Japan comprises an archipelago of more than 6,800 islands. Its four largest islands—Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku—make up 97% of the land area. Yet almost three-quarters of the country is forested and mountainous, pushing its population centers to the coast. The nation’s capital, Tokyo, is the world’s largest metropolitan area, home to more than 35 million people. Japan is world-renowned for its infrastructure and transportation. A far cry from the rickshaws of Kyoto, high-speed Shinkansen trains whisk travelers throughout the country in record time, from remote hot springs (onsen) to cosmopolitan centers.
Japan is a constitutional monarch, with limited power afforded the emperor. Though the Prime Minister holds the greatest authority, sovereignty rests in the people. Japan’s capital is Tokyo.
Etiquette: Bowing is perhaps the most familiar gesture of Japanese etiquette to visitors. The parameters surrounding bowing and bow depth are complex; factors include the parties’ relationships to one another in age or professional rank. Japanese often shake hands with non-Japanese visitors, who themselves might attempt a bow. To avoid bumping heads when attempting a handshake/half-bow, you might gently turn to the left.
Removing your shoes upon entering a home or temple is—unlike bowing—a “requirement,” regardless of your nationality. In homes and temples, slippers are usually made available, and it’s best to keep your socks on. Bare feet are acceptable only in an informal setting, as with intimate friends.
Shopping and banking hours: Shops and stores are generally open seven days a week between 10:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (department stores usually close at 7:30 p.m. on Sundays). Banks are open from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Monday to Friday.
Meal times: Breakfast is served at hotels from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. In restaurants, lunch is served from noon to 2:00 p.m. and dinner is usually served from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Tipping: Tipping is not practiced in Japan in hotels, at restaurants or for taxi drivers. Although not required, if you do wish to leave money for maid service in a hotel or ryokan (traditional inn), it is customary to place the money in an envelope.
The Japanese onsen: A unique cultural experience, the traditional Japanese bath or hot spring (onsen) differs from Western bathing in that you wash outside the tub, before settling in for a relaxing soak. Here are a few guidelines.
Japanese Bath Dos and Don’ts:
|Remove all jewelry to avoid discoloration||Wear clothing in the bath|
|Wash and rinse thoroughly before entering soaking tub||Splash or swim|
|Squeeze your scrubbing towel and leave aside before entering tub||Bring your small scrubbing towel into the tub|
|Check water temperature—if it is too hot, you can add cold water from the tap||Empty the tub!|
Japan public holidays: Japanese public holidays, festivals, or calendars of events may affect your travel planning. The Japanese tourist board’s website, has a list of public holidays and festivals.
The diversity of geography and climate along the length of the Japanese archipelago has resulted in a great variety of regional and seasonal foods, accompanied by specific drinks and dishware. A traditional meal begins with miso soup, which can contain tofu, vegetables, and even small clams; other traditional dishes follow in small plates and courses such as fish, vegetables (perhaps tempura-style) pickles, and a bowl of rice (white is most common). Fish is of course served raw as sushi or sashimi (the piece of fish without a rice bed), but it is also appreciated grilled and broiled with a savory marinade. Soba (buckwheat) or udon (wheat) noodles are eaten with delicate broth or sauce. Widespread dishes that seem to be typically Japanese are, in fact, foreign in origin, such as ramen noodle soup or gyoza dumplings (both Chinese). Mild curry sauce over a breaded pork cutlet is a staple. Traditional sweets are made of red bean paste or soft sweet rice (mochi), while a more modern dessert is green-tea ice cream. Tea is available in myriad varieties—including several grades of green tea, roasted tea, and even cooling barley tea—and is served throughout the day as well as ceremonially. Sake (fermented rice wine) pairs perfectly with many dishes, as does a crisp Japanese lager-style beer.
Water: Tap water is safe to drink throughout Japan.
The best time to visit Japan is in the spring and fall, as summers are hot and humid and winters are cold, due to its geography and location. In central Japan, the preferred travel months of May and September through November experience mild temperatures and brief rain showers. Average temperatures (high/low) in Kyoto (also representative of Nara and Osaka) are: May, 76/57° F; September, 84/68° F; October, 74/56° F; and November, 65/54° F. In Tokyo, average temperatures are a few degrees cooler and in Hiroshima, in southern Japan, a few degrees warmer.
U.S. citizens: Passports are required and must be valid for the duration of the stay. Visas are not required for stays of 90 days or less.
For more information, see travel.state.gov.
Japan uses the yen (JPY). The current exchange rate is 1 USD = 1 JPY. Exchange rates can vary greatly month to month, so we recommend you visit oanda.com for the latest.
We recommend having a variety of payment options readily available to help you start your trip: ATM card(s), credit card(s) and some U.S. dollars to exchange. Always contact your bank or your credit-card company for details on fees and card use when traveling.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Since you will likely need yen to pay for your taxi to the hotel or any unforeseen situations, it is a good idea to change some dollars or withdraw some local currency immediately upon your arrival at the airport.
Large stores, restaurants, and hotels accept major credit cards; however, small shops in rural areas only accept cash.
No immunizations are required to enter Japan. Always consult a travel clinic at a local university, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, and/or your personal physician for the most up-to-date recommendations and routine vaccinations. Requirements and recommendations change frequently, so always check directly with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC: 877-394-8747), a travel clinic, and/or your personal physician for the most current information. Plan ahead for immunizations, as some require administration several months prior to departure.
IMPORTANT NOTE: It is illegal to bring into Japan some over-the-counter medicines commonly used in the United States, including inhalers and some allergy and sinus medications. Specifically, products that contain stimulants (medicines that contain Pseudo-ephedrine, such as Actifed, Sudafed, and Vicks inhalers), and Codeine are prohibited.
Electricity: Alternating current of 100V is used in Japan (50Hz in eastern Japan, in Tokyo, and 60Hz in western Japan, including Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Osaka). The most common plug is similar to the U.S. type, with two flat blades. For a full listing of electrical outlets worldwide, see electricaloutlet.org. If you are bringing your own hair dryer or other electrical device, you will need a travel converter, available at most hardware, travel, or consumer electronic stores. For laptops or an electronic device with a dual voltage switch, you will only need the adapter plug, not the converter.
Phone: Japan’s country code is “+81.” Cell phone coverage throughout Japan is extensive, but we cannot guarantee adequate signals on all American phone models or while on walking trails or in remote areas. For more information regarding international phone use, please refer to this link.
Internet: Internet access is generally very good in towns and villages; however, all of the hotels used on our tours do not necessarily provide it, or they provide it at an additional cost. Details regarding Wi-Fi availability in each hotel are available in the Itinerary Overview that you’ll receive once you’ve reserved.
Japan is 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. For more information on worldwide time zones, see: worldtimezone.com.
The majority of international flights arrive at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport (NRT): narita-airport.jp/en/index.html. Many international flights also arrive at the Kansai International Airport (KIX), kansai-airport.or.jp/en/index.asp, providing more direct access to the Kansai region’s cities of Osaka and Kyoto. An extensive domestic flight network connects Tokyo and Kansai to the rest of Japan.
International Airports in Japan
- Akita – Akita Airport
- Aomori – Aomori Airport
- Fukuoka – Fukuoka Airport
- Hakodate Airport
- Kagoshima – Kagoshima Airport
- Komatsu – Komatsu Airport
- Hiroshima Airport
- Kitakyushu – New Kitakyushu Airport
- Nagasaki – Nagasaki Airport
- Nagoya – Chubu Centrair International Airport
- Niigata – Niigata Airport
- Oita – Oita Airport
- Okayama – Okayama Airport
- Osaka – Kansai International Airport
- Sapporo – New Chitose Airport
- Sendai – Sendai Airport
- Shizuoka – Shizuoka Airport
- Tōkyō\Yokohama – Haneda International Airport
- Tōkyō\Yokohama – Narita International Airport
Japan has an extensive rail network. The national company, Japan Railways (JR), services all major cities and connects to regional private railway companies. The Japan Rail Pass—a very economical and convenient means for short-term visitors to travel by train, including the Shinkansen bullet train—must be ordered prior to arrival in Japan. Information on fares, routes, purchasing is available at the tourism website, Japan Rail Pass site, and at JR’s Japan Rail Pass site: jrpass.com.
Other local transportation
In addition to rail and airlines, Japan has a long-distance bus network, long-distance bus network, but rail or air is preferable. Renting a car is also possible, but bear in mind that an international driving permit is required, driving is on the left-hand side of the road, highway tolls can be astonishingly high compared to the U.S., and parking in urban centers can be challenging. For more information, visit For more information visit the Japan National Tourism Site.p.