Japan travel guide: what you need to know


Best time to go, culture, language, health, safety, laws, watchouts, emergency contacts and more.

Japan overview


When to get the best weather and avoid the crowds, and why you shouldn't blow your nose in public or point with your chopsticks - download the Japan travel guide.

Travel-size tips

  • Flights from Australia to Japan take as little as 7.5 hours.
  • Most Australian passport holders don't need a visa to visit for up to 90 days.
  • Japan is not as expensive as it used to be, prices are comparable to Australia or Western Europe.
  • The public transport system is world-class, with bullet trains connecting major cities at speeds of up to 320km/h.

Know before you go

  • Japan is a relatively safe country, but you should always check the latest alerts from smartraveller.com.au before your trip.
  • Your doctor may recommend vaccinations if you're travelling to rural areas where Japanese encephalitis could be a risk.
  • Some common medications, including codeine and pseudoephedrine, are restricted.
  • Japan is largely a cash-based society. Credit cards are not as widely used as in Australia, and only some ATMs will accept foreign cards.
  • Your Australian phone may not work on Japan's network, but many travellers rent phones while in the country.

Best time to go

  • The weather in Japan can vary greatly from one part of the country to the next. Check the average temperature and rainfall in the area you're planning to visit.
  • Spring is one of the best times to travel to Japan, when the magnificent cherry blossoms more than make up for the frequent showers. Cherry blossom season generally begins in March in the south of the country, and reaches the north by May.
  • The rainy season in June marks the beginning of a hot humid summer for most of the country, except in the cooler north and the mountainous regions.
  • September is another wet season, when summer comes to a rainy end and the country sometimes experiences typhoons.
  • Autumn is a great time to visit Japan. The temperatures are mild, the summer crowds have eased and the changing foliage in some areas is spectacular.
  • Winter is ski season, beginning in mid-December and lasting until late March or early April, depending on the region.
  • Winter weather varies greatly throughout the country, with mild temperatures in the south, harsh winds and heavy snow in the north-west and crisp, blue-sky days in the north-east.
  • Winter days are short as the sun sets at 4.30pm in Tokyo during mid-winter.
  • Peak holiday periods when transport and accommodation come under strain include (Western) New Year, Golden Week in late April/early May, and the Obon festival in mid-August.
  • School holidays create peak periods. Dates vary throughout the country, but generally there are three school terms with a long summer break in July/August and shorter breaks in December/January and March/April.
  • Japan is a major tourist destination for the Chinese, so China's Golden Week (early October) and Chinese New Year (January/February) will affect the availability of accommodation. 

Culture

  • Japanese society places great emphasis on harmony, co-operation and respect for family and workplace hierarchies.
  • The Asian concept of 'face' is very important in Japan. This means avoiding confrontations, criticism or directly turning down requests (Japanese people rarely use the word 'no').
  • The Japanese are extremely polite and reserved, so be aware that the Australian 'easy going' nature could sometimes come across as rude or disrespectful.
  • Bowing is the traditional way to greet someone, but a slight bow or (gentle) handshake is acceptable if you're a foreigner. Older people should be greeted with great respect.
  • Always remove your shoes before entering a person's house. You're expected to remove your shoes in hotel rooms as well - use the slippers provided. In homes, and in accommodation with shared bathrooms, you may be required to use 'toilet slippers'. Some restaurants will also expect you to remove your shoes.
  • You should always take a small gift if invited to a person's home. Offer the gift with both hands as a sign of respect. The wrapping is as important as the gift itself, and it isn't customary to unwrap the gift in front of the giver.
  • Tipping is not expected. Rather a gift or some money tucked into an envelope is more likely to be graciously received.
  • Blowing your nose in public is considered extremely rude.
  • When eating, never point or play with your chopsticks or use them to pierce your food. Return them to the chopstick rest when you pause to drink or speak.
  • Leaving a small amount of food and drink is the best way to indicate that you've had enough. An empty plate or cup will invite offers of more.
  • It's considered intrusive to talk on your phone while on public transport. You should switch your phone to silent on trains and in quiet places like restaurants and museums.

Official language: Japanese

English isn't widely spoken, although some people may read, write and understand more than they can speak. Even with a language barrier, though, locals will often go out of their way to help a confused tourist.

Japanese is written in a range of scripts (kanji, katakana and hiragana). Our Roman alphabet is known as romaji and isn't commonly used. Most street signs include romaji script, but often they only show the Japanese words rather than the English translation.

Health and safety

  • Japan has an excellent nationwide health care system. English-speaking doctors can usually be found in cities (see the contacts below). Medical fees are high and you may have to pay on the spot, so it's essential that you're covered by travel insurance.
  • The tap water is safe to drink and food hygiene is of a very high standard.
  • The mosquito-borne disease Japanese encephalitis can be a problem in rural areas. Take steps to avoid bites and speak to a doctor about whether or not you need a vaccination.
  • There are restrictions on bringing some medications into Japan, including codeine and pseudoephedrine. If you're planning to travel with medication, check first with the Japanese Embassy.
  • Violent and petty crime rates are extremely low in Japan.
  • Japan experiences typhoons, earthquakes and occasional tsunamis. Make sure you're familiar with the safety procedures wherever you're staying.
  • Almost all parts of Japan are considered safe, but certain areas close to the damaged Fukushima power plant are still off-limits (as at April 2015). Check with smartraveller.com.au for the latest health and safety alerts about Japan.

Do I need vaccinations to travel to Japan?

Laws and watchouts

Laws

  • Japan has zero tolerance for drugs and imposes severe penalties for the possession of even very small amounts. Japanese police carry out occasional random drug tests on customers in bars.
  • The legal drinking age is 20.
  • There is zero tolerance for drink-driving. The legal limit is 0%.
  • Smoking is prohibited in many public areas. Check for signs, and for other smokers.
  • There are no laws against homosexuality in Japan.
  • Prostitution is technically illegal but the sex work industry, known as 'fuzoku', generally manages to get around the laws.
  • You must carry your passport at all times.
  • Japanese police have the power to search without a warrant and to detain suspects for up to 23 days without charge. Jail sentences can be more severe than in Australia and the punishment for serious charges, such as murder, can include the death penalty.

For road rules, see Driving in Japan.

Watchouts

  • Crime rates are very low and petty theft is rare.
  • If you lose something (say, if you leave your wallet on a train) it's likely it will be handed in untouched. A 2004 survey in Japan found that 74% of lost items were retrieved by their owners!
  • Women are sometimes groped in public and on trains. If this happens to you, Japanese police advise that you should shout at the perpetrator and tell other people and train staff (this is one situation when it's okay to make a scene).
  • All taxis should be licensed and have a working meter. It's very unlikely that your taxi driver will try to rip you off.
  • Fraud can be a problem in Japan, as in many countries. Always cover the keypad when using ATMs, and never let your credit card out of your sight when paying at restaurants.
  • Scams are rare in Japan, but it's good to be aware of some of the most common ways tourists are fleeced in other countries. Read our article on tourist traps around the world, or search travel forums such as Tripadvisor for the latest advice from travellers to Japan.

Making a complaint

If you fall victim to theft or any other serious crime, contact the police (numbers below).

If you have a dispute with an accommodation or tour provider and you're unable to come to an agreement, you can contact the Japan National Tourism Organization (jnto.org.au) for further advice.

For complaints about other goods and services, try the Japanese Consumer Affairs Agency (caa.go.jp). English-language information is limited on their website, so it's best to get a Japanese-speaker to help you.

If you have a problem with a taxi driver, take down their ID and licence plate number and contact the taxi company.

If your gripe is with an Australian or international tour operator, airline, or booking site, follow the usual procedures for making a complaint or seeking compensation.

Emergency contacts

Japan country code: +81

  • Police: 110 (some operators may speak English)
  • Fire/Ambulance: 119 (some operators may speak English)
  • The Japan Helpline: +81 (0)570 000 911 (English-speaking emergency assistance)
  • Emergency interpreting service: +81 (0)3 5285 8185
  • Tokyo English-speaking police: +81 (0)3 3501 0110

Your hotel or your travel insurance provider may also be able to help in an emergency.

Hospitals and clinics

The standard of health care in Japan is excellent but the fees are high, so make sure you have the right level of travel insurance. Most major hospitals will have at least some doctors who can speak English.

  • See the Japan National Tourism Organization's list of medical facilities with English-speaking staff.
  • Alternatively, phone the AMDA (Association of Medical Doctors Asia) International Medical Information Center: Tokyo +81 (0)3 5285 8088 / Osaka +81 (0)6 4395 0555 - operators speak a range of languages.

Australian Embassy - Tokyo
australia.or.jp
2-1-14 Mita, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8361
+81 (0)3 5232 4111
Enquiries: via website form

Australian Consulate-General - Osaka
australia.or.jp/en/consular/osaka
16F Twin 21 MID Tower, 2-1-61 Shiromi, Chuo-ku, Osaka, 540-6116
+81 (0)6 6941 9271
Emergency: +81 (0)6 6941 9448 or +81 (0)3 5232 4111

Australian Consulate-General - Fukuoka
australia.or.jp/en/consular/fukuoka
7th Floor, Tenjin Twin Building, 1-6-8 Tenjin, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka 810-0001
+81 (0)9 2734 5055
Emergency: +81 (0)9 2734 5055 or +81 (0)3 5232 4111

Australian Consulate - Sapporo
australia.or.jp/en/consular/sapporo
17th Floor, Sapporo Centre Building, North 5, West 6-2, Chuo-ku, Sapporo 060-0005
+81 (0)1 1242 4381
Emergency: +81 (0)3 5232 4111

24-hour Australian Consular Emergency Centre: 03 5232 4101 (from Japan) or 1300 555 135 (from Australia) or +61 2 6261 3305 or SMS +61 421 269 080

Got a travel tip about Japan? Or spotted something in our guide that needs updating? Add a comment below.


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