So you want to travel to Japan? Here are a few practicalities to keep in mind, things that you’ll find buried in guidebooks or that I found to be different from what the guidebooks and websites told me.
No, they do not speak English. In my entire time in Japan, I encountered only a handful of people who spoke enough English to have a conversation. The folks in JR ticket and tourist information offices had enough English to conduct transactions, but in restaurants, shops, and accommodation, and on buses and trains, it was Japanese with a smattering of English. (The automatic announcements prevalent on buses and trains are generally in both Japanese and English.)
So do you need to speak Japanese? Not necessarily. I spent three months trying to learn Japanese only to find that my lessons didn’t provide the vocabulary I needed. But I was able to get by just fine with a few key phrases, hand gestures and Google Translate. (Download the app and the Japanese character set, and you’ll be able to use the camera in your phone to scan Japanese characters and get an approximation of what they mean. It works okay, although the first time I used it was on a very complicated Japanese toilet and the result was “Ass Woman Video,” which wasn’t exactly helpful.)
Do learn at least a few key phrases (for example, the formal version of thank you “arigato gozaimasu” or the expression people use at the end of a good meal “gochiso sema deshite”) and you’ll experience a phenomenal reaction. The Japanese were more appreciative of my pathetic attempts at their language than any other country I’ve visited.
Japan is one of the world’s most technologically advanced societies – but they do not like credit cards. Almost every transaction is cash, even in major cities. I used a credit card exactly twice: once at a chain hotel and once at a major tourist site. You’ll need cash, and lots of it. This is where 7-Eleven is your friend. Aside from having an amazing selection of food (see below), almost every 7-Eleven has an ATM that works with foreign bank and credit cards. And there are 7-Elevens everywhere! (Standing at one street corner, I could see three of them.) If you find yourself in one of the rare places without a 7-Eleven, look for a post office as the Japan Post Bank machines also work with foreign cards.
Internet and WiFi
“There’s very little free WiFi in Japan.” I read this frequently before going, but found it not to be true at all. Every place I stayed but one (and that was a backcountry lodge) offered free WiFi. This includes regular hotels, minshukus (traditional Japanese inns), ryokans, and AirBnBs. Almost every bar and restaurant I visited also offered free WiFi. On top of this, many cities offered free WiFi services, either widely or in their tourist information offices.
That said, I’d still recommend renting a pocket WiFi device. I used a well rated company called Global Advanced Communication and got a premium version that offers 75Mbps (which is about what I get on a good day at home with a premium Comcast tier). It cost me about $160 for 20 days, including an extra battery (which I did not need). It was waiting for me at the JAL ABC office in Haneda and they provide a return envelope so you simply need to throw it into a red mailbox before going through security at the airport. It worked everywhere except for a section of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route that was pretty remote. I was offline for about 4 hours that day. Having the pocket WiFi allowed me to do Facebook live videos, post videos and photos quickly, and FaceTime regularly with my wife. (I actually walked through several sites with her on FaceTime so she could get a taste of my trip.)
I stayed in every type of typical Japanese accommodation but capsule hotels. It’s really not as expensive as I expected. In Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima, I used AirBnB and was able to stay in small but incredibly well organized studio apartments that were very close to everything for around $90-100 per night (less in Hiroshima). I stayed in regular hotels in both Tanabe and Toyama and they were both around $65 a night including breakfast.
Among the highlights of my trip were staying in minshukus (traditional Japanese inns) and a ryokan (traditional high-end hotels). These rooms are advertised by size using tatami mats (traditional straw mats used for floors) as the measurement. A “6-tatami room” is the size of, duh, six tatami mats, which isn’t much help unless you know that the average tatami mat is 1.653 square meters depending on the region. So a 6-tatami room is going to be somewhere around 9-10 square meters or 100 square feet.
The rooms are very simple: sliding doors with rice paper, traditional images and characters on the walls, a low table. Don’t worry that you won’t see a bed: one of the closets will have the futon and bedding, and at some point during the evening (often during dinner), magic elves will set your bedding up in the middle of the floor. You can also use the closets to store your clothes (or just leave your suitcase in a corner as I did). The ryokan was similarly simple but did feature a raised area with a slightly higher table for eating and working.
In a minshuku, you’ll likely eat with the other guests around a regular dining room table. (Minshuku have a bed and breakfast feel about them.) This is a wonderful opportunity to learn some Japanese as you try to communicate with the other guests. I shared a table with five Japanese sisters one night and it was one of the most wonderful evenings I’ve ever experienced.
A ryokan is a much more involved experience (and much more expensive). You’ll be greeted at the door and assigned a hostess in full kimono who’ll show you the hotel’s features and then take you to your room where you’ll find an outer alcove to leave your slippers. She’ll serve you tea and a sweet on the low table and take your times for dinner and breakfast. And when she leaves, she’ll kneel outside the room in the alcove and perform a full formal bow before closing the sliding door. You’ll dress in a kimono and spent the rest of your time wandering around in the kimono and haori (a kind of big jacket one wears over the kimono for warmth and more formality), dipping in the bath (make sure you learn about Japanese bath etiquette, which is actually fairly simple: wash extremely thoroughly and ensure you remove all soap), and eating.
Eating in a ryokan is not done in a group but in individual rooms. The one I stayed at featured a low table on a raised shelf with a single piece of stone on each side to step up and leave one’s slippers on. I discovered that there’s a recess that’s heated under the table so I could swing my legs in there, which was a relief as I can’t sit cross-legged for very long.
The Japanese transportation system is the best in the world. All that choice can be overwhelming, especially for North Americans used to an underwhelming public transportation system. Here are some tips to help you through the maze:
- Get a Japan Rail Pass – This is a no brainer if you’re planning on traveling around at all. I used intercity trains on only seven days during my 20 days in Japan and saved over $100 compared to regular ticket prices – and that was with a 21-day pass. With some good planning (e.g., stay in Tokyo at the beginning of your trip and, say, Kyoto at the end with a week of travel in between), you could even get by with a seven-day pass. Note that you can’t buy a JR Pass in Japan at present. You need to buy it via one of the many agents you’ll find online. They’ll send you an exchange voucher that you then swap for the pass in Japan. (I picked up mine right at the airport.)
- Using the JR Pass in Tokyo and Kyoto – I didn’t realize that the JR Pass is also useful in cities. There are several JR lines within Tokyo (notably the Yamanote Circle Line, plus some other lines that cross over it). Put these together with some walks (probably under 30 min.) and you could potentially skip the Metro altogether. Even Kyoto has two JR Lines passing through it that offer access to various temples and shrines with some amount of walking. And if you’re flying into Haneda, the JR Pass covers the Tokyo Monorail.
- Regular vs. Green JR Pass – Being a bit worried about how my 6’3” frame would fit into a regular train seat, I upgraded to the Green (first class) pass. It cost me about $200 more than the regular pass (although only a little over $100 more compared to buying the tickets separately) and it is a wonderful experience: huge, wide seats with an enormous recline (at least on the Shinkansen and some Limited Express trains). I did sit in regular class on a Shinkansen once and I would have had plenty of room, although the Green cars are definitely less crowded and quieter. You generally need to make reservations with the Green Pass. This is usually a simple matter of walking into the JR Ticket Office. This is only a problem if the ticket office is extremely busy, which happened once. You can’t use the ticket machines, unfortunately. You can also make reservations with the regular JR Pass and it’s probably a good idea, particularly during busy periods.
- Checking train schedules – Google Maps will show train schedules, but if you want to be absolutely certain and if you have a JR Pass, use Hyperdia (http://www.hyperdia.com) and click the “JR Pass Search” option, which will only give you options that are free with the JR Pass. (They also have an app that gives a free month but then requires a monthly payment after that first month.) You’ll need to be very certain that you’re looking at the right train stations, given multiple options in most cities. I used Google Maps to place myself near a train station, and then Hyperdia to confirm train options. I’d then show the ticket agent a screenshot of the train(s) I wanted when making reservations.
- Using the JR Rail Pass – Easy peasy! Just show it at the manned gate that you’ll see in virtually every Japanese train station (with the possible exception of super small stations) and in you go. If you don’t have a reservation, just look for the non-reserved car location for the train you want to take (this will be marked on the platform and/or on an overhead sign above the platform) and off you go!
- Bring a small Ziploc bag – The JR Pass is paper so if you’re worried about it getting wet and/or crumpled, just bring a small Ziploc to keep it in.
- There’s no single metro system in Tokyo and Kyoto
- Trying to find my way around Tokyo and even much smaller (relatively speaking) Kyoto was overwhelming. So many choices, so much signage (often in 4-5 languages) and rarely a direct option (unless I was only going a short distance, in which case I would just walk anyway). Fares vary based on distance (although there are almost always fare adjustment machines at the other end so if you find yourself short, just pop your ticket into the fare adjustment machine and pay the difference).
- Part of what makes it confusing is that the subways are operated by separate companies in those two cities (and in others, I would guess) and they don’t necessarily make it easy to travel on both companies’ lines during a single trip. In Tokyo, there are two major companies in the core of the city: Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. You can buy a day pass that covers both lines BUT after staring at subway maps a lot and trying to figure out which line belongs to which company, I ended up deciding it wasn’t worth it. I did buy a single day Tokyo Metro pass one day, but otherwise paid for a few individual tickets, and combined that with use of the JR lines.
- Kyoto is even more confusing (even though there are only two subway lines) thanks to a combination of unusually small signage and very confusing instructions.
- My advice? Figure out some of your likely destinations and itineraries in advance, and then play around in Google Maps to figure out route options. Look up which lines belong to which company, and compare the various options the mapping program gives, then you’ll have some ideas as to what pass or tickets you’ll need prior to arriving and standing like an idiot in front of the multitudes of signage trying to figure out what the hell is going on. And of course you could always make it simple just by buying whatever the most extensive pass is (e.g., one of the combined passes listed here: http://www.tokyometro.jp/en/ticket/value/1day/) so you don’t have to think (although you’ll still need to figure out how the hell to get there from here).
- Highway buses – I took a few of these in mountainous areas where there are no or limited trains. They are mostly very nice highway coaches (although I wasn’t on a single one that had a bathroom, which could be a problem on a two-hour bus ride!). Figuring out the schedules was even more challenging than figuring out the subways! There are a lot of companies and no single integrated schedule that I could find. I had my best results just Googling the route (e.g., “bus from matasumoto to shirahone onsen”). Getting a ticket and/or paying the fare is another challenge. A couple of the buses I took required advanced reservations (which I did online) and some required the purchase of a ticket in advance (but not the reservations of an actual seat). On the remainder (the majority), you take a ticket from a machine when boarding. (This is the way city buses work sometimes as well.) A screen at the front of the bus will tell you how much it costs to exit at each stop depending on where you boarded. Just show the driver your ticket and drop your change in the slot and off you go. (And if you don’t have the correct change, most buses have a change making machine next to the fare box.)
Food and Drink
I can’t imagine a country with more culinary variety than Japan, nor can I imagine a place where as much care is put into food – whether it’s a street vendor or a high-end restaurant. I did some reading beforehand so I was somewhat prepared (and had already realized that sushi and noodles are but a part of the Japanese food picture), but was still floored by the experience. I can’t begin to give “advice” per se (aside from recommending the book I read, Rice Noodles Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture, noting that the Lonely Planet recommendations were uniformly good, and finding or creating a good list of the various Japanese food groups), but here are the culinary and alcoholic highlights of my trip:
- Tsujiki Market, sushi breakfast – I highly doubt you can go wrong with any place in this endless warren of vendors peddling a wild variety of seafood. I went with a big selection as I figured it was my chance to try everything at once (and now I know that I need never eat herring roe, squid or prawn in sashimi form again), but I was awfully tempted by the amazing tuna selections.
- Hitting a famous ramen joint – I saw the queues the first two nights I was in Shinjuku (Tokyo) so on the third night I decided to see what the fuss is all about. It took almost 45 minutes from joining the line to eating, but it was amazing, not just for the food but also the experience of ordering from a machine and sitting at a counter with a screen in front of me from which the food magically appeared with me seeing only the hands of the cooks.
- Japanese convenience stores – When you see a 7-Eleven in the U.S. or Canada, “gourmet cuisine” is likely NOT your first thought. Convenience stores in Japan, however, are entirely different. You’ll find an incredible selection of good, fresh food, particularly the takeout lunches known as “bento boxes.” I ate the vast majority of my lunches from 7-Eleven, Lawson’s or Family Market (the big three of Japanese convenience stores) and they included everything from rice balls to yakitori, from sushi to soba, and just about everything else you can imagine. And it’s cheap: you can stuff your face for about 500-600 Yen.
- Visiting a hole-in-the-wall bar or restaurant – There’s nothing like ducking beneath the half curtain that denotes an open establishment (in my case this often involved serious ducking to get inside without brain damage) and finding a tiny place with a low counter facing the bar and/or kitchen, a cozy atmosphere, and the usual great Japanese service. Whether it’s a shanty bar in Golden Gai (Shinjuku), a tiny place (with its own small Zen garden no less) off of a shopping arcade in a (rare) non-touristy area of Kyoto, or a five-seat yakiniku restaurant on Ponto-cho (one of the most atmospheric alleyways I’ve visited), each experience was phenomenal.
- Grilling your own meat – Speaking of yakiniku, I had two phenomenal experiences of these places where you cook your own meat, a style of food that apparently originated in Korea. One was the above-mentioned hole-in-the-wall in Kyoto where I had ohmi beef (one of the types of Wagyu beef you may have heard of) that I cooked myself on a small electric grill. The other was a type of cooking known as shabu-shabu, which involves choosing a broth style (the order I made included two), then adding vegetables and spices, then cooking your own very thinly sliced meat into it. I ate until I could eat no more!
- Learning to love saki – I must have tried saki at some point in the past, but I don’t remember it specifically and I do know that the smell alone didn’t appeal to me. That changed in Japan where I tried it several times and quite enjoyed it, particularly the first time when it was served cold in the traditional masu wooden box. (The cup is placed within the masu and then the server pours the saki until it overflows into the box. The traditional meaning of this gesture is to demonstrate the success of the restaurant.)
- Digging Japanese pancakes in Hiroshima – Okonomiyaki is very similar to crepes in appearance and creation. Two of them are pressed together with all sorts of fillings in between: noodles, egg, tofu, different types of meat. They make them on a huge grill right in front of you and it’s a wonderful experience.
- Japanese craft beer is developing – It’s a long way from the variety and sheer quantity of breweries in the U.S., but craft breweries are popping up, and there are also a number of craft beer bars (e.g., Goodbeer faucets in Kyoto, the Craft Beer Market chain in Tokyo, LBK Craft in Nara, Hop Frog Cafe in Matsumoto).