View across Tokyo at night with the buildings all lit and Tokyo Tower rising up dramatically.

Tokyo Tower rises up above the city. Photo © Nattachai Sesaud.

Many people are attracted to karate, sumo, Zen Buddhism, anime, or high-tech gadgetry, and imagine how great it would be to experience these things in Japan. A fact-finding trip is an important step to take before deciding on a permanent move, however. Unlike a casual tourist, you are on a mission to discover whether you can be happy living in a foreign environment for an extended period. If you’ve never felt what it’s like to be a minority member of a society, you will experience it for the first time in Japan. Lack of fluency in Japanese will limit you until you gain more skill. Before you go, talk to people who’ve lived there and gather as much information as you can about jobs and housing in the regions you plan to visit. The more reading and research you do and the more contacts you make in advance, the more you will gain from the trip.

What to Take

U.S. citizens who are going to Japan as a “temporary visitor” or tourist can stay up to 90 days without a visa. Make sure you have your return air ticket and that your passport is valid for at least 90 days beyond your arrival date. Foreigners entering Japan must provide fingerprint scans and have their photograph taken as part of entry procedures (with certain exceptions, including children under 16 years of age). Bring your health insurance card, emergency contact numbers, and travel insurance. There are no immunization requirements.


If you speak Japanese, you’re ahead of the game. Pack your guidebooks, dictionary, and clothes and you’re ready to go. If you don’t know Japanese but have a good ear, a sense of humor, and a skill for drawing and pantomime, take along a good phrasebook and try to absorb as much language as you can during the trip. Take along a chart of Japanese kana (phonetic letters). If you can memorize the 46 square-shaped katakana letters, you’ll be able to read menus in coffee shops and Western-style restaurants, as well as foreign names and places. Invest in a good Japanese–English/English–Japanese dictionary.


Japanese people dress up, whether shopping, riding the train, or going out to eat. Only joggers wear sweat suits, and women dress conservatively. Wearing revealing clothing, tube tops, and miniskirts may draw unwanted looks. If you’re job hunting, bring a nice shirt and tie or a dress. In summer, when it’s hot and muggy, light colored, moisture-wicking, quick-drying clothing is best. Bring your hat and comfortable slip-on shoes. Shorts are worn for sports, but otherwise long pants are the norm. In Hokkaido, you’ll want a sweater and jacket on cool summer evenings. In fall and spring, add long-sleeve tops and, in winter, warm coat and gloves. A light rain jacket is handy. Above all, travel light! You will be lugging your suitcase up and down steps. A rolling backpack is practical.


As for toiletries, take sunblock, deodorant, skincare items, and pain medication. These are available, but somewhat more expensive. Shampoo, razors, and toothpaste are inexpensive and can be found at 100-yen shops ($1.25). You can bring up to one month’s supply of prescription medications—note that U.S. prescriptions are not transferable. Reading material for wait or travel time is wise, and souvenirs or postcards from home are nice as gifts for people who help you out.

Japan has one time zone and does not change clocks for daylight savings time as in the United States. From mid-March to October, Japan is 13 hours ahead of eastern time and 16 hours ahead of Pacific time. When it’s noon in Seattle, it’s 4 a.m. the following morning in Tokyo. From November to mid-March (standard time), Japan is 14 hours ahead of eastern time and 17 hours ahead of Pacific time. Noon in New York is 2 a.m. the next day in Japan.

Electricity is 100 volts, while the United States is 120 volts. Most electrical appliances will work, with less power. Tokyo and eastern Japan are on 50 hertz, while Osaka in western Japan is 60 hertz. This will not make a significant difference in most electronic equipment.

Money: How Much to Take?

If you are frugal and stay in inexpensive hotels and eat cheaply, $200 per day is adequate for food and lodging. Bring another $75–100 per day for travel and shopping. If you’re going for deluxe accommodations and food, you might budget up to $500 a day. Transportation by air or bullet train should be budgeted for separately. Travelers checks are no longer as useful because cash is available from cash machines (ATMs) that accept international bankcards. You can use a debit or credit card at 7-Eleven stores, as well as at post offices. Smaller towns may not have a 7-Eleven, and post offices are closed nights and weekends. Be prepared to have adequate cash with you each day because many smaller hotels and restaurants don’t accept credit cards. Travelers checks have limited use other than in a few large department stores and shops catering to foreign tourists. Foreign exchanges at major airports have competitive rates and take less time than at banks (and not all banks have a foreign exchange service). Personal checks are not used in Japan—electronic banking is the norm. Lastly, be sure to inform your home bank about your travel plans, or they may block your ATM card when you try to use it abroad. It can take several days and numerous phone calls to straighten it out, and meanwhile, you are cashless (as I found out the hard way).

Currency and Exchange

The Japanese monetary unit is 円, en (“yen” in English). Common bills are sen-en (¥1,000), gosen-en (¥5,000), and ichi-man-en (¥10,000), distinct in color and size; nisen-en ¥2,000 bills are infrequently used. Coins are ichi-en (¥1), go-en (¥5), ju-en (¥10), goju-en (¥50), hyaku-en (¥100), and gohyaku-en (¥500), in different sizes and colors. Five- and 50-yen coins have a hole in the middle. Most vending machines take up to ¥10,000 bills. The foreign exchange rate for yen to U.S. dollar in 2012 fluctuated between ¥76 and ¥84. For convenience, we use the rate of ¥80 to the U.S. dollar in this book. Not all banks offer foreign exchange; those that do require your passport and may have short hours.

Taxes and Tipping

In Japan, the customer is king; shopping is a pleasure and customer service is excellent. Larger hotels, department stores, restaurants, and taxis accept major credit cards, but there are still many shops, eateries, and inns that will only take cash. A 5 percent consumption tax will be added to your bill. (In 2012 the government put forth a proposal to raise the consumption tax to 8 percent in 2014 and to 10 percent in 2015.) You don’t need to leave a tip in restaurants, taxis, hotels, or elsewhere in Japan, and if you try, it will likely be refused. A smile and thanks (“Arigatoo gozaimasu”) will do.

When to Go

Spring and fall are the most pleasant seasons to visit Japan. Cherry blossoms start blooming in January in Okinawa, and in late March to early April in Tokyo. Temperatures in April and May are moderate and comfortable. June to mid-July is the rainy season, after which most of Japan (except Hokkaido) turns hot and muggy. July to early October is an ideal time to visit Hokkaido, which has cool summers and no set rainy season. September can still be very warm in much of Japan. Fall colors are at their peak in late October through November, and scenic destinations, including Kyoto, are quite crowded. Winter is brisk, and as central heating is not common in homes nor in older ryokan inns, guest rooms may be drafty. Southern Kyushu and subtropical Okinawa are possible winter destinations. However, to gain a realistic idea of what the weather in Japan is like, you might plan a visit in summer or winter to see how it feels.

If you like to ski, Hokkaido and the central mountains of Gunma and Nagano are great in winter. Sapporo holds an International Snow Festival in the first week of February, attracting millions. New Year’s is the biggest holiday of the year and there are crowds everywhere. Most businesses close between December 28 and January 3, so it’s not a good time to search for jobs and housing. Avoid traveling during major holidays such as New Year’s, Golden Week (April 29–May 5), and Obon (August 14–17), when 127 million people are on the move or flying overseas.

Join a Tour

If this is your first trip to a non-English-speaking country and you’re nervous about getting around on your own, organized tours are an option. Day tours or multi-day tours of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and other regions with an English-speaking guide can provide lots of information. Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) is a good source of information; call the U.S. office for free maps and brochures. Some cities, such as Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Tokyo have volunteer guides— local residents who want to introduce English speakers to their city. Reserve ahead by phone or email through JNTO’s website. How about a tour on two wheels? Cycle Tokyo! will introduce you to the metropolis by bicycle on weekends, by advance reservation. Kyoto Cycling Project offers guided tours including bike rental.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Japan.