi, and it's also hard to use." Australian woman, age 59

1. There are few foreign language services: 39 votes

"The subway system was too complicated, and I didn't understand it. So, I tried asking the station attendant, who didn't understand any English..." - German woman, age 41.

"There were few English language menus at restaurants. At the very least, I want the menus to have photos." - Australian woman, age 24.

"My kids got upset because there weren't any English channels on the hotel television." - Australian man, age 48.

Some of these I get! Some of these, less so. For example, there are tons of souvenir shops. However, what foreigners buy as souvenirs and what Japanese people buy tend to be different: for Japanese, souvenirs tend to be snacks and sweets, while many foreigners imagine souvenirs as t-shirts, mugs, and key chains.

As for flexibility in dealing with others, I've found people extremely flexible — going out of their way to help or not charging for items or services when they easily could.

As for wrapping, well, that's how Japan rolls. There's a huge culture of wrapping that filters through society — from the retail experience to how people even present others money. It's one thing that makes Japan, well, Japan.

However! Withdrawing money in Japan if you are visiting is a giant pain in the arse. Over the years, I've seen many friends and colleagues have a tough time dealing with ATMS and banks that are geared for domestic customers and not international ones.

The lack of free Wi-Fi is a drag in the arse for residents, too. But it's changing, with cities like Osaka beginning to lead the way in free hotspot. Still, the Wi-Fi situation in Japan sucks.

10 Letdowns for Foreigners Visiting Japan

Many of the other complaints have to do with eating out, which is probably one of the most difficult things for visitors. When I first visited Japan well over a decade ago, I couldn't speak any Japanese and going into restaurants was incredibly intimidating. Pretty much every meal of my trip was either eating something from Family Mart or eating fast food as both were less stressful than trying to navigate menus and restaurant staff. Now that I've lived here for a long, long time, eating out and ordering are no longer issues, but I can certainly remember that feeling of not being able to understand menus and restaurant staff.

Blame a homogeneous population. Blame a broken English education system. Blame intrinsic differences between the languages. For whatever reason, English is extremely difficult for most Japanese — and thus, many people simply lack confidence to use it. (Heck, my kids struggle with English.) So, I dunno about complaining about Japanese people not speaking English? They don't speak English because they speak Japanese. It might be a good idea for people who work at train stations to bone up on their English skills in areas frequented by tourists.

Honestly, I'm not exactly sure of what's the best way to order out in Japan if you are visiting and don't speak the language. It would be great if more restaurants had English menus, but I'm not entirely confident that will happen — even with the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. One piece of advice I can offer is to point to the plastic food samples in front of restaurants. Many Japanese people use the plastic food when deciding what they are going to eat, anyway. The only difference is that you might have to drag the waiter outside and point to what you want in the display.

As for restaurants that use ticket machines (typically noodle restaurants), my advice is even simpler: Point to other people's food. Someone should be able to help you. Hopefully!

And for things like portions, many restaurants offer larger servings (ohmori or 大盛り), sometimes free of charge. Then, there are the restaurants that have free second servings. If you go to a tonkatsu restaurant, for example, you can get free refills of rice, miso soup, and cabbage. (Sorry, no tonkatsu free second servings!) Stuff like this all Japanese people know; however, most visitors don't. But now you do.

If you are visiting Japan, here are cheat sheets for super basic Japanese, interesting restaurants, and even capsule hotels. Japan is a wonderful place to visit, and shortcomings aside, fingers crossed you have a nice time.

おもてなし「ニッポンのココが残念」 外国人100人に聞く [Nikkei]

Photos: YuriZap / Shutterstock, Paolo Gianti / Shutterstock


    I'm glad there is no "lack giant monsters, mechs or other crazy shit" on this list, so everything's as I'd expect. :P

    The only thing that I found difficult was getting money out. You had to go through an hour long ceremony to cash Travellers cheques (remember those?) and even major cities only had 1 or 2 international ATMs. That's right, you had to specifically find the international ATM. Eating out wasn't too bad. It's not rude to point so just point at what you want. Even if you have to walk the wait staff over to someone else's table and point to their meal! Public transport wasn't too bad either. You just paid the minimum and used the "fare adjustment machine" to pay the remainder at your destination. People are keen to help you out, and if you are 6 foot with blonde hair, they are fascinated with you.

      My addendum to this would be to get a Suica card if you're in Tokyo, for the train. Electronic, easy to use and no fussing with tickets.

      I don't see much of a problem with ATMs here in Japan because there are heaps! All Seven Elevens, post offices and Citibank branches accept international cards.

        I should have pointed out that my last visit to Japan was 14 years ago (hence the traveller's cheques). I'm sure things have changed since then.

      Every single post office has an international ATM and they are everywhere. Exchange rate was really good as well so i just put in my visa debit card and withdrew from my account.

      Most places i found as well 7/11, maccas etc etc you can make a small purchase and get cash out as well.

    "A drag in the arse"? Bit of proofing could have been handy there...

    I recently went on a 2 week trip to Japan and I didn't really have any of these problems. I found public transport really easy and there was English signage everywhere, and maps are at every exit. I had a 2 week JR pass so i could basically go anywhere on the JR lines (even on the bullet trains) and not worry about buying tickets. For ordering in restaurants there is usually pictures so its not too difficult to decide. For getting money out I used a pre-paid travelers card which I topped up online, then could withdraw money from any 7/11 ATM with no fees. Since this was my first overseas trip I was a bit apprehensive about been able to get around but everything was much simpler than I thought it would be.

    I didn't actually have any of those problems when I visited Japan, except maybe replace the souvenirs are hard to find problem with "souvenirs are incredibly expensive". Also, the amount of smokers in some restuarants were pretty bad, as smoking regulations aren't as strict there (in general). Also, great tip with the Tonkatsu restuarants: there was an amazing one in the top of Kyoto Station that kept me full fot days!!! And 7-Eleven stores all had atms that accepted Aussie cards, so no problem there!

    I don't understand why people would travel to a non english speaking country then complain when not many people there speak english. What did they expect?

      Of all the non-english speaking nations, I'd have to say Japan is by far the best in terms of giving english translations of almost everything anyway. In all my time there, I only came across one situation where I couldn't get information out of someone, or be able to read it for myself. Helps that I know a bit of Japanese, but I'm far from fluent. I also went with a plan too though. I knew places I wanted to go well before I got there. Perhaps if you didn't prepare in that sense, you may have more trouble, but it's a hell of a lot easier than trying to 'english' your way through China!

      My thoughts exactly. And I can almost guarantee the people complaining about that are the same that would complain about foreigners traveling to Australia and knowing no English at all. What's good for the goose is good for the gander right?

        I think the issue is one that is kind of unique to English speakers, that is, if you speak English as a first language then selecting a language to learn is only useful if you want to specifically go to that one place. If you don't then it is near useless in most situations.
        People who are not native English speakers will find that a most of the rest of the world, even if it isn't a native English speaking country, will be more accessible to English language speakers than their native tongue so learning English is a good common ground. If you have someone from China and someone from Germany I would hazard a guess that they are more likely to be able to communicate in English than any other language.

      Exactly! It would be the same as if Japanese tourists in Australia complained that no one here spoke Japanese.

        While I agree that native English speakers can be quite arrogant (What! They don't speak English!), it is not the same. English is a global language, Japanese is not; so not, not the same.

          I don't think that is true. More people speak Mandarin than English. And more people speak Spanish than English. English is only the 3rd most spoken language in the world.

          I also just used Japanese/English as examples because they were the two languages mentioned above. I could have easily used any 2 languages.

            We are looking at total numbers here (including second language) here I suppose? Some countries are worse than others and it heavily depends on the education level of the population. However, it is not unreasonable to expect some sort of English education and knowledge in one of the most developed countries in the world.
            My response came specifically to the example you gave, if it was not English than that response would have been different; according to the trusted Wikipedia there are more English speakers than Mandarin.
            Anyway, it's not black and white, if you travel, have fun.
            And it is not only the English speakers btw, ever been on vacation in northern Italy and met Germans?

              What Wikipedia tells us is that English is the third most spoken first language, the second most spoken language if you include those who speak it as a second language, and the most common choice as a second language (430 million vs. Mandarin at 175 million).

              So if you're going to China, Mandarin is a good idea; in general, if you're going to any country, the native language of that country is the best language to know. But if you want to know a single language, the most likely language for a random stranger to know that is not their native tongue is English.

              This doesn't particularly excuse knowing at least some of the language for the country you're visiting. English is a horribly complex tongue, and expecting a non-native speaker to actually be fluent in it is probably asking a bit much. Plus, it's nice to have some way of communicating with all the people who don't know it very well.

              You only have to listen to one anime with a section where the people are supposed to be speaking English to realise that even the high standards are not always very high.

            That's a silly point. When people say "English is a global language" they're not talking about native speakers (which make up all the numbers in your examples), they're talking about people of different languages who use English as a lingua Franca. Note one of the people who complained about lack of English was a German woman.

      If you want to attract a certain kind of tourist (eg. those that will pay for stuff and make your economy grow) you need to cater for them. Remember when Japanese was splashed across all the souvenir shops in Australia? To make the Japanese feel like spending cash. Same goes for Japan - you want the tourists, you gotta give up something in return.

      I'm not saying that they should all speak English, I'm just saying that those shops that can make it easier for tourists will obviously be more successful in making tourists part with their cash. Perhaps it's not English that should be used - maybe Chinese is better since they are the growing market. But the Japanese are so damn nice to tourists - they'll go out of their way to help you. The chances of finding someone who understands basic English is relatively good.

    Rule 1 of Japan. Never go to Imigration. Your faith in humanity will drop.

      Oh lord... this forever.

      What a soul sucking hell hole.

        I've heard stories like someone working there laughing at a too-pregnant-to-get-on-a-plane lady because she was getting kicked out.

    Fascinated by the culture, lifestyle and people, among other things. Started learning Japanese a couple of months ago - the most daunting thing so far is learning the Kana/Kanji. Despite this, really looking forward to traveling there when I'm more prepared.

      The only way I can understand kanji is with the furigana, or a bunch of hiragana/katakana surrounding it for context. That and knowing the few kanji that I've learnt. It's incredibly context sensitive (ie. The same kanji can be pronounced several different ways depending on what surrounds it) which is my biggest problem with learning it.

      It's a really great place to visit if you're into the culture, history and food. Just stay away from the traditional toilets! (The ones you squat over)

      What are you using to learn Kanji? I'm personally using WaniKani which makes it fairly fun to learn (until you leave it afk and get 1000s of reviews that is), however you do have to pay a subscription to use it.

        I haven't actually found a dedicated source yet, right now I'm using the 'Japanese for Dummies' book, which only gives a list of the basic Kanji to get you started. Once I'm used to the Kana I'll start looking for other places, so I'll definitely check out WaniKani. Thanks for the heads up!

      The best advice I can give about learning kanji is to get the book "Remembering the Kanji" by Heisig. It makes it so much easier.

      Having studied Japanese for several years, my advice for reading is flash cards, flash cards, flash cards. Go over them a couple of times a day and you'll get the hang of it in no time. Check a stationary shop for pre-assembled keyring flashcards, fantastic piece of kit. Oh, and the sooner you "get" how kanji works (stroke order, different radicals etc) the faster you'll be able to learn it, so study the hell out of the rules and your life will be much easier.

        That sounds like great advice! I learned French when I was in high school by spending year 8/9/10 studying my other subjects - maths, sose and science in French. The most important thing I took away from it was to immerse yourself and make it a part of your daily routine (although it gets you some weird looks from friends/family). Can you recommend any resources that will help me learn the stroke order/radicals that you mentioned?

        Have you guys heard of the site Memerise? It has user created courses that use flash cards to teach. All free courses, and cover basic Japanese and Kanji


    “Compared to other countries, there’s not much free Wi-Fi, and it’s also hard to use.” - Australian
    ...has this person checked Australian free wifi?

    as someone who just spent the last 4 weeks there, not knowing the language (other than VERY basic) or much else about the country, this list is total BS from lazy and or stupid people.

    10. there was a souvenir shop every 2 buildings throughout Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Sapporo and even up in Niseko and Kinosaki.
    10. not sure what is meant by this, the staff in almost every store bent over backwards to help me.
    9. EVERY single 7/11 had an english option ATM, and they are on every street corner.
    8. This i agree with, me and my partner couldn't work out how such a clean country can have so much disposable rubbish.
    7. Cant comment too much on this, not a single restaurant we went too had this problem (all had smoker rooms)
    6. sure food in SOME places was small portioned, but it was also cheap as shit, buying 2 portions in some places ended as more food for still less than what i would pay back here.
    5. yeah Cash only was a little strange but with the sheer number of english ATMS at 7/11s, not really a problem.
    4. Wasn't an issue for me, but im ok with speaking up and asking a question instead of sitting there like a moron.
    3. The meal ticket system was one of the best things about Japan, especially if you have a language barrier issue, see what you like, press button, hand over ticket.... what's so hard? the places without either pictures or basic English on the machines, had VERY helpful staff to ask what you wanted and would use the machine for you.
    2. there was free wifi in every cafe, train, and most public places, they use a system call freespot, allows 10 minutes of free browsing before having to input a email address (fake worked for me), and these AP's were everywhere.
    1. this i dont even know what to say..... how stupid do you have to be to not realise that everything will be in Japanese? best thing i learnt from a Japanese metro staff member was, speak slow, point at what you need and most Japanese even those that don't speak English will be more than willing to help as much as possible.

    Most incredible holiday and country, cannot wait to go back.

      Was about to reply with a comment pretty similar to this.

      10. No souvenir shops...Are you serious?
      10. People did way more then i could ever have expected to help me if they couldn't speak english.
      I had one lady draw pictures of chickens, cows etc next to numbers on a menu and put starts to tell me this was a chicken dish and it was really popular.

      9. Every post office has an international ATM as well.

      7. No issues with any restaurants and smoking sections. Hell it got to the point i could understand and answer the question of smoking or none smoking in Japanese by the time i left. The ones that didn't have none-smoking where very few and didn't annoy us much anyway.

      6. Small portions are fine as it was REALLY cheap.

      5. Cash only is strange but its quite common in a lot of countries anyway...If you travel abroad you should know cash is your friend...

      4. Lol really? We one night sat there and ordered random things. Some things we didn't know how to eat and asked.

      3. Only used the meal ticket system maybe 3 times? But most buttons have photos. Press what you want, pay money give to staff get your meal. Enjoy

      2. Didn't have an issue with free Wifi - I rented a Japanese hotspot with unlimited data for $15 for 3 weeks. Was delivered to my first hotel when i arrived and came with a return post bag that i gave to my last hotel to post for me as i left. Also got 2 local mobile phones with unlimited calls between each other for another $15

      1. I honestly don't believe this. Nearly every single sign had english writing under it in Tokyo. Around the transport areas it was even more so. And all buses trains etc said the stop they where approaching in Japanese then in english afterwards.

      Sorry to highjack your comment but i cannot understand how people can go to a country and be like wah wahh wahh this doesn't go the way it does back in my home country so i am going to have a bitch.

      We ran into an annoying american while in Japan that tagged onto us because he heard me and my friends speaking English. He was the rudest person and had no patience for the locals....Yet sat there bragging about how he is so much more open to traveling compared to most Americans...

      7. The complaint was a lack of NON-smoker rooms, not of smoker rooms.

      I find it bizarre that an Aussie was complaining about lack of free wifi, considering how rare it is here, but she did say "compared to other countries", so she may have just come from a different country that had an actual first-world communications infrastructure.

        I meant every one we visited had specific smoker rooms, as in the rest of the restaurant was non smoking, sorry should have made that clearer.

    As much as Japan being a cash-based society drives me nuts, I can't actually say it caused me much of an issue. I seem to recall these ATM-like machines (they weren't attached to a bank, so I don't think they're true ATMs) being everywhere that could break down big notes into smaller notes for you. Of course, I didn't have a bank card, so I'm not sure how difficult the process is in actually getting the cash.

      Just a word on atm, 7/11 no longer works with mastercard - you'll need JPBank. These can be found in pretty much any post office.

    We made meal times a game, we looked at the plastic food, guessed what it might be ordered it and see what happened. We called this the 10% game, 10% of the time you got it right, 10% of the time you got it wrong and the other 80% you have no fucking idea what you were eating so you just ate it anyway.

    Never, ever exchange money in Japan. Never. Not even ever. I am not even joking. Just fucking don't. I cannot stress this enough.

    Japanese banks will offer you 20% worse exchange than anywhere else and on top of that they'll charge you like 3% on top of the terrible prices they give you. Absolute robbery.

    If you must exchange in Japan, use Citibank, or the post office. They're the least bad. Still bad, though.

    If you're coming to Japan, I recommend getting something like the Commonwealth Bank Traveller's Card, it's basically like a prepaid Visa (refill via bpay) and a flat fee to withdraw from Japan Post Office ATMs. I got mine free when I was a university student and it's how I transfer money from Australia to Japan. Don't waste time with traveller cheques or any of that, and don't assume your credit card will be accepted everywhere (big shops will but smaller places your mileage will vary. eg I can pay for concert tickets at the convenience store with it but not pay my utility bills).


    Can't believe the complaints about the subway, most places have English maps, if you're bad with the Japanese system then you must be awful in general at public transport. Plan ahead and it's no problem. (hint: hyperdia.com and google maps )

    Last edited 21/02/14 1:31 am

    Post offices is where you should go to withdraw money, not banks.
    Convenience stores will be fine taking your card.
    souvenir shops are in every station.
    You can normally get a little free wifi at stations.
    If you don't understand the meal ticket system, the plain easy food is top left side, most chain stores will have pictures for them or a push screen computer.

    Cant believe no one mentioned foreigners cant purchase a sim card!!!
    I remember loading my phone up with apps and maps and couldn't use any of them because of this.

    (yes apparently there are dodgy places in the tech district but sorry that is not good enough)

      You can rent a mobile broadband puck to get unlimited 4G connection. Then just use Skype for phone and your apps work fine...

      I travelled around Japan purely using google maps for navigation...

      there are places in the airports where you could rent one for the period of your stay

      i picked up a 1gb prepaid sim in a BIC camera for about $30, lasted me 4 weeks of pretty heavy use of maps, and internet, only issue was it needed to be activated from a Japanese mobile phone, but staff at the hotel i stayed at were happy to help activate it for me.
      (these can also be pre purchased and pre activated online then sent to your first hotel awaiting your arrival though)

      the mobile phone situation while i was there was pretty shit (2006), luckily i was with japanese friends with phones 90% of the time.

    I'm surprised no one mentioned how scarce rubbish bins are there. Ended up carrying my rubbish around for up to 30 minutes until I found the next bin sometimes.

      this. all we could find in the wild were recycling bins near drink machines.

    Love the fact that:

    an Australian was complaining about free wifi in Japan,
    an German complained about the language barrier when trying to understand the transport system
    an Chinese complained the that restaurant staff did not explain anything...

    Protip: If you need to withdraw cash, 7Eleven has you sorted. ATMs there definitely work on Aussie cards. But Japan is a mostly cash society, so make sure that you have enough for each day.

    Some of these are hilarious, and unfortunately paint Australians and Americans in their typical ignoramus colours.

    An asian country is totally different to your western English-speaking world? youdontsay.jpg

    The 59yo complaining about Wifi, a German speaking English in Japan and an American who actually went to Japan.
    I have doubts about this...

      If I recall correctly Americans have visited Japan in exploding numbers since at least 1945..

        i feel there could be a Hiroshima joke in there.....

    What I got from this was, English speakers not only expect people to learn fluent English when coming over but expect everything to be in English when they go to overseas...

    Biggest issue in Japan is that compared to most of the developed world they aren't used to foreigners.

    This list avoids mentioning what really bothers most travellers to japan which is how uncomfortable foreigners make many Japanese feel and how they respond.

    So some places refuse to serve foreigners, some people stare at foreigners and some people refuse to sit besides foreigners on the train. Some Japanese try to be very polite but this can actually come across as being overbearing.

    Imagine travelling around a village in china or India or being in 1950's America and you get an idea of where some people are at (not everyone obviously).

    Most other developed countries and many developing countries are far more comfortable with foreign people and influences.

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