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Living in Japan: Content Index

Geography & Weather

Geography

The Japanese archipelago was designed by someone delighting in complexity. The islands have a total area roughly the same as the US state of Montana, but whereas Montana is very neat with square corners, Japan is scattered about in four main islands - Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. Japan extends about 3,000 kilometers from subtropical seas (Okinawa) to sub-arctic climes (northern Hokkaido) and takes up less than 0.3% of the earth's surface.

The land is very up and down, with lots of up. Plains account for only 13% and plateaus for 12% of the total land area; the rest is mountainous, and the mountains are steep. The graceful curve of Japan's highest mountain, Mr. Fuji (3,776 meters) is an exception. In Japan, 532 mountains are over 2,000 meters high. The landform that is today's Japan began its history 400 million years ago. There are three continental plates that intersect under Japan, and these are responsible for what the islands look like and how they behave.

In fact, they do not behave terribly well. There are 67 active volcanoes in Japan and thousands of hot springs, the latter being the source of much pleasure and one of Japan's greatest sports - sitting in hot water. Japan has a population of around 123 million people (7th largest in the world) and 75% of this population is concentrated in urban centers. Areas such as the Tokyo-Yokohama-Kawasaki conurbation are so densely populated that they have almost ceased to be separate cities, running into each other and forming a huge urban sprawl, which, if considered as a whole, would constitute the world's largest city.

For maps of Japan's prefectures and major cities, see the Maps of Japan section.

The Weather

The biggest topic of conversation here in Japan is the weather. Japan experiences 4 seasons that go unmistaken. Late autumn and winter generally are dry. Spring is a bit disappointing, being often hazy and vague, but May picks up this slack. Then comes the Rainy season, or tsuyu, when the islands become soggy for about a month. Tsuyu is a kind of limbo, emphasized by the gray skies, gray faces, and green-gray mildewed shoes in the entryway.

When the rain stops, it's summer. High humidity (97%) and high temperatures (30+ C). At this point one realizes that the earth's equator has snarled itself around Tokyo Tower (where it stays for about 6 weeks). In early September, Japan is back where it belongs in the temperate latitudes, experiencing comfortable temperatures. Generally winters are mild and dry, with light snows likely from mid January to early March. October and early November are considered, with May, to be the best times for traveling in Japan and the best times to invite visitors from abroad.



Japan Maps

Japan is divided into 5 main geographical divisions: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa. The main island of Honshu is further divided into 5 regions: Tohoku, Chubu, Kanto, Kinki and Chugoku. The administrative system is divided as follows: Tokyo To (metropolis); Hokkaido Do (circuit); Osaka Fu, Kyoto Fu (urban prefectures); 43 Ken (prefectures). This system was introduced in 1888, with Tokyo being designated as a metropolis in 1943.

Click on the prefecture names below and it will take you to the English section (where available) of their respective official Web sites.

Japan's prefectures

The population of Japan is approximately 126,580,000 (August 1999). The most densely populated areas are the Tokyo metropolis and its port cities of Yokohama and Kawasaki and the so-called Kansai area, made up of Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto. While the population of the 23 ku (wards) that make up the city of Tokyo is around 8 million, the metropolis is home to almost 30 million people. The population of the Kansai araea is around 16 million.

Click on the cities in the map below to go to their Web sites.

Japan's cities



What to bring

For the serious traveler, the number one rule in Japan is much the same as anywhere else - travel light. There's nothing more useful as more space in your bag. Travelling light is even more important for rail travelers as trains usually have little space for storing bags.

Money and Essentials
A supply of traveler's checks is essential to see you through your stay. Yen travelers checks are the safest and easiest and can be changed to cash at most local banks. Japan is a cash society! You will become used to carrying a wad of cash everywhere you go! If you are going to a rural area it may be best to either skip the travelers checks (take yen cash) or change them once you've hit Tokyo. U.S. traveler's checks are generally accepted, but expect to have to travel to the nearest large bank to change them. Other key things not to forget are your passport, visa, phone numbers (home and emergency), and an international drivers license (many jobs require it).

Clothing
Clothing will depend very much on where and when you are in Japan and what your are doing. You can buy all types of clothing in Japan, however they usually are not cheap and sizes can be a problem if you are not near a large city. Some people find that standard Japanese sizes do not fit them. Shoes and pants are likely to be most difficult. Men who wear over 27 cm size shoes and women over 24.5 are encouraged to bring what they will need from home. My shoe size is 30 cm and I have yet to find a pair here that will fit. One way around this is mail order catalogs. Many of which are on-line. L.L. Bean, and Eddie Bauer are most popular!

If you're a fitness buff, be warned: unless you're near a sports outlet, sports wear is very expensive. Generally Japan's climate is somewhat similar of continental USA; bring winter gear for winter (hats, gloves, boots, etc.) and nothing more than t-shirts and light pants for summer. Unless you're in Japan on business you are unlikely to meet situations where 'coat and tie' standards are enforced; casual clothing is all you'll need. There is a rainy season between June and July here in Japan. A rain coat may be handy. Umbrellas are cheap and can be found everywhere!

Medicines
Most things are available (certainly in Tokyo), though at a higher price than at home. You only need to bring brand names to which you are especially attached (Tums are really hard to find). You do not need any inoculations for entry into Japan. Please be aware of Japanese customs restrictions. Medicines that are sold over the counter in your home country may be illegal in Japan if they contain stimulants (i.e. medicines containing Pseudoephedrine such as Actifed, Sudafed and Vicks inhaler). Codeine is also illegal. Check cold, allergy, and sinus medicines extra carefully.

- Prescription Medications:
Bring unopened in original packaging.
Bring a copy of the prescription.
In principle, you can bring up to a month's supply. If you bring more, the medicine may be seized and you could be charged with intent to sell illegal substances. Once your supply has run out, take the prescription to a doctor in Japan and get a new prescription for an equivalent medicine sold in Japan.

- Non-Prescription Medications: (you can bring up to a 2-month supply)
Aspirin
Cold, allergy, sinus medicines (without stimulants)
Stomach medicine

- Sending Medications:
Up to a one-month supply of prescription medicines that are legal for import, including birth control pills can be sent. Be sure to include the prescription in the package and a note from you physician specifying the dosage.
Up to a two-month supply of non-prescription medicines can be sent.

Contraceptives
Lubricants are available but ones with spermicides (nonoxynol-10), are difficult to find outside of Tokyo. The pill is also difficult to get. Prescriptions are only for health reasons or severe menstrual pain (the dosage is quite high). Therefore, if you use it, bring your own supply along with the prescription. Condoms are the most widely used form of contraception in Japan. If size is an issue, it is recommended that you bring your own supply!

Miscellaneous to Bring
Dental products
Fluoride toothpaste is difficult to find, although a water fluoride mixture is available.
Vitamins
Japanese brands tend to be expensive and not quite as effective (you can bring up to a 4 month supply).
Cosmetics and hair care products
It may also be a good idea to bring your own, once again they are very expensive in Japan.

Presents (Omiyage)
Gift giving in Japan is a very popular custom in Japan. It helps new arrivals start off on the right foot. Rest assured that anything you bring will be greatly appreciated, so you do not have to bring large expensive gifts (note: It is customary in Japan to give a small gift to each of your neighbors.). Different ideas include: picture book of your country, tie pins, scenic calendars, sweets, key chains, stamps, letter openers and liquor. Anything will be appreciated but have the gifts wrapped or buy small bags to put them in.



Entry into Japan

Visas can be incredibly frustrating. Japan's immigration office is legendary even amongst bureaucracies. They really like you to fit clearly into one of their categories (working, working holiday, student, cultural activities), yet loathe to reveal exactly what the criteria actually are. Perhaps the greatest point in favour of conversation schools and Japanese-language schools is that they will usually take care of this mess for you.

What is a Visa?
You are now probably asking yourself, "What is a visa?". According to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs a visa can be stated as, "a recommendation that a foreigner should be allowed to enter Japan". In other words, it is a kind of certificate (actually officially refered to as "status of residence") issued by the ambassador or consulate verifying that the foreigner's passport is genuine and valid and that the application for a stay in Japan for the purpose and period indicated on the visa has been deemed appropriate. If you plan to come to Japan you must first decide whether you intend on a short-term or long-term stay in order to decide what visa you will need to apply for.

Short-term Visas
If you plan to come to Japan for a short-term period you will require a Temporary Visitor's Visa. A Temporary Visitor's Visa gives you permission to engage in the following activities:

Sightseeing; recreation; sports; visiting relatives, friends, or acquaintances; visiting a sick person; attending a wedding or funeral ceremony; participating in athletic tournaments, contests, etc. as an amateur; business purposes (such as market research, business liaison, business consultations, signing a contract, or providing after-sale service for imported machinery); inspecting or visiting plants, trade fairs, etc.; attending lectures, explanatory meetings, etc.; academic surveys or research presentations; religious pilgrimages or visits; friendship visits to sister cities, sister schools, etc.; or other similar activities during a short period of stay in Japan.

With a Temporary Visitor's Visa you are allowed to remain in Japan for a period (for most nationalities) of 90 days! In order to obtain this visa you will require the following material:

1. A ticket for boarding an airplane or a vessel to leave Japan, or a written guarantee issued by a transport company.
2. A valid passport which enables the foreign national concerned to enter foreign countries out of Japan.
3. Documents certifying that the person concerned can defray all expenses incurred during the stay in Japan.

You are not permitted to engage in work on a Temporary Visitor's Visa! If you plan to start work while on this type of visa you will need to "Request for a change of status of residence". This is a long, worrisome, complicated process that will require the help of the organization you plan to work for. In essence applying for a change in residency status is applying for a long-term visa.

Long-term Visas
If you wish to enter Japan for work or study, you will be required to apply for a diplomatic visa, official visa, working visa, general visa, or specified visa. Naturally, foreigners who enter Japan having acquired a working visa are able to work in Japan. Typical types of employment include the long-term assignment to Japan of foreign company personnel; employment in Japanese companies to make use of the foreigner's knowledge of other countries; entertainment activities, such as concerts, theater, and sports; and educational activities, such as foreign-language teaching.

It is also possible to get permission for long-term stays for some activities that meet certain criteria, such as Japanese university or college education or company training, although work is not permitted in these cases. Permission for long-term residence in Japan is also granted in the case of spouses of Japanese nationals and others who settle in Japan. For more information on what documents are required for each type of visa please visit Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs web site.

When applying for a visa for the above-mentioned activities, it is advisable to apply beforehand for a Certificate of Eligibility (COE, see below). If you submit a visa application to an embassy or consulate together with a COE, you will be able to obtain a visa in a shorter time than applicants without such a certificate. You will require the help of the organization willing to hire you as the application for the COE is to be made in Japan only!

Foreigners can apply for a visa without such a certificate at an embassy or consulate in the case of long-term stays also. But if the purpose of the stay is work, the application documents might be forwarded to a regional immigration authority in Japan for screening. In this case applicants are advised to leave plenty of time for their application to be processed.

Certificate of Eligibility
A Certificate of Eligibility is issued before a visa application by a regional immigration authority under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. It acts as evidence that the applicant fulfills various conditions of the Immigration Control Act, including those certifying that the activity in which the foreigner wishes to engage in Japan is valid and comes under a status of residence (excluding Temporary Visitor Status).

The Certificate of Eligibility has the advantage of reducing the time required to obtain a visa and complete immigration procedures, since a foreigner in possession of such a certificate can probably acquire a visa at an embassy or consulate without any inquiries being made to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, by showing the certificate to the immigration officer, obtain landing permission more easily.

Please note, however, that even if a foreigner possesses a Certificate of Eligibility, an embassy or consulate will not issue a visa in certain circumstances. - For example, if there has been a change in the situation since the issue of the certificate (such as the company that was planning to hire the foreigner decided not to because of business difficulties) or if it becomes evident that the documents submitted to obtain the certificate were false. For more details concerning the acquisition of a Certificate of Eligibility and the time required, please inquire at the nearest regional immigration authority.

Working Holiday Visas
Citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Korea, France, Germany and the UK between the ages of 18 and 30 (25 for the UK) can apply for a working holiday visa. This visa allows a six month stay and two six-month extensions. The visa's aim is to enable young people to travel extensively during their stay and for this reason employment is supposed to be part time or temporary, although in practice, many people work full time.

A working holiday visa is much easier to obtain than a proper visa and is popular with the Japanese employers as it can save them a great deal of inconvenience. Applicants must have the equivalent of $2000.00 in funds and an onward ticket from Japan, or $3000.00 in funds without the ticket. For further information, contact a Japanese Consulate in your country or see the MOFA web site.

Customs
Customs allowances include the usual tobacco products, three 760 ml bottles of alcoholic beverages, 57 grams of perfume and gifts and souvenirs up to a value of 200,000 YEN or its equivalent. If you're a vodka or beer drinker there's no need to bring alcohol with you as these items are cheap and available everywhere (even on streets in vending machines for your convenience).

Alien Registration Card
Anyone, and this includes tourists, who stays for more than 90 days is required to obtain an Alien Registration Card. This card can be obtained at the municipal office of the city, town or ward in which you're living. Moving to another area requires that you re-register within 14 days. You will need your passport, two recent 4 x 3 cm photographs, and a completed application form (available at the office). If your official period of stay in Japan is valid for more than one year you will may also be fingerprinted.

Your Alien Registration Card contains the following information: Your name, your nationality and home state, the place and date of your birth, your passport number, when you first landed, your address in Japan, the name of your householder, your relationship to the householder, your visa status, your occupation, and the name of you sponsoring company or institution and its address.

If any of the variables in this list change, you must report back to your city or ward office within 2 weeks with necessary paper work to make the change. You must carry you Alien Registration Card at all times as the police can stop you and ask to see the card. If you don't have the card, you will be taken back to the station and will have to wait there until someone fetches it for you.

Extension of Stay
So you're just starting to have fun when -whammo!- your visa is about to expire. All conditions being equal you can apply for an extension of your period of stay. If you studies are not yet finished, wanting to stay longer to complete them is definitely a valid reason. If you would simply like to stay and continue working at your current job, that is also a valid reason. Of course permission can be denied, but if you've paid your taxes and/or dutifully attended your classes, there should be no problem.

In general, Japan's immigration laws are relaxing in relation to skilled workers, so occasionally some requirements are waived. This also depends on your and/or your sponsor's record with immigration. Students or teachers at small, unknown schools always get the most grief.

Reentry
If you leave the country within your allocated period of stay without a reentry permit, you will forfeit your visa. There is an immigration office at the airport, but you really have to bow and scrape to get them to issue you a reentry, and you certainly should not make it a habit. Reentries come in 2 kinds - singles and multiples.

If you think you will leave the country at least twice within your period of stay, then a multiple is the way to go. It costs double but gives you unlimited reentry. Reentry permits are valid for one-year, so to get the maximum value, you should apply for a reentry on the day you pick up your visa. Applications are available at all immigration offices throughout Japan. When you leave the country, you will need to fill out an embarkation/disembarkation card, half of which will be stapled into your passport. Don't lose it!

And Finally
Expect the unexpected and be prepared. Don't ever rely on only one source of information when it comes to visas, entry, passports and Japan. Think of the worst scenario, because in Japan, Murphy's law rules!

The Workplace

The Japanese workplace, in general, is rather different from working environments in most of the Western world. For most Westerners, there will be difficulties and a need to adapt and cope. Adapting and coping are the two most important factors for surviving the workplace. Trying to change either yourself or the environment will bring about much unneeded trauma!

Working hours are the first hurdle. The West has sharply defined mental boxes regarding time. There are clear-cut schedules for this and that and working hours start somewhere about 9:00 am and end at about 5:00pm, crisp and sharp. The Japanese do not use the same time frame. Hours are determined by the flow or work at hand and by numerous social factors.

Japanese take pride in the amount of hours they work and for most, work comes first, family second. At the very least, the Westerner in Japan should be prepared to be reasonably flexible (flexible takes on a new meaning here) and try to discard any hard-edged preconceptions of what constitutes a working day. Surveys show that the Japanese work fewer hours per year than US workers, but the official figures don't reflect the levels of "unoffical", often unpaid overtime hours put in.

Company life is very different for men and women. For men, it has traditionally meant a lifetime commitment that will take up far more of their waking hours than will their family. For most men, the workplace is a nonstop commitment from the day they graduate to retirement. Even their annual two-week holidays are often forfeited because it would look like disloyalty to want to have a holiday from the company. The Japanese corporate world is becoming increasingly westernized and "ruthless", with economic hardship causing companies resorting to "risutora" - restructure, a euphemism for firing large numbers of employees. This has caused more and more, usually younger, employees to rethink their loyalty to any given company. But in Japan, change comes slowly. Very slowly.

For women, company-life experience is liable to be limited to four or five years of answering the phone and offering tea to visitors before retreating to a life of domesticity. Women who return to work after marriage, and more and more are doing so, are likely to be involved in small-scale industry that provides none of the benefits available to most Japanese workers. The gap between average female earnings is greater in Japan than any comparable advanced nation.

One thing that must be noted here is the foreigner in the workplace. Not wishing to step on anyone's toes, they often will nod and smile and do what is requested. Please be cautious. As a foreigner you were hired for one reason, your native speaking ability. If it wasn't for this they would have hired Japanese (it would sure be much easier for them to do so). In no way have you signed a contract to be abused or mistreated. Remember, you are quite special to your employer, and they need you as much as you need them. Leave all the Japanese etiquette and customs to them. Do what you know is honest and follow your heart. After all, are we not still human beings?

Japanese Customs & Etiquette

Japan is a society of etiquette and many customs. For many foreigners, at first, they will seem quite awkward. But never fear - with some sensitivity there is little chance of truly offending anyone. Overall, the more complex aspects of Japanese social interactions deal with the language, and only pose problems for those who have abandoned their home country for this new world. With a little practice a foreign visitor to Japan can take part in the more common Japanese social rituals.

The Japanese bow, exchanging of meishi, swapping shoes for less comfortable plastic slippers, and sitting seiza on the floor will all become second nature in time. Long-term visitors are prone to a love-hate relationship with Japan. Short-term visitors are likely to accept the polite and friendly nature of the Japanese as the most memorable impression.

But no matter what long-termers have to say, most visitors leave Japan with incredible stories of Japanese courtesy: backpackers treated to lunch; invited into someone's home when the local hotel is full; driven to the airport because bags may be too cumbersome for the train.

Below are some common beliefs of Japanese customs and etiquette. I will classify these beliefs as either 'Myth' or 'Fact' based on what I have heard and experienced.

"The best way to learn proper Japanese manners is to mimic those around you."

- Fact: Everyone knows the saying,"Learn by doing". The one sure way to know if what you're doing is socially correct is to follow those around you. Manners vary from town to town, region to region in Japan, so be careful. When possible, mimic someone of the same sex and age as these two factors also play a part. Just don't get carried away and follow the guy who dyed his hair green because he saw it on American TV.

"When bowing: men, hands to the sides; women, hands in front."

- Fact but: It's true that Japanese bow over and over (thank you, sorry, how do you do, excuse me) with hands in proper position, in a true Japanese gathering. When a foreigner is involved the Japanese tend to look more towards his/her happiness and less at if his/her hands are in correct position. A simple bow is all that's needed. Tilt your head forward and bend.

"The place of honour in a car is the seat directly behind the driver."

- Fact: This is one of the more peculiar Japanese customs. It can be traced back to the time of the rickshaw. Those of honour (and wealth) were seated behind the driver and pulled to a destination. To this day, in more rural areas, you will see Japanese couples, one driving and one seated directly behind him/her.

This snippet was sent in by one of our readers:

"Never having learnt how to drive in Scotland, I've just pushed myself through the Japanese system. It's really tough for a foreigner. I did learn one thing, though; the safest seat in a car is the driver's. The second safest is the one directly behind the driver because, in an accident situation, the driver will instinctively swerve to avoid injury, thereby inadvertently protecting the passenger to the immediate rear. At the driving school, this was drummed into us: Nothing about rickshaws or history, just plain common sense. The most dangerous seat? Middle back. Taught because most learner drivers are pre-kaisha freshman age, and it's a cardinal rule in a kaisha not to place the head honcho in the middle back seat, irrespective of how polite that looks."
- Jim Smiley, Department of English, Ohu University

"Never wear shoes (or slippers) on tatami."

- Fact: Think of tatami as being beautiful plush carpet. You would never consider walking over it with shoes. Be extra careful as tatami rooms can pop up anywhere: changing rooms in clothing stores; certain areas in resturants; hotels; etc.. Rule of thumb is to let a native Japanese lead and follow him/her. Even in the privacy of their own home, Japanese would never consider walking on tatami with shoes. The home is considered to be a relaxing escape from work. "Soto zura ga yoi."

"When visiting others, take off your shoes in the entranceway and place them neatly with the toes facing the door."

- Fact but: Japanese homes and apartments have small, often lowered entranceways called genkan. This area is made especially for the removal of outside footwear. Often a Japanese host will have slippers ready for you on the next level after you've removed your shoes. When you return to this area after your visit, you will usually find that you shoes are neatly facing the door, whether you've placed them like this or not. The Japanese shoe fairy, I guess. Don't be overly concerned, use a little common sense. I'm almost positive your Japanese host won't send you away from their home if you point your shoes in another direction.

"It's generally not polite to have to leave a social function too soon or before the main guests leave."

- Fact: In Japanese society the main guests feel obligated to stay until the others leave. Likewise the others feel obilgated to stay until the main guests leave. One vicious circle. Often a Japanese function will have a set ending time. This is done so neither party feels guilty about leaving. Those without an ending time continue on until one person builds up enough courage to leave.

"Toilet slippers are for use in the toilet only."

- Fact: mmmmmm..... Tough one. Like going shopping in your pajamas.

"Japanese often express thanks in the form of an apology."

- Fact: Someone gives you an apple? You better apologize for the apple weighing down the tree limb before it was given to you. We say, "thanks". They say, "I'm sorry". I suppose the English equivalent would be "Oh really, you shouldn't have!"

"When someone treats you to a meal, it's polite to attempt to pay."

- Fact: I'm not sure of any culture where it isn't polite. In a small group situation, when you're invited, your host usually pays. However, not offering to pay is considered bad form. In larger situations the bill is usually divided up equally between the participants - this will include you! Even if the party is in your honour.

"When taking food from a common dish, use the opposite end of your chopsticks."

- Myth: This is one of those, "per situation" rules. In all the social functions I've been to, I've yet to see Japanese follow this. It's my understanding that more formal occasions follow stricter rules, including this one. Use fact number one on this page and follow those around you.

"Don't plant your chopsticks in your rice when you're not using them."

- Fact: This and passing things from one pair of chopsticks to another are things that are done as part of the ritual of a Buddhist funeral. Enough said?

"Don't eat while walking."

- Mother's rule: "Don't you dare. Come back here... If you make me get up... This is your last warning! #@!*#"
- Murphy's Law: Eating while walking, you run the risk of tripping and dropping your food. Like with jaywalking and applying makeup on the train, the presence of rule-breaking foreigners over the last couple of decades seems to have eroded this one somewhat.

"It's okay to urinate in the street."

- Fact: As long as you're a middle-aged salaryman and have had a few beers too many. This kind of behaviour is acceptable, but only to other middle-aged salarymen who have...

Computers

I already know what you're saying, "I'm too cheap to buy a laptop. Now how am I going to get this desktop to Japan?" That's a tough one. If you're really creative I suppose you could smuggle it on the plane with you. If you're like the rest of us you'll have to wait till you get yourself settled and have someone ship it over to you (depending on how you ship it expect to wait a couple of months).

One thing to point out here. What do you do if the thing breaks down? Most computer companies don't offer an international warranty on desktop models. It may be worth trashing and buying a Japanese model rather than paying shipping both ways! I suppose if your Japanese ability is strong enough you could take it to a local repair center but I'll bet they're not "Compaq, Acer, AST" certified.

What I'm trying to say here is that maybe you should consider a laptop or purchasing a desktop once you've arrived. Prices are comparable to those in the US. English-language models are available from Toshiba DirectPC. Gateway had a Japanese operation but closed it down in 2001.

Voltage
One final note on computers is the voltage. The standard electric voltage used in Japan is 100 volts with a cycle range from 50 to 60 Hz (cycles vary depending on what part of Japan you're in). Most new computers (notebooks) come with an 'universal power adapter' that automatically adjusts internally and allows usage anywhere in the world. Macintosh (Japanese people love 'em) computers are among them. The best way to make sure is to put that 1-800 number to good use and call your manufacturer.

The Internet

Given NTT's astronomical phone rates, your first concern is proximity to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or availability of a special nationwide access system (mentioned below). Using a local Japanese provider is often the cheapest but usually the most difficult option. Japanese ISP's do not require a Japanese-capable system but you may need some kind of working knowledge with them in order to configure your own system.

It never hurts to call (or get someone else to do it if you don't speak Japanese) as they may have English papers or setup guides even if none of their staff speak English. If you don't speak any Japanese and anticipate needing extra help setting up you connection, you should consider using a provider which offers English language support (links provided below).

TWICS
GOL
ASAHI Net

These three major domestic ISP's offer English support and have provisions for access from pretty much anywhere in Japan. If you are a member of a major information service such as CompuServe, AOL or The Microsoft Network, you should contact them about access points in Japan. These options are often good for beginners, since they usually provide preconfigured connection software.

Once you've become comfortable dealing with these things in Japanese or have some one to help you get organized, it's worth investing in a flat-rate high-speed connection. The options seem to change by the day and vary from region to region. Look into such options as cable access (possibly as aprt of your cable TV plan), fiber-optic and ADSL.

Newspapers & Magazines

Now that you're settled you'll soon come to realize that picking up an English book or magazine isn't quite as easy nor as cheap as you've once thought. One alternative to keep your mind occupied (thus sane) is to become a subscriber to one of Japan's newspapers. Even though you may not be interested in the headlines, job classifieds can be plentiful. One thing that we would like to point out is that Japanese newspapers are quite pricey, but if it keeps you happy isn't that what counts? Below is a list of Japanese Newspapers on-line.

Asahi Evening News
Daily Yomiuri
Japan Times
Mainichi Daily News

Magazines

The major cities have one or more English-language magazines to keep you up to date on events, eating out, movies and so on. Some are even avaialable for free. Tokyo's long-standing leader is Metropolis (formerly Tokyo Classified) which you can pick up at restaurants and bars around town.

Foreign English-language magazines, such as Time and Newsweek, are available at major bookstores such as Kinokuniya and Maruzen. But if you don't want to traipse there every week or month or just want to save some money, subscription is the way to go. ELT News readers can get a special discount on subscriptions to Time magazine, for example. See here for details.

Communications

Calling International Phone numbers in Japan are preceded by an area code (a two-, three-, or four-digit combination beginning with zero) and followed by a local number (up to eight digits). Area codes are only needed when calling from one area to another. A number beginning with " 0120" is toll-free from anywhere in Japan. As an example let's look at a number from Tokyo: 03-1234-5678. The two-digit combination "03" is Tokyo's area code and the remaining eight digits are the local number. Now how do you call or fax Japan from overseas? It's as easy as 1..2..3..

1. Dial your country's IDD (International Direct Dial) prefix.
2. Add "81" after that number.
3. And finally add the number in Japan you wish to call. Be sure to dial the area code before the local number but DROP the leading "0" in the area code.

In the example used above, if an individual wanted to call Tokyo, Japan from Canada they would dial: 011-81-3-1234-5678. Canada's IDD code is "011" and that the "0" in "03" was dropped.

The Home Telephone
(Please note that these details are subject to change. NTT's stranglehold on the telecom market has been loosened in the last few years and competition is the name of the game at last.)

Now you know everything and more about placing a call from outside your home. If you've just moved to Japan, getting a phone line for your home (a better description is small room with LOW ceilings) is quite easy. Just visit a Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT) office with your alien registration, driver's license (or other proof of your address), and 76,440 yen ($700)!

This fee contributes to maintaining and upgrading NTT's equipment. You may need to pay an additional fee if wiring work is required. NTT's basic fee runs about 1,600 to 1,800 yen/month. Local calls in Japan from your own phone are not free. Calls within your own area code are roughly 9 yen for 3 minutes. The further away you phone, the less time 9 yen will get you (eg. from Nagano, calls to Tokyo are 10 yen/16 secs).

Fear not though, NTT has been generous enough to give a discounted rate. Regular rate is from 8:00am - 7:00pm Mon - Fri, discount rate 1 is from 7:00pm - 11:00pm weekdays and 8:00am - 7:00pm on weekends. Super discount rate (approx. 60%) is from 11:00pm - 8:00pm everyday. Trust me, after your first phone bill "burning the midnight oil" will have a whole new meaning! Now that you're entirely up to speed on the corruption with the phone system in Japan take note on some of these KEY services.

* ITJ - is the overseas telecommunications service of choice for those with connections back home. ITJ offers international direct dial access from a private or public phone. When dialing an overseas number simply stick 0041 in front of the country code. That's it. Use 0045 and an operator will call you back and tell you the charges. There is no need to sign up for any of these services and they'll save you about 12% on your international phone charges. Don't get too carried away though. ITJ certainly won't forget about you and once a month you'll get a bill along with NTT's.

* IDC - offers a similar service. Instead of 0041, use 0061. Original eh? This company claims to have a 23% late night discount rate.

* AT&T - has started an Internet telephone service. This service is for both domestic and international calls. There's no need for computers, modems or the internet. For more info, see their web site.

* Many other subscription services exist. TeleMatrix, Passport International, and Dynatec to name a few.

Think your phone bills are out of hand now? You ain't seen nothing yet. Connected to the internet too? All I do is shake my head and laugh. It gets even funnier when you call NTT to vent your anger. NTT employs only Japanese speakers, I'm sure of it (I bet there's only English speakers for the Japanese customers!). The best thing to keep in mind with the phone is not to use it. Period.

The Payphone
Japan is wired for telecommunications. One quickly gets used to being able to call from any street corner, anywhere, anytime. The popularity of keitai (cell phones) is quickly making the public pay phone go the way of the dodo. But they're still around and here's what they do:

* Pink phones are "private" pay phones and are usually found in restaurants and coffee shops.

* A first cousin, the red phone, is popular with rural grocers and tobacconists. Both pink and red phones accept only 10 yen coins.

* Yellow phones take 10 or 100 yen coins.

* Green, green with gold and gray phones all take either coins or prepaid phone cards. Phone cards are readily available in 500 and 1000 yen denominations at convenience stores, tobacco shops, and the occasional vending machine. I strongly suggest picking one up. Green with gold and gray phones both allow international calls, but gray phones also provide digital and analog jacks.

The keitai
Cell phone, mobile, miniature camera/pDA - whatever you call yours, you just have to have one. One in every two people in Japan already does and you don't want to be left out, do you? And once you have one, you wonder how you ever survived without one. Increasingly powerful and multi-featured, many now come with a built-in camera and most are email and internet-enabled.

NTT's DoCoMo, KDDI's au and Softbank are the big players in the market and they each have their own system (i-mode, EZweb & Softbank respectively). When you go to sign up for one of these services, be prepared to handle eveything in Japanese, though the phones themselves usually have bilingual functions (but no English manual!). Older or more basic models can be had for next to nothing. If you want to keep up to date on the whole wireless media world, check the Mobile Media Japan web site.

Money

Currency
Japanese currency is quite simple: coins are minted in 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 denominations. Bills come in 1000, 2000 (introduced in 2000 but still not often seen in circulation) 5000 and 10000 denominations. Remember the Japan currency is called the yen, 100 yen ~ 1.18 US. The one yen coin individually cannot buy anything but is good for paying the 5% consumer tax and paying poker antes.

New designs for the 1000, 5000 and 10000-yen notes was announced in mid-2002. The new designs are to make use of the latest anti-counterfeiting techniques.

Banking
Banking is a little bit different in Japan. Chequing accounts are possible, but they are more for businesses than for private individuals. Even a single bounced cheque or missed payment may result in very serious consequences. If you bounce two cheques, your bank will terminate your relationship.

The most widely used account in Japan is the General Account (futsu yokin). Businesses might use the Current Account (toza yokin), which usually comes with chequing privileges. Opening an account is very simple, involving little more than filling out the necessary forms and showing an alien registration card. The bank will then issue you a bank book (immediately) and a cash card (mailed to your home). Banking hours are from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm on weekdays; banks are closed Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays.

Using a Japanese ATM may be a little tricky.  Most major cities offer an English guidance system, but if you're in the countryside you better learn the Japanese steps. Usually there is someone employed by the bank to help customers use the machinery. ATM's are open from 9:00am to 7:00pm, Monday through Friday, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm on weekends, and closed holidays. Some larger branches offer 24-hour ATM service but his is usuall in bigger urban areas.

If you use an ATM after 6:00pm during the week or at any time on the weekend, you will be charged a 105 yen premium. You can use your bank card at virtually any bank but the 105 yen charge applies to this also. Recently, convenience stores have started installing bank ATM's, making 24-hour banking possible even for people not in the center of the metropolis. The last few years have seen quite an upheaval in the Japanese banking system. Many of the major players have merged, creatin five main nationwide banks. There have also been some new banks ariving on the scene, including one backed by Sony.

Below is a list of the major Japanese banks:

Asahi Bank (plan to form Risona Bank with Daiwa Bank)
Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi (part of MTFG).
Mizuho Bank (includes former Fuji and Dai-ichi Kangyo Banks)
Sumitomo Mitsui Bank
UFJ (United Financial of Japan, includes former Sanwa and Tokai Banks)

For more information on money and prices, see The Japan Zone.

The Letter Home

So you've settled yourself in, found the grocery store and the beer vending machine on the corner. Now it's time to write that letter home. If you're like me, you keep putting it off, and off, and off till finally you end up buying a plane ticket home instead. Below is a letter home that will work for brothers, sisters, mom and Dad!

Dear ____:
I am writing this slow, cause I know you can't read too fast. I'm not living where I did when I last spoke to you. I read in the paper that most car accidents happen within twenty miles of home, so I moved. I can't send you the address as the last Japanese family that lived here took the numbers with them for their next house, so they wouldn't have to change their address.

This place has a washing machine but the first day I put four shirts in it, pushed a button on the remote control and haven't seen them since. It rained here only twice last week; three days the first time and four days the second time.

I'm sending home a Japanese coat for brother Tom. I think it would be a little too heavy to send in the mail with the heavy buttons it has, so i'll cut them off and put them in the pockets.

Oh, good news from sis; she had a baby this morning. I haven't found out whether it's a boy or girl yet, so I don't know if you are a grandmother or a grandfather.

I was at an enkai last night. The Mayor of this town fell into a vat of sake. Some men tried to pull him out, but he fought them off and drowned. They cremated him and he burned for three days.

Three friends of mine went off a bridge in their pick-up. One was driving and the other two were in the back. The driver got out, he rolled down the window and swam to safety. The other two drowned; they couldn't get the tailgate open.

Japanese people are so kind to me. One person is even knitting me some socks. I told her I grew a another foot since I moved to Japan so she's knitting me another to go with the pair.

Not much more news this time. Nothing much has happened.

Love you always,

Your son/daughter.

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