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 time.

FAX Memo

To: […]
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 travelers 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 definitely not welcome in Japan: weapons, drugs, and porno. Also agricultural products like fruits and such might be seized.

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 follow.

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 tipee (?) 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:

#202 Meson Suwayama
3-31-3 Kamimeguro
Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153

My address at work is:


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 amount.

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 last train).

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 arrange it.

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8 Responses to Things to know before visiting Japan

  1. Leslie says:

    Thanks for the blog. It is helpful. Just wondering what you recommend for transportation from Narita airport into Tokyo, and any tips on that. And, what papers do you fill out prior to arrival in Tokyo or returning to the U.S?

    • Joe Larabell says:

      There are three main choices for getting from Narita Airport to Tokyo. The JR Narita Express (NEX) runs from the airport to Tokyo, Shinkuku, Yokohama, and other stations. The Keisei Skyliner runs from the airport to Nippori and Ueno. Keisei also has an express that runs to Shinagawa and Haneda Airport. Both lines also have less express-y options for those on a budget. All trains run from the basement of either terminal building. Your choice would obviously be based on where you hope to end up.

      The third choice is the Airport Limousine Bus, usually available from the arrival floor of either terminal. Busses run to many of the major hotels and other popular destinations. If the place you’re staying is serviced by a bus and you have a lot of luggage, this is the more convenient choice. The downside is that the travel time is somewhat unpredictable due to traffic. I’ve had to wait over an hour extra for someone arriving at a hotel by bus on a Friday night. Also, if you happen to be travelling with small children, the train might be better because you can get up and walk around if the kids get restless. On the other hand, the train will obviously only take you to a major train station and then you have to make your own way to wherever you’re going.

      For what it’s worth, I prefer NEX but my wife prefers the bus.

      As for paperwork… assuming you don’t already live in Japan, you’ll have to fill out a Disembarkation Card for Immigration. The card also includes a stub you’ll need to fill out when you leave. Also, whether you live here or not, you’ll need to fill out a customs form. Neither is very complex. Both are usually distributed by airline personnel on the incoming flight. If your passport is not from a country with which Japan has a reciprocal visa waiver agreement, you’ll need a visa which must be procured in advance. For that you can check with your local Japanese Consulate.

  2. John says:

    Thanks for the tips

  3. LA says:

    Our college-graduate daughter plans to go to Japan to teach English. She has a job offer and says the company will provide housing and deduct rent from her paycheck. First, is that standard practice (i.e., the style of a safe and legitimate company)? Second, how much money should she have in reserve before she travels? We are concerned she does not have enough saved. What would seem like a prudent amount?

    • Joe Larabell says:

      It’s not unusual for a company to provide housing at a reasonable fee. Housing in Japan is fairly expensive and if the amount they’re deducting is less than market price for the place (ie: closer to what an equivalent place might rent for in your home country), then the arrangement is probably intended to be an extra benefit to defray the higher cost of housing. If the rent is significantly higher than market price, it could be a scam. However, I had much the same arrangement when I first came here to work on assignment. The company “charged” me the equivalent of US rent and then paid the entire cost of my housing, including all the up-front costs.

      As for how much she should bring… that depends on lifestyle and other obligations. Someone single and without debt could probably live nicely on $2000 US per month, not counting housing (and live cheaply on half that). Depending on the company, she might not see a paycheck for a month or so (most businesses pay salaries monthly) so maybe twice that would hold her for the time being. I’m also assuming the company will pay the up-front costs for the apartment so that’s probably not an issue. I’d also suggest having enough saved to come back home if things don’t work out. That should be covered by her employer, but… just in case the employer goes bust the same day your daughter arrives… might as well have the cash. So maybe somewhere between $5000 and $6000 US… but that’s really for a worst-case scenario. If the job works out and the income is decent and starts to flow within a month of her arrival, a couple thousand US dollars might be plenty.

  4. LA says:

    Thanks, Joe, that helps a lot. I really appreciate your advice.

  5. Remy says:

    Hello Joe,
    I am a student that will be studying abroad in Japan. Is there a few suggestions or advice you can give a college student?
    Also, money wise, I read that you should carry cash do not bring credit cards. Is this true? Is a debit card ok?
    Food wise: Advice Do you need to drink bottled water?
    Hospitals: Do they have English speaking staff?
    Souvenirs? Don’t want to waste my money what’s the best thing to buy to remember Japan ?
    Is their a book that you recommend to learn Japanese?
    Thank you for your time and your advice,

    • Joe Larabell says:

      You can use credit cards and debit cards here. But smaller shops may not accept them so it’s not a bad idea to have some cash with you. The number of shops that don’t accept cards is getting smaller every year, especially since you don’t have to jump through hoops these days to sign up to accept cards. As far as water… the public water supply is perfectly safe. Very few hospitals have English staff but there is one big one, St.Luke in Tsukiji, that has many English-speaking staff and translators on call. That said, many local doctors do know a bit of English since a lot of medical literature is written in English. My regular doctor, for example, can write out the English names for most of the things he’s telling me about, even though he can’t always put them in proper sentences. As for souvenirs… if you’re going to be here for a while, that should become obvious. There are so many things available and so many different types of people one could give things to, I won’t even begin to advise you there. And when you get here (or before, if you’re in a reasonably large town) you should visit a bookstore and see the 1000s of books available for learning Japanese. Kinukoniya has a few stores with a lot of English books (Shinjuku, for example). Just pick up a few and flip through them until you find one that’s just beyond your current level — “challenging but not impossible” is what you should be looking for. If you’re in Tokyo, most of the ward offices have informal classes for free (run by volunteers) so you might want to check that out. Learning from a book is possible but a lot harder if you don’t have anyone you can actually talk to. Good luck and enjoy your adventure.

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