Japan is one of the most exotic and accessible travel destinations in the world.
That said, if you’re visiting alone or for the first time, there are a couple of things you should know before hopping onto a plane. The following are answers to five common questions asked by first-time visitors to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Do I need to speak Japanese to enjoy Japan?
Many Japanese city-dwellers, especially those in the tourism industry, are able to at least speak Basic English. However, it would be foolish to expect many to be as fluent as Americans or Europeans.
Away from the larger cities, you will also find it increasingly hard to be understood if you speak only English. This will be the case even with service staff.
Thus, it is prudent to at least know some basic Japanese phrases when in the country. Words and phrases such as those for “excuse me,” “thank you,” “where are the restrooms,” “help,” etc.
When visiting small towns and locations away from major travel routes, you might want to equip yourself with phrase cards too; these to show to locals. Ensure that these cards are written in the Japanese language and not Romanized translations. The latter will only invite bewilderment.
Is Japan safe?
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, perfect for solo travelers and families alike. This, however, doesn’t mean it’s crime-free. For travelers, what’s important to note are the following:
Red-light / party districts such as Tokyo’s Kabukicho are best avoided late in the evening. While they aren’t particularly dangerous, you might encounter rowdy groups of drunk men. Touts could also be aggressive in their attempts to get you to visit questionable establishments.
Like anywhere else in the world, it is foolish to venture into dark alleys and deserted parks at night.
Like anywhere else in the world too, you should not head into the wilderness alone, in a small group, or without a professional guide.
Sexual groping on crowded public transportation has been an issue in Japan for decades. Women might want to avoid crowded subway and bus services during peak hours.
What is the best time to visit Japan?
Japan is beautiful all year round, with a myriad of activities and attractions to enjoy each season.
That said, you might want to avoid the months from June to September. Apart from the Japanese summer notorious for being extremely warm, this is typhoon season. When a particularly violent one hits, entire cities could be locked down. Public transportation will also come to a standstill and there is often the risk of floods.
The weeks from early October to mid-December are correspondingly the best travel months. Other than gorgeous Autumn foliage to enjoy, the weather is typically clear and dry.
The Cherry-Blossom viewing weeks from March to mid-April could be delightful too. However, do note that these weeks could experience frequent showers. It is also common for there to be sudden but brief cold weather during these weeks.
What are the best Japanese attractions to visit?
Naturally, this greatly depends on your interests. Generally speaking, the following are considered the best attractions of Japan.
Famous Japanese castles such as Osaka Castle, Matsumoto Castle, Nagoya Castle, etc. While there’s usually not much to see within the keeps, their majestic exteriors are wondrous to behold.
World-renowned Japanese gardens such as Kanazawa’s Kenroku-En, Tokyo’s Rikugien, etc.
Natural wonders such as Matsushima and Yakushima.
Historical temples such as Tokyo’s Senso-ji, Kyoto’s Kiyomizue Temple, Nara’s Todai-ji, etc.
Visually stunning Shinto Shrines such Miyajima’s Itsukushima Shrine.
Modern architectural wonders such as Tokyo Skytree.
Crowded as they might be, immaculate service makes all Japanese theme parks a joy to visit. Medieval-themed ones could also be great fun for travelers fascinated with samurai and ninjas.
Japanese-style bathing, whether at a rustic hot-spring or an elaborate public bath, is an experience not to be missed.
Historical marvels such as the stunning Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, the Great Buddha of Kamakura, and so on.
There is also, of course, Mount Fuji. Japan’s tallest mountain often hides behind fog, but a full glimpse of it is a sight few would soon forget.
What else do I need to know before heading to exotic Japan?
Japanese society has various taboos. For foreigners, the most important ones to know are:
Do not wear your shoes indoors. Change into the slippers provided.
When at a hot-spring or public bath, clean yourself before entering the main pool. Do not enter if you are still soapy.
Do not engage in anti-social or dangerous behaviors such as littering, talking loudly on public transportations, jaywalking, etc.
Refrain from talking on handphones on public transportation. Switch your gadget to vibration mode too, known in Japan as “manner” mode.
Naturally, be respectful at temples and shrines.
It is not a must, but some basic knowledge of Japanese history and culture will also make your visit vastly more meaningful, and enjoyable.
Lastly, use online services such as Google Maps to pinpoint the locations of your hotels, etc. Japanese roads are often confusingly marked, and English signs are not always available.
You should also use a service like Hyperia.com to determine your travel routes if you are using rail transportation. On this, note that many Japanese train stations have very similar-sounding names, but could in reality be miles apart.