“I’ve never really wanted to go to Japan. Simply because I don’t like eating fish. And I know that’s very popular out there in Africa.”— Britney Spears
Not to dispute Britney’s vast knowledge of geography, it is a little known fact that Japan is actually located in Asia. We spent an incredible three weeks in Japan this summer and only scratched the surface of this culturally rich and incredibly beautiful country. My wife is half Japanese and our girls take Japanese in school, so the trip tied into their heritage as well as their education. For me, it was a new country and culture, temples and shrines, samurai and ninjas (alright, didn’t see these), mountains and ocean, and most importantly, sushi and ramen!
Whether you’re currently planning a trip or just curious about traveling to Japan, this post will answer many of the questions you may have. Is Japan expensive? What is a JR pass? Is it really a cash-based society? Do they speak English? Read on and find out what to know before going to Japan.
What to Book in Advance
I used to be more spontaneous and last minute in my travel planning, but when using points it generally pays to book early. Booking flights 6-12 months in advance not only gives you something to look forward to, but also gives you time to enjoy the planning process and to find some unique experiences.
Besides flights, here are the key items to book in advance.
- Accommodations: Booking award nights at top properties takes a bit of planning, but is well worth it. We had four free nights at the Park Hyatt Tokyo valued at $700/night…definitely worth planning ahead! Finding one of a kind AirBnB properties is also well worth booking early (pay attention to cancellation policies).
- Michelin Restaurants: Are you a foodie? Want an epicurean experience of a lifetime? Get on the waitlist early! I found a great site (unfortunately after our trip) where you can book all of your sushi dreams.
- Ghibli Museum: Visiting Miyazaki’s Ghibli Museum should be on everyone’s Japan bucketlist. I outline the full process in my post Top 5 Things to Do in Japan with Kids (or if you’re a kid at heart) but you need to start the booking process four months out. I also have a link in the post on getting last minute tickets, but it is not guaranteed and is more expensive.
- Robot Restaurant: The Robot Restaurant is unique in the truest sense of the word. Anthony Bourdain said it’s the greatest show on earth. While I don’t know about that, it is definitely a crazy, one-of-a-kind, only-in-Japan experience. I suggest booking as soon as you know your Tokyo schedule. More detail in the above referenced post.
- JR Pass: Details on the Japan Rail Pass will be covered below, but this is also something that must be ordered in advance. They actually mail you the pass and you cannot get it in Japan. I suggest ordering 2-4 weeks out. Put it with your passport so you don’t forget!
The trains in Japan are fantastic! If your experience with trains is from Italy, you will really be in heaven. Japanese trains are clean, efficient, run frequently, and go where you need to go.
What is a Japan Rail(JR) Pass?
A JR Pass is only available to foreign tourists (our AirBnB host said he wished he could get one) for lengths of 7, 14, or 21 consecutive days. It provides train coverage to most of Japan, including shinkansen “bullet” trains as well as local commuter trains and buses. The usage period begins when you show your pass to station staff and have it stamped.
Is the JR pass worth it?
For how we traveled, this was a no-brainer. There was only one day in three-weeks that we didn’t take a train…and usually we took multiple per day. While this sounds like a lot, typically these were local trains and may just be15-minute rides. We also took day trips from our AirBnB basecamps. The places we stayed were all ~10-minute walks from a station, so very easy to get around. There is reserved seating for longer rides that I will discuss below, but that also is included with your pass.
Is the Green pass worth it?
You have a choice of purchasing the standard JR Pass or the Green Car pass. The Green Pass is the first class pass and comes at a ~30% premium (much better than the airline premium). The seats are large and comfortable with a 40-degree recline, have a large tray and adjustable footrest, and you are brought a hot towel to freshen up. While we certainly enjoyed the comfort (we didn’t want to get off), we primarily elected to get the Green Pass since there are four of us and I wanted to ensure we could sit together and also get the trains we wanted on short notice. This was definitely not a problem in the Green Car as we either had the car to ourselves or with just a few other people.
Keep in mind the benefits of the Green Pass are only for the longer 1hr+ reserved-seating train rides. This includes rides from Narita airport to central Tokyo as well as between major cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima. We also used it for day trips from Kyoto to Himeji and Nara. I suggest determining how many longer rides you will have when deciding. I would also factor in whether it is peak season and the risk of standard cars filling up.
Pro tip: Ask for the mountain-side car when reserving a seat on a train that will pass by Mt. Fuji (trains between Tokyo and Kyoto or Osaka) and you may be rewarded with a stunning view (covered in fog both times we passed by…grrr). The trains often have free wifi, so you can use a map app to see when you will pass.
Using the Trains
After your first couple of train rides you will quickly get in the flow…our kids pretty much took over at that point. There is a JR center in every station, easily identifiable with a green neon sign with white JR letters. You’ll typically have to pass through a center and show your pass to board JR trains, so take the opportunity to confirm which train to take and on what track.
- Local trains, in major cities, run so frequently that you don’t need to plan ahead.
- There is not an app to book tickets, so for reserved-seat trains, book at the JR center as soon as you know your plans. You can always change your tickets for no cost.
- While trains varied, they typically make announcements in English, and have non-kanji name of stations on electronic board above exit doors, so you know your stop.
- Try and avoid rush hour commuter trains or be prepared to experience the life of a sardine. This is the one place where manners fell short.
You’ll be amazed to see young children taking the trains to school by themselves or with friends. Take courage…if they can do it, so can you!
Get your pass here.
Although trains and walking get you most places, we did take taxis a few times. That’s right, taxis, rather than Lyft or Uber. Lyft isn’t yet in Japan and Uber hasn’t taken a foothold. I tried to use my AMEX Platinum Uber credits and the app said they weren’t available in this region. Taxis were actually inexpensive and everywhere.
Surprisingly, our cab drivers spoke the least English of anyone we encountered on our trip. We found it was best to show them the address, which they then typed it into an antiquated GPS that did not factor in traffic. They don’t load/unload your bags from the trunk, but when they pull up the car doors automatically open! They did take credit cards even when not using the JapanTaxi app.
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Money / Cost
Currency and Cards
Everything I read said Japan is a cash-based society, but we were able to use credit cards almost everywhere, particularly in major cities. Make sure to bring a no foreign transaction fee card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve card (which also gives you 3x points on food and travel spend).
It is super easy to do the USD to yen conversion in your head, as ¥100 = ~$1, so just drop two zeroes when you see a price. ATM’s give you large bills (¥10,000 which is $100) so break when you can.
Coins go up to ¥500 ($5 if you’re practicing), so you end up with a lot of change. Try and use whenever you can (there is a large variety of vending machines) and you may want to get a change purse. Luckily, I had my girls with me, so didn’t have to carry one myself!
Is Japan Expensive?
We had always imagined Japan to be very expensive, particularly Tokyo, but found this not to be the case. It’s certainly not Southeast Asia, but much cheaper than our home state of California or Western Europe.
AirBnB’s were very reasonable, with a nice place being ~$150/night.
While you can certainly dine at expensive restaurants, there is amazing food everywhere for ~$10pp. There is no tipping in Japan which saves you 20% on dining. We also used our AirBnB kitchens for meals, breakfast in particular.
While our JR Green Passes was our biggest expense, it worked out to just $34/day/pp, which is very reasonable.
Trust me…this really does deserve it’s own section…especially for those of you who don’t know how to use a toilet and need the visual aids 😉
The toilets in Japan are nothing short of amazing…we are definitely putting on our Christmas list! Even airports, trains and stations have fancy Toto toilets. They often open / close automatically when you enter / exit the bathroom with automatic deodorizing spray! Many of the seats are heated, which is quite pleasant. There is typically a wall unit that has a variety of buttons for various cleansing options such as the angle and power of spray, an air dryer, and even privacy music or sound.
Your hotels and AirBnB’s will have bathroom slippers. You slip off your indoor slippers at the bathroom door and slide into your bathroom slippers to keep any toilet bacteria contained. So civilized!
Even if you do not plan to bring any prescription medication you should read this.
I don’t have any prescriptions, but bring a mini-pharmacy when I travel just in case. I ended up leaving almost everything at home as several of the items are restricted in Japan, and would require a paperwork and/or original bottles. For instance, you cannot bring Advil Cold & Sinus…even with the paperwork. My wife has a headache pill which has codeine in it, and had to provide her prescription, a letter from her doctor, a photograph of the pill, and obtain approval from the Japanese Narcotics Control Department. There are other common items which are restrictedsuch as Ambien, where you can only bring a total of 300mg. You can also only bring 30-days supply of medication without the paperwork.
It’s quite challenging to search for your specific medicines to see if allowable. We emailed all meds we planned to bring to the Medicinal Inspection and Guidance Division (email address below) and they directed us accordingly.
- Ministry of Health Medicine Guidelines
- Required Paperwork
- Medicinal Inspection and Guidance Division email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Narcotics Control Department email: email@example.com
Food / Drink
I already mentioned the affordability of the food, but wanted to provide a few other tips.
There is very inexpensive, yet good, food available at convenience stores, i.e. 7-11, Lawsons, and Family Mart. We stalked up on drinks, eggs, snacks, and even some Japanese meals that were quite tasty. You have to try the 7-11 egg salad sandwich…not kidding!
It is considered rude to walk and eat / drink, yet many dining establishments in the streets and train stations have nowhere to sit. Protocol is to stand to the side of the street against a wall or building and eat discretely. One benefit seems to be that there isn’t a speck of trash anywhere…also no garbage cans?!
Most Japanese don’t eat out for breakfast, so it’s the toughest meal to find. We were fortunate enough to have a traditional breakfast at our AirBnB in Kyoto, prepared for us in our home. In hindsight, I would have had this every day.
I enjoy sake, but don’t love it. It was challenging to find good beer, but in Kyoto I found a liquor warehouse that did have some decent craft IPA’s. What I did find is fantastic whisky, for which Japan has some of the best in the world.
Language / Customs
Most Japanese speak basic English as they take it in school for several years. We only had one challenging time on the trip and that was with a cab driver. As in any other country, be polite, learn a few key phrases and show you are making an effort.
Japan has the most polite culture you will ever experience. You will likely do something offensive daily, but fortunately they are polite so will not say anything! With that said, none of us want to be barbarians, so make an effort to at least learn some basic Japanese and customs.
You will actually be bowed to many times a day, to which you should reciprocate, of course. If you learn no other Japanese, learn to say “thank you”. There are several ways to say it, but the most used is arigatou gozaimasu, pronounces as ah-ree-gah-toh goh-zah-ee-mas. Combine this with a bow and you will fit right in!
On trains, people will not talk on phones and rarely talk to each other. The commuter trains are often packed, so this a way to not further invade people’s space and provides some measure of peace and tranquility.
Leaving a single piece of rice in your bowl is disrespectful due to the amount of effort that went into growing that single grain. The superstition is that you will get bad eyesight if you don’t finish.
Pro Moves: Gestures and Body Language
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