Japan Travel Tips - Before You Fly
Just got back from my first ever trip to Japan and it was without doubt the best experience of my life. I did a 7 day solo travel through Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka with the Japan Rail Pass on the Shinkansen bullet trains. Ended the trip with a 6 day family holiday in Fukuoka. Japan is a unique country, beautiful, efficient and they do things differently from the rest of the world. From bidets to raw fish to bullet trains to blooming sakura flowers, these are just some of the things that is uniquely Japan. On my travels I made so many mistakes, got lost and fumbled about a lot and picked up so many lessons that I thought would not be right if I didn’t pass it on. So here are a list of travel tips that I picked up on my recent solo japan travels.
1. Pack A Good Pair Of Walking Shoes
This may seem obvious. But in Japan, you will be walking a lot and then some. I walked an average of 20 thousand steps on any given day. On one of those days I clocked over 30 thousand steps. Amid the sightseeing and shopping, you would likely be using the japanese train system. What may not seem obvious is how enormous japanese metropolitan train stations are. Getting in and out of stations will require lots of walking and climbing stairs, especially when connecting to other train lines.
Take Shinjuku Station in Tokyo for example. There are several smaller stations that feed into this mega station. Shinjuku station handles an average 3.5 million commuters a day. Yes, in any single day! Shinjuku is after all one of the top 7 busiest train stations in the world. It even made it into Guinness Book of Records as the world’s busiest station! That's almost 5 times as many passengers passing through Grand Central Station in New York. More than half the entire city of Melbourne, Singapore or Los Angeles in a single day!
So getting in and out of stations itself is already a workout. Make sure your shoes are good for walking or it will spoil your trip!
2. PACK LIGHT
I made the mistake of packing too much warm clothing and ended up not using everything. Big mistake.
Because you will be walking a lot in Japan, even if it is cold, you will warm up naturally. And it's best to pack light. Most major Japanese cities are best explored on foot using the amazing Japanese train network. You will most likely never be able to avoid stairs when navigating train stations. Having heavy and bulky luggage will be a painful experience. Even if you hire a car, you will be glad you have a light luggage. Japanese rental cars are usually smaller than usual too because some of the suburban streets are narrow, so luggage boot space can be limited.
Trains can get very crowded so having extra pieces of luggage isn't the most mobile experience. Why tire yourself out unnecessarily when you can save that energy for sightseeing? Remember you will be walking a lot!
Fortunately, Japanese hospitality makes it easy to pack light. Firstly, you can leave most of your toiletries, towels behind as most hotels will have the necessary toiletries. While this may seem obvious, Japanese hotel toiletries are really next level. At one 3 star hotel we stayed at, the shampoo, conditioner and shower gel was Laura Ashley! They even provide hair products like hair tonic, gel, hair spray. It differs from hotel to hotel, but pretty much every hotel I stayed at provide ample high quality toiletries. One big unique feature is that they also provide pyjamas. Yes, you heard that right. Leave your jammies at home. Even budget hostels and capsule hotels provide all of the above, including pyjamas. How good is that?
Packing light will also mean doing laundry during your trip. My suggestion is to pack 5 days worth of clothes for anything above 7 days of travel. Fortunately Japan is very tourist friendly, with many self-serve laundromats in city areas. Most hotels even have self-serve laundry facilities. The great thing about these self service laundromats is that you don't need to buy detergent or fabric softener. Each machine dispenses all the necessary detergents from start to finish. And as far as I have seen, most machines will even spin and dry. So all you need to do is put the clothes in, put in the coins required, push start and at the end of the cycle, you will have clean and dry clothes.
Of course, not all clothes can go through the dryer. Fortunately, some hotels, like even our airbnb has a built in dehumidifier in the bathroom. We line dried our jeans and woollens and by the morning they were dry as a bone. You are after all travelling, not performing at a fashion show.
3. HAVE IMPORTANT ADDRESSES WRITTEN OUT IN JAPANESE
Unless you are staying at major landmark hotels, having your accomodation address in written Japanese will be a life saver. It is useful when taking a taxi as taxi drivers may not speak or read English. Or asking for directions. Google maps may not display the full Japanese address unless you are using in Japanese. Having our address in written Japanese was super helpful for us when we had to take a taxi to our Airbnb, which wasn't a popular landmark.
Most Japanese speak limited to no English at all. In fact, if you speak Mandarin, you might find yourself in better luck. It seems more and more Japanese can speak Mandarin, over English. It happened many times throughout our trip, especially that one time at an auto repair shop when we had to fix a flat tyre.
4. CARRY PLENTY OF CASH
Have 90% of your spending budget on cash. Unless you are doing a glorified staycation hanging out only in the hotel and connected malls which will mostly accept credit cards, you will need to have cash on hand. Smaller street shops and restaurants are where the good stuff is at. Most take cash only. For example, most ramen shops require you to pay for your order at the vending machine at the door before you take a seat and hand your order ticket to the staff. Vending machines only take cash. Save your credit cards for when you shop at major malls and outlets.
If you happen to run out of cash, you can always withdraw more from ATMs. The best place is to do so at ATMs at convenience stores, like Seven Eleven, Lawsons or Family Mart. Most local Japanese bank ATMs do not take international cards.
5. CARRY PLENTY OF COINS
Coins are pretty much mandatory when you need to buy a local train ticket, pay at vending machines, order ramen or pay for street parking. Coins come in the form of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 500 Yen. Dollar bills start from 1000, 5000 and 10,000. When you first arrive, you will likely have large notes in the thousands. First chance you get, spend your biggest notes. Break them up into smaller change. Chances are, in the first half of your trip, you will find yourself digging for coins and small change. Machines do take notes but they only take up to 1000 yen notes with the exception of train ticketing machines. Having several 1000 yen notes is better than one big 10,000 yen note. I found myself stuck with a 5000 yen note when trying to pay for luggage locker. Luckily there was a cafe nearby and I could buy a coffee to break up my large bill. It was a moment of panic because I was rushing to catch the next bus out to Mount Fuji from the train station.
As most people would tell you, best way to see Japan is to get the Japan Rail Pass which is only available for tourists. The JR Pass is a heavily discounted ticket that lets you travel unlimited on JR trains, the shinkansen bullet train and some local lines. There are many online stores selling the JR Pass but I found the cheapest JR Pass you can buy is from Klook. They come in 7, 14 and 21 Day passes. Just make sure you order it ahead of time as delivery will take a minimum of 7 days to your location. I’d order it at least 2 weeks ahead before flying.
If you are planning on seeing Japan with the JR Pass, I strongly recommend using Hyperdia to plan your routes. There is also an app for it. It's very useful in planning your commute as it will give you exact details on train timing, duration of travel, train lines and the exact train platform for boarding.
Hope this short list will help you along. Let me know if you have any other travel tips that I might have missed out in the comments below.