Japan Travel Tips

Getting to Japan

I would pick an airline that flies direct to Japan unless there was a super cheap deal via another country (more than 30% cheaper than a direct flight). I don’t have a preference as to what city to start in, but I’ve always happened to land in Tokyo.

From Australia, Qantas, Japan Airline (JAL) , ANA and Jetstar fly direct. If you see a great deal that goes via Singapore, remember Singapore is quite a detour.

The usual JetStar caveats apply if using them as they are a budget airline. Double check what you are paying with luggage and food, it may not be that more expensive to fly a decent airline (JAL..)

Narita or Haneda airport

More flights land at Narita, but Haneda is closer to Tokyo. Flights to Haneda are generally more expensive.

If you are transiting through Japan be very careful to ensure that the flights leave from the same airport. Getting to Haneda from Narita or vice versa is at least a two hour exercise.

Getting to Tokyo From Narita

Plenty of transport options from Narita. There really isn’t a “best” option as it depends on which station is closest to your hotel.

  • Narita Express
    • Takes about an hour
    • Stops at Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shinjuku and Yokohama
    • Easy transfer to the Yamanote Loop line in Tokyo
    • A JR Rail pass is valid with the Narita Express
  • Keisei Skyliner
    • Takes about 45 minutes
    • Stops at Ueno and Nippori
    • Easy transfer to the Yamanote Loop line in Tokyo
  • JR Sobu Line
    • Cheapest train option (less than ¥1500)
    • Easy transfer to the Yamanote Loop line in Tokyo
  • Limousine Bus
    • Goes direct to many hotels
    • Great if you are unsure or first time in Tokyo
    • Slower than trains

Trains in Japan

In my opinion, this is the only way to travel around Japan. They go virtually everywhere. The majority are run by Japan Rail. There are actually multiple Japan Rail companies in different parts of the country JR East in the Tokyo Section and JR West in the Kyoto section, but all you really need to know is its “Japan Rail”.

There are lots of other rail companies, but almost everything is integrated to some degree. The only time the difference will matter is if you have a “Japan Rail Pass” which is only valid on JR trains.

As everyone says, trains run to schedule and run frequently. I’ve never been on a delayed service, you can literally set your watch by them. For Australians, a reliable rail service that is always on time and spotlessly clean is almost unbelievable, but in Japan its completely normal.

The best way to determine train times, is to use the Hyperdia app or website. I talk about those in the usefull website and apps section on this page.

Where you will notice your JR pass doesn’t work, is on the metro Tokyo and Kyoto and in the Hakone area if you visit there. For that you can get a IC card for the metros and a Hakone pass for Hakone. More on the Japan Rail Pass below.

Japan Rail Pass

A Japan Rail pass lets you use almost any train, bus or ferry in Japan thats operated by Japan Rail. If you are travelling around, the value is incredible. Its only available to tourists.

They are simple to use. You just show your pass at the ticket gate and you walk onto the platform. Most trains have unreserved seating so you can just hop on.

If you know the exact train you want you can book a seat at the JR office at all major stations. It’s very easy. The pass is insanely good value too. It would cost ¥28,000 for a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. A 7 day pass where you can use almost any JR train for unlimited travel over 7 days is ¥29,110

You can get them in 7,14 or 21 day versions. They are valid continuous from the day you activate them. If you are staying longer than 21 days, you could buy multiple passes, you only activate them when you need them.

When you purchase one (order it before you leave), you are given an “Exchange Voucher” you take this to a JR office and convert that into a JR pass. It only takes a few minutes.

With the JR pass, you can’t use “NOZOMI” and “MIZUHO” trains bullet trains. You must use the “HIKARI,” “SAKURA,” “KODAMA,” or “TSUBAME” bullet trains. Not sure which one is which ? its quite easy, the train specifies the type on the notice board when it pulls in on a platform. Use the Hyperida site or App to help you find the right train.

The JR pass also covers use of the Narita Express from the airport (you need to book a seat though) and trains in Tokyo on the JR lines. The one you will use most often is the Yamanote Line which loops around the city.

Travelling to Hakone ? Check below on the Hakone Free Pass, as the JR train pass isn’t valid in Hakone. The trains and transport there are managed by a seperate company.

When you buy you “JR Pass” before you leave home, this is what you get. Its an exchange order you can use to get a JR pass once in japan. Not that the orders are only valid for 3 months, so don’t get it too early !

And this is the actual JR pass you will get once you have exchanged the order above at a Japan Rail office. (This is the back of it). Note mine is an “Ordinary” pass. You can pay extra for a 1st class version (green car). In my opinion its not worth the additional expense.

Train Platforms

For the bullet trains, the platforms are well signed. Here is an example at Kyoto station waiting for a Shinkansen to Tokyo. Since I had a JR pass, I can’t use the “Nozomi” that was coming in a 7:39, but I could use the Hikari service at 7:32 or 7:45 (they run very frequently!). Since I hadn’t reserved a seat, I had to get on a car 1 to 5.

And where each carriage (car) will stop is clearly market on the platform. The doors always open in the exact right spot. People queue orderly and don’t push and shove.

In Europe I noticed that you don’t find out what platform your train will go from until a few minutes before it leaves. In Japan its always consistent. At Kyoto for example, trains to Tokyo leave from platforms 11 and 12.

Trains in Tokyo

At first it’s super confusing, until you realise and understand Tokyo has two train systems. One is run by Japan Rail East and the other is a Metro system. Most maps show both overlayed on each other. To go from a “JR” station to a “metro” station you will need to exit one set of gates and go through another. Sometimes you will have to exit one station, cross a road and go to another station. 

To confuse matters, you can get an IC card, and it works on both systems seamlessly. You can just tap on one and go to the other and just tap in. Where it gets confusing is if you have bought a “Japan Rail Pass” it is only valid on JR trains and not the Metro. It takes most people a day or two to get the handle of how the two systems interact.

Below is a simple map of the JR system in Tokyo where you can use a JR pass. The main green circle is the Yamanote line. It connects the vast majority of Tokyos major site seeing and shopping areas together.

By User:Araisyohei – draw by User:Araisyohei and uploaded to english wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

And here is the full Metro. (The Yamanote line is also shown in this diagram, but its a small grey dotted line thats almost invisible)

Hakone Free Pass

If you are visiting the Hakone area, you will want one of these. Unfortunately, they are not “free”, but once you have purchased one, almost all transport in the Hakone area becomes “free”.

It cover the train as far as Gora, the cable cars, busses and the “Pirate” ships on the lake.

You can get them for 1,2 or 3 days. If you have a JR pass, you just get a train to Odawara station (using your JR pass) then buy the Hakone pass in the office at Odawara station. This link has more details.

This is what the “Free Pass” looks like. I had a 3 day version that cost 5,000 Yen. As I had a JR pass, I didn’t need the version that included transport from Tokyo (Shinjuku station).

SIM Cards, Phones and WIFI

Unlike most of the world, you can’t just go and buy a simple prepaid SIM card. You can purchase SIM cards that are “data only”. You will be able to use google maps, iMessage, facebook etc, but you wont get a proper Japanese +81 phone number.

There is one site that will allow you to pre-order a SIM card. Its not quite pre-paid as you will be charged extra for calls, however in some sort of emergency, or to remain contactable easily from outside the country its fantastic. This is what I used. To check them out, head over to mobal.com

There are plenty of providers who will rent you mobile “wifi” devices. These are little 4G hotspots you carry around with you. You just turn off data on your phone and connect to this wifi hotspot. Lots of people rent them, I thought they were a massive hassle having to carry one around. Get a data sim or mobal.com sim instead. Links below. There are multiple competitors you can google for, these are just some I’ve either used or seen recommended.

Phone Apps for Japan

Apart from google maps, the other indispensable ones I used were google translate and Hyperdia. Hyperdia is both a website and a phone app for checking trains and train connections.

Google maps is great if you don’t know what station to use, however if you know the stations you are travelling between Hyperdia is better. On a few occasions it found better train options for me than google maps.

Hyperdia can also be set to be “JR Pass” compatible, where it won’t show you trains the pass is not valid for, or will prioritise these in the search so you get the cheapest option.

Note the app is not free, it has a 30 day free period. Don’t install it until you travel unless you want to pay for it, or just use the website. Here is the link to the iPhone App version.

Here is an example of how Hyperdia iPhone app works searching for a train from Tokyo to Kyoto. It mentions its zero yen, since I ticket the JR pass. It tells me to take the Hikari 475 bullet train from track 14 at Tokyo station at 2:03pm and I’ll arrive at Kyoto at 4:45pm. that’s 513km in 2 hours and 42 minutes !

Useful Websites

The best websites I found for information on Japan are

Using an Onsen in Japan

Onsen is a public bath using hot water that comes from a volcanic spring. A Sento is a public bath with heated tap water. Both operate the same way, although a proper Onsen is just that much better.

The general rules are to take off your clothes, leave them in a locker. Take a small towel with you into the bath area, wash yourself, then sit in the Onsen bath for 20-30 minutes. You then get out and dry off, or wash again and dry off.

Here is a pic I was given before using an Onsen.

Do you have any Tattoos ? This will likely cause you problems if you want to use an Onsen. At a few we were asked a couple of times if we had tattoos before we entered. Read this article.

Food

In the major cities japan has a massive selection of food options, you can expect find similar options to home. Food in Japan is generally cheap, however if you eat in the hotel restaurants you are going to find it expensive.

Opening times : food wise almost nothing open before 7am or 7:30am. In the hip areas nothing opens before 10 or 11. If heading out early grab something to eat for breakfast from 7-11 the night before. Most hotels will have small fridges.

Coffee : if you are Australian and like coffee Japan will feel like it’s the dark ages. Good coffee can be found but it’s rare. Google maps and search will be your friend. Don’t rely just on ratings, as Japanese and Americans love drip coffee so places I’d consider terrible have good ratings. Choose somewhere with photos of good looking espresso coffee.

Even bad coffee is expensive at around ¥440. Good coffee is at least ¥550 when you find it. The Tully’s chain coffee is similar to our Gloria Jeans and just as average. Starbucks can be found in most places and is just as bad as Starbucks anywhere.

Breakfast. Will be mostly Japanese style, or pastries and filter coffee on offer. I was buying a pastry and a coffee and would normally spend less than ¥1000. Quite often ¥800. In Shinagawa I found a Dean and Deluca store which did great coffee and great pastries.

Lunch : similar to dinner options. mentioned below. 7-11 or Lawsons (which are everywhere) sell a great range of sandwiches and other lunch type meal boxes. You will spend less than ¥1000 on a sandwich/meal and a drink. They have microwave ovens in store where you can heat up your food. Many hotels will have microwaves somewhere on the floor you can use as well.

Dinner : plenty of inexpensive options, particularly around trains stations, where you can get  a meal package with drink for less than ¥1500. Quite often you can find options for less than ¥1000. The most expensive meal I had was ¥5000 which included unlimited meats and unlimited alcoholic drinks and desserts at a restaurant in Shinjuku called “300B”. On average I spent less than ¥2000 per night and that included a beer or wine (try the plum wine – it’s more a spirit. It’s delicious)

Below is an example of the foods and prices you will find thoughout Japan. I couldn’t get enough of the Japanese curry dishes. the CoCo curry house chain does great meals.

One more thing on food, make sure you try Fluffy Pancakes and Japanese Parfait. Both are delicious

Cash and Credit Cards

Money Exchange

Dont take your own currency and expect to change it to Yen. you can, but you will get a terrible rate almost everywhere. Get it at home before you go (order it online for delivery to your bank for the best rate).

Even better, get a card where you can withdraw cash in Yen from an ATM without an exchange fee. Best ATMs to use are the ones at 7-11 that accept foreign cards and have a menu in English. 7-11 are everywhere.

Since Japan is such a cash based economy, take at least 35,000 yen in cash with you for the first few days. For a single traveller just buying food, thats probably going to last you over a week based on what I spent on meals.

I Don’t Know any Japanese

Neither do I ! and it hasn’t stopped my enjoying Japan. learn a few words before you go (yes, no, one, two, thank you etc) and you will be fine for almost everything. Google translate is amazing if you get stuck and need to ask something more complex. For food most places will give you an English menu, or you can just point at the pictures. If you are game, just pick at random.

Crime in Japan

For travellers, Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. It’s very unlikely you will have any problems whilst there. I’ve seen people reserve tables by leaving their bag or phone on a table whilst they purchase food, something you would never see in Europe, Australia or America. It’s unlikely you will be hassled by beggars or gypsies like you would be in other places (like Italy…).

All that said, still take normal precautions. Use the hotel safe, don’t carry around more cash than you need for a day or two, don’t leave your purse exposed in your hand bag etc.

What to See

So much ! here are a few ideas

  • Tokyo
    • Shibuya crossing
    • Loft store in Shibuya
    • Tokyu hands in Shibuya
    • Happy Pancake in Harajuku
    • Harajuku Takeshita street
    • 100 Yen Store (Daiso) in Harajuku
    • Ueno park
    • Tokyo National museum
    • Tokyo Zoo
    • Team Labs in Odaiba
    • Tokyo Skytree
    • Ropongi hills
    • Shimokitazawa (trendy area 5 minutes from Shibuya)
    • Shinjuku
    • Kabukichō (Nightlife / Redlight district)
    • Akihabhra
    • Ginza
    • Tokyo Fish markets
    • River cruise in Tokyo Bay
    • Auskusa
    • Kappabashi Street (Kitchen products)
  • Day Trips from Tokyo
    • Nikko
    • Kamakura
    • Disneyland
    • DisneySea

Kyoto or Tokyo ?

Kyoto or Tokyo : you really need to see both to really have experienced Japan, they are very different. Kyoto is the older capital with literally thousands of temples and the Gion district with the Geisha. Kyoto is beautiful, especially if you are there in cherry blossom time

If you only had a few days and had to pick one or the other ? Personally I’m a Tokyo man through and through. I’m not really into temples. Tokyo has everything and more, Akihabhra, Shinjuku, Kubichilko, Disney, Shibuya, Harajuku, Ueno. Even Odiaba has its pluses (team labs).

The list goes on. Some great day trips from Tokyo (such as Nikko & Kamakura). Tokyo is fast and easy to get around, there is a subway station almost always within a few hundred metres of where you want to go.

Boiling it down, Kyoto has temples, Gion and busses. Just going a few kilometres in Kyoto can be an agonising experience on a crowded bus. My tip : hire a bicycle. Temples do nothing for me so I’m a bit prejudiced against the place in some ways. The best things about Kyoto are actually out of Kyoto, you can make it a base and do some amazing day trips from there such as Himeji, Nara, Osaka, the Nakenesdo trail and even Hiroshima is doable as a day trip from Kyoto.

My favourite thing in Kyoto was probably the train museum. The only temple I really think worth seeing is the Golden Temple, which technically isn’t even a temple. Don’t get me wrong, Kyoto is beautiful and worth visiting, but if I had to choose…. its Tokyo.

Where to Stay in Tokyo

Tokyo has a massive number of places you could stay. There really isn’t an area I’d totally avoid, it really depends on what you are looking for. The main thing in my opinion is to stay near a train station on the main Yamonate Loop line. If you do that, almost nothing in Tokyo is more than a 30min metro ride away, and most things will only be 10-15 minutes away. Here are some potential options

  • Shibuya : Shopping, Lights, The WOW of massive Tokyo
  • Shinjuku : Nightlife & Drinking (would avoid with young kids)
  • Ueno : Open Spaces, museum
  • Tokyo Station : Easy Access to everything
  • Akihabhra  : Gadgets and Technology
  • Shinagawa  : Quieter area

My personal pick is Shinagawa.

  • It’s Station on the Narita Express and Shinkansen lines
  • So getting to Shinagawa and leaving for elsewhere is easy.
  • Its a smaller station to navigate than Tokyo as well.
  • Lots of hotels and food
  • It has equal travel distance between Tokyo and Shibuya

Washing clothes

Most hotels will have a coin laundry where you can wash and dry clothes for a few hundred yen per load. Here is a picture from the hotel we stayed at in Kyoto with its coin laundry. Most hotels I stayed at had something similar. This one you could check from the TV in the room if the machines were occupied.

When to visit

There is really no bad time to visit Japan. There is one massive exception to that statement though, and that’s Golden Week. I would not ever visit Japan during that time.

What is Golden Week ? Its a collection of national holidays close together, were almost everyone is on holidays and travelling, Everything is crowded and expensive. In Australian terms it would be like if Christmas, Easter and Anzac holidays all happened in the same week. For more information, check out this link. Golden Week is generally late April and early May.

Apart from Golden Week, each season has its advantages and disadvantages. I’ve been to Japan in every season except winter.

  • Summer
    • Considered the low season in Japan
      • So generally cheaper
    • Less people
    • Mt Fuji climbing season opens
    • Can get a lot of rain in late June / July
    • Can be very humid and hot.
      • If you are Australian from Sydney or any further north, this is a non-issue. Its no worse than our summers
  • Winter
    • Cold and dark
    • Peak season in the north and mountain for Skiing
    • Great time for Onsen
    • Usually get very clear days. Great for Mt Fuji viewing
  • Spring.
    • Very popular as Cherry Blossum viewing is on in this season (Sakura)
    • Make sure you avoid Golden Week
  • Autumn.
    • Colours and leaves
    • Still a low season
    • Can still be warm/hot in September
    • This would probably be my pick of seasons.