I love traveling, impromptu! It's exciting buying a ticket, packing, and flying all in a week! Crazy? Guilty! However, when traveling to Japan, I found it very useful and money-saving booking/buying some things ahead of time. This post will share my list of the eight things every traveler should do before arriving in Japan.
Not a planner? No worries, I've got you covered! Use this post as a guide to the things you should do before arriving in Japan. This list will help your trip run smoothly while saving you time and a couple of hundreds of dollars as Japan can be a very expensive island to visit and explore.
The best time to travel is late spring when skies are clear, and sakura start to bloom & early autumn when there's less rain, temperatures are mild, and the fall colors are at their deepest with beautiful shades of reds, yellows, and orange.
OK, so you booked your flight to Japan, now what?—
1. Go online and buy your JR Pass-- The Japan rail pass must be purchased in your home country before arriving and can take up to 6 weeks for delivery. Although expensive, it will end up saving you hundreds if you plan on venturing out of Tokyo and visiting other places nearby. You can buy a 7-day, 14-day, or 21-day pass. The days are counted consecutive after the first stamp day on your pass, and this date cannot be changed once activated. This pass is a special fare ticket available only to travelers visiting Japan from foreign countries for sightseeing. Trains not included: NOZOMI & MIZUHO, so make sure you ride the ones covered by your pass; if not, they'll charge you full fare once you exit, and the trip could easily cost you hundreds of dollars. Most JR trains have ordinary cars (coach class) while long-distance ones also offer green cars (superior level). With a green type Japan Rail Pass, you can use either class, while with an ordinary type, you can only use ordinary cars without paying an additional charge. Some of these long-distance trains allow food and drinks, so make sure to hit up a 7eleven before your departure, grab some snacks, sake and enjoy the scenic ride. The JR pass is valid for railways - Shinkansen " bullet trains," the Tokyo monorail, local lines of the JR bus (* not express), and the JR- West Miyajima Ferry.
2. Rent a portable wifi router -- you can pick it up/drop off at the airport in Japan. This will change your life! You'll be able to navigate the streets like a pro. We rented one for 2-weeks at $85. You have to pre-order before your arrival. If staying at an Airbnb, some hosts will provide this to you at no additional charge; just read their description page to verify whether they provide one or, when in doubt, ask.
3. Map it out-- Where do you want to go? What do you want to see? Map it out and create main hubs where you can easily take day trips from.
4. Airbnb it -- Hotels in Japan can be expensive. For a more frugal stay, try capsule hotels unique to Japan, but if you're like me and tight places are not your thing, I would recommend staying at a local Airbnb.
By using Airbnb, you get the best of both worlds. You save some cash while staying in an actual Japanese style apartment, and for less than half the price of a hotel, you get the entire place to yourself.
**Note: My first time using Airbnb was while traveling through Japan. We stayed in 4 different Airbnb homes and loved the experience. I love learning about the culture of a place every time I travel, and by getting to stay at an Airbnb local home, I felt more connected to my environment. A year later, I decided to backpack through Mexico and use Airbnb as my leading lodging booking site, and this became my worst nightmare!!! After carefully selecting the places I wanted to stay at 3-months in advance, I woke up a week before my flight to an Airbnb email saying, "my account was terminated, and all my previous reservations had been canceled." When I saw the email, I started to panic, but at the same time, I knew that if I called, they would fix the problem since I had never canceled my account to begin with. I was wrong. They left me hanging and completely ghosted on me. I didn't hear back from them until a week later while boarding my flight to Mexico (how ironic).
This cost me much more in the end since I had to make last-minute bookings. I had already paid for all my stays, so I was also $700ish shy from my initial budget-- yikes!!! This got me thinking. I was lucky to know the country's language I was traveling to, and I was traveling with my partner, so I was not alone, but what if that was not the case? What if I was traveling alone as a female traveler to a foreign country on a budget? Not speaking the language and placing my trust on Airbnb, and then out of nowhere, I have no Airbnb account, no place to stay, no money (since I had already paid in full for my stay), and no actual Airbnb representative to talk to in person? If you call their main call center, no-one is authorized to help you, so they send your case to a "specialist," responding to you via text message in the app. That is a horrifying, unsafe situation to be in, so if you use Airbnb, be careful. I don't recommend going alone. At least in a group, you guys can figure something out together; if this were to happen, let's say THE DAY OF YOUR FLIGHT... do not wish that on anyone.
5. Download the Hyperdia app -- This is an app that helps you navigate Japan using the rail system to show timetables and routes.
6. Know the Facts -- This depends on where you're coming from. I'm using New York as my departure point and dollars as my main currency.
* Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of New York
*$1 = 104.15 Yen ( as of December 2020 ) to make it easier for myself, I round off and make a cheat note on my cell. so my cheat note looks like this:
This helps a lot if you're in a rush and want to figure the cost of something quickly. With more time, I use my calculator.
*Don't tip in Japan. They find it offensive.
*Don't be late to a reservation/call if you need to cancel. They find lateness and no-shows rude, and they might blacklist your name with no re-entry to that specific place.
*Taxis are costly so try to avoid them, especially after 8 pm
*Slurping while eating ramen or noodles is encouraged; it means you like the food ;)
* Lightly dip the fish part of the sushi into the soy sauce instead of the rice. America has it all wrong!
*Keep the talking to a minimum while riding the train.
*During rush hour, some train carts become female-only and male-only. Be aware of this.
*There's no paper towel to try your hands in the bathrooms, so bring some with you. I will say this, there are bathrooms everywhere, and the trains are always on time :)
*You'll need an electric adapter if coming from the USA
*Get a travel guide; they're full of good info. We used "Fodor's Travel, Japan."
*Exchange rates can be expensive, even at your local bank, so when traveling, I always find an ATM outside a bank in the country I'm traveling to that will give me the best rate as I only pay a standard fee, not mattering the amount I take out. Try to take out enough money so you can limit your time at the ATM to once a week.
*Always carry Yen. Japan operates mainly on cash, not CC.
*Pharmacies are a little tough to find as their storefront is not as descriptive as those in the states, so google maps will come in handy here. The name of a popular local pain killer is "EVE," so if you google it and show the pharmacist a photo, they'll help you out if they don't speak English. **Note: This pill works great for pain relief, but it contains caffeine, so beware of taking it at night before going to bed.
*7elevens are awesome in Japan!! For a quick meal or snack, it's the best place to go! plus, they have amazing to go Sake bottles under $8
7. Learn the basics-- I don't expect you to learn Japanese before your next trip. Here are seven words/phrases to aid your survival:
YES = ha-i
Thank You = a-ri-ga-to
Sorry = go-men-na-sai
Train Station = e-ki
Hot Spring / Spa = On-sen
Cherry Blossom = Sakura
8. Get a Suica card --While the JR pass has you covered for long-distance and some local travel, the Suica card will cover the rest. It's a re-loadable card used through most of Japan for travel and at the 7elevens to pay for regular stuff. This card you can get while in Japan.
That's it! I think we're ready now; let's pack up our bags and go! Are you heading to Japan? Read my other posts:
Japan Part I (Tokyo, Kamakura, nearby day trips, and Shibu- Onsen.)
Japan Part II. ( Kyoto, Osaka, and Miyajima.)
Thanks for Reading!