Our top tips for travel in Japan
In this section we've put together lots of useful practical advice about travelling in Japan. Choose a link from the left menu to jump to a section. Of course, everyone travelling with InsideJapan Tours is supplied with our complimentary Japan Info-Pack and has 24/7 support from our office in Japan. Those of you taking a Small Group Tour will also receive on-the-ground assistance from your tour leader.
If there is anything we've forgotten, please email us and we'll do our best to include it soon.
Facts about Japan
Area: 377,829 sq km (145,877 sq miles)
Population: 127.8 million (2011) - predicted to fall rapidly over the coming decades
Population Density: 333.7 per sq km
Population: 7,967,614 (1995) - Tokyo Metropolitan Government district. The population of greater Tokyo is around the 30 million mark!
Time: GMT 9
The weather is a favourite topic of conversation in Japan. This is unsurprising given the complexity of the climate in a country spanning 20 degrees of latitude.
From the harsh winters and mild summers of Hokkaido to the sub-tropical Okinawan climate there is a great variety in Japanese weather. Even in the same city both extremes of weather can be experienced in a year - Sapporo in Hokkaido can experience temperatures of minus 10 in the winter but heat waves of 30 degrees in the summer are not a rare occurrence.
On the mainland, summer temperatures are generally between 20 and 30 degree centigrade. In the early part of summer (mid-June to mid-July) there is a rainy season lasting a few weeks, this is however broken up by days of fine weather. Rains come again in late summer thanks to typhoons, although these usually blow over in a day.
Unusually Japan does not have a single national grid, but instead has separate grids in the east and west of the country. The standard voltage is 100V across the country, but the frequencies vary: 60Hz in Western Japan and 50HZ in Tokyo and the east.
Plugs are the flat 2-pin kind similar to the US. If you have a US plug converter, this will work fine in Japan.
There is a lot of confusion surrounding the use of overseas mobile phones in Japan. Please note that the information given here is intended as a guide only. We cannot be responsible for charges made by operators or rental companies. You will find that charges for using a mobile phone in Japan are expensive and this is especially the case for data (email and internet) - we recommend you turn off roaming on your mobile telephone to avoid a nasty surprise!
One great option is to hire a mobile phone in Japan:
The mobile network in Japan works on a different system to the rest of the world and until recently no overseas mobile phones would work. However, with the advent of 3G phones this has changed. The rule is basically this: If you have a 3G handset it will work. If you do not have a 3G handset it will not.
Be careful: If you ask your mobile provider they may inform you that your phone will work in Japan if it is tri-band or quad-band. It will not.
BLACKBERRY: If you have a 3G Blackberry it WILL work in Japan. If it is not 3G it will NOT work in Japan.
Please note: The main exception to the above is that some mobile phone contracts do NOT INCLUDE ROAMING. if your contract does not include roaming YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO USE IT IN JAPAN.
Another option is to hire a SIM card in Japan and put this into your own mobile phone which you have brought with you from home. Two companies offer this service, Softbank and Mobal Narita (only available at Tokyo Narita Airport). As of September 2010, Softbank is much cheaper for domestic calls within Japan (105 yen per minute). Calls to the US are 200 yen per minute and to the UK 250 yen. The Mobal Narita service is 240 yen for domestic and international calls. text message son MobalNarita are 140 yen each. For Softbank international SMS messages are 150 yen. Data charges (internet and e-mail) for both are very high. Your phone will need to be 'unlocked' in order to be able to use the SIM card.
Note that the SIM has to be returned and is not pre-pay. You will need to provide credit card details and will then be billed for usage.
Japan has quite strict rules about taking prescription drugs and medication into the country. Even some common cold remedies (see final paragraph) are not permitted so it is always worth checking prior to travelling. We advise contacting the Japan Embassy in your country for the latest information.
The information below is current as of Jan 2014 (UK Japan Embassy) and can be used as a general rule. However, if you are unsure it is always best to check.
You are permitted to take up to one month's supply of a prescribed drug and two months of an over the counter drug into Japan without obtaining prior permission. If your medication is prescribed, we advise that you take either a copy of the prescription or a letter from the doctor stating that the medication has been prescribed to you. It is also advisable to take the medication in the original packaging. If you are taking more than the quantities mentioned above, or if you need take needles, you will have to apply for an import certificate, known as a Yakkan Shoumei. Further information and the application forms, if needed, can be found on our website: www.uk.emb-japan.go.jp
Please note that there are a few exceptions to the above rule. Any medication containing pseudoephedrine (ie. Sudafed) is not permitted as this is a banned substance in Japan (under the anti-stimulant laws). If the medication contains a narcotic like codeine or morphine, then you will need to obtain a different certificate regardless of the quantity being taken into Japan.
The Japanese unit of currency is the Yen. There are 6 different denomination coins in circulation - 500, 100, 50, 10, 5 and 1 - and 4 different denomination notes - 10000, 5000, 2000 and 1000. These are all shown above.
The highest denomination note is the 10,000 yen note (Ichiman-en satsu in Japanese). Japan is still a cash based society and relatively safe, thus despite their high value you will see plenty of ichiman-en notes in circulation. The other notes are worth 5,000 yen, 2,000 yen and 1000 yen (sen-en satsu)
Although there are four different denomination bank notes you are unlikely to see any 2,000 yen notes unless you bring these with you to Japan. This bank note was introduced in 2000 to mark the new millennium. However, nearly all of these notes have since been distributed to overseas banks and only make their way back to Japan in the wallets of tourists. They are so unusual that shopkeepers are likely to remark on the note when you pay. We once had a taxi driver refuse to accept a 2,000 yen note because he didn't believe it was legal tender! Don't worry though, that is definitely not the norm!
As for coins, there are three silver coins: the 500 yen coin (not to be confused with a Korean coin of similar size but far less value), the 100 yen coin, and the 50 yen coin which has a hole through its centre. The 10 yen coin and 5 yen coin (again, with a hole in it) are both bronze; the almost worthless one yen coin is silver and weighs next to nothing.
The 500 yen coin (top left) is the highest value coin in general circulation anywhere in the world. You may come across 'One Coin' bars or pubs in Japan. Basically this means that everything costs 500 yen. These can be very good value so keep your eyes open.
The 5 yen coin is the only coin which does not have its value in displayed in Arabic Numbers on the coin (e.g. 1, 50, 100, 500). Instead it has the kanji character 'go' which means 5. The 5 yen coin is also considered lucky because in Japanese it is pronounced 'go en' which also means "good fortune"
The Japanese Yen continues to be the most volatile of the major currencies. Up until the financial crisis the yen had weakened over the proceeding 6 or 7 years to reach lows of an incredible 250 to the pound and 140 to the US dollar. For many years now money has been cheap to borrow in Japan, so huge volumes of yen were borrowed and then used to buy other currencies to invest in countries with higher yields. But with the financial crisis came the run for safety and as the yen is seen as a safe haven currency, huge flows of currency came back into yen and the currency gained in value dramatically hitting highs of 74 to the US dollar and 117 to the pound.
The following exchange rates were taken in December 2014:
1 Australian Dollar AUD = 98 yen
1 British Pound GBP = 185 yen
1 Canadian Dollar CAD = 103 yen
1 Euro EUR = 147 yen
1 United States Dollar USD 119 yen
These are market rates so the rates you get as a tourist are unfortunately likely to be a fair bit worse. Please do keep in mind that exchange rates can change, so we always advise checking for the latest rates.
You can change your money at the airport, at most banks and at post offices. They should have the current rates of exchange clearly on display. You'll need your passport handy when you want to change some money. You can get a cash advance on a Visa card at Sumitomo banks but these will not always be convenient and are not found outside of the major cities. You can use Visa and Mastercard cards to withdraw money at Post Office and 7-11 ATMs (see below).
How much money will I need in Japan? - Please head to our FAQs section for more advice.
Passports & Visas
This information is intended as a guide only, for official information please contact your nearest Japanese Embassy. An onward ticket is sometimes required in order to be allowed into the country. Your passport must be valid for the duration of your stay and it's always a good idea to make a photocopy of your passport in case you lose it.
Nationals of UK, Germany, Mexico, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Ireland - No Visa Required, maximum stay of 6 months (initially 3 months, then apply for extension)
Nationals Of other EU, Bahamas, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Hungary, Iceland, Malta, Mauritius, Singapore, Turkey - No Visa Required, maximum stay of 3 months
Nationals Of USA, Barbados, New Zealand - No Visa required, maximum stay of 90 days
Travellers Cheques can be exchanged at most major banks, larger hotels and some duty free shops. You may avoid some commission by using yen-denominated Travellers Cheques.
Please Note: When changing money in Japan you will get a significantly better rate if you exchange foreign currency traveller's cheques rather than foreign currency cash. For example, at Kansai Airport on 22nd March 2009 GBP traveller's cheques could be exchanged for £1 = 136 yen whereas the rate for cash was only 126 yen.
Credit and Debit Cards & ATMs
Credit cards and debit cards of the major issuers (Visa, Mastercard, Amex, JCB, Diners) are becoming increasingly accepted in the major cities. However they are not used as much as in western countries. At a supermarket there may only be one till where you can pay with plastic and more often than not you will not be able to use a credit card.
Avoid cash machines at banks as these do not normally accept foreign-issued cards. Instead use the Post Office cash machines or ATMs at branches of the Seven Eleven convenience store from which you will be able to take out money using Visa cards, Mastercard, Cirrus or Maestro. You will need a 4 digit PIN number to do this.
24hr credit card Emergency Numbers:
American Express: 0120 020 120
Mastercard: 03 3256 6271
Visa: 0120 133 1363
Be sure to take the phone number of your card issuer with you to Japan - if you have a problem with your card then most likely a quick call to your card issuer will solve it.
There are no personal cheques in Japan - mail order items and the like are often paid for by bank transfer.
Japan has an 8% consumer tax (included in most displayed prices) and some small local taxes for restaurant bills exceeding 5000 yen and hotel bills exceeding 10000 yen.
As a rule there is no tipping in Japan - just pay the price on the bill! There are many stories of unwitting foreigners leaving a tip on the table only to be pursued down the street upon leaving the restaurant by staff frantically trying to return the "forgotten" cash. In a top end restaurant this will not happen but there is certainly no requirement to leave a tip in Japan and it is not expected.
The same goes for taxis. There is no need to pay the driver more than the metered fare. However, if you wish to leave the change with the driver most will accept this. Some however, will not, and will return your money to you.
At hotels there is no need to tip the bellboy for helping you with your luggage. This is all part of the service and no tip is required.
If you utilise the services of a guide during your stay in Japan you are not expected to tip at the end of the day. However, instead of a tip a small gift from your home country is very much appreciated as a thank you. This should be no more than a token present such as a box of sweets or biscuits, or perhaps a tea towel. Anything from your local town or city will be very well received.
Occasions to tip
There are a couple of occasions when it is appropriate to tip. The first is when you stay at a high end ryokan. This only applies when meals are served in your room and the tip should only be a small amount left for the maids who will be serving your meals and laying out / putting away your futons. Unlike in the West where tips are given after the service is provided, you should tip your maid at the beginning of your stay. A suitable tip would be 1,000 yen per night of your stay and this needs to be left inside an envelope on the table in your room.
Never hand a cash tip to anyone in Japan as this is considered rather uncouth. The money should always be hidden from view in an envelope. Fortunately, every convenience store sells a range of envelopes suitable for this purpose. Just don't pick the fancy envelopes with gold or black ribbons - these are for weddings and funerals respectively!
The second occasion when a tip is appropriate is if you use the services of a driver for a day. Again the tip should be given at the start of the day. A suitable figure would be 1,000 yen for a half day and 2,000 yen for a full day. This should be given to the driver in an envelope. As you hand over the money you should say "yo-ro-shi-ku one-gai-shi-masu" which literally means "please favour me' - exactly what you are hoping for!
Japan has a number of companies that offer excellent luggage forwarding services - referred to as takuhaibin in Japanese. You can send your bags onwards to a hotel or any of Japan's 17 main airports. This is common practice in Japan so hotels will be more than happy to hold your bags until you arrive. If you are sending bags to an airport allow a little extra time to pick them up. Don't forget to keep your receipt to prove which bags are yours!
You can send your bags from most convenience stores and some hotel lobbies. Use the Japanese addresses in your info-pack to help and ask the shop / hotel staff to fill out the forms for you.
The most widespread company is Yamato Transport, commonly known by the nickname kuroneko (black cat). Look for the famous logo (shown above):
The service is very affordable and extremely reliable. A large suitcase will cost no more than 1,850 yen to forward anywhere in the country and is likely to be considerably less. You will pay more for two small bags than one large bag so consider this when packing for your Japan vacation - one large bag and one overnight bag is the way to go.
Do be careful when sending bags to more remote areas of the country as this is a two day service not an overnight one. Destinations with two day delivery period include Hokkaido, Okinawa and more remote regions of Kyushu and Shikoku. If in doubt ask when you are sending your bags as the person assisting you will have the delivery times to hand.
Always allow two days for delivery if sending your bags to the airport. Otherwise you may turn up and find your bag is not there to fly home with you!
Health & Safety
Although Japan is a clean and relatively safe country it is always advisable to take out Travel Insurance for the duration of your stay.
Come to Japan in the summer or autumn and you will, unfortunately, meet some mosquitoes. You can cheaply buy various repellent sprays and creams in Japan or you may wish to bring some from home.
You can also get electric repellent devices for your room - most rooms have air-conditioning however, so the best thing is simply to shut the windows. If you think you will have a particularly bad reaction then it may be best to cover up, especially in the evenings.
Malaria is not endemic in Japan so there is no need to take any tablets.
Food and drink are generally considered safe but there is a small risk of parasitic infection and toxins from raw seafood.
Police: dial 110 Fire / Ambulance: dial 119
You should be able to make yourself understood in simple English.
Japan Helpline: 0120 461 997 (for emergency advice in English 24hrs)
The Japan Helpline service is Japan's only 24 hour nationwide assistance service for the international community. From earthquakes to toothache they can be of assistance.
For people travelling on an InsideJapan Tours package you will also have the full back up of our support team in our Nagoya office. They are there to assist whatever issues you may encounter.