Got your train tickets? Made your reservations and itinerary? Great, let’s go! But before you head out your hotel door, you should stuff your pockets or daypack with these useful items to make your Japan visit easier.
Not only is carrying your passport around a legal requirement in Japan, it’s also your ticket to some discounts and special offers. Present your passport when shopping to discount the Japanese sales tax. Some tourist attractions offer discounts or even free entrance to holders of a foreign passport, like the Yoshiki-en Garden in Nara.
2) Hotel Calling Card
Always pick up at least one of your hotel’s calling cards on checking in. If you ever get lost and want to take a taxi back, you can show the taxi driver the calling card so he can quickly locate it. This is especially useful if your hotel has more than one branch in the city. It’s also good to have a quick reference for the hotel’s phone number handy — unlike your phone, a calling card has no batteries that could die when you need it most. If you liked the place, pass the calling card to your friends and family on getting home!
3) IC Card
While the JR Pass is good for inter-city/inter-region travel and some cities also offer various day passes, the most flexible means of getting around is to buy an IC card. These are stored-value cards that you swipe at the ticket gates to pay for your train, subway and bus trips. We love them because they’re usable on a wide range of transport services, save time lining up and figuring out the ticket machines at the stations, and best of all, you don’t end up with too many small coins which you will if you pay for your bus and train rides in cash all the way. Best of all, an IC card is also usable on other conveniences like coin lockers and the stores within train stations.
Note: You can combine the various transportation passes and IC cards as needed for your visit to Japan. What we do is we research our itinerary and determine whether to get a Bus Pass for the day if we’re riding a bus often enough, a JR Pass or JR Regional Pass (only usable in a limited area but cheaper), and then an IC card with stored value sufficient for whatever won’t be covered by our Bus Passes/JR Passes. The Kyoto City Bus Pass for example costs 500 JPY, and since bus fares in the city are a flat 230 JPY per trip, you get to maximize the Bus Pass if you’ll take the bus three or more times in a day.
4) City Map
We love Google Maps, it’s so convenient to use. But the app needs a device to run on, which could run out of batteries, or be unable to connect to the internet, when you need it. A good old paper map is a great backup, and also very useful for asking directions and taking notes. Sometimes when you ask the Japanese for directions using a paper map they’ll take out a pen and draw your route for you– a great convenience–and it’s nice to be able to jot down your own notes on the map.
5) Mobile Wifi
Need an internet connection all the time? We do, we need it for Google Maps! You can rent a mobile wifi router from various telecom services in Japan, and you can book them online before your trip. You can arrange to pick up your unit from the airport or have it delivered to your hotel, and on leaving you can mail it back to the provider at any post office or at the airport. Softbank and Pupuru are among the most popular providers.
6) Cash and Change
Pssst, that hole in the wall serving an epic century-old recipe for udon? They don’t take credit cards. A lot of Japanese shops and restaurants don’t, specially the less touristy ones. Make sure you have enough cash on hand for what you want to buy. You can change your money before leaving, but if you need cash quickly the ATM machines in 7-11 and in the post offices can usually serve foreign ATM cards. As an added tip, bring a coin purse, preferably one with compartments so you can sort the different coin types. It makes the little transactions like buying matcha ice cream cones so much faster!
7) Japanese Phrasebook (or similar app for your phone)
Nothing brightens up the Japanese like a foreign visitor trying to speak their language. While there’s no need to tip in Japan (in fact if you try they’ll give it back), you can always pay them back by making their day. Make that hard-working old chef smile by telling him “Gochisama deshita,” after your meal, and see how helpful everyone becomes when you ask for a favor with “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
8) Heating Pads
If you’re traveling to Japan during their spring, winter or fall seasons, be prepared for cold. Specially if you visit the mountains or walk along a river- or lake-side where the wind can get really chilly. Thankfully, the Japanese have a cheap solution! Kairo (literally ‘fire inside’) are disposable heating pads that you can stick between layers of clothing to help you keep warm. There are big ones that can go inside your jacket, and small ones that can go into your shoes. You can get them at most 100-yen stores and convenience stores. Just remember never to stick them to bare skin.
9) Folding Umbrella
Japan can be quite rainy, specially in spring (to say nothing of the June-July monsoon season!). Mountainous locales like Arashiyama or Takao are even rainier. That’s why there’s always a folding umbrella in our daypacks.
10) Good Walking Shoes
Okay, these go on your feet not your pockets, but we can’t stress enough the need to have good walking shoes. Whether you’re in Japan for the epic shopping or the even more epic temples, gardens and mountain trails, you’ll be walking a lot. Especially if, like us, you prefer to do your own exploration instead of taking the bus tours.
For us, our ideal shoes have comfy soles, warm uppers because we prefer to visit in spring and fall, not so casual or sporty so we can blend in anywhere (because Japan is a dressy society), and are easy to slip on and off because we have to take them off a lot when visiting temples. And oh yes, get good socks. It gets hard to soak in the Zen when your toes are freezing off.