Beginner’s Guide on How to Plan a Trip to Japan

Recently a lot of friends have been asking me for advice on planning a trip to Japan. Japan is a place that in my opinion everyone should go at least once because it has such an unique culture that you wold not see anywhere else in the world. It is a harmonic mixture of the ancient and the new, the traditional versus western influence, together with a sprinkle of quirkiness. It’s an easy country to get around, especially for first timers that just want to visit Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.

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Flying in and out

All major international airlines fly to Japan, and Japan has its own airlines such as JAL and ANA. Personally I like the Japanese Airlines because they have amazing food, impeccable services, and good safety records, but unfortunately they are more pricey than airlines such as United, British Airway, or Air China.

If you are visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, it would be advisable to fly into Tokyo and out of Osaka or the other way around. It’s not very efficient to fly into and out of Tokyo as you will need to take a high speed train (Shinkansen) back to Tokyo and a single trip would cost around USD 300.

There are two airports in Tokyo, one is Narita and the other one is Haneda. Narita was the major international airport until recent years so naturally there were more flights going in and out of Narita. However, Narita is also 2 hours away from Tokyo city center whereas Haneda is less than an hour away. If you have an option, it is better to fly into Haneda instead of Narita.

Transportation

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Typical subway station in Tokyo

Transportation is very easy and simple in Japan and it usually consists of subway, train, bus, and taxi.

Subway and Train: Trains and subways are what people take on a daily basis and are the main mode of transportation. As shown above, typically in a train station there are a line of machines you use to purchase your tickets with a map of all the stations on top in both English and Japanese (Kanji: Chinese characters). You will have to look for the station you want to get off at on the map to see how much it cost. Unfortunately most machines only take cash or specialized Japanese cards so make sure you have enough cash (bills and coins) to make your purchase.

Google maps works pretty well in Japan, and it will tell you the train time and lines you need to take from point A to point B.

HyperDia is a really useful website and app that allows you to search for routes and tells you exactly which line (and color) of the train to get on and what time. Highly recommend using them!

JR Rail Pass is a pass that you must purchase before you land in Japan. It basically asks you to pay a fixed amount and it will cover all the trains/subways on the JR line. It covers the high speed train (Shinkansen) as well. However, not every subway line in Tokyo falls under JR, so make sure you know exactly what lines are covered by the JR rail pass.

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*JR Pass Website

JR Rail Pass Calculator: if you think JR Rail Pass may be a good choice for your trip, it’s better to validate it against the JR Pass Calculator. I have never purchased a JR Pass during my 5 visits to Japan because every time it was actually cheaper to buy trips individually rather than using the JR pass. However, if you plan to ride the Shinkansen at least 2-3 times, then it might be worth it to get the JR Pass.

Bus: Bus is often the main form of transportation in smaller cities outside of Tokyo. Most likely you will be taking the bus within Kyoto. Google Maps and Hyerdia both cover bus times and routes as well. Every stop will be listed on the bus stop, although depending on where you are, the stations may potentially only display Japanese. Tickets should be purchased on board with cash. In Kyoto, make sure to ask the bus driver for a one-day bus pass when you get on and validate it if you plan to tour all the temples in the city! Bus is also used for long distance traveling such as between Tokyo and Mt. Fuji area. For long distance traveling it’s better to buy tickets ahead of the time because they sometimes get sold out on popular routes. The long distance bus usually has free wifi onboard as well as charging stations.

Bus also connects Haneda Airport to central Tokyo and it’s the best way to get into the city after the subway closes.

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Taxi: I have only taken Taxi once in Japan and that was in Kyoto. It’s generally a lot more expensive than taking the bus and subway. Most of the time the driver doesn’t speak much English so have the address ready in Japanese. Also, I believe it’s cash only.

 

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Internet

There are 3 ways you can get internet in Japan:

  • Wifi at cafes, subways, hotels, etc
  • Get a sim card for your phone
  • Rent a portable wifi router

I have done everything except getting a sim card in Japan before and I will explain why.

There are free wifi in many places in Japan, if you know how to find it! Usually at cafes you can ask for wifi password and in almost every subway station there is free wifi. One easy way to get wifi is through this app called Japan Connected-free Wi-Fi. It’s completely free and it helps you find public wifi in Japan.

I have rented portal wifi routers a couple of times and it seems to be a very popular option. It’s cheaper to rent a portal wifi router for 3 days versus getting a sim card for 3 days. Also helps a lot if you have are traveling with a group so everyone can get wifi access. You can rent the wifi routers when you land from major airports, or you can pre-order them online! When I went to Japan back in September, I rented with this company called Japan Wifi Buddy. They will ship the router directly to your hotel before you arrive and you can drop it off at any mail box when you leave. Pretty cool right?

However, speaking of qualities, I think sim card may work better. I had the chance to compare international roaming in Japan vs. portable router and I have to say that for the most part of my trips, my phone’s international roaming was a lot faster than the router I had rented for some reason.

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Etiquette and other things

  • Subway: seats/ waiting in line/ no eating/ no talking on the phone
  • Shorts are not considered fashionable items in Japan! Even in the middle of the summer, most women wear long skirts and men wear long pants with short sleeve shirts.
  • Slurping when eating noodles in Japan is considered polite, opposite from western etiquette
  • When riding an escalator, stand on the left side (instead of the right) to let people pass
  • Eating on the street is frowned upon. Even for street markets where you can get food, there are designated spots to stand near the store to finish your food.
  • Taking a Bath at hotspring in Japan means you have to wash yourself first before you can get into the pool

 

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Japan has some really interesting and unique etiquette that are not seen anywhere else in the world. Read more about them on this useful website!

For more information on visiting Tokyo, be sure to check out my friend GirleatWorld’s blog.

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