Traveling in Japan
A quick collection of notes and tips that made my trip to Japan a lot easier.
Having just returned from a two week vacation in Japan, I kept some notes on a few small tips that I picked up throughout my trip to make my journey as convenient and foolproof as possible.
As someone who is directionally challenged and who had never spoken a word of Japanese before my trip, I knew I was going to need some help from Google Maps and Google Translate. Below are some tips about transportation, eating, and etiquette.
Things to bring or buy in Japan:
If you’re planning on taking any subway/metro trains in Tokyo/Kyoto/Osaka, you should load up a Pasmo card. They’re available in Tokyo airports and subway stations and are way more convenient than buying tickets.
Anker Astro2 9600mAh Battery
I was traveling with my girlfriend, and this battery allowed us to charge both of our phones at the same time. It’s 9600mAh, so it had more than enough juice to get us through a day despite heavy data and GPS usage.
Osprey Farpoint Travel Pack Obviously the specific bag isn’t important, but I love this bag because I can use it as a carry on and the small pack on the front zips off and transforms into the perfect day-trip backpack. It’s great for carrying water, umbrellas, sunscreen, passports, extra clothes — you name it. These bags are super high quality and well worth the pricetag.
Anker 36W Quad-Port USB Wall Charger
I swear I don’t work for Anker; they just make great stuff. This charger is great for planes, trains, and plugging in at your hotel to charge phones and batteries with overnight. Add a few USB extension cables to make it even more convenient.
Triposo Japan Travel Guide
If you have the luxury of mobile data, this app is invaluable. It will notify you when you’re nearby landmarks, give restaurant recommendations, and it also includes all sorts of useful information like common Japanese phrases. If you’re unsure of what’s worth visiting where you are, this is the first place I would check.
It’s a good idea to carry these items with you at all times:
- Tissues and/or wet wipes.
- If you have allergies, bring your allergy medication with you to Japan. Things like Claritin require a prescription and most Japanese allergy meds will make you drowsy (if you can find them in the first place). I generally don’t have allergies, but I sneezed up a storm in Kyoto and would have killed for some Claritin.
- A small plastic bag. Trash bins are sparse throughout Japan and you will often be in situations where you’re stuck with your trash for awhile. Bring a small plastic bag with you to hold trash and empty it when you come across a trash bin. Convenience stores and bathrooms are places that often have trash bins.
- It is a legal requirement that you carry your passport with you at all times as a foreign national in Japan. If that’s not reason enough, a surprising number of things require you to have it available, and you don’t want to miss out on tax-free shopping just because you left your passport in your hotel room. You also need it if you’re picking up a JR pass.
- Depending on the weather forecast, umbrellas are often a good idea as well. If you forget one, they only cost~$5 USD in convenience stores.
- Many things in Japan require cash, so check with your bank to ensure your ATM card will work internationally. Many ATMs around Japan don’t support international cards, but your best bet to find one that does is to visit a local post office. However, those ATMs are usually inside of the post office, so be sure to check the hours before going there. 7–11 convenience stores in Tokyo worked with my ATM card as well.
Google Maps is an absolute lifesaver when it comes to navigating the Tokyo subway system.
Here are some tips for using Google Maps on iOS:
You’ll want to have Wi-Fi turned on (not connected, just on) so Google Maps can accurately determine your location. An explanation on how that works is here. Wait until it has locked onto your location before setting a route. Having Wi-Fi on will drain your battery though, so be sure to turn it off when you aren’t using it.
If you already know of some of the places you’ll be visiting, it’s a good idea to click the “save” button on all of them. It makes Google Maps recall that location much faster without you having to fully re-type it.
I always used the overhead view to navigate instead of the third-person view. You’ll notice there’s a small arrow pointing out of “you” on the map; that’s the direction that the top of your phone is facing. Just spin around until the arrow is pointing in the direction you need to go!
The route overviews will give you a breakdown of walking time versus vehicle time. Make sure you’re not walking 21 minutes to a train station to ride a train for 3 minutes when you could just be walking 25 minutes to your destination.
Traveling by Train
One of the most common questions I see people asking about traveling to Japan is: “does it make sense for me to buy a JR pass?”. Since the answer to that is covered extensively online, I’m not going to address it in this post.
If you do decide to purchase a JR pass, you can purchase a “coupon” in the states ahead of time and redeem it at an “information” booth in Shinjuku and Tokyo station. You will need your passport and will spend ~10–15 minutes doing paperwork to collect your JR pass. Plan ahead and assume there will be a line. One of the biggest benefits of the JR pass is the amount of time you’ll save not having to buy tickets ahead of time at the train stations. During rush hour, lines can be fairly long and being able to walk straight onto the train makes things much easier!
If you’re using a JR pass, here’s what you should know about taking the Shinkansen (high-speed trains):
Hyperdia.com is your best friend for finding train schedules:
If you’re using a JR pass, be sure to uncheck the “NOZOMI/MIZUHO” lines— your JR pass won’t work for those trains. Don’t worry though, the Hikari line is just as fast.
If you’re traveling far on a bullet train, the only two boxes you need to check under the more options section are “Bullet Train” and “Japan Railway”. This ensures that you’ll be taking a train that is covered by your JR pass.
Also, try to keep track of which subway exits are closest to your destination if you plan on traveling through that station often. Metro and JR stations can be huge and have dozens of exists that are blocks away from each other. Exiting north when you need to be heading south could cost you 20 minutes in travel time. Each exit has a number, so try to keep track of which ones to use.
One trick I used to prevent myself from missing my stop was using the built in “Reminders” app on iOS. It’s easy to wear headphones and miss announcements about which stop is next, especially on long train rides. You can use the reminders app to set location based alarms that will go off as you’re approaching your stop.
Eating in Japan
One of the most daunting things about going out to eat for the first time in Japan is that everything is (obviously) in Japanese. And you can’t just punch those characters into Google Translate (unless for some reason you know how to do that), so the first few minutes of looking at your menu can be overwhelming. Here’s my advice:
1. Ask for an English menu. I was surprised at how many places had them.
2. If they don’t have an English menu, you can try to use the photograph translate button on the Google Translate app. It worked great for me, as long as the text was a consistent size and color. Google bought a company that made an app called “Word Lens” that did a realtime translation of text and has integrated that technology into Google Translate. I was very impressed with how well it works.
3. If the restaurant you want to eat at has a display of plastic food outside, you can always take a picture of whichever food items you’d like to order and show it to your waiter/waitress.
4. Yelp seems to have more accurate addresses for restaurants, even though it’s not commonly used in Japan. When finding a restaurant, I often search for the restaurant in Yelp, copy the address, and then paste it into Google Maps. Searching for restaurants by name on Google Maps can be extremely flaky and doesn’t do a good job of limiting results to places that are nearby.
5. Read a few do’s and don’ts about eating Sushi
I’m going to sound a bit like your mom here, but manners and respect are very important in Japan. Don’t give American tourists a bad reputation by not following Japanese conventions.
- Don’t talk on your phone on trains/buses
- Don’t eat on trains/buses
- Give up your seat for pregnant, elderly and disabled people
- Take off your hat inside restaurants and houses.
- When purchasing things, the cashier will probably say a lot of things to you in Japanese that you probably won’t understand. For example, they will likely repeat the name and cost of the items you are buying. You don’t have to understand them, just smile and pay attention to see if they are asking you a question (which they will probably do in English).
- When paying for things, use two hands and place cash and coins into the money tray.
- My current understanding of saying “thank you” in Japan
Domo = Thanks (very casual)
Arigato = Thank you
Domo Arigato = Thank you very much
Arigato Gozaimasu = A more polite/respectful way of saying thank you.
- You should bow back to people who bow at you
- There is a queue for just about everything. Make sure you’re not hanging around in some random spot when you should be in the queue.
- No tipping
In case you’re interested, there’s a more complete etiquette guide here.
I hope these tips and help make your visit to Japan a bit easier! It was such a wonderful experience to see the grand temples, museums, and parks and eat some of the best food in the world. I can’t wait to visit again in the future!