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Japan

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Asia : East Asia : Japan
Flag
Image:ja-flag.png
Quick Facts
CapitalTokyo
Governmentconstitutional monarchy with a parliamentary government
Currencyyen (JPY)
Areatotal: 377,835 sq km
water: 3,091 sq km
land: 374,744 sq km
Population126,974,628 (July 2002 est.)
LanguageJapanese
Religionobserve both Shinto and Buddhist 84%, other 16% (including Christian 0.7%)
Electricity110V/50 or 60Hz (American plug)
Calling code+81
Internet TLD.jp
Time zoneUTC+9
Map of JapanMap of Japan
Map of Japan

Japan, known as Nihon or Nippon (??) in Japanese, is an island nation in East Asia.

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Japan

Regions

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Japan consists of four main islands and many smaller islands, notably Okinawa. Honshu, by far the largest and most populated island, is typically divided into five (or more) regions. The other islands are not divided into sub-regions in this section, so they will constitute one region each. Thus, in total, the regions most commonly used are:

  1. Hokkaido - the snowy northern frontier of Japan
  2. Tohoku - northeastern Honshu, for seafood, skiing and hot springs
  3. Kanto - coastal plain including the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama
  4. Chubu - mountainous middle region dominated by the Japan Alps and Japan's fourth-largest city Nagoya
  5. Kansai - ancient capital of culture and commerce, including the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Kobe
  6. Chugoku - westernmost Honshu, a rural region best known for the cities of Hiroshima and Shimonoseki
  7. Shikoku - the smallest of the Big 4, a destination for Buddhist pilgrims
  8. Kyushu - birthplace of Japanese civilization; largest cities Fukuoka and Kitakyushu
  9. Okinawa - semi-tropical southern island chain reaching out toward Taiwan
Japan

Cities

Japan has thousands of cities; these are some of the most famous ones.

  • Tokyo - the capital of Japan, modern and densely populated.
  • Fukuoka - the largest city on Kyushu
  • Hiroshima - a large port city, the first city to be destroyed by an atom bomb
  • Kanazawa - a historic city on the west coast
  • Kitakyushu - not just an industrial city, much more than this
  • Kobe - a large port city in the Kansai region
  • Kyoto - an ancient capital of Japan, considered the cultural heart of the country, many ancient Buddhist temples and gardens
  • Nagasaki - an ancient port city in Kyushu
  • Nagoya - a large industrial city in the Chubu region
  • Nara - the first capital of a united Japan, many Buddhist shrines, and historical buildings
  • Osaka - a large and dynamic city located in the Kansai region
  • Sapporo - the largest city in Hokkaido, famous for its snow festival
  • Sendai - the largest city in the Tohoku region, known as the city of forests due to its tree lined avenues and wooded hills.
  • Shimonoseki ? the southwestern tip of Honshu, one of the famous cities. It is known for fugu (globefish/pufferfish/blowfish).
  • Yokohama - a large port city near Tokyo
Japan

Other destinations

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.

Japan

Understand

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Cherry blossoms in Kichijoji, Tokyo

Japan is the 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 in Japan 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 will see childishly cute character toys and violent pornography- sometimes enjoyed by the same passenger! 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.

Japan

History

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 mainstream 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 belongs in the 5th century, although archeaological 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. The first strong Japanese state was centered in Nara (8th c.), moving later to Kyoto and Kamakura until Japan 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.

Tokugawa rule kept the country stable but stagnant, with an enforced policy of total isolation enforced, while the world around them rushed ahead. U.S. 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. 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 for the first time in its history occupied by the victorious Allies. The Emperor kept his throne but was turned into a constitutional monarch. Thus converted into pacifism and democracy, with the U.S. taking care of defense, Japan now directed its prodigeous 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 have the second-largest gross national product in the world.

Japan

People

As an island nation shut off from the rest of the world for a long time, Japan is very homogeneous, with around 98% of the population ethnically Japanese. The largest minority are Koreans, around 1 million strong and many brought to Japan by force during World War II, who until very recently were not allowed to adopt Japanese citizenship — even in the third generation — unless they also gave up their Korean name. There are also sizable populations of Chinese and Filipinos. The indigenous Ainu, driven north over the centuries and now found only on Hokkaido, number around 50,000 (although the number varies greatly depending on the exact definition used).

The attitude to foreigners — commonly known as gaijin (??, outsider), or gaikokujin (???, foreigner--a more polite phrasing) — is also full of contradictions. Many road signs, station names and so on are written in Western characters as well as in Japanese ones, but at the same time you can turn around and suddenly everything is in Japanese and nobody will understand a word you say. Many Japanese are thrilled to have visitors to their country and they will be incredibly helpful to a foreigner looking lost and bewildered. However, many Japanese are uncomfortable dealing with foreigners and will be reluctant to communicate in any way with them. The mass media is full of stories about the "foreigner crime wave", which seems focused mostly on Chinese and other East Asian ethnicities. The Japanese government constantly trumpets the goal of "internationalization", but employer and landlord discrimination against foreigners is commonplace. This kind of cognitive dissonance can seem confusing, but in Japan it is hardly unique to attitudes towards foreigners.

Japan

Culture

Japan

Holidays

Festival procession in the neon-drenched alleys of , Festival procession in the neon-drenched alleys of ,
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Festival procession in the neon-drenched alleys of Shinjuku, Tokyo

The most important holiday in Japan is New Year (??? Osh?gatsu), which pretty much shuts down the country between December 29 and January 3. Japanese head home to their families (which means massive transport congestion), 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 airfare are very high.

In March or April, Japanese head out en masse for hanami (??, lit. "flower viewing"), a festival of outdoors picnics and drunken revelry in parks, cleverly disguised as cherry blossom (? 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 4 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 GW 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 (? matsuri) and impressive fireworks competitions (?? hanabi) through the country. Tanabata (??), on July 7th (or early August in some places), commemorates a story of star-crossed lovers who can only meet on this day. The largest summer festival is Obon (??), held in mid-July in eastern Japan (Kanto) and mid-August in western Japan (Kansai) to honor the departed spirits of one's ancestors. Everybody heads home to visit village graveyards, meaning that transport is packed.

Japan

National holidays

The following list shows the dates of Japanese national holidays. Lunar holidays such as equinoxes may vary by a day or two; the list below is accurate for 2006. 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. In 2007, Greenery Day will be moved to May 4th, and the holiday on April 29th will be renamed "Showa Day", in honor of the former emperor.

  • January 1 - New Year's Day (ganjitsu ??)
  • Second Monday of January - Coming-of-Age Day (seijin no hi ????)
  • February 11 - National Foundation Day (kenkoku kinenbi ??????)
  • March 20 - Vernal Equinox Day (shunbun no hi ????)
  • April 29 - Greenery Day (midori no hi ???)
  • May 3 - Constitution Day (kenp? kinnenbi ?????)
  • May 4 - Citizen's Holiday (kokumin no ky?jitsu ?????)
  • May 5 - Children's Day (kodomo no hi ????)
  • Third Monday of July - Marine Day (umi no hi ???)
  • Third Monday of September - Respect-for-the-Aged Day (keir? no hi ????)
  • September 22 - Autumnal Equinox Day (shuubun no hi ????)
  • Second Monday of October - Sports Day (taiiku no hi ????)
  • November 3 - Culture Day (bunka no hi ????)
  • November 23 - Labor Thanksgiving Day (kinr? kansha no hi ??????)
  • December 23 - The Emperor's Birthday (tenn? tanj?bi ?????)
Japan

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 (??) and Heisei 17 corresponds to 2005. The year may be written as "H17" or just "17", so "17/6/5" is June 5th 2005. Western years are also well understood and frequently used.

Japan

Religion

Buddhist temples, Buddhist temples,
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Buddhist temples, Mount Koya

Japan has two dominant religious traditions: Shinto (??) 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 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.

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 ??) with its simple torii (??) 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 (??) is currently the largest branch of Buddhist belief, and many westerners are introduced to Japanese Buddhism through Soka Gakkai (s?kagakkai ????), a Nichiren sect that is somewhat controversial for its evangelical zeal and its involvement in Japanese politics. Westerners are probably most familiar with Zen (?) 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 ???), tea ceremony (sad? ??), 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 o-tera (temple ??).

Japan

Amusement

Karaoke and Pachinko (Japanese-style pinball) are famous throughout Japan. You can enjoy them in virtually every Japanese city.

Japan

Climate

The Japanese are proud of their four seasons (and a surprising number believe the phenomenon is unique to Japan), but the tourist with a flexible travel schedule should try to aim for two of them.

  • Spring is one of the best times of year to be in Japan. The temperatures are warm but not hot, there's not too much rain, and March-April brings the justly famous cherry blossoms (sakura) and is a time of revelry and festivals. In early March, the Japan Meteorological Agency announces predictions about when the blooming will begin 1 (http://www.jma.go.jp/jma/indexe.html).
  • Summer starts with a dreary rainy season in June and turns into a steambath in July-August, with extreme humidity and the temperature heading as high as 40°C. Avoid, or do as the Japanese do and head to northern Hokkaido or the mountains of Chubu and Tohoku to escape. There are many fireworks displays, for example, yodogawa, biwako and sirahama. There are also many festivals including gion and tenzin.
  • Fall, starting in September, is also an excellent time to be in Japan. Temperatures and humidity become more tolerable, fair days are common and fall colors can be just as impressive as cherry blossoms.
  • Winter is a good time to go skiing or hot-spring hopping, but as the Japanese have yet to figure out the wonders of central heating, it's often miserably cold indoors. Heading south to Okinawa provides some relief. There is usually heavy snow in Hokkaido and northeast Japan due to the cold wind blasts from Siberia.
Japan

Further reading

There are multitudes of books written on Japan. Some great, some absolute crap. A good place to begin is one of the many recommended reading lists such as this one on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/guides/guide-display/-/3BBOVAFYLBSYZ/ref=cm_bg_dp_m_1/002-0724845-1200831) or sites like The Crazy Japan Times (http://www.crazyjapan.com/CJGuide%20Read.html), Japan Review (http://www.japanreview.net/reviews.htm) or Japan Visitor (http://www.japanvisitor.com/books/books.html). Some recommended books include:

  • 'Untangling My Chopsticks' (http://www.untanglingmychopsticks.com/), by Victoria Abbott Riccardi. Set mainly in Kyoto.
  • 'My Mother is a Tractor' (http://www.klarbooks.com/mmiat), by Nicholas Klar. A former English teacher with a witty and informative take on Japanese society. Written from the depths of the Japanese countryside.
  • 'Dave Barry Does Japan' (http://www.davebarry.com), by Dave Barry. The very funny Dave Barry with his take on Japan. Written during a rollicking three week tour. Not much cultural insight, but an excellent introduction to Japan's wacky side.
Japan

Get in

Citizens of 59 countries, including most Western nations, do not need a visa to visit Japan and can obtain a 90-day "landing permission" on arrival (many European nationalities are permitted up to 180 days). All others must obtain a visa prior to arrival. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains an online Guide to Japanese Visas (http://www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/visa/) with the current information.

One 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 are also banned, even if you have a prescription. See Narita Airport Customs (http://www.narita-airport-customs.go.jp/e/index_e.html) for an overview, or check with the nearest Japanese embassy or consulate for details.

Japan

By plane

Almost certainly you will fly into and out of one of the two main international airports, either Tokyo's Narita Airport or Kansai International. However, there are other international airports including New Chitose Airport (Sapporo), Fukuoka, and the newly opened Chubu International Airport near Nagoya. All airports serve flights from around the world, with Narita being the busiest and most crowded. The three major international airports are connected to the rail network and all also have numerous limousine bus services to nearby destinations. Kansai serves primarily Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto and the south of the country, while Narita serves the greater Tokyo area including Yokohama and the north, and Chubu handles the middle region near Nagoya. Note that Kansai and Narita are a significant distance away from their respective city centres.

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). If you travel during these busy periods expect things to be both more hectic and more expensive.

Note that Narita and Kansai handle very few domestic flights: most domestic flights from Tokyo leave from Haneda (HND) to the south of the city, while most domestic flights from the Kansai region use Itami (ITM) to the north of Osaka. The airports are quite far apart, so if you are planning on flying within Japan allow at least two and preferably three hours to transfer. Chubu, on the other hand, does have many domestic flights and was built from the ground up for easy interchange.

Japan

By boat

There are ferries to Japan from South Korea (Busan), Russia (Vladivostok), Taiwan and some Chinese cities. Except for the ferries from Busan to Fukuoka and Shimonoseki (which normally cost ¥8000-10000 yen one way), these are generally uncompetitive with discounted air tickets, as prices are high, schedules infrequent (and unreliable) and travel times long. There is also daily hydrofoil service (called the "Beetle") between Fukuoka City and Busan, which takes about 3 and a half hours. The respective ferry takes about 8, however if overnight the ferry may stop and wait in front of the Busan port in the morning until Korean Immigrations opens up.

Japan

Get around

 Monorail in  — just one of Japan's many futuristic transport systems Monorail in  — just one of Japan's many futuristic transport systems
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Tama Monorail in Tokyo — just one of Japan's many futuristic transport systems

In Japanese cities, a place's address is useful for mail, but it's nearly useless in 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.

For sorting through transport schedules and fares, Hitachi's Hyperdia (http://www.hyperdia.com/) program is an invaluable companion, with versions available for most major operating systems. Jorudan (http://www.jorudan.co.jp/english/norikae/e-norikeyin.html) and NTT Townpage (http://ekimae.itp.ne.jp/tra-bin/jrtrageng.cgi) both provide a useful English-language web version. The paper version of this is the Daijikokuhy? (????), 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.

Japan

By rail

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. Being aware of this one fact will substantially reduce the confusion you experience trying to understand railway maps and find your way around.

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 your train is. Many bars and clubs are open until the first train runs again in the morning, so keep this in mind as another option.

Japan

JR Network

The Shinkansen (bullet train) network, as of 2005. Lines in gray are under construction or planned.The Shinkansen (bullet train) network, as of 2005. Lines in gray are under construction or planned.
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The Shinkansen (bullet train) network, as of 2005. Lines in gray are under construction or planned.

The JR network is extensive as one would expect from what used to be the national rail system (now privately owned). If you have a JR Pass, you will almost certainly figure out that even in large cities such as Tokyo or Osaka, there is a JR station fairly near where you want to go. In the countryside JR also runs 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.

Japan
Japan Rail Pass

By far the best option for visitors who plan to do a lot of travelling is the Japan Rail Pass 2 (http://www.japanrailpass.net), 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 Kyoto costs almost ¥30,000, the 7-day Rail Pass is ¥28,300. The 14-day/21-day pass is ¥45,100/55,100. This can only be purchased outside of Japan from specific vendors — at the time of purchase, you will need to have your passport with you, and know the date upon which you will want the Rail Pass to start. 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.

The JR East Rail Pass 3 (http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/eastpass/index.html) also permits essentially unlimited travel on its trains. There are three durations, 5-day pass (¥28,000), 10-day pass (¥48,800) and a 4-day Flex Pass (¥28,000). The 4-day Flex Pass can be used any four days within a one-month window. The JR East pass can be used on Shinkansen north-bound from Tokyo, but cannot be used on the Tokaido Shinkansen to go to Kyoto and Osaka.

JR West has two types of rail passes 4 (http://www.westjr.co.jp/english/english/travel/con04/index.html). The JR West San'yo Area Pass allows essentially unlimited travel in eastern Japan and part of Kyushu, including the Shinkansen. The 4-day/8-day pass is ¥20,000/30,000. The JR West Kansai Area Pass can be used for travel on regular trains only; express trains require the express fee, and cannot be used on the Shinkansen. The 1-day/2-day/3-day/4-day pass is ¥2,000/4,000/5,000/6,000 and can be used in an area which includes Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and the Kansai airport.

Unlike the Japan Rail Pass, the passes for JR East and JR West can also be purchased after you have arrived in Japan. All passes, including the Japan Rail Pass, are only available to people entering Japan with "temporary visitor" status.

The Kyushu Rail Pass 5 (http://www.jrkyushu.co.jp/english/kyushu_railpass.html) offers unlimited travel on JR Kyushu's lines, including the Kyushu Shinkansen but not the San'yo Shinkansen to Hakata. As of 2005, the pass costs ¥16,000 for five days; you'll have to travel quite a lot to make this pay off and most visitors, especially those not flying in directly to Kyushu, will find the ordinary Japan Rail Pass a better deal.

When you make any rail journey, 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.

JR Central 6 (http://jr-central.co.jp/english.nsf/), which operates the Tokaido Shinkansen does not have a rail pass; the Japan Rail Pass is the only pass which permits travel between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka.

Japan
Seishun 18 Ticket

The Seishun 18 Ticket (??18??? Seishun j?hachi 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 valid only on local trains (no expresses and certainly no Bullet 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

Japan
Buying a ticket

If you do not have a JR pass then buying a ticket is probably the most complicated thing you can do. If you are travelling long distances and you are at a major station then 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 (??????, 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 can read English much more easily.

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). These machines do not take cr cards. 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" (t?eki). 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.

At bigger stations, you will probably have the choice of more then 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.

Japan
Train types
Express train to Express train to
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Express train to Shibuya

JR pioneered the famous Bullet Train, known in Japanese as Shinkansen (???), and with speeds nudging 300 kilometers per hour these remain the fastest way to travel around the country. On the most-traveled Tokaido route between Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka, there are three types of shinkansen, reflecting the number of stops that the train makes:

  • Nozomi - the fastest and most expensive type of Shinkansen. 13 cars (including 2 first class cars) out of 16 reserved seating. Small surcharge on top of the Shinkansen fare required, and the Japan Rail Pass is not valid.
  • Hikari - the next fastest, but still pretty fast, and Rail Pass is OK.
  • Kodama - makes more stops, and generally only covers small stretches of the Shinkansen lines.

Other JR services, particularly suburban ones, use the following generic labels:

  • Regular (?? futs? or ?? kakueki) - local service, stops at every station
  • Rapid (?? kaisoku) - skips approximately 2 out of 3 stops, no surcharge
  • Express (?? ky?k?) - skips approximately 2 out of 3 stops, requires a surcharge
  • Liner (???? rainaa) - skips approximately 2 out of 3 kyuko stops, requires a surcharge
  • Limited Express (?? tokky?) - skips approximately 2 out of 3 kyuko stops, requires a surcharge and usually a reserved seat as well

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.

Japan
Making a reservation
Reservation for the Hikari 17 from  to  on March 18th, departure 1:00 PM, arrival 5:35 PM, seat 11B (non-smoking) in train car 6Reservation for the Hikari 17 from  to  on March 18th, departure 1:00 PM, arrival 5:35 PM, seat 11B (non-smoking) in train car 6
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Reservation for the Hikari 17 from Tokyo to Hiroshima on March 18th, departure 1:00 PM, arrival 5:35 PM, seat 11B (non-smoking) in train car 6

On Shinkansen and tokkyu trains, some of the carriages require passengers to have reserved their seats in advance (??? shiteiseki). For example, on a typical 16-carriage Shinkansen, only five of the carriages permit non-reserved seating, and only two of those are non-smoking (??? 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, 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.

Japan

Private railways

If they exist to provide a full journey, then 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. Also note that 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 yen 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 yen.

Japan

By plane

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, ???? Nihon K?k?, 7 (http://www.jal.co.jp/en/)) and All Nippon Airways (ANA, ??? Zennikk?, 8 (http://www.ana.co.jp/eng/)) 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 (9 (http://www.airdo21.com/index.shtml)) provides a little much-needed competition for routes from Tokyo to Sapporo and Asahikawa on Hokkaido, while Skymark (10 (http://www.skymark.co.jp/)) flies from Tokyo to points in Kyushu and Shikoku.

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 ¥1,000

Japan

By boat

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. These boats are typically divided into classes, where second class (?? nit?) is just a giant expanse of tatami mat, first class (?? itt?) gets you a comfy chair in large shared room and only special class (?? tokut?) gets you a private cabin. There is typically a simple restaurant 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.

Japan

By bus

Japan

Highway buses

Long-distance highway buses (??????? 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. Many of these are overnight runs (???? yak? 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 ????? sanretsu shiito, meaning there are only three seats per row instead of four. Major operators include Star Express 11 (http://www.nightbus.info/), Kansai Bus 12 (http://www.orion-tour.co.jp/kansaibus/busplan2.htm) and, surprisingly, train operator JR 13 (http://www.jrbuskanto.co.jp/mn/ceindex.cfm).

Japan

Local buses

You won't need to use local buses (???? 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.

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.

Japan

By taxi

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 ¥300-500 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, and there is no custom of giving tips to the driver.

In the city, you can hail a taxi just about anywhere, but outside train stations and other transfer points you should board at 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.

Japan

By car

Unless you have a very peculiar planned itinerary which makes usage of public transport unsuitable, driving in Japan is not something you want to do since public transport is generally excellent and gets you almost everywhere. Rental costs are high, English signage in the more remote locales (where a car would be most useful) is spotty and Japanese driving habits at times leave much to be desired. Especially not recommended unless you are used to driving on the left (i.e. same as UK/Australia/NZ, opposite to Europe/USA/Canada). Also you really, really do not want to drive within the major conurbations unless you enjoy getting lost or have been there before. Finally, tolls for the expressways (???? k?soku-d?ro) are generally double or triple the cost of a train ride, even on the bullet-train (??? shinkansen); so unless you have a van full of people, it's just not cost-effective.

Japan

By thumb

Japan is an excellent country for hitchhiking, although there is no Japanese custom for this, and some Japanese ability is almost mandatory. See Hitchhiking in Japan for a more detailed introduction and practical tips for this fine art.

Japan

Talk

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Japanese writing on a temple lantern, Asakusa, Tokyo

The language of Japan is Japanese. Most Japanese have studied English for at least 6 years, but conversational ability tends to be poor. If lost, one practical tip is to write out a question on paper in simple words and give it to someone young. Probably they can 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.

Japanese is a language with several distinct dialects, although standard Japanese (hy?jungo ???) is understood everywhere. Areas like Kagoshima prefecture and the Tohoku region have dialects that are nearly incomprehensible to other Japanese. On the southern islands of Okinawa, many dialects of the the closely related Ryukyuan language is spoken, mostly by the elderly, while in northern Hokkaido a rare few still speak Ainu.

Japan

Buy

The Japanese currency is the Japanese yen, abbreviated ¥ (or JPY in foreign exchange contexts). The symbol ? (pronounced en) is used in the Japanese language itself. As of US$1 = ¥114.98 (as of 16 Jan 2006).

  • Coins: 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 yen. There are two 500 yen coins, distinguishable by their color. (The new ones are gold, the old ones are silver).
  • Bills: 1000, 2000, 5000, and 10000 yen. 2000 yen bills are rare. New designs for all the bills except 2000 yen were introduced in November 2004, so there are now two versions in circulation. Most merchants will not object to receiving a 10000 bill even for a small purchase.

Japan's consumer economy is heavily based on cash, rather than cr. Although stores and hotels serving foreign customers take cr cards, many smaller businesses such as cafes, bars, and grocery stores do not. Even businesses that do take cards often have a minimum as well as a small surcharge over cash. Carrying around the equivalent of hundreds of dollars in cash is common, reasonably safe, and almost a necessity, especially in smaller towns and more isolated areas.

Almost any major bank in Japan will provide foreign currency exchange from US dollars (cash and traveler'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. Other Asian currencies are generally not accepted.

Most Japanese bank ATM machines do not accept foreign cards and cr card acceptance is spotty. You will in fact have better luck at a post office ATM, as Japan's postal system doubles as a bank, providing a huge network of ATMs. Most postal ATMs provide instructions in English as well as Japanese. Accepted cards are a Visa, Mastercard, American Express or Diners Club cr card, or ATM card in the Plus or Cirrus networks, or debit cards in the Visa Electron or Maestro Networks. Japanese post offices also can cash traveler's checks or exchange cash for yen, at a slightly better rate than the banks. Traveler's checks also have a better rate of exchange than cash.

Citibank ATMs will accept ATM cards in the Plus and Cirrus networks. There are not many Citibank locations across Japan (see here (http://www.citibank.co.http://wikitravel.org/en/shpatm/index) for a list), but you can find them in the Narita, Kansai and Chubu airports. You can withdraw Japanese currency, debited directly from your US bank account, just a few minutes after clearing customs.

Vending machines in Japan are known for their pervasiveness and the (notorious) variety of products they sell. Most will take 1,000 yen bills, and some types such as train ticket machines will take up to 10,000; none accept 1 or 5 yen coins, nor 2000 yen notes. And even the most high-tech vending machines do not take cr cards.

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.

Tips are not customary, but some expensive restaurants will add a 10% service charge.

Japan

Costs

Japan has a reputation for being extremely expensive — and it can be. However, many things have become significantly cheaper the last decade. Japan need not be outrageously expensive if you plan carefully. For long-distance travel, in particular, the Japan Rail Pass and Visit Japan flights (see Get in) can save you a bundle.

As rough guidelines, you will find it very difficult to travel on less than ¥5,000 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 hotels, eating fancy meals or just traveling long-distance will easily double this yet again.

Japan

Eat

Fancy Japanese multi-course dinnerFancy Japanese multi-course dinner
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Fancy Japanese multi-course dinner

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 (??) also means "meal". Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso (??) soup served with almost every meal, but also t?fu (??) bean curd and the ubiquitous soy sauce (?? sh?yu). 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 (?? 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 Nagoya don't miss the okonomiyaki stuffed with green onions.

Japanese eat all their traditional food with chopsticks (? hashi), the primary exceptions being curry rice and fried rice (for which a spoon is used). Eating with chopsticks is a surprisingly easy skill to pick up, although mastering them takes a while. Some chopstick taboos to be aware of: never place or leave chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, and never pass something from your chopsticks to another person's chopsticks. These are associated with funerary rites. If you want to give a piece of food to someone, let them take it from your plate, or place it directly on their plate. When you are done using chopsticks, you can rest them across the edge of your bowl or plate. Most nicer restaurants put a small wooden or ceramic chopstick rest (hashi-oki) at each place setting.

Disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) are provided with less expensive meals, bent? 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 gy?za (potstickers) are usually dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil.

Japan

Restaurants

Fugu (blowfish) restaurant, Fugu (blowfish) restaurant,
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Fugu (blowfish) restaurant, Osaka

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.

Most Japanese-style restaurants have lunchtime teishoku (??), 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 "check" is kanj? or kaikei. If it's getting late, a server will usually come to your table to tell you it's time for the "last order."

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 tabeh?dai (????).

Tipping is not customary in Japan. 24-hour "family restaurants" such as Denny's and Jonathan usually have a 10% late-night surcharge.

Japan

All-around eateries

While most restaurants in Japanese specialize in a certain type of dish, each neighborhood is guaranteed to have a few shokud? (??), serving up simple, popular dishes and teishoku sets at affordable prices (¥500-1000). A closely related variant is the bent?-ya (???), which serves takeout boxes known as o-bent? (???).

A staple of the shokud? is the donburi (?), literally "rice bowl", meaning a bowl of rice with a topping. Popular ones include:

  • oyakodon (???) — lit. "parent-and-child bowl", usually chicken and egg (but sometimes salmon and roe)
  • katsudon (???) — a deep-fried pork cutlet with egg
  • gy?don (??) — beef and onion
  • ch?kadon (???) — lit. "Chinese bowl", stir-fried vegetables and meat in a thick sauce

You will also frequently encounter Japan's most popular dish, the ubiquitous curry rice (?????? kar? raisu) — a thick, mild, brown paste that would leave most Indians scratching their heads. Often the cheapest dish on the menu, a large portion (??? ?mori) is guaranteed to leave you stuffed.

At the other extreme of the spectrum are super-exclusive ry?tei (??), the Michelin three-star restaurants of the Japanese food world, which serve gourmet kaiseki (??) 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.

Japan

Noodles

Even Japanese want something other than rice every now and then, and the obvious alternative is noodles (? 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 (??) and thick wheat udon (???). 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.

  • kake soba (????) — plain broth and maybe a little spring onion on top
  • tsukimi soba (????) — soup with a raw egg dropped in named "moon-viewing" because of the resemblance to a moon behind clouds
  • kitsune soba (?????) — soup with with sweetened thin sheets of deep-fried tofu
  • zaru soba (????) — chilled noodles served with a dipping sauce, shallot and wasabi, popular in summer

Chinese egg noodles or r?men (????) 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. The three major styles of ramen are:

  • shio r?men (?????) — salty pork broth
  • shoyu r?men (??????) — soy broth
  • miso r?men (??????) — miso (soybean paste) broth
  • tonkotsu ramen(????????), thick pork broth

Slurping your noodles is not only acceptable, but expected. The exception to this is young ladies who do not want to draw attention to their eating and will often eat their noodles in silence. According to the Japanese it both cools them down and makes them taste better. And pick up a manga comic book to protect yourself from soup spray!

Japan

Sushi and sashimi

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Sushi breakfast in Tsukiji, Tokyo

Perhaps Japan's most famous culinary exports are sushi (??), raw fish over rice, and sashimi (??), 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 making the vinegared rice for sushi correctly.

Additionally, a career-long learning experience for all apprentices and beginning sushi chefs is the skill of selecting the fish/seafood at the local wholesale fish market. This skill is largely overlooked and little known by those outside of the trade. The very important morning selection largely determines the overall quality and dining experience for the shop's customers that day.

There is enough arcane sushi terminology to fill entire books, but the most common types are:

  • nigiri — the canonical sushi form consisting of rice with fish pressed on top
  • maki — fish and rice rolled up in nori seaweed and cut into bite-size chunks
  • temaki — fish and rice rolled up in a big cone of nori
  • gunkan — "battleship" sushi, like nigiri but with nori wrapped around the edge to contain the contents
  • chirashi — a large bowl of vinegared rice with seafood scattered on top

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), shake (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).

Even in Japanese, 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 ten of thousands of yen. You can limit the damage by ordering a fixed-price moriawase (?????) set, where the chef will choose whatever he thinks is good that day. Cheaper yet are the ubiquitous kaiten (??, 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; note that, even in these places, it's quite acceptable to order directly from the chef.

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 will typically already have a dab of fiery wasabi radish 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.

Japan

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. Some options, usually served by specialist restaurants, include:

  • okonomiyaki (?????) — Japanese pancakes/pizza with a variety of condiments and strong flavored sauce, dried sea weed and dried bonito flakes on it.
  • teppanyaki (????) — meat grilled on a hot iron plate
  • tempura (???) — battered shrimp and vegetables deep-fried very quickly so that it is crispy and not too oily with dipping in broth or salt on it
  • yakiniku (??) — Japanese-style barbeque( a little similar to Korean-style (but Japanese includes vegetables instaed of wrapping meats with leaves like Koreans do.)
  • yakitori (???) — various parts of chicken kebabs

One Japanese specialty worth seeking out is eel (??? 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 a thousand yen from your wallet in the process.

Japan

Stewed dishes

Particularly in the cold winter months various stews (? nabe) are popular ways to warm up. Common types include:

  • chankonabe (?????) — a hotchpotch hotpot much favored by sumo wrestlers
  • oden (???) — fish soup simmered for days on end, often sold on the street (and convenience stores) in the winter
  • sukiyaki (????) — a hotpot of beef, tofu, noodles and more, often somewhat sweet
  • shabu-shabu (??????) — much the same, but with a savoury broth and dipping sauces
Japan

Pseudo-Western dishes

Throughout Japan you can find cafes and restaurants serving Western food (?? y?shoku), 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:

  • hambaagu (?????) — not to be confused with the McDonalds-style hambaagaa, this is a standalone hamburger patty with fixings
  • omuraisu (?????) — rice wrapped in an omelette with a complimentary dollop of ketchup
  • waf? suteeki (??????) — steak served Japanese-style with soy
  • korokke(????); croquettes, usually filled with potato, along with some meat and onion.
  • kare-(???); Japanese-style curry, it is not as spicy as Indian curry
Japan

Beer gardens

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, and you can order large mugs of it or pay a fixed price for all you can drink.

Japan

Fast food

Japanese fast food restaurants offer decent quality at reasonable prices. Some chains to look out for:

  • Yoshinoya (???), Matsuya (??), and Sukiya (???) are gy?don (beef bowl) specialists. All have been hit hard by the recent BSE scare, and have switched much of their menus to pork.
  • Tenya (???), the best tempura you'll ever eat for less than ¥500
  • Mos Burger seems like just another fast food chain, but actually has a pretty interesting menu — for hamburgers with a twist, how about grilled eel between two rice buns? Notice also the list of local produce suppliers posted in each shop.
  • Freshness Burger tries to be a bit less fast-foody and more like an "all-American" joint. The food's decent, but just be prepared for the tiniest burgers you've ever seen.
  • Beckers Operated by JR, these fastfood burger restaurants are often found in and near JR stations in greater Tokyo and Yokohama. Beckers offers made to order burgers and Menchi burgers (minced black pork). Unlike most shops, their buns are fresh and baked inside the stores. Unused buns are thrown away if not used 1.5 hours after baking them. Their Pork Teriyaki burger is awesome. They also offer Poutine, which is of course a French Canadian snack. French fries with cheese. The chilli topping needs to be tried. More often then not, you can pay with the JR Suica pre-paid re-chargeable multi use traincard. The other domestic burger chains should probably just be skipped.
  • Ooto-ya (???) is really too good to call fast food, with a menu and atmosphere that matches any "home-style" Japanese restaurant. While there are illustrated menus on signboards, ordering can be confusing: at some stores you order at the counter before taking a seat, while at others servers come to your table.

American fast food chains are also ubiquitous, including McDonald's, Wendy's, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

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 travelers who cannot read Japanese can use the photos to choose and communicate their orders. Some chains across the country are:

  • Jonathan's is probably the most ubiquitous local chain and vies with Denny's. Skylark is owned by the same company and much the same.
  • Royal Host - tries to market itself as a bit up-scale
  • Sunday Sun - reasonable, decent food and menus
  • Volks - owned by Daiei, and with a large salad bar
Japan

Coffee shops

Though Starbucks has planted its flag in Japan almost as well as in the United States, the Japanese kissaten (???) 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 (?????), 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 (???, 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.

Japan

Convenience stores

If you're travelling on the cheap, Japan's numerous convenience stores (???? 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.

One little known fact about 7-Eleven is that they have not outsourced their food preparation and everything served in the store is prepared by 7-Eleven and delivered to stores directly from 7-Eleven food preparation facilities.

Japan

Eating vegetarian

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), natt? maki (sushi filled with stringy fermented soy beans, an acquired taste for many), kanpy? 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.

While considerably harder to find, it's worth looking out for a restaurant (often run by temples) that offers sh?jin ryori (????), the purely vegetarian cuisine developed by Buddhist monks.

Japan

Drink

Difficult decisions at Meiji Shrine, , Difficult decisions at Meiji Shrine, ,
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Difficult decisions at Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, Tokyo

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.

If you're looking for an evening of food and drink in a relaxed traditional atmosphere, go to an izakaya (???, Japanese-style pub). Many of them have an all-you-can-drink (???? nomih?dai) deal which is about ?1000 (US$10) for 90 minutes (on average), although you'll be limited to certain types of drinks. Very convenient.

Vending machines (????? jid?hanbaiki) are omnipresent in Japan and serve up drinks 24 hours a day at the price of ¥100-130 a can, 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 ????? (atatakai) instead of the usual blue ???? (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.

Japan

Sake

Sake is the traditional Japanese alcohol. It is brewed from rice, in a process not completely different from beer making, and is usually clear. Sake is around 15% alcohol, and can be served hot (?? atsukan), but connoisseurs drink theirs cold (??? hiyashi). In restaurants, one serving can start around ¥500, and go up from there. What is called "sake" in the West is called nihonshu (???) in Japan, and in Japanese sake (?) refers to any kind of alcoholic drink.

Sake has its own measures and utensils. The little ceramic cups are called choko (???) and the small ceramic jug used to pour it is a tokkuri (??). Alternatively, particularly when drinking it cold, you can sip your sake from the corner of a wooden box called a masu (?), occasionally with a dab of salt on the edge. Sake is typically measured in go (?, 180 mL), roughly the size of a tokkuri, ten of which make up the standard 1.8L issh?bin (???) bottle.

The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as wine, but the one indicator worth looking out for is nihonshudo (????), 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.

Other labels often flung about include ginj? (??, from highly milled rice) and daiginj? (???, even more highly milled), honj?z? (???, with added alcohol) and junmai (??, pure rice), which at least for the amateur are more useful for determining the price than the taste.

Worth a special mention is amazake (??), the lumpy, often rather foul-smelling homebrewed version of sake, drunk hot in the winter. Amazake has very little alcohol and it tastes pretty much like fermented rice glop, but at least it's cheap.

If you're curious about sake, the Japan Sake Brewers Association has an online version of its English brochure (http://www.japansake.or.jp/sake/english/index.html/). You can also visit the Sake Plaza in Shinbashi and taste a flight of different sakes for just a few hundred yen.

Japan

Shochu

Sh?ch? (??) is the big brother of sake, a stronger drink which is often served as a kind of cooler mixed with juice or soda known as a ch?-hai. Shochu is typically around 25% alcohol (although some varieties can be much stronger) and is often served straight or on the rocks. Once solely a working-class drink, and still the cheapest tipple around at less than ¥1000 for a big 1L bottle, shochu has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years and the finest shochus now fetch prices as high as the finest sakes.

Umeshu (??) is prepared by soaking Japanese ume plums (actually a type of apricot) in shochu so it absorbs the flavor, and the uniquely sweet and bitter taste is a hit with many visitors.

Japan

Beer

There are several large brands of Japanese beer (??? biiru), including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory. A bit harder to find is an Okinawan brand, Orion which is also 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 (????) but these are still few in number.

You can buy beer in cans of all sizes, but in Japanese restaurants beer is typically served in bottles (? bin), or draft (? nama meaning "fresh"). Bottles come in three sizes, of which the largest is the most common. The large bottle gives you the opportunity to engage in the custom of constantly refilling your companion's glass (and having yours topped off as well). If you order draft beer, you each receive your own mug (j?ki). In many establishments, a dai-j?ki ("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 (??????, literally Children?s Beer), a product that looks just like the real thing but it was actually invented with children in mind.

Japan

Happ?shu and third beer

Thanks to Japan's convoluted alcohol licensing laws, there are also two almost-beers on the market: happ?shu (???), or low-malt beer, and the so-called third beer (?3???? 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 ??? (beer), but will instead say ??? (happoshu) or, for third beers, the unwieldy moniker ??????(2) (sono hoka no zashu(2), lit. "other mixed alcohol, type 2"). Try to drink moderately as both drinks can lead to nightmare hangovers.

Japan

Western wine

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. 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 (?? j?-on) wine when dining out.

Japan

Tea

The most popular beverage by far is tea (?? 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 k?cha (??); 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:

  • sencha (??), the common green tea
  • matcha (??), soupy powdered ceremonial green tea, bitter and expensive
  • h?jicha (????), roasted green tea
  • genmaicha (???), tea with roasted rice, tastes popcorn-y
  • mugicha (??), a drink of roasted barley, served iced in summer
Japan

Coffee

Coffee (???? k?h?) 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 yen per can. The regular stuff is rather sweet, so there are black varieties as well. Decaffeinated coffee is practically unheard of in Japan, even at Starbucks.

There are many coffee shops in Japan, including Starbucks, but major local chains include Doutor and Excelsior.

Japan

Soft drinks

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 (????), 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 (???) 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, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew) are widely available in Tokyo. In other cities, even Coca-Cola can be difficult to find. The only choices for diet soda will be Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi. Root Beer is nearly impossible to find outside of speciality food shops for foreigners 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), but Red Bull is not sold in Japan.

In Japan, the term "juice" (???? j?su) 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 kaj? (??). 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.

Japan

Bathe

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 (? yu) and dub even the ordinary tub with a honorific (??? o-furo), and a visit to a Japanese hot spring — marked as ? on maps — should be on the agenda of every visitor.

Japan

Onsen

Rotenburo outdoor bath in the Rotenburo outdoor bath in the
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Rotenburo outdoor bath in the Oku-Hida Onsen Villages

Onsen (??), 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 (????), literally "dew sky bath", 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 (???? kashikiri-furo). Onsen baths can be either in standalone buildings available for anybody (?? sotoyu), or private guest-only baths inside your lodgings (?? 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 (?? kon'yoku), but while men still happily traipse into these naked, if holding a towel in front of their dangly bits, it's a rare woman who'll enter one without a bathing suit these days — not that anybody will object if she does! 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.

Japan

Sent? and spas

Sent? (??) 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 turning into spas (?? 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.

Japan

Etiquette

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" (?) and "woman" (?) 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, note that it's considered mildly bad form to let your towel touch the water, so 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 (??? ky?keishitsu), inevitably equipped with a beer vending machine, nearby. Feel free to sprawl out in your yukata, sip beer, talk with friends, take a nap.

Japan

Sleep

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 (http://www.mytrip.net/en/en_kensaku.html)'s English search tool is an invaluable utility.

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.

Japan

Hotels

In general hotels of any kind are uniformly expensive. Luxury hotels, on the other hand, turn pampering into an artform, but room charges tend to start at ¥20,000 per person (not per room).

Japan

Capsule hotels

Space-efficient sleeping in Space-efficient sleeping in
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Space-efficient sleeping in Sapporo

Capsule hotels are the ultimate in space-efficient sleeping: for a nominal 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-yen 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.

Japan

Love hotels

Love hotel is a bit of a euphemism, the 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. Basically you can rent a room by the night (listed as "Stay" or ?? shukuhaku on the rate card), a couple of hours ("Rest" or ?? ky?kei), or off hours ("No Time Service") which are usually weekday afternoons.

They are generally clean, safe, and very private. Some have fantastic themes like castles, Disney, sports, whatever. As a traveler, not a tryster, 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. 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 tosatsu (hidden camera) are popular in adult video stores, although many such videos are actually staged.

Japan

Business hotels

They are usually around ¥10,000 per night and have a convenient location (often near major train stations) as their sole saving grace, but rooms are usually unbelievably cramped and facilities minimal. Local, "unadvertised" business hotels, further from major stations, can be significantly cheaper (from ¥6000/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 — book online in advance. For two or more, the price can often compete with youth hostels if you share a twin or double room.

Japan

Inns

Japan

Ryokan

Ryokan (??) are traditional Japanese inns, and a visit to one is the highlight of many a trip to Japan. Since some knowledge of Japanese mores and etiquette is required to visit one, many will hesitate to take non-Japanese guests (especially ones 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.

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. 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.

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 outside.

When you return you will find that futon bedding has been rolled out for you on the tatami. While slightly harder than a Western bed, most people find sleeping on a futon very pleasant. Note that a real Japanese futon is simply a mattress, not the low, flat bed often sold under the name in the West.

Breakfast in the morning is usually served communally in a dining hall at a fixed time.

Note that 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.

Japan

Minshuku

Minshuku (??) are the budget version of ryokan: the overall experience is much the same but the food is simpler, dining is communal at dinner, bathrooms are shared and guests are expected to lay out their own futon (although an exception is often made for foreigners). Consequently minshuku are also cheaper and rates hover around ¥5000 with two meals (???? ippaku-nishoku). Cheaper yet is a stay with no meals (???? sudomari), which can go as low as ¥3000. Minshuku are more often found in the countryside than in cities.

Japan

Kokuminshukusha

Kokuminshukusha (????), 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.

Japan

Shukub?

Shukub? (??) 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. 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.

Japan

Hostels and camping

Japan

Youth hostels

Youth hostels (??????? y?su hosteru, often just called y?su 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. 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 (http://www.jyh.or.jp/english/) page is a good place to start. Many have curfews and dorms are sex-segregated.

Camping in scenic Camping in scenic
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Camping in scenic Iya Valley
Japan

Camping

Camping is the cheapest way to get a night's sleep in Japan. There is an extensive network of camping grounds throughout the country, although naturally most are away from the big cities and information in English is sparse. Transportation to them can also be problematic, as few buses may go there. Most charge only nominal fees (¥200-500).

Camping wild is illegal in most of Japan, although you can always try to ask 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.

Japan

Nojuku

For the real budget traveller wanting to get by on the cheap in Japan is the option of nojuku (??). 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.

Japan

Long-term

Japan

Gaijin houses

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) paid before moving in. Nearly all are only in the Tokyo area, however. It will almost certainly be cheaper than staying in a hotel for a month. Gaijin houses 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. One of the biggest letting agencies for gaijin houses in Tokyo is Sakura House (http://www.sakura-house.com/), others can be found here (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2032.html).

Japan

Apartments

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 yen for a single, around 6000-7000 yen 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 (http://www.wmt.co.jp/). Please allow some days for a reply, as only one employee is fluent in English. WMT has more than 50 apartment buildings in Tokyo and Yokohama. Recently they opened buildings in Nagoya, Osaka and most recently in Sapporo. Sometimes a deposit is required for some of the apartments. Without exception the apartments are kept clean and often have much more space and flexibiliy than a hotel and are priced in the Youth hostel range.

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Last resorts

Even in Tokyo, the trains completely stop running around 1am, so if you're out after than 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.

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Internet cafés

In bigger cities around the major stations you can find internet cafés. Here you not only can access internet but 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 12pm until 5 am for ¥1500). Sometimes they have massage chair, a mat to sleep on or even a shower.

It isn't a comfortable option but perfect for checking the next day's train schedule, downloading pictures from your digital camera, writing home and resting a bit.

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Karaoke bar

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.

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Public baths

Some onsen or sento stay open all night. Usually there is a 'relaxing area' with tatami mats, TV, vending machines, etc. Often for a reasonable fee (on top of the bathing cost) you will be allowed to crash the night on the tatami.

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Study

The cheapest way to stay in Japan for a longer period of time is to study at a local school or university, hopefully with a generous Monbusho (Ministry of Education) grant to pay for it all. Contact your local Japanese embassy or home university's exchange program department for information on how to proceed. In many situations though one prerequisite to obtaining a Japanese student visa is showing Japanese Immigration that you have at least a million yen in a bank account to cover your living expenses. A Japanese student visa an additional special permission form from Immigration will allow you to legally work up to 20 hours per week to help with expenses.

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Work

The most common form of employment among foreigners is teaching English, especially in afterhours English conversation schools known as eikaiwa (???). 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 cration is essential for most desirable positions.

The JET (http://www.jetprogramme.org/e/index.html|) Program (Japan Exchange and Teaching) offers young university graduates a chance to work in Japan. The program is run by the Japanese government but your employer would typically be a highschool somewhere. 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.

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 (????) 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.

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. Young citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Korea, France, Germany and the UK may apply for working holiday visas without an existing job offer. 14 (http://www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/w_holiday/index.html) A third option is to marry a Japanese national and obtain a spouse visa, which carries no restrictions on employment.

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Stay healthy

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.

With this said, it is also not uncommon to use restrooms which have no towel, hand dryer or soap facilities. Since the Japanese tend to carry a hand towel with them everywhere these aren't as important. It's not clear why restrooms wouldn't be equipped with soap dispensers, but don't let it surprise you. Stay clean by carrying a small bottle of hand cleaner or disposable wipes.

Japan has it's share of dirty areas. 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.

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Stay safe

Japan has more than its fair share of natural disasters, as earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanos and typhoons batter the archipelago on a regular basis. The largest and most unpredictable risk is earthquakes — the last major quake in Kobe (1995) killed over 5000, and the next big one in Tokyo is statistically some 20 years overdue — but there is little you can do to avoid or prepare for them. Volcanoes, typhoons and tsunamis are primarily a potential issue if mountain climbing or sailing, so check the latest information before heading out.

In terms of crime, Japan is an extremely safe country, and indeed it is best to toe the line yourself as the Japanese judicial system is predisposed to find people guilty until proved innocent. Crime is on the increase, however, as many Japanese will tell you themselves. Women especially should be cautious, since molestation and harassment are not uncommon, even in public spaces such as trains. Still, foreign women may be given a pass by the ubiquitous train molestors (chikan). Pickpockets are also not unheard of, especially on crowded trains. Drinking is a common social practice in Japan, so late night can bring a few tipsy 'salary men' and the occasional incident.

Police boxes (?? k?ban) can be found on every other street corners. The police are generally helpful (and speak no 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.

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Respect

Most if not all Japanese are very understanding of a foreigner (gaijin) not conforming instantly to their culture; indeed, the Japanese like to boast (with debatable credence) 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.

  1. Learn a little of the language, and try to use it. They will be flattered if you try, and there is no reason to be embarrassed. They realize that Japanese may be difficult for you and won't make fun of your mistakes.
  2. Bowing. Men bow with their hands to their sides. Women bow with their hands together in front. Women's hands look like they are settled in their lap when bowing, not in a prayer position. The exact degree of the bow depends on your position in society relative to the receiver of the bow and on the occasion, the largely unwritten rules are complex but foreigners are not expected to understand them and a "token bow" is fine. Many Japanese will, in fact, gladly offer a handshake instead!
  3. The Japanese consider hearty hugs or back slaps rude, especially if they're coming from someone they just met.
  4. If you are staying in a Japanese house, use the slippers as directed, use the bathroom and toilet as directed, and keep your room clean. If you are a guest in the tatami room, don't throw around all your undergarments, or bags of souvenirs (omiyage). Keep everything in order, and don't be surprised if you are given a vacuum a couple times to clean the tatami. Never step on tatami with shoes , or slippers on. Only bare feet, or wearing socks is acceptable.
  5. Avoid shouting or talking loudly in public (if you ever go to a movie theater in Japan, you'll notice that a full theater may be in complete silence, even if it's a comedy!)
  6. Gift-giving is very common in Japan. You, as a guest, may find yourself inundated with gifts and dinners. Please be aware, though, that among Japanese, such generosity is implicitly expected to be returned in the future. Foreign guests are, of course, outside of this sometimes burdensome system of give-and-take ('kashi-kari') but it would be a nice gesture to offer a gift or souvenir, including one unique to or representative of your country. Sending a thank you card or the like is also a nice idea and will be much appreciated.
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Contact

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By phone

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Pay telephones

Public pay telephones (???? k?sh? 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. 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 puchased 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.

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Mobile phones

Japanese mobile phone (???? keitai denwa or just keitai) standards are largely incompatible with those in the rest of the world, so it is unlikely your mobile phone will work in Japan. However, if you have a 3G phone and a carrier that roams with Vodafone (Vodafone Roaming Partners (http://www.gsmworld.com/roaming/gsminfo/roa_jpjp.shtml)), your phone should work on their WCDMA network. Also, some of Vodafone's newer 3G models accept GSM SIM cards and thus you can use your usual phone number while in Japan.

These companies rent mobile phones:

  • Telecom Square 03-3239-2333 15 (http://www.telecomsquare.co.jp). This company rents mobile phones at Narita Airport, Kansai International Airport and Chubu Centrair International Airport near Nagoya.
  • go mobile 16 (http://www.gomobile.co.jp/) This company rents and returns mobile phones by postal mail, so it is necessary to make arrangements in advance.
  • DoCoMo Sentsu 0120-680-100, 03-5911-3968 17 (http://www.docomosentu.co.jp/Web/english/) DoCoMo Sentsu rents mobiles phone by the day or month, and has offices at Nartia Airport and in major cities.
  • Pasengers of ANA (http://www.anaskyweb.com) may be able to take advantage of a discount packages through rental companies Inphonix (https://opr.inphonix.co.jp/j-mobiler/ana/description.cfm?ref=10) and WorldCell (http://www.anaskyweb.com/us/e/travelservice/reservations/promotions/all_0023/)

Travelers on extended trips can purchase a mobile phone on monthly contract with a major cr card, which can work out to be cheaper than a rental phone for longer durations. The major mobile carriers in Japan are NTT DoCoMo (http://www.nttdocomo.com/), KDDI's au (http://www.au.kddi.com/english/index.html) and Vodafone (http://www.vodafone.jp/english/). Expect to pay around around ¥5000 per month, assuming light calling; a cancellation fee may apply when the contract is terminated. Prepaid mobile phones were previously an economical option for visits of over a few weeks or so, but now they are no longer available to tourists and require either a Japanese passport or an alien registration card.

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By mail

You can send postcards to anywhere in the world for 70 yen. 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.

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By net

Internet cafes (??????????) 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 cafes will lend you a memory card reader for free. Manga coffee shops (???? manga-kissa) usually have internet PCs as well. When you get tired of browsing the web, you can browse comic books, watch TV or play video games. The cost is typically around ¥400/hour, with free drinks. Often they have special night fare around ¥1500 for the 4-5 hour period when no trains are running. Internet cafes can be a safe and inexpensive place to spend the night if you miss the last train.

Some larger train stations and airports also have rental PCs to netsurf and send e-mail, usually about ¥100 for 10 minutes.

Be careful not to the accidentally hit the left side Alt-Shift keys together, or you'll be writing in Japanese—even if you don't know any. 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.

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