Konnichi-What?: 5 Tips for Travelling Japan
The biggest vacation of 2017 for me (other than the whole move to London thing) was a week and a bit away in Japan! And what a wild ride it was. Japan’s the kind of place where some inside information really helps when you’re traversing the complicated subways, and navigating the thousands of options on things to do. Never fear – Japan is well geared to tourists like us, and here are a few tips that helped me make the most of my time there.
Buy A JR Pass
My Ryan first mentioned getting a JR Pass and I gawked at my screen a solid minute when I saw the price. A 7 day pass costs ¥29,110, and it goes up to ¥46,390 for 14 days and ¥59,350 for 21. So what is a JR (or Japan Rail) pass? It’s a train ticket that only foreign tourists can use, it offers unlimited uses of JR trains across the whole of Japan (on their network) for a set period of time. There’s two types. One is ordinary and the second is green (first-class) which offers more spacious seats and smoking carriages. Ordinary is plenty.
And the JR pass is amazing, my first tip is get your hands on one. Put it this way: a single shinkansen (bullet train) trip from Kyoto to Tokyo would rack up ¥13,500 so even a return trip there nets the full purchase price straightaway. And then the other ten or so trips you take. I wouldn’t have been able to visit so many parts of Japan (e.g. Nara, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe) without the pass. I’m sure I could, would just cost quite a bit more.
In addition the JR pass covers off the JR Miyajima ferry (and a few other services) as well as the Narita Express if you’re flying in from there. My two days outside the JR pass validity meant I paid the full price of ¥4,000.
To get the pass, order online before your trip, with at least a week to spare as it has to come in snail mail. They have a list of authorised agents who resell the pass in each country, usually charging the same amount, give or take a few pounds/ dollars. And it’s an old school system. They send you a receipt which you then have to change for the paper pass when in Japan. I did mine at Narita Airport and you can specify the start dates when you do, you can also do this at most major stations.
Keep in mind for Tokyo half the subway network is operated by a completely different company so your JR pass will do no good there. You’ll need seperate subway tickets. But otherwise the JR pass is an enviable system where you flash your pass at the gates to get through and you can also reserve a seat on long haul routes. I’d completely recommend doing this, even if it’s a ten minute wait. There’s a luxury in having a guaranteed seat on a long journey as well as making sure you’re next to a power outlet (that’s seats A or F). Sit on the right ride on the Tokyo – Kyoto route and you can sneak a view of Mt Fuji along the way too.
Pick up a SIM card
As I mentioned, Tokyo has two train networks, and each operate different lines. Then there’s the shinkansen. And buses. And each city has it’s own system. It’s a lot to navigate! So my next tip is to make sure you pick up a SIM card at the earliest opportunity. This will let Google Maps (or CityMapper) to do all the heavy lifting for you. The best local site for transport planning is Hyperdia. That’s in English and is thoroughly detailed for getting all the times and routes. Even better, Japan has the best (?) transportation system in the world and trains almost always arrive to the minute so it’s reliably to plan on.
It’s a pricey data market. My IIJmio Travel Japan SIM costs me about ¥2500 for 1GB that’s valid for 30 days. Make sure you turn on data saver/ flight mode on religiously. Even three days saw me exhausting that allowance. Whilst malls and public places do offer free Wi-Fi sometimes the connectivity was often poor. There’s a few steps required to activate the SIM so it’s a safer bet to do it somewhere with Wi-Fi in case as I had to click a web link to finish the activation. It silly, I know.
There are plenty of SIM card vending machines at airports and terminals, but the prices vary considerably. One was almost double the price for the same 1GB. And be careful that you get a tourist SIM, the ones that aren’t require a phone call to activate. These are for the locals. Heading along to a BIC Camera or a Yodobashi store is easy too, they might be able to troubleshoot. Another idea is downloading all your Google Maps/ Google Translate file when you’re on the Wi-Fi or before the trip. This is will reduce the data sipping later on.
If there’s more than one of you, the alternative option is renting out a Pocket Wi-Fi. We had one at our Airbnb (and apparently most of them do include one) and this lets you stay connected when out and about. The allowance again wasn’t super high but at least it slows you down rather than being cut off completely when that’s finished. You can get collect one at the airport.
The most surprising thing for a lot of visitors to Japan is how un-modern some aspects of the country is. So one of my biggest lessons is to make sure to take plenty of cash. So that’s a big tip. Or alternatively, make sure to use credit card whenever you can.
When you go visiting temples and shrines the ones that have an entry fee will only ever take cash. Whilst it’s never huge (¥500 at most) it adds up along with street food stalls, souvenir shops, traditional eateries, ticket machines, vending machines and all the Gacha (capsule toys)! Like my data allowance, I used up my cash funds a little too quick. This meant I had to search out eateries that would take credit card which lessened my options. In hindsight using the credit card earlier on would have reserved enough funds for later on. There’s plenty of shopping (includes in the airport and stations) for dishing out any leftovers later on.
Shop with a strategy
One of the most interesting parts of Japan is that despite how retail-centric the cities are, the prices didn’t seem to vary much a lot and the word “sale” was surprisingly infrequent. If you see something you like, just buy it! There’s no need to shop around too much, unless it’s one of those bigger purchases. And in a quite a few cases, I found prices to be in-line with what I’d pay in London. Not sure that is saying a lot though.
I found the department type stores like Bic Camera and Yodabashi to have generally lower prices and if you’re looking for random, household crap, and anything else Daiso will sort you out. Everything is ¥100 which is just amazing. I picked up plenty of craft kits, knock-off Nanoblocks and snacks there. It’s amazing.
Japan is another of those places that charges the tax seperate so make sure you’re factoring in a further 8% to the number on that price tag. It’s quirky as it makes the many, many vending machines your cheapest option for liquid sustenance. But if you spend over ¥5,500 (some purchases excluded) at selected retailers you can actually claim that tax back as a tourist. Some stores have specific counters for doing this, so it’s not too much of a pain. I just never found myself spending that much in a single place. Tip: maybe lumping in all your shopping in one place if you want that extra 8% off?
Mind your manners
And my final tip of this post is being mindful of your etiquette when about. The last thing you want to do is piss off the locals. I may have inadvertently, cough. I did arrive at Japan knowing they are super big on their politeness and its only befitting that we do the same. Most of these should be obvious (if not signposted and blared at you). But there’s minor things like not talking loudly on trains and queueing in the specified triangles on the train platform. I say obvious, but I’ve seen plenty of obnoxious tourists who haven’t followed these guidelines.
Japan is extremely litter-free and simultaneously, bin-free. This means, yes, keeping your trash on you until you can dispose as it back home or at a convenience store like 7-Eleven, Lawson or Family Mart. I even saw an elderly man hunch over to pick up a speck of paper (that wasn’t his) so these guys are serious on their tidiness and we should be the same.
I’m not sure if it’s a travel tip to just be a nice person? On the complete opposite spectrum, we do seem to have a higher level of manners than the locals do in some respects. For example, some Japanese don’t really greet or thank retail staff when they buy things. A few seem quite surprised by how friendly we are at point of sale. So that little smile or ‘arigato’ might mean something quite different for the locals. So why wouldn’t you?
And that’s all for the tips for now. There’s plenty of things you pick up along the way, even with just a week. Hopefully those tips give you some ideas and inspiration for your own your trip. Japan is an amazing place with great people, beautiful scenery. Every little thing you can do to maximise your stay, you absolutely should!