Previously: Prologue, why I went
As much as we’d like to think otherwise, we can’t just jump onto a plane and have a trip of a lifetime. At the very least, it’s important to have a place to sleep.
This is probably a post that can be skipped, but if you ever plan on going to Japan, think of this as an honest advice column. Some of these tips would’ve helped me ahead of time, but I lived without them. These aren’t words to die for, but hey maybe they’ll help someone.
First and foremost, a Wi-Fi device is crucial.
Japan is a nice place, but it’s easy to be confused (especially because of the language barrier). Cities, neighbourhoods, and even malls are easy to get lost in. I honestly don’t know how mail is delivered since I never saw street signs or building numbers. Google Maps will be your best friend and instead of relying on data it’s better to grab a Wi-Fi device.
I booked mine through econnectjapan about three weeks ahead of time which gave me a discount. I got a 3G unlimited package for about $170 Canadian dollars. Not bad I’d say for almost constant use and video streaming for 20 days.
It’s a pretty hassle-free process. Order before you leave, than get it sent to your hotel (or you can pick it up from a post office) for the day you arrive. Instructions will be provided. Once your trip is over, you mail it back in the envelope that comes with the initial package.
Actually tho, Google Maps will be your best friend
Arguably the 100% most useful thing about Google Maps in Japan is that, depending, it will tell you what platform your train will be on.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Some stations have dozens of platforms and it’s really easy to be confused.
Stations in Japan will tell you the previous stop and the next stop. This is useful (I won’t deny that) but Google doesn’t play that way. Google will (again, depending), show you the train line and its direction (i.e. the last stop). So, it’s very easy to confuse one direction for another because you only know what the last stop for the line is, not the next stop.
The amount of times I went up and down escalators to find the right platform for the right train is almost comical. Thankfully there are employees who can help.
That said, Google will usually give you the platform number or something akin to it.
Additionally, Google is fantastic for finding restaurants and shops near you. Do you want sushi? Do you want ramen? Type that shit into Google Maps and you’ll get something EASY.
Don’t even worry about the language barrier
Want some honest truth? I barely spoke a word to anyone on this trip. I didn’t have to. I got by with saying ‘thank you’ and nodding.
In the big cities, people you need to talk to (like those at info booths, train station employees, some hotel staff) will speak English. For those who don’t, showing them a place on your phone will be enough to get you directions. There may even be occasions where train employees will approach you, asking if you need help.
A lot of tourist attractions also have English pamphlets, so you don’t have to worry about missing out there.
The saving grace of Japan is their point menus. Almost every restaurant will have accurate pictures to go with every menu item. When you’re ready to order, all you have to do is point and nod. Trust me, the message will get through.
Some restaurants may even have English menus. #bless
Some restaurants, however, will have neither. They will be traditional places and only have a text menu hanging on the wall. I only went to one of these. Still good food, but be aware you may not be totally certain what you’re ordering.
I’m serious about this: bring a lot of cash.
Japan is a cash-based society. I only learnt this while I was there and it can be anxiety-inducing. In North America, we’ve been complacent with cards. A lot of people think cash is on the way out. Well, that’s not the case in Japan!
Believe it or not, Japan is still really stuck in the past technology-wise. Faxing is still big and their card readers seem straight out of the 1990s. I brought about $800 in cash, along with a back-up $100USD and I only just managed by the time I left.
It’s a scary feeling to pull out a credit card after a meal and only to be told it’s a cash-only restaurant. Most restaurants will have a little Visa or MasterCard sign on their entrance door or near their cash register, but if you’re not sure you can ask before you’re seated.
I always kept about $50 dollars with me everyday. There were times when I had to get more from my luggage, but I found it was a fair amount for my activities and I usually didn’t go over.
If you’re strictly vacationing in the big cities, credit should do you just fine. That said, it doesn’t hurt to have cash.
You will absolutely need change for the subways.
Japanese public bathrooms don’t have paper towels
Browse any souvenir shop in Japan and you’ll see a good number of hand towels. If you’re like me, you’ll wonder why. For us Westerners, it seems like a strange thing to buy outside of a bathroom set.
Turns out, it’s because public bathrooms in Japan don’t have paper towels. Some may have hand dryers, but more often than not…they won’t.
There is the tried-and-true ‘wipe your hands on your pants,’ put it’s not a perfect substitute. Thankfully, the numerous towels for sale are quite cheap! Depending on what quality of softness you’re okay with. I was able to buy one for only $1 (100yen). It’s functional and a souvenir! A great purchase.
This is one of two downsides to Japanese public bathrooms (the other is squat toilets, but they will have western style). Otherwise, the bathrooms are very clean and well maintained. And free! I’m looking at you Europe.
Pick your rail passes wisely.
If you’re going to be travelling between the three big cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka) I would recommend the JR Rail pass. This cannot be bought in Japan. You need to purchase this before you leave. I recommend this because tickets for the Bullet Train can be expensive. If you’re going back and forth at least once, it would be worth it.
That said, it’s really important you do your research. Thankfully, the Japanese rail company JR has an English website that will let you check fare prices between stations. The JR rail pass can be for one, two, or three weeks with unlimited use. Prices start at about $300 and go up from there.
If you’re only going to be in one city, like Tokyo, the JR Rail pass isn’t worth it. You can buy day rail-passes for city rail systems and possibly weekly passes. Again, do your research.
I got a three-week past through my mother’s travel agent. She was able to secure it within a week. It is an incredibly useful pass. All you have to do is flash it to the JR employees and you’ll be waved through. If you need to get an assignment seat (like with the bullet train), just go to the ticket office and show the pass (you’ll need your passport when doing this).
When picking a place to stay, don’t be shy about capsule hotels
If you’re like me, you’re probably hesitant to spend the night in a space equal in size to a closet, but it’s actually not that bad!
I found that I could sit down comfortably and the beds were softer than I thought. Depending on where you go, you may even get a flat screen TV. You’re not allowed food (but I was bad and snacked a little. No one was the wiser).
I think the most shocking thing about a capsule hotel is how quiet it is. Most guests are pretty respectful and quiet. The couple days I had a noisy neighbour, it wasn’t too bad. Earplugs are sometimes available at the front desk.
There will either be locations to store your luggage, or you’ll leave it by your capsule. If you’re paranoid like me, you can keep a lock on your suitcase. Though, from what I saw, it was never touched.
Out of the three capsule hotels I stayed at, two of them had the showers on different floors. This may sound weird, but the atmosphere made it normal to see people in their robes throughout the hotel. I didn’t feel embarrassed doing it since so many others were. There are changing room areas with mirrors and lockers, so you can go in and out clothed if you prefer.
Last, don’t be afraid of messing things up
When I was over there, my friend told me about the concept of ‘Gaijin Smash.’ Basically, because you are a foreigner, the Japanese people will understand you don’t know their culture and won’t be insulted if you do something ‘incorrect.’ AKA: you can get away with a lot of shit.
But we’re all nice people so we’re not gonna break the law or anything.
Apparently, in Japan, it’s rude to blow your nose in public. I had a cold for the first 10 days when I was there and I had NO IDEA. I was blowing my nose on the train, in restaurants, just walking down the street. Was I insulting people? Who knows! Gaijin Smash for the win.
Did you get on the bus via the incorrect door? Did you throw out your train ticket after you got on the subway? Did you, a male, accidently get on the women only train-car? No problem! Gaijin Smash!
I’m trying to say, just act normally. If you really do something wrong, you’ll probably just get a heads up or something. If you’re super concerned, there are more helpful guides than this that can help you out.
And that’s it! I think, so long as you’re smart, everyone can get by in Japan. It’s a very friendly country. Although it operates in a very alien manner compared to North America, it’s easy to get into the swing of things so long as you’re polite.
If anyone has questions, I invite you to ask me. I’m not much of an expert (I relied on my JET friend a lot before I left), but I’m happy to help where I can.