Japan101

Country Guide and Travel Tips

Better stock up on stamps.

Need to know

Japan is an archipelago made up of four main islands and more than​ 6,000 small ones, although just over 400 of these are inhabited. Among the big four, Hokkaido is the northernmost island and Honshu is the largest, with Tokyo situated roughly in the middle of it. In southwestern Japan is the smallest main island of Shikoku, which sits in the Seto Inland Sea, and the southernmost one is Kyushu, which includes the sub-tropical island chain of Okinawa.

Japan is incredibly easy to get around—check out the Transportation section for the lowdown. For more information on specific travel destinations, head to ​GaijinPot Travel.

Regions of Japan

Chubu

Top destinations

Climb Japan’s tallest mountain in early July to mid-September.

Watch world-famous snow monkeys bathe in a natural hot spring.

  • Shirakawa-Go

An ancient village that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Visit Ishikawa Prefecture for one of the best-preserved Edo-period cities.

Overview

Geography

The Chubu, or central, region lies between Tokyo and Kyoto and spans the three mountain ranges that form the Japan Alps. The tallest of these peaks (3,776 meters) is Mount Fuji. The largest city is Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture. It is Japan’s fourth-most populous city.

Climate

In winter, the northern prefectures are hit by heavy snow and strong winds that come off the Sea of Japan. The high elevation of areas such as Niigata and Nagano give it abundant, ski-friendly snow. Nagoya and regions on the Pacific Ocean side have mild winters.

Pop culture

The aesthetics of the dark Japanese anime and video game series “Higurashi no naku koro ni,” or “When they cry,” are said to be based on those of Shirakawa-Go. You can take a sightseeing tour to key borrowed sites. Niigata hosts the Fuji Rock music festival each summer.

Chugoku

Top destinations

Commemorating the 1945 dropping of the atomic bomb.

See firsthand the great red torii shrine gate that rises from the sea.

Ride a camel, or a paraglider, across dunes up to 50 meters high.

Get overrun by wild, but friendly, bunnies on the isle of Okunoshima.

Overview

Geography

The Chugoku Mountains run east to west, separating Tottori and Shimane on the Sea of Japan coast from Okayama and Hiroshima, which face the Seto Inland Sea to the south. The biggest city is Hiroshima, in the prefecture of the same name.

Climate

Tottori and Shimane usually have rain and snow from late autumn to the beginning of spring, while the other prefectures enjoy many sunny days throughout the year.

Pop culture

Tottori is the hometown of famous manga writers Mizuki Shigeru, of wonderfully weird anime Gegege no Kitaro fame, and Gosho Aoyama, the creator of Detective Conan, or Case Closed as it’s known abroad. Tottori prefecture was featured on the popular American TV late-night talk show hosted by comedian Conan O’Brien, after he discovered a small city there with the nickname “Conan Town.”

Hokkaido

Top destinations

See hundreds of huge snow and ice sculptures at this immensely popular festival in early February each year.

World-class powder snow at Japan’s most famous ski resort.

Voted Japan’s most attractive city.

  • Shiretoko National Park

A UNESCO World Heritage site at the icy northern tip of Japan.

Overview

  • The northernmost and least developed of Japan’s main islands.
  • The leader of Japan’s diary industry and key in agriculture and fishing.
  • A haven for nature lovers and outdoor sports enthusiasts.

Geography

The center of the island is mountainous, while the surrounding areas are coastal plains. Japan and Russia are in dispute over ownership of the Kuril Islands to the northeast of Hokkaido. Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido and is Japan’s fifth-largest city

Climate

Summers are warm, with low humidity and no rainy season. Winters are cold and icy with heavy, banking snowfalls in the west, in particular. Many winter days are sub-zero.

Pop culture

The old, beloved Japanese TV drama Kitanokuni kara was set in Furano.

Kansai

Top destinations

Behold the grandeur of the 15-meter-tall statue of the sitting Buddha.

Perhaps the most aesthetically and structurally impressive temple in Kyoto.

One of Japan’s most beautiful and well-preserved castles.

Spend the night at an ancient Buddhist sanctuary

Overview

Geography

Kansai reaches from the Sea of Japan in the north to the Pacific Ocean in the south. Its eastern edge includes Ise Bay and its southwestern border faces the Seto Inland Sea. Japan’s largest lake, Lake Biwa, is in Shiga Prefecture. Osaka is the area’s largest city, and Japan’s third largest.

Climate

This region sees heavy snow along the northern coast in winter. Near the Inland Sea the climate is mild with low rainfall. Southeast of Osaka, the mountainous Kii Peninsula is colder, with very high rainfall.

Pop culture

Hyogo’s Tezuka Osamu Museum honors the work of one of Japan’s greatest manga artists, which includes Astro Boy and Black Jack. Find more manga at the Kyoto International Manga Museum. The powerful, heart-wrenching Studio Ghibli movie Grave of the Fireflies was based in Kobe.

Kanto

Overview

  • On the eastern side of Honshu.
  • The most urban and densely populated area in the country.
  • Prefectures: Chiba, Gunma, Ibaraki, Kanagawa, Saitama, Tochigi and Tokyo.
  • Tertiary industry is centered in Tokyo. Most Japanese companies are headquartered there, as are almost all government ministries. Outside Tokyo and Kanagawa prefectures, agriculture is a key industry.

Top destinations

The most vibrant and youthful of the capital’s 23 wards.

Brimming with beautiful natural and historical sites.

A hot spring heaven with views of nearby Mount Fuji.

And the DisneySea theme park, too.

Geography

The Kanto region spreads across Japan’s largest plain, from Chiba Prefecture’s Boso Peninsula at its southeastern edge, across Tokyo Bay—which is bordered on the western side by Kanagawa Prefecture’s Miura Peninsula—and up to the surrounding mountains of the Japan Alps.

Climate

Winters are generally sunny on the Kanto Plain but bring snow to the northern and western mountain borders. Summers are very hot and humid, beginning with a month-long rainy season that starts in early June.

Pop culture

Visit locations from the ultimate Tokyo flick, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. You can find the Gonpachi Nishi-Azabu restaurant from Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 film Kill Bill near Roppongi station. Walk in the footsteps of The Wolverine or dance in the nightclub from Babel.

Kyushu

Top destinations

A wild and mysterious island of untouched ancient cedar forests.

Hot spring heaven, with some that are just as hot as hell.

History lives on in this attractive, cosmopolitan port town.

Have some fun, and lots of street food, in Kyushu’s largest city.

Overview

  • The most southern of Japan’s four main islands.
  • Prefectures: Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Nagasaki, Oita and Saga.
  • Major industries include automobiles, semiconductors, steel and agriculture (rice, tea, sweet potatoes and citrus fruits).

Geography

Japan’s third-largest main island is bordered by the East China Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east. It is connected to the mainland via a tunnel and bridge. The region encompasses a series of volcanic ranges.

Climate

Southern Kyushu is subtropical, with warm winters and very heavy rainfall. Northern Kyushu tends to have cloudy winters, with rain prevalent in Fukuoka and Oita, which face the Seto Inland Sea.

Pop culture

The inspiration for the villain’s hideout in the 2012 Bond film Skyfall was Nagasaki’s Gunkanjima. Yakushima helped inspire the forest setting of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke.

Okinawa

Top destinations

  • Yaeyama Islands

Enjoy some of the world’s best snorkeling and scuba diving.

Nightlife, culture and a laid-back groove in Okinawa’s capital city.

The seat of power of the old Ryukyu Kingdom.

  • Maehama Beach

Seven kilometers of paradise at one of Japan’s top ranking beaches.

Overview

  • The prefecture consists of three major island groups: the main Okinawa Islands, the Miyako Islands and the Yaeyama Islands.
  • Sometimes considered a part of Kyushu.
  • Major industries include tourism, agriculture, fishing and petroleum.

Geography

Okinawa prefecture is made up of several islands that stretch from the southern tip of Kyushu down toward Taiwan. The prefectural capital is Naha, which is located on the largest island, Okinawa. The bigger islands are generally of volcanic origin, while most of the smaller ones are coralline.

Climate

This is the only prefecture in Japan that is located totally within a subtropical climate zone. The rainy season starts in May and continues until June, delivering short bursts of occasional rain. Typhoons hit the islands annually, particularly in September.

Pop culture

Okinawa was the setting for the 1986 film The Karate Kid, Part II, and for the manga and TV anime Harukana Receive and parts of the horror anime series Blood+.

Shikoku

Top destinations

Home to one of the oldest hot spring bathhouse from the Oscar-winning Spirited Away.

Experience the expansive natural beauty of Shikoku on this ancient route.

Where friendly felines outnumber humans by about eight to one.

Hike and discover vine bridges, remote hot springs and whitewater rapids.

Overview

  • The smallest and least populated of Japan’s four main islands.
  • Prefectures: Tokushima, Kagawa, Ehime and Kochi.
  • Key industries include agriculture and fishing, salt, wood and paper.

Geography

Shikoku is located between the Seto Inland Sea, to the north, and the Pacific Ocean. The northern border faces mainland cities such as Hiroshima and Kobe. Three bridges connect Shikoku to the mainland. The largest city is Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture.

Climate

Shikoku is warm and temperate. The southern side of the mountain range that runs east to west across the island has one of Japan’s highest rainfall totals.

Pop culture

As well as Dogo Onsen from Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, the anime Ohenro features three girls tackling the 88-temple pilgrimage.

Tohoku

Top destinations

Skiing, some of the best medicinal hot springs in the country, mountain hiking and ice monsters.

Aomori’s famous festival of floats, dancers and drummers.

A jumping-off point to spots like Matsushima Bay and Yamadera Temple.

Watch the gripping Kanto Matsuri lantern festival in August.

Overview

  • Tohoku is the northernmost region of the main island of Honshu.
  • Prefectures: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata.
  • Key industries include agriculture, especially rice and fruit production, forest industries and mining.

Geography

Mountain ranges run parallel from north to south, with the highest, the Ou Mountains, in the middle. The population is concentrated in the rows of lowlands between the ranges. The largest city is Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture.

Climate

West of the Ou Mountains summers are warm and winters are snowy, with snowfalls of up to five meters in mountainous areas. Eastern Tohoku has cooler summers and drier winters.

Pop culture

The Shirakami Mountains in Akita and Aomori Prefectures helped inspire the natural world of the Ghibli Studio animation Princess Mononoke. The 2009, Academy Award-winning movie Okuribito, or “Departures” as it is known in English, is set in and around Sakata city in Yamagata Prefecture.

Travel apps

From food to transport to language help, knowing a few key mobile phone applications will help your Japan trip go smoothly.

App Type Where to get it Price Language
Imiwa In-depth dictionary App Store, Google Play Free English, German, French, Russian
Google Translate Translates via text, handwriting, voice, camera App Store, Google Play Free Multiple languages
Google Maps Multi-country GPS navigation App Store, Google Play Free Multiple languages
Hyperdia Transport route and timetable search App Store, Google Play Free for first 30 days English, Japanese, Chinese
NAVITIME for Japan Travel Transportation and map search App Store, Google Play Free Multiple languages
Hopper Airfare price predictor App Store, Google Play Free English, French
GuruNavi Japan restaurant guide App Store, Google Play Free English, Japanese
Travel Japan Wi-Fi Find free wi-fi in Japan App Store, Google Play Free English, Japanese, Thai, Chinese
JapanTaxi Call or reserve a taxi or calculate ride cost App Store, Google Play Free English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean
NHK World TV News from Japan’s public broadcaster App Store, Google Play Free English
Yurekuru Call Earthquake early warning system App Store, Google Play Free English, Japanese
MAPS.ME Offline world maps App Store, Google Play Free Multiple languages
Rail Map Maps of railway networks worldwide App Store, Google Play Free Multiple languages
Sushi Dictionary Dictionary of sushi terminology App Store Free English

Customs and traditions

Bowing

Other than in a business setting, Japanese generally don’t touch when they greet one another, such as with a handshake or a kiss. Please bow instead.

Shoes

Outdoor footwear is usually allowed in modern public buildings but not in homes or temples/shrines. Slippers will be provided when a change is necessary, but even they should never be worn on tatami mat floors. Choose slip-on shoes for Japan.

Tipping

This is not done in Japan. A shop owner will instead likely run after you to return to you the money you have overpaid.

Cell phones

Japanese don’t talk loudly on their phones in public, including on the train. Please do the same.

Slurping

This is done, especially if you are drinking hot tea or noodles and need to ingest them along with some air to help cool your mouth. It is also okay to raise your rice bowl to chest height when you eat.

Grazing

Walking while eating, or even in public areas such as on the train, is still frowned upon by many Japanese.

Bathing

Give yourself an initial wash down before getting into the bath, so as to keep the water clean for the next person. Don’t put soap in the bath. You can go back and forth between the tub and the shower for further washing and soaking. Bathing at public bathhouses is usually done naked and segregated by sex, but both factors are worth confirming when you pay. Some establishments may turn away patrons with tattoos.

Dining 

Although making menu adjustments to suit individual’s requests is a less common practice than in the West, the superlative nature of Japanese hospitality means you will likely be pleasantly surprised, particularly at finer eating establishments. Be specific when describing your dietary requirements (eg: no meat, or fish product or dairy, or egg) and tell restaurant and hotel staff as early as possible—such as when you make the reservation—to allow them time to modify the menu.

Vegan/Vegetarian

Vegetarianism is not well understood in Japan, where some people equate it with not eating meat, but awareness is growing. Since fish is a key component of traditional Japanese food, it is very hard to avoid it, particularly in broth. Vegans can start their eating adventures at these restaurants. Check out more articles about where to eat vegan in Japan on our GaijinPot Blog.

Halal

Awareness of the halal diet is increasing but it is still not well understood. Some traditional Japanese cooking methods, like the broad use of mirin rice wine, make things difficult. Try some of these Halal restaurants in Tokyo, and consult the JNTO’s Welcome Guide for Muslim Visitors, or the Japan Muslim Guide, for facilities nationwide.

Allergies

Japan requires egg, milk, wheat, peanut, buckwheat (soba, in Japanese), shrimp and crab to be labelled and advises the labelling of 20 other foods. See this article for how to decode Japanese labels. Also check out the impressive resources at foodallergy.org, including printable “chef cards” to help you communicate your needs to restaurant staff, and a bilingual instruction chart for epinephrine injection.

Tattoos in Japan

In Japan, tattoos have a historical connection with criminals and the yakuza mafia and were outlawed for some time. Although they are legal now, prejudice persists and some public baths and gyms turn away tattooed customers. You may even see signs that say “No Tattoos.” However, there are many that accept them, such as these 30 Tattoo Friendly hot springs all around Japan. Check out these tactics for onsen and tattoo or this quick guide about going places with tattoos in Japan.

Transport costs

Shinkansen (Bullet train)

Tickets are costly. For example, riding the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto with a reserved seat takes 137 minutes and costs ¥13,710 ($130) one way. You can reduce the cost by about ¥600 by not reserving a seat.

Express and local trains

That same route would cost around ¥13,070, but take an extra six hours.

Taxi

Prices in Tokyo start at ¥430 for up to 1.059 km, with an additional ¥80 for each further 237 meters. There is a 20% surcharge from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Buses

In Tokyo most charge a flat fee of ¥210 for an adult and ¥110 for a child.

Food

Food prices and the cost of living aren’t too bad for the average spot in Tokyo. You can get some authentic Japanese food for ¥800 to ¥1,200. Of course, if you choose to go to an upscale restaurant in one of the more luxurious parts of Tokyo you can pay upwards of ¥30,000 to ¥40,000 for a meal. You can go really cheap by buying some meals at a convenience store. If you are traveling in a smaller city or area, the prices will be more reasonable.

Accommodation

Ryokan

A traditional Japanese inn costing anywhere from ¥7,000 a person to upwards of ¥70,000 for a luxury stay.

Minshuku

A family-run, Japanese-style bed and breakfast costing around ¥4,000 to ¥9,000 a person.

Business hotel 

A no-frills hotel room costing anywhere from ¥5,000 to ¥10,000 a night for a single room.

Capsule hotel

Private, enclosed sleeping spaces and communal amenities for somewhere between ¥3000 and ¥5000 a night.

AirBnB

Rent a room, or more, from a private homeowner for around ¥1,500 to ¥6,000 or more. Midway through 2018, a new Japanese law that required private lodgings to be registered with local authorities led to AirBnB removing thousands of unregistered listings from its website, but there are still many available.

Internet cafes and “Manga Kissa”

Sometimes a communal space, sometimes a private booth with a comfy reclining chair or bed-like floor for ¥1,500 to ¥3,000 for a 7- to 12-hour package.

Love hotel 

A private room for an adult couple that can cost around ¥3,000 for a “rest” of a few hours and about ¥7,000 to 12,000 for an overnight “stay,” depending on the area and type of hotel.

Useful Japanese vocabulary for traveling

Japanese Romaji English
1泊 ippaku one night stay
和室 washitsu Japanese style bedroom
洋室 youshitsu Western style bedroom
朝食 yuushoku Breakfast
夕食 choushoku Dinner
バイキング baikingu Buffet style meal
和食 washoku Japanese style meal
洋食 youshoku Western style meal
営業中 eigyou-chuu Open/in business
準備中 junbi-chuu Opening soon/getting ready
禁煙 kin-en Non-smoking
露天風呂付客室 rotenburo-tsuki-kyakushitsu Room with private open-air hot spring

Gifts and souvenirs

Price Options
Under ¥1,000 Drug store cosmetics, snack foods and sweets, green tea, vending machine toys, keychains, stationery, lucky charms from temples and shrines, tabi-toed socks, incense, origami
¥1,000 – ¥2,500 Koma spinning tops, kedama ball-catch toys, wind chimes, daruma dolls, furoshiki wrapping cloths, hair accessories, sake, plastic food, chopsticks, fans, wind chimes, tenugui traditional hand towels
¥2,500 – ¥5,000 Japanese dolls, ceramics
¥5,000 or more Knives, pearls, rice cookers, Lolita fashions

References

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