Thinking about heading to the land of the rising sun for the first time? Well if you haven’t been there before, you might find the following 5 travel tips super useful. Japan is a country melding tradition with the latest technology and may be a little different to what you’re used to.
#1 TRAVEL: PUBLIC TRANSPORT + HOW TO SAVE WITH A JR PASS
Public transport is EXPENSIVE. I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard about this Japanese fact before, but if you’re a tourist looking to utilise public transport to get around, it can add up really quickly. Their local train and bus system is quite affordable. But if you’re looking to travel between different cities, including the main tourist destinations like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima, then you are looking at spending around ¥10,000 for a one way ticket on a fast bullet train (shinkansen).
If a few of these tickets sound hefty to you, then you may want to consider the JR pass, only available for foreigners; to be purchased outside of Japan.
Japan’s railway system is made up of a fair few different companies, which can cause it to be quite confusing. But the main rail company you will come by will be Japan Railways Group, also known as ‘JR’. They are the largest railway company in Japan and have a network spanning the whole country; from local lines to cross-country shinkansen (bullet trains).
One way to save on JR travel is by purchasing the JR Pass available to foreigners and is only available for purchase outside of Japan. So if this is a potential option for you, start researching before you leave for your trip.
JR Passes come with different options:
- Ordinary ticket: 7, 14 or 21 day tickets
- Green ticket*: 7, 14 or 21 day tickets
*Green train cars are like the ‘business class’ of planes; more luxurious. Regular train cars are surprising comfortable though, so unless you’re living the high-life, the ordinary ticket might be sufficient.
Keep in mind that these passes are activated for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days. You will need to activate it when you get to Japan, but you can choose your start date for your pass. So make sure you activate your pass for the most expensive travel days you have planned.
These passes can cost up to $700AUD and continue to increase in price over time, but if you’re planning to travel from one major city to another quite frequently throughout your stay in Japan, then this is definitely a considerably cheaper option.
To get these passes, you can shop online and order them through authorised local travel agencies. Just make sure you are purchasing from a reputable website as there may be illegitimate sources out there…
#2 LANGUAGE BARRIER: IS JAPANESE NECESSARY IN JAPAN?
No, you don’t need to know the language. Without an ounce of Japanese under our sleeves, Mr Chu and I still managed to get around the country just fine. You may find that many people don’t speak very good English in Japan – even in major cities like Tokyo! But they know enough to understand what you’re trying to ask. Just be patient and remember that you are in another country where the primary language is not English. So they’re going out of their way to try and help by speaking your mother-tongue.
If you’re looking for more assistance to get you through conversations, different apps have come in handy for Mr Chu and I.
Apps for travelling in Japan:
- JA Sensei: provides translations of regular phrases that you may need to use; all equipped with Romanised pronunciation, Japanese hiragana translation and even audio to help you quickly get your message across.
- iTranslate: will help with translating any text that you see. This app isn’t only isolated to Japanese <> English translation, there are plenty of other languages to toggle between so you can use it whilst travelling to any other country! You’ll need to keep in mind that sentence structure is very different between Japanese and English languages, so translations may not be completely accurate. But it’ll give you a good idea of what you are trying to read.
- Voice Translate: this app is a gem. It allows you to vocally record what you’re trying to say and convert it from your native tongue to the language you need! How amazing is that! You can also pass your phone around to the person you’re communicating with, so they can do the reverse for you to understand! Don’t we just love technology?!
#3 ETIQUETTE IN JAPAN
Etiquette is key in Japan. People are brought up learning manners and respect and even if you’re in a situation where you’d assume there’d be less consideration and more ‘every-man-for-himself’, think again.
For example, you’re trying to catch a local train at a major Tokyo train station, during peak hour whilst surrounded by half the nation’s population. Well for your information, there’ll still be order and mannerisms involving in ensuring that everyone gets where they need to be in a respectable manner.
Queues are heavily used in Japan. Even during peak hour, public transport is constantly orderly. Everyone is in a queue, no one jumps the queue and everyone respects the manner in which fellow commuters should be travelling.
- You should stand in line for boarding of a train carriage
- You should allow passengers to disembark from the train before boarding
- You should follow arrows indicating which section of the station staircase is for commuters heading upwards, and which section is for commuters walking down the stairs.
- You should queue for access to escalators and stairs
Cutting queues or disturbing this order is a taboo.
There is also a lot of etiquette involved during meals. But as a foreigner, locals will understand if you try.
If you’re not sure, just watch what the locals do and do the same!
#4 LUGGAGE FORWARDING AND COIN LOCKERS
Looking at your itinerary and wondering where you can leave your luggage whilst you wonder around? Well if you’re going between accommodation and can’t leave your luggage at your lodging areas for any reason, there are plenty of coin lockers available around Japan for you to utilise.
COIN LOCKERS + BAGGAGE COUNTERS
Coin locker prices start from ¥300 for smaller lockers and can go up to ¥700 for large lockers.
Major train stations will usually have plenty for you to use, but keep in mind that there are a lot of other people thinking the same thing. So the large lockers tend to be all taken by mid-morning.
If you’ve got an extra-large suitcase, you might also have a problem finding a locker that will be big enough to fit your luggage. In this case, in some major stations or around the surround area, there are baggage counters that can hold your luggage for you. But as these locations are staffed, fees tend to be a little more expensive at around ¥500 – ¥700 per piece rather./
There are also opening hours that may restrict you from dropping off or picking up your luggage at baggage counters, in comparison to the 24/7 lockers.
If you’re thinking of travelling to a different area but you’d rather have the luxury of not worrying about how to get your massive suitcase all the way to your destination, Japan also offers a great luggage forwarding service. This is super handy if the item is too heavy or bulky for transport, or you’re simply heading to a destination that will be difficult to bring your luggage with you along the way!
Look for Kuroneko Yamato Transport offices or even speak to your hotel reception front desk to see whether they can help. Many hotels are authorised to accept parcels and luggage for Kuroneko Yamato Transport, so you can send your suitcase from one hotel to the next. But you’ll need to keep in mind that it tends to take 2 days to deliver and of course is much more expensive than regular coin lockers.
Prices are calculated by the size of the item you are sending and whether it’s within the prefecture you’re sending it from. The further it’s going and the larger the item is, the more money you’re going to have to fork out.
From previously using the service, Mr Chu and I have been charged around ¥1,350 for one large suitcase to be sent to a destination within the same prefecture. Give or take some change if you’re looking at a different sized item or outside of the same prefecture, but it’ll be similar to what we’ve had to pay.
#5 WIFI: FREE? OR RENTAL?
If you want to stay connected whilst you’re in another country, you can always opt for a local sim card or just try to hook onto free wifi in the area. There are plenty of free hot spots in Japan, especially at places like McDonalds, convenience stores and JR train stations. But sometimes the connection can be unreliable, require a whole lot of personal information before access is granted and limited to how many times you can connect to their network.
If internet is all you need, a pocket wifi might be the way to go!
Telecommunication companies in Japan allow you to rent their portable pocket wifis for however long you like. It’s also super convenient as you can head to their offices to pick up the pocket wifi pack or simply grab it on your way out of the international airport! Dropping off the pocket wifi is even easier with a supplied mailing sachet that you can chuck the pocket wifi in and drop it off at your local post office! How crazy is that.
There are some forms of accommodation that provide free wifi. Hotels might have them included in their services and if you’re opting in for AirBNB, some hosts provide free pocket wifi for their customers. But there’s always going to be a time when you’re stuck without internet and you really need to get somewhere without the help of Google. So renting a pocket wifi will be my suggestion.
Just some extra tips regarding local telecommunication companies. There are 3 big companies in Japan that provide pocket wifi services. Of course there may be more smaller companies or branch offs but this is a quick summary of what you can find.
Japan telecommunication companies providing pocket wifi:
- Y Mobile!: notably the cheapest option most of the time, this company doesn’t have the strongest internet connection. If you’re going to just be hanging around the main city and need your wifi range to only work within this scope, you can get by with a Y Mobile! connection. If you’re underground in subways though, it’ll be a miracle for you to get any type of network with this company.
If you’re an Australia, think of Y Mobile! as a Vodafone equivalent.
- Docomo: a pretty good supplier of pocket wifi, this company provides a better connection than Y Mobile!. The signal strength is better and more reliable, and the coverage across Japan is a lot wider than Y Mobile!. You will notice the price jump from Y Mobile! plans, but it’s worth it if you don’t want to pull your hair out of your head in lack-of-connection frustration.
If you’re an Australian, think of Docomo as the Optus equivalent.
- au: last but not least, au! The most reliable and expensive of them all. This is a great company that provides a solid internet connection and has the best service coverage across Japan. Of course it comes with a price. But if you’re going to be travelling around Japan a lot and visiting places that aren’t the major cities of the country, you will find this is god-sent connection to the world wide web.
If you’re an Australian, think of au as the equivalent to Telstra. Though with the recent Telstra service outages, their reputation is not nearly as squeaky clean as au.
Well hopefully this information helped with your travel planning to Japan!
If you have any questions about these first-time travellers tips, then drop me a comment and I’ll make sure I get to respond!
Also, check out my blog for more posts on my latest travels around Japan and the wooooorld!
Mrs Chu x