I simply adore Japan.
I traveled there twice for work in August and September 2019: One week in Tokyo, with a bullet train to Osaka, and a second trip to mostly Osaka. In late December 2019, I was asked to provide some tips to some folks that were going to travel there and were quite nervous.
I wrote the following blog post…and then a month later the Pandemic hit. Their trip got canceled, and my work travel halted and hasn’t resumed since. At the time I figured it wouldn’t be proper to post this.
Just this week, I re-read this, and wanted to post it anyway. It gives me hope that travel is soon on the horizon…and a glorious destination like Japan is something I long for.
Here are some tips I learned and I hope they help you.
Here we go!
If you’re anywhere close to Minneapolis, take the non-stop to Haneda. I’ve taken that exact route twice, and is quite nice. 12 hours…just enough time to watch a movie or two, have dinner, and sleep. AND, the airport is located in Tokyo so it’s a quick cab ride to your hotel, rather than long 1+ hour train ride from Narita.
I recommend you kick off your adventure properly and take the train straight from Haneda into the city for about 500 yen ($5 bucks). It’s fast, you’ll immerse yourself in the culture, and it forces you to learn how to work the train system 🙂
Of course the train only works well if you pack lightly. I highly recommend a backpack and a carry-on. International travel is so much easier that way. (and if you pick up souvenirs, just buy a dumpy little carry-on and check it in on the way home).
I usually travel with around $50 USD just to be safe. For Japan, I use ATM at the Haneda airport to get cash. I rarely get any country-specific cash in US before I leave. My bank cash card works great for that. (I also have a credit card I can get cash from…there is a fee to get cash from a credit card but in an emergency, it’s worth it. You’ll see a theme….I usually have 2 ways to do most anything so when one fails I have a backup).
$1 USD is around 100 Japanese Yen. So I get 20,000 yen (~$200 USD) to get by for local food/market. Of course you can always get more if you plan to buy things in smaller stores/markets.
Is there a fee? Sometimes. But, in the end, there are fees for everything so just plan to blow $10-$40 on various fees. (luggage, cash, card, etc). Travel isn’t cheap, but the fees are just a drop compared to flight costs so I just accept it and enjoy each moment!
Most stores in Japan all accept credit cards, but if you want to go somewhere small (or anywhere local like the fish market), or get a quick lunch at a Ramen shop, it’s cash.
I use credit card all over (taxi, etc). just ask if they take it to ensure. The train system accepts card as well to pay for tickets.
Regarding international fees for credit cards. Some bank cards are dumb. In fact, most VISA’s are dumb in that they charge a fee for international purchases. EXCEPT the following:- Amazon Prime Visa. I use that all the time because it has zero international fees- Apple Card: I’ve started to use that physical card (and Apple Pay) because it’s zero international fees and tied right into my phone (it’s my backup…always have a backup)
WiFi – Connectivity
I’ve traveled for work for quite some time (20+ years), and have been fortunate to explore 28 countries. Only in the last year have I had a phone plan that connects world-wide (and that’s only because work pays for it…i’m too stingy to pay for an international plan). In general, there’s enough wifi in airports and coffee shops to connect when you need. I used to practice a “buddy breathe” system, where I would get wifi, use Google Maps app and download map details to my phone in case I want to explore. I then put my phone in airplane mode, had more battery life, and still had maps. (I had my daughters do the same for their Europe adventure).
If you need connectivity, then I suggest the per-day. Some days you may need connectivity. I’ve never used the Pocket Wifi and may be great, but seems like another piece of tech to lug around.
One thing I truly enjoy is to feel disconnected. I love taking a long walk-about where I’m not having my phone buzz and blip as I explore a foreign land. It seems that these are the times I get the most joy out of these moments. Oh, and it gives me an excuse to buy a coffee to use a local wifi.
Part of the trick is just preparing. Arrange your travel from airport to hotel, use google maps on your phone and download for “offline” use, print out things on paper that you may need.
Which reminds me: Print out any hotel name or your important address in Japanese (the hotel/business web site will have info for you) so that if you need to get a taxi to take you somewhere you can just hand them in their local language. I usually find the location on my phone map app and hand it to the driver…but even then, it’s in English and not many Japanese locals speak English.
Japan is a great culture. Everyone is kind and quiet. Therefore I try to be quiet. They drive on the “other side” of the roads, so when crossing streets ALWAYS look both ways. Cars will whip by next to the curb going “the wrong way” and can be quite surprising. For me I just wait for the crosswalk. Because of that, they also usually walk on the left, so first time I found myself walking the ‘wrong way’ as well…takes a while to remember, but just stay on your left. Also escalators. Stay on left because right side of escalator is “passing area” (same in Europe but opposite side 🙂 )
Toilets: Most us modern toilets but some are just holes. Adventures await! If modern toilet, then it’s REALLY modern: heated, streams of water for cleaning, all kinds of craziness. Curious how it works? Give it a whirl! You might be surprised how much you like them! I know a guy from US that loved Japanese toilets so much he spent 4K installing them at home. His wife said he was crazy until she tried it…”best investment ever”, she said 🙂
Some Japanese don’t like their photo taken. Also if touring (Kyoto for example), there are “acceptable times” when to take photos, and some not. In general I shy away from taking people photos unless I ask. If you take a photo of a performer, tip them.
The Subway/Metro system is outstanding. I used it all the time (in combo with Google Maps which was key in helping me around). it is initially confusing at big train stations since there are many train companies that overlap service. My trick is to find the nearest stop at my destination and that becomes the train line I take. If you have a guide, great. if not, just buy a bunch of one-way tickets. It’s rather simple: Walk to the train board: look at board to see where you want to go, it says how many Yen it costs to get there from the station you’re currently in, and you buy a ticket for that amount. Put ticket in to get through AND get out at end of trip (it ensures you paid properly).
Even though my trips were for work, I dedicated time to explore. Most nights I would walk to the nearest Metro station. Adventures await there! In the days (weekend or morning before flight) I would walk early. There’s something about seeing a city wake up that shows you its spirit. If I have a spare day, I’ll pick a train route and hit the main spots in Tokyo. It took me 4 or 5 hours but I got to see most of the major sites (and some small back-alley unique Tokyo scenes) because I was willing to wander.
Of course, wandering has its moments of anxiety. Once I was with a business colleague who brought us to a delightfully vintage restaurant in Osaka. Later he told me that the nice gentlemen waiting outside were members of the Yakuza (I only knew that name from Hawaii-5-0!)…this was after he said the restaurant used to be a brothel (and that the craft was still practiced on that street). 🙂 We ended up walking 20 minutes down some pretty shady alleys to get to a street big enough where taxi felt safe to drive. Adventure!
Haneda is a smaller airport so quite nice. Good choice! Customs isn’t scary. Just make sure you have your passport handy and only speak if asked. Don’t offer more info than they ask for. “Reason for visit” – “visiting my cousin”. or “a business meeting” should be short and sweet. You both can approach customs agent at same time.
On your way back, US will ask if you’ve been “near livestock” and other wilderness stuff. just don’t pet any cows. US Customs doesn’t like that. You can’t really bring any food through, so don’t take airline snacks/fruit through customs. If you want to bring back bottles of saki or whatever, that’s fine, just check it, wrap it in clothes. All good. I’ve brought back many bottles of special brew/spirits over my years of travel and have never had one break.
Hope this helps! Feel free to ask questions in the comments. I can’t stress enough to just give yourself time. Enjoy all the moments, and use all your senses. The smells, tastes, feels sights, sounds, and a sixth “muse”, it’s all great.
I can’t wait to get back there!