Last year, I traveled to a place that had long been on my bucket list: Japan. This was a long anticipated, highly overdue trip where I set out to earn the points and miles that would take me to Japan long before I actually booked my travel to Japan. Thanks, points and miles!
As I was preparing for my trip, I got so many helpful tips from friends and colleagues who had traveled and lived there. Their advice ended up being invaluable, and so I wanted to share some of the top tips that helped me as I was travel planning for Japan.
Tip #1: Get the Japan Rail Pass
If you know you’re going to travel to several cities in Japan, it’s very much worth looking into getting the Japan Rail Pass to save money (there’s a calculator that helps you decide if it’s worth it based on your plans). You have to get the pass before arriving in Japan, but once you’re there and activate it, it’s very convenient and gives you some flexibility. I ended up doing an impromptu trip to Osaka with the rail pass because I could.
Tip #2: Think about getting pocket WiFi
If you don’t have an international phone plan, I highly recommend getting a pocket WiFi while in Japan. I have an international plan that fortunately included high speed data in Japan, and I used that data all day, er'ry day. It was incredibly helpful to be able to connect to Google Maps (more on that below) or quickly pull up where I needed to go to show taxi drivers (again, more on that below).
Tip #3: Make Google Maps your best friend (and do whatever it says)
Before going to Japan, a colleague who once lived there told me to use Google Maps and follow whatever directions it gave me. Now, I love Google Maps and use it regularly, but I know it’s not always accurate. Except it felt like it was in Japan! If it said a train heading to Shinjuku was leaving at 1:56 pm and it would take me four minutes to transfer to the next train, you better believe that train left at 1:56 and it took me four minutes to transfer. It was pretty impressive and fascinating (and shows how on time their public transportation system is, unlike others ::cough cough New York City MTA cough cough::).
Tip #4: Write down or screenshot all of the important places in Japanese
This was another super helpful tip that came in handy very quickly. I was told to screenshot or write down (better to screenshot, I think) all of the important places in Japanese. For example, screenshot the name and address of your hotel in Japanese. English is not ubiquitous in Japan, even in Tokyo, so you really need to be able to communicate somehow in Japanese. There were multiple instances where I pulled up a map and my hotel address in Japanese on my phone to show taxi drivers. Otherwise, I’d probably still be circling Tokyo right now.
Tip #5: If you want to attend a specific event, buy the tickets as soon as you can
After booking my trip to Japan, I discovered that I would be there during the tail end of a sumo wrestling tournament. Except I waited to figure out my plans and by the time I looked at getting tickets, they were sold out. They did sell tickets the morning of, but the morning I went was also the very last day of the tournament. Needless to say, people had started lining up from the night before and I arrived about eight hours after those people, so... it was a no go. There is a place where you can watch the sumo wrestlers practice, but I ended up just getting photos with some of the wrestlers outside of the main stadium before they went inside. Needless to say, get those tickets early if you can.
Tip #6: Practice patience and respect
Another great tip from my colleague is how presentation and respect are two important aspects of Japanese culture. I didn’t fully understand the presentation part until I was shopping and noticed repeatedly how the clerks would carefully and meticulously wrap up my purchases and then present them to me. I admit, I was in a hurry the first time and felt like it was taking foreverrr (it really wasn’t, I was just being an impatient a-hole), but I learned to understand and respect these unique parts of Japanese culture, and to always show respect for it.
Tip #7: The Robot Restaurant is touristy and overpriced but go anyway
If you haven’t heard of the Robot Restaurant, please look it up. And then book it. It’s one of the most touristy and interesting (not quite the correct word to describe this but I’m going to go with it) experiences I’ve ever had, and it’s most definitely overpriced, but you just have to do it. Don’t book the dinner, just go and drink (lots?) and bask in the colorful craziness. Take pictures and videos and then wake up the next morning and remember what a strange night it had been.
Tip #8: Bring cash and know where to get more just in case
About 95% of the time, I don’t bring cash to a foreign place and I use the ATMs once I’ve arrived. I would advise not to do this in Japan because ATMs can be funny and may not accept your bank card. I brought Japanese yen with me though I was also fortunately able to use my credit card in several places, but it’s not guaranteed so bring cash and look up where you can potentially take out more cash if you need it (I was able to take out more money in the 7-Eleven ATMs).
Tip #9: Be realistic about your budget
Even if you’ve used points and miles to offset the cost of your travels, you should know that Japan is not a budget destination. It probably can be but it’s a pricier city in general and certainly more than other Asian destinations. So before heading there, make sure you budget accordingly and that you’re realistic about that budget and your preferences. I like to shop and I like to have at least one nice/slightly fancy meal, so I keep that in mind when thinking about my budget.
Tip #10: Bring an open mind
For some, Japan is a huge culture shock. For others, not so much. Either way, bring an open mind to Japan (and everywhere else you travel, for that matter). There may be some things you find strange or different, and that’s okay. That’s how it should be. Whether it’s differences in style, food, manner or anything else, the more open you are to having these new experiences, the more you’ll expand and learn. You heard that here first, folks.
Have you ever been to Japan? If so, what are your tips?