How to Stay Healthy and Safe on Your Trip to Japan

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For the most part, Japan is a very clean, very safe country. But, find out if the food really is "to die for" and if hygiene is something you should be worried about before you go to Japan.


A plate of food in Japan Photo © Richard I'Anson

Health and safety in Japan

As expensive as they are, medical facilities are abundant in Japan, with the treatment and medicine being of a high calibre. To ensure the medical bills don’t rack up, make sure you are covered by travel insurance. 

Toilets in Japan

Yes, squat toilets exist here, mostly in public toilets and older buildings nowadays. Don't worry, they’re more of a bother than a personal hygiene risk. In hotels and transportation stations, you’ll find traditional Western toilets.

To use squatters in Japan, different to other Asian countries, face away from the door and toward the head of the toilet. You'll usually find toilet paper supplied, but again a few of the older conveniences don't, but you'll usually find a dispenser nearby where you can buy a box for small change. You might want to keep a few sheets in your day pack, just in case.

If you're visiting a private residence, you may encounter electronic toilets, some with over 30 buttons on a control panel to wash and heat yourself. There are robotic arms that squirt water, such as Oshiri, which gives your tush a spritz (if you don’t know the Japanese characters, look for the blue butt icon), a bidet for hosing off your front and Kansō for drying off. Additional buttons let you control the jet stream, angle and location of the water. What technology!

Plus you will find toilet slippers.

These are the filthiest object in the known univers (if you're Japanese) and should never be worn outside the toilet. Makes sense really, if you're in a home you're barefoot or in socks and walking on tatami mats - whatever happens inside the toilet should not be allowed to spread throughout the house. A touch of Japanese weirdness - these disgusting and filthy objects are usually adorned with kittens or love hearts - to negate the nastiness.

With all that gadgetry, some might be surprised to find that the toilets flush in the Western way - with a handle or button.

Eating fugu fish: Is it dangerous?

Something that might crop us as a health risk is the extreme Japanese practice of eating 'Fugu', a poisonous puffer fish prepared with the most meticulous of culinary care. To make it safe, chefs remove the internal organs of the fish containing the poison. As you can imagine, the cost of this dangerous delicacy runs pretty high.

If you want to take a chance with this once-in-a-lifetime, or life-ending, eating experience, rest assured that Fugu chefs go through rigorous training followed by annual evaluation to make sure their preparation skills are up to snuff (no pun intended). The Japanese government makes chefs practice under the guidance of experienced ones for years before they can get licensed to prepare the dish.

Japanese nightlife

If you survive your encounter at the Fugu-ya, you may want to check out the nightlife when staying in a major Japanese city.

Roppongi is Tokyo’s entertainment district, and it attracts many foreigners and business types.

If you go looking for trouble you'll find it - same as any city in the world. Some of the seedier bars and clubs are run by yakuza - Japanese mafia with a penchant for all over body tattos and missing fingers. It most probably won't happen to you, but like anywhere, it's possible to get your credit card skimmed or your drink spiked.

The area of Shinjuku in Tokyo, particularly Kabuki-cho, Shibuya, and Ikebukuro, has it's fair share of shady establishments too, but generally if you stick to the popular areas it'll be fine.

In Osaka, there's no surprise that the yakuza have control of the adult entertainment businesses. Spa World (where you can get a themed spa during the day and something a little extra at night!) has a bad reputation after dark. If you're intent on visiting, stick to the well-lit areas when walking between Shin Imamiya or Dobutsuen-mae stations and Spa World.

Chikan and sexual assault

The country of Geishas and hostess bars can also have a different view towards appropriate behavior toward women. Female travelers have reported others asking them personal questions or catcalling to them. There are also incidents of “chikan” physically assaulting women on public transit by groping them. Several train companies have instituted cars for women only during rush hour, indicated by pink signs directing women where to board.

Like in cases of sexual assault, many female victims have found police to be less than helpful to their plight. Anyone in a dangerous situation should call 110, Japan’s emergency number, or look for a police box, often located on every other corner. Those who find police assistance unhelpful can call the Japan Helpline at 0570-000-911.

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  • mick said

    Only had positive behaviour in Japan. Never met a low life there. Just wonderful people.


  • Charles Poynton said

    1) Your comments about the toilets are SSSOOO 20th century. Even all the public toilets are "washlets", though to be honest, I find them a bit weird.Out in the countryside, long drop (ie non-flush) toilets are still quite common.

    2) Driving in Japan is such a pleasure. Nobody does anything inappropriate, let alone breaks the traffic rules. Be warned, however, that the acceptable blood alcohol level is ZERO, no more, no less. I understand the fine if caught DUI is about $30,000. Tolls on the motorways are usually about USD 0.30 per kilometre, but can be higher.

    3) Hitchhiking is illegal, but you will find it a lot of fun. I get the impression that people will pick you up for a free English lesson. If you are a single male, watch out you don't get kidnapped.

    4) Travel with a Japanese-speaking companion is very helpful. There are lots of places where nobody speaks much English. All the signs you really need to read are in various Japanese scripts (kanji, hiragana, katakana) but seldom in romanji (latin alphabet). An ability to read Japanese is helpful for road signs and most other things, like getting a ticket at a railway station.


  • john Cee said

    Agree with most of this but would like to add some of my own observations from many trips to Japan
    1: Use a JR rail pass to get around they are cheap compared to buying tickets on the day (your first Shinkansen trip proves that and you still have 7-14 days of SK JR travel to indulge in)
    2: hook up with International Youth Hostel as their prices are so much cheaper than staying at business hotels and most are sited no further than 1km from the station,they are more like backpackers but as a foreigner they sometimes put you in a separate room when staying at one out of the big cities.
    3: stay in the big cities YHAs over weekends as I found the local uni students also often stay there to meet english speaking travelers and practice their language skills in return for acting as unofficial tour guides around the local prefecture. a great way to meet locals.
    4: SMILE it's amazing how this can open doors.
    5: have a thrill and experience the rush hour trains in Tokyo just once but guys keep your hands overhead as like above women near you may be groped and blame you, however you may also be groped by either sex depending on who you are, so smile and enjoy the moment.
    6: for those looking for a bit of romance remember in Japanese culture the woman always makes the first moves not the guy.
    7: If you are lost or unsure Don't look for the nearest european looking person to help you out as I found that these pretentious expats tend to totally ignore hapless tourists no matter how loud you are calling to attract them, look for an official and politely ask if they understand english and they will bend over backwards to help you.
    8: Japan has an amazing selection of food, best places to dine cheaply are on the restaurant floors (usually the top) of department stores for your once a day main meal just point and smile on the menu, the usual fast food outlets offer almost the same as home but with local variations but you can still get a 1/4 pounder, but with all the other food on hand why would you.
    9: eating on the bullet trains is expensive just by a bento box from the local supermarket and eat it on board.
    10: rail is the best way to get around, if you exceed your JR rail pass you can take cheap local trains but they just take all day to get somewhere that the dearer express trains get in 1 hour.
    11: Toilets are few and far between but you can find them in train /bus stations and department stores which only open after 10am.


  • Missy said

    Ummmmm, seedy parts of Tokyo?only rich white idiots go to roppongi for entertainment. I hate roppongi. The western toilets are everywhere there now so.... Just find one? I must admit the bidets can be daunting. Just learn what all the buttons do. Trial and error.
    You have to be a complete backwards geek to be bothered by any of this there. It also depends upon your age,, and ONLY if you're a woman. None of this applies to men. When I was younger and out alone in a little dress, since I was blond, they thought I was a hooker. They would ask for my price and I would scream, GO AWAY!! They would go away, really fast. When I was older, and I mean like 30, in Tokyo, only the creepy foreigners in kabuki Cho would harass me, and they are actually scary. I'd threaten to hit them with my umbrella and yank my arm away if they grabbed me . If it gets worse, kick then in the nards. End of story. Drunken salary men are easily handled by woman from somewhere other than Japan . I'm a new yorker to boot. They were afraid of me in my all black clothes and loud mouth . If they tried something on the train, get up and move and again, YELL at them .
    And no, the cops are no help, especially if you're a white woman there, especially if yoive been raped. They do not help gaining woman at all there in this respect. All of this behavior is centuries old. The men the women, are conditioned. Well I didn't grow up there so.... I gotta be me.


  • Linda said

    If you're in a city that has a ryokan, which is a Japanese style inn. Although not fancy with a lot of amenities, I found the owners and people who stay are very friendly and enjoy afternoon tea and talk. The floor of the rooms is a tatami-mat and a thin soft mat is rolled out at night to sleep on. I learned a great deal of the culture by talking to the owner. It was nicer and homier than a hotel.

    It's true drivers are courteous and don't break the traffic laws. Neither do pedestrians. As a New Yorker, I'm used to crossing when there is no traffic. Trying that in Japan got me soft reprimand and I quickly stepped back on the sidewalk. Just remember that they drive on the left side of the road,so be careful when you cross a street.

    It's lovely country. Have a good time.


  • Hideki Yamada said

    One of the comments above notwithstanding, hitchhiking in Japan is NOT ILLEGAL. There have never been any statutes or case precedence that prohibit hitching in that country.

    It IS illegal for the DRIVER to demand a payment for a ride. That is considered a commercial activity and requires a special license.


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