So, you’re going to Japan, huh? Fantastic. You might have some questions. Hopefully, I’ll have some answers.
Back in 2001, I visited Japan for the first time. I liked the country so much, I ended up staying. Permanently. Over the years, I have gotten numbers emails from Kotaku readers, asking me a variety of questions.
Let’s have a look at some of the most frequently asked ones:
Do I need to speak Japanese?
No. Absolutely not. The first time I came to Japan fourteen years ago, I didn’t know a word of Japanese. (That being said, once you do learn the language, the country really does open up!) Since calling Japan home, I’ve had numerous friends visit me, and none of them spoke a lick of the language, and they all seemed to get around a-ok.
Be aware that every Japanese person studies English in junior high and high school (many get some sort of basic English instruction in grade school).
So, everyone speaks English, then?
No. Absolutely not. You might meet some talented English speakers—or, at least, people with a strong desire to communicate and help out should you need it. There are lots of signs in English, and more often than not, people do go out of their way to help, whether they can speak the language or cannot.
My advice to long term residents is to make an effort to learn the language, but visitors should be fine with English. However, here are a few Japanese words that might make your travels easier.
I’m worried about sticking out as a tourist. Do people really stare at foreigners?
Don’t worry about sticking out, because, well, you will stick out. Unless you are Japanese, you’re not exactly going to blend in. The country is 98.5 per cent Japanese citizens. There are some minorities in that number, but generally speaking, Japan can overwhelmingly look and feel Japanese. The reason is simple: It is.
Everyone who sees you or talks to you will know that you are a foreigner. But I’m Asian, you say. Great! However, you’ll still be given away by things like your body movements, your fashion, and whether or not you can speak Japanese.
You might feel like people are staring at you on the train. They probably are! I know I don’t see foreigners everyday—except when I look in the mirror. So even for me, it’s somewhat unusual.
In big cities like Tokyo or Osaka, I’ve found that people tend to ignore foreigners, because there are, comparatively, a large number of foreign visitors and residents. In smaller towns, people might be less used to seeing or interacting with foreigners. But, most likely, that will result in nothing worse than some awkward interactions or a general inquisitiveness.
Can you recommend some places to go that aren’t for tourists?
If you go to Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka, you will see many, many tourists. Many of those tourists will be Japanese. When Japanese people travel within the country, they tend to go to places that are, well, touristy, too. Why? Because there are things to do and see and souvenirs to buy. So, don’t worry about some secret Japan that nobody else gets to experience. Look online or in a guidebook, find places and things you are interested in and go check them out.
If you really, really are dead set on going local, get on a train, go out to the suburbs, get off, and walk around. Trust me, you’ll probably end up somewhere that no tourist ever goes. But there might be a reason for that! Maybe not.
Is it better to stay in a hotel or a hostel?
Hostels are a cheaper way to get around a very expensive country. Personally, I’ve never stayed in a hostel in Japan, so I’m probably not the best person to ask. (Sorry!) I have stayed in loads of inexpensive business hotels, which are aimed at—wait for it—business people travelling within the country. They’re cheap and clean with teeny-tiny rooms. Sometimes breakfast is included. So, if you want to see how Japanese people travel around on a budget, stay at a business hotel.
Another option is to stay at a love hotel.
Love hotels? Like where people go to have sex?
Exactly. Sometimes they are cheaper than regular hotel rooms, and the rooms are often bigger. Their big drawback, however, is that generally, you cannot reserve the rooms in advance. I would not recommend you spend a lengthy amount of time in Japan, bumping from love hotel to love hotel. Bumping in a love hotel? That’s another matter entirely.
Sorry about that.
It’s ok. I’ve also heard people talk about ryokan. What are those?
Ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) are a good way to go. There are many sites (here, for example) with recommendations.
What about a capsule hotel?
Capsule hotels are a neat experience. That is, if the idea of sleeping in a small, confined space does not terrify the hell out of you. If you get the chance, a night in a capsule hotel will be memorable. If you are a non-smoker, look for a capsule hotel with non-smoking floors to make your sleeping experience more pleasant.
Capsule hotels are also a lifesaver if you miss the last train and don’t want to stay up until the trains start running again in the morning.
The trains don’t run 24 hours a day?
No. Trains typically stop running between midnight and 1am.
Is it hard to get around? Like, on trains and subways?
Not anymore! Japan has one of the best public transportation systems in the world. But in Tokyo and Osaka, the sheer scale of it all might be overwhelming. Thankfully, things like Google Maps make life easier. (It’s highly recommended that you get a Japanese SIM card either at the airport or, better yet, in your home country before you leave. There are numerous companies that rent them out.)
Streets are a bit of a mess in Japan due to a seemingly complicated way in which they are grouped and named. When I first came to Japan, I sometimes had to use an actual city map to get around. People would also fax each other maps with directions on them. It was a pain in the arse! But again, Google Maps has made things pretty simple. Also, HyperDia can be a huge help.
One recommendation: Short-term visitors can get an unlimited Japan Rail pass for two weeks. If you’re planning to travel around the country, get one. Note that the pass must be purchased outside of Japan, and it only works on JR operated railways!
It sounds like I’ll need a phone.
You really do. As I just mentioned, there are places you can rent SIM cards. You can also rent handsets, if necessary. But yes, you’ll need a phone for directions if for nothing else.
How much money should I bring?
Traditionally, Japan has been a cash-based society. You used to have to pay for everything with paper money. Today, you can get around with a credit card, but some stores and restaurants still only take cash. That number is getting smaller year by year, but it’s always good to carry paper yen notes, instead of getting to the register and realising that you’re unable to pay your bill.
Hitting an ATM might seem easy, but some banks do not take bank cards issued outside of Japan. Typically, the ATMs at post offices and 7-Elevens do. With the massive influx of tourists, more and more ATMs are able to handle foreign cards, but not all.
Where do I change money?
At the turn of the century, you’d have to go into a bank, take a number, wait your turn, show your passport and wait in line. It was a drag and time consuming.
These days, more banks in big cities have dedicated foreign exchange windows because of all the tourists. Make sure you have your passport, though! I’ve even seen foreign exchange counters at department stores as well as a few currency exchange shops in Tokyo and Osaka, which is something you’d rarely (if ever) see fifteen or twenty years ago.
When is the best time to go?
For Osaka and Tokyo, the best times are from late March to mid-May (though, April can get crowded due to the cherry blossoms) or from early October to mid-to-late-November. Expect the big crowds during cherry blossom season.
But I’m going during the summer.
Summers are gross in Japan. They’re hot and sticky, and you will melt. (Unless you‘re going to Hokkaido, which is much more bearable.) If you come during the summer, bring a small hand or face towel, so you can mop your brow. I’m serious. You will need this. It’s important.
June is the rainy season, so bring an umbrella.
When is the worst time to go?
Golden Week. Do not go to Japan during Golden Week. You have been warned.
OK. Noted. Where is good to eat? Can you recommend your favourite restaurants?
There are loads of good places to eat. Just follow your nose. The food in Japan is delicious, so most of the time, you really can’t go wrong wherever you go.
Ordering, however, can be tricky for visitors.
Yes, tricky. Some restaurants only have menus in Japanese, which isn’t a problem if you understand Japanese. If you’re only on a short holiday, that might make things harder for you. However, many menus have photos, which makes for easy pointing. Also, in front of many restaurants, there is plastic sample food. People actually look at it when deciding what they want, so if the restaurant doesn’t have an English menu (remember to ask!) but does have plastic food, feel free to show the waiter what you want.
Are there restaurants for vegetarians?
Yes, there are. But there are not many. (Honestly, I’ve never met any Japanese person who is a strict vegetarian. I’m sure they exist!) Here are some vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.
Can I go to a host or hostess bar?
Sure. Though, you might find entering one to be a somewhat intimidating experience. Some host and hostess bars are incredibly small, and you might feel like you’ve stepped into a private party. Others are large and lavish. Visiting one, however, is not cheap, and there is a language barrier if you don’t speak Japanese. Be aware that in the past, some bars have not allowed foreigners to enter, perhaps because of said language barrier, among other reasons.
I’m worried about offending people accidentally. What should I do?
Japanese people tend to give visitors a wide berth. Unless you walk all over tatami mats or go inside while wearing shoes, people will probably be fine. There are some obvious cultural no-nos, like maybe don’t discuss World War II or current diplomatic issues Japan has with South Korea or China—or even, the presence of U.S. military bases in Okinawa.
I don’t think most people would get horribly offended or even upset, but if you are speaking in English, and they’re not fluent, it might be hard to discuss these topics with gravitas in a nuanced way, and that’s not really fair to the folks you’re talking with. And for me personally, I’m not one to talk politics with people I’ve just met or don’t know that well…
Also, when eating, don’t stick your chopsticks in a bowl of rice, because it’s reminiscent of a funeral rite, and don’t pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks. Again, this is a funeral rite. Other than that, don’t worry and have fun.
But, I can’t use chopsticks. What should I do?
Ask for a knife and fork. People will be happy to oblige.
I’m gay and travelling with my boyfriend/girlfriend. Will we experience any discrimination?
Japan still lags behind the U.S. and Europe in gay and transgender issues. Currently, Japan is slowly becoming more aware of gay rights and gay issues. But Japan being Japan, change takes time, so the country isn’t quite where, say, the U.S. is on gay or transgender issues.
However, gay friends of mine have visited and travelled in Japan with no problems, so I’d assume it would be the same for you. For example, I’ve never heard of there being a problem for two people of the same gender to reserve a hotel room.
That being said, in most of the country, you don’t really see same sex couples holding hands or displaying affection in a public way. Then again, many straight Japanese people don’t really do that, either. There are exceptions to this on both accounts, however. So, whether you are gay or straight, you might want to dial back the PDA.
Is Japan really safe?
If you believe the low crime statistics, then yes, yes it is. But like anywhere, it’s good to keep your wits about you. Crimes do happen. Murders happen. Robberies happen. The country certainly seems incredibly safe, but don’t get lulled into thinking nothing bad happens in Japan. That’s simply not true.
What’s up with the sickness masks?
Where’s a good place to go shopping?
Depends on what you want. Big cities like Tokyo and Osaka have a seemingly endless number of amazing department stores. Then, there are hip, youth shopping areas like Harajuku in Tokyo and Amemura in Osaka.
What about video games? I read Kotaku, you know.
Are there any stores in Akihabara or Nipponbashi that you’d recommend?
The easiest place to do one-stop shopping is Super Potato. It’s an Osaka-based chain, but their Akihabara branch might be the most interesting place for visitors. Of course, there are a bunch of other shops, so just wander around and pop in places that look cool. You should also visit large electronics stores like Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera.
Are maid cafes real?
Should I go to one?
Do you want to?
Then you should.
I have lots of tattoos. Will I be allowed to go to a hot springs or a public bath?
Many hot springs, public baths, swimming pools, and waterparks have expressly written rules saying that people with tattoos are not allowed. These rules are often written in English, too.
There’s a long history as to why tattoos have a stigma in Japan, so there are deeply ingrained prejudices against them. Foreigners, however, tend to get more leeway than Japanese people do. For example, Neymar Jr. can appear on Japanese TV, neck tattoo and all, which would be inconceivable for a Japanese athlete or celebrity.
So, what to do? If you don’t have large work done, you can simply cover up your tattoos with a bandage (or bandages). If you have extensive work done, don’t fret. Some hot springs have private bathing rooms you can book. This Japanese site lists hot springs, saunas, pools, and even tanning salons that permit people with tattoos.
I’ve heard taking a bath in Japan is slightly different than taking a bath elsewhere. Is that true?
Yes. For one thing, Japanese people take baths at night before they go to sleep. People wash first with soap, clean all the suds off, and then they get into the bath. That way, the bath water is clean, and they can soak. Even in homes, the bath is usually a separate room from the toilet, so you can wash yourself in the bathroom, and then get into the bath.
Is it ok to take photos at temples and shrines? What about in Japanese gardens?
In the past, it’s been fine, but recently there have been more restrictions on taking photos. If photography is not allowed, there should be clearly marked signs in Japanese and English.
One thing about visiting shrines and temples: You are visiting places of worship. Treat them that way, please, even if you don’t follow that particular religion.
Is it ok to bring drugs into Japan?
What if I want to do drugs while in Japan?
My advice regarding illegal drugs in Japan, including pot: don’t buy or use them in this country. At all. There are stiff penalties for using drugs. When celebrities get caught with them, it ruins their careers and lives. So yeah, don’t use drugs in Japan. If you’re caught, you’ll probably be deported.
Is there anything I must see or do in Japan?
I really think that question is best left up to you! What do you want to do? What do you want to see? Read up on those topics and plan your vacation accordingly. Personally, when I first visited Japan, I liked just walking around and doing normal things, like going to the supermarket or taking trains. Maybe you have a different idea of what you want from your trip, which is a-ok!
But besides all the temples, shrines, and historical spots, places like the Ghibli Museum, Tokyo DisneySea, Universal Studios Japan, Tsukiji Fish Market, and Tokyo Skytree as well as a hot springs are hopefully high on your list.
My one piece of advice would be if you are visiting Japan, try to go somewhere besides Tokyo. Anyway is fine, really. Otherwise, you run the risk of basing all your impressions of the country on a single city, which is like judging the United States on, say, New York City. Try to travel around if possible and visit other cities, towns, and the rural countryside.
What makes good souvenirs?
In Japanese, souvenirs are called omiyage (お土産), and since Japanese people are expected to buy souvenirs for friends and family members when they travel, the country’s souvenir industry is excellent. Many of the best souvenirs are sweets that are individually wrapped and come in beautiful boxes. Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett recommends Tokyo Banana. For Kyoto, yatsuhashi is typically the default souvenir sweet.
Tea and sake, both of which I love, are also good choices in the food and drink categories. Japanese whisky is also, of course, highly recommended.
If you are into anime and video games, then head to Tokyo’s Akihabara and Osaka’s Den-Den Town to shop. Because of Yahoo Japan, prices have become increasingly standardised for secondhand goods, but for gifts, you are bound to find something. Hit large electronics shops for cameras, lenses, and the like
Classic items like fans, textiles, tea pots and ceramics are always good. But honestly, if you see something cool that you like or that your friends and family would like, get it.
Do you ever get tired of answering questions about visiting Japan?
This article was originally published on July 10, 2015. It has since been updated and expanded.