Monday, March 14, 2016

My (practical) Japan Travel Tips

Perhaps because I have been to Japan so often these past 17 years, friends usually ask me for tips -- where to go, how to get there, what to eat, etc. etc.  While I am far from being an expert on Japan,  I am always happy to share what I know.
My particular interests are temples, shrines and quaint, off-the-beaten-tourist-track places where the only gaijin face is usually my own.  I realise that these are not what many of you are looking for (after a couple of temples,  friends have screamed "enough!") so I will share  the most practical recommendations I can think of which may help you enjoy your Japan vacation.

1. Should you buy a JR Pass?

The JR Pass, sold abroad and only to foreign tourists, costs about 29,000 yen for a 7 day pass.
Unless you are going from Tokyo to Osaka and back on the shinkansen or bullet train (which costs 28,000 yen for a round trip reserved seat), or will be travelling frequently using the shinkansen between major cities,  it will not be worth it.
The JR Pass is valid only on JR Lines,  both regular trains and shinkansen.  If you're staying in one place like Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, you'll be going around the city via subway, private trains and even buses where you cannot use the JR Pass.   Spare yourself the expense and instead ...

2. Get a pre-paid subway pass.

A pre-paid subway card is indispensable when you travel to Japan.  PASMO can be used in TokyoKansai, Hokkaido while the ICOCA card is for Kansai use only.  You can also get the SUICA card which is likewise used in Tokyo.
Unlike  subways in major cities like New York and Paris where you pay a flat fare to travel within the city zone,  fares in Japan are calculated by distance and it can be confusing and time consuming to keep checking the fares and buying single tickets every time you ride the subway or train. With the subway card, you zip right through the turnstile.
Buy the pre-paid cards from vending machines in almost any subway station and top
it up from the same machines when your balance dips low.  These cards can be used for buses,
to pay for purchases in convenience stores or even pay your taxi fare.  Any balance left over can be refunded when you leave Japan or you can keep it for your next trip.
If you are landing in Kansai International Airport en route to Kyoto, get the special ICOCA card shown above which gives you a good discount on Haruka, the airport express train that will take you from KIX to Kyoto Station.

3. Download a Tokyo Subway App.

Tokyo is a huge city with more than 200 subway stations.  Plus there are 13 subway lines.  Which line do you use?  Where do you get off?  How do you get from one station to the other?
I'd recommend that you download a Tokyo Subway app, available for both IOS and android devices.  These apps allow you to trace your route from one station to the next so you always know where to get on and off.   Extremely useful and will help you from getting "lost in translation".

4. Stay Connected with Pocket Wi-Fi.

Always be connected while in Japan, not just so that you can post your awesome photos
and  get all your friends green with envy -- but also to be able to find your way around.
Addresses are confusing and buildings are not numbered sequentially.  Even Tokyo natives
get lost!  Didn't I say how enormous the city is?
With your pocket wi-fi, you can google-map your way around and lessen the chances of not finding that highly recommended but hidden ramen restaurant.
Rent a pocket wi-fi ahead of your trip and it will be delivered to your hotel, waiting for you when you arrive.  It comes with a self addressed envelope which you use to mail the device back before you leave.
The photo above is a sample from  I have been renting from them for many years and they're very reliable.
Just another tip -- if you're traveling to Japan during peak season (spring or autumn) make sure you order your pocket wi-fi weeks ahead as they may just run out of the devices.

5. Plan your itinerary.

This is just one small part the Tokyo skyline, as seen from the Tokyo Sky Tree -- as you can see, it's a vast metropolis where it's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the city.
Osaka and Kyoto are smaller but definitely not lacking for places to see and things to do.
I suggest that before you leave,  make an itinerary that lists down your priorities -- 
your must-go-to and must-see places. 
Like any big city, it's impossible to see and do everything on your first visit but with a well planned itinerary, you will at least hit the spots you most want to see.
I personally would recommend that specially for first time visitors,  whether you're headed to TokyoOsaka, Kyoto,  Sapporo or any other place in Japan --  you should stay a minimum of five whole days so that at the very least, you can get a sense of the place.

And p.s. try and learn a few key Japanese phrases.

While I  don't expect you to learn kanji for a one week vacation (I certainly can't) I would suggest that you memorise a few important words and phrases.  My Japanese friends know 
my favourite phrase is "biru o kudasai"  or "beer please" and they assure me that is all I need to know.
But seriously speaking,  the Japanese are polite and hospitable people and like any host, they 
are appreciative when you try and speak their language.  
Everyone knows "arigato" (thanks)  but try saying "domo arigato gozaimashita" (thank you for what you did) particularly at the end of a service like a meal or a transaction and you will come across as polite and respectful.
"Ohayo gozaimasu" is "good morning" and "konbanwa" means "good evening".  
You can say "konichiwa" or "hello" for the hours after lunch till late afternoon.  
To call someone's attention, say "sumimasen" or excuse me.  You can also say it when you're crushed in the middle of the subway during rush hour. If you unintentionally step on toes as you exit the train, say "gomen nasai" or "I'm sorry."
Everyone knows how to say "oishii" which means "delicious".  If you're dining with Japanese friends, say "itadakimasu" before you dig in  ("I will receive this food")  and they will certainly be impressed.
And to gain a smile from your waiter or the cashier as you pay your bill , say "gochisousama deshita" or "it was a feast"! 

Yoi tabi o kudasai!
Have a good trip please. 

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