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Japanese Travel Survival Guide

As an American that’s regularly traveled to Japan over the past ten years — in trips ranging from 2 weeks to 7 months — I’ve accumulated a few observations and tips that have made getting around significantly easier.

Travel Light

I travel with a carry-onable back pack. Anything larger would be obnoxious when negotiating trains/bus stations. Specifically, I travel with an Osprey Porter 46. Even with that, I usually plan my day around dropping it off as quickly as possible (even if it’s prior to check-in, hotels will always hold it for you). Large, hard-shell rolling luggage is popular in Japan but since they’re probably only taking it straight to the airport or back, the same strategy wouldn’t make much sense for touring Japan itself.

If you ever need to ditch your bag before arriving at wherever you‘re staying, search any major train station for coin lockers large enough to cram it in (coin lockers are typically deceptively deep and spacious). Typically, you insert your bag first (to ensure it fits), then insert coins to engage the lock and release the key. Increasingly, coin lockers are going digital, able to break change or pay with ICOCA/SUICA and alert you to other locker locations with vacancy, often printing a claim receipt with a keycode to unlock your locker with. All coin locker payments are per-use, so once you unlock your bag, you’d need to pay to use it again. If you can’t find a bay of coin lockers, try asking a station employee: “コインロッカーはありますか?(coin-row-kah wa ah-ree-mahs ka?)”.

Bring Cash

Plan on carrying plenty of cash. Credit cards aren’t as ubiquitous in Japan as they are in most of the Western world, and smaller businesses often refuse them as a result. Chains and major retail outlets will almost always accept credit, however (Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are usually accepted in similar proportion to the US). I typically withdraw money every few days while I’m in the country and default to using cash and awkwardly slowing down transactions as I fumble to count coins.

Once you’re in the country, the best place to use an ATM is, strangely enough, at 7–11. Because one of the 7 & i holdings conglomerate’s subsidiaries is a bank, they always have international ATMs that can read mag-stripe Visa & Mastercard debit cards. They even publish an augmented reality app to help you find 7–11 ATms.

If you’re in an area without a bevvy of 7–11 convenience stores, you can also use the ATM or exchange currency at a Japanese post office (you’ll stumble over them if you look for the 〒 symbol on signs or ask ”郵便局はどこですか?” (phoenetically: ‘you-bean-kyoku wa doko dess ka?’). ATMs at Japanese Post offices are always international.

Passport / Safety

Traveling in Japan is almost eerily, worrisomely safe.

Legally, however, if you’re traveling Japan as a tourist on a 90-day visa and don’t have a “Gaijin card”, you’re required to be able to furnish your passport at all times, even — technically — if you’re going for a jog or in a public bath. As you might imagine, this is highly impractical and I regularly leave my passport locked in my hotel room.

If you’d like some horror stories to scare you into carrying your passport everywhere you go, you might check out Arudou Debito’s homepage. Japanese law gives wide latitude to Japan’s justice system when dealing with foreigners, but in practice attention and arrests are vanishingly rare compared to the US.

Trains

We always purchase Japan Rail Passes, which allow unlimited 7 (or 14 or 21) day access to most of the nation’s railways. Acquiring these is confusing but not difficult.

Passes cannot be purchased by Japanese nationals and they must be paid for outside the country. What you purchase (again, while still outside Japan) is a notarized exchange voucher from a travel agency (I recommend looking for an IACE storefront, but you can also purchase them online). Virtually any Japanese tourist agency office can sell you an exchange voucher on the spot, but you must present your passport and make sure the name matches the passport exactly. (I had to beg and plead that “Becky” and “Rebecca” were equivalent a few years back). More details here.

Once you arrive in Japan, find the first Japan Rail (JR) office and ask to exchange the voucher for a rail pass there — they’ll direct you to a station or office that issues them. They’re not cheap ($300 or so per person for a 14 day ticket), but if you plan on riding any bullet trains (as you ought to if you’re going from Tokyo to Kyoto and Osaka and back), it’ll almost certainly pay for itself. Simply present it (displaying the expiration date outwardly) at any JR turnstile to an attendant and they’ll wave you through. It works for the bullet trains, but not for several newer Shinkansen lines such as the “Nozomi” line (you can usually weed those out with English signage). Also, don’t bother buying the expensive “Green car” variation, as few trains you ride will feature green cars.

Note also that a Rail Pass won’t cover every train in the country, and it usually won’t cover bus fare. Most large cities’ subway infratructure isn’t operated by JR, so those fairs (usually $2–3 a ride) aren’t coveregd by the pass. Also, keep in mind that some trains must be reserved in advance (at no additional cost if you carry a Rail Pass), like the N’EX connector between Narita and Tokyo, which any ticket sales attendant can reserve for you if you show them your pass.

Ticket Machines

If you don’t get a rail pass or if you’re riding a private rail line (or subway or bus), most ticket centers have at least one terminal that’ll have an english button somewhere on it. When you’re in Osaka/Kyoto, someone will probably offer to help you, because unlike in Tokyo, people are typically nice and gregarious.

The procedure is usually something like:

  1. Look at the huge printed map for your destination and find out how many yen the fare is (the number labeled near the station name)
  2. Enter enough cash into the machine
  3. Select the quantity and fare needed to cover the travel to your intended destination

Train Schedules

In urban centers and on subways, the platform you want is typically more important than the schedule, because trains run so frequently that most people will just wait for the whenever the next one comes.

There are a few tricky parts to train schedules in Japan

  • Many lines share commuter, express, “super express” rapid train services, so if your destination is less popular, it’s possible to board a super rapid line and zip past your destination, requiring you to backtrack
  • JR trains start winding down service at midnight, and it’s not uncommon to find oneself stranded when going out late; typically the only remedy is an (expensive) taxi or to wait around until 5am
  • Figuring out when and where to transfer trains can sometimes be confusing, especially on local private train lines; if your destination is unclear it’s usually smart to ask an attendant at the gate how to get to your destination

I’d recommend the Hyperdia iPhone app for figuring out any complex train itineraries. Google Maps’ transit directions work fine, as well.

As a last resort, just ask. Typically, if you ask an employee “I want to go to ___” and look confused enough, they’ll stay with you as long as necessary to help you out. LIkewise, if you’re on a train and need to know if the station you’re arriving at is your exit (or change), just point at the door and ask the name of your destination to literally anyone around you and they’ll probably understand your intent.

Occassionally, commuter trains in Japan will announce the next stop is the end of the line (“終点 / shoe-ten”). If you witness every single human get off the train simultaneously, it’s typically a smart strategy to exit as well, and follow the mob to whatever train they board next.

Internet Access

Japan’s renowned wireless network is very solid. Accesing it can be tricky, depending on your situation.

If you carry a locked phone, it can’t hurt to call your carrier and request an unlock in advance of your travel. If you can’t avoid the fact that your phone is locked and you don’t want to pay extravagant data roaming charges, you could consider renting a mobile hotspot. One service that offers rental hot spots to tourists is PuPuRu, and I had a pleasant enough experience with them in 2009.

If you do have an unlocked phone, I strongly recommend you drop by an electronics store and look for a data-only SIM. I documented this in a separate post.

As for wifi, free public wifi is relatively rare in Japan. There are tons of hotspots in public spaces, but many of them tie back to residential ISP service and require authentication. There’s an interesting workaround to this, by way of an app for tourists designed to unlock countless wifi hotspots, published by NTT, Japan’s largest telecom.

Similarly, many hotels are still not equipped with wifi, but do provide wired connections over ethernet. As a result, I’ll typically travel with an ethernet adapter for my computer or an Airport Express to create a wifi hotspot for my hotel room whenever wifi isn’t provided.

Booking hotels

Booking hotels in Japan in English is almost as easy as any Western country, and resellers like Booking can be looked up through just about any TripAdvisor review. Keep in mind, however, that a large proportion of Japanese hotels aren’t listed on any third-party booking sites. To get access to a few more listings, you might check out Jalan’s english site, which is filtered down to hotels that ceritfy they have English-language ability.

In large cities, getting an apartment to yourself via Airbnb can also be a good option. The real-estate market in Japan has been suffering a slow descent as the population has declined and inventory keeps outstripping demand, which means apartments are relatively cheap, and as a result even very nice luxury apartments on Airbnb are pretty affordable.

If you find yourself in an urban area without a place to stay for an evening (or you accidentally stayed someplace after the trains shut down), you might be able to find some rest at an internet/manga cafe, which are often equipped with showers, lockers, and rooms with sofas. At a few bucks an hour, they can make for an extremely cheap hotel substitute in a pinch