After celebrating previous New Years Eve in London and New York, this time around we were looking for a different experience. Japan was not really in our consideration set, when we began planning. However as we did more research, (during the same time we watched the movie, Lost in Translation), our interest in Japan grew stronger, the possibility of experiencing a different culture was exciting.
After having spent 2 weeks in the awesome country, I am convinced that Japan should among the top 5 countries to visit around the world. However the reason it’s not there currently is simply because Japan does not promote itself aggressively. It’s not their culture to promote, but I have to admit once you are there, they will give you the experience of a lifetime.
Japan is not an easy country to travel, language is a barrier, travel is bit tough, roads don’t really have names, food is different and the big cities are terribly crowded and have a complex travel system. So you need to plan well if you are to really take advantage of what Japan has to offer.
We did a lot of research ( we had only two weeks since we planned this last moment), and based on our travel experience, we thought about putting together a primer on the Top 10 tips for travel to Tokyo, Japan. We start with Tokyo since we spent most time in this city and we shall soon share tips for other cities we visited.
If you have more to share please do comment, we would love everyone to benefit from this.
- Travel : Buy Tokyo Subway 3 day Ticket at Airport
This is no brainer. Tokyo is a big city, and you will spend an awful lot of time, travelling between destinations and with taxis being expensive, bus transportation complicated, Tokyo metro should be your most preferred mode of transportation. There are subways stations located every few meters which can transport you conveniently.
The Tokyo Subway 3 day ticket allows you to take unlimited ride on the Tokyo metro and TOEI lines for 3 consecutive days only for 1500 Yen. Please note this is only available at the airport counter and so if you forget to buy one here you end up paying for more expensive passes in the city.
With the subway ticket, you just need to insert it into the entrance gate, and collect it back from the other end. Few important things
- It’s valid for three consecutive days from the date of your first usage. It doesn’t matter when you purchased, the first day will be calculated from the time you made your first journey.
- It does not take into account the time, its three days validity. So even if your first usage was at 23:00 HRS on Monday, your pass would be valid till midnight Wednesday.
- These are valid for Tokyo and TOEI lines. Tokyo has many other line like Shinjuku line, JT Line This pass would not be valid for trains other than Tokyo and TOEI lines and you would need to purchase additional tickets for travel on these lines. Based on our experience the pass enabled us to travel 80% of all routes without needing to pay anything additional
- If you are in Tokyo for 5 days, you can buy a 3 day Ticket and a 2 day ticket in advance and then use when required.
2. Gadgets : Pocket Wi-Fi Is a Must
In the interest of my fellow tourist and to ensure their convenience, please do not consider my next statement as rude.
Don’t enter Japan without booking your pocket wi-fi!
I did a lot of study on this, considered sim cards vs pocket wi fi and I fould that pocket wi fi is a better choice because
- You get higher speeds
- More data usage capability ( Mine had 10 GB for 10 days usage)
- Can connect upto 5-10 devices.
- No network issues across Japan ( we travelled to Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Mt Fuji, Snow Resort) , worked perfectly fine
We rented a Purupuru pocket wifi from their the website before we came to Japan. We opted for 400 Yen per day pack for 10 GB data limit which at the end was quite sufficient. You can pick it up at the airport counter ( ask the information desk for the exact location) .Setup was very easy and within no time you are connected to the internet. Return was easier just drop the whole package into one of the various Japan post boxes. There is one at most airports.
- The battery drains out in 8-9 hours so keep a portable charger handy
- Sometime you can switch off when not in use to save on battery life
- Charge the Pocket Wi Fi at night so its fully charged once you are ready to leave in morning
This was the best decision we made on this trip which allowed us to access the internet across Japan and get real time information.
Related : Invest in a power bank and plug points
Since you will be using a lot of GPS you would invariably run out of battery on your mobile. So it makes sense to invest in a good portable charger/ power bank
Most hotels in Japan are small and may provide limited plug points, so if you can carry extra plug points compatible in Japan could provide useful
3) Websites and Apps : Google Maps is lifeline
As mentioned earlier you need to be connected on the internet to maximize your experience and not spend time searching for your destination. A Google map is a wonderful resource which will cut down your travel time by showing the best routes.
Other useful sites
Japan-Guide.com is single most important resource, for all information about a particular destination.
Since you will be commuting a lot in Japan , Hyperdia is the website to check for train timetables. It provides accurate information which can help plan your trip.
Of course trip advisor will provide you good information on hotels, destinations and things to do. Do check out the forums across the main cities and don’t hesitate to post for any queries. However do check what’s already published. Chances are most of what you need has already been asked by fellow readers.
4 : Invest in JR Pass if travelling to 2 or more cities
I have come across lot of questions and feedback whether it makes sense to buy a JR pass. If you are staying for 5 or more days in Japan and it involves travelling between 2 cities or like 3 far distance trips (2 hours or more) like Tokyo to Kyoto or Kyoto to Hiroshima and back, you should go for the JR pass. A return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on shinkansen ( bullet Train) is more than the cost of the JR pass so it makes sense totally.
Also if you have a JR pass, you can ride unlimited on the JR routes within Tokyo and other cities and their bullet trains. It’s extremely convenient, just go for some adventure and not worry about booking tickets. Just show the JR pass and hop on to one of the bullet trains
- JR Rail Pass is not valid for some trains like NOZOMI and MIZHOU bullet train to go to Kyoto , but you will always have other options
- You can buy a green or a regular pass. Green is first class, it’s more spacious but even regular class is decent. ( see pics)
- You have to buy the JR pass before you enter Japan. So check the website for booking (http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/). You can also contact local agents who can help you with the same
- For travelling on Bullet Trains it’s better to reserve the seats. For Green Card its mandatory to reserve the seat.
- How to reserve the seat: Simply visit a JR ticket office, and inform them the date, time and destination. They will share the options and you can get your seats reserved. Better check Hyperdia.com , you can know what trains are available, simply list them and then visit the office. You can show them the shortlisted options. This causes less confusion
- The staff over at JR offices are really helpful so don’t worry. It’s pretty easy.
- In case you change your mind, you can even cancel your reserved ticket and book a new one. No problem!
- If there are no reserved seats you need to try your luck in the unreserved compartment and hope seats are available. This typically is required during peak seasons over new years and holiday season.
5. Where to Stay : Stay near a subway station
Well regardless of the location you choose, ensure that subway station is walking distance. You will save a lot of time and can plan last minute trips if you do this. Tokyo Metro is very well connected and you can go to any destination if you choose to stay close to a subway station.
If you are planning to use the JR pass, then it helps staying near a JR station, esp if you plan to carry a lot of luggage
With regards to specific districts, most popular ones are Shibuya and Shinjuku where most of the tourists are concentrated. These are the most happening places in Tokyo. But this also means that the hotel rates would be more expensive.
Rooms are really small in Japan so don’t expect much
Other areas to consider are Ginza, Akasuka.
The Sunroute Plaza, Shinjuku is extremely popular among tourist for its location
Personally I think you should not stay near a very big station as the travel distance within the station is just too much for a big station. Rather staying near a smaller subway station you can get out within few minutes. And you can always reach a bigger station (JR) within a few minutes)
6 : What to do in Tokyo: Top 10 Experiences in Tokyo
Well I have a whole new blog on the Top 10 Experiences things to do in Tokyo which I would post later.
Tokyo is full of unique experiences you wont find anywhere else in the world. So don’t miss out on those. The shrines, the shinkansen experience , the fish market, sushi, Anime and Mangi Markets, Akhibara electronic stores etc
But for now let me list down the top experiences
- Ride on the Shinkansens ( Bullet Trains)
- Sushi at Tsukiji fish market
- Tokyo SkyTree : Largest TV Tower in the world. One shop entertainment centre
- Tokyo Metropolitan Building for amazing view of Tokyo
- Odaiba : Man Made island with lots to do
- Shrines : Meiji Shrine, Sensoji Temple
- Shopping: Takeshita Dori, Harajaku, Ginza, Odaiba
- Shibuya Pedestrian Scramble
- Akihabara Electronic Town
- Shinjuku and Shibuya and Roppongi Hills for Nighlife
- Parks : Shinjuku gyoen park, Uneo Park
- Tokyo Bay / Sumaida River Walk
Amazing Day Trips
- Mt Fuji and fifth station
- Gala Yuwaza – Snow Resort during Winters
2 day trips
I will be soon sharing detailed post on the above destinations.
7 : Travel : You can travel across Japan with the Shinkansens- Bullet Trains
The best part about Japan is their transportation esp. the shinkansens – the bullet trains. Bullet Trains allow you to travel to any city across Japan within a few hours. And if your adventurous you can plan many day trips. The trains being so comfortable, you would in-fact, look forward to the train journey
The trains make it possible to explore Japan keeping one or two bases – Tokyo and Kyoto as base. From each of these locations you can visit multiple places with the bullet trains
8. Most Stations are mini Cities : Exiting from stations is critical :
Take a look below which represents a typical Metro Station Layout. The ones marked in yellow are the exit points
Japan’s metro stations are mini cities. Believe me. They can be quite overwhelming. Some stations have up to 20 platforms and navigating through them can take anywhere between 15-25 minutes. You also have food, shopping, entertainment everything in one metro station.
Central stations like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shingawa and Tokyo station are mega stations. Be well prepared. You are sure to get lost. But it’s quite a unique experience
Since stations are pretty complex due to its sheer size, where you exit makes a lot of difference in terms of the distance you need to cover to reach your destinations.
This will always be tricky and it’s here where Google maps won’t offer any help. Don’t be in a hurry to exit from the first available option. Check the map available in the station or ask someone the right exit. You can save a lot of time this way. Be doubly sure. C
Tip : Luggage Forwarding Services
In Japan, it’s rude to carry large luggage in subways, since it causes inconvenience to fellow passengers. So you can always use the luggage forwarding services available across Japan which are inexpensive Allow a day for transfer. However if you are planning your major travel on weekends or public holiday, you can carry it yourself.
9) Try the Awesome Food
Food is great and you should explore it.
Japanese love their food and it’s obvious when you travel throughout Japan, whether is street food or awesome restaurants. There are tons of them, everywhere.
You should try what the locals eat and there are too many local delicacies to be mentioned.
Of course top of the to do list is sushi at Tsujiki Fish Market , the freshest sushi you will ever consume. Takshita Dori has this amazing ZacZac rolls , crepes at Santa Monica , Ramen all over Japan.
Food is not that expensive, decent meal can be bought at around 800-1000 yen.
Please note we are not foodies so there is much more in terms of food what Japan has to offer. Do some more research for this one!
Train Stations have great food option.
Since you travel by Shinkasens you would prefer to have some meals in the train itself, to save some time. Every station has a lot of take away options with good food in boxes called bento boxes. Also there are many seven elevens at stations where you can get food at reasonable cost
10) Language would be an issue so plan well
The Japanese people are very friendly and will go to great lengths to help you. However most of them won’t have a clue of what you’re trying to say in English. And therefore if you think they have understood what your trying to say, you could be wrong. So you need to be doubly sure. You don’t want to end up sitting in the wrong train!
One way to avoid that is write down all names of hotels, stations close your hotel in Japanese and the locations you plan to go in English and Japanese. You sure will get lost, and at such times this would be really helpful to get navigate your way through. Also it helps to know a few Japanese words to get their attention.
Other Bonus Tips
Shopping – Tax Free Shopping
Many places in Japan offer foreign tourist tax free shopping above a certain value. Usually 10000 Yen for goods and 5000 yen for consumables ( as of 2015 Dec). You end up saving 8% of the cost this way. Check out for stores accept Tax Free shopping.
Travel from Airport to hotel
There are limousine buses which run from airport to various locations in the city, if you are carrying huge luggage this is the best form of transportation. Also check if the bus stops near your hotel.
The other option is to take the train from the airport to a central station and then transfer on to a subway or taxi. From Narita International airport there is Narita Express and from Haneda Airport there is Keiku Line.
Better to get the currency from home country
It’s always hassle free to convert your currency to Japanese yen in your home country itself. You will get much better rate
For Regular Grocery Purchases
There are plenty of seven elevens, Lawsons, Marts across Japan which provide good value food and grocery items.
Never jump the queue in Japan
The Japanese are so particular about this rule that you will be shocked how strictly this is followed. Once we were in a line with only three other people. A Japanese couple who wanted to join the line were not able to figure out which end the line starts so they politely asked both ends which is the starting position and then went at back and stood! In Tokyo, you stand left. In Osaka, you stand right.
Another hack to make the most out of your visit is to start early. If you start early you save a lot of time and avoid rush hour traffic especially on the bullet train. You can always catch up on the sleep in the train. Also staying close to a subway makes sense.
Of course I have many more things to share, but i hope this is a good start in planning for your trip. Do let me know your feedback. And do share your tips once you visit the wonderful city.
My other popular blogs on travel
Dubai : Top 10 things to do in Dubai – http://www.stevannoronha.com/top-10-things-to-do-in-dubai-over-4-days/
New York : Top 20 things to do in New York – http://www.stevannoronha.com/top-20-things-do-to-in-new-york-city-comprehensive-trip-report/
And finally this is me, super excited just before riding the shinkansen! My fav thing in Japan