Travel to Japan for the First Time

OK. OK. OK. So, I travelled across Japan for 2 weeks with some friends and I wish we had a proper guide with tips and tricks to help us figure out Japan before we left, however we could not find the things that we wanted to know about prior my trip (yes we did look online etc….), so here it is! I am writing one of my own guide to help YOU travel across Japan with ease and breeze (like that rhyme?!). Also, my 2 weeks itenary included as a bonus. Free of charge. What a nice guy! You’re welcome. (TBC)

FYI – if you do not know how to speak Japanese you will be fine. All the people that we spoke to knew a little bit of English. If they didn’t we just said a simple word or location and they will direct or help you easily. You can always download apps via mobile.

Before you travel to Japan essentials (TIPS & TRICKS):

  • Book your flights correctly – so I think one of our mistakes was booking a return trip from/to Tokyo. What we should have done was to fly to Tokyo and fly back home out of Osaka. With this format, you MAY be able to purchase a 7 day JR pass (which would save you about $200) instead of a 14 day pass JR pass ($500+). It really depends how long you are travelling across Japan. We went from Tokyo – Kyoto – Hiroshima – Osaka – back to Tokyo to catch our flight (14 nights). If we were to redo our trip I would fly out of Osaka back to AUS. Saves us the shinkansen ride back to Tokyo. But then again we got cheap tickets via Cathay ($700) return (thank you to my travel secret agent). #winning
  • JR pass – required for traveling to different cities/states across Japan. If you are thinking to catch planes – terrible idea! Why? More expensive. Trust me. I’ve calculated it (I’m Asian). If you are thinking to drive – terrible idea! Why? Traffic in Japan is RIDICOLOUS and also tolls are expensive. TRUST ME! (Unless you would like to travel to hidden areas where there are no public transport – an exception, go ahead) Go online and purchase a JR pass from their official website. It comes in 7 day pass about $350 or 14 day pass $550 (we purchased this one) or 21 day pass $700+. No need to purchase the higher class tickets unless you are rich then go for it. The economy class is sufficient and comfortable. You can only purchase it 90 days prior your arrival to Japan. It will be mailed and you will receive it within 5 working days. TIP – When you arrive in Japan don’t bother trying to activate your JR in the airport train station. You will cry because of the line. Instead go back to your closest JR station near your accommodation and activate it there. You should ALSO book all your JR/shinkansen tickets at the same time. You will save so much time! Why book JR/Shinkansen? You need reserved seating or you may have to stand/miss out on a train if it is full. Just make sure you don’t change your plans. IF you miss your JR do not panic. You can rebook via the JR front desk not the JR office. For some reason, we weren’t able to rebook via JR office because we weren’t allowed. We went inside the station and rebooked via the front desk. Maybe they were being nice? Or lucky? JR PASS CAN ONLY BE USED VIA JR LINES OR SHINKANSEN. IT CANNOT BE USED IN METROS OR SUBWAYS AS THEY ARE OWNED BY DIFFERENT COMPANIES. More information below.
  • Cash – I originally did not want to bring cash, glad I bought some. Why? If you love street food you need cash. I struggled with no cash when I saw some awesome food. I cried. Catching subways/metros/buses you would also need cash. Not to pay for the fares but to top up your cards. I will explain a bit more about the public transport cards (AKA SUICA card). Other things like markets and small shops have no EFTPOS. So, keep that in mind. If you don’t enough cash do not worry. You can always take money out of the ATM. Another tip in the next section about taking money out.
  • Credit card/travel money card – Don’t bother using a credit card overseas. That doesn’t mean you do not take one. Take one for backup! I use the Citibank debit card. The best debit/travel card in the world! Why? So, it acts like a debit card where you put in your country current money. When you go to Japan and pay using the card it converts to YEN automatically without having ANY fees whatsoever. No transaction fees, no conversion fees. Best thing about it…wait for it.. if you don’t use all the money in the card, it will still be in the same currency that you top it up with. Example if I topped it up in AUD, I come back with AUD again, unlike most travel cards where it would be in YENs. You can also cash out with Citibank Debit card via 7 Eleven ATMs (NO BANK FEES OR WITHDRAWAL FEES). Don’t worry you will find these ATMs literally everywhere – English language available as well. You can take out 10,000 yen in 1000 yen notes – recommended.
  • Travel Insurance – go to TID. Less than $100 – coupons available online. You should get one regardless.
  • Data SIM card – So Japan has a portable Wifi available for you to use if you choose certain Airbnb places. Just double check your accommodation. However sometimes you may get a crappy one. For example, in our trip the Wifi sometimes dies by midday or it won’t work in certain places. Therefore if it dies, you’re screwed. Yes, there are free Wifis around the country, but they are quite hard to find and you have to sign up etc. Kinda weird, you would think Japan offer free Wifi everywhere.. but no. Also, if you have a data SIM card for every person that goes on the trip, it means that individuals can go anywhere instead of staying with a dedicated person that is holding the Wifi. You can split up and still can contact each other via FB or Whatsapp or any other communication app. Where to get it? JTB in Sydney CBD. $50 for 3GB and easy to use. Just follow the instructions. Don’t try to purchase a SIM card while you’re over in Japan. It is a hassle. If you do your research, you will have to sign up, line up, call up and so on. Make your life easier and just buy the SIM over here. It works well for us. Fast and lasted for 2 weeks (the Data SIM expired after 30 days). Oh, and if you finish your data you can top it up easily I believe.
  • Battery pack – This was a life saver. I bought an Anker battery power pack. A legit one from Europe. Seriously the best device ever! Able to charge 2 phones at a time and even able to charge the portable Wifi (due to its features – look it up, you will know what I mean). Charges all the devices within minutes and able to charge 8 times before it runs out. My friends were loving it. No need to worry about having flat battery! #MVP
  • Accommodation locations (IMPORTANT) – Do your research and find the best locations for each city and most importantly close to a train station! (The trains cost a lot of money over time!) When I say best locations, I mean central to everything! You do not want to stay too far away from Shinjuku or Shibuya for example as they are the top spots in Tokyo. We were to lucky to choose the best locations in all the cities and close to a train station. Most importantly – our area was quiet. Away from the hustle and bustle as it can get too much. Note: All Airbnb people will give you instructions on how to locate the place. Follow the instructions and you should be fine.
  • Suica Card/public transport card – This is pretty much your public transport card used for buses, subways and metros. JR pass can only be used to JR lines and Shinkansen as they are owned by different companies! Remember that! How do you know which are JR and metros/subways? JR have JR signs and all different lines have different entrances. For example, if you go to a JR line, you show your pass and walk through for free. If you show your JR pass to a metro, they will stop you. You can always try that like I did. After a while you will get it! Ha! Know that subway entrance and JR entrance are seperate! You must exit one before you enter another. That’s how you tell the difference. If you go to a JR office, ask for a JR line map. This will show you all the JR lines ONLY in the city. Why use Suica card? You top up money instead of buying individual tickets. No need to line up. Top up using the machine which has English translation. Insert card then money then approve. DONE! Where to buy one? Any train station desks. There are 2 different cards. Pretty much the same but owned by 2 different companies. The beauty with the following cards – you can use it in convenience stores like Lawson, 7 eleven, Family mart and some other outlets. Use this card as it is used across the country.
  • Google maps – pin drop all the locations that you want to visit (touristy locations, food, shops, you name it). Trust me this is the best advice that I can give you. I did it and we never got lost…. well sometimes. Ha!

Train System: The most confusing train system I have ever experienced! No blogs or sites explained the following to me. So hopefully this can help. Do not bother using taxis or buses. Once you are used to Tokyo’s train lines you will be fine for the rest. WARNING: ALL TRAINS LEAVE ON TIME. LIKE DEAD SET ON TIME. IT WILL CLOSE NO MATTER WHAT ON THE DOT! There are 4 train lines:

  • JR – Known as Japan Rail. You can use your JR pass on the following lines. Always good to book JR tickets as you get a guaranteed seat. Otherwise you can always get into the non reserved carriage. All JR lines are marked with JR sign and separated from other train lines. These are not bullet trains! Get a JR pass as these are expensive! Again, if unsure ask for a JR map from the train station or office.
  • Shinkansen – Bullet trains. Known for longer distances and they fly!! Not literally but speed wise. You will get seated tickets, must be booked. Free with the JR pass. Always good to book ahead of time as it will get filled up! Pretty much like a plane, toilet and food available on the train. TIP – if you have a large suitcase you can place your bag at the back of the carriage behind the last row of seats. However, they have limited spots so be quick! You can also place your baggage above the seats however you cannot place huge suitcases, only medium size. Otherwise you must place your bags in front of you. It’s not too bad. You will have a little bit of leg space unless you are 6 foot.
  • Subway/Metro – city owned train lines. These lines are not owned under JR therefore you cannot use the JR passes. You must use the SUICA cards which can be purchased at a station and top up via a machine or the officer that stands near the gate. Use cash or coins and can only top up 1000 yen minimum unless you ask the officer to top up. You can tell the difference between all the train lines via the symbol/logo. Try to walk to places as it will add up. Most of these are underground compared to shinkansen or JR lines. Always remember that all lines have different entry point and exit.

Well that is all I can think of for now. I will update is I remember more information. Hope it helps!

Click here to view my 2 weeks itenary. More tips and tricks within cities. (TBC)