Japan isn’t a country to which you just wing it. For foreigners, the language barrier can be intense, the technology overwhelming, and the prices terrifying enough for just about everything other than instant ramen.
Preparation is key.
With the tips below, you’ll be able to survive your whole trip to Japan.
1. Rent a Wireless Router
Getting a prepaid SIM card with local calling service is difficult in Japan. It’s better to rent a handy wireless router, known as “pocket Wi-Fi” in Asia.
It provides unthrottled, unlimited data for multiple gadgets.
You can rent and return one of these devices easily at the telecom company counters at most airports. But booking online before the trip brings the price down even lower.
Global Advanced Communications, for example, offers a deal of ¥5,550 ($53) for a seven-day rental plan if you book before the trip.
They deliver the device to the airport/hotel/office for free the day before your arrival, and include a prepaid envelope for returns.
2. Book a Japan Rail Pass before arrival
Booking the flat-rate foreigner-only Japan Rail Pass, which can be used throughout the extensive JR train network on all four main islands, can save a lot of money for travel by train.
There are two types of Japan Rail Pass.
The Green Pass (¥38,880 or $374 for a seven-day pass) is for “superior class” green cars on trains.
The Ordinary Pass (¥29,110 or $280 for a seven-day pass) applies to economy class cars only.
As green cars are less likely to be full, the Green Pass makes it easier for couples or groups to sit together (or sit at all).
Take note that the pass must be booked outside of Japan before the trip.
To procure one, visitors must do the following:
• Buy an exchange order from JR sales offices and agents in a foreign country (see the list here).
• Make sure their passport is stamped with “Temporary Visitor” when they enter Japan.
• Bring exchange order and stamped passport to a JR Station with a Japan Rail Pass exchange office (list of stations here).
3. Buy a Pasmo card or a Suica card
For multiple trips on short-distance trains (including the subway and metro area JR trains), get a Pasmo card or a Suica card that can be charged in bulk.
These transportation cards save time otherwise spent buying individual tickets for each journey.
They’re especially handy when transferring trains, and are available for purchase at ticket vending stations, bus and subway stations. Preloaded options range from ¥1,000 to ¥10,000, with a deposit of ¥500 included in the price.
4. Download the Hyperdia app
Cabs are extremely expensive in Japan – they’re hiked up even higher at night from 10 p.m. to 5 p.m. – so it’s good to have a firm handle on the public transport system.
Upon entering train departure and arrival stations, the app displays the exact journey time, distance, fare, and transfer stations, as well as which track your train is departing from.
5. Take advantage of discount rates on domestic flights.
Thanks to the fierce price war for domestic flights, Japan’s major carrier offer discounts for foreign travelers for any air travel within Japan.
ANA’s Star Alliance Japan Airpass allows international visitors to take up to five domestic flights for ¥10,000 ($96) each.
Japan Airlines offers a Oneworld Yokoso/Visit Japan fare starting at ¥10,800 ($103).
Tickets must be booked outside of Japan on the airlines’ global websites.
6. As much as possible, fly into Haneda, not Narita
This applies mostly for domestic flights to Tokyo, but if all things are equal, Haneda Airport is a lot more convenient to fly into than Narita International Airport.
A train ride from Haneda to Tokyo Station takes approximately 28 minutes and costs around ¥580 ($6), while the train ride from Narita to Tokyo Station takes approximately 58 minutes and usually costs at least ¥2,600 ($25).
7. Book N’EX from Narita
If you’re flying into Narita, the N’EX or Narita Express is the comfiest way to get into the city — there are no hitches on transfers, the seats are nicer and a better luggage space.
While ticket prices are usually higher than ordinary trains, N’EX is currently running a deal on one-way trips from Narita into the city for ¥1,500 ($14), half the usual price.
8. Download Google Translate app
The extent of the language barrier may come as a surprise to first-timers to Japan.
We asked translators and a publisher of English study materials in Japan, and they agree that the Google Translate app is one of the handiest ways for translating what you want to say on the spot.
Take note that the translations aren’t always 100%, but enough for the locals to get the gist of what you’re trying to say.
9. Print out your hotel address in Japanese
This goes for travel to must foreign countries as well, but it’s a praticularly useful tip in Japan.
10. Know where to get cash
It can be surprisingly difficult to find an ATM that accepts foreign cards, even in Tokyo.
The ATMs that do can be found in 7-11, post offices, and Citibank ATMs.
11. Know where to find refuge
When in doubt, head to a konbini (loanword for convenience stores), as they sell everything from phone chargers, to underwear, to concert tickets.
The food selection is also extensive — varying from fried chicken to udon.