I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to planning my travel, and I enjoy researching things to what is likely to be considered overkill. It’s not that I’m worried about being unprepared, because I’m pretty good at winging it and finding my way around a new place when it comes down to it, it’s just that I get really excited about upcoming trips and as a result, I tend to spend a lot of time learning about where I’m going because, well…I’m excited!
That being said, I did an enormous amount of research in preparation for my trip to Japan, so I would like to share what I learned with all of you so that you can benefit from my research if you decide you would like to visit Japan yourself!
My trip was based out of the cities of Kyoto and Tokyo, so a lot of my advice will revolve around these two areas.
First piece of advice: www.japan-guide.com is an amazing resource with a wealth of information on pretty much anything you would like to know about traveling through Japan, so if there’s something you would like to know that I didn’t touch on in this article, that’s where I would start my search.
The Visa Process/Entry Information
U.S. based visitors, as of the time of writing this article, do NOT need to obtain a visa prior to entering Japan. You just show up with your passport and they will give you a tourist visa upon arrival. Easy peasy. If you’re not a U.S. citizen, you’ll want to check your country’s visa requirements as it does vary.
I should note that if you’re bringing medications into Japan, you want to have them clearly marked in their original packaging. If it’s a prescription, carry the prescription with you. Don’t bring Vicks Inhalers into the country or anything that could be considered a narcotic (like Sudafed, which is sometimes used to make meth). Check what medications you want to bring into the country before you go to see what the rules are on them. I didn’t have any issues at all, but I did hear they can be pretty strict so I prepared for potential issues before I went. Again, had zero issues but I was prepared just in case. Better safe than sorry!
My flight from Los Angeles arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. If you’re flying into or out of Haneda, you should know that it’s easily accessible via public transportation to the city. Narita is also accessible via transit, but it’s a longer journey, so if you have a choice between the two airports, Haneda is much more convenient. There is also a hotel located inside the international terminal at Haneda Airport called Royal Park Hotel – The Haneda. If you have a late arriving flight or an early departing flight out of Haneda, you can’t beat this place for convenience. We actually stayed here our last night in Tokyo in order to make it easy to go to the airport in the morning. It was a comfortable hotel. If you’re not going to be in the airport overnight, but you have a long layover at Haneda, you can rest and recharge in one of their Refresh Rooms. These are available in the transit area of the hotel, which means you never have to leave the terminal (i.e. go outside of the security area) to get a little rest. Reservations are recommended as space is limited and may fill up.
How the JR Rail Pass works.
If you are planning on visiting Japan and moving around the country at all, I highly recommend you get one of these babies. It's only available to non Japanese citizens and can only be purchased outside of Japan prior to travel. It allows you to ride the Shinkansen (bullet train) around the country as well as some local trains and subway lines that are owned by the JR Rail company. While pricey, it is worthwhile if you are going to do Tokyo to Kyoto round trip on Shinkansen. It was easy to use and reserve seats, and having the pass allowed us to do some amazing day trips to Hakone and Hiroshima as well as lots of local trains around town. I highly recommend you get this pass prior to your Japan adventure! I'll be writing a blog post about transportation in Japan at some point but in the meantime i just wanted to give you this tip. Feel free to ask me questions about it! #Shinkansen #jrrailpass #jrrail #travel #Japan #Tokyo #kyoto
If you’re going to be doing a decent amount of travel by train around Japan, the JR Rail pass is a great deal. It is expensive, though, so definitely check if it will be worthwhile to get the pass based on your personal travel plans. This site has a calculator which will help you to determine if it will be worth the cost. I found that our plans of traveling round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto, as well as a few planned day trips outside of those areas from both our Kyoto and Tokyo bases made the pass worthwhile.
You should know that the JR Rail pass is only available to temporary visitors on holiday to Japan (i.e. on a tourist visa) and can only be purchased outside of Japan, so if you want to get one, you need to order it ahead of time. You will be sent a voucher in the mail which you will exchange for the pass once you arrive in Japan. There are many sites online which act as brokers for the pass. I went with this company and it went well, but I’m sure any company you order from will be fine.
The pass is good for all the JR Rail lines around Japan and you can take any trains except for the “Nozomi” and “Mihuzo” trains. Using the pass, you can travel pretty much anywhere you want to go in the country, so it’s a great option if you’re planning on trying to see a lot of the country while you’re there.
Subways, Buses, etc.
You should know that the JR Rail pass does NOT cover rail lines and other transit options that aren’t owned by the JR Rail company. That being said, it’s easy to purchase tickets for the local transit systems around Tokyo and Kyoto, as well as elsewhere in Japan.
The pass does cover some local subway lines though, especially in Tokyo. It was actually pretty convenient and we spent a lot of time on the Yamanote Loop Line, which is covered by the JR Rail pass and does a loop of some of the most popular stops in Tokyo.
Kyoto also had a couple JR lines which we did use for certain outings, but we also bought some subway and bus tickets as well. The bus system in Kyoto goes anywhere you would want to go. If you’re going to be on the bus a lot in Kyoto, you can purchase a day pass for 500 yen that covers all your journeys for the day, making it pretty economical to get around.
We also found that our JR Pass was good for a tourist bus in Hiroshima that picks you up from the Hiroshima station and does a loop, stopping at the peace park as well as some other frequently touristed areas.
For more on transportation in Japan, this is a great resource.
One more note on the subway…
It’s crowded at rush hour. Like….REALLY crowded. If you can at all avoid rush hour, do. Unless you want to get really intimate with about 500 people on a subway car, in which case proceed, my friend.
Another note on getting around…
It’s helpful to print directions before you head over to Japan for things like your hotel and anywhere else you know you’re going to be going, of course. But it’s also really helpful to get the address of where you are going written in Japanese in case you want to take a taxi or otherwise ask for directions. Usually when you book a hotel you can request that they send you the address in Japanese. If you’re going to take a taxi, show the driver the address in Japanese. I didn’t always have the address of my location, but I found that pulling it up on Google Maps and then just showing the map on my phone to the driver worked pretty well also.
Hailing a taxi in Japan…
There are taxi stations around a lot of train stations and popular attractions. You can also hail a taxi by just waving at one with the light on as you’re walking around town. Bring cash, and be prepared with either the address (written in Japanese is best…you can get the hotel or Airbnb address from the hotel or host before you go usually) or something else that clearly shows the taxi driver where you want to go, such as the Google Map pinned location where you want to go or maybe a photo of the place if it’s a really easily recognizable landmark or a photo of the subway station name). Cab drivers are unlikely to speak English, so you may not be able to explain to them where you want to go easily, but I found it was pretty easy if I just showed them on the map.
If it’s at all possible for you to do so, pack light! When you arrive in Tokyo you’ll likely be taking public transportation to your hotel or Airbnb, and let me tell you…it gets tight in there! The subways and trains can get really, really crowded (especially at rush hour, but any time really) and it’s not going to be easy for you to cram yourself AND a ton of luggage onto that subway car. People are polite and will try to make room for you, but it may be pretty difficult in those packed subway cars. I suggest packing in one suitcase that you can easily manage to lift or one carry-on sized backpack if at all possible. If you can’t manage one bag, I would say to pack one small suitcase you can easily lift and a backpack. Mobility and ease of movement are going to mean a lot to you when you try to get yourself onto that subway car. Just a word of advice from experience!
Japan is a modern country, so of course they have great internet access. WiFi isn’t difficult to come by. Free and paid WiFi hotspots abound, and airports, hotels, train stations, as well as some restaurants and bars will have WiFi publicly available.
What we decided to do was to rent a personal WiFi hotspot from a company called PuPuRu. We were able to pick up and drop off the WiFi device at Haneda Airport upon our arrival and departure. We carried this little device around with us and it allowed us to connect to the internet on the go, which was extremely useful and convenient. I would highly recommend that you rent one of these devices when you’re in Japan. The PuPuRu device worked really well and we were never without fast and reliable internet access. There are other companies that rent these kinds of devices as well but I can’t speak for their coverage. PuPuRu was awesome. We sprung for the unlimited data plan, which was great for even things like streaming videos in bed at night, doing live video posts for our Facebook friends from around Japan, and uploading unlimited pictures. Definitely worth it.
This article goes into great detail about internet access in Japan, so definitely check it out if you’re looking for options.
Bring some cash. There are a lot of places in Japan that are cash only, so it’s helpful to have cash on hand in case you need it, or want to purchase something at a place that’s cash only. There are ATM’s around the country, of course, but you should know that not all ATM machines in Japan accept foreign cards. If you’re looking for an ATM machine in Japan, I highly recommend you pop into a 7-Eleven, which are located all over the place. They always had ATM machines that accepted foreign cards. I heard post offices had them as well, but we just went into 7-Eleven since they were everywhere, always open, and always reliably had ATM’s for us. You can check out this page for more information on ATM machines in Japan.
Staying in Tokyo
With the exception of that one night we spent at the hotel inside Haneda airport, we opted for an Airbnb within walking distance of Shinjuku Station (about 10 minutes walk from the big Shinjuku station, directly next to Shinjuku-Gyoenmae subway station). It was clean, comfortable, and our host was great, if you’re looking for a place to stay in Tokyo, by the way. It was nice to be at an Airbnb because we had our own little kitchen and washing machine to do laundry in. I try to pack light so I love to be able to wash my clothes, and since I have celiac it’s always nice to have a kitchen so I can cook my own meals whenever I need to. Plus, let’s be real…it’s just fun to explore a grocery store in another country. Anyway, I loved the Airbnb and it was super convenient as well as quite a bit less expensive than if we had gone the traditional hotel room route. I highly recommend this option.
A little more on the Royal Park Hotel – The Haneda, which was located about 50 feet from the Delta Airlines check in counter inside of the International Airport terminal. While I wouldn’t recommend you stay at this hotel for the duration of a trip in Tokyo, it was an awesome place to stay at the airport. The hotel was actually really nice and you can’t beat that convenience! There are subway and monorail lines that head into Tokyo straight from Haneda airport as well, so we were able to drop off our bags and then get one more afternoon and evening of exploring Tokyo in before heading back home in the morning. It was great!
Staying in Kyoto
In Kyoto, we also stayed at a wonderful Airbnb with a host who left us the most detailed PDF of information on everything from getting to the property to translating all the buttons on the appliances in the kitchen, bathroom, laundry machine, etc. from Japanese into English. The Airbnb was conveniently located near Gion, clean, comfortable, and, again, much less expensive than a traditional hotel room. Highly recommended.
We did, however, opt to spend one night in Kyoto in a traditional Japanese Inn, or Ryokan. This was pretty expensive so we only did it for one night, but it was a cool experience that added a lot to our trip. The place we stayed was called Ryokan Izuyasu and was a beautifully elegant place that was very traditional. We slept on tatami futons and in the morning, ate a traditional Kyoto style breakfast. They also had private Japanese style baths where you shower and then soak in a warm tub. It was wonderful. This place was really quite lovely and helpful as well. My husband has a down feather allergy and they were so accommodating to make sure we had alternate, hypoallergenic bedding upon our request. If you’re going to be staying in Japan, I highly recommend spending at least one night in a Ryokan as it’s an awesome experience. However, I also recommend brushing up on Ryokan etiquette before you do. 🙂
A couple more helpful articles about various aspects of Ryokan life:
One word of advice: don’t wear the plastic bathroom slippers outside of the bathroom! haha had to keep reminding my husband.
Booking activities ahead of time.
I’m a big fan of the films of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, so I was interested in taking a tour of the Ghibli Museum when I visited Japan. Well…I left it too late and tried to book just two weeks before my trip, and all the spaces were filled. I was disappointed, but luckily it wasn’t one of my “must do” activities in Japan. Sure, I would have liked to have seen it, but you snooze you lose I suppose. If there is anything you’re absolutely intent on seeing, do yourself a favor and book your tickets ahead of time…..way ahead of time.
You might want to look into the Imperial Palace tour ahead of time as well if you’re interested in doing that. Most other museums and attractions were easy to just show up at.
A few general notes about traveling in Japan…
As an American, I noticed a few notable cultural differences between my country and Japan that I thought were worth taking note of here…
- There aren’t many trash cans in Japan. If you have trash, carry it with you until you get it back to your hotel or Airbnb and throw it away there. Sometimes you’ll find a trash can at a train station or around, but don’t count on it. Bring a little plastic bag to carry your garbage in if needed.
- Speaking of trash, they separate their trash there a lot more elaborately than we do in the U.S. We’ll usually have cans for recyclables and garbage, but they differentiate between combustibles (burnable garbage like paper, etc.), plastic bottles, glass bottles, etc. If you stay in an Airbnb you’ll have to follow the trash rules in Japan, but our hosts were pretty good at explaining it in their welcome booklets.
- There aren’t a lot of places to sit down in Japan, I noticed. My feet got pretty tired and there weren’t any benches to take a rest on. We started going to coffee shops when our feet got tired and relaxing with a drink.
- When you’re paying for something, there will be a little tray provided. Put your money in the tray rather than handing it directly to them. That’s how they do it there. If handing money directly to somebody or receiving change or your credit card back, grab it with two hands. It’s only polite in Japan!
- I don’t speak Japanese, but there are a few phrases I learned that helped me out tremendously. Sumimasen (excuse me), Arigato Gozaimass (Thank you very much), and Konichiwa (hello) were extremely useful. Some shop owners will also say Mushi Mushi (another greeting) when you arrive. These phrases will get you far. Learn them.
- If you’re at a restaurant, you’ll want to say ‘Sumimasen’ when you are ready for the waiter to take your order. They will leave you alone until you say this.
- Speaking of restaurants, when it’s time to pay, you’ll pay at the front instead of at the table. Just head to the front when you’re ready to pay.
- No tipping in Japan! Take note, Americans. No tipping waiters, cab drivers, concierge, or anybody else. Things cost what they say they cost…no tipping!
- It’s pretty easy to get around Japan. Most signs are in Japanese AND English so don’t worry too much about having issues finding your way around.
- Be aware of when you need to take your shoes off. Anywhere you see tatami mats as well as in temples, mainly. If you’re renting an Airbnb, the owner will want you to remove your shoes when you enter there as well. Also if you’re walking around without shoes and you go into a bathroom you may see bathroom slippers. Wear them in the bathroom but don’t wear them outside of the bathroom!
- Speaking of toilets, you’ll see western style toilets as well as squat toilets around Japan. I wasn’t brave enough to use the squat toilet! haha. But it was easy to find western style toilets everywhere. Also they have some really high tech toilets around Japan with sounds, bidet, and even dryers for your butt. Try them out! hahahaha (I did).
Food is everywhere. You can’t throw a rock in Japan without hitting a restaurant. However, if you have dietary restrictions or are on a budget, I found the convenience stores of 7 Eleven, Family Mart, and others to be great places to pick up something to eat for really cheap.
If you’re eating street food, I recommend you do as the Japanese do and eat your street food standing right next to the stall. You can give your trash back to the vendor when you’re done with it. Remember where I talked about trash above? Yeah, you’ll want to give the trash back to the vendor when you’re done with it.
Enjoy Japan! Hopefully these tips help you get started planning your trip successfully, but don’t worry at all. Japan is an amazing, beautiful, interesting, efficient, and friendly country. People will help you out if you’re confused at any time. You’re going to absolutely fall in love with it as I did. Now what are you waiting for? Start planning your own Japan adventure!