Logistics: Most flights from the United States arrive at Narita, but an increasing number are landing at closer-in Haneda. Both serve Tokyo. There are also routes to Kansai, near Osaka and Kyoto. Japan has perhaps the world’s best public transportation, both within and between cities. Utterly reliable high-speed trains connect most of the country, supplemented by hundreds of other rail lines and extensive bus routes. Taxi service is excellent but pricey.
Money: The currency is the Japanese yen. Large businesses accept credit cards, but many smaller ones take only cash. Foreign cards don’t work in most ATMs; visit a 7-Eleven or a post office for more congenial machines. Transit chip cards can be used as debit cards in numerous shops. Exchanging dollars for yen at banks can be complicated; using Daikokuya, a national discount chain, is simpler.
Paperwork: No tourist visa is required for stays of 90 days or less.
Language: English is Japan’s unofficial second language and a required subject in Japanese schools. That definitely doesn’t mean most Japanese speak English, but they do have some familiarity with it, which can prove useful. In urban areas, directional and transit signs are usually bilingual, although some English signs are more decorative than designed to convey information. Learning some basic Japanese is as simple as mastering the language is difficult. People will appreciate kudasai (please), arigato (thank you) and sumimasen (excuse me).
Health: One of the world’s cleanest countries, Japan presents no more health risks than Canada or Denmark.
Prevailing myth: Everything you’ve heard about quirky Japan is probably true but blown out of proportion. Fancy melons intended as gifts to superiors sell for $100 or more; fugu, the puffer fish that’s considered a delicacy, can kill if not properly prepared; and petting-zoo animal cafes have expanded from cats and rabbits to owls, penguins and hedgehogs.
Itinerary for first-timers: The standard inaugural trip combines vast, buzzing Tokyo with quieter, more traditional Kyoto, three hours away by bullet train. But you can stay in the Tokyo region and still get a sense of older Japan by taking day trips to nearby Kamakura and Nikko.
Itineraries for repeat visitors: The A-bomb cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Historic castles in Himeji, Matsumoto or Matsuyama. Koyasan, the Buddhist mountain. Naoshima, an art-museum island in the Inland Sea.
Eat this: What you’d order at a Japanese restaurant at home, with the understanding that most eateries in Japan are small and specialized. (Sushi, yakitori and ramen rarely appear on the same menu.) Major cities also have fine sources of most styles of non-Japanese food.
Special events: Aside from cherry blossom viewing, essential in spring, the most widespread event is Obon, a Buddhist-Confucian festival celebrated in July in eastern Japan and August in the western region. Ancestral spirits are commemorated with communal dances, gravestone washing, lanterns set adrift on water and — in Chinese-influenced Nagasaki — a frenzy of firecrackers.
Reading list: “Lost Japan” by Alex Kerr; “Pictures from the Water Trade” by John David Morley; “The Makioka Sisters” by Junichiro Tanizaki.
Playlist: “Tokyo Girl,” Perfume (J-pop); “La La Radio,” Shugo Tokumaru (alt-rock); “O-Daiko,” Kodo (traditional drumming).
Cultural sensitivities: There are many, but gaikokujin (foreign country persons) are usually given a pass. Don’t eat or drink while walking. Don’t stick chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice. Be aware that inked skin is associated with gangsters; tattooed visitors may be barred from spas and public baths.
Souvenirs: Traditional clothing and ceramics; J-pop from still-thriving Tower Records; snacks such as the dozens of limited-edition Kit-Kat flavors.
Fun quote: “The first Disneyland to be built outside the United States was in Japan, in 1983. . . . Donald Richie once wrote that there was no need for one, for the Japanese already had a Disneyland called Tokyo,” writes Ian Buruma in his 2018 memoir, “A Tokyo Romance.”
Jenkins is a writer based in the District. Find him on Twitter @MarkJenkinsDC.