Just a few suggestions based on my six weeks in Japan.
JR (Japan Rail) Pass. This is worth getting if you plan any train travel within Japan. At about $250 for a one-week pass it pays for itself even if you take a single round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. You can also get two-week or longer passes, and you can choose whether to pay extra for first class (not necessary in my opinion). To get the discounted rate you must buy the pass before you arrive in Japan. You get a voucher that you must present with your passport at a main JR office, such as the ones in Tokyo and Shinjuku stations. You then get a pass that starts immediately, or on the day you specify. The pass is good to midnight on the seventh day, including the day it starts, so be smart about the start date. The JR pass works on all JR lines, including bullet trains, except a few super-luxurious trains. It also works on JR subway and commuter lines, but it doesn’t work on competing subway, commuter or long distance lines, so make sure you use JR to get free travel. The first time you go through a gate with the pass you get it stamped by an agent, but after that you just flash it at the agent and go through the gate (in and out) for free. If you don’t use the voucher you can get a refund, minus a $25 handling fee.
Tokyo Metro Card. Tokyo’s subway/commuter rail system is extremely efficient, but on my first visit to Tokyo I constantly struggled to determine how much I needed to pay to get to my destination so that I could buy the correct ticket. Then I either put in lots of coins or got lots back in change. It was a real hassle, especially on the few lines that didn’t show English station names on their route maps!
There’s absolutely no need to go through this, however. Just buy a Suica card at any JR station, or one of the competing cards sold by the other lines.
All the cards work on all commuter/subway lines (and also at various vending machines). You just brush the card against the “IC” reader at the gate; normally I don’t even have to take it out of my wallet! When you enter it confirms that you have enough on the card for any trip, then when you leave it deducts the correct amount. Just top it up when it starts to run low. There’s a 500 yen ($4.50) deposit for the Suica card that you get back when you return it.
Google Maps and Mobile Data Service. Google Maps is profoundly valuable anywhere, but it’s especially helpful for planning trips on the Tokyo metro because of the complex map and the many competing lines (which sometimes have completely separate stations using the same name but requiring you to walk down the street to connect). Google Maps quickly shows you the options, including time and cost, then lets you decide how to travel.
It would be possible to always plan your trips when you had WiFi coverage, and if you don’t have mobile data service I recommend this approach. It’s much more convenient, however, to have data service on your mobile phone so you can plan a trip any time. T-Mobile has relatively poor coverage in the U.S. but its basic service includes nearly worldwide 3G data coverage (as well as free texts and inexpensive phone calls). I suffer from T-Mobile’s poor U.S. coverage sometimes but I travel enough that T-Mobile’s worldwide coverage makes up for it. If you have another carrier the options are more complex: You may be able to substitute the SIM card in your regular phone with either a global SIM card or one from a local service provider, or you might want to get a second cheap smartphone with Japanese data coverage.
Money. A surprising number of smaller stores and restaurants in Japan are cash only, so you will be carrying around some yen. Currency exchange windows typically seem to charge something like a 6% spread, sometimes plus a fee, although the currency exchange at the airport wanted a 20% spread! Credit card companies offer market exchange rates (i.e. minimal spread), but typically hit you with a 3% foreign transaction fee, plus, for cash advances, an additional 3% (or more!) fee and exorbitant daily interest starting when you get the advance. My approach is to get a credit card that has no foreign transaction fee and no cash advance fee. While this is rare, some credit unions do offer these features. Whether or not you’re able to line up such a perfect card, there’s very good news about Japanese ATMs. When I was here in 2013 I was able to withdraw cash only at Chase bank ATMs, which were few and far between. But now 7-11 convenience stores — which are everywhere in Tokyo — allow cash advances on U.S. cards with no additional transaction fee. Other stores also accept U.S. cards, though sometimes with a 1% fee. I prepay my credit card to avoid interest on my cash advances, so I incur only two minimal costs: (1) the loss of interest on the amount prepaid, and (2) currency exchange costs on any yen I end up having to convert back to dollars at the end of the trip.
Toilets. You will still occasionally see old-fashioned squat toilets, but more often you will encounter amazing space-age toilets with heated seats that offer to wash your rear end and/or a woman’s private parts, as well as disposing of your waste. They are highly addictive!
The control panels for these toilets can be daunting, however. The photo on the right provides a very rare English description of all the functions of this otherwise mysterious control panel.
Who needs magazines when you have all that reading material right on the wall! (Pro tip: The button with the red square stops it!)
Shower/Drying Rooms. The first thing you notice when you step into a Japanese shower/drying room is that there is no shower curtain. There’s no need because you can shower either on the floor or in the tub — both have drains.
Showering is straightforward once you get over the idea of standing outside the tub. (The Japanese typically sit on a stool while they shower but I frankly don’t understand what’s going on with this.)
But the room has more to offer! When you get over language shock at the control panel — or if someone has helpfully added English captions — you will realize that the entire room can also be used to dry your laundry. Put your clothes on rust-free hangers along the not-a-curtain-rod, push the button for “dry clothes” and they will be crisply dry in a couple of hours.
Breaking the Language Barrier. At the risk of being an Ugly American I propose that you need to learn just four key phrases to stumble by on the tourist track in Japan:
- Konichiwa — “Hello.” Using this shows that you’re trying, at least a little, to meet people half way. If you want to be fancy you can use konichiwa only during the middle part of the day. In the morning the Japanese say ohio gozaimus — literally, “it’s so early!” and in the evening they say kon bahn wa — good evening. But you’re likely to get the times of day wrong anyway so feel free to just say konichiwa. The point isn’t to fool people into thinking that you can speak Japanese, just to show a bit of respect for the fact that not everyone in the world speaks your language.
- Sumi ma sen — Excuse me. This phrase works exactly like the English equivalent. You can use it to get someone’s attention, such as a waiter or clerk. It also works if you need someone to get out of your way, as when you’re getting off a subway train. And you say it if you need to apologize, as in the case of inadvertently bumping someone.
- Hai — Yes. Say this if you actually understand something and agree with it. “No” is too hard to say in Japanese, and potentially impolite; just look puzzled and pantomime if something is amiss.
- Arrigato Gozaimus — Thank you very much. Say this early and often. Just don’t try to get in the last arrigato gozaimus, since a Japanese clerk or waiter will always do you one better, not infrequently following you out the door of the establishment to make sure!
Oh, actually, there’s one more: Sorry, I only speak English. Trying to say that in Japanese would be hopeless, but anyone on the tourist track hears some variation of this many times a day, and is particularly unsurprised to hear it from someone who doesn’t look Japanese. Very often they will have an English menu or explanation. I only got stumped a couple of times in my six weeks here, and if I’d had patience to employ Google Translate I probably could have gotten through those occasions as well.