Are you going to Japan for the first time? Here are 7 tips that can save you from a lot of trouble.
1. Buy a train pass, but only if it really saves a lot of money
You can save hundreds of euros with a JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass) but only if you travel beyond the classic Tokyo – Kyoto – Tokyo trip. Use Hyperdia to find out what single tickets would cost. Or use the calculator on japan-guide.com.
Take note: Since 2017 there’s been a trial that lets you buy your JR Pass in Japan rather than outside. You can only do this at certain train stations and it is cheaper to buy it in your own country!
2. Rent a pocket wifi
No, not just to put selfies on Instagram. Renting a pocket wifi huren in Japan is especially useful to be able to use Google Maps everywhere at all times. Because you are going to get lost, you can count on it. Pocket wifi internet is super fast, even the cheaper 3g version is better than you’d think. LTE is really fast. Order your pocket wifi in advance and you can pick it up from the airport when you arrive, or have it sent to your hotel. At the end of your journey, you put it in the stamped addressed envelope that comes with it and send it back.
Update 2018: the 3g version is now more or less obsolete, LTE is the standard.
3. Learn some words of Japanese at least
If you stick to the premise that nobody speaks a word of English, you may end up pleasantly surprised. But really, you should know how to thank people and how to say sorry at least. This is the absolute minimum:
- Sumimasen (suu-mie-mah-sen) It means sorry and excuse me. Use it to call a waiter in restaurants. Or before you ask somebody the way.
- Arigatou gozaimasu (a-ree-gah-toe go-zai-mas) This means than you. Just ‘arigatou’ isn’t enough, really. It’s not polite enough. The ‘gozaimasu’ makes it polite. Go ahead, go crazy, use the full ‘Doumo arigatou gozaimasu’.
4. Book hotels close to public transport, but choose a smaller station
Take it from me, avoid hotels in the vicinity of larger stations such as Shinjuku, Shibuya and Tokyo Station. Not because they are expensve, but because you can’t imagine how big these stations are and how hard it is to navigate them which all of their floors and so many exits. Pick somewhere like Asakusa, for example, a small station in a nice area. Akasaka is also a convenient area to stay in, it has several smaller stations. Further out, Otsuya and Sugamo are good options.
5. Got lost in a station? Go outside first!
If you do get lost in a station and can’t find the way to your exit? Do the next best thing, ANY exit will do. At least it’s easier to navigate: you may recognise buildings and other landmarks outside.
6. Book a hotel with a view
At least once book a hotel with a view of the city, whether it’s in Tokyo, Yokohama or Osaka. These are all cities with interesting sky lines. Take note: some hotel rooms have very small windows and aren’t much use. The Royal Park Hotel in Yokohama is great for a view of the Minato Mirai area and Yokohama bay. It’s expensive and a little past its prime, but the huge windows and sublime view make up for it. In Tokyo, Shibuya has the Excel hotel which has a view of the ‘scramble’, the famous crossing.
7. Get your cash from a convenience store
It’s hard to find an ATM in Japan that works with your bank card. These are certain bets:
- The 7-Eleven “konbini” stores and their 7-Bank atms
- Citibank, but they close around 3pm
- Postoffices, but they are often hard to find
… so: de 7-Eleven is your friend. Get some money from their 7-Bank ATM, then fill your basket with snacks. Coffee. Breakfast. A full meal. A clean shirt, if you want. 7-Eleven and other konbini’s are super useful.
Update 2018: Japan is changing. You’ll find 7-Bank ATM machines in train stations now. Family Mart are also said to be accepting foreign bank card, but I haven’t tried them yet.
Three extra tips, for free:
- Always carry cash. Japan is as credit card unfriendly as the Netherlands. In other words, it’s not too bad, but they really not as accepted as in many other countries. Smaller hotels and ryokans expect you to pay cash.
- FFs, tone it down a bit. We Westerners are very loud compared to the Japanese. Don’t talk out loud on public transport.
- Shoes off. Slippers on. Slippers off. Other slippers on…. it’s confusing.
So, these are my first 7 + 3 tips. I hope you have a great time in Japan. Let me know if you have any tips of your own.