FAQ for Visiting Japan
A concise guide to start your planning
Disclaimer: No proofread done. I lived in Japan for only an internship during university, so this guide won’t be as comprehensive as some others.
Since many friends have asked me for tips for visiting Japan, I decided to write this so I don’t have to repeat myself and everyone receives the same amount of information.
First half of this guide is the planning FAQ, while the second is a collection of brief introductions of Tokyo neighbourhoods.
This guide is intended for young, budget conscious travellers.
How long should I go for?
Use this tool as a guide for your itinerary: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2400.html. There are a million other guides on itinerary so I will not say much here. Japan Guide is a solid place to start researching for sights to see.
Make sure to plan your routes in detail if you are visiting multiple cities. People are usually surprised to learn it takes around 4 hours to get from Tokyo to Osaka. Travel time can take up a good chunk of your schedule.
Should I get a JR pass?
Yes if you are traveling to more than just Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka (two cities). I usually use those two cities as a base for my break-even analysis. If you want to check how much each of your train route is worth, use this tool. With JR pass, you’re allowed to use almost all of JR’s services (buses, subway trains, shinkansen bullet train).
However, the JR pass isn’t cheap, so for some itineraries, it might make more sense for you to forego the JR pass.
How do I get a JR pass?
You have to order it and receive it in your country before leaving for Japan. They don’t sell JR passes in Japan. Check if you’re eligible; if you’re a foreign tourist you’re eligible.
Once you reach Japan, you have to visit a JR office (usually available at the airport) to validate your JR pass. I recommend you also reserve for your shinkansen if you will be traveling at a popular time.
Note: JR pass only allows you to use HIKARI trains; you won’t be able to use the faster NOZOMI or MIZUHO trains without paying additional fares. Keep that in mind while scheduling.
For you shoppers out there, be sure to bring an extra luggage.
Do I need a lot of cash?
Japan is a cash economy. Unless you’re dropping big purchases in Ginza or a department store, chances are they take only cash.
If you need cash, the cheapest way to withdraw cash is from a post office or Seven Eleven machine. Not all Seven Elevens have this machine though! You should check with your hostel/hotel beforehand.
Make sure your passport doesn’t need a visa for the time you’re there. For Canadians, you have 90 days. Or…get your Working Holiday Visa and you’ll get to stay there for a year.
Do I need to speak Japanese?
No, but they don’t speak much English either. They are really nice, so you’ll get by. Also, big cities have well labeled signs.
Do I need to reserve for restaurants I want to try?
If you know you are there for the dining experience like omakase and etc, you should reserve long beforehand. The famous sushi chef Jiro’s restaurant needs at least 3 months advance reservation. Less expensive restaurants usually don’t take reservations.
How do I get a SIM card so I can show off my awesome adventures on Snapchat and Instagram?
I recommend getting your SIM card in town. Walk in LABI/Yodobashi Camera/Bic Camera/Don Quixote and ask for SIM card (just say: she-moo kah-doh). It’s a bit cheaper than if you get it at the airport or get it pre-ordered before arriving. Click here for other options.
For prices, you’re generally looking around ¥3,000 for 14 days, with 200 MB limit per day.
If you are traveling in a group, it’s more cost-effective to rent a portable WiFi and share among the group.
I’m trying to ball on a budget, so I don’t want to buy SIM card, but I need internet. What do?
No problem, ish. Just make sure to download maps and the Japanese language on your Google Translate.
Register for Starbucks Japan while at the airport. You need to able to receive email to complete registration process. Starbucks in Japan is a bit different in a way that you need to sign in with your email to use it (at least it was like this in 2014…).
Download this app: https://japanfreewifi.com/. It basically searches for nearby free wifi and automatically connects.
Or when booking your Airbnb accommodation, look for the ones that comes with portable Wi-Fi.
How do I get to Tokyo from Narita Airport?
The most cost-time-effective way I found is to use the Keisei Bus to get to Tokyo. It’s ¥1,000, and it has a steady frequency so you won’t have to wait for too long. You can buy tickets at the Keisei Bus Counter inside the Narita Airport. It takes around an hour, depending on traffic.
The other ways I’ve experienced:
- N’EX is super nice but a bit pricey (~¥6,000 both ways).
- Good old train is cheap but not efficient. It’ll take you like 2 hours to get to your accommodation after a long flight—I wouldn’t do that to myself unless I got time.
- Airport limo bus is also nice, but not as cheap. They are around ¥2,000.
For newcomers to Tokyo it can come as quite a surprise that Tokyo's main international gateway- Narita Airport -is not…tokyocheapo.com
If you have a JR pass, you CAN use it on JR local trains, but you want to be careful when you want to activate your JR pass, especially if you plan on spending a few days in your first city before using the shinkansen to reach other cities. JR local trains are cheap, but shinkansen trains are not.
If you are landing in Haneda, I think taking the train will suffice. It’ll take around 50 minutes to an hour.
How do I get around?
Subway. Get a SUICA or PASMO card from one of those machines on your way out of the airport. They require ¥500 deposit, which you can get back once you return the card. You load money into the card, and just tap in and out of gates. All train fares are charged by distance. If you change train company (e.g. JR for the first leg, then Metro for the next leg), the fare hikes up.
If you don’t have enough money on your card to tap out of a gate, there are “fare adjustment” machines for you to use.
Note: PASMO cards might not be accepted in some areas west of Tokyo, like Kyoto. So, it’s probably safer to get SUICA.
Everyone in Japan is very polite. Even if you don’t follow the local custom and etiquette, people won’t confront you about it. Nevertheless, I think it’s wise to respect the culture when you are there. When in Rome, do as the romans do, right? Not much harm in that.
When in doubt, just bow. I kid you not. Not a nod, but a bow bending at your hips. It feels awkward at first, but once you see everyone doing it, you won’t feel like a stranger to it. The more formal it is, deeper your bow should be.
If you don’t know Japanese, here are 4 words you should know to get by in many situations:
- Thank you: arigato (+ gozaimasu if you can remember)
- Yes: hai
- I’m okay/No, thanks: daijobu
- Sorry/Excuse me: sumimasen
If you can remember more, here are a few more:
- I don’t know: wakari masen
- Hello: konnichiwa
- Can you speak English: eigo o hanasemasu ka?
Here is a list of do and don’t in Japan.
- Do not eat or drink on trains unless it’s a long distance trip. You can eat and drink on the shinkansen trains (in fact, the train bentos are famous).
- Do not take phone calls on the train. This is heavily frowned upon.
- Some people say it’s not polite to use your phone around the priority seats on the train…but I’ve seen many people do it anyway…
- If people are sick and/or coughing, they cover their mouth and nose with a surgical face mask to stop spreading germs to others. You can buy those masks in any convenience store or dollar store Daiso.
- People don’t really blow their nose in public. Sniffing is fine.
- People don’t really eat/drink and walk (unless it’s a festival). They usually sit down somewhere or consume while standing in front of the store.
- Do not tip in Japan or you might risk the server chasing after you to give back your change.
- Before eating, people say “itadakimasu”. After eating or leaving the restaurant, people say “gochisou sama”.
- People bath nude in public baths (usually gender separated). It’s awkward only if you think it is. Tattoos are not allowed. Click here for a list of tattoo-friendly bath houses.
- There are no trash cans around. So you have to keep your trash with you until you find a trash can. People don’t litter.
That’s it for FAQ. Now time for some introduction to my favourite city—Tokyo.
Since I lived in Tokyo, I can share what I liked about Tokyo from my perspective.
Here are several of my favourite places in Tokyo, according to my interests (which are Japanese alternative music, fashion, and anime/manga).
There are many other neighbourhoods or districts, but I won’t get into them because either I’m not familiar with them or they are residential.
I used to work around here. So I guess I know this place the best out of the other places.
- Known for the busy street crossing
- Shopping district
- Fashion here are trendiest of all Tokyo. You can tell what is in by people watching here.
- Many many good restaurants here, usually farther away from all the bigger buildings. One ramen place I recommend to everyone is Usagi. I love their tsukemen (dipping noodles).
- On the note of ramen, here is the ranking from Tabelog (Japan’s Yelp). Keep in mind, a 4 score on Tabelog means outstandingly awesome. Here are Tabelog’s 2016 results.
- Another cheap and foreigner-friendly place to eat is Uobei conveyer belt sushi. You basically order from an iPad and the food comes on a train in front of you.
- Be sure to walk down Dogenzaka street. It’s pretty lit.
- Trendy, quiet, affluent, relaxed
- Many very nice but very expensive stores. They sell delicate, intricate, well-designed things.
- People dress an alternative style: distinctive but subtle.
- Shopping district. It used to be the hipster fashion district, but now there are many high fashion stores co-existing with vintage stores.
- Fashion here is very different and out there.
- The shopping street Takeshita-dori is extremely lively. Crepes are famous here. It’s a thing for high school girls to hang out here and get crepes.
- Across the road from Takeshita-dori is the JR station as well as Meiji Shrine. Nice and peaceful there. Occasionally you’ll see a wedding ceremony (rehearsal).
- Daiso is also here (it has 4 or 5 floors). The drug store (OS Drug) in Takeshita-dori has the cheapest prices I’ve seen.
- Apparently, people dress up as lolita girls and others on Sundays…but I have yet to witness that.
- Harajuku is 20 min away from Shibuya, by foot.
- On your way to Harajuku, you will pass by Omotesando
- High fashion stores here, like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, etc.
- Behind those stores, there are smaller, quieter streets with smaller brand name shops.
- You can find the fashion style here particularly refined and more muted.
- Tokyo midtown. Probably the richest area in Tokyo. If you live here, you are balling.
- However, as soon as you cross the bridge, you go from nice and proper to zones of night clubs and bars. That’s the sketchier area with many ushers inviting you in. It’s lively and awesome, but just be alert as well.
- Roppongi Mori Hills offers a great view of the Tokyo Tower. Go if you are looking forward to get some photos. You have to pay to go up though (¥1,800 I believe).
- I enjoyed some yuzu tsukemen here after a night out in Roppongi.
- Just like Roppongi, Shinjuku also has a dichotomy. One side lies the monochromatic business skyscrapers while the other side is the colourful home to numerous clubs, restaurants, and the red light district Kabukicho.
- The government building offers free visit to the observation deck. Be sure to check it out. On good days, you can spot Mount Fuji from there. Tripods are not allowed.
- When wondering in Kabukicho, be very careful. I’d personally suggest against going to those massages. It is not so safe here, as compared to other parts of Tokyo.
- The robot restaurant is very famous. It is not cheap, but I think is worth the experience anyway. Here is the Yelp link.
- Shinjuku Station also holds the record of having the highest number of people pass through per day in the world. It is huge so be sure to know which exit you are taking.
- Omoide Yokocho (Memory Alley) aka Piss Alley is a narrow corridor full of lively restaurants. Locals and tourists go there. It is also very picturesque, as seen in the photo above.
- Nearby, there is an interesting coffee place that serves expensive coffee in nice china, with fancy retro decor (can’t describe it well, like 1940s Shanghai).
- Shinjuku is home to the gay community, named and located at Shinjuku 2-chome (ni-chome).
- Golden Gai is another interesting spot. Narrow streets full of low 2-story tiny bars that seat 5 people, squished side by side with one another. If you look down from the street, you will see numerous signs. Golden Gai is a local spot, so many bars don’t welcome tourists. However, there has been an increase of foreign-friendly bars, so it’s well worth a visit.
- A favourite ramen place Nagi is also in Golden Gai. Last time I was there, there was literally a hole in their wall.
- Two words: anime and electronics.
- If you want to find what electronics Japan is using, go to the Yodobashi Camera. It is amazing. I can’t say you will get the the best bargain, but you will see variety and be amazed.
- Home to all things anime and manga. If you like anime, you should probably dedicate at least 3 days here.
- Yes you can find the infamous body pillows here, for both guys and girls.
- If you like idols, this is the place to go as well. Apparently AKB48 performs in the same building as Don Quixote.
- On Sundays, they close off the road, so it is easier to access the shops.
- Dubbed as the chinatown of Tokyo (but the chinatown in Yokohama is more worth going).
- Also has several manga/anime stores. There is a huge Animate (chain manga/anime store) here.
- Otome Road is also here. It’s a street full of shops dedicated to female anime/manga fans.
- For example, there is a butler cafe (the male version of a maid cafe)
- There are also owl cafes, rabbit cafes, cat cafes. Here are all the animal cafes in Tokyo.
- Shopping for the ballers. Let’s skip.
- I’m just kidding. Many great omakase places around here.
- Fashion worn in Ginza is usually very nice and proper, graceful and chic.
- Cheaper things can be found here. Also, properties (accommodations) are cheaper here.
- Shopping street Ameyoko is live and bustling, with many shops selling all sorts of things.
- It is also close to Asakusa, where Sensoji (the temple) is.
- Imperial Palace. Tokyo University. Tsukiji Market.
- Is Sushi Dai good? Yes. Worth the 5-hour wait? No if you are on vacation! You still want to go? Here.
- I haven’t really been, but Rikugien Garden is the highlight, especially for momiji (red leaves in the autumn) viewing.
- Where the life sized gundam used to be…
- Outlet shopping stores can also be found here.
- It’s a man-made island. Nice spot to go on dates and do photo walks.
- There is also an onsen spa place where you can put on yukata and chillax.
- One of my favourite districts (cries).
- It’s considered a hipster area given the culture: many vintage stores, music bars, coffee shops, etc.
- Slowly being commercialized, as you can tell by the Muji store there.
- Fashion here is also extremely unique, in the Japan hipster sense. Definitely worth a visit.
- Dubbed as the new token hipster place of Tokyo.
- Shops are geared towards men.
- Young and hip place. Many young people live here.
- Lots of indie music bars. Side note, if you are looking for indie concerts, this is a good place. Liquidroom in Ebisu (not close to Kichijoji) has bigger bands playing there.
Yokohama (near Tokyo)
- Nice city, less busier than Tokyo. It’s the where there is a ferris wheel in the middle of the city.
- The ramen museum is very fun. The chinatown there is clean and unique. The iconic Osanbashi Pier is worth going.
- The Red Brickhouse is also an icon.
For other cities, I was as much of a tourist as anyone.
If you have anything to add, please let me know! I’m always glad to talk about Japan. I can’t wait to go back!