Our Travel Tips for Japan First-Timers
After the previous posts of visual inspiration and sharing our overall experiences, we thought we'd post the more practical stuff here... Things that we would find useful to know if we were visiting Japan for the first time. Obviously everyone is different, we have got into a travelling groove and we know what we like but others might prefer something else... each to their own and that's fine. Please bear that in mind and don't judge us for opting for western beds (although actually we slept on tatami too so there!)
General advice, including how much we spent whilst in Japan, can be found at the bottom of this post.
First things first, if you're planning on going to different cities have a look at the Japan Rail Pass. It could make train journeys cheaper for you but best to research first. You can buy them from many different places but must do so in advance. We received our coupon/voucher thing in the post and then when we wanted to activate it we took it to the JR station to exchange it for the real deal that was activated. It sounds like a lot of money but when you compare it to the cost of rail fare in the UK it's actually a complete bargain.
We purchased our Japan Rail Pass from HIS. We chose the 7-day option and activated it to travel to Kyoto, our last day of usage being when we got to Hakone.
We found getting around really easy. Initially we were concerned that the language barrier would be a real problem but in the train stations (and bus stations too) everything was written in Japanese and English, sometimes other languages too. We found it quite easy to decipher the maps and count from station to station too as there is also a really handy number system, not to mention that everyone is happy to help if you need it. You also feel a huge sense of achievement when you get to where you need to.
There are lots of rail companies that look after the transport systems so tickets are a little confusing at first but if you ever have to change lines to another company there is a 'fare adjustment' machine that you put your ticket into, enter your destination and if more money is needed you just pay the difference. It's quite a novelty and we opted to just pay for each journey individually rather than paying for a Passmo/Suica card as we like the choice of walking and more often than not will choose to go on foot. I think our daily average was around 30,000 steps each which isn't out of the ordinary - we often do the same when we're in London!
Our price point for accommodation was around £100 per night. We actually use that as a base figure for everywhere really; sometimes we spend more and sometimes less but that usually averages out across a trip.
In Japan we figured that as we're usually up and about pretty early and we like to maximise our time so we saw the hotel situation as somewhere to rest our heads rather than as a feature of the trip itself - aside from our traditional ryokan which we thought might be more of an activity in itself. So we looked at business hotel chains that were in well-connected locations.
It's also worth noting that this was all booked 2 weeks before we stayed so there's plenty more choice if you book earlier!
Here are the hotels we stayed at in the order that we stayed in them:
- Andon Ryokan Tokyo for 3 nights
- Hotel Unizo Kyoto Shijo Karasuma for 3 nights
- Onyado Nono Nara National Hot Spring for 1 night (see our blog post with more detail/review here)
- RC Hotel Kyoto Yasaka for 2 nights (see our blog post with more detail/review here)
- Yaeikan Hakone for 2 nights (see our blog post with more detail/review here)
- Hotel Mystays Premier Akasaka Tokyo for 2 nights
The business hotels (ie Unizo & Mystays) were really simple and clean and had all the space that we needed to rewind after our long days and from what we experienced just about every place we stayed provided full amenity kits meaning that we needn't have packed hairbrushes, toothbrushes (although small ones are always handy for long flights!) so pretty great for the money.
In all honesty we had no idea how we'd get along as we probably knew about 10 Japanese words between us and we thought that we'd come across as really rude and land in all kinds of Basil Fawlty/Larry David situations because we'd said something completely wrong...
Not at all. A lot of signage is translated into various languages, comes with diagrams or is just plain obvious (the sign in the picture above says 'no parking') so we didn't struggle in that sense. We watched some Youtube videos to help us with basics and you seem to pick up a lot from copying others.
We both have the Google Translate app on our phones and that was invaluable; the camera tool is really useful for deciphering food packaging and instructions for which button is the flush on the toilet...
Don't let the language difference be a problem - we thought it would make for a great place to be on a honeymoon as we felt as though we were in our own little bubble and it's quite a nice feeling. You appreciate words for their unfamiliarity and for the shape of the characters, even if the words themselves are telling you not to park in someone's driveway...
- Japan is a cash-based society so you'll use a lot of it. We have a Monzo card which means we have fee-free foreign withdrawals so the price matches the exchange rate. It's like a top-up card really. Look up which banks/ATM's you can use for your bank.
- We use the XE Currency Converter app to work out how much things cost.
- Another app we found useful was the Maps.me app as it allowed us to mark places of interest down using pins and then just have a look if there was anything we'd put on the map that we were near to. It helps so that you don't have to strictly plan out your day but also make sure you don't miss something you wanted to see. There's nothing more annoying than getting back to your hotel in the evening and realising you were like 10 metres from somewhere amazing that you'd forgotten about. We planned to do one thing each day and then use the app to see what else was around. No pressure.
- We hired pocket WIFI which we kept in our bag and therefore were always able to know where we were. It helps SO MUCH being able to Google things. There are plenty of places to hire from; we had ours delivered to the first hotel that we stayed in and posted it back from the last hotel when we checked out. With that in mind it's a good idea to know the directions to where you're going a) when you first arrive and b) on your way back to the airport so that you don't need the internet just in case you can't connect to any public WIFI network.
- Pack light. We each half-filled an Away Carry-On case (plus our actual carry-on bag with laptop/cameras) so that a) we didn't have to carry heavy luggage and b) so that we had plenty of room to bring anything back. We hit Uniqlo and Muji on our last day and stocked up on BLOCKTECH and basics to bring home... so much so that we also bought an extra bag to fit it in!
- We found Japan to be a very quiet country and we enjoyed that. Please respect that and join in with the quietness, it teaches you lots! Our overall take-home from our trip was that respect is a big deal and everyone is aware of how their actions affect others. It's something we really loved and an aspect of life that we wish we could encourage everyone to engage in a little more. Certain things like eating in public is just not really a thing and as a result there's no rubbish strewn across the streets, everyone seems very private and again, we enjoyed that.
- Food. I (India) am a vegetarian and Magnus doesn't really eat fish, and definitely doesn't eat seafood. Hand on heart, Japan is not the best place in the world to be a vegetarian and it really restricted what I could eat. Cooking without fish as a base/main feature is not in the culture and I'm totally fine with that; I filled up on McDonald's pancake breakfasts most days and ate a LOT of egg sandwiches from the Conbini's (convenience stores were our saviour!) and pastries/fruit. There were the occasional vegetarian eateries that we'd pinned on our Maps.me app, but we always seemed to be a million miles from them whenever we needed so egg sandwiches it was. I didn't mind one bit and although it got a little boring I really didn't care. We ate in Vietnamese curry houses a few times and also Ippudo which has a single veggie ramen on it's menu. I know that many people prioritise food when they go to Japan but we always knew that I'd be a problem... It's worth noting as well that places that are so busy ask for a table cover so I couldn't really go and just watch Magnus eat either! Of the few dishes that I did eat I discovered that Tempura in Japan is better than anything ever, tofu is sooooo versatile and that it's possible to make rice do a million different things. Sweet things like dango, mochi and daifuku were godsends. There is a website (and an app) called Happy Cow that I looked on but like I say, we were always too far from somewhere or at the wrong time. I think that it's probably more of a research/effort thing and I'm sure that if you looked you could find plenty of places or things to eat but we weren't really bothered by it too much. We eat really well for the rest of the time so two weeks of pastries hopefully wouldn't do too much damage. :-/
- A random one but we read over and over again on various blogs that public bathrooms didn't have soap or hand-dryers... we didn't find that to be the case at all?!?!
- Tipping isn't a thing so don't worry about it.
- There is this huge preconception that Japan is mega expensive and we went bracing ourselves for that. In actual fact we found that it was comparatively cheaper than a lot of places we'd been to; Copenhagen, USA just for a couple. We'd say that it was probably similar to London. As with any travel, it's absolutely possible to make it suit most budgets and yes it can be expensive if you choose expensive things to eat and do but it doesn't have to be that way. We found a multitude of free things to do, visited gardens/temples that didn't cost loads and didn't at all feel like we were restricting ourselves.
For those of you who may be worried about the cost of visiting Japan: we spent £1050 on everyday life (including food, drink, activities, souvenirs & transport) over our two weeks there, excluding the Japan Rail Pass. For somewhere to sleep, you can find places to suit every budget so we haven't included this.
- Japan Guide (we used this alot to see opening times & figure out how to get to various places)
- Happy Cow (to find veggie/vegan food)