I’m not going to bother doing an extensive breakdown of what we did on Day 8 since it was just waking up and going to Narita. Instead I’m just going to skip straight to the travel tips! The most important tips will be at the top, but latter parts of this post I ended up just putting everything I could think of.
If you want to see the photos from Day 8 you can go to my gallery here!
Like I said before, I can speak some very basic Japanese, but usually I have trouble when people respond because they’ll assume I know way more than I actually do. But Japan is actually quite user friendly for non-Japanese speakers! Street signs, subway signs and tourist areas will generally have everything translated in English. Also there are pictures EVERYWHERE, especially restaurants. This will alleviate a lot of the stress of visiting, but here are my tips for traveling in Japan.
Rent a pocket wifi device!
After this trip I can’t believe I ever went to Japan without pocket wifi. A lot of airbnb or apartment rentals in Japan include a pocket wifi, so if that’s the case, then great! All you have to do is be able to get to your apartment without internet and you’re good to go.
If where you’re staying doesn’t provide one, there are several services that let you rent a pocket wifi and pick it up at the airport. If you just Google for wifi or cell phone rental in Japan you should find them.
Also, make sure to turn off any automated backup/syncing settings on your phone so that you don’t eat up the bandwidth on your pocket wifi, because you might get throttled.
The main reason a pocket wifi is important is it allows you to:
USE GOOGLE MAPS
I used it CONSTANTLY to find out what subway line I should be taking. Japan’s subway system is one of the largest in the world, but navigating via Google Maps makes it so much easier. I can’t imagine looking at Japan’s subway map if I were colorblind. It’s hard enough to figure out which blue line you’re going to as it is.
Also, Japan has no street names! There are very few exceptions. If you look at Google walking instructions for Japan it’s all “Go right, go left, go straight, go right.” Google Maps helps for this too.
Another useful thing I did was make a text document in my iOS Notes app which had a list of destinations I knew I was going to with Google Maps links. This meant that I could easily pull up the list, hit the link and then navigate there from where I was. This took the stress out of typing in destinations, spelling something wrong, Google not finding the Romanized spelling etc.
Use ATMs for money exchange
The first couple times I went to Japan I got money at a bank, but this time I just used my Citibank card at convenience stores. Be sure to check what ATMs you can use your card at, because you might not be able to use them everywhere. For example, my card didn’t work at Lawson convenience stores but it worked at 7-Eleven.
Of course, call your bank or credit card company in advance so they know you’re traveling and don’t lock you out from suspicious activity.
Speaking of cash, make sure that you’re always carrying some. While you can use your credit card at major stores and chains, that will probably not be the case at smaller stores or restaurants. So make sure you have cash!
Get your Suica card as soon as possible!
Suica is one brand of subway transit card you can use (the other is Pasmo). You can use it on any regular subway line in Japan (Shinkansen requires special tickets of course). You periodically have to refill it, but otherwise you just put it in your wallet, tap to get through the turnstile and tap to get out. You pay based on how far you go.
You can only buy the physical card from Suica card machines which have this black/gray gradient around it. Usually there are one or two at major stations.
Instructions on the machines can be shown in English and you can use bills or coins to refill your card.
Why is this so important? Because Japan’s subway lines are privately owned, which means that if you’re buying one-use tickets you have to buy tickets from a certain machine for the specific subway line and also know how much to put in. If you try to put the ticket from one subway line into a different turnstile, you won’t get through. With your Suica card you don’t have to worry about ANY of that!
Okay, this is more of a long term thing because it obviously takes time. But if you’re going to learn to read any Japanese at all, learn katakana. These are the phonetic characters used to write out mostly foreign words. So “Derek” becomes デレック or “de-re-kku.” Sometimes they write Japanese words in katakana because it looks cool. For example you’ll see ラーメン everywhere because it’s how you write “ramen” in katakana (ra-me-n).
7-Eleven and Lawson convenience stores are THE BEST
Seriously. One thing you might not have expected to miss about Japan are its convenience stores. The closest analog I can think of are bodegas in New York. They have EVERYTHING. They’re a really good place to get cheap food like rice balls and all sorts of good Japanese food to eat on the go. Also drinks, stationary, towels, small electronics, snacks, umbrellas, stationary, beer, hard alcohol, they have it ALL.
Oh and most have public bathrooms too!
Carry a handkerchief or small towel
Not for blowing your nose in, ew.
Japan in general is a great place for public restrooms. You will probably encounter a smelly bathroom here and there, but by and large restrooms in Japan are fantastic, especially compared to public restrooms in the States. But not all of them have paper towels, so carry a handkerchief to dry your hands with.
Stand outside any Japanese bathroom and you’ll see a constant train of people coming out drying their hands on handkerchiefs.
Get Ghibli Museum tickets!
Here’s the official site’s page on buying tickets. Tickets to the Ghibli Museum can be purchased a number of different ways. The first you can do is to look for a travel agency near you that sells them. Or on the Lawson website you can buy tickets a month in advance on the 10th (for example, tickets for July 1-31 go on sale June 10)
Tickets are for specific days and specific time of day (once you get in you can stay as long as you want, but there’s no re-entry). You can also buy them at a Lawson convenience store in Japan. I’ve never done it that way so I don’t know how far in advance you need to buy them, but it’s likely too late if you didn’t get them in advance.
Be sure to check what short film is showing at the Ghibli Museum! The museum has a rotating schedule for the short films they show at their theater, and this is the ONLY place you can see these films! I’ve scheduled my last two trips around the film “Mei and the Kittenbus.” Next time I’ll probably schedule so I get to see two different films.
Ticket machines at restaurants are a thing
Not all restaurants, but a lot of high turnaround restaurants like ramen shops use ticket machines where you punch in what you want, put in your money and give the tickets to the waiter. The electronic ticket machines will have photos, and maybe English, but some don’t have English. In that case I’d probably just use the prices to guess what’s an entree and what’s a side, and get a surprise!
Tipping is not a thing in Japan
Tempted as you might be to tip the EXCELLENT service you’re likely to receive in Japan, it’s just not a thing. The closest thing I can think of is that it’s nice to get some sort of gift for someone hosting you at their apartment (edible gifts are best). Other than that, you never have to worry about tipping waiters or cab drivers.
If you want to be extra appreciative at restaurants, before you leave say “gochisou-sama deshita!” This basically means “It was a feast!” which is a nice way to say you enjoyed it.
Oh btw, cab drivers are SUPER FUCKING EXPENSIVE. Uber actually exists in Japan, not sure how the rates compare but seriously, cab drivers are super fucking expensive.
Smoking is unfortunately a thing
I feel like smoking is just a thing everywhere but the States. There will be A LOT of people smoking. Outdoors sometimes there are designated smoking areas which people will use, but there’s still a lot of smoking. Some restaurants will have smoking and non-smoking sections. Some places will just have… smoking sections.
Just something to keep in mind.
If you go to Tsukiji Fish Market for sushi, go EARLY.
Seriously, go at 5AM or earlier. As soon as the subway schedule permits (the subway doesn’t run 24/7). NOTE: As of the writing of this blog, Tsukiji is scheduled to close forever November 2016 or after to a different location. If you’re reading this after that time be sure to look up for more information!
The place that I’ve gone to the last two times is called Sushi Dai which is quite famous. For 4000 yen you’ll get the best sushi you’re likely to eat in your entire life. (Sushi Dai is planning on moving locations when Tsukiji moves)
Afterwards you can explore the fish market. But keep in mind that as much as it is a tourist attraction it is NOT made for tourists. There are lot of people on very fast moving vehicles, and they don’t give a fuck about you because they’re busy and you’re probably in their way. So be as accommodating and considerate as possible to the people who are working.
Many will have signs that say photos are prohibited, so check before snapping photos!
Stay cool in the Summer!
If you go in the Summer, then be prepared for pervasive humidity. Bring a hand fan, a parasol, and consider even some cooling strips. They’re like disposable hot pads, but cold. I only had to use these once my last trip, but I was glad I had them.
I say this to everyone when I find out they’re visiting Japan. You might be tempted to check Yelp reviews (they do exist) or Google for stuff, but just about every restaurant has beautifully taken photos of their food in their windows or 3D fake versions of their food on display. And unlike what you see in a McDonald’s ad, the food will actually look like it!
Seriously, eat everything! Follow your eyes/stomach and eat at what looks good. If it’s a small food cart on the street, even better! There’s SO MUCH good food in Japan it makes me cry. There are only a few acquired tastes like natto (fermented soy beans) or maybe some sea foods, but even then it’ll still be something interesting!
Japan is unlike any other place in the world. I’ve been there three times and feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. Especially growing up in the States, Japan is so different culturally, and the vibe of the people is different. I constantly joke with my friends that Japan is what happens when you have a country where everyone follows the rules.
People wait for minutes at the shortest of crosswalks, they separate their garbage, and generally don’t litter. People take off their shoes if they’re going to rest their feet on a seat, and they wait for people to get off the subway car before getting on.
Being a tourist in Japan is absolutely delightful. Also, if you’re not Asian then it’s very likely standing around looking lost will prompt someone to help you out (they also might want to practice their English on you) If you’re in smaller towns, it’ll be a lot less likely you’ll encounter English speakers, but by and large it’s pretty easy to get by if you have your wifi and know where to go.
Once again, HAVE FUN!!!