Costs

Despite its reputation as being an outrageously expensive country, prices in Japan have dropped, or at least stabilized, in recent years. With a little planning, it is a manageable destination even for those on an absolute minimum daily budget of ¥5000–10,000. By the time you’ve added in some transport costs, a few entry tickets, meals in classier restaurants and one or two nights in a ryokan or business hotel, ¥10,000–15,000 per day is more realistic.

If you plan to travel around the country, it’s a good idea to buy a Japan Rail Pass before departure, though it’s also worth investigating special deals on internal flights. Within the country, all sorts of discount fares and excursion tickets are available, while overnight ferries and buses are an economical way of getting around.

Holders of the International Student Identity Card (ISIC; isiccard.com) are eligible for discounts on some transport and admission fees, as are children. A Hostelling International card (hihostels.com) qualifies you for a reduction of ¥600 on the rates of official youth hostels, though these days most of the best are privately run.

It’s also worth checking JNTO’s website (jnto.go.jp) for further tips on how to save money. Welcome Card schemes, for example, operate in some areas of the country, which entitle you to discounts at certain museums, sights, shops, restaurants and transport services. At the time of writing, there were ten Welcome Card schemes in operation, including in the Tohoku area and the Tokyo museum pass.

Crime and personal safety

Japan boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Nonetheless, it always pays to be careful in crowds and to keep money and important documents stowed in an inside pocket or money belt, or in your hotel safe.

The presence of police boxes (kōban) in every neighbourhood helps to discourage petty crime, and the local police seem to spend the majority of their time dealing with stolen bikes (bicycle theft is rife) and helping people find addresses. This benevolent image is misleading, however, as the Japanese police are notorious for forcing confessions and holding suspects for weeks without access to a lawyer. Amnesty International have consistently criticized Japan for its treatment of illegal immigrants and other foreigners held in jail.

It’s best to carry your passport or ID at all times; the police have the right to arrest anyone who fails to do so. In practice, however, they rarely stop foreigners. If you’re found without your ID, the usual procedure is to escort you back to your hotel or apartment to collect it. Anyone found taking drugs will be treated less leniently; if you’re lucky, you’ll simply be fined and deported, rather than sent to prison.

The generally low status of women in Japan is reflected in the amount of groping that goes on in crowded commuter trains – there are even pornographic films and comics aimed at gropers. If you do have the misfortune to be groped, the best solution is to grab the offending hand, yank it high in the air and embarrass the guy as much as possible. More violent sexual abuse is rare, though harassment, stalking and rape are seriously under-reported. Women should exercise the same caution about being alone with a man as they would anywhere. Violent crimes against women are rare, but they do occur.

In emergencies, phone 110 for the police or 119 for an ambulance or fire engine. You can call these numbers free from any public phone by pressing the red button before dialling. If possible, ask someone to call for you, since few police speak English, though Tokyo Metropolitan Police do run an English-language hotline on 03 3501 0110 (Mon–Fri 8.30am–5.15pm). Two other useful options are Tokyo English Language Lifeline (TELL; 03 5774 0992, telljp.com; daily 9am–11pm) and Japan Helpline (0570 000 911, jhelp.com; 24hr).

Each prefecture also has a Foreign Advisory Service, with a variety of foreign-language speakers who can be contacted as a last resort (see individual region or city Directory sections for details).

Earthquakes

Japan is home to one-tenth of the world’s active volcanoes; it’s also the site of one-tenth of the planet’s major earthquakes (over magnitude 7 on the Richter scale). At least one quake is recorded every day somewhere in the country, though fortunately the vast majority consist of minor tremors that you probably won’t even notice. One that the whole world noticed occurred off the country’s east coast in March 2011 (see Tōhoku earthquake). The fifth most-powerful earthquake in recorded history, it unleashed a tsunami of prodigious force; the combined effect killed almost 16,000 people, and caused a meltdown at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, where the effects will be felt for decades. Do note, however, that since the 1980s, buildings have been designed to withstand even the most powerful ‘quakes. Tokyo is equipped with some of the world’s most sophisticated sensors, and architects employ mind-boggling techniques to try to ensure the city’s new high-rises remain upright.

Nevertheless, earthquakes are notoriously difficult to predict, and it’s worth taking note of a few basic safety procedures. Aftershocks may go on for a long time, and can topple structures that are already weakened. That said, most casualties are caused by fire and traffic accidents, rather than collapsing buildings.

Electricity

The electrical current is 100v, 50Hz AC in Japan east of Mt Fuji, including Tokyo; and 100v, 60Hz AC in western Japan, including Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka. Japanese plugs have either two flat pins or, less commonly, three pins (two flat and one rounded, earth pin). If you are coming from North America, Canada, the UK or Europe, the voltage difference should cause no problems with computers, digital cameras, cell phones and the like, most of which can handle between 100V and 240V. Larger appliances such as hairdryers, curling irons and travel kettles should work, but not quite as efficiently, in which case you may need a converter. And, while Japanese plugs look identical to North American plugs, there are subtle differences, so you may also need an adaptor; you certainly will if coming from the UK or Europe.

Entry requirements

All visitors must have a passport valid for the duration of their stay. Citizens of Ireland, the UK and certain other European countries can stay for up to ninety days without a visa, providing they are visiting Japan for tourism or business purposes. This stay can be extended for another three months (see Japanese embassies and consulates). Citizens of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US can also stay for up to ninety days without a visa, though this is not extendable and you are required to be in possession of a return air ticket. Anyone from these countries wishing to stay longer will have to leave Japan and then re-enter.

Citizens of certain other countries must apply for a visa in advance in their own country. Visas are usually free, though in certain circumstances you may be charged a fee of around ¥3000 for a single-entry visa. The rules on visas change from time to time, so check first with the nearest Japanese embassy or consulate, or on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website (mofa.go.jp).

If eligible for a visa extension, you’ll need to fill in two copies of an “Application for Extension of Stay”, available from immigration bureaus (see individual city Directory sections for details). These must be returned along with passport photos, a letter explaining your reasons for wanting to extend your stay, and a fee of ¥4000. In addition, you may be asked to show proof of sufficient funds to support your stay, and a valid onward ticket out of the country. If you’re not a national of one of the few countries with six-month reciprocal visa exemptions (these include Ireland and the UK), expect a thorough grilling from the immigration officials. An easier option – and the only alternative available to nationals of those countries who are not eligible for an extension – is a short trip out of the country, say to South Korea or Hong Kong, though you’ll still have to run the gauntlet of immigration officials on your return.

Citizens of the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, France, Germany, Denmark, Taiwan and Hong Kong aged between 18 and 30 can apply for a working holiday visa, which grants a stay of up to one year and entitles the holder to take paid employment as long as your stay is “primarily deemed to be a holiday” – full details of the scheme can be found at tinyurl.com/c2zwhx.

British nationals are also eligible for the volunteer visa scheme, which allows holders to undertake voluntary work for charitable organizations in Japan for up to one year. Your application must include a letter from the host organization confirming details of the voluntary work to be undertaken and the treatment the volunteer will receive (pocket money and board and lodging are allowed, but formal remuneration is not). You must also be able to show evidence of sufficient funds for your stay in Japan.

Foreigners staying in Japan for more than ninety days must obtain a Residence Card (在留カード, Zairyū Kādo), which you can apply for at an immigration bureau (see individual city Directory sections for details). The card includes your photograph and must be carried at all times. In addition, if you’re on any sort of working visa and you leave Japan temporarily, you must get a re-entry visa before you leave if you wish to continue working on your return. Re-entry visas are available from local immigration bureaus.

Japanese embassies and consulates

You’ll find a full list of embassies and consulates on www.mofa.go.jp/about.

Australia 112 Empire Circuit, Yarralumla, Canberra (02 6273 3244, www.au.emb-japan.go.jp); 17th Floor, Comalco Place, 12 Creek St, Brisbane (07 3221 5188, www.brisbane.au.emb-japan.go.jp); Level 15, Cairns Corporate Tower, 15 Lake St, Cairns (07 4051 5177); 45F Melbourne Central Tower, 360 Elizabeth St, Melbourne (03 9639 3244); 21F The Forrest Centre, 221 St George’s Terrace, Perth (08 9480 1800); Level 34, Colonial Centre, 52 Martin Place, Sydney (02 9231 3455).

Canada 255 Sussex Drive, Ottawa (613 241 8541, www.ca.emb-japan.go.jp); 2300 Trans Canada Tower, 450-1st Street SW, Calgary (403 294 0782); 600 Rue de la Gauchetière West, Suite 2120, Montreal (514 866 3429); Suite 3300, Royal Trust Tower, 77 King St West, Toronto (416 363 7038); 900-1177 West Hastings St, Vancouver (604 684 5868).

China 7 Ri Tan Rd, Jian Guo Men Wai, Beijing (010 6532 2361, www.cn.emb-japan.go.jp); 37F Metropolitan Tower, 68 Zourong Rd, Central District, Chongqing (023 6373 3585); Garden Tower, 368 Huanshi Dong Lu, Guangzhou (020 8334 3009); 46–47F One Exchange Square, 8 Connaught Place, Central, Hong Kong (2522 1184, www.hk.emb-japan.go.jp); 8 Wan Shan Rd, Shanghai (021 5257 4766).

Ireland Nutley Building, Merrion Centre, Nutley Lane, Dublin (1 202 8300, www.ie.emb-japan.go.jp).

New Zealand Level 18, Majestic Centre, 100 Willis St, Wellington (04 473 1540, www.nz.emb-japan.go.jp); Level 12, ASB Bank Centre, 135 Albert St, Auckland (09 303 4106); Level 5, Forsyth Barr House, 764 Colombo St, Christchurch (03 366 5680).

South Africa 259 Baines St, Groenkloof, Pretoria (012 452 1500, www.za.emb-japan.go.jp); 2100 Main Tower, Standard Bank Center, Heerengracht, Cape Town (021 425 1693).

South Korea18-11 Junghak-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul (02 2170 5200, www.kr.emb-japan.go.jp); 1147-11, Choryang-3-dong, Dong-ku, Busan (051 465 5101).

UK 101–104 Piccadilly, London (020 7465 6500, www.uk.emb-japan.go.jp); 2 Melville Crescent, Edinburgh (0131 225 4777, www.edinburgh.uk.emb-japan.go.jp).

US 2520 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC (202 238 6700, www.us.emb-japan.go.jp); One Alliance Center, Suite 1600, 3500 Lenox Rd, Atlanta (404 240 4300); Federal Reserve Plaza, 14th Floor, 600 Atlantic Ave, Boston (617 973 9774); Olympia Centre, Suite 1100, 737 North Michigan Ave, Chicago (312 280 0400); 1225 17th Street, Suite 3000, Denver (303 534 1151); 1742 Nuuanu Ave, Honolulu (808 543 3111); 2 Houston Center, 909 Fannin, Suite 3000, Houston (713 652 2977); 350 South Grand Ave, Suite 1700, Los Angeles (213 617 6700); Brickell Bay View Centre, Suite 3200, 80 SW 8th St, Miami (305 530 9090); 299 Park Ave, New York (212 371 8222); 50 Fremont St, Suite 2300, San Francisco (415 777 3533); 601 Union St, Suite 500, Seattle (206 682 9107).

Gay and lesbian travellers

Homosexual travellers should encounter few problems in Japan – it’s highly unlikely for eyebrows to be raised if a same-sex couple check into the same room, for example. There are no laws against homosexual activity, though it can hardly be said Japan is an out-and-proud gay-supporting nation. Marriage remains an almost essential step on the career ladder at many corporations, and such expectations keep many Japanese gays in the closet, often leading double lives; outside the main cities, the gay scene is all but invisible. That said, in recent times, homosexuality and other alternative forms of sexuality have become more acceptable and there are a few openly gay public figures (although mainly media celebrities).

Useful online English sources of information on the city’s gay life include Fridae (fridae.com); GayNet Japan (gnj.or.jp); Utopia (utopia-asia.com); and the tri-lingual lesbian-focused Tokyo Wrestling (tokyowrestling.com).

Health

Japan has high standards of health and hygiene, and there are no significant diseases worth worrying about. There are no immunizations or health certificates needed to enter the country.

Medical treatment and drugs are of a high quality, but can be expensive – if possible you should bring any medicines you might need with you, especially prescription drugs. Also bring a copy of your prescription and make sure you know what the generic name of the drug is, rather than its brand name. Some common drugs widely available throughout the US and Europe are generally not available in Japan. The contraceptive pill is available, but only on prescription.

Although mosquitoes buzz across Japan in the warmer months, malaria is not endemic, so there’s no need to take any tablets. It’s a good idea to pack mosquito repellent, however, and to burn coils in your room at night, or to use a plug-in repellent.

Tap water is safe to drink throughout Japan, but you should avoid drinking directly from streams or rivers. It’s also not a good idea to walk barefoot through flooded paddy fields, due to the danger of water-borne parasites. Food-wise, you should have no fears about eating raw seafood or sea fish, including the notorious fugu (blowfish). However, raw meat and river fish are best avoided.

In the case of an emergency, the first port of call should be to ask your hotel to phone for a doctor or ambulance. You could also head for, or call, the nearest tourist information office or international centre (in major cities only), which should be able to provide a list of local doctors and hospitals with English-speaking staff. Alternatively, you could call the toll-free 24-hour Japan Helpline (0570 000 911, jhelp.com) or, in a last resort, contact the Prefecture’s Foreign Advisory Service.

If you need to call an ambulance on your own, dial 119 and speak slowly when you’re asked to give an address. Ambulance staff are not trained paramedics, but will take you to the nearest appropriate hospital. Unless you’re dangerously ill when you go to hospital, you’ll have to wait your turn in a clinic before you see a doctor, and you’ll need to be persistent if you want to get full details of your condition: some doctors are notorious for withholding information from patients.

For minor ailments and advice, you can go to a pharmacy, which you’ll find in most shopping areas. There are also numerous smaller private clinics, where you’ll pay in the region of ¥10,000 to see a doctor. You could also try Asian medical remedies, such as acupuncture (hari) and pressure point massage (shiatsu), though it’s worth trying to get a personal recommendation to find a reputable practitioner.

Insurance

It’s essential to take out a good travel insurance policy, particularly one with comprehensive medical coverage, due to the high cost of hospital treatment in Japan.

Internet

Many visitors soon realize that Japan doesn’t quite live up to its tech-savvy reputation – some locals are still surprised to hear that one can book flights or tickets online. Some local websites are laughably bad – with italicized Times New Roman fonts and copious Clipart characters, many seem to have been ported directly from the mid-1990s. However, things are finally starting to improve, and wi-fi access is becoming more widespread; most big-city cafés offer it for free, though at some you have to register (often elsewhere, on another wi-fi connection, which is rather inconvenient; Starbucks, take a bow). In addition, it’s par for the course at privately run hostels, though at hotels you still can’t be sure – and, at the top end, you may well have to pay a daily fee (typically ¥1000). More offer free broadband in the rooms and should be able to supply a cable if necessary. Others may provide at least one terminal for guests travelling without their own computer, generally also for free.

Cybercafés can be found across Japan, often as part of a 24-hour computer-game and manga centre. Free access is sometimes available (usually in cultural exchange centres, or regular cafés looking to boost business); otherwise, expect to pay around ¥200–400 per hour. Cybercafés come and go fairly swiftly, although the copyshop Kinko’s is pretty reliable and has branches (some 24hr) across Japan; check kinkos.co.jp to find the one nearest you. Also see the Directory sections of town and city accounts in the Guide for internet availability.

Laundry

All hotels provide either a laundry service or, at the lower end, coin-operated machines. These typically cost ¥100–300 for a wash (powder ¥30–50) and ¥100 for ten minutes in the drier. You’ll also find coin-operated laundries (koin randorii) in nearly all Japanese neighbourhoods, often open long hours. Virtually all Japanese washing machines use cold water.

Living in Japan

Overall employment opportunities for foreigners have shrunk since the Japanese economy took a nosedive in the early 1990s, though finding employment is far from impossible, especially if you have the right qualifications (a degree is essential) and appropriate visa. In fact, the number of well-qualified, Japanese-speaking gaijin in the country employed in specialist jobs has increased over the last decade.

Working holiday visas, for which you don’t need a job in advance, are available to citizens of a handful of countries. All other foreigners must have sponsorship papers from a prospective employer in place before applying for a work visa, which need not be obtained in your home country (but must be applied for outside of Japan). A few employers may be willing to hire you before the proper papers are sorted out, but you shouldn’t rely on this, and if you arrive without a job make sure you have plenty of funds to live on until you find one. Anyone staying in Japan more than ninety days must also apply for a Residence Card.

The most common job available to foreigners is teaching English. Some of the smaller schools are far from professional operations (and even the biggies get lots of complaints), so before signing any contract, it’s a good idea to talk to other teachers and, if possible, attend a class and find out what will be expected of you. If you have a professional teaching qualification, plus experience, or if you also speak another language such as French or Italian, your chances of getting one of the better jobs will be higher.

Another option is to get a place on the government-run Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET; jetprogramme.org), aimed at improving foreign-language teaching in schools and promoting international understanding. The scheme is open to graduates aged under 40, preferably holding some sort of language-teaching qualification. Benefits include a generous salary, help with accommodation, return air travel to Japan and paid holidays. Applying for the JET programme is a lengthy process for which you need to be well prepared. Application forms for the following year’s quota are available from late September, the deadline for submission being early December. Interviews are held in January and February, with decisions made in March. After health checks and orientation meetings, JETs head off to their posts in late July on year-long contracts, which can be renewed for up to two more years by mutual consent. JET also offer some local government positions to Japanese-speaking foreigners.

A much more limited job option for gaijin is rewriting or editing English translations of Japanese text for technical documents, manuals, magazines and so on. For such jobs, it’s a great help if you know at least a little Japanese. These days, there are also good opportunities for gaijin with ski instructor or adventure sports experience to work on the ski slopes, particularly in resorts such as Niseko, Furano and Hakuba which target overseas visitors. Other options include modelling, for which it will be an asset to have a professional portfolio of photographs, and bar work and hostessing, with the usual warnings about the dangers inherent in this type of work. Whatever work you’re looking for – or if you’re doing any sort of business in Japan – a smart set of clothes will give you an advantage, as will following other general rules of social etiquette.

Apart from the websites listed Employment resources, the main places to look for job adverts are the free weekly magazines Metropolis and Tokyo Notice Board.

Employment resources

GaijinPot gaijinpot.com. Classifieds focused on English-language teaching.

Japan Association for Working Holiday Makers jawhm.or.jp. Job referrals for people on working holiday visas.

Jobs in Japan jobsinjapan.com. Broad range of classified ads.

Work in Japan daijob.com/wij. Japan’s largest bilingual jobs website.

WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) wwoofjapan.com. Opportunities to work and live on organic farms across Japan, plus a few hotels and resorts.

Studying Japanese language and culture

There are all sorts of opportunities to study Japanese language and culture. In order to get a student or cultural visa, you’ll need various documents from the institution where you plan to study and proof that you have sufficient funds to support yourself, among other things. Full-time courses are expensive, but once you have your visa, you may be allowed to undertake a minimal amount of paid work.

Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT; mext.go.jp) offers various scholarships to foreign students wishing to further their knowledge of Japanese or Japanese studies, undertake an undergraduate degree, or become a research student at a Japanese university. You’ll find further information on the informative Study in Japan website (w studyjapan.go.jp), run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or by contacting your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate.

Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and other major cities have numerous Japanese language schools offering intensive and part-time courses. Among the most established are Berlitz (berlitz.co.jp), with branches nationwide, and Tokyo Kogakuin Japanese Language School (technos-jpschool.ac.jp). The monthly bilingual magazine Hiragana Times (hiraganatimes.com) and the listings magazines Metropolis and Tokyo Journal also carry adverts for schools, or check out the Association for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education (nisshinkyo.org), whose website lists accredited institutions.

Mail

Japan’s mail service is highly efficient and fast, with post offices (yūbinkyoku) all over the country, easily identified by their red-and-white signs – a T with a parallel bar across the top, the same symbol that you’ll find on the red letterboxes. All post can be addressed in Western script (rōmaji), provided it’s clearly printed.

In urban post offices there are separate counters, with English signs, for postal and banking services; in central post offices you can also exchange money at rates comparable to those in banks. If you need to send bulkier items or parcels back home, you can get reasonably priced special envelopes and boxes for packaging from any post office. The maximum weight for an overseas parcel is 30kg (less for some destinations). A good compromise between expensive airmail and slow sea mail is Surface Air Lifted (SAL) mail, which takes around three weeks to reach most destinations, and costs somewhere between the two. For English-language information about postal services, including postal fees, see the Post Office website post.japanpost.jp.

Central post offices generally open Monday–Friday 9am–7pm, Saturday 9am–5pm and Sunday 9am–12.30pm, with most other branches opening Monday–Friday 9am–5pm only. A few larger branches may also open on a Saturday from 9am to 3pm, and may operate after-hours services for parcels and express mail. Major post offices that are open daily 24 hours can be found in Shinjuku (see map) and Shibuya (see map) among other city areas. For sending parcels and baggage around Japan, take advantage of the excellent, inexpensive takuhaibin (or takkyūbin, as it’s more commonly known) or courier delivery services, which can be arranged at most convenience stores, hotels and some youth hostels. These services – which typically cost under ¥2000 – are especially handy if you want to send luggage (usually up to 20kg) on to places where you’ll be staying later in your journey or to the airport to be picked up prior to your departure.

Maps

The Japan National Tourist Organization publishes tourist maps covering Tokyo, Kansai, Kyoto and the whole country. These are available for free at JNTO offices abroad and at the TICs in Japan, and are fine for most purposes. Tourist offices in other areas usually provide local maps, often dual-language. If you need anything more detailed, note that most bookshops sell maps, though you’ll only find English-language maps in the big cities. If you’re hiking, the best maps are those in the Yama-to-kōgen series, published by Shōbunsha but in Japanese only.

Note that maps on signboards in Japan, such as a map of footpaths in a national park, are usually oriented the way you are facing. So, if you’re facing southeast, for example, as you look at the map, the top will be southeast and the bottom northwest.

There are also decent maps and map apps online. Google’s is typically excellent, while with a little hunting you’ll be able to find apps offering (offline-friendly) maps of certain cities; most useful, however, are apps portraying the Tokyo and Osaka subway networks, since such maps are not visible anywhere once you’re on the trains themselves.

Money

The Japanese currency is the yen (¥; en in Japanese). Notes are available in denominations of ¥1000, ¥2000, ¥5000 and ¥10,000, while coins come in values of ¥1, ¥5, ¥10, ¥50, ¥100 and ¥500. Apart from the ¥5 piece, a copper-coloured coin with a hole in the centre, all other notes and coins indicate their value in Western numerals. At the time of writing, the exchange rates were £1 to ¥170, US $1 to ¥105, €1 to ¥140, Can1 to ¥95, Aus1 to ¥91, NZ$1 to ¥87 and R1 to ¥10; for up-to-date rates see xe.com.

Though credit and debit cards are becoming more widely accepted, Japan remains very much a cash society. The most useful cards to carry are Visa and American Express, followed closely by MasterCard, then Diners Club; you should be able to use these in hotels, restaurants, shops and travel agencies accustomed to serving foreigners. However, many retailers only accept locally issued cards.

ATMs

The simplest way of obtaining cash in Japan is by making an ATM withdrawal on a credit or debit card. Both the post office and Seven Bank (whose machines are located in 7-Eleven stores) operate ATMs which accept foreign-issued cards. Post office machines accept Visa, PLUS, MasterCard, Maestro, Cirrus and American Express, with instructions provided in English; 7-Eleven ATMs accept all of these, too, except overseas-issued MasterCard brand cash cards and credit cards (including Cirrus and Maestro cards). Withdrawal limits will depend on the card issuer and your credit limit. If the machine doesn’t allow you to withdraw money in the first instance, try again with a smaller amount.

Seven Bank ATMs are often accessible 24 hours. You’ll also find post office ATMs not only in post offices, but also in stations, department stores and the like throughout the main cities – they’re identified with a sticker saying “International ATM Service”. Their ATMs have more restricted hours than the Seven Bank machines, but the ones in major post offices can be accessed at weekends and after the counters have closed, though none is open round the clock. You can also try Citibank (citibank.co.jp), which operates a number of ATMs in Tokyo, Sapporo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto and Fukuoka. Most are accessible outside normal banking hours, and some are open 24 hours. If you’re having problems, pick up the phone beside the ATM and ask to speak to someone in English.

Changing money

You can change cash and travellers’ cheques at the exchange counters, or ryōgae-jo (4E2166FF6240), of main post offices and certain banks. The post office handles cash and travellers’ cheques in six major currencies, including American, Canadian and Australian dollars, sterling and euros; the most widely accepted brands of cheque are American Express, Visa, Thomas Cook and MasterCard. There’s little variation in rates between banks and the post office and there are no commission fees. Post office exchange counters have slightly longer opening hours (generally Mon–Fri 9am–4pm); banks open Monday to Friday from 9am to 3pm, but some don’t open their exchange desks until 10.30am or 11am. Big department stores often have an exchange desk, which can be useful at other times, though most only handle dollars or a limited range of currencies and might charge a small fee. Hotels are only supposed to change money for guests, but some might be persuaded to help in an emergency. Remember to take your passport along in case it’s needed, and allow plenty of time, since even a simple transaction can take twenty minutes or more. Finally, when changing money, ask for a few ¥10,000 notes to be broken into lower denominations; these come in handy for ticket machines and small purchases.

Opening hours and public holidays

Business hours are generally Monday to Friday 9am–5pm, though private companies often close much later in the evening and may also open on Saturday mornings. Department stores and bigger shops tend to open around 10am and shut at 7pm or 8pm. Local shops, however, will generally stay open later, while many convenience stores are open 24 hours. Most shops take one day off a week, not necessarily on a Sunday.

The majority of museums close on a Monday, but stay open on Sundays and national holidays (closing the following day instead); last entry is normally thirty minutes before closing. However, during the New Year festival (January 1–3), Golden Week (April 29–May 5) and Obon (the week around August 15), almost everything shuts down. Around these periods, all transport and accommodation is booked out weeks in advance, and all major tourist spots get overrun.

Phones

You’re rarely far from a payphone in Japan, but only at certain ones – usually grey or metallic silver and bronze colour, with a sign in English – can you make international calls. These phones can be difficult to find; try a major hotel or international centre.

The vast majority of payphones take both coins (¥10 and ¥100) and phonecards (terefon kādo; テレフォンカード). The latter come in ¥500 (50-unit) and ¥1000 (105-unit) versions and can be bought in department and convenience stores and at station kiosks. Virtually every tourist attraction sells specially decorated phonecards, though you’ll pay a premium for these, with a ¥1000 card only giving ¥500 worth of calls.

Payphones don’t give change, but do return unused coins, so for local calls use ¥10 rather than ¥100 coins. For international calls, it’s best to use a phonecard and to call between 7pm and 8am Monday to Friday, or at any time at weekends or holidays, when rates are cheaper. Alternatively, use a prepaid calling card, such as KDDI’s Super World card (kddi.com), Primus (primustel.co.jp), or Brastel (brastel.com); all are available at convenience stores.

Everywhere in Japan has an area code, which can be omitted if the call is a local one. Area codes are given for all telephone numbers throughout this Guide. Toll-free numbers begin with either 0120 or 0088; in a few cases you may come across codes such as 0570, which are non-geographical and should always be included with the main number wherever you’re calling from. Numbers starting with 080 or 090 are to mobile phones. For operator assistance for overseas calls, dial 0051.

To call Japan from abroad, dial your international access code (UK and Ireland 00; US 011; Canada 011; Australia 0011; New Zealand 00), plus the country code (81), then the area code minus the initial zero, then the number.

Mobile phones

Practically everyone in Japan has a mobile phone, or keitai-denwa (携帯電話), sometimes shortened to keitai, many of which can be used like a prepaid travel card on trains, subways and in shops.

The only foreign phones that reliably work in Japan are some 3G and 4G models – contact your mobile phone service provider before leaving your home country to check on the current situation. If your phone isn’t compatible with Japan’s transmission technology, the solution for short-term visitors is to rent a Japan-compatible mobile phone (buying a prepaid phone in Japan generally requires you to show proof of local residency). Phones can be rented at the major international airports or online. Options include GoMobile (gomobile.co.jp), who will deliver your phone to a nominated address in Japan such as your hotel, and PuPuRu (pupuru.com/en) who also rent out data cards for internet access on your laptop. Other mobile phone operators include industry-biggie DoCoMo (nttdocomo.co.jp) and Softbank (softbank.jp/en), both of which have rental booths at Narita Airport (3G handsets should work with either of these networks).

Phoning abroad from Japan

The main companies in Japan offering international phone calls are KDDI (001), Softbank Telecom (0041), Cable & Wireless IDC (0061) and NTT (0033). If you want to call abroad from Japan from any type of phone, choose a company (there’s little difference between them all as far as rates are concerned) and dial the relevant access code, then the country code (UK 44; Ireland 353; US and Canada 01; Australia 61; New Zealand 64; South Africa 27), then the area code minus the initial zero, then the number.

For operator assistance for overseas calls, dial 0051. You can make international operator-assisted calls by calling 0051 via KDDI.

Smoking

Many visitors to Japan are quite taken aback by how much smoke they’re forced to inhale on a daily basis – notoriously conservative at the best of times, the country has, so far, failed to move with developed-nation norms in such regards. Smoking is banned on nearly all public transport (you’ll find smoking rooms and carriages on some trains, though) and in most public buildings, shops and offices; in restaurants, bars, izakaya, cafés and even some hotel lobbies, however, you’re likely to be inhaling smoke. An increasing number of cities are clamping down on smoking in the street, though smokers can light up in designated areas – look for the smoke-swathed huddle around the pavement ashtrays. Fines for smoking where it’s prohibited typically start at ¥2000, though at the moment you are more likely to get away with a warning.

Time

The whole of Japan is nine hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, so at noon in London it’s 9pm in Tokyo. Japan is fourteen hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time in the US. There is no daylight saving, so during British Summer Time, for example, the difference drops to eight hours.

Tourist information

The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO; jnto.go.jp) maintains a number of overseas offices (see Getting around). Within Japan, JNTO operates Tourist Information Centres (TIC), all of which have English-speaking staff, in central Tokyo, Tokyo’s Narita Airport (see Information) and Kansai International Airport. Though staff will help sort out routes and timetables, they can’t make travel reservations, nor usually sell tickets to theatres, cinemas and so on; instead, they’ll direct you to the nearest appropriate outlet.

There is a network of government-run tourist information offices (観光案内所; kankō annaijo), many with English-speaking staff, in all major towns and cities and in the prime tourist destinations; you’ll find a full list on the JNTO website. These offices are usually located in or close to the main train station or in the city centre, and are indicated by a sign with a red question mark in a white circle against a black background and the word “information”. In practice, the amount of English information available – whether written or spoken – is a bit hit and miss, but staff should be able to assist with local maps, hotel reservations and simple queries. There are also ordinary local tourist information offices: practically every town has these, as do villages though there’s only a slim chance of getting English-language assistance.

Another useful source of English-language information is the Goodwill Guides, groups of volunteer guides mostly in central and western Japan who offer their services free – although you’re expected to pay for their transport, entry tickets and any meals you have together. Their language abilities vary, but they do provide a great opportunity to learn more about Japanese culture and to visit local restaurants, shops and so forth with a Japanese-speaker. Again, you’ll find the groups listed on the JNTO website. Otherwise, tourist information offices can usually provide contact details of local groups and may be willing to help with arrangements; try to give at least two days’ notice.

JNTO offices abroad

Australia Suite 1, Level 4, 56 Clarence St, Sydney (jnto.org.au).

Canada 481 University Ave, Suite 306, Toronto (ilovejapan.ca).

UK 5th Floor, 12/13 Nicholas Lane, London (seejapan.co.uk).

US 11 West 42nd St, 19th Floor, New York (japantravelinfo.com); 340 E. 2nd St, Little Tokyo Plaza, Suite 302, Los Angeles.

Travellers with disabilities

Disability has always been something of an uncomfortable topic in Japan, with disabled people generally hidden from public view. In recent years, however, there has been a certain shift in public opinion, particularly in the wake of the bestseller No One’s Perfect by Ototake Hirotada, the upbeat, forthright autobiography of a 23-year-old student born without arms or legs.

The government is spearheading a drive to provide more accessible hotels and other facilities (referred to as “barrier-free” in Japan). Most train and subway stations now have an extra-wide manned ticket gate and an increasing number have escalators or lifts. Some trains, such as the Narita Express from Narita International Airport into Tokyo, have spaces for wheelchair users, but you should reserve well in advance. For travelling short distances, taxis are an obvious solution, though none is specially adapted and few drivers will offer passengers help getting in or out of the car.

New hotels are required to provide accessible facilities and several older ones are making them available, too. Your best bet is one of the international chains or modern Western-style business hotels, which are most likely to provide fully adapted rooms, ramps and lifts; check ahead to ensure the facilities meet your requirements. Similarly, most modern shopping complexes, museums and other public buildings are equipped with ramps, wide doors and accessible toilets.

But although things are improving, Japan is not an easy place to get around for anyone using a wheelchair, or for those who find it difficult to negotiate stairs or walk long distances. In cities, the sheer crush of people can also be a problem at times. Although it’s usually possible to organize assistance at stations, you’ll need a Japanese-speaker to phone ahead and make the arrangements. For further information and help, contact the Japanese Red Cross Language Service Volunteers (c/o Volunteers Division, Japanese Red Cross Society, 1-1-3 Shiba Daimon, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-8521). You’ll find useful, if slightly outdated, information on their website, accessible.jp.org.

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