The currency used in Japan is the Yen (Y). Notes come in denominations of Y1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 and the notes in use are Y1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500.
The language spoken in almost all of the country is Japanese with the exception of certain regions where the older people speak various older languages which have since become redundant. English is widely spoken, however, particularly by younger citizens and in major cities and tourist areas.
Most of the country experiences a temperate climate resulting in a humid monsoon climate with south easterly winds blowing from the Pacific in summer and north westerly winds from Eurasia during winter. Japan experiences four distinct seasons but because it stretches for over three thousand kilometres along north and south, various parts, and particularly the extremities experience very different climates. For example, at certain times of the year you can sunbathe in the south or ski in the north at the same time. In general winters are cool and sunny in the north while they are significantly colder around the capital. Summer, which takes place between June and September, can get very hot and spring and autumn are generally quite mild. June is the rain season and typhoons are most likely to occur in September or October.
Japan lies nine hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time and it does not observe Daylight Saving Time.
The bigger stores throughout the country are usually open between 10.00am and 6.30 or 7.00pm daily while smaller shops are open for similar hours but many close on Sunday. Furthermore all stores close for one or two days per month. Business hours are generally between 9.00am and 5.00pm from Monday to Friday with many also opening until lunchtime on Saturday. Finally, banks open between 9.00am and 3.00pm from Monday to Friday.
Electricity in Japan is 100 Volts AC which is found in very few places worldwide. Furthermore, Tokyo and the east of the country operate on 50Hz while western Japan is on 60Hz.
A 5% sales tax is levied on most items in Japan but there are two ways in which to get around paying this surplus. Firstly, you can shop in any of the tax-free shops which entitle visitors to an exemption. Because these shops are specifically for foreigners, however, they are not always cheaper so you are advised to shop around before making any decisions. The second alternative is to pay the tax but shop in places which offer tax refunds for visitors on items purchase which cost over Y10,000. In this case you will need to pick up a special form when making your purchases and have the shop owner stamp if for you. He or she will then issue your refund immediately but you will need to have your passport with you to avail of this incentive.
Citizens of Austria, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Switzerland and the UK can stay for a period of up to six months without a visa but if you are going to work during your stay you will need to obtain the appropriate working papers. When you arrive you will be give a 90-day Short Stay Visa upon arrival which can be extended for another ninety days while inside the country. Those of you visiting from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and most European countries will also be granted the same visa when they arrive but if you intend to stay for longer you will need to organise this before you leave your home country. Residents of all other countries or those of you of you intending to work or study while you are there should contact the Japanese Embassy in your home country to find out exactly what documentation you will need before travelling.
The Japan National Tourist Organisation (JNTO) operate five main Tourist Information Centres (TIC) throughout the country and you will find these in the following locations:
Passenger Terminal Building
Kansai International Airport
Tel: 0724 56 6025
Open: 9.00am – 9.00pm
Kyoto Tower Building
Tel: 075 371 5649
Open: 9.00am – 5.00pm Mon. to Fri. & 9.00am – 12.00pm Sat.
Tokyo International Forum
Tel: 03 3201 3331
Open: 9.00am – 5.00pm Mon. to Fri. & 9.00am – 12.00pm Sat.
Passenger Terminal Two
Tel: 0476 34 6251
Open: 9.00am – 8.00pm
Passenger Terminal One
Tel: 0476 30 3383
Open: 9.00am – 8.00pm
As well as these centres, the JNTO operates tourist information offices with English speaking staff throughout the country. These are usually found in the main railway station and are easily recognised by finding the sign with a red question mark and the word ‘information’ printed underneath.
Post offices in Japan are recognisable by their symbol which consists of a red ‘T’ with a bar across the top on a white background. When posting mail, it is worth noting that the red boxes are for ordinary mail while the blue are for special deliveries.
The main branch in an area opens between 9.00am and 7.00pm from Monday to Friday and 9.00am and 3.00pm on Saturday. Many of these also have a window where you can avail of a twenty-four hour service seven days a week. In smaller towns, local post offices open between 9.00am and 5.00pm from Monday to Friday.
Both travellers’ cheques and foreign cash can be exchanged at Narita and Kansai international airports or in any bank displaying the ‘Authorised Foreign Exchange’ sign. In the case of the latter you will need to go the appropriate exchange counter. As well as this, however, you can also change foreign currency in any major post office, and in some of the larger hotels and department stores. While their rates are not quite as good, their opening hours are usually longer but be aware that they require quite a bit of paperwork before handing over your Yen. Banks are generally open between 9.00am and 3.00pm.
Finally, if you are using your credit card, the good news is that the exchange rate is even better than that given by banks but the bad news is that credit cards are not widely accepted outside the major cities. In fact, even in these locations, many businesses refuse to accept them also. If you are taking your card with you, however, VISA, MasterCard, American Express and Diners Club are those most commonly accepted.
The country code for Japan is 81 so if you are calling from abroad you need to dial your international dialing code followed by 81, the local area code and the local number. The same instructions apply when you are making an international call from within the country. You should also note that you need to omit the 0 from the local area code where applicable for both types of call.
Local calls cost Y10 for three minutes but for long-distance or overseas come prepared. Any Y10 coins which are not used will be returned but Y100 coins will not. The majority of payphones, however, now accept prepaid phonecards (terefon kado) which come in denominations of Y500 and 1,000 and can be bought from convenience stores or vending machines throughout the country. In most cases, however, it is not possible to make an international call from these booths. In order to do so you will need to go to any of the grey ISDN or green phones which have a gold metal plate around the buttons. These are found in booths marked ‘International & Domestic Card/Coin Phone’ but are very rare.
When you do find a phone where you can make international calls, the number for the operator is 0051 but if you wish to make the call yourself check the relevant number for the organisation or card type that you are using.
Finally, when making long distance or international calls try to do so late at night or at weekends. Between 7.00pm and 11.00pm on weekdays you will receive a discount of 20% and at weekends calls are 40% cheaper.
Up until recently tipping was virtually unheard off but the western custom is becoming more frequent. Nevertheless, it is still quite uncommon and at no time is it essential. In restaurants where a service charge of between 10% and 15% has already been included, you should only tip if you really think it’s necessary. If a service charge has not been added a tip equivalent to a service charge is adequate. You don’t need to tip taxi drivers but many people tell them to keep any small change. It is worth noting once again, however, that at no time is tipping compulsory, it is entirely at your own discretion and will probably earn you some funny looks as the locals find it quite strange.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In Japan they take place on January 1st, the second Sunday in February and the 11th, March 21st, April 29th, May 3rd and 5th, July 20th, September 15th and 23rd, the second Monday in October, November 3rd and December 23rd. Furthermore, when the public holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is taken as a public holiday. Finally, it is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.