Japan frequently appears on many travellers’ bucket lists. It’s a country rich in history, tradition and natural beauty. Arriving in Japan for the first time can be a little overwhelming – a different language, culture and a LOT of people. To help anyone planning their trip I’ve put together some essential tips for first time visitors to Japan from my recent travels.
Buy a Japan Rail Pass before you travel
Available to temporary visitors, the JR Pass is a great way of exploring Japan while cutting down on costs. It allows users to use the extensive rail network, including the iconic shinkansen (bullet trains). Trains are fast and efficient and it’s super easy to get around the country.
Passes are available in 7, 14 and 21 day varieties and provide unlimited travel on most services including some public transport lines within cities. While the initial cost may seem high, train travel is actually very expensive without the pass. For example, a single trip from Osaka to Hiroshima costs around ¥10,000 – so a return trip already recoups almost half the cost of the 14 day pass!
Visit http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/index.html for more information.
The JR Pass needs to be purchased outside Japan. I purchased my pass from Japan Experience who seem to offer the best exchange rate in the UK. While you may have heard that passes are now available to buy within Japan on a trial basis, this is only for regional passes and does NOT include the main JR Pass.
UPDATE: The JR Pass can now be purchased IN Japan! This is on a trial basis from 8th March 2017 until March 31 2018. This can only be done at certain stations and the pass will be MORE EXPENSIVE if you buy in Japan so it still pays to buy in advance. For more information and latest prices, please visit this site.
Learn some Japanese
While it’s always a good idea to pick up a few foreign phrases regardless of where you travel, this is especially true in Japan. Despite the country’s prominence on the international stage, English is not very widely spoken. I felt that people can read and understand quite a lot but not speak very much.
So learning to say “hello”, “excuse me”, “thank you” and a few other things will go a long way! Japanese people genuinely appreciate the effort that foreigners make to speak their language and will go even more out of their way to help you (they will help you regardless – they are incredibly nice!)
“Ohayou gozaimasu” – Good morning
“Konnichiwa” – Good day/Good afternoon. This is a greeting that many visitors might know.
“Kombanwa” – Good evening
“Arigatou” – Thank you. I tended to use “arigatou gozaimashita”, which is a more polite version.
“Itadakimasu” – Said before starting a meal. Is a way of giving thanks for the food and saying “Bon appetit”
“Kono mama” – Just like this. A useful thing to say in convenience stores when you don’t want a bag (in Japan, store clerks will generally try and give you a bag for EVERYTHING).
This blog has some great thoughts on why the Japanese don’t speak English well.
Make friends with convenience stores
In Japan on a budget? Convenience stores will be your best friend. You usually can’t walk more than a few metres without seeing a 7-Eleven, Lawson or a Family Mart – they are EVERYWHERE. They are mostly open 24 hours and have a great selection of food including sushi, hot meals, bakery items and snacks. There are also plenty of hot and cold drinks (yes, even alcohol) and things like toiletries and even clothes! Most importantly, convenience stores are cheap!
Another great thing about them is that many will have ATMs inside and ATMs are important as Japan is still very much a cash-based society (see #11)
So, convenience stores are basically awesome. I am already having withdrawal symptoms from not being able to go on a midnight snack shopping spree!
Eat out for less
Food in Japan is amazing – everything is just so mouth-wateringly good. It’s no surprise that Tokyo alone has more Michelin stars than any other city in the world – Japanese sure do know how to cook! Eating out can easily burn a hole in your wallet, even without going to higher-end restaurants. One way of saving money is by taking advantage of lunch deals that most restaurants will promote. Set meals cost a lot less at lunch than they do at dinner and many places will have specials that are great value for money!
Other good options include sushi train places – some will offer many plates for the same price meaning it’s easy to try everything! Street stalls will also have some tasty snacks on offer that won’t break the bank.
Gyudon restaurants, like Yoshinoya, also offer cheap, fast meals – their specialties are meat-based however, with limited options for vegetarians.
Buy coffee from vending machines
Many travel blogs will tell you to cut your coffee consumption and save hundreds (if not thousands) towards your travel. Those that drink it, of course, know that it’s easier said than done! In Japan, however, you CAN save money by not hanging out in expensive café chains and buying your Joe from…vending machines! They can be found on almost every street corner and have both hot and iced varieties indicated by red or blue labels next to the price (you will still get it wrong at least once). The goodness comes in cans and bottles and it might be my favourite thing in Japan, period. There are loads of different options and it’s cheap – about ¥150 as opposed to about ¥450-500 for a Starbucks. So unless you need wifi or want to take a break from sightseeing, coffee on the go is the way forward!
While technology immediately springs to mind when thinking about Japan, it’s a little surprising that public WiFi isn’t very widely available. Free WiFi is, however, becoming more prominent in Japan, especially in bigger cities and near tourist attractions. Coffee chains like Starbucks and Tully’s Coffee are a safe WiFi haven and some restaurants will also have hotspots.
There are a number of other options for those who want to stay connected:
Mobile WiFi: a rentable portable gadget providing internet access multiple devices. Cost will depend on duration of rental and connection speed. Good option when travelling with others as you can share use and cost.
Data sim card – a data-only sim that provides internet access. You will NOT be able to use your phone for calls or SMS other than through dedicated apps (normal pre-paid sims are unavailable to non-residents in Japan). You must check that your phone is unlocked and compatible!
Use your existing plan/data for a daily fee – Some providers give customers an option to use their minutes, SMS and data abroad for a set daily fee. You pay only for the days you use your phone. This is the option I went with and was very happy with the service I got throughout the country.
Arrive to places early
Japan is a stunning country. There is so much to see and do from outstanding natural beauty to grand castles and temples. Naturally there are also many tourists around, even in off-season. Arriving early to some of the major sights is a great way to beat the crowds and experience them without fighting your way through a sea of selfie sticks.
Yes, while this means waking up early and sometimes getting to places before or around sunrise, you will thank yourself later. Stunning photos without people blocking your view are possible – check out my shot of the Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto – I was at both around 6:30 am and was duly rewarded! Public transport in cities starts at around 5am so dress up warm, grab some snacks from a convenience store and head off! You can always treat yourself to a nice hot vending machine coffee afterwards!
Buy an IC card
An IC card is a rechargeable smart card that allows you to use most public transport in Japan (similar to Oyster in London or Opal in Sydney). While the JR Pass will get you around the country’s rail network, it won’t work on metro or buses. Having an IC card also means you can top it up as and when you need to instead of queuing up to buy individual tickets every time and making sure you have cash on you.
There are loads of different IC cards in Japan but in 2013 many of them were made compatible with each other. So while a Suica card was originally a Greater Tokyo area card, you can use it just as easily on public transport in Osaka or Sapporo.
I highly recommend getting one as it’s super easy and convenient – and you only pay a refundable 500 yen deposit in addition to any credit you load it with. Note that the cards are also accepted on many JR trains, but chances are you will have a JR pass for those so check whether you need to be paying for the journey before you travel.
Take your rubbish with you
Rubbish bins are surprisingly scarce in Japan. You could be walking around for ages and not come across one – even in big cities! Japan is big on recycling and when you DO come across a bin – there will likely be separate ones for glass, plastic and other rubbish. Even Japanese people will struggle to explain why bins are hard to come by – it may be a cultural thing – but unlike some countries I have visited, this doesn’t lead to people dumping their stuff everywhere!
So, make sure you take your rubbish with you! Put it in your bag and keep an eye out for convenience stores or vending machines as they will often have bins next to them.
Be aware of Japanese customs
Japanese customs and traditions are fascinating and making an effort to respect and understand them will go a long way to making your trip more fulfilling. For example, tipping is not really a thing in Japan –it’s considered rude – and waiters and bartenders will run after you to hand over your change (I knew about this but made the mistake once!). Taking off your shoes is also customary when entering people’s homes, many temples and traditional-style accommodation. When out with others, you shouldn’t pour your own drink and instead top up others. Slurping when eating, which would be considered rude in many countries, is accepted and even encouraged in Japan – it shows that you are enjoying your food!
It’s a good idea to brush up on these and other Japanese customs as you prepare for your trip!
Bring plenty of cash
I normally only tend to bring enough cash to last me the first few days in a foreign country. I rely on ATMs to withdraw money from my travel card accounts and will often make purchases on my debit card as my bank doesn’t charge me for transactions. Well, that doesn’t work so well in Japan – cash is still King here and many shops and restaurants won’t even accept credit cards! Out of about 8 hostels I stayed in on my trip, only one accepted card payments. Make sure you have enough cash to last you until you can find an ATM. As mentioned above, ATMs can be hard to find even in bigger cities so it’s always a good idea to bring cash, especially if you are heading to more rural areas.
Many convenience stores have ATMs and some banks will also have machines available 24 hours a day.
Have you been or are you going to Japan? Do you have any other tips that could be useful to travellers visiting the Land of the Rising Sun?