Going to Japan for the first time? Japan can be overwhelming if you speak little or no Japanese at all, and even if you do, there’s a lot you need to know. We’ve learned quite a few things that will make a Japan trip much easier over our repeated trips there, sometimes from costly mistakes, so we’ll share them here in a step by step fashion. These tips are mainly for visiting the Kansai region, but are also applicable for most other parts of Japan. Just keep in mind that some details, like the prepaid transport card names, will change as will their interoperability.
Before You Go
0. The most important thing you must do before leaving for Japan is to research where you’re going. Make sure you pack appropriately for the weather; we check sites like Accuweather.com to find out the temperature range and chance of rain before we go. Know what sites you want to visit, and try to group them by proximity so you can minimize transportation expenses. For example, the attractions of northern Higashiyama, the northeast quarter of Kyoto, are pretty close together and easily reached by walking from one to the other.
1. Find out how much you need to budget for your trip by studying your dining options, transportation, and admission fees online. Finally, it’s a good idea to either study Japanese or at least memorize some of the most common phrases and customs.
2. If you plan to travel extensively between different regions of Japan, try to compare the regular cost of your train and bus fares vs. the Japan Rail Pass. The rule of thumb is if you’re going to make a round trip from Tokyo to Osaka or Kyoto by train within 7 days, the 7-day JR Pass will be worth it; all other JR train and bus rides taken within those 7 days will practically be for free.
3. If easy access is your priority, go for hotels at or near major train stations. The Granvia chain in western Japan for example is located in major JR stations (because they’re owned by JR West), which makes them very convenient for exploring Kyoto, Osaka or Nara. Shopping and dining options are also much wider at major stations, from super-budget to sticker-shockers like Kobe beef steakhouses.
4. Make sure you have enough cash in Yen. Many Japanese shops and restaurants, specially the small specialty ones, don’t take credit cards. Have a compartmentalized purse or other organizer ready for coins; you’ll be acccumulating and using coins a lot while you’re in Japan.
5. Make sure you have good shoes. You will be walking a lot.
6. If you’re on any prescription medications, bring a prescription. Some medicines are restricted in Japan and you may only be allowed to bring them in if you have a supporting prescription. For medications that contain oxycontin, hydrocodone, vicodin, percodin, percocet, tylenol #3, any amphetamines, any barbituates, and any pain killers except for aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuoprofen, and the over the counter allergy medicines such as Sudafed, you can get a Yakkan Shoumei certification allowing you to bring these in for personal use. Application info can be found here.
7. Have the address and phone number of your lodging in Japan, or at least the first one you’ll stay at, in your phone or in hard copy so you can copy them to the immigration forms on arrival. They’re strict on having the full info on your lodging, perhaps more so on Philippine citizens because of illegal workers.
At the Airport
0. Know in advance how you’ll get from the airport to your hotel. The cheapest way is usually the train, with the most expensive of course being the taxi. If you want to use the airport train, try to pick a flight that arrives well before midnight. Train service stops at midnight.
If you’re traveling with children or elderly but mobile companions, or have really heavy baggage, a pricier but very comfortable option is the airport limousine bus. These have stops at most of the major hotels — if this is how you want to go, try to pick a hotel that’s along the route. Note that you may still have a bit of a walk from the bus stop to your hotel.
1. If you didn’t get a Japan Rail Pass, consider buying an ICOCA or other prepaid transport pass. There are also various kinds of tourist passes available, usually good for 1, 2 or more days and include bus, train, subway. As a rule of thumb the bus passes are good for the traveler who wants to cover a lot of ground in a day, while the prepaid card favors the slower traveler who also plans to do a lot of walking or bicycling.
The Kyoto Bus Pass for example is 500 yen for a day pass, and gives you unlimited bus rides within the city for a whole day. At a flat fare of 230 yen per ride, it’s a bargain if you’ll take the bus three or more times in a day. However, it doesn’t cover trains and subways, and buses can be slow compared to the subway system due to road traffic and more frequent stops. If you’re in Japan during a major Japanese holiday or peak tourist season, expect the buses to crawl.
A regular prepaid transport card like ICOCA on the other hand gives no discounts, but lets you take buses, trains and subways at will, and saves you a lot of time buying tickets and calculating fares. A little-mentioned side benefit of the card is that it frees you from having to handle lots of small change. If you buy train or bus tickets a lot, you’ll soon find your pockets sagging with loads of coins.
(ICOCA is the JR card for Western Japan; the Tokyo version is Suica. ICOCA and Suica are now interoperable with nearly all other JR regions, but may not be usable with local company lines outside their home regions. Thus you could use an ICOCA card to take a JR train in say Fukuoka, but not a bus run by a local company. The good news is interoperability is increasing.)
2. Get mobile WIFI. Portable WIFI sets can be rented at the airport outlets for a fee plus a refundable deposit. You’ll find the WIFI indispensable for finding directions, transportation routes and fares, and other information on the spot.
3. Get city maps from the tourist information office. They’re free. A hard copy map is good to have in case your phone runs out of power, is handy for making notes on, and is convenient when asking for directions.
4. Sync your watch with the airport clock. This puts you on Japan Standard Time, which is necessary here because public transportation is on time to the minute. They apologize for being as little as two minutes late!
At Your Hotel
1. Ask for the hotel’s calling card; you can take more than one, and we usually do. They’re handy for asking directions back to the hotel if you get lost, for emergency taxi rides, and if you’re really stuck you can make a phone call to the hotel. If you liked the hotel, specially if it’s one of those nice mom-and-pop guesthouses or ryokan, do them a favor and give the extra calling cards to your friends!
2. Find out the house rules, specially if you’re staying at a hostel, guesthouse, AirBnB or ryokan. Japanese homeowners are very meticulous about cleanliness, and that really makes staying in Japanese-style accommodations a most pleasant experience. To keep things that way, though, they need us to cooperate.
3. Feel free to ask your concierge or hotelier what interesting things are scheduled in the city, or about local dining options. We’ve found some interesting things this way, like the Christmas illumination at Roppongi and the Hozenji Yokocho dining alley in Osaka.
4. Get your alarm clock ready. The best time to visit the most popular attractions, such as Kinkakuji or the Arashiyama bamboo grove, is early morning. In the case of attractions with continuous access, like the grove, you may want to be there as early as 7:00 a.m. The rest will open around 8:30 or 9:00, so plan to be there for it. By 10:00 a.m. these popular spots can be totally “sushizume” — packed like a box of sushi with tourists. If you’re a photographer like we are, early mornings have a triple benefit: the least crowding, the best light of day, and often the least chance of rain.
At the Train Station
1. Don’t get in the way. Chances are sooner or later you’ll find yourself in a very crowded train or subway station. There will be lots of Japanese commuters in a hurry, and if you come from a country where traffic is on the right, or you’re hesitant because you’re unsure of your directions, you’re very likely to bump into someone. We try to find places out of the flow when we need to read the signs, and try to do as the commuters do. See where they stand on the escalators and follow; in the Kanto (where Tokyo is) the slow side of the escalator is on the left, but in Kansai (Osaka-Kyoto-Nara) it’s on the right.
2. Memorize the train names, platform numbers, and exit numbers you need. Some tracks and platforms service multiple trains going to different destinations, or with different stop schedules, so make sure you get on the right train. If you get on a Rapid or Limited Express train, for example, it may not be stopping at your target station. Local trains on the other hand stop at every station on the way, so skip them if you want a shorter travel time between major stops, like Osaka to Kyoto.
Exit numbers are also very important. Japanese train and subway stations are often large complexes with many turns and exits. Online articles such as those in japan-guide.com will tell you which exit to use from a station to the nearby attractions. On one trip, we missed the exit for the Yotsubashi subway and ended up at the Midosuji line instead going back to our hotel in Namba; we still ended up in the right area, but a much longer walk from our hotel. My wife then informed me that I had gotten the wrong Namba!
3. In some cities like Tokyo, you may have multiple options to get from one stop to another. They can differ in fares, time taken, and most important of all, number of line changes. For first-timers in Japan who don’t speak Nihongo, we recommend choosing the option with the least changes. It may take a bit longer, but it minimizes your chances of getting lost. If you’re confident you can navigate the complex Japanese transportation network though, by all means go for the cheaper or faster options. Just make sure you’ve memorized or written down the train names, platforms and exits you need.
4. Don’t miss out on the ekiben! Every region, every prefecture in Japan prides itself on its specialty foods, and one cool way to enjoy these is to buy the local ekiben, or train station lunchbox. Each ekiben is a set meal with portions of assorted foodstuffs: sushi, meat or chicken, local pickled vegetables, riceballs, and so on, all of it artfully arranged and packaged to make the perfect photo subject. Most come in plastic boxes (often made to look like traditional pinewood), but the high-end ones come in real wooden or ceramic containers that are also nice souvenirs.