Over the years we have gathered a large amount of helpful information that we provide to all our tour members in the Tour Handbook that they receive before their trip. We’ve provided some of that information here on this page to help you get ready for your trip to Japan.
Select a topic below for more information:
The currency of Japan is the yen. The yen comes in 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 yen coins, and 1,000, 5,000, and 10,000 yen bills. There are 2,000 yen bills also, but they are very uncommon. View a PDF with images of yen currency.
The exchange rate for the yen changes up or down on a daily basis. If you need to make a quick conversion before making a purchase, the quickest and easiest way to convert from yen to U.S. dollars is to assume one yen is equal to one penny. This conversion is close enough for practical purposes and allows you to make a quick conversion so you understand how much you are paying for something. So, for example, if something costs 100 yen, using this conversion rate, it would be the equivalent of $1 USD. If something costs 1,000 yen, it would be the equivalent of $10.00, and so on.
Though credit cards are gaining in popularity, Japan is still very much a cash society. You will be expected to pay with cash most of the time. Thanks to the country’s low crime-rate, most Japanese carry around relatively large amounts of cash. DO NOT assume you can pay for things with a credit card. Always carry sufficient cash. The only places you can count on paying by credit card are department stores and large hotels. Even though Japan is a safe place to carry around cash, it’s always safest to carry the bulk of your money in traveler’s cheques, and you should also consider using money belts.
You can exchange traveler’s cheques or cash at an Authorized Foreign Exchange Bank (signs are always displayed in English), major post offices, and most big department stores. You will receive a better exchange rate for traveler’s checks than cash.
Banks and post offices are normally open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, and closed weekends and national holidays. Japan may be a hi-tech place, but to exchange money you have to show your passport, fill out forms, and sometimes wait until your number is called, all of which can take up to 30 minutes. If you’re caught without cash outside normal banking hours, try a large department store.
Automated teller machines are almost as common as vending machines in Japan. Unfortunately, most of these do not accept foreign-issued cards. Even if they display Visa and MasterCard logos, most accept only Japan-issued versions of these cards.
However, the Japanese postal system recently linked all of its ATMs to the international Cirrus and Plus cash networks (as well as some credit card networks including Visa, MasterCard and American Express). You’ll find postal ATMs in almost every post office, even the smallest ones. Most postal ATMs are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, and are closed on Sundays and national holidays. Press the button marked “English Guidance” for English-language instructions when using these machines. You will generally get slightly better exchange rates at ATMs than at banks. The ATMs at the post offices will only allow a maximum withdrawal of 30,000 yen (about $250 USD). ATMs at 7-Eleven convenience stores (of all places) will also accept foreign-issued cards. These convenience stores are normally open 24 hours a day and also have English directions.
Check with your bank before leaving for Japan to verify their rules and regulations regarding international ATM cash withdrawals. For example, many banks only allow withdrawals of up to $200 per day. Also, be sure to verify that your PIN only has numbers, and no letters. The ATMs in Japan cannot accommodate PINs with letters.
Credit and debit cards are far more widely accepted in Japan than they were a few years ago. The most useful cards to carry are Visa and American Express, followed closely by MasterCard, then Diners Club.
Even though credit cards are not widely accepted in Japan, it is still worthwhile to bring at least one for those places that do accept credit cards. You will get a better exchange rate with a credit card than at a bank.
Samurai Tours recommends you budget $25 to $35 per-day per-person for meals, souvenirs, and the like on our escorted tours. On Independent Packages, you should budget for $40 to $50 per-day per-person. You should purchase enough yen at home to get you through the first two days. If you do not plan to make very many large purchases, you should be able to use ATMs while in Japan. Please keep in mind the ATMs are closed on weekends, and plan accordingly.
If you are planning to purchase many or large souvenirs, you should consider purchasing traveler’s cheques at your bank at home, and then exchange money at a bank or post office in Japan. You always lose money whenever you exchange dollars for yen, and yen back to dollars. For this reason, only exchange what you think you will need. And NEVER exchange money at the airport. These offices may be convenient, but they offer very bad exchange rates.
While carrying large sums of money is safe because of the low crime-rate in Japan, Samurai Tours still suggests using a money belt. Keep the bulk of your cash in your money belt, and keep enough in your pocket to get through the day. You can also keep other items that would be hard to replace in your money belt, like credit cards, passports, and travelers checks.
In Japan, the only document most people will need is a passport. For most travelers, the only time any customs official will examine your documentation is at the airport as you reenter your home country. U.S. passports, good for 10 years, cost $135 ($110 to renew). Minors under age 16 pay $105 for a passport good for five years. You can apply at some courthouses or some post offices. For details and the location of the nearest passport application office, call (800) 688-9889, or visit the State Department’s Passport Information webpage.
Although they say applications take six weeks (and you should be prepared for delays), most passports are processed more quickly. If you are flying within two weeks and can prove you’re in an emergency situation (by showing a purchased plane ticket or a letter from work requiring you to travel overseas on short notice), go in-person to the nearest U.S. Passport Agency and pay an additional $60 Expedited Service fee.
For U.S. citizens and all other countries listed in the Visa Waiver program, no visas are required for entry into Japan and will be given a 90-day tourist visa upon arriving in Japan. For our international customers, make sure you understand document requirements for your home country before leaving for Japan. If your country does require a visa, we can assist you with getting your visa.
Before your trip, we highly recommend making several photocopies of your passport, leaving one in the US with family, and bringing one with you. If you should happen to lose your passport, it is much easier and faster to replace your passport if you have a photocopy.
No shots are currently required for travel in Japan. You should check with your doctor to see if you’re up to date with regular immunizations such as tetanus, hepatitis, tuberculosis, etc.
We have three suggestions for packing: pack light, pack light, and pack light. Remember, there are two types of travelers: those who pack light, and those who wish they had. Nobody returns from a trip promising themselves they will pack heavier next time.
Don’t pack for the worst scenario. Rather than take a whole trip’s supplies of toiletries, take enough to get started and look forward to running out of toothpaste in Osaka. Then you have the perfect excuse to go into a store, shop around, and pick up something you think might be toothpaste, which can be an adventure in itself.
What kind of suitcase you take is up to you. Rollerboard suitcases work fine in Japan. Bring a collapsible duffel bag or suitcase to carry home souvenirs. You should also bring a daypack to carry what you will need for a day of sightseeing. And most importantly, remember to bring an overnight bag. Your main luggage will be shipped ahead, and you will be traveling with overnight bags only. The overnight bags must be within normal carry-on size limits (9″ X 14″ X 21″).
Keep in mind that more and more airlines are limiting both checked and carry-on luggage weight and size. Make sure you understand your airline’s restrictions before flying to avoid costly overweight or oversize charges.
The bulk of your luggage will be clothing. There are coin laundries everywhere in Japan. Most coin laundries in Japan automatically dispense detergent, and if they don’t, detergent will be available for sale from a vending machine. So if you plan to use these facilities you will not need to bring laundry soap. However, we recommend bringing a small bottle of liquid laundry soap to allow washing clothes in your bathtub or sink. This allows you to minimize the amount of clothing you pack by being able to wash more often. Every few nights you’ll spend 10 minutes doing a little wash. This doesn’t mean more washing, it just means doing it little by little as you go. You can wash clothes the first night of a two-night, allowing a day to dry. Choose dark clothes that dry quickly and either don’t wrinkle or look good wrinkled. To see how wrinkled clothing will get, give everything a wet rehearsal by hand washing-and-drying at home.
Many travelers are concerned about appropriate dress. Slacks, jeans, or shorts will be perfectly acceptable anywhere in Japan. Shrines and temples do not have dress codes as churches do, but keep in mind that these are places of worship to the Japanese, so conservative clothing should be worn.
Most ryokans and hotels will have items like hair dryers, but if you need special items like curlers, electric shaver, etc., you will need to bring them. Plugs with two flat pins are standard in Japan. This means anything with the three-pronged pins will need an adapter. Japan runs on 100 volts instead of the 120 volts in the U.S. This means that appliances that can be used in the U.S. can also be used in Japan, but sometimes at a reduced efficiency.
What to Pack
- Shirts – Bring up to five short-sleeved or long-sleeved shirts. Arrange the mix according to the season. This chart listing average temperatures and rainfall will prove useful.
- Sweater – Warm and dark-hued is best, for layering and dressing up. It never looks wrinkled and is always dark, no matter how dirty it is. This is not needed in the summer.
- Shorts/Pants – Bring two pairs. Khaki slacks are lighter, less bulky, and dry faster than jeans. In the summer time, bring shorts instead, or bring both in case of cooler weather in the mountains.
- Underwear and socks – Bring five sets.
- One pair of shoes – Take a used, light and cool pair. You will be taking your shoes on and off a lot in Japan, so take shoes that are easy to put on and remove. Whatever shoes you wear, be sure they are broken in.
- Jacket – Bring a lightweight and water-resistant windbreaker.
- Coat – If you will be traveling to Japan during the winter months, or if you will be going to Koya-san in the spring or fall, you should plan to bring something for cold weather.
- Umbrella – A small, collapsible wind-resistant umbrella will work fine. Rain keeps the crowds down, so we always stick with our itinerary regardless of the weather.
- Money belt – It’s essential for the peace-of-mind it brings. You could lose everything except your money belt, and the trip could still go on.
- Money – See the Money section.
- Documents and photocopies – Photocopies and a couple of passport-type photos can help you get replacements if the originals are lost. Carry the photocopies separately in your luggage and keep the originals in your money belt.
- Small daypack – A small daypack is great for carrying whatever you will need for a day of sightseeing. Fanny packs are equally useful.
- Picnic supplies – A plastic knife, fork and spoon, and a small package of moist towelettes, can come in handy.
- Zip-lock baggies – Pack a variety of sizes.
- Water bottle – Or you can buy bottled water at the beginning of the trip, and use that for carrying water for the rest of the trip. The tap water in Japan is safe to drink.
- Wristwatch and small travel alarm
- First-aid kit
- Medicine and vitamins – Keep your prescription medicines in their original containers, if possible
- Extra eyeglasses, contact lenses and prescriptions
- Toiletries Kit – Bathrooms in Japan can be small with meager counter space. If you have a nylon toiletries kit that can hang on a hook or a towel bar, this works well. Partly fill and put all squeeze bottles in plastic zip-lock bags, since pressure in-flight can cause even good bottles to leak.
- Soap and shampoo – All ryokans and hotels provide soap and shampoo, however if you require special products, you will have to bring your own.
- Clothesline – Hang it up in your bathroom to dry your clothes.
- Sewing kit – Needles, thread, and add a few safety pins.
- Travel information – Rip out appropriate chapters from your guidebooks, staple them together, and store in a plastic zip-lock bag. When you’re done, throw them away.
- Postcards or photos from home – These can be used as icebreakers with the Japanese.
- Journal, notepad and pen
- Hand Towel – Very, very few of the public restrooms in Japan provide any means to dry hands after washing. If you don’t want to allow your hands to air dry, bring a small, lightweight hand towel or handkerchief.
- Coin Purse – Inevitably, while traveling through Japan, you will collect a large amount of coins. We have found it easier to arrive with some kind of coin purse or pouch for storing these coins.
The Japanese have one of the most complex writing systems in the world, using three different scripts (four if you include the increasingly-used English.)
Kanji – Chinese characters or ideographs, each conveying an idea, most of which have at least two readings. These characters were borrowed from the Chinese and are given a Japanese definition for each reading.
Hiragana – A phonetic syllabary. The symbols are curvilinear in style.
Katakana – The second syllabary, used primarily for foreign names and place names and words of foreign origin. The symbols are made up of straight lines.
The study of Japanese writing takes a tremendous amount of time to learn. It requires the knowledge of 2,000 to 3,000 Kanji characters to read a newspaper. It really is not worth the effort to try to learn the character sets for your trip.
Jumping the Language Barrier
That notorious language barrier may seem like a major hurdle, but with a few communication tricks and a polite approach, the English-only traveler can step right over it. A combination dictionary/phrasebook can be invaluable.
Here are some hints to help jump the language barrier:
- Don’t worry about making a mistake. The Japanese will appreciate any effort to speak their language even if you butcher it.
- Be polite and always keep a smile on your face.
- Don’t worry about being grammatically correct. By using one-word questions or short phrases, you will get your point across. It’s amazing what you can do with just a few basic phrases and a vocabulary of 50 words.
- Speak very slowly and clearly.
- When asking for information, choose Japanese of university age or thereabouts, as they are most likely to speak some English. Also, Japanese women tend to speak and understand English better than Japanese men (or at least they’re more willing to speak English.)
- Point to the written Japanese word or phrase in your phrasebook/dictionary.
- When all else fails, risk looking or sounding goofy. Cluck like a chicken, or moo like a cow. Flap your arms like a bird to tell someone at the post office your want an airmail stamp.
- Sometimes, just assume you understand and go with your educated guess. Oftentimes, the master key to communication is to see the problem as a multiple-choice question, and make an educated guess. If the conductor on a bullet train walks up to you and asks for your “kippu,” assume he is asking for your ticket.
- Use hand signals. If you want to purchase something, point to it and hold up one or two fingers signifying you want one or two of that item.
- Download a pamphlet with Japanese pronunciation guidelines and some survival Japanese words and phrases.
- Many Japanese are reluctant to speak English for fear they may say something to offend you, or they are afraid to speak a language they have not mastered. Many times, after hearing you butcher Japanese, they will admit to speaking some English.
- Here are some tips to communicating with the Japanese in English:
- Speak slowly, clearly and with carefully chosen words. Choose easy words with no contractions and clearly pronounce each letter. Talk like a Dick and Jane primer.
- Do not use slang.
- Keep your messages as simple as possible. Make single nouns work as an entire sentence. A one-word question (“Photo?” while pointing to your camera) is more effective than being more grammatically correct (“May I take your picture?”)
- Use internationally understood words. The word “Restroom” is an American term. The word “Toilet” is direct, simple, and understood around the world.