Japanese Travel Survival Guide
Update 8/16/2015: I updated this guide a bit and posted it to Medium
A few notes about things I do when I travel to Japan.
I travel with a carry-onable back pack. Anything larger would be obnoxious when negotiating trains/bus stations. Specifically, I travel with an Osprey Porter 46. Even with that, I usually plan my day around dropping it off as quickly as possible (even if it's prior to check-in, hotels will always hold it for you). If you ever need to ditch your bag, search any major train station for coin lockers large enough to cram it in (coin lockers are typically deceptively deep and spacious).
Plan on carrying plenty of cash. Many Japanese don't own a debit/credit card, and using them is usually mildly onerous as a result. Chains and major retail outlets will accept credit, but many small & local establishments won't. Personally, I always withdraw a few thousand bucks US and take it with me on a money belt on the plane. Once you arrive at the airport, there will always be a currency exchange near the exit from customs. (Because their surcharge is baked into the rate, I recommend changing only some money at a time so you don't have to change a lot back into dollars for a loss later).
Once you're in the country, the best place to use an ATM or to exchange money is at a Japanese post office (you'll stumble over them often--look for the 〒 symbol on signs or ask ”郵便局はどこですか？” (phoenetically: 'you-bean-kyoku wa doko dess ka?'). ATMs at Japanese Post offices are always international, whereas most ATMs strictly serve domestic bank customers.
Passport / Safety
Keep your passport on you at all times and make yourself scarce if you witness anything like a bar fight when you're out at night. Counter to common wisdom which might tell you to keep your passport safely stowed away in your room, Japanese law stipulates that you must have it on you as evidence that you're in the country legally 24/7. If you're ever stopped by police, presenting a passport and saying thanks in English will often be sufficient to conclude the conversation. If they happen to stop you without your passport and things go south, they're legally empowered to detain you for something insane like 23 days without cause.
JR Rail Pass
We always purchase Japan Rail Passes, which allow unlimited 7 (or 14 or 21) day access to most of the nation's railways. Acquiring these is confusing but not difficult.
Passes cannot be purchased by Japanese nationals and they must be paid for outside the country. What you purchase (again, while still in America) is a notarized exchange voucher from a travel agency (I recommend looking for an IACE storefront, but you can also purchase them online). Once you arrive in Japan, find the first Japan Rail (JR) office and exchange the voucher for a rail pass there. They're not cheap ($400 or so per person for a 14 day ticket), but if you plan on riding any bullet trains (as you ought to if you're going from Tokyo to Kyoto and Osaka and back), it'll almost certainly pay for itself. Simply present it (displaying the expiration date outwardly) at any JR turnstile to an attendant and they'll wave you through. It works for the bullet trains, but not for reserved cars or for the newer "Nozomi" line (you can usually weed those out with English signage). Also, don't bother buying the expensive "Green car" variation, as few trains you ride will feature green cars.
Note also that a Rail Pass won't cover every train in the country, and it usually won't cover bus fare. Also, keep in mind that some trains must be reserved in advance (at no additional cost if you carry a Rail Pass), like the N'EX connector between Narita and Tokyo. Virtually any Japanese tourist agency office can sell you one on the spot, but bring your passport and make sure the name matches the passport exactly. (I had to beg and plead that "Becky" and "Rebecca" were equivalent a few years back). More details here: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2361.html
If you don't get a rail pass or if you're riding a private rail line (or subway or bus), most ticket centers have at least one terminal that'll have an english button somewhere on it. When you're in Osaka/Kyoto, someone will probably offer to help you, because unlike in Tokyo, people are typically nice and gregarious.
The procedure is usually something like:
- Look at the huge printed map for your destination and find out how many yen the ticket costs (labeled by the station name)
- Enter enough cash into the machine
- Select the value you know you need
The train schedules are usually very readable and clear, both the LCD headers and the printouts of the line that you're on. However, it can be tricky to figure out exactly when to change trains -- particularly between an express and a commuter train to get to a specific destination. I'd recommend (and this app requires internet access, sadly) the Hyperdia iPhone app for figuring out any complex train itineraries.
As a last resort, just ask. Typically, if you ask a JR employee "I want to go to ___" and look confused enough, they'll stay with you as long as necessary to help you out. If you're on a train and need to know if the station you're arriving at is your exit (or change), just point at the door and ask the name of your destination to literally anyone around you.
Because they're too big, we only travel with iPhones, no laptops or tablets. Next time we might try to squeeze an iPad mini, but it's surprising how little an iPhone can't do.
If you would like access to the Internet during your trip (and who wouldn't?), here are some options:
- Pay your domestic wireless carrier a premium to use your current phone & SIM abroad
- Buy a prepaid data-only SIM once you're inside the country (this might be cumbersome if you don't speak any Japanese). I've documented a how-to-guide on Medium
- Rent a SIM or mobile hotstop before your trip, and arrange to pick it up at the airport. I had a good experience with a service called Pupuru in 2009, which can ship a mobile hotspot to the airport terminal (with pretty painless pickup) and a prepaid return envelope to drop in any postal box prior to your return.
Most hotels will give free Internet access over ethernet but do not have wifi service. This is a dilemma if you only have a smartphone. What I did was buy a $99 Airport Express, configure it at home before I left, and then just plugged it into the free ethernet port. This worked very well in every hotel we've stayed at (probably 12 or 15 in the two trips). Typically, we use the hotel as a base of operations to (a) upload pictures, (b) book our next hotel room, and (c) search for local things to do or train schedules.
Internet / Manga Cafes
These usually charge by the hour and give you access to desktop computers with broadband access as well as hot ethernet cables. The only downside is that you're probably going to need to play trial-and-error to figure out how to type english on a Japanese keyboard. (Hunt for the character 英 along the top/bottom/left). Somewhat surprisingly, internet cafes never seem to offer wifi.
Aside from our first night (which we book in advance; Japanese customs requires you to provide an address of where you're initially staying), we book hotel rooms from our iPhones, usually the same day or a day ahead, so we can explore more freely.
The single best site for short-term online hotel purchasing that we know of is JALAN's english site. It's totally separate from the Japanese-language site, and they filter results down to just hotels that certify they can speak english with you. Simply pick the city (or the prefecture/state) you want a room in, and follow the (somewhat weird and asanine) instructions. Most hotels will have you pay in-person, but some will let you pay with a CC online. To reduce fraud in the case of the former, they send a goofy email verification halfway through the reservation process that you have to receive and click before you complete the booking.
If you're in a jam and don't find a place to stay, you can always attempt to use Expedia / Orbitz / Travelocity / Hotels.com, but I've noticed that prices and selection on those are usually not great. You can always just keep walking until you find a hotel and ask the front desk if there are rooms.
Other Other options
As a very last resort, most Internet / Manga cafes are 24 hours, have lockers, couches, and showers. I've never needed to, but I've used sleeping at an Internet cafe as my backup plan on numerous nights out. It's probably cheaper than most hotels will be, too.