Visiting Japan: basics

Ginza at night

I’m always amazed at how few Westerners there are in Japan, even in Tokyo. Japan as a whole got 10.3m foreign visitors in 2013; to put that into context, London alone got 16.8m foreign visitors in 2013. And many of Japan’s visitors will be from other Asian countries. There seems to be an idea that Japan is expensive (it’s not) and difficult to understand (it’s not; particularly in the major cities you’ll be amazed how much is translated into English, or how many pictures there are).

My friend Tom Royal has spent the last few years compiling a guide to visiting Japan on a budget. But there are a few places he hasn’t been to yet, and given the lack of information in English about these places I’m going to create a complementary guide.

First, there are some basics that I pass onto everyone who asks about travelling to Japan (Tom has more detailed info on hotels, transport etc):

  • Get a rail pass. Seriously, get a rail pass! They may initially look expensive but if you’re planning to do any travel at all, it pays for itself very quickly. For example, a 7 day standard adult rail pass for all Japan costs about 29,000 yen, and a return ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto costs 28,000 yen. There are different types of pass that cover different areas (and availability can vary; I had to buy my Kyushu pass from JTB UK) but the Japan Rail Pass website lists other vendors. I’ve used this site in the past. The main thing to remember is you need to buy the pass in the UK, then exchange the order for a rail pass in Japan (though you can buy some of the less popular passes in Japan itself).
  • Not all smartphones work in Japan so rather than risk being left with a brick once you arrive, get a data-only SIM card from B-Mobile. There’s some restrictions on the handsets they support (I take my old iPhone 3GS) and you need to make sure it’s unlocked – do that in the UK. If you have an iPhone there’s an extra step to the unlocking process that nobody tells you about, which is that the phone needs re-registering via WiFi. (Japanese hotels are getting better for WiFi though it’s often only in the lobby.) However, now it’s fully unlocked my phone just needs a new SIM card popping in and it works instantly. Vital for maps and checking information online.
  • This is an odd tip, but go with me: take a small flannel or towel with you. Japanese public toilets tend not to have hand dryers (or soap for that matter; also take hand sanitiser). Instead you’ll see the Japanese drying their hands on small towels they carry with them. Also very handy for mopping up sweat in the hotter months.
  • Speaking of which… the best times to travel are in spring and autumn. Much later than mid-May and the weather gets very hot and humid; also, from the end of May through June there’s the ‘rainy season’. To the British this means nothing more than a normal early summer (it might ‘rain’ every day but that could be no more than a few drops; carry an umbrella and you’ll be OK). It does mean that the air is damp and the sky is cloudy, so it’s not the most cheerful weather to go sightseeing in.
  • Also avoid the end of April and beginning of May as this is Golden Week, a series of national holidays when half the nation goes on the move. Expect hotels and trains to be very busy.
  • Bookmark Hyperdia. It will tell you all train times and connections, as well as fare information and whether you need to reserve a seat/how much it’ll cost you. There’s also an app which has a month’s free trial and then costs a couple of quid for a month’s access: worth every penny. The app has a Rail Pass search function that only returns trains that are valid with a rail pass so you don’t get caught out travelling on an invalid shinkansen (note that it can’t tell what kind of rail pass you have, so if you’re travelling on a Northern Kyushu rail pass it’s up to you to know you can’t go to Kagoshima).
  • Get a prepaid card for the subway – if you live in London, it’s like an Oyster card. Japanese subway fare systems are byzantine (especially Tokyo) and it’s just easier to pile some Yen onto a card and swipe in and out. Top up using machines, they have English language options. The Narita Express used to have a great deal that included a Suica card but it looks like they don’t do that any more; pick one up at a machine or ticket counter instead. There are lots of different types of prepay cards but most are compatible with each other – see Japan Guide’s coverage map. The cards can also be used on some buses and in shops and vending machines.

This article is part of a series on visiting Japan, and is inspired by Tom Royal’s Japan on a Budget.

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