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Japan Travel Tips: Planning Your Stay

When Elsie, Jarques, Tina and I were planning our trip to Japan we really had no idea what to expect. A couple of friends who had been to Japan before gave us some helpful pointers but for the majority of the time we were flying by the seat of our pants.

Elsie and I are in the process of planning another trip to Japan and so we looked back at what worked well during our first visit and what didn't. We thought about what advice we could give our past selves to make the trip easier and more fruitful.

So, based on our experiences, if you are thinking about traveling to Japan here are some things that you absolutely should consider while making your arrangements.

Getting a Japan Rail Pass

This is easily the most important thing you should look into before you visit Japan. If I was only allowed to give one piece of advice to someone traveling to Japan it would be look into buying a Japan Rail Pass.

Japan Rail maintains transportations services across all of Japan and you can purchase a pass that gives you unlimited access to the vast majority of them. Train, bus, ferry it does not matter. If it is run by the JR Group and not on an extremely small exemption list you are allowed to use it. To put that into perspective, over the span of our 14 days in Japan we never once encountered a JR transport that we could not use.

The pass is also not just for traveling long distances on trains like the Shinkansens (bullet trains). We used our passes at least a dozen times per day during our seven day stay in Tokyo. To access the Tokyo subway all we had to do was show our pass to an agent beside the ticket gates. It was sometimes faster than going through the actual gates themselves because there were so few people who wanted to see the agent.

The major catch with the JR Pass is that it must be purchased before you enter Japan. It is meant for foreigners who are visiting Japan to go sightseeing. You must prove to an authorized sales agent that you are not a resident of Japan and you will receive an exchange order that you use to redeem for your pass once you arrive in Japan. For us this meant visiting a JTB USA Office in San Francisco and then picking up our passes at the JR East Travel Service Center in Narita International Airport. The process itself was painless but required some time and energy a couple weeks before we left.

What about the cost? A ticket on a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka can cost anywhere from ¥13,000 to ¥20,000 depending on the quality of the train which means a round trip would cost ¥26,000 to ¥40,000. At the time of writing this that would be approximately $230 to $360 US dollars. A seven day JR Pass can be purchased for as low as $260. That means you could not only do a round trip between Tokyo and Osaka for less but you would also have unlimited use of local transportation in both of those cities.

For our 14 day JR Pass we spent $410 and not only did we take the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto but we also took local JR trains to Kobe, Nara, Osaka as well as making judicious use of the Tokyo subway system. We would have spent over $800 per person based on all the traveling we did. We also had the peace of mind of knowing we could just flash our JR Pass and and get wherever we needed to go.

The long and the short of it is that the JR Pass will be useful for nearly every second of your stay in Japan. Perhaps if you are not traveling too far from where you are staying the JR Pass will not be cheaper than purchasing tickets/passes inside Japan but that perfectly segues into my next tip...

Visiting multiple cities over at least two weeks

There is much more to see in Japan than just Tokyo. Every prefecture is unique and has a wide variety of attractions that could undoubtably take up multiple days of a trip. Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, Osaka, Tokyo each had their own unique quirks that made visiting them an absolute pleasure. I know most people plan around visiting Tokyo but I highly recommend getting outside of the concrete jungle and experiencing Japan's other cultural centers.

We spent seven days around the Kyoto region: four days in Kyoto proper, one in Nara, one in Kobe and one in Osaka. I could pick any of those cities and have spent another day or two there with little effort. There was so much to see and do.

There were easily a dozen or so other cities we could have chosen from to visit such as:

and that is just a short list of all the amazing places you could visit. The point I am trying to make is that Japan is much more than just Tokyo so please don't only focus on it. There is so much else that you can do. However if you do end up in Tokyo don't forget...

Tokyo is absolutely massive!

At the time of this writing Tokyo is the 8th largest city in the world. It has a population density of 6,224 people per square kilometer and is almost 2,200 square kilometers in size. That is just the city proper. The Greater Tokyo Area is over 13,000 square kilometers. Basically you could live in Tokyo your whole life and not see the majority of it.

We spent seven days in Tokyo and barely scratched the western side of it. We could have spent another week and limited ourselves only to traveling north east and still have only seen a fraction of the city.

Tokyo is comprised of 23 wards where you could effortlessly spend a day per ward and not see everything. We went back to Akihabara on three separate days because there was so much we wanted to see and do. We barely got 200 meters from the subway station on our first time there.

My advice for tackling Tokyo would be to try and not let the size and number of options overwhelm you. Do not get bogged down trying to plan every minute of every day. Half the fun of Tokyo is wandering around it and being surprised by all the interesting things you stumble upon. Have one (maybe two) tentpole attractions you want to see in a day and use them as a springboard to explore the area around them.

Get Internet access on your phones

This may be a no-brainer in this day and age but I really want to hammer home its importance in a place like Japan. Do not think you're going to survive by having physical maps or printing out directions ahead of time. Cities and streets in Japan are probably not organized like you think and having a way to look up directions to the places you want to visit as well as quick access to up to the minute public transportation will be a godsend.

But the most important thing is that since you can't speak the language you can use the Internet to translate nearly everything you encounter.

Because we were visiting from the US we had a number of options for getting Internet access:

  1. American telecoms usually have some form of international data roaming plans that are cheaper than you think. Our T-Mobile Simple Choice plan actually gave us it for free and Japan's telecommunications infrastructure was outstanding.
  2. Skyroam is a mobile WiFi hotspot that works in over 100 countries for just $10 a day. We made judicious use of Skyroam in Japan since our traveling companions did not have international data roaming.
  3. Rent a WiFi hotspot from the airport. I have not done this personally but I know multiple friends who walked up to one of the kiosks in the airport and rented a hotspot for like $10/day. You could also look into Airbnbs that offer these for people who stay with them. They are very ubiquitous in Japan.

Install Google Translate on your phone

Seriously, just stop reading now, go to this website on whatever phone you are taking to Japan and install the app.

Its killer feature is you can take a picture of any Japanese writing and it will translate it for you which is an absolute godsend when the vast majority of the people you encounter on a daily basis will not speak your language.

Learning a little Japanese isn't a bad idea either. Simple phrases like "excuse me" (sumimasen - すみません), "sorry" (gomennasai - ごめんなさい), "thank you" (arigato - ありがとう), "water please" (mizu o kudasai - 水をください), "no problem" (mondainai - 問題ない) will help you immensely throughout your stay. I would recommend Googling for "Japanese phrases for tourists" or "simple Japanese phrases" because this article would go on for far too long if I tried to cover them all.

Tokyo has two international airports that are actually quite far from one another

We thought Narita International Airport was the airport to fly to if you were visiting Tokyo. For some reason we were under the impression that Haneda Airport was some bumpkin airport mostly for domestic travel. We could not have been more wrong.

If you are planning on staying in the southern or western parts of Tokyo it would probably be in your best interest to fly into Haneda. For our Airbnb it would have only been a 20 minute ride from Haneda versus the almost an hour and a half ride it was from Narita.

So wherever you are planning on staying, first figure out which airport is closer to you. They are both massive international airports and the number of flights to both should be comparable and getting through customs in both should be no issue.

Airbnbs are typically better than hotels

At least in our experience. We've had middling results with Airbnbs in America but Japan was amazing. The sheer selection, the price, the quality were miles above the US. We found that they were cheaper than hotels, gave us more space and allowed us to live closer to places we wanted visit.

You could pick any major train station in Japan and you would get dozens of Airbnb results within a 10 minute walking radius that were of top quality. The hosts are also typically very friendly and courteous and will help you throughout your stay.

This is not to say that hotels are bad or expensive in Japan. They are very good for the price you pay and the variety of hotels is quite astounding, ranging from capsule hotels to the typical five star ones. The major benefit of hotels is that you have access to their concierge who can help you make reservations for restaurants or attractions. A lot of places in Japan do not like to make reservations with foreigners that don't speak Japanese but they will deal with hotel concierges.

Bring cash

Credit cards are not as prevalent as they are in places like North America or Europe. Definitely bring them because big box stores or high end restaurants will typically take credit cards so you don't need to use cash for all of your big purchases but the general rule of thumb is assume credit cards are not accepted.

Elsie and I decided that 10,000 Japanese yen (¥) a day would be a decent budget to ensure we could pay for all of the food, transportation and entertainment we wanted. That translates to $80-100 USD obviously depending on the exchange rate at the time. I would recommend taking your number of days you are staying in Japan, multiply them by 10,000 and add 10-20% for random expenses you aren't accounting for. Guaranteed there are going be some random things you have to spend money on ranging from medical supplies if you get sick to impulse purchases because you really needed that foot tall Gundam figurine.