As some friends of mine are planning to visit Japan soon, I think it would be beneficial to share a few tips from my recent trip. Bear in mind that I’m no travel expert, and in some ways, I believe experience the unknown is the beauty of travelling to another country.
Without further ado, here are 5 things you should know before visiting Japan.
1. Cherry blossoms season
If there’s one thing that you cannot miss when visiting Japan in April, then it’s definitely the cherry blossoms, or sakura. The time varies from city to city, so make sure to check the forecast at: http://www.japan-guide.com/sakura/
And while we’re at it, let me chip in that the temperature in Japan is actually colder than it is reflected in the weather app, probably due to high humidity. So bring lots of warm clothing, especially if you come from a tropical country like me.
2. Transportation and navigation
In Japan, different rail lines are run by different companies, and the bad news is there’s no single pass that covers them all. The biggest company is JR Group, which runs various transportation systems throughout Japan.
Before landing your feet in Japan, make sure to purchase a JR Pass. A 7-day National JR Pass for adults will set you back around $300, but you can opt for cheaper regional passes. If you plan to visit Tokyo and Kyoto, then purchasing a JR Pass is definitely a good deal, as a return bullet train ticket (Hikari line) between these two most popular cities will cost roughly the same.
If you want to collect the JR Pass yourself, then JTB Travel has their offices in Sydney, Melbourne and many locations in Japan: https://www.jtbtravel.com.au/japan-rail-pass/
However, in Tokyo, travelling by JR lines is sometimes up to 10 minutes slower than using subway lines, which are not covered by the JR Pass. In Kyoto, a daily bus pass may be a better option, which costs $5 and can be purchased at any convenience stores.
As most public transport signs in Japan are written in Japanese, it’s best to use Google Maps to find your way around. Just type in the destination, and the app will tell you which station to go to and which line to take. Or you can ask the staff at the station gate (just tell them the name of the station you want to get to), and they will gladly show you.
One thing to remember is, train services in Japan are divided into Local, Rapid, Express, Limited Express and so on (crazy, right!), so even if you have reached the right platform, make sure you take the right train, or your station might be skipped!
Also, some train stations are huge, I mean, really, really huge. The Osaka-Umeda station is basically two big stations merged into one complex block. It’s so easy to get lost in the building, so make sure you allocate extra time when travelling by public transport.
And don’t forget Uber! Even though it’s more expensive than in Australia, Uber is still a better option than taxi. But then again, the driver is less likely to speak English, so good luck!
3. Food and accommodations
If you’re traveling on a budget, capsule hotels is your best bet. One night at a capsule hotel costs around $20-30, and some capsule hotels are very close to train stations. The only downside is you have to use the public bathroom – just google “onsen” or “sento” and you’ll know what I mean.
If you have some money to spare, then staying in a ryokan is a more authentic experience. I didn’t stay in one though, as I have already visited a traditional Japanese house in Nara city. Make sure that your hotel address can be easily found on Google Maps, as the Japanese address convention is very different from the Western one (for example: 1 Chome-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida, Tokyo).
A typical meal costs around $10, but most lunch sets in convenience stores cost less than $5, and so is soba/udon noodle. It’s quite hard to find “foreign” food in Japan though (meaning Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, etc.), so if you’re craving a bowl of pho or curry laksa, then bring some instant noodles.
Most restaurants in Japan don’t have an English menu, and the staff are not very helpful most of the time. However, some restaurants do have an order machine with English instructions.
My favourite type of restaurant is sushi train, or conveyor-belt sushi, as you can try different kinds of sushi, maki and sashimi without knowing a Japanese word. Trust me, the sushi in Japan is on another level! A must-try!
4. WiFi and mobile data
You can purchase a portable WiFi router at the airport, but I find the mobile data plan is much cheaper. I purchased a data SIM card from docomo at Narita Airport, which cost me roughly $30 for 14 days, and I have 200MB of data per day.
You can also find free WiFi at most train stations, McDonald’s restaurants, and convenience stores (Lawson, 7-Eleven, Family Mart…). Power points are much harder to find though, so bringing a power bank is a good idea. And a plug converter as well!
5. Places to visit
Below are a few places that I enjoyed the most during my Japan trip, all of which can be easily accessed by public transport (with the help of Google Maps!)
– Sensoji Temple
– Meiji Jingu
– Tsukiji Fish Market
– Tokyo Skytree
– Shinjiku Shopping District
– Tenryu-ji Temple & Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
– Byodo-in Temple & Uji (Matcha! Matcha! Matcha!)
– Fushimi Inari Taisha
– Todai-ji Temple & Nara Deer Park
– Kennin-ji Temple & Gion District
– Kiyomizu-dera Temple & Sannen-zaka, Ninen-zaka District
– Universal Studios (Harry Potter Theme Park!)