Tips for planning your trip to Japan

The Tokyo Metro App from Apple Store

I spent months researching my trip to Japan; where I was going to stay, how will I get around and so on. It was certainly a welcomed distraction from writing my PhD thesis at the time and I would happily do it all over again. Preparation and planning before flying out were crucial to me as I didn’t want to waste time looking up about what transport I needed to get to places, when I could be out exploring and photographing from dawn to dusk… And later into the night.

1. Flexibility and adaptability

My list of places I wanted to visit wasn’t 100% set – more like 25% set. I allowed myself time to just walk around and find places on my own; sometimes having a strict travel plan makes the trip stressful and where’s the fun in that?

Travel notes for my trip to Japan
Travel notes for my trip to Japan that I noted down when I had free time to plan

By having a flexible approach to my travels, if the weather decided to disrupt my plans (which it did twice) I could simply rearrange the things easily without too much stress. Sometimes noting down in a notebook gives you the freedom to rearrange days and add any extra information you found.

2. Navigating the Tokyo metro

Trying to navigate the metro in Tokyo sounded at first daunting and the more I read blogs, the more I got confused. But then I somehow discovered a handy little iPhone app called “Tokyo Metro” which allowed me to enter in a start and an end destination, and the app calculated the fastest route, including which stop numbers to disembark at.

The Tokyo Metro App from Apple Store
The Tokyo Metro App from Apple Store – free and in English too; it really helps when navigating around Tokyo

This little app was a life saver, given that it is free and is English too (bonus!). Being my first time in Japan, I don’t know what I would have done without it. It also has some handy information about the nearest landmark, or shopping areas to visit.

3. Hyperdia on the Shinkansen

I used the shinkansen around 5/6 times when travelling around Japan. Budgeting for the trip had to include tickets for the Shinkansen as I had calculated for me that buying a JR rail pass would have been more expensive than buying individual tickets. This is where the Hyperdia website comes in very handy.

The Hypderia Website allows you to enter your travel information and gives you ticket prices, times and platform numbers when travelling around Japan - a life saver!
The Hypderia Website allows you to enter your travel information and gives you ticket prices, times and platform numbers – a life saver!

It is a website specifically designed for travelling on the Shinkansen in Japan and each year is updated with the latest times. You enter in your start and end destinations on the date you want to travel – just make sure you get the names of the stations right as some places have different names within the same city, like Shin-Osaka and Osaka stations. The site will show you a range of options with ticket prices. You can, of course, use this just for train times if you have a JR pass already.

Be aware that if you want a seat on the shinkansen, you pay a reserved price on top of the journey price, otherwise you pay the base price and try and get a seat in the non-reserved cars.

4. The Pasmo Card

When you are in a different country, you don’t want to be standing at a ticket matches, looking at a map in a different language (unless you can read Japanese) trying to find what station you need. Getting an IC Pasmo Card (or a suicca card, there are different brands out there’d that all do the same thing) in combination with the Tokyo metro app mentioned above, will help you get from A to B easily and stress free.

An IC Pasmo Card that allows you to top-up with money and use at the ticket gates without having to buy a paper ticket
An IC Pasmo Card that allows you to top-up with money and use at the ticket gates without having to buy a paper ticket

You can purchase one of these at a ticket machine when you land in Tokyo for a deposit of 500 JPY, and simply load it up with how much money you want to put on it.

What I like about these IC cards is that you can use them at the vending machines on the street to pay for drinks, as well as in food shops that show the logo. These IC cards are valid for 10 years too; so if you are planning on returning to Japan, keep hold of it and you won’t need to pay for the deposit again.

When going through the ticket gates, just tap the card on the yellow card reader and after you have made your journey, it will calculate the price to be deducted from your card. It is also worth noting that the prices are discounted compared to buying a paper ticket; however, there are some routes where you can’t use an IC card, so check on Google Maps about what mode of transport you use before you travel.

5. Money, money, money

Japan is a cash-based society, meaning that they only use cash to purchase items. Their notes are in the denominations of; 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 JPY notes. Do not worry at all about paying for an item that costs 500 JPY with a 10,000 JPY note, they will happily take it without question – which is great if you want to get change and coins for those little souvenirs.

Bigger stores such as Yodabashi will happily take cards such as Visa and MasterCard, and some shops, including Yodabashi, are even tax free, meaning you won’t pay the additional 8 % tax the Japanese government places on all of its items if you are a tourist – so make sure you keep hold of your passport as they can ask to see your landing permit sticker that was stuck in your passport when you landed.

If you are travelling out to Japan to a hotel or hostel, it is best to pay with cash as not all hotels/hostels will take card either, so include that cost that in your budget. Sites like booking.com are a great way to budget as the prices online include any taxes, so the price is what you pay at the hotel/hostel, i.e.; no hidden fees! If you’re unsure about them taking credit cards, you can always email beforehand to check.

And after all that I’ve said above, if you are worried about carrying a huge amount of Japanese notes on you, do not fear! Japanese society is incredibly respectful and polite to everyone, it is one of the safest countries to visit with very low crime rates.

6. voltage and appliances

This never occurred to me until it actually happened whilst I was in Japan (oops!). In the UK, our voltage is rated at 240 V so electrical appliances such as kettles and toasters will only work at 240 V. But in Japan, the voltage is rated at 110 V – meaning a UK toaster won’t work in Japan (as if you would want to take a toaster with you to Japan in the first place anyway).

I didn’t find this out until I wanted to charge my shaver (the battery never holds its charge for longer than a day), I plugged it in with the plug adapter and left it for the day whilst I go out exploring. I returned in the evening to find it hadn’t charged! Eventually, I had to go out and purchase a new shaver from the Yodabashi store after researching this. If you look at the back of the plug on any electrical device, you will see something similar to below

Voltage rating for a battery charger for my Nikon D7200. The red box shows that this charger works with voltages between 100 and 240 V, so its good to use in Japan!
Voltage rating for a battery charger for my Nikon D7200. The red box shows that this charger works with voltages between 100 and 240 V, so its good to use in Japan!

This means it is rated to work on voltages between 100 and 250 V, and will work in Japan and around the world. Check items like your laptop charger, camera charger and iPhone USB plugs to see if they are rated to work regardless of what voltage is put through them, they usually are suitable for any voltage (just remember the plug adapter!)

7. To the left, to the left…

Driving in Japan is on the left hand side. This wasn’t an issue for me, as in the UK we also drive on the left; but if you are coming from a country where you drive on the opposite side of the road, be careful when you cross and look both directions. Although the majority of Japanese people are polite, you may get the odd driver who isn’t so warm and welcoming if you don’t look before crossing. This is particular true at the crossing in Shibuya.

8. Here’s a tip!

Unlike other countries where a tip for service at a cafe or restaurant is given, in Japan this is a big NO NO. It may seem counter-intuitive and rude to not give a tip, but tipping in Japan is not needed at all. If you do try and tip the server, he or she will see it as impolite and as a rude gesture. While there are plenty of restaurants out in Tokyo, and Japan, for everyone’s tastes, if you are vegan then check out Laura’s post about finding vegan food in Tokyo

If you try to leave a tip with the receipt and make a dash for the exit, the server will follow you out of the store as they will think you accidentally left the money behind. If you want to, simply saying “oishii” (meaning delicious food) to the server when you pay is a gesture of good-will and politeness which will suffice and act as a tip in itself. Saying the formal phrase of thank you “arigatou gozimasu” will help too.

Remember that the Japanese is a proud and polite society; by following their customs you will go a long way in their good books.

9. Manners

By now you’re probably tired of me saying the Japanese are a respectful and polite society. But manners do go a long, long way in Japan. So here are 10 things you should remember;

  • Always say “airgato gozimasu” (thank you) when you receive anything, from food to money to items.
  • Bow when you greet someone.
  • Take your shoes off when you enter a house and use the slippers provided – there is a designated area after you enter a house/hotel/hostel to take your shows off.
  • Never count the change given to you by shopkeepers when you pay for items – this is considered rude and untrusting.
  • When using chopsticks, don’t stick them in vertically into food – this makes them look like the incense sticks at shrines and is considered impolite.
  • Always make loud slurping noises when eating noodles (be-it ramen, udon or soba) – it’s a compliment to the chief!
  • Put your phone on silent when you’re in a train or a bus and never talk on your phone either whilst on a train or bus at all. You will find that people will stare at you until you stop.
  • You can use your phone to browse the internet, or update your Facebook status.
  • Whilst waiting for the train queue up in the marked areas on the platform. They are designed so that people can disembark first and then people board afterwards.

10. Your mobile phone

In today’s age, technology and devices are connected to the internet, and Japan has amazing internet speeds. But don’t think that your current SIM card will work in Japan – their mobile networks operate at a different frequency to other countries; that is why is it is handy to either rent a mobile wifi device (your own personal wifi wherever you go), or purchase a SIM card out in Japan.

If you purchase a new SIM card specific for Japan, ask your network operator at home to unlock your phone before you fly out. This is to ensure the new SIM card will work with your phone. Depending in your network operator at home, it could take a month to unlock your phone, so best unlock it in plenty of time before flying out.

I used eConnect Japan to rent my mobile wifi device for the two months I was out in Japan instead of buying a new SIM card. The coverage was excellent wherever I was and the speeds were lightning fast too. It saved me the hassle of trying to swap SIM cards on an iPhone and only required a wifi connection; it meant I could use Google Maps to find places whilst I was out and about exploring, and use Google Translate for those moments when I needed some help (especially when trying to find a shaver that would work regardless of voltage).

What I liked about eConnect Japan was that they delivered the mobile wifi device to my first hotel on my trip and all I had to do was post the device back using a post box before flying home.

So! Those are my 10 tips for you if you are planning your travels in Japan. Of course, there are more tips and travel tricks out there on the internet, but these should serve as a good basis for you for further research!