Japan can be an intimidating place to travel! The language is so different and sometimes the way things are done can be confusing. However, there are so many customs and traditions that I never would have known if I had stayed in the Western Hemisphere. It’s an amazingly unique country that is more than worth seeing.
As I’ve lived and traveled in Japan, I’ve picked up on a few helpful ideas for traveling here. I hope these tips will make your travel here easier! Please let me know if you have any other questions.
1. Carry Cash
Usually only big chain businesses and tourist traps take credit cards. If you want to travel off the beaten path at all, you will need to make sure you have bills. And you’ll probably want a coin purse because yen is in coins up to ￥1,000 which is about $10. Japan has an extremely low crime rate, so you don’t really have to worry about being mugged or keeping your backpack on the front of you.
2. Tourist Passes
Always check at train stations for tourist passes. They often give discounts on bus and train day passes to travelers. When I traveled to Hiroshima, I got a three day pass for about $10 that allowed unlimited train and bus ride within the main city. Make sure to bring your passport, though, because they will not give you one without a foreign passport.
3. Seasonal Closings
Research when the best season to visit is. We learned this the hard way by visiting Hokkaido in April. It was too warm for the snow sculptures and too cold for bikes or the hills of flowers. Most of the prefectures are well known for a number of things to do, as well as the best season to visit. A lot of great sights and things to do are only open for certain seasons! Hokkaido should be visited in summer and winter, whereas Hiroshima is perfect in the fall. In Tokyo, Mt. Fuji is only open to climbers for a short window in summer. If you are coming to see cherry blossoms, they only bloom for about two weeks and it differs from prefecture to prefecture. So, do your research! Find out what is at the top of your to-visit list, and plan your trip around that.
4. Convenience Stores
The Japanese word is コンビニ (pronounced kohn-beanie) and they are basically gas stations without gas. They have bathrooms, snacks, drinks, lunches, and (maybe best of all) free wifi. You can find one on pretty much every street corner whether it’s Lawson, 7/11, or Family Mart. They’re a good way to save money when you’re out and about because you can get pretty decent meals for fairly cheap.
5. Transit Cards
Transit is pretty cheap and you can get a card that you preload and then can just scan instead of getting an individual ticket for each ride. It’s about ￥500 for a card, but it saves so much time. Without a card, you have to get a ticket for each A to B train ride, which involves looking at a chart that shows all the destinations from your point of origin. There are no destination names on the ticket machine so you have to find the cost to your destination and buy a ticket for that value. Believe me, it’s confusing, and sometimes you miss your train while you’re trying to figure it out. Cards can be bought at the station and go by different names. The most common names seem to be Suica and Icoca. It’s Icoca in Osaka area and Suica around Tokyo. I’ve seen a little of both in the other prefectures I’ve visited.
6. Rental Cars
It is not usually worth renting a car in the big cities. Parking is often hard to find and extremely expensive. Toll roads cost a bundle, and taking the main roads means you could be stuck in traffic for a long time. As a rule, we add about 30 minutes to Google’s estimated driving time, but sometimes it has taken over an hour longer. Trains are much faster, more reliable, and often cheaper than paying tolls and parking. That said, do your research! There are some places that can’t be reached by train or bus, so a car could still be the best choice.
Have you ever been to Japan? What advice would you give to first time travelers to Japan?