Japan is an incredibly efficient nation, and coming here for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect! Being a typical half organised- half unorganised traveller, I dutifully watched YouTube videos about how to catch the trains, all whilst my bag sat unpacked beside me. After spending a month across Tokyo, Kyoto and Yatsugatake, I’ve compiled a short list of tips and fun facts to help anyone’s future travels to Japan to go as smoothly as possible!
- What type of luggage to bring: If you are a half suitcase queen/half backpacker gal like me, the choice of what kind of luggage to bring on your travels is going to be a key question. I took a big backpack and had real regrets. Trains can be very cramped, and having a giant entity on your back can make it hard to move. The roads and sidewalks (when there are sidewalks- expect a lot of side of the road walking here) are well paved, so having to wheel a suitcase wouldn’t be a great challenge compared to being a human turtle. I also travelled in summer, so having a backpack on was just so much hotter than I anticipated, so if I could go back in time, I would definitely opt for a suitcase.
- Hotel rooms that you may be used to are going to be a LOT more expensive in Tokyo. If you are traveling on a more modest budget, hostels are the way to go. If you opt for a hostel, remember to bring earplugs and an eye mask to stop your sleep from being interrupted by your neighbours coming in and out at all hours.
- Exchange some cash at home before you arrive so you can easily organise your Pasmo/Suica and anything else you need right off the bat. For getting cash out whilst here, every 7-Eleven has an international ATM, and these convenience stores are absolutely everywhere across Japan. The other convenience stores (Lawson’s and Family Mart) don’t take all international cards, so going to a 7-Eleven eliminates that hassle. Japan is still a very cash-based society, and many places (restaurants too) wont take card payment, so just be mindful of this.
- Do some train research, and get yourself a Suica or Pasmo card right away (a card to tag on and off the train- like a Smartrider for Aussies). Don’t stress about which one to opt for, they both work in the exact same way and only look different because they are owned by different companies. You can get these cards at the self serve machines at train stations-check YouTube to get a clear idea of what buttons to press if you like, but it is quite straightforward. There will be a deposit you have to pay for the card also, for my Pasmo it was 500 yen. If you get confused there are usually station staff around who can help you. Suicas and Pasmos can be recharged with more money at any self serve machine at train stations with CASH (not card), and the money on your Pasmo/Suica can also be used to make purchases at convenience stores! I got a Pasmo, and kept it upon leaving Japan as they remain valid for 10 years, so it’s perfect for whenever I revisit! If you don’t plan to come back, you can return your card to a self serve machine at the end of your trip and get your initial 500 yen deposit back.
- Google Maps is your best friend. Maps will tell you exactly what colour train line you need to take, the stop number, what platform you need to be on and what time that sucker departs the station. Trains in Japan run like clockwork. If you get to your platform and there’s a train pulled up but it’s 3 minutes before your scheduled departure, don’t get on it. 9 times out of 10, that’s not your train. Wait and check the electronic board that is usually sitting above the platform area with the train times. If you get on the wrong train, don’t panic. Just hop off at the next station and reassess. If you are confused, ask for help. If you genuinely just look confused enough, people will come up to you and ask if they can help. They’re that polite! After a day or two you will have the train system down. The colours and numbers of each stop make it super easy to follow, even if it’s a little overwhelming at first. Also- do not stand facing away in front of someone who is seated on the train (ie. your ass facing their face). It is considered to be very rude. If you are standing in front of a seated passenger, it is polite to face in their direction.
- Taxis are monstrously expensive! Do not plan to hop in a taxi right from the airport to your accommodation unless you want to be paying an absolute arm and a leg. Either opt for a train, or go to the bus information desk and talk to the lovely staff there, and they can organise the regular airport ‘limosine bus’ to take you to a stop closest to your destination for usually around $40 AUD (check online and you can book in advance). These stops aren’t always right at your hotel, so you may have to walk and/or take the train from there to your final destination.
- SIM cards- I got a sim card immediately at the airport as I wanted to have maps readily available to navigate the train system after my bus ride. Upon arrival I asked one of the employees where I could purchase one, and they directed me to the Softbank business counter. With most mobile providers in Japan you can either opt to get a sim card, or rent a portable wifi pod. Renting portable wifi would be a good option if you are travelling with one (or a few) others, as you can opt for unlimited data and you can all connect to it at once and split the cost. I decided to just get a sim with 10G of data, and that lasted me close to the whole month. If you are a prepared person, you can also order a rental sim card online and have it delivered to your accommodation or have it ready to pick up at the airport!
- Convenience stores have an awesome range of food. They often have fresh sushi, ramen, katsu, soba, pasta dishes and more, and all for a decent price. To save money on not having to eat at a restaurant every meal, these options are great for taste, price and convenience. They can even heat up your meal for you at the store!
- The language barrier can be a challenge at times, but remember to be patient, polite and learn a few phrases before you come. Even a simple Konnichiwa (hello) and Arigatou gozaimasu (thank you) will put you in good stead with the locals and show that you aren’t a rude traveller. A lot of Japanese people can speak some basic English, and even if they don’t, google is your friend. Download google translate before you go, and it can be a lifesaver when asking questions and translating hard to comprehend labels at the supermarket.
- A western style breakfast is going to be difficult to find. Brunch culture isn’t really a thing in Japan, and coming from Perth where coffee and brunch is basically a spiritual need, I found it quite difficult! Most coffee places don’t have milk alternatives like soy, so that is also something to be mindful of. Luckily the place I was staying at in Shibuya had a cafe downstairs that provided the breakfast I was craving (avo toast, scrambled eggs, pancakes, etc) so if you’re in that area and need that sort of a meal, make sure to check out the Megan Patisserie below the Mustard Hotel- 10/10 recommend! They also have soy milk!
So all in all, remember to be polite, ask for help when you need it, and have fun! Japan is an incredibly safe country, and it’s rich culture makes it a truly amazing place to visit.