Top 15 Questions About Coming To Japan
Popular questions I have been asked after living in Japan for 15 years.
Traveling, in general, is a fun but stressful activity. Planning locations, booking hotels and flights, and creating an itinerary is already enough to keep you busy. But on top of that, when coming to Japan you have the added stress of the language barrier.
Lots of things in Japan are very different from other countries so knowing what is and isn’t ok can be tough. A different set of customs, practices, and ways of thinking makes it hard for travelers to know exactly what to expect.
Having lived, worked, and traveled in Japan for 15 years, I can be your spiritual, motivational, and planning guide. There are many travel guides and tourist information but in this article, I want to answer the most popular questions people have about coming to Japan!
1. Do I need to speak Japanese?
The answer is yes and no. If you are coming to Japan for a couple of weeks and plan to visit popular tourist destinations like Tokyo’s Asakusa, Skytree, Shibuya, or Shinjuku then you don’t need Japanese.
Places where tourists flock like Nara, Kyoto, Osaka, Yokohama, Mt.Fuji, or Kamakura, all have tons of English signs, guidance, and most staff speak enough English to get by. Hotels, restaurants, shops, and tourist attractions will most likely have English, Chinese, or Korean-speaking staff on hand. If you speak a different language it might be more difficult to get around.
For a short visit to Japan though, it’s always good to learn some basic phrases. Here are some that might come in handy:
Arigato gozaimasu Thank you
Sumimasen Excuse me/Sorry
Tokyo eki wa Doko desu ka Where is Tokyo station?
Ikura desu ka? How much?
If you are coming to Japan for a longer period of time, plan to visit places that are off the beaten path, and hope to either travel with or befriend Japanese people then you need to learn some Japanese.
Especially prefectures that are not major tourist destinations like places in the north like Akita, Iwate, or Hokkaido. Or lesser-known areas like Wakayama, Miyazaki in Kyushu, Mie, or Gifu in Central Japan.
In these places, even at the tourist areas, you will find not many people speak English. Luckily there are more and more English signs and translation guides as tourism increases but for face-to-face, English will be rare. So any Japanese language you can learn before arriving will go a long way.
2. Is it safe?
I will say yes because crime, specifically crime relating to tourists like theft, violent attacks, or scamming is extremely rare. As long as you are not walking around at night in the middle of the red light district with your wallet hanging out of your pants, you will be fine.
That being said, always be extra careful at tourist destinations where there are many crowds like Asakusa or Harajuku.
In the media, you will hear many stories of people dropping their wallets or leaving their phone or camera on a train and having it found and returned. That is true and it does happen but in big city areas like Shibuya and Shinjuku, it might not be the case.
In my years in Japan, I have never had anything stolen and have never had any kind of crime take place in front of me. I have seen some fights break out at clubs or on drinking streets at night, but I have never seen anything that would be considered dangerous to tourists or foreigners in general.
I think compared to other countries and even compared to other parts of Asia, Japan will probably be THE safest and tame place you visit.
3. How much money should I bring?
This is a difficult question because it really depends on what you want to do and how much of a BOSS you wanna be while doing it. Flights to Japan tend to be between $500 to 1500 US for economy seats depending on where you are coming from.
Hotels depending on location and size can be as cheap as $30 a night at hostels, capsule hotels, or business hotels to $3000 dollars a night at brand-name hotel chains or elegant Japanese-style ryokans.
If you are traveling as a backpacker, you can do buses or local trains to locations across Japan or get a Japan Rail Pass that includes trains and bullet trains for quite cheap. Or you could do taxis, Ubers, or high-class trains which will run you a lot of money.
You could dine at expensive restaurants that serve both western-style and authentic Japanese cuisine like sushi or Wagyu beef for hundreds of dollars. Alternatively, you can enjoy Japanese spots like Yoshinoya, izakayas like Torikizoku, or local mom-and-pop ramen noodles and yakitori food stands for less than $10 dollars.
I would say, you should expect to spend about 10,000 yen or $100 dollars a day for food, shopping, and attractions. But, if you visit places like Tokyo Disneyland, Skytree, or Universal Studios Japan, expect to spend a lot.
Fortunately, visiting places like Asakusa, Kamakura, Yoyogi Park, and the temples of Kyoto, you can get away with spending a lot less as the entrance is free or pretty cheap.
4. Are the trains buses 24 hours?
You would think places like Tokyo which is the most populated city in the world and has many bars, restaurants, clubs, hostess clubs, and nightlife would have a 24-hour train system.
But even in big cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and Nagoya, the trains and buses usually stop service around midnight. The more cosmopolitan the area the later the trains run but be prepared to leave by midnight or spend the entire night out until trains open at 5 or 6 am.
And if you are not in these busy night zones then most train and bus service ends around 11 pm or even earlier. Especially in small towns that don’t have a subway system, you will find buses are done by 9 pm and trains only leave once an hour until 10 pm.
So if you are planning to leave the cities, either joining a tour group or renting a car is your best bet. Rental cars are pretty cheap and there are many companies that provide English guidance as well like Times, Orix, Rakuten, and Toyota.
5. Is it hard to get around?
The answer is no. It’s not hard at all. Of course, after being here for so many years and knowing Japanese it is quite easy. But remembering my first year in Japan where I spoke zero Japanese, I still found it quite simple.
All the maps, signs, and stations are labeled with Japanese and English writing and most signs have English. The trains usually announce in English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean as well.
And with apps like Google Maps, Hyperdia, Navitime, and Yahoo Travel, you can get perfect, on-time, directions and prices in English. I also highly recommend a Suica or Passmo card which is a rechargeable card that allows you to pay for train, bus, subway, and other train lines all with the same card.
Along with using these cards easily by swiping them when entering public transportation, you can also use the card to buy things from vending machines or convenience stores as well.
You should have no trouble finding train times and routes even if you can’t speak Japanese.
6. Do I need a tour guide or translator?
I would say unlike other Asian countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, or Thailand where a guide comes in really handy to ensure you don’t get lost, cheated, or scammed, Japan is quite easy to navigate and safe for foreigners to go out on their own.
But if you are looking to go somewhere and want a more detailed explanation of the history or culture then maybe hiring a day guide is a good idea.
Japanese tour guides who are knowledgeable about Japanese history, culture, and things like tea ceremonies and kimono dressing can often give foreigners a deeper dive into places like Kyoto, Kamakura, or other places filled with traditional architecture, temples, and history.
Those who are into manga, anime, cosplay, and other subcultures also can join walking tours of places like Akihabara or Nakano Broadway which help foreigners get a better look at the otaku world of Japan.
It really depends on how deep you want to get into the culture and if you feel more comfortable having someone familiar with places showing you around. Those who like to explore on their own can definitely do it safely and easily without a local guide.
7. Are people kind to tourists?
I will say 98% of the time Japanese will be kind to tourists. And even when they don’t like you they will be kind! It’s something called honne-tatte-mae, which means true feelings vs surface expression. The fake smile or the mask of politeness.
It’s in the culture to respect and be polite to people, especially if they are your guests or customers. You will most likely have the best service you have ever had in your life when at a Japanese restaurant, hotel, shop, or attraction. Even on the street, people will be polite and do their best to make your time in Japan positive.
But of course, you will always have some people in any society that are just nasty to everyone and they might go out of their way to hate. Usually, they are drunk. Racism and bigotry are universal so there will be those who look down on you, avoid you, or try to make you feel small.
Honestly, I have had only a hand full of those experiences in my years here so I wouldn’t worry too much. And in big cities, people are used to tourists so might ignore you or avoid you but in small towns and less touristy places people will most likely look at you in awe and go out of their way to help you.
8. Are foreigners banned from some places?
I have only heard of a few places that do not allow foreigners. And most of them involve red-light activities like brothels, soaplands, and certain host or hostess bars. Even despite that, there are foreign-friendly versions of those places instead.
In terms of regular places like restaurants, shops, tourist destinations, or other places, there is no Japanese-only system. I have heard of some shops or restaurants that have a sign that says no foreigners allowed but those quickly go out of business or change because of backlash.
Some places might be hesitant to serve because of language issues but I have never really been refused service anywhere because I wasn’t Japanese. That being said, I haven’t experienced it but I have heard of some places not allowing foreigners unless they are accompanied by a Japanese person.
Also, some places because of the COVID-19 pandemic, have banned foreigners because they think foreigners bring the disease with them. Those establishments are not popular, are not particularly special, and should be avoided even if they were forced to allow you to enter.
There are much better alternatives to those places so you should not feel like you are missing out on anything.
9. Is prostitution legal?
Actual penetration is illegal. But anything and everything beyond pure penetration is legal. You will find in the red-light districts, booths, or shops where guys are trying to get people to come in and offer you these prostitutes known as delivery health.
The shop is filled with a list of all the naughty things available in the red light district. And depending on your tastes, you get sent to a shop and they get a commission for sending you there.
If you have a fetish, most likely there is a shop that will fulfill it. These places might not refuse foreigners but definitely only speak Japanese so unless you are fluent in Japanese, you should probably avoid these shops.
Also, walking around in the city as a male or a group of males, you might be approached by women who offer massages. These are anything from “special massages” to sexual intercourse. Most of these women are Asian women who are working illegally in Japan.
10. Is Japan vegan-friendly?
Five years ago I would have said not really. All the restaurants serve meat and seafood and even the vegetarian dishes used to contain some kind of seafood or animal product.
But recently, just like in many other countries, many people have switched to the vegan diet and young people especially, love eating vegetarian and vegan food. Many restaurants now include gluten-free, vegan, and organic menu options, with entire restaurants that are 100% devoted to vegan-friendly dining.
These places though are only available in big cities in Japan. Most big cities will have many vegan options but if you go to smaller towns around Japan, be prepared to find restaurants that only serve meat, seafood, and Japanese food.
You can still end up eating vegetarian dishes but it will be harder to find and you may end up just having to survive on tofu, salad, and edamame depending on how strict your diet is.
11. Is Japan gay-friendly?
I would say not really. But things are changing. Slowly.
From Japanese media and TV, you might think Japan is very accepting of LGBTQ as there are many celebrities that are gay or trans who are quite popular in Japan. But, in regular society, being gay, lesbian, or transgender is still very taboo and most people are not out of the closet.
However, there is a gay pride parade in Tokyo now and a lot of same-sex couples feel much more comfortable out in public. Same-sex marriage is still not legal in Japan although the government now issues same-sex partnership certificates which are kind of like marriage certificates.
Also, many places that used to discriminate like love hotels now allow same-sex couples. I would say it’s not gay friendly but tolerant and it’s slowly on the way to becoming accepting.
12. Will tattoos be a problem?
Tattoos will not be a problem out and about. Especially if you are in tourist areas, big cities, and don’t look Asian. Tattoos are usually a sign of Yakuza so if you don’t look Japanese, most people will know that you are just a foreigner with tattoos.
Some places like beaches, amusement parks, water parks, and hot springs do have signs that say no tattoos but these places are quickly changing. Even Japanese young people have tattoos and it’s becoming more acceptable in many places.
Places that still don’t allow tattoos like hot springs, gyms, or swimming pools, do allow people with tattoos to enter if they use some sort of adhesive tape to cover them up.
13. Do I have to use chopsticks?
No. Most places provide spoons and forks as well so you will never be forced to use chopsticks. Possibly there might be small food stands or ramen shops with only chopsticks but generally, most restaurants have other cutlery.
And if you are really paranoid you can always bring a portable fork and spoon set like the ones sold at dollar stores. Or just pick some up at a Japanese 100 yen shop. You won’t be disrespecting anyone or angering anyone by not using chopsticks.
If you do end up using chopsticks though, Japanese people will be impressed and it will go a long way to making a friendly bond with local Japanese people.
14. Are drugs ok?
This is easy. NO.
Any hard drugs and even weed is illegal in Japan and very strictly enforced. If you try to bring any illegal drugs into Japan, you will most likely be arrested, jailed, and deported so I advise hold off on your cravings till you get back home.
But once in Japan, marijuana and other drugs are becoming popular and more widely available but I would still not seek them out or take part while here. If you get caught, you will be jailed and held until the police decide to deport you. You will also be banned from ever coming into the country again.
Furthermore, some drugs that are legal in your country like Adderall, cold medication like Sudafed, or codeine, are also illegal so be careful. My suggestion is if you do take some sort of prescription drug, check the list of medications that are allowed and not allowed in Japan on the Ministry of Health Website.
15. What is the best season to go?
Every season has its own good and bad. Here is what to expect and you can decide which season appeals to you.
- Very hot and humid
- Rainy season in June
- Obon holidays, so crowded in August and prices are high
- Many fireworks and Japanese festivals take place in the summer
- Sakura season for cherry blossom tree viewing and parties
- Rainy in April and May
- Comfortable weather as it is not hot or cold
- Doesn’t snow much except in the North
- Hokkaido Snow Festival
- Winter sports popular in North Japan
- Christmas events and pretty light displays
- Very popular for leaf color changing viewing
- A good temperature for outdoor tourism
- Rainy and typhoon season in October
- Halloween parties and parades with amazing cosplay
Hopefully, that answered your questions. I am sure there are plenty of other questions you have about the people, food, culture, and customs but as a guest in Japan, you will find that Japanese people are friendly and willing to forgive small mistakes. They are also happy to share their culture with you and help you enjoy your stay in Japan.
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