Japan is a country that I think everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. It’s brimming with culture, excitement and delicious food. However, planning an international trip can be confusing and oftentimes overwhelming. So, here are my top five tips for those of you who are looking to travel to Japan.
1. Japan is A Lot Larger Than You Think
If you look at any map, Japan seems tiny. But don’t be fooled, you could tour the country for a month and still have things you may have missed. Tokyo alone would take a week if you insisted on seeing everything. With that in mind, you should tailor your trip based on the length of your stay and which locations you’d like to visit.
There are four main cities that most people visit when in Japan: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima. Depending on how much time you have you likely will not be able to visit them all. Tokyo is definitely a no-brainer, but when it comes to the other three you should consider what kind of traveler you are and what experience you’re looking to have.
For example, are you interested in traditional Japanese architecture? Kyoto with its many shrines would be the place to go. Or maybe you’re a huge history buff? Then I’d recommend Hiroshima. But what if you’re a huge foodie? Osaka is street food and fine dining central. There are even more destinations beyond that, such as Nara for the bowing deers or Hakone for the onsens. Just be sure to do your research and choose the appropriate cities for you.
2. Choose Your Home Base Wisely
Once you’ve figured out where you’re going to go, the logical next step would be to figure out where you’re going to stay. My advice would be to pick somewhere central, preferably near a large train station with multiple lines. It’ll not only make it easier to get around but it’ll also ensure that you have plenty of food options at all times.
I stayed in Shibuya while I was in Tokyo and getting around was a breeze. Shibuya station is one of the busiest stations in Japan containing lines from JR Rail, Keio, Tokyu and Tokyo Metro. This gave me multiple choices when it came to commuting but that also meant there were plenty of 24-hour food establishments in the area. And trust me, there is nothing more depressing than returning after a day of exploring with an empty stomach and having no food to eat.
How do I know this? Well, I didn’t stay in such a central area when I was in Kyoto. I stayed one stop away from Kyoto station and it made a world of difference. The train didn’t run as frequently and there was practically nothing to eat around our AirBnB. So take it from a person with experience and pick a convenient location to stay at.
3. Getting Around is Easier than it Looks
When I first heard that there were multiple lines in Japan that were owned and operated by different companies I was overwhelmed, and I’m a New Yorker. But fret not because Japan’s transportation is a lot simpler than it first appears. Although there are multiple lines to get to the same destination, as long as you stick with one you’ll be fine. There will be a few times where you need to hop onto a different line but that’s where a PASMO comes in handy.
A PASMO is a smart card that can be used in place of a train ticket or cash. It’s accepted by multiple railway companies and even at 7/11 and vending machines on the street! All you need to do is purchase a PASMO at any participating train station and load up the card with cash. Then you just tap it on the card reader at the subway gates to get in and then tap it again to get out, much like how an Oyster card works in London.
However, PASMO is not accepted on the Shinkansen, otherwise known as the bullet train. You’ll most likely be taking the bullet train to travel in between cities in Japan but this is where a JR Pass is key. The JR Pass is for tourists only and it is a discounted railway pass that is valid for travel on all national trains in Japan. Basically, you pay a flat fee for a 7-, 14- or 21-day pass and show it to the officers at each station to get in and out for free for however long your pass is valid. JR Rail also operates within cities so it might even be possible to get around on a JR pass alone.
4. Cash is King
If you’re an American like myself then you probably survive off of credit cards, but many places in Japan will only accept cash. Be sure to bring enough cash with you for the duration of your trip and check with your bank to see if you’ll be charged foreign transaction fees. If they do, I’d suggest trying to avoid withdrawing from an ATM while abroad since those foreign transaction fees can add up and end up costing as much as a nice dinner!
In case your bank does charge foreign transaction fees, my friends have often recommended opening an account with Charles Schwab Bank. They don’t charge a fee when you use a foreign ATM and don’t charge currency conversion fees for debit card transactions. However, depositing cash can be hard as there aren’t many branches so be sure to do your research before you apply.
5. Having an Itinerary Doesn’t Mean You Need to Stick With it
I’m the type of person who enjoys setting up itineraries for all my travels, but i don’t live and die by them. They’re more of a suggestion of what to do with my day, and I give myself the freedom to switch things up if I want.
If you need some itinerary inspiration, feel free to consult my Japan 2017 itinerary. But when you’re actually in Japan and exploring, if a certain location interests you a lot, feel free to spend more time there than you allotted. If you hold yourself too tightly to your itinerary you can end up feeling rushed and stressed out. Remember that you’re on vacation and this trip is for you to enjoy yourself.