Japan is not on the radar for many American travelers. Concerns about high prices and the language barrier, plus the post-Sept. 11 slump in travel, meant only an estimated 730,000...

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Japan is not on the radar for many American travelers.

Concerns about high prices and the language barrier, plus the post-Sept. 11 slump in travel, meant only an estimated 730,000 Americans traveled to Japan last year. About 3.6 million Japanese visited the United States in the same period, said Heather Garrett, deputy director of the Japan National Tourist Organization’s San Francisco office.

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The top destinations for American business travelers and tourists are Tokyo, Japan’s sprawling capital of more than 12 million people, and Kyoto, one of Japan’s ancient capitals which is studded with Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and high-quality craft shops. But in much of the rest of the country, Americans and other Western tourists are sparse.

The Japan National Tourist Organization recently launched a campaign to lure more foreign travelers to Japan. It has a useful Web site, www.jnto.go.jp, or phone the San Francisco office, 415-292-5686. In Japan, the organization has various tourist information centers, including at Tokyo’s Narita airport and Kansai airport near Osaka, the two main airports for international flights. They’re open daily and have helpful English-speaking staff.

Some basics

When to go: Spring and fall have the best weather. Summer can be steamy hot, and winter is as dreary as Seattle in the Tokyo/Kyoto area.

Visas: American tourists don’t need one for visits under 90 days. For more information, see the Web site of the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.: www.us.emb-japan.go.jp/english/html/.

Money matters: Despite its high-tech culture, Japan remains a cash society. Locals carry wads of cash and small businesses often prefer cash (and may not accept foreign credit cards). Japan’s low crime rate makes it possible, and convenient, for travelers to carry a stash of yen, too.

In the past, it was difficult to use ATMs to get cash. Post offices throughout Japan now have international ATMs, with instructions in English, and they’re also found in some large department stores and some major hotels.

One financial plus: Tipping is not customary nor expected in Japan.

Getting around

Airports: Tales abound of visitors stuck with a $200 taxi ride from Narita airport into central Tokyo (the airport is about 40 miles from the central city) . But there are much cheaper options.

Take one of the two speedy airport trains — the Keisei Skyliner or Japan Railways’ Narita Express — to central Tokyo stations. It costs $20-$30 for the hour-long ride. Or take one of the airport limousine buses which run frequently to a central Tokyo terminus and major hotels. For more information and links to airport bus and rail Web sites, see www.narita-airport.or.jp/airport/.

The other major airport for international flights is Kansai, on a man-made island near the city of Osaka: see www.kansai-airport.or.jp/english/. There are railway and bus terminals within the airport, making ground transport very easy, including a Japan Railways West express train that leaves for Kyoto about every half-hour and takes only 75 minutes.

Rail travel: Japan Railways, a consortium of regional companies, runs one of the best rail systems in the world, with extensive and fast service, including the famous high-speed Shinkansen “bullet” trains which cruise along at around 170 mph. On major lines, station names and some onboard information are in English.

The Japan Rail Pass is economical for those traveling a lot by rail: it’s valid for seven, 14 or 21 days and, like a Eurail pass, needs to be purchased before entering the country. For more information, contact a travel agent or see www.japanrailpass.net. Also see www.japanrail.com for more information and links to Japanese rail sites.

Buses: Long-distance buses (and city buses) are challenging for those who don’t speak Japanese. However, buses on tourist routes, including in some national parks where private cars aren’t permitted, may have some limited information in English.

Tokyo transportation: In Tokyo, there’s an extensive, excellent subway system which takes visitors just about anywhere they’d want to go. Station names are in English, and information booths at major, multi-level stations such as Ginza, an upscale central Tokyo shopping area, have English-speaking staff who can give advice plus maps. Many of the big stations have multiple exits, so be sure you know which one you need to use to get to a particular place.

Only the very brave or foolhardy would drive a rental car in Tokyo, given the congestion and the confusing maze of Tokyo streets where even veteran cab drivers get lost. To make it more confusing, the Japanese, like the British, drive on the left.

Taxis are handy for short distances in Tokyo, but long trips are very costly. Always carry one of your hotel’s business cards with you; most have locator maps on the back which will help a taxi driver find the hotel. And don’t be surprised by the taxi’s passenger door, which opens automatically.


On a nicely uncrowded bullet train between Tokyo and Nagano (which hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics), food and drinks are served to passengers.

There’s far more information in English in Japan than Japanese-language information in the U.S. But the farther you get from the big tourist areas the less English you’ll find. Do carry a phrase book, even in Tokyo, in case you need help communicating in restaurants or on the subway. Lonely Planet publishes the compact, but comprehensive, “Japanese Phrasebook” ($6.95).

Where to stay:

Hotel basics: Room rates can be sky-high, but decent hotels are available in Tokyo for about $80-$100 a night if you avoid upscale neighborhoods and the luxury hotel chains.

Outlying cities tend to be cheaper, and true budget travelers can stay cheaply in youth hostels (about $20 a night) which are scattered throughout the country. Or try B&Bs or the traditional (and Spartan) accommodations in temples.

Ryokans, traditional Japanese inns with tatami mats on the floor and roll-out futons, range from budget to ultra deluxe.

Japan has many mid-scale hotel chains that cater to business travelers — such as the Roynet and Toyoko-Inn chain — which work well for tourists. Rooms are generally small but comfortable, and many have tea-makers and small fridges.

The Japanese National Tourist Organization has information on hotels and links to online booking. The Welcome Inn Reservation Center is a free service, aimed at foreigners, that books many mid-range hotels throughout Japan: www.itcj.or.jp/.

Be aware that there’s a 5 percent lodging tax; top hotels also have a 10 to 15 percent service charge.

Japan tours

For those who don’t want to cope with making their own bookings or finding their way through Tokyo and beyond, many companies offer Japan tours, from bare-bones to luxury.

The Japan National Tourist Organization lists some tour companies with current promotions at www.japantravelinfo.com/ (click on tour packages). Some offer winter rates of around $1,700, including airfare, for 8- to 10-day tours of Tokyo and Kyoto. Other more specialized tours, from U.S. companies such as the upscale Geographic Expeditions or Abercrombie and Kent, cost more than $5,000 per person.

I arranged my trip through Inside Japan, a tiny British company that offers small-group, moderately-priced tours of Japan, starting at around $1,500 per person for a 10-day trip. Hotels, transportation within Japan and some meals are provided. Daily explorations are independent, although a “tour buddy” travels with the group. www.insidejapantours.com


As in New York or London, you can spend a fortune on restaurant meals, but low-priced noodle restaurants abound in Tokyo and other cities, with a filling, decent meal costing around $8. (I did, however, get sticker shock when a cup of mediocre drip coffee at a cafe in the trendy Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo cost $6.)

For sushi lovers, the “conveyor-belt” sushi restaurants are an economical way to eat. Diners pluck plates of sushi from a mini conveyor belt that a chef continually loads; you can eat well for $12-$15.

Western food is available in many restaurants, including fast-food chains. For high-quality, and relatively reasonably priced take-out food, big department stores or even the Ginza subway station in Tokyo have food halls with an elaborate choice of Japanese and Western take-out offerings, from fresh sushi to cold meats and French bread and pastries. Department stores also often have restaurants.

At train stations, kiosks sell all kinds of food, including pre-prepared bento boxes.


Japanese society is permeated with social conventions, some so arcane that most foreigners won’t even know they’re breaking the rules. But travelers who observe some of the basics will find it much appreciated. Among them:

• If you’re doing any business in Japan, take a business card with you. At some major hotels you can arrange to have one printed in English and Japanese.

• Dress up a bit. Japanese women and men rarely wear shorts or other such casual clothes in cities. There’s no way most Americans will be as stylish as the Japanese, but don’t dress as if you’re cleaning out your garage or going to the beach.

• Bowing is still commonplace. To be polite, bow back at the same angle, although for foreigners a polite dipping of the head can suffice.

• Japanese rarely eat on the street, except right around outdoor food stalls. Nor should you blow your nose in public; it’s poor manners. And don’t point your feet at people when you’re seated on a mat at a tea ceremony, etc; that’s also considered rude.

• Japan is a gift-giving society. At major tourist sites, shops are packed with elegant gift boxes of dried fruits, cookies and candies, plus endless knick-knacks. Japanese travelers load up for family and office mates, even after just a weekend jaunt.

Take along some small items from your hometown — from Seattleites, Ichiro items are a guaranteed hit — to bestow upon new acquaintances.

Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.com