Japan is conventionally divided into nine regions, listed here from north to south:
Japan has thousands of cities; these are nine of the most important to the traveller.
See Japan's Top 3 for some sights and places held in the high esteem by the Japanese themselves, and Off the beaten track in Japan for a selection of fascinating but less well known destinations throughout the country.
The "Land of the Rising Sun" is a country where the past meets the future. Japanese culture stretches back millennia, yet has also adopted (and created) the latest modern fashions and trends.
Japan is a study in contrasts and contradictions. Many Japanese corporations dominate their industries, yet if you read the financial news it seems like Japan is practically bankrupt. Cities are as modern and high tech as anywhere else, but tumbledown wooden shacks can still be spotted next to glass fronted designer condominiums. On an average subway ride, you might see childishly cute character toys and incredibly violent pornography - sometimes enjoyed by the same passenger, at the same time! Japan has beautiful temples and gardens which are often surrounded by garish signs and ugly buildings. In the middle of a modern skyscraper you might discover a sliding wooden door which leads to a traditional chamber with tatami mats, calligraphy, and tea ceremony. These juxtapositions mean you may often be surprised and rarely bored by your travels in Japan.
While geography is not destiny, the fact that Japan is located on islands on the outermost edge of Asia has had a profound influence on its history. Just close enough to mainland Asia, yet far enough to keep itself separate, much of Japanese history has been the alternation of periods of closure and openness. Until recently, Japan has been able to turn on or off its connection to the rest of the world, internalizing foreign cultural influences in fits and starts. It is comparable with the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe, but with a much wider channel.
Recorded Japanese history begins in the 5th century, although archaeological evidence of settlement stretches back 500,000 years and the mythical Emperor Jimmu is said to have founded the current Imperial line in the 7th century BC. Archeological evidence, however, has only managed to trace the Imperial line back to the Kofun Period during the 3rd to 7th centuries AD, which was also when the Japanese first had significant contact with China. Japan then gradually became a centralised state during the Asuka Period, during which Japan extensively absorbed many aspects of Chinese culture, and saw the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism. The popular board game of Go is also believed to have been introduced to Japan from China during this period.
The first strong Japanese state was centered in Nara, which was built to model the then Chinese capital Chang'an. This period, dubbed the Nara Period was the last time the emperor actually held political power, with power eventually falling into the hands of the court nobles during the Heian Period, when the capital was moved to Kyoto, which remained the Japanese imperial residence until the 19th century. Chinese influence also reached its peak during the early Heian Period, which saw Buddhism become a popular religion among the masses. This was then followed by the Kamakura Period, when the samurai managed to gain political power. Minamoto no Yoritomo, the most powerful of them was dubbed shogun by the emperor and ruled from his base in Kamakura. The Muromachi Period then saw the Ashikaga shogunate come to power, ruling from their base in Ashikaga. Japan then descended into the anarchy of the Warring States period in the 15th century. Tokugawa Ieyasu finally reunified the country in 1600 and founded the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal state ruled from Edo, or modern-day Tokyo. A strict caste system was imposed, with the Shogun and his samurai warriors at the top of the heap and no social mobility permitted.
During this period, dubbed the Edo Period, Tokugawa rule kept the country stable but stagnant with a policy of almost total isolation (with the exception of Dutch and Chinese merchants in certain designated cities) while the world around them rushed ahead. US Commodore Matthew Perry's Black Ships arrived in Yokohama in 1854, forcing the country to open up to trade with the west. The resulting shock led to the collapse of the shogunate in the Meiji Restoration of 1867, during which the imperial capital was relocated from Kyoto to Edo, now re-named Tokyo. Japan launched itself headlong into a drive to industrialize and modernize, which soon turned into a drive to expand and colonize its neighbors, culminating in the disastrous Second World War that saw 1.86 million Japanese and well over 10 million Chinese and other Asians die in battle, bombings, starvation and massacres. Forced to surrender in 1945 after the nuclear attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was occupied for the first time in its history. The Emperor kept his throne but was turned into a constitutional monarch. Thus converted to pacifism and democracy, with the US taking care of defense, Japan now directed its prodigious energies into peaceful technology and proceeded to conquer the world's marketplaces with an endless stream of cars and consumer electronics, rising from the ashes to attain the second-largest gross national product in the world.
As an island nation shut off from the rest of the world for a long time (with mild exceptions from China and Korea), Japan is very homogeneous. Almost 99% of the population is of Japanese ethnicity. The largest minority are Koreans, around 1 million strong, many in their 3rd or 4th generations. There are also sizable populations of Chinese, Filipinos and Brazilians (many of whom are actually ethnic Japanese). Though largely assimilated, the resident Chinese population maintains a presence in Japan's three Chinatowns in Kobe, Nagasaki and Yokohama. Indigenous ethnic minorities include the Ainu on Hokkaido, gradually driven north during the centuries and now numbering around 50,000 (although the number varies greatly depending on the exact definition used), and the Ryukyuan people of Okinawa.
The Japanese are well known for their politeness. Many Japanese are thrilled to have visitors to their country and are incredibly helpful to lost and bewildered-looking foreigners. Younger Japanese people are often extremely interested in meeting and becoming friends with foreigners as well. Do not be surprised if a Japanese person (usually of the opposite gender) approaches you in a public place and tries to initiate a conversation with you in somewhat coherent English. On the other hand many are not used to dealing with foreigners (commonly known as gaijin (外人), outsider, or gaikokujin (外国人) - a more polite phrasing) and are more reserved and reluctant to communicate.
Visibly foreign visitors remain a rarity in much of Japan, and you will likely encounter moments when entering a shop causes the staff to seemingly panic and scurry off into the back. Don't take this as racism: they're just afraid that you'll try to address them in English and they'll be embarrassed because they can't understand or reply. A smile and a Konnichiwa ("Hello") often helps.
As Japan has undergone periods of openness and isolation throughout its history, Japanese culture is if anything unique. While heavy Chinese influences are evident in traditional Japanese culture, it has also retained many native Japanese customs, resulting in a seemingly seamless blend.
The most important holiday in Japan is New Year (お正月 Oshōgatsu), which pretty much shuts down the country from December 30 to January 3. Japanese head home to their families (which means massive transport congestion bound for suburb area from large city such as Tokyo), eat festive foods and head out to the neighborhood temple at the stroke of midnight to wish in the New Year. Many Japanese often travel to other countries as well, and prices for airfares are very high.
In March or April, Japanese head out en masse for hanami (花見, lit. "flower viewing"), a festival of outdoors picnics and drunken revelry in parks, cleverly disguised as cherry blossom (桜 sakura) viewing. The exact timing of the famously fleeting blossoms varies from year to year and Japan's TV channels follow the progress of the cherry blossom front from south to north obsessively.
The longest holiday is Golden Week (April 27 to May 6), when there are four public holidays within a week and everybody goes on extended vacation. Trains are crowded, flight and hotel prices are jacked up to multiples of normal prices, making this a bad time to travel in Japan, but the weeks immediately before or after Golden Week are excellent choices.
Summer brings a spate of festivals designed to distract people from the intolerable heat and humidity (comparable to the US Midwest). There are local festivals (祭 matsuri) and impressive fireworks competitions (花火 hanabi) throughout the country. Tanabata (七夕), on July 7th (or early August in some places), commemorates a story of star-crossed lovers who could only meet on this day.
The largest summer festival is Obon (お盆), held in mid-July in eastern Japan (Kanto) and mid-August in western Japan (Kansai), which honors departed ancestral spirits. Everybody heads home to visit village graveyards, and transport is packed.
Lunar holidays such as equinoxes may vary by a day or two; the list below is accurate for 2009. Holidays that fall on a weekend may be observed with a bank holiday on the following Monday. Keep in mind that most Japanese people take additional time off around New Year's, during Golden Week, and during Obon.
The Japanese calendar
The Imperial era year, which counts from the year of ascension of the Emperor, is often used for reckoning dates in Japan, including transportation timetables and store receipts. The current era is Heisei (平成) and Heisei 21 corresponds to 2009. The year may be written as "H21" or just "21", so "21/1/5" is January 5, 2009. Western years are also well understood and frequently used.
Japan has two dominant religious traditions: Shinto (神道) is the ancient animist religion of traditional Japan. At just over twelve hundred years in Japan, Buddhism is the more recent imported faith. Christianity, introduced by European missionaries, was widely persecuted during the feudal era but is now accepted, and a small percentage of Japanese are Christian.
Generally speaking, the Japanese are not a particularly religious people. While they regularly visit shrines and temples to offer coins and make silent prayers, religious faith and doctrine play a small role (if any) in the life of the average Japanese. Thus it would be impossible to try to represent what percentage of the population is Shinto versus Buddhist, or even Christian. According to a famous poll, Japan is 80% Shinto and 80% Buddhist, and another oft-quoted dictum states that Japanese are Shinto when they live, as weddings and festivals are typically Shinto, but Buddhist when they die, since funerals usually use Buddhist rites. Most Japanese accept a little bit of every religion. Christianity is evident almost exclusively in a commercial sense. In season, variations of Santa Claus, pine trees and other non-religious Christmas symbols are on display in malls and shopping centers throughout metropolitan areas.
At the same time, Shinto and Buddhism have had an enormous influence on the country's history and cultural life. The Shinto religion focuses on the spirit of the land, and is reflected in the country's exquisite gardens and peaceful shrines deep in ancient forests. When you visit a shrine (jinja 神社) with its simple torii (鳥居) gate, you are seeing Shinto customs and styles. If you see an empty plot of land with some white paper suspended in a square, that's a Shinto ceremony to dedicate the land for a new building. Buddhism in Japan has branched out in numerous directions over the centuries. Nichiren (日蓮) is currently the largest branch of Buddhist belief, and many Westerners are introduced to Japanese Buddhism through Soka Gakkai (sōkagakkai 創価学会), a Nichiren sect that is somewhat controversial for its evangelical zeal and its involvement in Japanese politics. Westerners are probably most familiar with Zen (禅) Buddhism, which was introduced to Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries. Zen fit the aesthetic and moral sensibilities of medieval Japan, influencing arts such as flower-arranging (ikebana 生け花), tea ceremony (sadō 茶道), ceramics, painting, calligraphy, poetry, and the martial arts. Over the years, Shinto and Buddhism have intertwined considerably. You will find them side by side in cities, towns, and people's lives. It's not at all unusual to find a sparse Shinto torii standing before an elaborate Buddhist temple (o-tera お寺).
Karaoke (カラオケ) was invented in Japan and can be found in virtually every Japanese city. It's pronounced karah-okay in Japan - many natives won't have any idea what you're talking about if you use the English carry-oh-key. Most karaoke places occupy several floors of a building. You and your friends have a room to yourself - no strangers involved - and the standard hourly rate often includes all-you-can-drink booze, with refills ordered through a phone on the wall or through the karaoke machine itself. The major chains all have good English-language song selections. Old folks prefer singing enka ballads at small neighborhood bars.
Also ubiquitous are pachinko parlors. Pachinko is a joyless form of gambling that involves dropping little steel balls into a machine; prizes are awarded depending on where they land. The air inside most pachinko parlors is certifiably toxic from nicotine, sweat and despair - not to mention the ear-splitting noise. Give it a miss. Video arcades, though sometimes difficult to distinguish from pachinko parlors from outside, have video games rather than gambling, and are often several floors high.
Japan's national game is Go (囲碁 igo), a strategy board game that originated in China. By no means everyone plays, but the game has newspaper columns, TV, and professional players. The game is also played in the West, and there is a large and active English wiki discussing it . On a sunny day, the Tennoji ward of Osaka is a good place to join a crowd watching two Go masters go at it. Besides Go, another popular board game in Japan is shogi (将棋) or Japanese chess.
Baseball is hugely popular in Japan and the popularity is a historical one (baseball was first introduced in Japan around 1870s by an American professor). Baseball fans traveling internationally may find Japan to be one of the great examples of baseball popularity outside of United States. Baseball isn't only played in many high schools and by professionals, but also referenced in many Japanese pop culture as well. In addition, many Japanese players have gone on to become top players in MLB. The official Japanese baseball league is known as Nippon Professional Baseball, or simply known as Puro Yakyū (プロ野球), meaning Professional Baseball. Travelers who are interested in baseball may watch professional baseball games once in while with a friend or a Japanese local. Just make sure you reserve your ticket in advance. The rules in Japanese baseball are not much different than baseball in United States, although there are some minor variations. The Japanese national baseball team is also considered to be one of the strongest in the world.
The Japanese are proud of their four seasons, but the tourist with a flexible travel schedule should aim for spring or autumn.
There are multitudes of books written on Japan. Some great, some amazingly un-great. A good place to begin is one of the many recommended reading lists such as this one on Amazon or sites like The Crazy Japan Times, Japan Review or Japan Visitor. Some recommended books include:
Passports are required for travel to Japan, with the only exception being U.S. military personnel travelling on official orders under the S.O.F.A. and possessing a valid I.D. card. Spouses and dependants, like all other visitors to Japan, must have a passport for entry.
Citizens of 62 countries and territories, including most Western nations, can obtain landing permission on arrival without a visa. This is usually good for a stay of up to 90 days, although certain European nationalities and Mexicans are permitted to stay for 180 days if they note a longer stay upon entry. All other nationalities must obtain a "temporary visitor" visa prior to arrival, which is generally good for a stay of 90 days. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains an online Guide to Japanese Visas. Note that no visa is required for a same-day transit between international flights at the same airport, so long as you do not leave the secured area.
All foreigners (except those on government business and certain permanent residents) at the age of 16 and over are electronically fingerprinted and photographed as part of immigration entry procedures. This may be followed by a short interview conducted by the immigration officer. Entry will be denied if any of these procedures are refused.
A customs issue that trips up some unwary travellers is that some over-the-counter medications, notably pseudoephedrine (Actifed, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers) and codeine (some cough medications) are prohibited in Japan. Some prescription medicines (mostly strong painkillers) are also banned even if you have a prescription unless you specifically apply for permission in advance. Ignorance is not considered an excuse, and you can expect to be jailed and deported if caught. See Japan Customs for details, or check with the nearest Japanese embassy or consulate.
Most intercontinental flights arrive at either Narita Airport (NRT) near Tokyo or Kansai Airport (KIX) near Osaka; a smaller number use Chubu International Airport (NGO) near Nagoya. All three are significant distances from their respective city centers, but are linked to regional rail networks and also have numerous bus services to nearby destinations. Other international airports include Hiroshima (HIJ), Fukuoka (FUK) and Sapporo New Chitose (CTS). Tokyo's other airport, Haneda Airport (HND), more formally the Tokyo International Airport is the busiest in Asia but primarily serves domestic flights; the only international flights are shuttle services to and from Seoul-Gimpo, Shanghai-Hongqiao and Hong Kong.
Just about every sizable city has an airport, though most only offer domestic flights and a few services to China and Korea. A popular alternative for travellers to these cities is to fly via Seoul on Korean Air or Asiana Airlines: this can even be cheaper than connecting in Japan.
Both Narita and Kansai airports are generally easy to get through and not particularly crowded assuming you avoid the main holiday periods - namely New Year's (end of December - beginning of January), Golden Week (end of April - beginning of May), and Obon (Mid-August), when things are more hectic and expensive.
Japan's two major airlines are Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA). Northwest Airlines and United Airlines also operate sizable hubs at Narita, with flights to many destinations in the US and Asia.
There are a number of international ferries to Japan. Except for the ferries from Busan to Fukuoka and Shimonoseki, these are generally uncompetitive with discounted air tickets, as prices are high, schedules infrequent (and unreliable) and travel times long. In roughly descending order of practicality:
Japan has one of the world's best transport systems, and getting around is usually a breeze, with the train being overwhelmingly the popular option. Although traveling around Japan is expensive when compared to other Asian countries, there are a variety of passes that can be used to limit the damage.
For sorting through transport schedules and fares, Hitachi's Hyperdia  is an invaluable companion, with versions available for Windows and PalmOS, and is also usable online . Jorudan and NTT Townpage both provide a useful English-language web versions. The paper version of this is the Daijikokuhyō (大時刻表), a phonebook-sized tome available for browsing in every train station and most hotels, but it's a little challenging to use as the content is entirely in microscopic Japanese. A lighter version that just includes limited express, sleeper and bullet trains (shinkansen) is available from the Japan National Tourist Organization's  overseas offices, or the same schedules are available for download at the J.R. website 
In Japanese cities, a place's address is useful for mail, but it's nearly useless for actually getting there. Most places are described in terms of the walking distance from the nearest train station, and relative to local landmarks. Business cards very often have little maps printed on the back to make navigation easier (at least if you can read Japanese). In addition, many train stations have maps of the local area that can help you find a destination if it is reasonably close to the station.
Japan's railways are fast, highly efficient and cover the majority of the country, making this the transport mode of choice for most visitors. The first and most confusing aspect of Japan's railway system (especially within large cities like Tokyo) that you will encounter is the overlap of several private railway networks with the JR network. Tokyo also has two separate metro systems to add to the confusion. Being aware of this one fact will substantially reduce the confusion you experience trying to understand railway maps and find your way around.
North Americans are usually astounded to find that Japanese trains, like other forms of mass transit, nearly always leave and arrive promptly on time, following the published schedule to the minute. If you are late, you will miss the train!
Note that most trains do not operate 24 hours, for example in Tokyo they do not run between 1:00 AM and 5:00 AM roughly. If you are planning to be out late and are relying on the train to get home, be sure to find out when the last train is leaving. Many bars and clubs are open until the first train runs again in the morning, so keep this in mind as another option.
The JR network is extensive as one would expect from what used to be the national rail system (now privately owned and split into regional companies). The JR group operates the Shinkansen lines, as well as a multitude of regional and urban mass transit lines. In the countryside the group companies also run bus services to connect places that don't have a rail service. However, the JR network is not a monopoly and particularly within major conurbations there are other private rail networks.
Interestingly, people refer to JR in Japanese by its English initials, "Jay-Arru." Hopefully even non-English speakers can help you find a station if you ask.
Japan Rail Pass
By far the best option for visitors who plan to do a lot of travelling is the Japan Rail Pass , which allows unlimited travel on almost all JR trains, including the Shinkansen, for a fixed period of 7, 14 or 21 days. The main exceptions are the Nozomi superexpress (not allowed), sleeper seats (surcharge payable) and the rare case where JR trains travel on non-JR track. Whereas a single round trip from Tokyo to Osaka costs almost ¥29,000, the 7-day Rail Pass is ¥28,300. The 14-day/21-day pass is ¥45,100/57,700. This can only be purchased outside of Japan from specific vendors. Upon purchase, you are given a Exchange Order, which can be exchanged at most larger JR stations in Japan, including all of the stations nearest to airports, for the Rail Pass itself. At the time of exchange, you will need to have your passport with you, and know the date upon which you will want the Rail Pass to start.
Regional JR companies also sell their own passes that cover only parts of the country. They're generally poorer value and you'll have to plan pretty carefully to make them pay off: in particular, none are valid for travel between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka. Unlike the main Rail Pass, these can only be purchased in the country (at any major JR station), but they're still for most part limited to visitors. From north to south:
When you make any rail journey (even if you obtained a ticket using your Rail Pass), you will need to show the Rail Pass at the manned ticket barrier. This is inconvenient if there is a queue, but it is usually acceptable to flash your pass at the ticket-taker as you slip past the other customers transacting business with JR.
Seishun 18 Ticket
The Seishun 18 Ticket (青春18きっぷ Seishun jūhachi kippu) is the best deal for travel in Japan, offering five days of unlimited train travel for just ¥11,500. Better yet, unlike the Rail Pass, the days do not have to be consecutive. You can even split a ticket so that (for example) one person uses it for two days and another for three days. The main catches are that tickets are only valid on local trains and that tickets are valid only during school holidays (March-April, July-September, December-January), so you need good timing and plenty of time on your hands to use it.
See also: Seishun 18 Ticket
The Shinkansen Tour – bullet train travel & accommodation package
For shorter getaways to a number of destinations within Japan, JR Central and JTB are offering deeply discounted bullet train and accommodation packages exclusively for foreigners called The Shinkansen Tour . Unlike the JR Pass, these tickets can be bought within Japan and have the added bonus of being bookable in English online. The tickets are then delivered to your hotel/house (within Japan) one day before departure.
Buying a ticket
For travel within big cities, the easiest thing to do is to pick up a rechargeable contactless smart card like Pasmo (in the Tokyo/Kanto area) or PiTaPa (in the Kansai area), which will calculate the correct fares for you automatically. But if you're travelling longer-distance and don't have a JR pass, or are just passing through and don't want a local smart card, then buying a ticket can get more complicated.
At major stations there will be an obvious travel section where you can buy your ticket from a human being (look for the little green sign of a figure relaxing in a chair or ask for the midori no madoguchi (みどりの窓口, literally "green window"). Since you probably need to know the train times and may want to reserve a seat as well this is a good thing. Generally speaking you can make your desires known by means of handwaving and pointing at destinations if the staff are unable to speak English. Writing down information helps as most Japanese have a much easier time reading English than hearing it.
On the other hand if you are at a local station (or a subway station) you will have more difficulty as you nearly always have to buy it using a machine whose instructions are in Japanese (although newer machines have an English mode). Most of these machines do not take credit cards although many JR East long-distance ticket machines do. Fortunately this is exactly the place where looking utterly bewildered is liable to lead to some nice Japanese offering to help. If they do then you are in luck, if not then here are some hints.
Firstly there is usually a big map above all the machines which shows the current station in red, often marked with "当駅" (tōeki). Around it will be all other stations you can get to with a price below them. The nearer stations have the smaller numbers (e.g. the closest stations will probably be about ¥140, more distant ones rising to perhaps ¥2000. If you recognise the characters of the station you want to get to then make a note of the amount you should pay and place that amount (or more) into the machine using coins or notes (most machines take ¥1000 notes, some also take ¥5000 and ¥10000 notes) the price you want will show up as one of the buttons to press. Note that some machines have large black buttons with nothing written on them. These are for different fare levels. Press the buttons until your fare level shows up, insert the money, and take your ticket. If you can't figure out the price then buy a minimum fare ticket and pay when you arrive at your destination. You can either present your ticket to the staff at the gate, or pay the balance at the "Fare Adjustment" machine. Look for a small ticket vending kiosk near the exit, but still inside the gate. Insert your minimum fare ticket and pay the balance indicated on the screen.
For express trains that require a surcharge and seating reservation, you will usually be able to find a staffed window. However, some trains have their own specific machines to do this. First, buy a regular train ticket to your destination. On the touch-screen machines, there will usually be a button for express services. Choose the name of the service you wish to travel on, your destination, preferred departure time and seating preferences, and then insert the surcharge amount. You will be issued with a reservation card showing departure time and your seat number. You MUST also have either a travel ticket, pass or smartcard to get through the ticket gates - a surcharge on its own is not valid for travel.
At bigger stations, you will probably have the choice of more than one train line, or more than one company operating the lines. Therefore, always first find the line you want to use, and then get your ticket from the nearest machine, instead of jumping on the first ticket machine next to the station's entrance. Otherwise you might end up with a ticket for a different company and/or line. While you can usually choose your platform after going through the gate, and thereby activating your ticket, at smaller stations this might not be the case. If you notice too late that you need to get to another platform, you might not be able to get out anymore without invalidating your ticket. So always have a good look at the signposts at every station.
JR pioneered the famous Bullet Train, known in Japanese as Shinkansen (新幹線), and with speeds nudging 300 kilometers per hour (360 km/h in the near future), these remain the fastest way to travel around the country. Note that Shinkansen do not run at night, and eg. the last departures from Tokyo towards Kyoto and Osaka are around 9 PM.
The most important, most-travelled shinkansen route in the country is the Tokaido Shinkansen, operated by JR Central, which links Tokyo with Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka. This line continues past Osaka as the San'yo Shinkansen, operated by JR West. Trains on the San'yo reach all the way to Fukuoka's Hakata station on the island of Kyushu, with stops at cities such as Okayama and Hiroshima.
On the Tokaido and San'yo Shinkansen, there are three types of services, reflecting the number of stops that the train makes:
Nozomi is the fastest service, and is the primary service that runs through both the Tokaido and San'yo Shinkansen lines, though some other Nozomi trains run only between Tokyo and Osaka. A one-seat journey on the Nozomi from Tokyo to Hakata takes five hours. Seat reservations are required for all but three cars on the train. A small surcharge on top of the Shinkansen fare is required. Most importantly for tourists, the Japan Rail Pass is NOT valid on Nozomi trains.
Hikari is the next fastest service, but the fastest that is valid with the Japan Rail Pass. On the Tokaido Shinkansen, there are usually two trains per hour which depart from Tokyo. One train terminates in Osaka, and the other continues on the San'yo Shinkansen, terminating in Okayama. Separate Hikari services, known as the Hikari Rail Star (ひかりレールスター), operate on the San'yo route from Osaka to Hakata. Therefore, a Japan Rail Pass user will have to switch once in order to cover a journey such as Tokyo to Hiroshima. In most instances the best location to switch between Hikari trains is either at Shin-Kobe or Himeji station, since trains arrive on the same track.
The Kodama service, also valid under the Japan Rail Pass, is the all-stations service which stops at every shinkansen station on the route. Tokaido Shinkansen Kodama services generally run from Tokyo to Osaka, or Tokyo to Nagoya. Separate all-station Kodama services run on the San'yo Shinkansen. While Tokaido Kodama trains operate a full 16-car consist, San'yo Kodamas can operate with 16, 8, 6 or even 4-car trains, so check the signs on the platform for your proper boarding location.
Smoking is not permitted on any Nozomi, Hikari or Kodama service using the latest N700 Series bullet train, except in one of four designated smoking rooms located in cars 3, 7, 10 and 15.
Other JR services, particularly suburban ones, use the following generic labels:
Express services may offer first-class Green Car seats. Given that the surcharge of almost 50% gets you little more than a bit of extra leg room, most passengers opt for regular seats. However, if you really need to ride a particular train for which the regular seats are full, the Green Car is an alternative. The JR pass is available in two types "Ordinary", which you will have to pay the surcharge to use the Green Car, and "Green", which includes Green Car seats at no additional charge.
Smoking is not allowed on suburban trains. While it is currently permitted on long-distance services in designated cars and vestibules, JR companies are starting to ban smoking on many routes.
Presently, smoking is not permitted on nearly all JR trains in Hokkaido and Kyushu, along with all JR East Shinkansen services north of Tokyo and most JR limited express trains in the Tokyo area, including the Narita Express to/from Narita Airport. The new N700-series bullet trains, now in service on the Tokaido and San'yo Shinkansen, have segregated smoking compartments within the train; smoking is not permitted in the seating areas.
Usually non-smoking trains are marked in timetables with the universal no-smoking sign, or with the Japanese kanji for no smoking (禁煙; kin'en). Note that if you do not smoke, sitting in a smoking car for a long trip can be very unpleasant.
Making a reservation
On Shinkansen and tokkyu trains, some of the carriages require passengers to have reserved their seats in advance (指定席 shiteiseki). For example, on the 16-carriage Hikari service on the Tokaido Shinkansen, only five of the carriages permit non-reserved seating, and all but one of those are non-smoking (禁煙車 kin'ensha). On a busy train, making a reservation in advance can ensure a comfortable journey.
Making a reservation is surprisingly easy, and is strongly advised for popular journeys (such as travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto on a Friday evening, or taking a train from Nagoya to Takayama). Look out for the JR Office at the train station, which bears a little green logo of a figure relaxing in a chair - and ask to make a reservation when you buy your ticket. The reservation can be made anywhere from a month in advance to literally minutes before the train leaves.
If you are a Japan Rail Pass holder, reservations are free: simply go to the JR Office, and present your Rail Pass when requesting a reservation for your journey. The ticket that you are given will not allow you to pass through the automated barriers though - you'll still need to present your Japan Rail Pass at the manned barrier to get to the train.
Without a pass a small fee will be charged, so a non-reserved ticket may be preferable to a reserved ticket, particularly if you are boarding at Tokyo or another originating station where all the seats will be open anyway.
Foreigners can make train advanced reservations for JR East trains on the internet, in English, at the JR East Shinkansen Reservation website. This website allows regular travelers and Rail Pass holders alike to reserve seats on JR East-operated Shinkansen and Limited Express lines. On the other hand, it does not allow you to make a reservation on the Tokaido, San'yo or Kyushu Shinkansen lines, which are operated by other companies. Seat reservations may be made anywhere from one month up to three days before the date of travel, and your ticket must be picked up at a JR East ticket counter anytime up to 9 PM on the day prior to departure. Also, the basic fare is NOT included in the seat reservation cost, unless you have a valid rail pass. One advantage to this website is that advance seat reservations can be made on the Narita Express from Tokyo to Narita Airport.
If the option is there for your journey, the private railways are often cheaper than JR for an equivalent journey. However this is not always the case as changing from one network to another generally increases the price. Most private railways are connected to department store chains of the same name (e.g. Tokyu in Tokyo) and do an excellent job of filling in the gaps in the suburbs of the major cities. Private railways may interpret the service classes above differently, with some providing express services at no additional charge.
Kobe, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, Sendai, Fukuoka, Tokyo and Yokohama also have subway (underground) services. For seeing the sights within a particular city, many offer a one day pass, often between ¥500 and ¥1000 for an adult. Tokyo has several types of day passes, which cover some subway lines but not others. The full Tokyo subway pass (which does not include the JR Yamanote Line) is ¥1000.
To provide a sense of safety and security for female passengers, many of the JR and private commuter rail lines in Japan reserve a car for women only during the morning and evening rush hour. These cars are identified by special placards and stickers on the train and platform, which also designate the times that women-only cars are in effect. Also, some limited express trains operated by JR West to and from the Kansai region have reserved seats specifically for women and their children.
Tokyo's Narita Airport handles a few domestic flights, but most domestic flights leave from Haneda (HND) to the south of the city. Similarly, while there are some domestic flights from Kansai International Airport, more use Itami (ITM) to the north of Osaka, and Kobe's airport also fields some flights. Narita to Haneda or Kansai to Itami is quite a trek, so allow at least three and preferably four hours to transfer. Chubu, on the other hand, has many domestic flights and was built from the ground up for easy interchange.
List prices for domestic flights are very expensive, but significant discounts are available if purchased in advance. Both of Japan's largest carriers, Japan Airlines (JAL, 日本航空 Nihon Kōkū, ) and All Nippon Airways (ANA, 全日空 Zennikkū, ) offer "Visit Japan" fares where the purchaser of an international return ticket to Japan can fly a number of domestic segments anywhere in the country for only about ¥10,000 (plus tax) each. These are a particularly good deal for travel to Hokkaido or the remote southern islands of Okinawa. Some blackout periods or other restrictions during peak travel seasons may apply.
The low-cost carrier concept has yet to make significant inroads into Japan, but Air DO () provides a little much-needed competition between Tokyo and Hokkaido, while Skymark Airlines () and StarFlyer () serve Tokyo, Osaka and Kyushu. Usually these airlines offer lower walk-up fares than the majors but are not as competitive for advance-purchase discounted tickets.
ANA, JAL, and their subsidiaries offer a special standby card, the Skymate Card, to young passengers (up to the age of 22). With the card, passengers can fly standby at half of the full published fare, which is usually less than the equivalent express train fare. The card can be obtained from any JAL or ANA ticket counter with a passport-sized photo and a one-time fee of ¥1000
Given that Japan is an island nation, boats are a surprisingly uncommon means of transport, as all the major islands are linked together by bridges and tunnels. While there are some long-distance ferries linking Okinawa and Hokkaido to the mainland, the fares are usually more expensive than discounted airline tickets and pretty much the sole advantage is that you can take your car with you.
For some smaller islands, however, boats may well be the only practical option. Hovercrafts and jet ferries are fast but expensive, with prices varying between ¥2000-5000 for an hour-long trip. Slow cargo boats are more affordable, a rule of thumb being ¥1000 per hour in second class, but departures are infrequent. There are also some inexpensive and convenient short-distance intercity ferries such as the Aomori-Hakodate ferry.
These boats are typically divided into classes, where second class (２等 nitō) is just a giant expanse of tatami mat, first class (１等 ittō) gets you a comfy chair in large shared room and only special class (特等 tokutō) gets you a private cabin. Vending machines and simple restaurant fare are typically available on board, but on longer trips (particularly in second class) the primary means of entertainment is alcoholic — this can be fun if you're invited in, but less so if you're trying to sleep.
Long-distance highway buses (高速バス kōsoku basu; ハイウェイバス haiwei basu) serve many of the inter-city routes covered by trains at significantly lower prices, but take much longer than the Shinkansen. Especially on the route between Tokyo and Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe triangle the high competition broke down the prices: as low as ¥3900 one-way. There is a multitude of operators, including Star Express, Kansai Bus  as well as companies of the JR group.
Note that your JR Rail Pass may be valid for JR buses (although choosing the bus instead of the Shinkansen or any Express train for the same trip would be a very akward choice in terms of comfort and speed).
Many of these are overnight runs (夜行バス yakō basu) which allows you to save on a night's accommodation. It may be worth it to pay a premium to get a better seat; remember that it's less fun to sightsee after a sleepless night. Look out for ３列シート sanretsu shiito, meaning there are only three seats per row instead of four. Intercity buses usually have significantly less legroom than intercity trains, so passengers over about 175cm may be uncomfortable.
Like their railroad counterparts, a few overnight buses can only be used by women (an example is the Ladies Dream Osaka bus service between Tokyo and Osaka).
You won't need to use local buses (路線バス rosen basu) much in the major cities, but they're common in smaller towns and the idiosyncratic payment system is worth a mention. On most buses, you're expected to board from the back and grab a little numbered slip as you enter, often just a white piece of paper automatically stamped by the dispenser as you pull it. In the front of the bus, above the driver, is an electronic board displaying numbers and prices below, which march inexorably higher as the bus moves on. When it's time to get off, you press the stop button, match your numbered slip to the electronic board's current price, deposit the slip and corresponding payment in the fare machine next to the driver, then exit through the front door. Note that you must pay the exact fare: to facilitate this, the machine nearly always has bill exchanger built in, which will eat ¥1000 bills and spew out ¥1000 worth of coins in exchange. If you're short on change, it's best to exchange before it's time to get off. Some buses accept smartcards such as PASMO and Suica - you will need to tap your card against a scanner by the entrance (usually above the ticket dispenser) and then again using the scanner next to the fare machine by the driver when you exit. If you fail to 'tap on' when boarding, you will be charged the maximum fare when alighting.
The main exception to the above rule is the TOEI city buses in Tokyo, which charge a flat Y200 fare which is paid upon boarding. If you're using a smartcard you only need to 'tap on' which will deduct ¥200 from your card.
The electronic board almost always includes a display and recorded voice announcements of the next stop — usually only in Japanese, although some cities (like Kyoto) make a welcome exception. However, if asked most drivers will be glad to tell you when you've reached your destination.
You will find taxis everywhere in Japan, not only in the city, but also in the country. Taxis are clean and completely safe, though a bit expensive: starting fees are usually in the ¥640-660 range and the meter ticks up frantically after the first 2 kilometers or so. But sometimes, they're the only way to get where you're going. Taxi meters are strictly regulated and clearly visible to the passenger. If you're not sure if you have enough money for the trip, your driver may be able to guess the approximate cost of a trip beforehand. Taxi fares are also higher at night. Tipping is not customary and would most likely be refused.
In the city, you can hail a taxi just about anywhere, but outside train stations and other transfer points you should board at a taxi stand. (The taxi stand will usually either have a long line of patient passengers, or a long line of idle taxis.) If the destination is a well-known location, such as a hotel, train station, or public facility, the name alone should be enough. Note that extremely few taxi drivers can speak English, so carrying a pamphlet or card of your hotel or destination with the address on it can be very helpful.
An interesting feature of Japanese taxis is that the driver controls the opening and closing of the rear left passenger door. Try to avoid the habit of closing your door when you board the taxi. Taxi drivers also have a reputation for speeding and aggressive driving, but there are very few accidents involving bad drivers.
Rental cars and driving in Japan are rare in or around the major cities, as public transport is generally excellent and gets you almost everywhere. In addition, the roads of major cities like Tokyo are plagued with massive traffic jams with parking expensive and difficult to find so driving there may be more of a hindrance than anything else. However many rural areas can really only be explored with your own transport, so driving should certainly not be dismissed out of hand, especially on the vast, sparsely populated island of Hokkaido.
A international driver's license (or Japanese license) will be required if you wish to rent a car or drive in Japan, and must be carried at all times. Rental rates typically start from ¥6000 a day for the smallest car. Driving is on the left as normally found in UK/Australia/NZ/India/Singapore, opposite to continental Europe/USA/Canada. There is no "right turn on red" (or left turn, rather) rule in Japan. Almost all official directional signs are in both Japanese and English. Driving while drunk can result in fines of up to ¥500,000 and instant loss of licence, at above the official "drunk driving" blood-alcohol limit of 0.25mg. It's also an offence to "drive under the influence" with no set minimum that can be fined up to ¥300,000, with a suspension of license. Using a cell phone while driving without a hands-free kit can result in fines of up to ¥50,000.
Tolls for the expressways (高速道路 kōsoku-dōro) are generally significantly higher than the cost of a train ride, even on the bullet train. So for one or two people it's not cost-effective for direct long distance travel between cities. Both rental costs and fuel are more expensive than those in USA, but fuel is generally cheaper than found in Europe. Rental car companies generally offer smaller cars from ¥5000/day, and a full size sedan will cost around ¥10000/day. Most rental cars have some kind satellite navigation ("navi") thus you can ask the rental car company to set your destination before your first trip. However unless you read Japanese you may need to ask for assistance to make full use of the navigation computer. On the highways and around major cities English signage is very good; however in more remote locales it may be spotty. Japanese driving habits are generally as good as anywhere else, and usually better than other Asian and southern European countries. Japanese roads are generally of good quality, with smooth bitumen surfaces. Gravel roads are very limited, usually forest roads, and unlikely to be on the itinerary of too many tourists. Roadworks are frequent however, and can cause annoying delays. Certain mountain passes are shut over winter.
Navigating within cities can be confusing and parking in them costs ¥300-400/hour. Larger hotels in the cities and regional hotels normally offer car parking, but it would be wise to check car parking however before you book. The best car to use in Tokyo is a taxi.
Japan has horizontal traffic lights, with any arrows appearing beneath the main lights. The color-blind should note that the red (stop) is on the right and the green (go) is on the left. There are usually only one or two traffic lights per intersection pointing the same way, which can make it hard to see when the signals change. However some prefectures, such as Toyama and Niigata, have vertical lights (this is supposedly due to the amount of snow they get).
Warning hazards for repair, breakdown and construction are always well illuminated at night and tend to also appear at least once before the main obstacle on higher speed roads such as expressways. Other road hazards to be aware of are taxis, who feel they have a god-given right to stop wherever and whenever they like, long-distance truckers (especially late at night) who may often be hepped up on pep pills and tend to ride the bumper of any slower car in front, and country farmers in their ubiquitous white mini-trucks, who never seem to go above a crawl and may pop out of rural side roads unexpectedly.
Road speed limits are marked in kilometres per hour. They are 40km/h in towns (with varying areas: some at 30, roads by schools usually at 20), 50 to 60 in the countryside (if unmarked, the limit is 60), and 100 on the expressways. There is usually a fair bit of leeway in terms of speeding - about 10km/h on normal roads, for example. If you go with the flow you should not have any problems, as the Japanese often pay speed limits no more attention than they have to.
Japan is an excellent country for hitchhiking, although there is no Japanese custom for this, and some Japanese language ability is almost mandatory. See Hitchhiking in Japan for a more detailed introduction and practical tips for this fine art.
See also: Japanese phrasebook
The language of Japan is Japanese. Most Japanese have studied English for at least 6 years starting from junior high school, but conversational ability is usually poor. If lost, one practical tip is to write out a question on paper in simple words and give it to someone young, preferably the high school students. They may be able to point you in the right direction. It can also be helpful to carry a hotel business card or matchbook with you, to show a taxi driver or someone if you lose your way. Take comfort in the fact that many Japanese will go to extraordinary lengths to understand what you want and to help you, and try to pick up at least basic greetings and thank yous to put people at ease.
Japanese is a language with several distinct dialects, although standard Japanese (hyōjungo 標準語), which is based on the Tokyo dialect, is understood everywhere. Areas like Kyushu and the Tohoku region have dialects that are nearly incomprehensible to other Japanese. The slang-heavy dialect of the Kansai region is particularly famous in Japanese pop culture. On the southern islands of Okinawa, many dialects of the the closely related Ryukyuan languages are spoken, mostly by the elderly, while in northern Hokkaido a rare few still speak Ainu.
Japanese is written using a convoluted mix of three different scripts: kanji (漢字) or Chinese characters, together with "native" hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ) syllabaries, which were in fact derived from Chinese characters more than one thousand years ago. However, hiragana and katakana do not carry the meaning of the original Chinese characters they were derived from and are simply phonetic characters. There are thousands of kanji in everyday use and even the Japanese spend years learning them, but the kanas have only 50 syllables each and can be learned with a reasonable amount of effort. Of the two, katakana are probably more useful for the visitor as they are used to write words of foreign origin other than Chinese, and thus can be used to figure out words like basu (バス, bus), kamera (カメラ, camera) or konpyūtā (コンピューター, computer). However, some words like terebi (テレビ, television), depāto (デパート, department store), wāpuro (ワープロ, word processor) and sūpā (スーパー, supermarket) may be harder to figure out. Knowing Chinese will also be a great head start for tackling kanji, but not all words mean what they seem: 大家 (Mandarin Chinese: dàjiā, Japanese: ōya), "everybody" to the Chinese, means "landlord" in Japan!
The Japanese currency is the Japanese yen, abbreviated ¥ (or JPY in foreign exchange contexts). The symbol 円 (pronounced en) is used in the Japanese language itself. As of 2009, the exchange rate hovers around 90 yen to the dollar.
Japan is still fundamentally a cash society. Although most stores and hotels serving foreign customers take credit cards, some businesses such as cafés, bars, grocery stores, and even smaller hotels and inns do not. Even businesses that do take cards often have a minimum charge as well as a surcharge, although this practice is disappearing. The Japanese usually carry around large quantities of cash - it is quite safe to do so and is almost a necessity, especially in smaller towns and more isolated areas. In many cities, the Japanese can also use mobile phones to pay for their purchases where mobile phones function like credit cards and the cost is billed to them with their mobile phone bill. However, a Japanese phone and SIM card is required to make use of this service so it's typically not available to foreigners on short visits.
Almost any major bank in Japan will provide foreign currency exchange from US dollars (cash and traveller's checks). Rates are basically the same whichever bank you choose. Having to wait 15-30 minutes, depending on how busy the branch gets, is not unusual. Other currencies accepted are Euros, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand dollars, and British Pound Sterling. Among other Asian currencies, Singapore dollars seem to be the most widely accepted.
Exchange rates for US dollars and Euros are typically very good (about 2% below the official rate). Exchange rates for other currencies are very poor (up to 15% below the official rate). Other Asian currencies are generally not accepted. Japanese post offices also can cash traveller's checks or exchange cash for yen, at a slightly better rate than the banks. Traveller's checks also have a better rate of exchange than cash. Note that if you are exchanging amounts in excess of US$1,000 (whether cash or T/C), you will be required to provide identification that includes your name, address, and date of birth (to prevent money laundering and the funding of terrorism). Since passports usually do not show your address, bring along another form of I.D. such as a driver's license that shows your address.
Japanese ATMs, known locally as cash corners (キャッシュコーナー kyasshu kōnā), generally do not accept foreign cards and the availability of credit card advances, known as cashing (キャッシング kyasshingu), is spotty.
The major exceptions are:
One thing to beware: many Japanese ATMs are closed at night and during the weekends, so it's best to get your banking done during office hours! An exception is 7-Eleven, which is open 24 hours.
Vending machines in Japan are known for their pervasiveness and the (notorious) variety of products they sell. Most will take ¥1,000 bills, and some types such as train ticket machines will take up to ¥10,000; none accept ¥1 or ¥5 coins, nor ¥2,000 notes. And even the most high-tech vending machines do not take credit cards, save for certain ones in train stations.
Prepaid electronic cards are quite popular in Japan for small purchases. There are cards for train fares, convenience stores purchases, and public telephones, though they aren't interchangeable.
There is a 5% consumption tax on all sales in Japan. As of April 2004, the tax must now be included in all displayed prices, but some stores still ALSO display tax-excluded prices, so pay attention. The word Zei-nuki (税抜) means tax-excluded, Zei-komi (税込) means tax-included. If you cannot find out any words in the price card, most of them are tax-included.
Tips are not customary and would most likely be refused. Japanese service is legendary, and you do not need to bribe the waiters/waitresses to do their job properly. Besides, the meal is probably expensive enough already. Some restaurants will however add a 10% service charge. Most family restaurants that are open late or 24 hours will also add a 10% late-night charge.
Japan has a reputation for being extremely expensive — and it can be. However, many things have become significantly cheaper in the last decade. Japan need not be outrageously expensive if you plan carefully and in fact, is probably no more expensive than say the United States or Australia. For long-distance travel, in particular, the Japan Rail Pass and Visit Japan flights (see Get around) can save you a bundle.
As rough guidelines, you will find it very difficult to travel on less than ¥4,000 per day (but if you plan carefully, it's certainly not impossible), and can only expect a degree of comfort if you double the budget to ¥10,000. Staying in posh hotels, eating fancy meals or just traveling long-distance will easily double this yet again. Typical prices for moderate budget travel would be ¥5,000 for hotel, ¥2,000 for meals, and ¥2,000 again for entry fees and local transport.
However, if you find yourself a little short on cash, you can get your essential items in one of the many ¥100 shops (百円ショップ) located in most cities.
Tips for budget shopping
As noted above, Japan can be expensive. You might feel every item or meal comes with a high price tag in Japan. The main reason for this is that you have chosen an inner-city top-end shopping or eating district. If you wish to buy more reasonably priced items, consider carefully whether you are desperately looking for upmarket products, or just want daily commodities and groceries. The former should try intown premium department stores, boutiques and restaurants in the well-publicized shopping districts such as Isetan in Shinjuku and Matsuya in Ginza, the latter would be better off turn their steps toward suburban shopping malls or supermarkets such as Aeon or Ito-Yokado.
The 5% consumption tax imposed is not refundable for purchases of consumable items such as food and beverages. However, for non-consumable items like clothing and electronics, the tax may be refunded for purchases of ¥10,000 or more in a single receipt if you are not a resident and intend to bring the items out of Japan when you leave.
At many department stores like Isetan, Seibu and Matsuzakaya, you typically pay the full cost at the cashier and go to a tax refund (税金戻し zeikin modoshi) counter, usually located at one of the higher floors, and present your receipt and passport to the counter to get reimbursed. In some other stores advertising "duty free" (免税 menzei), you just present your passport to the cashier when making payment and the tax is deducted on the spot.
When making tax free purchases or tax refund claims, counter staff would staple a piece of paper in your passport which you should keep with you until you leave Japan. This piece of paper is to be surrendered to the customs counter at your point of departure just before you pass through immigration and checks may be done to ensure that you are bringing the items out of Japan.
Despite the saying that Japanese cities never sleep, retail hours are surprisingly limited. Opening hours of most shops are typically 10AM-8PM, though most shops are open on weekends and public holidays except New Year, and close on one day a week. Restaurants typically stay open until late at night, though smoking would usually be allowed after 8PM so those who can't stand cigarette smoke should have your meals before then.
However you will always find something you could need to buy at any time of day. Japan is crawling with 24-hours convenience stores (コンビニ konbini), such as 7-eleven, Family Mart, Lawson's or Circle K/Sunkus. They often offer a much wider range of products than convenience stores in the U.S. or Europe, sometimes have a small ATM and are often open all day all week! Many convenience stores also offer services such as fax, takkyubin luggage delivery, a limited range of postal services, payment services for bills (including topping up international phone cards such as Brastel) and some online retailers (e.g. Amazon.jp), and ticket sales for events, concerts and cinemas.
Of course, establishments related to night life such as karaoke lounges and bars stay open well into the night - even in small towns it is easy to find an izakaya which is open until 5am. Pachinko parlours are obliged to close at 11pm.
Anime and manga
To many Westerners, anime (animation) and manga (comics) are the most popular icons of modern Japan. Many visitors come to Japan in search of merchandise relating to their favorite anime and manga titles, which are often released in different versions in Japan and the West; the Western versions edit out taboo references in the Japanese version. Some even try to find Japanese-language anime DVDs, but there is a catch: not only are there usually no subtitles on domestic releases (with the exception of Studio Ghibli releases, which all offer English subtitles), but Japan is in DVD Region 2 and uses NTSC-J video formatting, so if you live outside of Region 2 and/or use PAL or SECAM, you're out of luck except if you have special, often expensive equipment such as multi-system televisions, VCRs, and all-region DVD players. However, a computer with region-lock bypassing software installed (i.e. VLC Media Player) should allow the more tech-savvy to view such DVDs. You may also be surprised by the prices: new DVD releases regularly cost over ¥3,000 and there are usually only 2 episodes per DVD.
Blu-Ray releases are more expensive than DVDs (starting at ¥4,000). Note however that the Blu-Ray region in Japan is different; Blu-Rays are released in Region A, which differs from regular DVD Region 2. Blu-Ray Region A includes all of North America and almost all of South America, as well as Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia.
Video and PC games
Video games are a huge business in Japan, but Japan's NTSC-J region code is incompatible with consoles in Europe, North America, Australia and mainland China so you will need to buy a Japanese console to play these games. However, if you are from South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau or Southeast Asia, these games should work fine on your console, though the game would just not be in your native language. The possible exception to this is the PlayStation 3, touted as having no regional lockouts, but the disadvantage of the language is still present.
PC games, on the other hand, will usually work fine, as long as you understand enough Japanese to install and play them. Only-in-Japan genres include the visual novel (ビジュアルノベル), which are interactive games with anime style art, somewhat similar to dating sims, and its subset the erotic game (エロゲー eroge), which is just what the name says.
Electronics and cameras
Battery-powered small electronics and still cameras made for sale in Japan will work anywhere in the world, though you might have to deal with an owner's manual in Japanese. (Some of the larger stores will provide you with an English manual (英語の説明書 eigo no setsumeisho) on request.) There are no great deals to be found pricewise, but the selection is unparalleled. However, if you are buying other electronics to take home, it's best to shop at stores that specialize in "overseas" configurations, many of which can be found in Tokyo's Akihabara. You can get PAL/NTSC region-free DVD players, for example. Also, keep in mind that Japanese AC runs at 100 volts, so using "native" Japanese electronics outside Japan without a step-down transformer can be dangerous. Even the US standard 110V current is too much for some devices.
Prices are lowest and shopping is the easiest at giant discount stores like Bic Camera, Yodobashi Camera, Sofmap and Yamada Denki. They usually have English-speaking staff on duty and accept foreign credit cards. For common products the prices at any are virtually identical, so don't waste time comparison shopping. Bargaining is possible in smaller shops, and even the larger chains will usually match their competitors' prices.
Most of the big chains have a "member's card" that gets you "points" which can be used as a discount on your next purchase, even if it's just a few minutes later. (Some require you to wait overnight.) The cards are handed out on the spot and no local address is needed.
While you may be better off heading for France or Italy for high end fashion, when it comes to casual fashion, Japan is hard to beat. Tokyo and Osaka in particular are home to many shopping districts, and there is an abundance of stores selling the latest fashion, particularly those catering to youths. Just to name a few, Shibuya in Tokyo and Shinsaibashi in Osaka are known throughout Japan as centers of youth fashion. The main problem is that Japanese shops cater to Japanese-sized customers, and finding larger or curvier sizes can be real challenge.
Japan is also famous for its beauty products such as facial cream and masks, including many for men. While these are available in almost every supermarket, the Ginza district of Tokyo is where many of the most expensive brands have their own shops.
Japan's main contribution to jewelry is the cultured pearl, invented by Mikimoto Kōkichi in 1893. The main pearl growing operation to this day is in the small town of Toba near Ise, but the pearls themselves are widely available — although there is little if any price difference to buying them outside Japan. For those who insist on getting their hands on the "authentic" stuff, Mikimoto's flagship store is in the Ginza district of Tokyo.
Smoking cigarettes remains popular in Japan, especially among men. While cigarettes are sold at some of the many vending machines dotting Japan, visitors to Japan who wish to purchase them must do so at a convenience store or duty-free. As a result of the Japanese tobacco industry cracking down on minors (the legal age is 20), you now need a special age-verifying IC card, called a TASPO card , to purchase cigarettes from a vending machine. TASPO cards, unfortunately, are issued only to residents of Japan.
Japanese cuisine, renowned for its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, has taken the world by storm. The key ingredient of most meals is white rice, usually served steamed, and in fact its Japanese word gohan (ご飯) also means "meal". Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso (味噌) soup served with almost every meal, but also tōfu (豆腐) bean curd and the ubiquitous soy sauce (醤油 shōyu). Seafood features heavily in Japanese cuisine, including not only creatures of the sea but many varieties of seaweed as well, and a complete meal is always rounded out by some pickles (漬物 tsukemono).
One of the joys of getting out of Tokyo and traveling within Japan is to discover the local specialties. Every region within the country has a number of delightful dishes, based on locally available crops and fish. In Hokkaido try the fresh sashimi and crab. In Osaka don't miss the okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) stuffed with green onions and the octopus balls (たこ焼き takoyaki).
Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks (箸 hashi). Curry rice and fried rice are eaten with spoons. Eating with chopsticks is a surprisingly easy skill to pick up, although mastering them takes a while. Some chopstick guidelines to be aware of:
Disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) are provided in all restaurants as well as with bentō and other take-out foods. It is a myth that you should "whittle" your chopsticks after breaking them apart.
Many Japanese dishes come with different sauces and garnishes. Japanese never put soy sauce on their rice, though they do dip their sushi in it before eating, and they pour it on grilled fish as well. Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) comes with a thicker sauce, tempura comes with a lighter, thinner sauce made from soy sauce and dashi (fish and seaweed soup base), while gyōza (potstickers) are usually dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil.
The number of restaurants in Japan is stupendous, and you will never run out of places to go. For cultural and practical reasons, Japanese almost never invite guests to their homes, so socializing nearly always involves eating out.
According to the world famous Michelin Guide, which rates restaurants in major cities around the world, Tokyo is the most "delicious" city in the world with over 150 restaurants that received at least one star (out of three). In comparison, Paris and London received a total of 148 between them.
Most Japanese-style restaurants have lunchtime teishoku (定食), or fixed set meals. These typically consist of a meat or fish dish, with a bowl of miso soup, pickles, and rice (often with free extra helpings). These can be as inexpensive as ¥600 yet ample enough even for large appetites. Menus however will for most establishments be in Japanese only; however many restaurants have models (many in exquisite detail) of their meals in their front window, and if you can't read the menu it may be better to take the waiter or waitress outside and point at what you would like.
Restaurants will present you with the check after the meal, and you are expected to pay at the counter when leaving — do not leave payment on the table and walk out. The phrase for "bill" is kanjō or kaikei. When it's getting late, a server will usually come to your table to tell you it's time for the "last order." When it's really time to go, Japanese restaurants have a universal signal - they start to play "Auld Lang Syne". (This is true across the country, except at the most expensive places.) That means "pay up and move out."
Many cheap chain eateries have vending machines where you buy a ticket and give it to the server. At most of these restaurants, you'll have to be able to read Japanese to use them, though. At some of these restaurants, there will be plastic displays or photographs of the food with varying prices in front of them. It is often possible to match the price, along with some of the kana (characters) to the choices at the machine. If you're open-minded and flexible, you might get shoyu (soy sauce) ramen instead of miso (fermented soy bean) ramen or you might get katsu (pork cutlet) curry instead of beef curry. You'll always know how much you're spending so you'll never overpay. If your Japanese language skills are limited or non-existent, these restaurants with vending machines are really quite comfortable places because there is limited or no conversation required at these establishments. Most of the customers will be in a hurry, the hired help will usually not be interested in making conversation and will just read your order when they take your ticket and the water/tea, napkins, and eating utensils are either supplied automatically or self-service. Some other places have all you can eat meals called tabehōdai (食べ放題).
Tipping is not customary in Japan, and wait staff may not even understand that the cash you left on the table was intended for them. 24-hour "family restaurants" such as Denny's and Jonathan usually have a 10% late-night surcharge.
While most restaurants in Japanese specialize in a certain type of dish, each neighborhood is guaranteed to have a few shokudō (食堂), serving up simple, popular dishes and teishoku sets at affordable prices (¥500-1000). Try ones in government buildings: often open to the public as well, they are subsidised by taxes and can be very good value, if uninspiring. A closely related variant is the bentō-ya (弁当屋), which serves takeout boxes known as o-bentō (お弁当). While travelling on JR, don't forget to sample the vast array of ekiben (駅弁) or "station bento", many unique to the region - or even the station.
A staple of the shokudō is the donburi (丼), literally "rice bowl", meaning a bowl of rice with a topping. Popular ones include:
You will also frequently encounter Japan's most popular dish, the ubiquitous curry rice (カレーライス karē raisu) - a thick, mild, brown paste that would leave most Indians scratching their heads. Often the cheapest dish on the menu, a large portion (大盛り ōmori) is guaranteed to leave you stuffed.
At the other extreme of the spectrum are super-exclusive ryōtei (料亭), the Michelin three-star restaurants of the Japanese food world, which serve gourmet kaiseki (会席) meals prepared from the very best seasonal ingredients. Should they condescend to let you in — and many require introductions — you will be looking at upwards of ¥30,000 per head for an experience which, quite frankly, will go right over the heads of most mere mortals visiting Japan for the first time.
Even Japanese want something other than rice every now and then, and the obvious alternative is noodles (麺 men). Practically every town and hamlet in Japan boasts its own "famous" noodle dish, and they are often well worth trying.
There are two major noodle types native to Japan: thin buckwheat soba (そば) and thick wheat udon (うどん). Typically all dishes below can be ordered with either soba or udon depending on your preference and a bowl will only cost a few hundred yen, especially at the standing-room-only noodle joints in and near train stations.
Chinese egg noodles or rāmen (ラーメン) are also very popular but more expensive (¥500+) due to the greater effort involved and the condiments, which typically include a slice of grilled pork and a variety of vegetables. Ramen can be considered to be the defining dish of each city, and practically every sizable city in Japan will have its own unique style of ramen. The four major styles of ramen are:
Slurping your noodles is not only acceptable, but expected. According to the Japanese it both cools them down and makes them taste better. An exception to this is young ladies who do not want to draw attention to their eating and will often eat their noodles in silence.
Sushi and sashimi
Perhaps Japan's most famous culinary exports are sushi (寿司), usually raw fish over vinegared rice, and sashimi (刺身), plain raw fish. These seemingly very simple dishes are in fact quite difficult to prepare properly: the fish must be extremely fresh, and apprentices spend years just learning how to make the vinegared rice for sushi correctly, before moving on to the arcane arts of selecting the very best fish at the market and removing every last bone from the fillets.
There is enough arcane sushi terminology to fill entire books, but the most common types are:
Nearly anything that swims or lurks in the sea can and has been turned into sushi, and most sushi restaurants keep a handy multilingual decoding key on hand or on the wall. A few species more or less guaranteed to feature in every restaurant are maguro (tuna), sake (salmon), ika (squid), tako (octopus), and tamago (egg). More exotic options include uni (sea urchin roe), toro (fatty tuna belly, very expensive) and shirako (fish sperm).
If you somehow ended up in a sushi restaurant, but can't or don't want to eat raw fish, there are usually several alternatives. For instance the above mentioned tamago, various vegetables on rice, or the very tasty inari (rice in a sweet wrap of deep fried tofu). Or order the kappa maki which is nothing more than sliced cucumber, rolled up in rice and wrapped in nori.
Even in Japan, sushi is a bit of a delicacy and the most expensive restaurants, where you order piece by piece from a chef, can run you bills into tens of thousands of yen. You can limit the damage by ordering a fixed-price moriawase (盛り合わせ) set, where the chef will choose whatever he thinks is good that day. Cheaper yet are the ubiquitous kaiten (回転, lit. "revolving") sushi shops, where you sit by a conveyor belt and grab whatever strikes your fancy, at prices that can be as low as ¥100 per plate. Even in these cheaper places, it's still quite acceptable to order directly from the chef. While in some areas like Hokkaido, kaiten sushi is of consistently good quality, in larger cities (especially Tokyo and Kyoto) the quality varies considerably from place to place with the low end restaurants serving little more than junk-food.
When eating sushi, it's perfectly acceptable to use your fingers; just dip the piece in soy and pop it in your mouth. In Japan, the pieces typically have a dab of fiery wasabi radish already lurking inside, but you can always add more according to your taste. Slices of pickled ginger (gari) refresh the palate and infinite refills of green tea are always available for free.
Despite fish sashimi being the most well known, there is no shortage of other types of sashimi for the adventurous ones. Hokkaido crab sashimi and lobster sashimi are considered delicacies and are definitely worth a try. Whale (yes, the sea mammal) is also available though many Westerners prefer to avoid it due to the controversies surrounding current whaling practises. For the most adventurous type, a very unconventional type of sashimi available is horse meat sashimi.
Fugu(ふぐ) or puffer fish is considered a delicacy in Japan despite being highly poisonous. It can be rather pricey due to the tremendous skill required to prepare it, which requires complete removal of the internal organs which is where the poison is found. Despite the potential danger, it is highly unlikely that you will be poisoned to death by it as chefs are assessed very stringently every year to ensure their preparation skills are up to the mark, and the Japanese government requires new chefs to undergo years of apprenticeship under experienced chefs before they are licensed to prepare the dish. Because of the skill required, fugu is typically served only in speciality restaurants known as fugu-ya (ふぐ屋). As a side note, the emperor is banned from eating this dish for obvious reasons.
Grilled and fried dishes
The Japanese didn't eat much meat before the Meiji era, but they have picked up the habit and even exported a few new ways to eat it since then. Keep an eye on the price though, as meat (especially beef) can be fiercely expensive and luxury varieties like the famous marbled Kobe beef can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of yen per serving. Some options, usually served by specialist restaurants, include:
One Japanese specialty worth seeking out is eel (うなぎ unagi), reputed to give strength and vitality in the drainingly hot summer months. A properly grilled eel simply melts in the mouth when eaten, and takes over ¥1000 from your wallet in the process.
A rather more infamous Japanese delicacy is whale (鯨 kujira), which tastes like fishy steak and is served both raw and cooked. However, most Japanese don't hold whale in much esteem; it's associated with school lunches and wartime scarcity, and it's rarely found outside speciality restaurants such as Kujiraya in Shibuya, Tokyo. Canned whale can also be found in some grocery stores at a huge price for a small can.
Particularly in the cold winter months various "steamboat" stews (鍋 nabe) are popular ways to warm up. Common types include:
Throughout Japan you can find cafés and restaurants serving Western food (洋食 yōshoku), ranging from molecular-level carbon copies of famous French pastries to hardly recognizable Japanized dishes like corn-and-potato pizza and spaghetti omelettes. A few popular only-in-Japan dishes include:
During the summer months (when it is not raining) many buildings and hotels have restaurants on their rooftops which serve dishes like fried chicken and french fries, as well as light snacks. The specialty though is (of course) draft beer (生ビール nama-biiru), and you can order large mugs of it or pay a fixed price for an all-you-can-drink (nomihodai 飲み放題） course lasting for a set period of time (usually up to 2 hours). Cocktails and other drinks are also often available as part of all-you-can-drink sets.
Japanese fast food restaurants offer decent quality at reasonable prices. Many chains offer interesting seasonal choices that are quite tasty. Some chains to look out for:
American fast food chains are also ubiquitous, including McDonald's, Wendy's, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. McDonalds restaurants are almost as ubiquitous as vending machines.
There are also a number of Japanese "family restaurants", serving a wide variety of dishes, including steak, pasta, Chinese style dishes, sandwiches, and other foods. Though their food is relatively uninteresting, these restaurants usually have illustrated menus, so travellers who cannot read Japanese can use the photos to choose and communicate their orders. Some chains across the country are:
Though Starbucks has planted its flag in Japan almost as well as in the United States, the Japanese kissaten (喫茶店) has a long history. If you're really looking for a jolt of caffeine, go to Starbucks or one of its Japanese predecessors such as Doutor. But if you're trying to get out of the rain, the heat or the crowds for a while, the kissaten is an oasis in an urban jungle. Most coffee shops are one-of-a-kind affairs, and reflect the tastes of their clientele. In a Ginza coffee shop, you'll find a soft "European" decor and sweet pastries for upscale shoppers taking a load off their Ferragamos. In an Otemachi coffee shop, businessmen in suits huddle over the low tables before meeting their clients. In Roppongi's all-night coffee shops, the night owls pause between clubs, or doze until the trains start running again in the morning.
A peculiar kind of kissaten is the jazz kissa (ジャズ喫茶), or jazz coffee shop. These are even darker and more smoke-filled than normal kissaten, and frequented by extremely serious-looking jazz buffs who sit motionless and alone, soaking in the bebop played at high volumes from giant audio speakers. You go to a jazz kissa to listen; conversation is a no-no.
Another offshoot is the danwashitsu (談話室, or lounge). The appearance is indistinguishable from a pricy kissaten, but the purpose is more specific: serious discussions over matters such as business or meeting prospective spouses. All tables are in separate booths, reservations are usually required, and the drinks are pricey. So don't wander into one if you're just looking for a cup of coffee.
If you're traveling on the cheap, Japan's numerous convenience stores (コンビニ konbini) can be a great place to grab a bite to eat, and they're almost always open 24-7. Major chains include 7-11, Lawson, and Family Mart. You can find instant noodles, sandwiches, meat buns, and even some small prepared meals, which can be heated up in a microwave right in the store. An excellent option for food on the go is onigiri (or omusubi), which is a large ball of rice stuffed with (say) fish or pickled plum and wrapped in seaweed, and usually cost around ¥100 each.
Most convenience stores in Japan also have a restroom located in the back. It is not recommended to simply go into a convenience store solely to use the bathroom; instead, customers should buy an item and ask to use the bathroom at the cashier.
For those really on a budget, most supermarkets have a wide variety of ready-to-eat meals, bentos, sandwiches, snacks and the like, generally cheaper than convenience stores. Some supermarkets are even open 24 hours a day.
One Japanese institution worth checking out is the depachika (デパ地下) or department store basement food court, featuring dozens of tiny specialist stalls dishing up local specialties ranging from exquisitely packed tea ceremony candies to fresh sushi and Chinese takeaway. They're often a little upmarket pricewise, but almost all offer free samples and there are always a few reasonably priced ones in the mix. In the evenings, many slash prices on unsold food, so look for stickers like hangaku (半額, "half price") or 3-wari (3割, "30% off") to get a bargain.
Despite its image as light and healthy cuisine, everyday Japanese food can be quite heavy in salt and fat, with deep-fried meat or seafood being prominent. Vegetarians (much less vegans) may have difficulty finding a meal that does not include animal products to some degree, particularly as the near-ubiquitous Japanese soup stock dashi is usually prepared with bonito.
An excellent option is the kaiten sushi shop. Westerners tend to associate sushi with fish, but there are several kinds of rolled sushi available in these shops that does not include fish or other marine creatures: kappa maki (cucumber rolls), nattō maki (sushi filled with stringy fermented soy beans, an acquired taste for many), kanpyō maki (pickled-gourd rolls), and, occasionally, yuba sushi (made with the delicate, tasty 'skin' of tofu). These types of sushi tend to be less popular than the sushi using marine animal products, so you may not see them revolving in front of your eyes on the conveyor belt. Just shout out the name of the type of sushi you want and the sushi chef will prepare it for you right away. When you are ready to leave, call the waitress over and she'll count your plates. The vegetarian sushi options are always inexpensive. Whether eating vegetarian (or otherwise), kaiten sushi shops offer good value and are lots of fun.
For anyone living in big cities, especially Tokyo, an excellent option is organic food, known as shizenshoku (自然食). While "vegetarian food" may sound boring, or even unappetizing to Japanese ears, shizenshoku is quite in vogue as of late, although meals may cost about ¥3000. While considerably harder to find, it's worth looking out for a restaurant (often run by temples) that offers shōjin ryori (精進料理), the purely vegetarian cuisine developed by Buddhist monks. This cuisine is highly regarded, and thus commands astronomical prices.
The Japanese drink a lot: not only green tea in the office, at meetings and with meals, but also all types of alcoholic beverages in the evening with friends and colleagues. Many social scientists have theorized that in a strictly conformist society, drinking provides a much-needed escape valve that can be used to vent off feelings and frustrations without losing face the next morning.
In Japan, the drinking age is 20 (as is the age of majority and smoking age, for that matter). This is notably higher than most of Europe and the Americas (excepting the United States). However, ID verification is almost never requested at restaurants, bars, convenience stores or other purveyors of liquor, so long as the purchaser does not appear obviously underage. The main exception is in the large clubs in Shibuya, Tokyo, which are popular with young Tokyoites and during busy times will ID everyone entering the club.
Where to drink
If you're looking for an evening of food and drink in a relaxed traditional atmosphere, go to an izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese-style pub), easily identified by red lanterns with the character "酒" (alcohol) hanging out front. Many of them have an all-you-can-drink (飲み放題 nomihōdai) deals which are about ¥1,000 (US$10) for 90 minutes (on average), although you'll be limited to certain types of drinks. Very convenient. An izakaya will usually have a lively, convivial atmosphere, as it often acts as a living room of sorts for office workers, students and seniors. Food is invariably good and reasonably priced, and in all, they are an experience not to be missed.
While Western-style bars can also be found here and there, typically charging ¥500-1,000 for drinks, a more common Japanese institution is the snack (スナック sunakku). These are slightly dodgy operations where paid hostesses pour drinks, sing karaoke, massage egos (and sometimes a bit more) and charge upwards of ¥3,000/hour for the service. Tourists will probably feel out of place and many do not even admit non-Japanese patrons.
Note that izakaya, bars and snacks typically have cover charges (カバーチャージ kabā chāji), usually around ¥500 but on rare occasions more, so ask if the place looks really swish. In izakayas this often takes the form of being served some little nibble (お通し otōshi) as you sit down, and no, you can't refuse it and not pay. Some bars also charge a cover charge and an additional fee for any peanuts you're served with your beer.
Vending machines (自動販売機 jidōhanbaiki) are omnipresent in Japan and serve up drinks 24 hours a day at the price of ¥120-150 a can/bottle, although some places with captive customers, including the top of Mount Fuji, will charge more. In addition to cans of soft drinks, tea and coffee, you can find vending machines that sell beer, sake and even hard liquor. In winter, some machines will also dispense hot drinks — look for a red label with the writing あたたかい (atatakai) instead of the usual blue つめたい (tsumetai). Vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages are usually switched off at 11PM. Also, more and more of these machines, especially those near a school, require the use of a special "Sake Pass" obtainable at the city hall of the city the machine is located in. The pass is available to anyone of 20 years of age or over. Many vending machines at stations in the Tokyo metropolitan area accept payment using the JR Suica or PASMO cards.
Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage which is brewed from rice. Though often called rice wine, in fact the sake making process completely different from wine or beer making. The fermentation process uses both a mold to break down the starches and yeast to create the alcohol. The Japanese word sake (酒) can in fact mean any kind of alcoholic drink, and in Japan the word nihonshu (日本酒) is used to refer to what Westerners call "sake".
Sake is around 15% alcohol, and can be served at a range of temperatures from hot (熱燗 atsukan), to room temperature (常温jo-on), down to chilled (冷や hiya). Contrary to popular belief most sake is not served hot, but often chilled. Each sake is brewed for a preferred serving temperature, but defaulting to room temperature is in most cases safe. If you are inclined to have one hot or chilled in a restaurant, asking your waiter or bartender for recommendation would be a good idea. In restaurants, one serving can start around ¥500, and go up from there.
Sake has its own measures and utensils. The little ceramic cups are called choko (ちょこ) and the small ceramic jug used to pour it is a tokkuri (徳利). Sometimes sake will be poured into a small glass set in a wooden box to collect the overflow as the server pours all the way to the top and keeps pouring. Just drink from the glass, then pour the extra out of the box and back into your glass as you go. Occasionally, particularly when drinking it cold, you can sip your sake from the corner of a cedar box called a masu (枡), sometimes with a dab of salt on the edge. Sake is typically measured in gō (合, 180 mL), roughly the size of a tokkuri, ten of which make up the standard 1.8L isshōbin (一升瓶) bottle.
The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as wine, but the one indicator worth looking out for is nihonshudo (日本酒度), a number often printed on bottles and menus. Simply put, this "sake level" measures the sweetness of the brew, with positive values indicating drier sake and negative values being sweeter, the average being around +2.
Sake is brewed in several grades and styles which depend upon how much the rice is milled to prevent off flavors, if any water is added, or if additional alcohol is added. Ginjō (吟醸) and daiginjō (大吟醸) are measures of how much the rice has been milled, with the daiginjo more highly milled and correspondingly more expensive. These two may have alcohol added primarily to improve the flavor and aroma.Honjōzō (本醸造) is less milled, with alcohol added, and may be less expensive; think of it as an everyday kind of sake. Junmai (純米) meaning pure rice, is an additional term which specifies that only rice was used. When making a purchase, price is often a fair indicator of quality.
A few special brews may be worth a try if you feel like experimenting. Nigorizake (濁り酒) is lightly filtered and looks cloudy, with white sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Turn the bottle gently once or twice to mix this sediment back into the drink. Though most sake doesn't age well, some brewers are able to create aged sake with a much stronger flavor and deep colors. These aged sake or koshu (古酒) may be an acquired taste, but worthwhile for the adventurous after a meal.
Worth a special mention is amazake (甘酒), similar to the the lumpy homebrewed doburoku (どぶろく) version of sake, drunk hot in the winter (often given away free at shrines on New Year's night). Amazake has very little alcohol and it tastes pretty much like fermented rice glop (which is to say, not that bad at all), but at least it's cheap. And, as the name implies, sweet.
If you're curious about sake, the Japan Sake Brewers Association has an online version of its English brochure. You can also visit the Sake Plaza in Shinbashi, Tokyo and taste a flight of different sakes for just a few hundred yen.
Shōchū (焼酎) is the big brother of sake, a stronger tasting distilled type of alcohol. There are largely two types of shōchū; traditional shōchū are most commonly made of rice, yam, or grain, but it can be made of other materials like potatoes, too. The other is rather industrially made out of sugar through multiple consecutive distillation, often used and served as a kind of cooler mixed with juice or soda known as a chū-hai. (Note however that canned chū-hai sold on store shelves do not even use shōchū but even cheaper alcoholic material.) Shōchū is typically around 25% alcohol (although some varieties can be much stronger) and can be served straight, on the rocks, mixed with hot or cold water at your choice. Once solely a working-class drink, and still the cheapest tipple around at less than ¥1000 for a big 1L bottle, traditional shōchū has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years and the finest shōchū now fetch prices as high as the finest sakes.
Umeshu (梅酒) is prepared by soaking Japanese ume plums (actually a type of apricot) often in shochu but also in sake, or other type of alcohol so it absorbs the flavor, and the distinctive, penetrating nose of dark plum and brown sugar is a hit with many visitors. It can be taken straight, on the rocks (rokku) or mixed with soda (soda-wari).
There are several large brands of Japanese beer (ビール biiru), including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory. A bit harder to find is an Okinawan brand, Orion which is excellent. Yebisu is also a popular beer brewed by Sapporo. Microbrewed beers are also starting to appear in Japan, with a few restaurants offering their own micros or ji-biiru (地ビール) but these are still few in number. Most varieties are lagers, with strengths averaging 5%.
You can buy beer in cans of all sizes, but in Japanese restaurants beer is typically served in bottles (瓶 bin), or draft (生 nama meaning "fresh"). Bottles come in three sizes, 大瓶 Oobin (Large), 中瓶 Chuubin (Medium) and 小瓶 Kobin (Small), of which the Medium is the most common. Larger bottles give you the opportunity to engage in the custom of constantly refilling your companions' glasses (and having yours topped off as well). If you order draft beer, you each receive your own mug (jokki). In many establishments, a dai-jokki ("big mug") holds a full liter of brew.
Some Japanese bartenders have an annoying habit of filling half of your mug with head so that you only have half a glass of actual beer. Though the Japanese like their draft beer poured that way, you may find it irritating - especially when you're paying ￥600 for a glass of beer as in many restaurants and bars. If you have the gumption to ask for less head, say awa o sukoshi dake kudasai ("please, just a little foam"). You will baffle your server, but you may get a full glass of beer.
Guinness pubs have started appearing all over the country recently, which is nice for those who like Irish drinks.
For those with a more humourous tastes in beer, try kodomo biiru (こどもビール, literally Children’s Beer), a product that looks just like the real thing but was actually invented with children in mind (there is 0% alcohol content).
Happōshu and third beer
Thanks to Japan's convoluted alcohol licensing laws, there are also two almost-beers on the market: happōshu (発泡酒), or low-malt beer, and the so-called third beer (第3のビール dai-san no biiru), which uses ingredients like soybean peptides or corn instead of malt. Priced as low as ¥120, both are considerably cheaper than "real" beer, but lighter and more watery in taste. Confusingly, they are packaged very similarly to the real thing with brands like Sapporo's "Draft One" and Asahi's "Hon-Nama", so pay attention to the bottom of the can when buying: by law, it may not say ビール (beer), but will instead say 発泡酒 (happoshu) or, for third beers, the unwieldy moniker その他の雑酒(2) (sono ta no zasshu(2), lit. "other mixed alcohol, type 2"). Try to drink moderately as both drinks can lead to nightmare hangovers.
Japanese wine is actually quite nice although it costs about twice as much as comparable wine from other countries. Several varieties exist, and imported wine at various prices is available nationwide. Selection can be excellent in the larger cities, with specialized stores and large department stores offering the most extensive offerings. One of Japan's largest domestic wine areas is Yamanashi Prefecture, and one of Japan's largest producers, Suntory, has a winery and tours there. Most wine, red and white, is served chilled and you may find it hard obtaining room-temperature (常温 jō-on) wine when dining out.
The most popular beverage by far is tea (お茶 o-cha), provided free of charge with almost every meal, hot in winter and cold in summer. There is a huge variety of tea in bottles and cans in convenience-store fridges and vending machines. Western-style black tea is called kōcha (紅茶); if you don't ask for it specifically you're likely to get Japanese brown or green tea. Chinese oolong tea is also very popular.
The major types of Japanese tea are:
Coffee (コーヒー kōhī) is quite popular in Japan, though it's not part of the typical Japanese breakfast. It's usually brewed to the same strength as European coffee; weaker, watered down coffee is called American. Canned coffee (hot and cold) is a bit of a curiosity, and widely available in vending machines like other beverages for about ¥120 per can. The regular stuff is rather sweet, so there are black varieties as well. Decaffeinated coffee is very rare in Japan, even at Starbucks, but is available in some locations.
There are many coffee shops in Japan, including Starbucks. Major local chains include Doutor (known for its low prices) and Excelsior. A few restaurants, such as Mister Donut, Jonathan's and Skylark, offer unlimited refills on coffee for those who are particularly addicted to caffeine (or want to get some late-night work done).
There are many uniquely Japanese soft drinks and trying random drinks on vending machines is one of the little joys of Japan. A few of note include Calpis (カルピス), a kind of yogurt-based soft drink which tastes better than it sounds and the famous Pocari Sweat (a Gatorade-style isotonic drink). A more traditional Japanese soft drink is Ramune (ラムネ) which is nearly the same as Sprite or 7-Up but is noteworthy for its unusual bottle, where one pushes down a marble into an open space below the spout instead of using a bottle opener.
Most American soft drink brands (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew) are widely available. The only choices for diet soda will be Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi. Root Beer is nearly impossible to find outside of speciality import food shops or Okinawa. Ginger ale is very popular however, and a common find in vending machines. Caffeinated energy drinks are available in many local brands (usually infused with ginseng).
In Japan, the term "juice" (ジュース jūsu) is catch-all term for any kind of fruity soft drink - sometimes even Coca-Cola and the like - and extremely few are 100% juice. So if it's fruit squeezings you want, ask for kajū (果汁). Drinks in Japan are required to display the percentage of fruit content on the label; this can be very helpful to ensure you get the 100% orange juice you were wanting, rather than the much more common 20% varieties.
Bathing is a big deal in Japan, and be it a scenic onsen hot spring, a neighhorbood sento bath or just an ordinary household tub, bathing Japanese style is a pleasure. Japanese wax lyrical about the joys of hot water (湯 yu) and dub even the ordinary tub with a honorific (お風呂 o-furo), and a visit to a Japanese hot spring — marked as ♨ on maps — should be on the agenda of every visitor.
Onsen (温泉), quite literally "hot springs", are the pinnacle of the Japanese bathing experience. Cluster of hot spring inns pop up wherever there's a suitable source of hot water, and in volcanic Japan, they're everywhere. The most memorable onsen experience is often the rotenburo (露天風呂), which is located outside with views of the surrounding natural scenery. While the baths are usually large and shared, some swankier accommodations offer, often for an additional fee, reservable baths for you and yours alone, known as family baths, racier "romance baths" or just plain old reserved baths (貸切風呂 kashikiri-furo). Onsen baths can be either in standalone buildings available for anybody (外湯 sotoyu), or private guest-only baths inside your lodgings (内湯 uchiyu).
While most onsen are run commercially and charge fees for entry (¥500-1000 is typical), especially in remote areas there are free publicly maintained baths that offer minimal facilities but, more often than not, stunning views to make up for it. Many of these are mixed (混浴 kon'yoku), but while men still happily traipse into these naked, if holding a towel in front of their genitals, it's a rare woman who'll enter one without a bathing suit these days. Commercial operations with konyoku baths tend to enforce bathing suits for both sexes.
Note that many onsen prohibit the entry of visitors with tattoos. Intended to keep out yakuza gangsters (who often sport full-back tattoos), the rule is usually applied with a modicum of common sense, but heavily tattood visitors will, at the very least, receive curious looks and may be asked to leave. A good idea to avoid some stares is to cover a tattoo with a bandaid before going into an onsen, but even the bandaid might gain some stares from a few people.
Sentō and spas
Sentō (銭湯) are communal bath houses found in any large city. Intended for people without their own home tub, they are typically quite utilitarian and are slowly dying out as Japan continues its break-neck modernization. Some, however, have gone upmarket and turned into spas (スパ supa), which in Japan do not mean Balinese huts offering Ayurvedic massage while getting sprinkled with orchids, but public baths for stressed-out salarymen, often with a capsule hotel (see Sleep) bolted on the side. As you might expect, these come in varying degrees of legitimacy — in particular, beware any place advertising "esthe", "health", or "soap" — but most are surprisingly decent.
Japanese are understanding of the funny ways of foreigners, but there's one rule where no exceptions are made: you have to wash yourself and rinse off all suds before entering the bath. The water in the tub will be reused by the next person, and the Japanese consider it disgusting to soak in someone else's dirt! Basically, wash up as well as you hope the guy next to you has done.
Be it a fancy onsen or a barebones sento, the choreography of an entire visit goes roughly as follows:
Shared bathing areas are usually sex-segregated, so look for the characters "man" (男) and "woman" (女) to pick the right entrance. Men's baths also typically have blue curtains, while women's are red. Enter the changing room, leaving slippers at the doorway. Pick an empty basket and undress, placing all your garments in the basket. If there are lockers, place your valuables in them and take the key.
Take your teeny-weeny towel, often provided or sold for a token fee, and enter the bath room. Note that the typical Japanese bath towel is sized like a Western hand towel, only thinner, and are meant primarily for washing. It can also be used to dry yourself, but you will need to repeatedly wring out the water. If you would prefer a larger towel, ask at the front for a bath towel.
After removing your clothes and entering the bathing area, take a little stool, sit down, and clean yourself really, really well. Shampoo your hair, soap your entire body, repeat. Rinse all suds off once clean.
Only then can you enter the bath tub. Do so slowly, as the water can often be very hot indeed; if it's unbearable, try another tub. If you do manage to get in, don't let your towel touch the water, as it's considered mildly bad form; you may wish to fold it atop your head. When sufficiently cooked, wash yourself once again and repeat the process in reverse.
After your bath is finished, you can nearly always find a relaxation lounge (休憩室 kyūkeishitsu), inevitably equipped with a beer vending machine nearby. Feel free to sprawl out in your yukata, sip beer, talk with friends, take a nap.
Some features of Japan's toilets are worth mentioning. As elsewhere in Asia, you will find both Western-style porcelain thrones for sitting and floor-level units for squatting. In private homes and home-style accommodations, you will often find toilet slippers, which are to be worn inside the toilet and only inside the toilet.
However, most visitors come away impressed by the undeniable fact that Japan is the world's leader in toilet technology. Over half of Japan's homes are equipped with high-tech devices known as washlets (ウォシュレット), which incorporate all sorts of handy features like seat warmers, hot air dryers and tiny robotic arms that squirt water. The device is operated via a control panel, which may incorporate over 30 buttons (all labeled in Japanese) and, at first glance, bears more resemblance to a Space Shuttle navigation panel than your average WC.
Don't panic — help is at hand. The first key to solving the puzzle is that the actual flush mechanism is usually not operated by the control panel: instead, there is a standard, familiar, Western-style lever, switch or knob somewhere and it is thus entirely possible to take care of your business without ever using the washlet features. The second key to exploration is that there is always a big red button labeled 止 on the panel — pressing this will instantly stop everything. Older models simply have a lever nearby that controls the flow of a sprayer.
Armed with this knowledge you can now begin to dig deeper. Typical controls include the following:
Other, smaller buttons can be used to adjust the exact pressure, angle, location and pulsation of the jet of water. Sometimes the seat of the toilet is heated, and this can be also regulated. One explanation is that since houses are not usually centrally heated, the toilet business can be made a little more convenient by heating the seat.
In addition to the usual youth hostels and business hotels, you can find several kinds of uniquely Japanese accommodation, ranging from rarefied ryokan inns to strictly functional capsule hotels and utterly over-the-top love hotels.
When reserving any Japanese accommodations, bear in mind that many smaller operations may hesitate to accept foreigners, fearing language difficulties or other cultural misunderstandings. This is to some extent institutionalized: large travel agency databases note which (few) hotels are prepared to handle foreigners, and they may tell you that all lodgings are booked if only these are full! Instead of calling up in English, you may find it better to get a Japanese acquaintance or local tourist office to make the booking for you. Alternatively, for cheap Internet rates, Rakuten's English search tool  is an invaluable utility. Note that prices are almost always given per person not per room. Otherwise you may have a rather unpleasant shock when your party of five tries to check out....
When checking in to any type of accommodation, the hotel is, by law, required to make a copy of your passport unless you are a resident of Japan. It is a good idea, especially if you are travelling in groups, to present the clerk a photo copy of your passport to speed up check-in. Aside from this, remember that Japan is mostly a cash only country, and credit cards are usually not accepted in smaller forms of accommodation, including, but not limited to, small business hotels. Bring enough cash to be able to pay in advance.
One thing to beware in wintertime: traditional Japanese houses are designed to be cool in summer, which all too often means that they are freezing cold inside in winter. Bulk up on clothing and make good use of the bathing facilities to stay warm; fortunately, futon bedding is usually quite warm and getting a good night's sleep is rarely a problem.
While accommodation in Japan is expensive, you may find that you can comfortably use a lower standard of hotel than you would in other countries. Shared baths will usually be spotless, and theft is very unusual in Japan. Just don't expect to sleep in late: check-out time is invariably 10 AM, and any extensions to this will have to be paid for.
There are surprisingly few Western-branded hotels in Japan: instead, it's Japanese brands like JAL, Nikko, ANA and Prince that rule the roost. Full-service five-star hotels can turn pampering into an artform, but tend to be rather bland and generic in appearance, despite steep prices starting from ¥20,000 per person (not per room). However, there are several types of uniquely Japanese and far more affordable hotels:
Capsule hotels are the ultimate in space-efficient sleeping: for a small fee (often under ¥2000), the guest rents himself a capsule, sized about 2x1x1 meters and stacked in two rows inside a hall containing tens if not hundreds of capsules. Capsule hotels are invariably segregated by sex and only a few cater to women.
On entry to a capsule hotel, take off your shoes, place them in a locker and put on a pair of slippers. You will often have to surrender your locker key at check-in to insure that you do not slip out without paying! On checking in you will be given a second locker for placing your belongings, as there is no space for them in the capsule and little security as most capsules have simply a curtain, not a door. Beware though if there is a curtain, since probing hands may enter it.
Many if not most capsule hotels are attached to a spa of varying degrees of luxury and/or dubiosity, often so that entry to the spa costs (say) ¥2000 but the capsule is only an additional ¥1000. Other, cheaper capsule hotels will require feeding in ¥100 coins even to get the shower to work. This being Japan, there are always vending machines on hand to dispense toothpaste, underwear and such sundries.
Once you retire into your capsule, you will usually find a simple control panel for operating the lights, the alarm clock and the inevitable built-in TV. Sweet dreams! But don't oversleep or you may be hit with another day's charge.
In Tokyo's Shinjuku and Shibuya districts the capsule hotels run at least ¥3500, but have excellent free massage chairs, saunas, public baths, disposable razors and shampoo, magazines, and coffee in the morning. Despite all that, keep in mind that your capsule "door" is just a curtain that keeps light out. You will likely hear a steady stream of drunk and sleepy business men crawling into their capsules above and across from you before falling into a mild snore.
Love hotel is a bit of a euphemism; a more accurate term would be sex hotel. They can be found in and near red light districts, but most are not in those areas. Many of them are often clustered around highway interchanges or main train stations out of the city and back to the suburbs. The entrance is usually quite discreet, and the exit is separated from the entrance (to avoid running into someone one might know). Basically you can rent a room by the night (listed as "Stay" or 宿泊 shukuhaku on the rate card, usually ¥6000-10000), a couple of hours ("Rest" or 休憩 kyūkei, around ¥3000), or off hours ("No Time Service") which are usually weekday afternoons. Beware of service charges, peak hour surcharges and taxes, which can push your bill up by 25%.
They are generally clean, safe, and very private. Some have exotic themes e.g, aquatics, sports, or Hello Kitty. As a traveller, rather than a a typical client, you (usually) cannot check in, drop your bags, and go out exploring. Once you leave, that is it, so they are not as convenient as proper hotels. "Stay" rates also tend to start only after 10 PM, and overstaying may incur hefty additional "Rest" charges. Many rooms have simple food and drinks in a refrigerator, and often have somewhat high charges. Before entering a love hotel, it would be wise to take some food and drinks with you. The rooms often feature amenities such as jacuzzis, wild theme decoration, costumes, karaoke machines, vibrating beds, sex-toy vending machines, and in some cases, video games. Most often, all toiletries (including condoms) are included. Sometimes the rooms have a book that acts as a log, where people record their tales and adventures for posterity. Popular love hotels may be entirely booked up in the cities on weekends.
Why are they everywhere? Consider the housing shortage that plagued post-war Japan for years, and the way people still live in extended families. If you are 28 years old and still live at home, do you really want to bring your mate back to your folks' house? Or, if you are a married couple in a 40 square meter apartment with two grade school children, do you really want to get down to it at home? Thus, the love hotel. They can be seedy, but mainly they are just practical and fulfill a social need.
One word of caution: There has been an increase in hidden cameras being planted in public and private spaces, including love hotels, either by other guests or even occasionally the hotel management. Videos of these supposed tousatsu (hidden camera) are popular in adult video stores, although many such videos are actually staged.
They are usually around ¥10,000 per night and have a convenient location (often near major train stations) as their major selling point, but rooms are usually unbelievably cramped. On the upside, you'll get a (tiny) ensuite bathroom and, quite often, free Internet. Some major chains of cheaper business hotels include Tokyu Inn , known for its generously sized rooms, and Toyoko Inn .
Local, "unadvertised" business hotels, further from major stations, can be significantly cheaper (from ¥5000/double room/night) and can be found in the phonebook (which also tells prices!), but you will need a Japanese-speaking assistant to help, or better yet, pre-book online. For two or more, the price can often compete with youth hostels if you share a twin or double room. Note that full payment is often expected on check-in, and check-out times are early (usually 10 AM) and not negotiable unless you're willing to pay extra. At the very bottom end are dirt-cheap hotels in the labourers' districts of the major cities, such as Kamagasaki in Osaka, or Senju in Tokyo, where prices start from as little as ¥1500 for a tiny three-mat room that literally has only enough room to sleep. Walls and futons can be thin as well.
Ryokan (旅館) are traditional Japanese inns, and a visit to one is the highlight of many a trip to Japan. There are two types: the small traditional-style one with wooden buildings, long verandahs, and gardens, and the more modern high-rise sort that are like luxury hotels with fancy public baths.
Since some knowledge of Japanese mores and etiquette is required to visit one, many will hesitate to take non-Japanese guests (especially those who do not speak Japanese), but some cater specially to this group. A night at a ryokan for one with two meals starts at about ¥8000 and goes up into the stratosphere. ¥50,000 a night per person is not uncommon for some of the posher ones, such as the famous Kagaya near Kanazawa.
Ryokan usually operate on a fairly strict schedule and you will be expected to arrive by 5 PM. On entry take off your shoes and put on the slippers you will wear inside the house. After checking in you will be led to your room, which is invariably simply but elegantly decorated and covered in tatami matting. Be sure to take off your slippers before stepping on tatami.
Before dinner you will be encouraged to take a bath — see Bathe for the full scoop. You will probably wish to change into your yukata bathrobe before bathing and it's a simple enough garment: just place the left lapel atop the right when closing it. If the yukata provided are not big enough, simply ask the maid or the reception for 'tokudai' (特大), outsize. Many ryokan also have colour-coded yukata depending on sex: pinkish tones for women and blue for men, for example.
Once you have bathed, dinner will be served in your room. In most ryokan dinner is very elaborately prepared and presented from carefully chosen seasonal ingredients; by all means ask if you are not sure how to eat a given item. The food in a good ryokan is a substantial part of the experience (and the bill), and is an excellent way to try some high-class Japanese cuisine.
After you have finished you are free to head out into town; in hot spring towns it is perfectly normal to head out dressed only in yukata and geta clogs, although doing so as a foreigner may attract even more attention than usual. (Hint: wear underwear underneath.) Many ryokan have curfews, so make sure you don't end up locked out.
When you return you will find that futon bedding has been rolled out for you on the tatami (a real Japanese futon is simply a mattress, not the low, flat bed often sold under the name in the West). While slightly harder than a Western bed, most people find sleeping on a futon very pleasant. Pillows may be remarkably hard, filled with buckwheat chaff.
Breakfast in the morning is usually served communally in a dining hall at a fixed time, though the high-class places will again serve it in your room after the maid tidies away the bedding.
A word of warning: some establishments with the word "ryokan" in their name are not the luxurious variety at all, but just minshuku (see below) in disguise. The price will tell you which type of lodging it is.
Minshuku (民宿) are the budget version of ryokan: the overall experience is much the same but the food is simpler, dining is communal, bathrooms are shared, and guests are expected to lay out their own futon (although an exception is often made for foreigners). Consequently minshuku rates are lower, hovering around ¥5000 with two meals (一泊二食 ippaku-nishoku). Cheaper yet is a stay with no meals (素泊まり sudomari), which can go as low as ¥3000. Minshuku are more often found in the countryside than in cities.
Kokuminshukusha (国民宿舎), a mouthful that translates quite literally into "people's lodges", are government-run guest houses. They primarily provide subsidized holidays for government employees in remote scenic spots, but are usually happy to accept paying guests. Both facilities and prices are usually more comparable to ryokan than minshuku standards; however, they are almost invariably large in size and can be rather impersonal. Popular ones need to be booked well in advance for peak seasons - sometimes almost a year in advance for New Years and the like.
Shukubō (宿坊) are lodgings for pilgrims, usually (but not always) located within a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. Again, the experience is broadly similar to a ryokan, but the food will be vegetarian and you may be offered a chance to participate in the temple's activities. Some Zen temples offer meditation lessons and courses. Shukubo can be reluctant to accept foreign guests, but one place where this won't be a problem is the major Buddhist center of Mt. Koya near Osaka.
Hostels and camping
Youth hostels (ユースホステル yūsu hosuteru, often just called yūsu or abbreviated "YH") can be comparatively expensive in Japan, especially if you opt for dinner and breakfast and are not a HI member, in which case the price for a single night may be over ¥5000. For HI members, though, a simple stay can cost as little as ¥1500 depending on location and season. As elsewhere, some are concrete cellblocks run like reform schools, while others are wonderful cottages in scenic spots. There are even a number of temples that run hostels as a sideline. Do some groundwork before choosing where to go, the Japan Youth Hostel page is a good place to start. Many have curfews and dorms are sex-segregated.
Camping is the cheapest way to get a night's sleep in Japan. There is an extensive network of camping grounds throughout the country; naturally, most are away from the big cities. Transportation to them can also be problematic, as few buses may go there. Prices may vary from nominal fees (¥500) to large bungalows that cost more than many hotel rooms (¥13000 or more).
Camping wild is illegal in most of Japan, although you can always try asking for permission, or simply pitch your tent late and leave early. Many larger city parks may in fact have large numbers of blue tarp tents with homeless in them.
Campsites in Japan are known as kyanpu-jo (キャンプ場), while sites designed for cars are known as ōto-kyanpu-jo. The latter tend to be far more expensive than the former (¥5000 or so), so should be avoided by those setting out on foot unless they also have lower-key accommodations available. Campsites are often located near onsen, which can be quite convenient.
The National Camping Association of Japan  helps maintain Campjo.com , a database of (nearly) all campsites in Japan. Unfortunately the listing is only in Japanese. the JNTO  website has a fairly extensive list (in PDF format) of campgrounds in English.
For the real budget traveller wanting to get by on the cheap in Japan is the option of nojuku (野宿). This is Japanese for "sleeping outside", and although it may seem quite strange to Westerners, a lot of young Japanese do this when they travel. Thanks to a low crime rate and relatively stable climate, nojuku is a genuinely viable option if you're travelling in a group or feel confident doing it on your own. Common nojuku places include train stations, michi no eki (road service stations), or basically anywhere that has some kind of shelter and public toilets nearby.
Those worrying about shower facilities will be delighted to know that Japan is blessed with cheap public facilities pretty much everywhere - notably onsen, or hot springs. Even if you can't find an onsen, sento (public baths), or sauna are also an option.
Bear in mind nojuku is only really viable in the summer months, although in the northern island of Hokkaido even in summer the temperature may dip during the night. On the other hand, there's much more scope for nojuku on Okinawa (although public facilities on the smaller islands are lacking).
Nojuku is not really recommended for first-time travellers to Japan, but for those with some experience, it can be a great way to get into the 'onsen' culture, meet other fellow nojuku travellers, and most of all travel very cheaply when coupled with hitchhiking.
If you're staying for a longer period, say a month and longer, you might be able to drastically reduce your living costs by staying in a "gaijin house". These establishments cater specifically towards foreigners and offer at least minimally furnished and usually shared apartments at reasonable prices, and without the hefty deposits and commissions of apartments (often up to 6-8 months rent worth at about 20'000Yen/month) paid before moving in. It will almost certainly be cheaper than staying in a hotel for a month, and for those coming to Japan for the first time they are also great for networking and getting to know a few locals. The downside is that facilities are often shared and the transient population can mean poor maintenance and dodgy neighbors.
Gaijin houses are concentrated in Tokyo, but any larger city will have a few. They can be anything from ugly cramped apartment complexes with new tenants every week, to nice family run businesses in private houses, so try to get a look at the place before you decide to move in. Two of the biggest letting agencies for gaijin houses in Tokyo are Sakura House and Oak House, while Gaijin House Japan has listings and classified ads covering the entire country.
Traditionally, renting an apartment in Japan is a ridiculously complex and expensive process, involving getting a Japanese resident to act as your guarantor (literally — trash up the place and run away, and they'll get stuck with the bill!) and paying half a year's rent or more in advance. This is thus essentially impossible for anyone who isn't familiar with the culture and there to live and work for a few years at least.
In recent years, though, weekly mansions (short-term apartments) have become popular for residents (typically businessmen on long-term assignment or young singles) and are accessible even to visitors. Most are 1 or 2 person rooms, though larger ones for 3 or 4 are sometimes available. Apartments fees are around ¥5000 for a single, around ¥6000-7000 for a two person room per day. Most of these apartment rental agencies will offer all apartments with shower, toilet and bath. They usually have air-conditioning, microwave and cooking ameneties. A great company that also accepts and replies to English E-Mail is Weekly Mansion Tokyo. Please allow some days for a reply, as only a few employees are fluent in English. WMT has more than 50 apartment buildings in Tokyo and Yokohama, Nagoya and Osaka. Sometimes a deposit is required for some of the apartments. You can usually forfeit this deposit if you have stayed with them a few times without any trouble. Without exception the apartments are kept clean and often have much more space and flexibility than a hotel and are priced in the Youth hostel range.
Even in Tokyo, the trains completely stop running around 1am, so if you're out after then and don't want to pay for a cab or even a capsule hotel, there are a few options for killing the hours until the first morning train.
In bigger cities around the major stations you can find Internet cafés. Here you can also watch TV, play video games, read comics and enjoy the free drink bar. Price varies but usually around ¥400/hour. They often have a special night fare for the period when no trains are running (from around 12AM until 5AM for ¥1500). Sometimes they have massage chair, a mat to sleep on or even a shower.
It isn't an especially comfortable option, but it is perfect for checking the next day's train schedule, downloading pictures from your digital camera, writing home and resting a bit.
This is only an emergency option in case you can't find anything else and you are freezing outside. Karaoke bars offer entertainment rooms until 5 am ("free time") for ¥1500-2500. Only works with at least 3-4 people.
Some onsen or sento stay open all night. These are usually known as "super" sentos. Usually there is a 'relaxing area' with tatami mats, TV, vending machines, etc. Though occasionally they are multi story bath and play houses. Often for a reasonable fee (on top of the bathing cost) you will be allowed to crash the night on the tatami, or in a room with large reclining chairs.
In the warmer months, people sleeping or napping on streetsides outside the bigger train stations are a common view. Many of them just missed their last trains and prefer spending three or four hours waiting for the first train on the asphalt rather than three or four thousand yen for a short-term stay in a hotel or public bath. While this is definitely the least comfortable way to sleep through the night, it is especially popular with college students (who have no money), and absolutely tolerated by police and station staff; even drunkards sleeping next to their own puke will not be disturbed in their booze-induced sleep.
Similarly, no need to sweat if you fall asleep on a local train after a long party night. Compared to the outside sleeping, the train sleep is more of a gaijin thing. There are no time limits on how long you can stay on a train as long as you have a ticket; many long-term residents have had the pleasure of going back and forth on the same train for two or three cycles before waking up and getting off at the initial destination with the ticket bought three hours ago. If the train is not likely to get crowded, you may even consider stretching out on the bench - don't forget to take off your shoes though.
Of course, you have to obey the orders of the train staff, who tend to gently wake up people at the terminus, especially if the train is not going back. Too bad, if that station turns out to be two hours away from the city...
Many youth exchange programs bring foreign teenagers to Japan, and the country also has a number of very active university exchange programs. In order to obtain a student visa, you will be required to either have one million yen, or the equivalent in financial aid awards, to cover your living expenses. With a student visa, you may obtain an additional permission form from Immigration to legally work up to 20 hours per week. Contact your local Japanese embassy or home university's exchange program department for information on how to proceed.
The cheapest way to stay in Japan for a longer period of time is to study at a local school or university with a generous Monbusho (Ministry of Education) grant to pay for it all. A number of Japanese universities offer courses taught in English; some foreign universities also operate independent programs in Japan, the largest being Temple University's multi-faculty campus in Tokyo.
To work in Japan, a foreigner must receive a job offer from a guarantor in Japan, and then apply for a working visa at an embassy or consulate outside the country. Working visas are valid for a period of 1 to 3 years, and may be used to secure employment at any employer within the scope of activities designated on the visa (including employers other than the guarantor). The Working Holiday program is open to young citizens (between 18 and 30) from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Korea, France, Germany, Ireland and the UK: those eligible may apply for working holiday visas without having a job offer. Currently there are 27 types of status of residence visas and officially one must not engage in activities other than those specified by the status of residence visa that has been issued. There are seven different periods of stay, i.e., 15 days, 90 days, three months, six months, a year, two years and three years. Expect strict penalties if you overstay on any visa.  Spouses of Japanese nationals can obtain spousal visas, which carry no restrictions on employment.
The most common form of employment among foreigners is teaching English, especially in after-hours English conversation schools known as eikaiwa (英会話). Pay is fairly good for young adults, but rather poor compared to a qualified educator already at work in most Western countries. Working conditions can also be quite strict compared to Western standards, and some companies have very bad reputations. An undergraduate degree or ESL creditation is essential for most desirable positions. For the larger chain English schools most teachers would have been interviewed in their home countries before coming to work in Japan. Learning English is no longer quite as fashionable as it once was and the boom years are long since over. Recently there has been greater emphasis on children's education. Besides English, other foreign languages that are popular include Portuguese, French, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese.
The JET Program (Japan Exchange and Teaching) offers young university graduates a chance to teach in Japan. The program is run by the Japanese government but your employer would typically be a local Board of Education who assigns you to one or more public schools. No Japanese is required and your airfare is provided. Pay is slightly better than the language schools and, unlike at such a school, if you have a serious problem with your employer you can appeal to the JET program people for help. The JET program also has a small number of positions for international relations or sports co-ordinators, although these require some Japanese ability.
Foreigners with postgraduate education may be able to find jobs teaching English (or even other subjects) at Japanese universities, which offers better pay and working conditions than the eikaiwa industry.
Quite a few young women choose to work in the hostess industry, where they entertain Japanese men over drinks in tiny bars known as sunakku (スナック) and are paid for their time. While pay can be good, visas for this line of work are difficult if not impossible to obtain and most work illegally. The nature of the work also carries its own risks, notably poor career prospects, alcoholism, smoking, potential problems from clients such as groping and lewd questions, and even harassment or worse, exemplified by the abduction and murder of hostess Lucille Blackman in 2000.
The Tokyo region generally offers the widest array of jobs for foreigners, including positions for lawyers, accountants, engineers and other professionals.
Japan is a country obsessed with cleanliness and health hazards are few and far between. Tap water is potable everywhere and food hygiene standards are very high. There are no communicable diseases of significance, as despite the name, Japanese encephalitis has been all but eradicated.
Some Japanese public toilets do not have toilet paper, although there are often vending machines nearby that sell some at token prices. Do as the Japanese do and use the tissue packets handed out free by advertisers at major train stations.
Though it's common sense for people who have lived in urban areas, many newcomers to Tokyo or Osaka are unfamiliar with life in an extremely congested metropolis, where almost everything they touch has been touched by hundreds of other people that same day. When newcomers to large Japanese cities don't take basic precautions, they may be more susceptible to ordinary illnesses like the common cold. As in any urban area, when in a large Japanese city like Tokyo or Osaka, wash your hands with soap and water as often as possible, especially after travelling on public transportation and before meals.
Be sure to bring a small umbrella for the frequent rainy days. Don't rely too much on the weather forecasts, especially from a day or two ago. Then again, if caught without, you can always go into the nearest convenience store and pick one up for ¥500.
Japan has its share of dirty areas. In cities, because of the sheer magnitude of traffic, the streets and curbs are just as dirty as anywhere. The obsession of cleanliness and removing shoes before entering someone's home makes sense because of the conditions of the outer world.
If you do become ill with a cold or other sickness, purchase a mouth covering, a cloth surgical mask. You will find that people frequently wear these out on trains and on the job. This filters your sneezing and coughing so you do not transmit to others.
Japan is probably one of the safest countries in the world, with crime rates significantly lower than that of most Western countries.
Crime and scams
The infamous yakuza (ヤクザ) or Japanese gangs have earned a partly undeserved reputation of being a bunch of violent, psychopathic criminals due to their portrayal in various films. However, in reality, even though they are largely associated with the vice trades, they rarely target the average person on the street. Just do not find trouble with them, and they would not bother you.
Note that drug laws in Japan are stricter than those in many Western countries. Possession of even personal-use quantities can land you a prison sentence of several years, and Japanese law does not distinguish between marijuana and hard drugs.
Red-light districts in large cities can be seedy but are rarely dangerous for visitors, however some smaller backstreet bars have been known to lay down exorbitant cover charges or drink prices. In some extreme cases, foreigners have reported being drugged at such establishments, then charged for as much as ¥700,000, or close to US$7000, for drinks that they do not remember ordering (notably in the Roppongi and Kabuki-cho districts of Tokyo). If you choose to visit an establishment in one of these locales, be sure to note the price and address before entering.
Police boxes (交番 kōban) can be found on every other street corner. The police are generally helpful (but often speak little English), so ask if you get lost or have any trouble. They usually have detailed map from the area around telling not only the difficult-to-understand numbering system but names of office or public buildings or other places which can help to find your way. Also, if you carry travel insurance, report any thefts or lost items at the koban. They have forms in English and Japanese, often referred to as the "Blue Form". For lost items, even cash, filling out this form is not wasted effort, as Japanese people will very often take lost items, even a wallet full of cash, to the koban. If you happen to find such an item, don't hesitate to take it to the koban. If the item is not claimed within six months, it is yours. If it is claimed, you may be due a reward of 5-15%.
Japan has two emergency numbers. To call the police in an emergency, dial 110 (百十番 hyakutoban). To call for an ambulance or fire truck, dial 119 (a reversal of the US 911). In Tokyo, the police have an English help line (03-3501-0110), available Monday through Friday except on holidays from 8:30 AM - 5:15 PM.
Prostitution is illegal in Japan. However, enforcement is lax and the law specifically defines prostitution as "sex in exchange for money". In other words, if you pay for some other "service" and proceed to have sex by "private agreement", the law does not recognise it as prostitution. As such, Japan still has one of the most vibrant sex industries in the world. The most famous red-light district is Kabukicho(歌舞伎町) in Tokyo's Shinjuku district where many call girl booths and love hotels are located. The incidence of HIV is getting higher in Japan in recent years so always keep the risk of infection in mind. However, note that many prostitutes will refuse to serve foreign customers, including those who are fluent in Japanese.
Japan is prone to earthquakes. The last major quake in Kobe (1995) killed over 5000 and the next big one in Tokyo is statistically some 20 years overdue. Every few days, somewhere in Japan is rattled by a quake large enough to be felt, but fortunately most of them are completely harmless. Even though electronic devices are now being introduced to detect earthquakes (both the earthquake intensity and the amount of seconds it will take for the tremors to reach a certain location), it's worth being aware of a few basic safety procedures:
Every neighborhood has an evacuation area, most often the local playground. Many schools are set up as temporary shelters. Both of these will be labeled in English. If you are traveling with others, plan to meet there and be aware that portable telephones will likely not work.
Volcanoes, storms and typhoons are primarily a potential issue if mountain climbing or sailing, so check the latest information before heading out. Stick to designated footpaths in volcanic areas as volcanic gas may be an issue.
There are venomous snakes called habu in Okinawa although not in unusual numbers. You are unlikely to be bitten by one, but if you are, seek medical help immediately as antivenoms are available. If you are hiking in Hokkaido and Honshu, be aware of possible bear activity, especially in Autumn. Attacks are rare, but in areas such as the Shiretoko Peninsula, some guides recommend you to attach bells to your backpack to scare them away.
Most if not all Japanese are very understanding of a foreigner (gaijin or gaikokujin) not conforming instantly to their culture; indeed, the Japanese like to boast (with debatable credibility) that their language and culture are among the most difficult to understand in the world, so they are generally quite happy to assist you if you appear to be struggling. However, there are few simple things to be aware of to show respect in Japan, many of which boil down to social norms of strict cleanliness and avoiding intruding on others (迷惑 meiwaku).
Things to do:
Things to avoid:
Japanese people understand that visitors may not be aware of the intricacies of Japanese etiquette and tend to be tolerant of blunders in this regard by foreigners. There are four serious etiquette breaches, however, which will meet with universal disapproval, even when foreigners commit them, and these should be avoided at all costs:
Other things to watch for:
The most sensitive of all topics is:
Japanese-Korean and, especially, Sino-Japanese relations: Japan annexed the Korean peninsula into the Empire after the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and remained so until 1945. The intervention in China during the 1930's and '40s and World War II are also sensitive subjects and, like in Germany, most prefer not to discuss it unless brought politely (and choosing the right place to talk about it as well).
Gay and lesbian travelers
Japan is considered to be very safe for gay and lesbian travelers, and violence against homosexuals is quite rare. There are no laws against homosexuality in Japan, but same-sex relationships are not recognized by the government and flaunting your orientation openly is still likely to draw stares and whispers.
Emergency call can be made from any phone at free of charge: call 110 for police or call 119 for fire and ambulance.
Payphones (公衆電話 kōshū denwa) are easily found, particularly near train stations, although with the popularity of mobile phones, public pay phones are not as quite as numerous as they once were. Gray and green pay phones accept ¥10 and ¥100 coins, and pre-paid cards. Be aware that not all places with public telephones have phones that accept coins, so it may be worthwhile to buy a phone card for emergency use. Some of the gray phones, as indicated on the LCD display, can make international calls. Another type of phone, IC pay phones, use an different IC-type card, but all can make international calls. Both types of pre-paid cards may be purchased at convenience stores, train station kiosk stores and sometimes in vending machines next to the phone. International phone charges from pay phones can be unusually high; third-party phone cards are a reasonable alternative.
Japanese 2G mobile phone (携帯電話 keitai denwa or just keitai) standards are incompatible with those in the rest of the world, so if you have a GSM-only phone it will not work in Japan (even quadband GSM phones are useless). In addition, au's CDMA network is incompatible with the international variant, so CDMA users (Verizon/Sprint in the U.S.) will not be able to roam. However, Softbank and DoCoMo's 3G networks are compatible with the international UMTS (WCDMA2100) standard, so most international 3G phones will work as long as you have an operator who allows roaming with SoftBank or NTT DoCoMo.
If you don't have a 3G phone but you do have a 3G-compatible SIM card, SoftBank's 3G models (available for rent from SoftBank Global Rental or purchasable in your home country on auction sites) accept GSM/UMTS USIM cards, allowing you to use your usual phone number while in Japan.
If you intend to use your home phone number in Japan (by roaming or swapping your current SIM into a 3G compatible mobile), be sure you know your carrier's restrictions on calling. O2-UK (operating in Japan via NTT DoCoMo), for instance, requires you to dial *111*#, wait for a callback, then dial the actual number you wish to connect. Be sure to double-check with your network provider before departing.
Options available to you are summed up in this table:
a GSM-only SIMs are issued by providers that don't have their own 3G network. If your home operator doesn't have a 3G network, or if you got your phone before their 3G network was introduced, this may apply to you. Call and ask your operator if their SIM cards are USIM compatible.
b USIM cards are issued by providers that have a 3G network or plan to introduce one. Any european who got their SIM card after 2003 has one of these. Call and ask your operator if their SIM cards are USIM compatible.
Some of these companies (including Air's) allow you to send and receive emails. To know the email address associated with the phone, use the phone to send a message to your usual email address, then check your usual mailbox and read the address in the "From" field. Your usual email provider may offer redirection to another email address (Gmail does), so that you receive all emails on the cellphone. Beware that companies charge for incoming and outgoing emails.
For a longer trip, you can also purchase a phone, but doing this legally requires an Alien Registration Card (or an obliging Japanese friend willing to front for you).
You can send postcards to anywhere in the world for ¥70. Public mail deposit boxes are found throughout Japan. They have two slots, one for regular domestic mail, and the other for overseas and express mail.
Internet cafés (インターネットカフェ) can be found in or around many train stations. Here, you can upload your pictures from a digital camera, and if you forgot your cable, some cafés will lend you a memory card reader for free. Manga coffee shops (漫画喫茶 manga-kissa) usually have Internet PCs as well. When you get tired of browsing the web, you can browse comic books, watch TV or a variety of movies-on-demand, or play video games. The cost is typically around ¥400/hour, with free (non-alcoholic) drinks, and possibly more. Often they have special night fares - around ¥1500 for the 4-5 hour period when no trains are running. Internet cafés can be a safe and inexpensive place to spend the night if you miss the last train.
A number of business hotels have Internet access available if you have your own computer, sometimes for free. In most cases, access is usually provided by a VDSL modem connected to the hotel telephone system. Please beware that some of the hotels that offer free Internet access do not include the rental for the modem in the "free" part of the service, so check before you use. Setting up your network interface for DHCP is usually all that is required to gain access to the Internet in such situations. Many also tend to have rental or free PC's available for hotel guests.
Some larger train stations and airports also have rental PCs to netsurf and send e-mail, usually about ¥100 (coin) for 10 minutes.
When using public access PC's, be careful not to accidentally hit the left side Alt-Shift keys together, or you'll be typing in Japanese characters. On the other hand, if the last person left the computer this way, you can use this key combination to switch back to the Roman alphabet. There may also be a language-switch key at the top left of the keyboard - above the Tab key - and to the right of the space bar. If you hit one by accident, just hit it again to switch back. No harm done. For email, note that the @ key is usually on the right side of the keyboard, next to the 'P'.
It is also possible to find Wi-Fi "hot spots" around many large cities in Japan, especially near tech-related businesses and large corporate buildings with unsecured wireless networks (the Apple store in Ginza, Tokyo has a fast, open 802.11n connection).