Last modified: Mon Jan 10 19:50:08 2000, see what's new.
Things to know before visiting Japan
This is an excerpt from a letter I sent to my step-daughter before she brought
my son over to visit me in Japan for the summer. At the time I had only been in
Japan for about six months (and living in Tokyo at that) so some of the comments
may seem somewhat biased and naive. I have removed any personal references from
the letter and, in some places, have made additional comments where my current
opinion differs from that which I held at the time the letter was written. Still,
it contains what I thought were the most important things to keep in mind at the
From: Joseph L Larabell
Date: March 30, 1994
Things to know before departure
The immigration officials are quite careful not to let anyone in the country on a
tourist visa who might be intending not to leave. The way they check this is by
asking you to show a ticket for return or onward travel. This should not be a
problem, as you and [...] already have round-trip tickets. However, since many
college students come to Japan on tourist visas to look for a job, expect a bit of
grilling on this issue.
Another thing the officials watch out for is that anyone coming into the country
has sufficient funds to survive without public assistance. For this reason I have
forwarded an advance check for [...] to [...] which you should carry in cash
and/or travellers checks to flash at the inspector if he asks how you will live while
you are here. It will also help to tell them you already have housing arrangements.
I'm sure this will not be a problem for you, but there are three things that are
definately not welcome in Japan: weapons, drugs, and porno. Also agricultural
products like fruits and such might be siezed.
How you will probably arrive
The airline should show a video describing arrival procedures at Narita. However, when
I flew Korean air, the video was in Korean with Japanese subtitles. Just in case, here
is what happens:
Most non-Japanese airlines land somewhere out on the tarmac and you take a bus
to the terminal building. When you get inside the terminal, the route is very easy to
The first stop is Immigration. There are separate lines for Japanese citizens and
foreigners. You can probably guess which lines move faster. At the counter you
will show your passport and the little white card the stewardess gave you to fill out
on the airplane. The guy might ask you what you're doing in Japan or he might not.
Next you will go down some stairs and retrieve your checked baggage. There
should be large carts available for free all over the place. When you get your bags,
you take everything over to the customs inspector where he may choose to look
through one or more bags. Once this guy gives you the OK, the red tape is over.
Just past the customs counters is the money exchange. I guess they've got as good
a rate as anyone so you can change some money there if you so desire. Otherwise,
I should be able to supply sufficient yen once you arrive. (The cash you bring with
you is mostly to get past the Immigration officer.)
After all this, you will find a door. Past that door is the arrivals lobby. I cannot
get any closer to the gate than this because of customs security. You will probably
arrive in Terminal One, in which case you could come out either of two doors. The
lobby is not very large so just hang out and I will find you. I have never been to
Terminal Two but it cannot be much different. Just wait wherever you see lots of
people meeting each other and I will track you down.
Things to know upon arrival
All foreign residents and visitors are required to have a passport or alien
registration card in their possession at all times. Failure to do so may result in an
unexpected few hours at the local police-box while someone caring soul fetches
your passport from home. Rule #1: Carry your passport whenever you leave
the house. Fortunately, there is no rule #2.
Japan is an exceptionally safe country -- possibly the safest in the world when it
comes to personal crimes. However, it is often wise to observe a bit of precaution
in public places, especially at the airport (where foreigners hang out).
If some problem should come up and you need assistance quickly, there are many
police-boxes, called Koban, located on various main street corners and other busy
places. The police inside do not always speak English, but I have heard that they
have a number they can call where an English-speaking officer is on duty 24-hours.
These koban are also good for getting directions but many times they will ask to
see your passport first (see #1 above).
The local currency is the Yen. There are about 105 to 110 yen to each dollar so a
quick conversion is to simply knock the last two digits off any price to get the
dollar equivalent. In other words, a Y350 train ticket is worth about $3.50 in US
currency. (Watch out because the 100 yen coin, worth roughly a dollar, is about
the same size as a US quarter!) Most shops have a hand calculator handy so the
clerk can just punch in the price of something you intend to purchase and then
visibly show you the resulting digits. If you are confused as to the values of
various coins and such, feel free to just stick out an open hand full of money and
let the proprietor pick out the correct amount. The business people here are so
honest it's ridiculous. There is also no tipping of any sort in Japan -- even if you
receive excellent service. The tippee (?) will most likely chase you down the street
to return the "forgotten" money.
The telephone system is quite modern and reliable (but sometimes expensive). If
you are out somewhere and you need to make a call, look for a green telephone.
These take the infamous "telephone cards" so you do not need to carry change. I
am enclosing a telephone card in case you have a problem, although I'm not sure
who you will call if I'm already waiting at the airport.
There is a great service (which, fortunately, I have never had to use) called the
Tokyo English Life Line (or TELL). They are supposed to be able to help the
visiting foreigner with all aspects of life in Japan, from emergencies to routine
questions. Their number is: (03)5295-1010. If you get in big trouble and for some
reason you cannot raise me at work or home, try this number.
The addresses here at home is:
My address at work is:
- #202 Meson Suwayama
Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153
Most streets in Japan are not named. The way you find an address is different from
the US. Using our home address as an example, we are in the Meguro Ward (ku)
of Tokyo. Within Meguro Ward (ku) there are various areas, one of which is
Kamimeguro (lit: Upper Meguro). The first "3" is the number of the cho-me, or
"section" of Kamimeguro. The "31" refers to the 31st block in that section. Be
careful -- Kamimeguro 3-31 is actually two or three blocks that were once only
one block so it's easy to get confused. The final "3" is the 3rd building which was
built onto that block. The name of the building is "Meson Suwayama" and we are
in apartment 202. Easy, no? (By the way, when the address is written in Japanese
it goes from large to small, that is: 153 Tokyo-to Meguro-ku Kamimeguro 3
chome 31 ban 3 go Meson Suwayama 202.)
Even the Japanese get confused when trying to find a new address. The one thing
you will probably notice as you walk around is the incredible number of maps
posted all over the place. Despite the fact that North is not always at the top of
these maps, they are actually quite easy to use. If you get lost, look for a map. If
the map does not help and you are really lost, look for a train or subway station.
Speaking of trains and subways, this is the primary mode of transport in the entire
country. Within Tokyo there are very few places that are not within 2 to 10
minutes walk of a train or subway station and those places not so situated are
usually not worth seeing anyway. The chief line in Tokyo is the Yamanote-sen (see
the attached kanji cheater card). If you can find any station on this line you are
never lost. The line runs in a big loop around all of central Tokyo so you cannot
get on the "wrong" way (only the "long" way). It passes through about half of all
the interesting places in the city and takes about an hour to make a full circle.
The way to use a train is to buy a ticket from the ticket machine and walk through
the automatic gate, putting the ticket into the slot as you pass through. Take it out
of the other end of the gate machine and keep it until you get where you are going.
At the other end of the journey will be a similar machine which will swallow your
ticket as you leave. You can also look for the inevitable human-run gate and hand
your ticket to the attendant with a puzzled look on your face.
At each train station, usually above the ticket machines, are the route and fare
maps. After a while you will get used to finding the correct fare from the map.
Most foreigners buy the cheapest ticket and then depend upon the human gate-
person at the other end to tell them how much more they may owe. Again, you can
just stick out a hand full of money and let the attendant pick out the proper
The busses are a bit more expensive than trains but they sometimes go to places
between the train stations. Taxis are ok for very short trips but unless you know
the distance is short, it is best to avoid taxis altogether. (Besides, the drivers
seldom understand English.)
Stay away from places labelled "snack". While you may feel a snack would be nice
after a long night of partying, the term "snack" actually refers to an expensive bar
where businessmen go to relieve their tensions and, in the process, their wallets.
Most things are open seven days a week, except for National Holidays and even
then most shops and restaurants are open anyway. The usual hours for shops and
the like are 10am to 7pm or sometimes 8pm. Bars and entertainment places stay
open till 11pm or 12pm but most close around the time of the last train.
Speaking of which -- the trains stop running around midnight or shortly thereafter,
depending where you are. If you get stuck somewhere far away after the last train,
well..., you could probably walk home in under two hours from most anywhere in
the city [boy, was I naive back then]. It's difficult to miss the last train because
just before that time the bars and streets suddenly become empty and everyone starts
running in the same direction (just like the old Godzilla movies -- the panicked
crowd scenes were probably just filmed at Shinjuku station immediately prior to the
Rush hour is usually from 7am (I guess, I'm never up that early) to 9am and again
from 5pm to 7pm. It's an interesting experience to be stuffed like a sardine into a
train -- once! It's probably best to arrange your schedule such that you're not
needing a train around those times.
If you're out and about and feel the need for some relief, there are rest rooms and
vending machines in just about every train and subway station (somewhere, not
always obvious) and there are vending machines on almost every street corner. The
bathrooms are never as clean as your own, but they're a damn sight better than
90% of the public restrooms in the US. Almost every bathroom I've seen here has
either English lettering or the internationally recognized symbols for male and
female. However, just about the time I say that, you will run across one with only
kanji. The attached sheet has the kanji for male and female -- the male is the one
with the rice field for a head and the female has her legs crossed.
I will procure a couple of good map books for you prior to your arrival. As a quick
reference, the attached kanji cheat-sheet has the names of our home station and the
most likely lines to get you there. If you end up lost somewhere, just find a train or
subway station, go up to the window and point to the "Naka-Meguro" characters
on the sheet. [Note: This applies to any station. Have someone write down the nearest
train station on a sheet of paper before you depart. Don't depend on signs. I recently
found the map I used on my first trip to Japan and the characters I wrote on the map
to help find my way back to the station if I got lost were the characters for 'exit'
(which I undoubtedly saw above the door of the station exit.]
Don't let all this information scare you. It's actually easy to get around in Tokyo. I
am looking forward to seeing you and [...] on 26 April at Narita Kuukoo (airport). By
the way, in case you're interested, I have a friend here (an American) who is fluent
in both English and Japanese and who is right now learning both American and Japanese
sign language with the intention of becoming an interpreter for a mostly-deaf motorcycle
club. If you're interested in meeting him and learning some Japanese signing, I can
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