Visiting Japan: Tips for foreigners
My experience was specifically travelling to Tokyo from Vancouver, Canada but this information would generally apply to anybody from a country with a similar currency and customs. These are the notes I made on the relaxing plane trip home.
Japan has a great and complex train and bus transit system but leave lots of time for walking to and navigating through the train stations. Sometimes twice as long as you would guess. You need to know the train Line as well as the station names. The station name means nothing if you don't know which line you are traveling on. Your train will leave the exact minute it says on your ticket and usually arrive just before. The Airport and main tourist stops usually have announcements in English but not always so use your GPS and listen to the Japanese announcements to figure out where you are. Of all the places I've ever travelled to this was easily the most challenging to navigate but it's also really fun and exciting.
If you plan on travelling on the bullet train (Shinkansen) more than twice it's probably worth it to buy a JR Pass. It's about $250 USD for 7 days. I would also recommend paying the extra $80 on top of that for the Green Car with really comfortable and roomy 2x2 seating. Always reserve your seats ahead of time at a JR ticket office in the major train stations either days in advance or even right before you leave. You can also use the JR Pass for the NEX (Narita Express) both ways between Narita airport and Tokyo, some Tokyo train lines and busses, the Hiroshima loop bus and Miyajima ferry among other places. Some cities like Kyoto don't accept the JR Pass for local busses or trains so have some change ready (it's pretty cheap ~¥250 or ¥600 for a day pass). Pay the driver with exact change when you get off. The driver can't sell you day passes. Try Tourist Info at the station.
You have to purchase the JR Passes online in your country before your trip. They do not sell them in Japan. JR Pass VOUCHERS will be sent to you by courier within a couple of days after you order them. These are not the passes. You will line up after your flight to exchange your voucher for the JR Pass at the JR Exchange office. The line up for us took about an hour to get the passes. Then we had to go on a quest for the pocket Wi-Fi. You can ask the JR clerk to make a reservation for the NEX train into Tokyo. NEX seats to and from the airport must be reserved even if just right before you leave. Leave at least 35 min extra to go and find your Wi-Fi and then get back to the NEX platform. The good news is that reserving seats on the trains is not usually done at the JR PASS Exchange office but instead at one of the many JR Ticket offices around the main stations and the lines move much faster. If you plan ahead you can reserve a few train trips (or return trips) at once. Leave yourself more than enough time.
When traveling to the shrine destinations expect transit and walking to take much longer than your estimate. At least 2:1. Same for finding the correct Shinkansen bullet train platforms. Sometimes we would arrive 30 min early and then later realize we were on the wrong floor (even though the signs and floor markings looked similar to what our ticket said) and we would be scrambling up the escalator to a different platform after asking someone to confirm our location.
Travel with no more than a carry-on size approved rolling suitcase or backpack and a smaller day-bag that can secure your: passport, JR Pass, reservation tickets and bus tickets but also keep them easily accessible. Other key travel-sized items to fit in the small day bag: lip balm, tooth brush, tooth paste, deodorant, Kleenex, hand sanitizer, small water bottle, earbuds (plane), ear plugs, sleep mask, safe sleep aid pills, eye drops (It's really dry in the mornings), Buckley's Daytime/Nightime cold medication and Dr. Scholl's (I woulda bought that from a Mr. Scholl) air cushions for your comfortable, water-resistant, light and easy to remove shoes. Also a USB phone charger and USB to 2 prong AC plug adapter. There are only 2 prong plugs in Japan. The voltage for North American electronics will work fine but only items with 2 prongs. For your 3 prong items just buy a single 3 to 2 prong travel adapter. You are also really going to need to reserve and rent a pocket Wi-Fi either when you buy your JR Pass or at the airport.
There is free and reliable Wi-Fi at the airport, on the NEX from Narita and at the hotels. Most cities also have less reliable free city Wi-Fi. Other than that you are on your own so it's good to have a strong signal with you when you are navigating. Make sure to charge it whenever you can as the battery only lasts about half a day or so.
You will constantly be using Google and Google maps GPS to find destinations, restaurants, recommendations, schedules, stations and locations.
** The pocket Wi-Fi (Ninja Wi-Fi) we rented (which was suggested right on the JR Pass site) was in a different terminal and we had to go on a +30 min quest and terminal connector bus ride (free) to find it after we landed.
Most people speak English better than you speak Spanish but some rarely use it. Only expect everyone to really understand you at the JR ticket offices and gates, Tourist Information, at the hotels, some restaurants and obvious places like Starbucks. Younger people (20-35) tend to understand and be willing to help more than older people (50+ = don't even bother asking). Twice I asked older bus drivers a question and they just ignored me.
You will need to know these words:
1- Sumimasen = Excuse me or Sorry
2- Kon'nichiwa = Hello
3- Arrigato = Thank you
4- Domo Arrigato = Thank you very much
5- Hai = Yes or I’m listening (not "Hi")
6- So, So, So... = So it is (basically Ya, Ya, Ya)
7- Itadakimasu = Thank you for the meal or Let's eat (said before you eat)
8- Gochisousama = Thank you for the great meal (said when you leave the restaurant)
9- Any words they didn’t have words hundreds of years ago are usually Japanese pronunciations of English words so when in doubt just throw out a Japanglish guess like: Starbucks (Sutabakkusu) or Computer (Konpyuta).
10- A quick head bow, before and after, to people you speak with will become natural after a few days.
Some people will assume you are the same raging foreigner bogan loon they have seen before acting drunk and obnoxious in their country. Be humble and polite to show them you are not. "Sumimasen".
There are hardly any garbage cans in Japan. You will carry your garbage around and wait until you find a garbage can that says "Others". Think you see a garbage can ? Wrong that's an umbrella stand or recycling. Hotel room and some train stations. That's it. Seriously. Seeing the word "Others" is like a religious experience when it happens.
If nobody around you is talking then please shut up. It's quiet time. If you hear one person in 100 around you talking that doesn't mean it's ok. Trains, parks, busses, shrines, some restaurants and meeting places. Enjoy the silence.
Think you're at the right platform for your train ? You're probably wrong. Triple check. Ask for confirmation from someone around age 20-35 nearby. Say "Sumimasen" and point to the info on your reservation ticket.
Almost everything is the opposite. #Costanza. You walk on the left side, stand on the left side of the escalator to let others pass on the right. Book and magazine spines are in the right. Writing goes from bottom top top. You typically get on the back of the bus, leave from the front and pay when you leave. Tickets are validated as you leave stations.
To pay for things, place your ¥en in the tray in front of the cashier. Don't hand it to them. They will hand you back your change and receipt. Usually bills first, then coins.
Servers/Attendants will assume you want iced coffee or iced tea unless you say “hot” or “hotto”. Usually one really small cream container is all you will get unless you ask for more. Milk is more common than cream.
Learn how to use (or at least fake it with) chopsticks or bring your own plastic travel utensils. If you do use a knife and fork expect to have your picture taken and be trending on Japanese Twitter. Don't point your chopsticks at anybody and don't stand them upright in your food.
The food is amazing. Even in the airport and train stations. Some restaurants have machines at the front entrance where you put in your ¥en and select which food items you want as you enter. They will then take your ticket stub and serve it to you.
There's no tipping for anything in Japan. It feels weird not to but it feels just as weird for them to accept it. Cab drivers just laugh at you. Don't do it. Really. That means you have to actually pay for hotel room upgrades as sliding ¥2000 ($20) along with your credit card would only cause confusion.
Everybody from the Prime Minister to the guy cleaning the handrails at the train station takes pride in their work and it really shows. Nobody is slacking off. Nobody is angry. Nobody is loud.
You could spend months traveling Japan and still miss some great places so do your research and get a variety. The Shinkansen allows you to go from Blade Runner to Akira Kurosawa's Dreams in about 2 hours. I can recommend Shinjuku and Shibuya in Tokyo, definitely Kyoto, and Hiroshima. Miyajima and the Kyoto bamboo forest only if it's nice weather and you are into a bit of an excursion. There are many more places I want to go next time like Osaka, Nara and up north somewhere with those hot tub chillin, ice-bearded Japanese monkeys.
Hotel check-out time is usually 11am and check-in time is either 3 or 4pm. They will hold your bags at the front desk free of charge if you arrive early or your flight/train doesn't leave until later. You can also rent lockers for your carry-on size luggage at the major train stations but they seemed to be pretty full.
If you can afford it book the larger sized rooms at the hotels. For extra $$ per night you can have a comfortable room with a table and sitting area and great view. These range from still very small but do-able in Tokyo to straight up really nice in less condensed areas like Kyoto. I'd also recommend flipping the extra dough ($$$) to book the Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyu for one night. It's right above Shibuya crossing and is a really great hotel and amazing location. Upgrade to a room with a view on floor 15 and up.
Take a third or half as much clothing as you normally would and buy some cool t-shirts and stuff there. Or take some plain cheap white H&M t-shirts or old hoodies/ jackets that you can ditch if you find some cool stuff that fits. Usually Large is the biggest size for things. Sometimes you find LL (Large Large which is like a small XL). If you are a guy over about 5'10 or over 180lbs it will be harder to find things that fit. Graniph T-Shirt stores are everywhere and have some pretty cool designs. There's a huge mall in Kyoto that runs parallel behind the main street (under huge arched entrances) that is about a mile or 2 long with lots of cool stuff for any taste and budget. You really need to go to Tower Records in Shibuya. They have everything. Oh and prices for food, clothing and music is roughly the same as you are used to. Might seem a bit pricy if you are from a small town ? I'm from Vancouver so prices seemed pretty normal to me.
BTW - The only English TV Channel in every hotel room is BBC news that repeats every hour or so. Watch some crazy Japanese TV. It's pretty much like Mr. Sparkle from the Simpsons on every channel.
Fly JAL. It might be worth it to depart from a city that has the JAL Boeing 787 Dreamliner if your city doesn’t. Great food. Lots of seat room (even in regular class). 2:4:2 seating. High ceilings = lots of air circulation. Lots of free movies. Lots of carry-on luggage space. Neck pillow (you won't need to bring one) and blanket. Complimentary toothbrush & toothpaste in the clean and fresh smelling washrooms. Quiet. Super friendly. I could live on there for a month with no complaints. Seriously. If possible, Fly JAL.
Did I love it ? Yes
Will I go back ? As much as financially possible.
It was the best place I've ever been. Cuba was a close 2nd.
Final tip: Dye your hair blond before you go. You know you want to.
Btw: I lived through a 6.3M quake in Shibuya. Felt like a 1.0 or 2.0.
I was in Tower Records and almost spilled my coffee. #TheStruggleIsReal