by mail

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


Some features of Japan's toilets are worth mentioning. As elsewhere in Asia, you will find both Western-style porcelain thrones for sitting and floor-level units for squatting. If you're unfamiliar with these, it's simple: pull your pants down to your knees, and squat facing the curved hood of the toilet. Get closer to the hood than it looks like you need to, or else you might miss.

In private homes and home-style accommodations, you will often find toilet slippers, which are to be worn inside the toilet and only inside the toilet.

However, most visitors come away impressed by the undeniable fact that Japan is the world's leader in toilet technology. Over half of Japan's homes are equipped with high-tech devices known as washlets ウォシュレット, which incorporate all sorts of handy features like seat warmers, hot air dryers and tiny robotic arms that squirt water. The device is operated via a control panel and may incorporate over 30 buttons all labeled in Japanese at first glance bearing more resemblance to a Space Shuttle navigation panel than your average WC.

Don't panic — help is at hand. The first key to solving the puzzle is that the actual flush mechanism is usually not operated by the control panel: instead, there is a standard, familiar, Western-style lever, switch or knob somewhere and it is thus entirely possible to take care of your business without ever using the washlet features. In rare cases, mostly with very high-end gear, flushing is integrated; if lifting your bottom off the seat doesn't do the trick, look for buttons labeled 大 or 小, meaning a big or small flush respectively, on a wireless control panel on the wall. The second key to exploration is that there is always a big red button labeled æ­¢ on the panel — pressing this will instantly stop everything. Older models simply have a lever nearby that controls the flow of a sprayer.

Armed with this knowledge you can now begin to dig deeper. Typical controls include the following:

Oshiri おしり - "buttocks", for spraying your rear - typically shown in blue with a stylized butt icon; this action can be unnerving, but travellers should not be afraid - by the second or third attempt it will seem normal

Bidet ビデ - for spraying your front - typically shown in pink with a female icon

Kansō 乾燥 - "dry", for drying off when finished - typically yellow with a wavy air icon

Other, smaller buttons can be used to adjust the exact pressure, angle, location and pulsation of the jet of water. Sometimes the seat of the toilet is heated, and this can also be regulated. One explanation is that since houses are not usually centrally heated, the toilet business can be made a little more convenient by heating the seat. To be polite and save energy, you should leave the cover down on heated toilet seats.

sentå and spas

Sentō 銭湯 are public 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 turned into spas スパ supa, which, in Japan, does 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.


Most if not all Japanese are very understanding of a foreigner gaijin or gaikokujin who does not conform instantly to their culture; indeed, the Japanese like to boast with debatable credibility 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, Japanese will appeciate it if you follow at least the following rules, many of which boil down to social norms of strict cleanliness and avoiding intruding on others 迷惑 meiwaku.

gay and lesbian travelers

Japan is considered to be very safe for gay and lesbian travelers, and violence against homosexuals is quite rare. There are no laws against homosexuality in Japan and major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka have a large gay scene, but same-sex relationships are not recognized by the government, and open displays of your orientation are still likely to draw stares and whispers.


See also: Japanese phrasebook

The language of Japan is Japanese. Most Japanese under 40 have studied English for at least 6 years, but the instruction tends to focus on formal grammar and writing rather than actual conversation. As a result, outside of major tourist attractions and establishments that cater specifically to foreigners, it is rare to find people who are conversant in English. Reading and writing tends to come much better though, and many younger Japanese are able to understand a great deal of written English despite not being able to speak it. If lost, it can be practical to write out a question on paper in simple words and give it to someone young, preferably high school or college students, who will likely be able to 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. Take comfort in the fact that many Japanese will go to extraordinary lengths to understand what you want and to help you, and try to pick up at least basic greetings and thank yous to put people at ease.

Japanese is a language with several distinct dialects, although standard Japanese hyōjungo 標準語, which is based on the Tokyo dialect, is taught in schools and known by most people throughout the country. The slang-heavy dialect of the Kansai region is particularly famous in Japanese pop culture. On the southern islands of Okinawa, many dialects of the closely related Ryukyuan languages are spoken, mostly by the elderly, while in northern Hokkaido a rare few still speak Ainu.

Japanese is written using a convoluted mix of three different scripts: kanji 漢字 or Chinese characters, together with "native" hiragana ひらがな and katakana カタカナ syllabaries, which were in fact derived from Chinese characters more than one thousand years ago. However, hiragana and katakana do not carry the meaning of the original Chinese characters they were derived from and are simply phonetic characters. There are thousands of kanji in everyday use and even the Japanese spend years learning them, but the kana have only 50 syllables each and can be learned with a reasonable amount of effort. Of the two, katakana are probably more useful for the visitor as they are used to write words of foreign origin other than Chinese, and thus can be used to figure out words like basu バス, bus, kamera カメラ, camera or konpyūtā コンピューター, computer. However, some words like terebi テレビ, television, depāto デパート, department store, wāpuro ワープロ, word processor and sūpā スーパー, supermarket may be harder to figure out. Knowing Chinese will also be a great head start for tackling kanji, but not all words mean what they seem: 大家 Mandarin Chinese: dàjiā, Japanese: ōya, "everybody" to the Chinese, means "landlord" in Japan!


Onsen 温泉, quite literally "hot springs", are the pinnacle of the Japanese bathing experience. Clusters 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 露天風呂: outdoor baths with views of the surrounding natural scenery. While 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 貸切風呂 kashikiri-furo. Onsen baths can be either in standalone buildings available for anybody 外湯 sotoyu, or private guest-only baths inside your lodgings 内湯 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 混浴 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. Commercial operations with kon'yoku baths tend to enforce bathing suits for both sexes.

To find those really off the beaten track hot spring inns, check out the Japanese Association to Protect Hidden Hot Springs 日本秘湯を守る会 Nihon hitō wo mamoru kai (http://www.hitou.or.jp/en...), which consists of 185 independent lodges throughout the country.

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.

other things
and feet in general are considered very dirty by the Japanese. Avoid pointing your soles at anybody such as when sitting on the train and try to restrain children from standing up on seats. Brushing your feet against somebody's clothing, even by accident, is very rude.

The Japanese consider back slaps rude, especially if they're coming from someone they just met. As it is not common practice in Japan, hugging should also be avoided. For Japanese it is typically very awkward and uncomfortable.

Point with an open hand, not a finger, and tell people to come by waving your hand facing down, not up.

Avoid shouting or talking loudly in public. Talking on a mobile phone on a train is considered rude, and many trains have signs advising you not to use them. Sending text messages, however, is considered de rigueur.

Blowing your nose
in public is considered rude, much like flatulence. It is fine to walk around sniffling until you can find a private place to blow your nose.

As in Germany, World War II is a touchy and complicated topic.

Like in India and China, swastikas are Buddhist symbols representing good luck and do not represent Nazism or anti-Semitism. As such, Western visitors should not feel offended seeing a swastika in Buddhist temples or in their host's home.

things to avoid

Japanese people understand that visitors may not be aware of the intricacies of Japanese etiquette and tend to be tolerant of blunders in this regard by foreigners. There are a few serious etiquette breaches, however, that will meet with universal disapproval, even with foreigners, and they should be avoided at all costs:

walk on a tatami mat wearing shoes or even slippers.
leave your chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of rice as that is how rice is offered to the dead.
enter a bathtub without washing up first. See Bathe for details.
by net

Internet cafés インターネットカフェ 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 cafés will lend you a memory card reader for free. Manga coffee shops 漫画喫茶 manga-kissa usually have Internet PCs as well. When you get tired of browsing the web, you can browse comic books, watch TV or a variety of movies-on-demand, or play video games. The cost is typically around ¥400/hour, with free non-alcoholic drinks, and possibly more. Often they have special night fares: around ¥1500 for the 4-5 hour period when no trains are running. Internet cafés 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 surf and send e-mail, usually about ¥100 coin for 10 mon.

A number of business hotels have Internet access available if you have your own computer, sometimes for free. In most cases, access is usually provided by a VDSL modem connected to the hotel telephone system. Some of the hotels that offer free Internet access do not include the rental for the modem in the "free" part of the service, so check before you use. Setting up your network interface for DHCP is usually all that is required to gain access to the Internet in such situations. Many also tend to have rental or free PC's available for hotel guests.

When using public access PC's, the Alt-Shift keys pressed together typically switch between Japanese and Roman input methods. If you accidentally switch the input method or if the last person left the computer this way and you are looking to type in English, you can use this key combination to switch back to the Roman alphabet. There may also be a language-switch key at the top left of the keyboard - above the Tab key and to the right of the space bar. If you hit one by accident, just hit it again to switch back. For email, note that the @ key is usually on the right side of the keyboard, next to the 'P'.

It is also possible to find Wi-Fi "hot spots" around many large cities in Japan, especially near tech-related businesses and large corporate buildings with unsecured wireless networks the Apple store in Ginza, Tokyo has a fast, open 802.11n connection.

3G Wireless Data is available, and if you have international data roaming, you should roam with no problem. GPRS does not work in Japan. Please see the section on mobile phones for additional information including phone/data card compatibility. Remember, the same restrictions on phones apply to 3G Data.

Pocket WiFi is another affordable option for people wanting to use their WiFi enabled devices smartphone, iPhone, iPad, laptops etc. A Pocket WiFi device is about the size of a Zippo lighter and fits in your pocket or bag. It makes available a mobile wifi hotspot you can connect your devices to.

by phone

International dialling prefixes vary from company to company. Check with your operator for more details. For international calls to Japan, the country code is 81.


Although violent attacks against foreigners in Japan are almost unheard of, there is discrimination against foreigners in employment. Even Western visitors have been refused entrance into certain onsen and restaurants, especially in rural areas. Some apartments, motels, night clubs, and public baths in Japan have been known to put up signs stating that foreigners are not allowed or that they must be accompanied by a Japanese person to enter. Such places are rare, however, and many Japanese claim that the prohibitions are due to perceived social incompatibility for example, foreigners may not understand proper bathhouse etiquette and not racism.

Banks are often reluctant or unwilling to give cash advances to foreigners, stemming mainly from stereotypes of untrustworthiness. If you need to get a cash advance from your bank, care of a Japanese bank, Japanese language proficiency, or a Japanese friend to vouch for you will strongly help your case.

crimes and scams

Police and the law

Police in Japan may and do detain people up to 23 days before a prosecutor formally files charges, a privilege unrivalled in the Western world except during terrorism investigations. During this period, you may be subjected to nonstop interrogation. You can hire a lawyer only if somebody outside pays the fees in advance. Your lawyer is not allowed to be present during interrogations. Insist on an interpreter and consular access, and do not fingerprint Japanese equivalent of signing anything, especially if you do not fully understand what you sign: if you sign a confession, you will be found guilty at trial.

So how to avoid this unpleasant fate? By far the most common pattern of how foreign tourists end up staring at the cold, yellow walls of a Japanese detention cell is getting drunk first and into a fight, or even near one, later. Standard police procedure is to detain everybody first and to sort out things later. If anybody accuses you of anything even on the flimsiest grounds, you may be looking at an unpleasant extension to your vacation.

Japan is exotic and mysterious; what seems strange and even appealing to you during daytime, can get obnoxious and annoying to you at night, especially with some booze running through your veins, so control your temper and alcohol level. Police patrol party areas heavily at night and they will be willing to "rescue" a fellow Japanese from a violent foreigner.

Street crime is extremely rare, even late at night. Of course, little crime does not mean no crime, and it is no excuse to ditch your common sense. Women travelling alone should take care as they would in their home countries and should never hitchhike alone.

Pickpocketing does sometimes happen: if you take your usual precautions in crowded places such as trains and at Narita Airport, you should be fine. Women on crowded rush-hour trains should be aware of the existence of chikan 痴漢 or molesters. A lot of heavy drinking goes on in the evenings and occasionally drunks may be a nuisance, although alcohol-related violence is extremely rare.

The infamous yakuza ヤクザ Japanese gangsters may have earned a partly undeserved reputation of being a bunch of violent, psychopathic criminals due to their portrayal in various films. However, in reality, they almost never target people not already involved in organized crime. Just do not find trouble with them, and they will not bother you.

Red-light districts in large cities can be seedy but are rarely dangerous for visitors, but some smaller backstreet bars have been known to lay down exorbitant cover charges or drink prices. In some extreme cases, foreigners have reported being drugged at such establishments and then charged for as much as ¥700,000, or close to $7000, for drinks that they do not remember ordering notably in the Roppongi and Kabuki-cho districts of Tokyo. Never go into a place that is suggested by someone that you just met, and you will avoid that problem.

Note that drug laws in Japan are stricter than those in many Western countries. The Japanese do not distinguish between hard and soft drugs, so possession of even personal-use quantities of soft drugs can land you a prison sentence of several years. Do not assume that just because you have a prescription from your home country that you can take it to Japan. If you have prescription drugs, check with the Japanese Embassy prior to your departure to find out whether or not your medicine is allowed in Japan. If it is illegal, they should also be able to give you information regarding what medicines you can buy in Japan to use in place of your prescription while you are there.

Police boxes 交番 kōban can be found on every other street corner. The police are generally helpful although they rarely speak English, so ask if you get lost or have any trouble. They usually have a detailed map of the area around showing not only the difficult-to-understand numbering system but also the names of office or public buildings or other places that help to find your way.

Also, if you carry travel insurance, report any thefts or lost items at the kōban. They have forms in English and Japanese, often referred to as the "Blue Form". For lost items, even cash, filling out this form is not wasted effort, as Japanese people will very often take lost items, even a wallet full of cash, to the kōban. If you happen to find such an item, take it to the kōban. If the item is not claimed within six months, it is yours. If it is claimed, you may be due a reward of 5-15%.

Japan has two emergency numbers. To call the police in an emergency, dial 110 百十番 hyakutoban. To call for an ambulance or fire truck, dial 119 a reversal of the US 911. In Tokyo, the police have an English help line 03-3501-0110, available Monday through Friday except on holidays from 8:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m.