How to handle Japan in 10 days

There’s always something new to experience every time I visit Japan. This time, I tagged along with my bro & a few friends as the fifth wheel. It’s cool to experience the country through the lens of first-timers, so this time around I noted some tips to help others who are considering a Japan trip.

During my visit a few months ago, I live-blogged my experiences though my Instagram account.

A wall in the airport right when we first arrived in Japan. We stayed here for about 30 minutes taking pictures with this wall, after which I reminded the gang that there’s still much more of Japan to see. I appreciate their enthusiasm.

I’ve broken down my thoughts into sections, each with their own blogposts:

  • Things to do in/near Tokyo
    Go-karting, themed cafes, racing fast cars, robot spotting, shopping galore!
  • Things to do in Kyoto (post coming soon!)
  • Eating/drinking in Japan (post coming soon!)
  • How to get around (post coming soon!)

General tips to help you survive

For first time Japan travelers, here are some general tips I can share:

Spaces are small. Be prepared to be up in someone’s personal space because Japan is much more narrow than what Westerners are used to. Here we are standing in a waiting area for a table to open up:

Good thing Acelyne & Fia are good friends. Sometimes you’d have to share small spaces with strangers.

Prime example is riding the train during peak commuting hours:

Protip: If you have a massive backpack, take it off & hold it between your feet on the floor. Your neighbors will thank you.

Airbnb is recommended. I’ve had huge success booking accommodations through Airbnb over traditional hotels. You get a taste of Japan suburbia. If you’re traveling in a big group, your housing budget is higher so renting whole houses becomes more feasible. One of the rentals we picked was a converted textile factory that’s now a house, complete with tatami floors & futon bedding:

Also, the way hotels in Japan work is that they charge per person, & not per room as we’re used to here in the US. Granted, Airbnb incrementally charges a bit more for every person you include in your accommodation, but at Japanese hotels, they’ll multiply the cost of the room per person. In most cases, hotels can be more expensive.

Stay healthy. If you use Zicam or Emergen-C, bring it! Though Japanese people are courteous in wearing face masks when they’re sick, but when you’re in that cramped train ride or in a humid train station with recirculated air, chances are you’ll catch something. Getting sick while on vacation sucks. Happened to me the last few times I visited.

Portable wifi hotspot. Unless you have international roaming on your phone, this is the method of getting online. It also helps your phone’s battery last longer since your cell radio is turned off. You’re likely going to be using Google Maps a bunch & almost immediately once you land in Japan. Internet service is generally fast & reliable, even in the subway.

As a courtesy if you rent an Airbnb, Japanese hosts usually have a portable wifi you can take with you during your reservation, but I’d still recommend getting one independently for convenience.

I can recommend this company as I’ve used them multiple times in the past: globaladvancedcomm.com

Don’t be afraid of the toilets. The electronic bidets are awesome. Experiment with the buttons; the iconography for each button should be intuitive enough to decipher.

Did you flush the toilet & now there’s running water coming out from the top of the toilet tank? It’s clean water, so you use that to wash your hands. The toilet tank collects the water you used to wash your hands to be used as gray water for flushing. Pretty smart if you think about it.

Train station lockers will save your back & arms. Instead of lugging around your luggage, backpacks, & shopping bags as you sightsee or travel, stash your stuff in the many lockers at major train stations. Some lockers are large enough to hold your check-in sized bags (if you do some pushing & shoving to jam it in there). The large lockers can be rented at 600 yen (~$6) & you can store your things in there for a day or so.

Clay demonstrating what a coin locker looks like.

When we booked a few days out in Kyoto from Tokyo, we did some strategic locker management. Knowing that we’d have to come back to Tokyo anyway, we locked up our big bulky things that we wouldn’t need in Kyoto, then picked up our stuff on our return trip.

NOTE: If you use your Suica card to buy your locker, make sure you have it in hand when coming to open up your locker! This may or may not have happened to us where we had a lapse in judgment & refunded our Suica cards because we thought we can open the lockers with a combination code or something. Though the receipt did warn us as such. Reading comprehension fail.

On that note…

Get a Suica card. Primarily used to pay for trains, you can also use it to pay for coin lockers (see above) & even for vending machines!

You can get one at a ticket machine at the train station with a 500 yen deposit. At the end of the trip, you can get that 500 yen back at any JR ticket office. Just look for the green sign with the seat:

Food menus with photos. You’re in Japan & hungry & oops, you realize you don’t speak Japanese. Don’t worry, many Japanese restaurants in the major cities will very likely have an English menu (if you want to impress the shopkeep, ask aye-go no menu ga arimass ka? & they’ll hook you up with one). If they don’t have one, point to the picture on the menu & they’ll get the hint.

However, if you have a food allergy or aversion to a type of food, it’s best to know how to say that word in Japanese. For example, it’s important for me to know how to say the word ‘cheese’ in Japanese so I can make sure that the dishes I order don’t have any.

Don’t avoid something because it’s too ‘touristy’. Go & do it anyway, you’ll probably have a bunch of fun doing it! I skipped out on going to a cool sightseeing spot because I didn’t want to deal with the tourist crowds, but the rest of the gang decided to go anyway & when we reconvened at the end of the day, they had a bunch of cool stories to share.

A tea break at Kinkakuji in Kyoto. I was glad we got to do this because it was a nice break from walking, & somehow hot matcha was still refreshing in the heat.

Visit a hot spring. For ultimate relaxation & if you can tolerate baths with really high temps, I recommend visiting an onsen which can be found in many parts of Japan. Note that though they’re gender separated, you have to get totally naked so make sure that if you’re going with your friends, everyone has that understanding. There’s a specific protocol in visiting these places, so best to read up on some instructions & rules before trying one out.

It’s okay to get lost. Or be late for a train. Or have things not go according to plan. Embrace it all & your trip will become stress-free. If you get lost, you’ll stumble on some new things on a side road. If you know you’ll miss the next train, you can take it slow & catch the next one. In my random explorations, I had no agenda & got myself lost in a maze of streets in Kyoto & came across a school that had a sports & fitness day:

Undokai at a random Kyoto school.

More blogposts in my Japan 2017 series:

  • Things to do in/near Tokyo
    Go-karting, themed cafes, racing fast cars, robot spotting, shopping galore!
  • Things to do in Kyoto (post coming soon!)
  • Eating/drinking in Japan (post coming soon!)
  • How to get around (post coming soon!)
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