Japan travel tips from a first-time gaijin

 

Shibuya Crossing at night

Shibuya Crossing at night

I’m back from 2 weeks in Japan.  Here are some tips that I wish I had known at the beginning of my trip.

WiFi

  • Free WiFi is rare. Airports will have free WiFi. Large train stations will have free WiFi in the hub area but not from the platforms.  I had problems getting paid WiFi to work from the platforms a few times.
  • Less than half of the hotels we stayed at had free WiFi in the room.  Some had free WiFi in the lobby though.  It’s very difficult to tell when booking a hotel whether “free WiFi” is in the room or just in the lobby.
  • More than half of hotels had free wired ethernet available in the room.  Highly recommended that you bring a compact wireless router.

Mobile data

  • We rented a Japanese SIM from Advanced Global Communications. Despite inquiring several weeks before our trip, they were sold out of WiFi hotspot devices, so we rented a SIM card and tethered.  You reserve your SIM or device online and either pick it up at the airport or have it shipped to your hotel.  The package includes a return mail envelope, and you drop it in the mail before you leave the country.
  • Had we known that public WiFi is so rare, we’d have rented one SIM card for each person.  Several times our group wanted to split up, but it was too painful to find each other later, so we stuck together.
  • Mobile providers advertise “unlimited” data, but you will be massively throttled if you go over 1GB in a 3 day period.  We were throttled on the 2nd day, and for the remainder of the trip we had 6Mb upstream and 0.01Mb downstream (literally).  Only Google Maps and Gmail worked at all on that slow of downstream.  Strangely, because upstream wasn’t throttled, uploading images and even movies to Facebook and Instagram worked well.  Facebook home feeds or web browsing were unusable though – just timed out after a couple minutes 80% of the time.

Cash

  • Vending machines, subway tickets, and ramen ticket dispensers take only cash.  Save your cash for these things, and pay using a credit card at convenience stores and hotels.
  • Every 7-Eleven location has an ATM where you can withdraw money.  The fees for me (Bank of America) were approximately $5 per transaction + 3% currency conversion fee.

Japan Rail Pass

  • A JR Rail Pass costs $445 for 2 weeks.  It *must* be purchased outside of Japan from a Japanese travel agent.  They give you a voucher, then you exchange the voucher inside of Japan at the airport train station for your pass.
  • The pass is good for the “JR” lines (trains).  If you’re bouncing around the huge Tokyo area you’ll more often be taking subways, which aren’t JR.
  • We traveled around Tokyo and from Tokyo to Kyoto via Shinkansen (bullet train, ~$150 each way).  The pass was slightly worse than break-even.  If you’re going to stick around Tokyo for your trip, the rail pass is likely not worth it.  If you’ll be traveling to Kyoto or farther, it’s probably worth it.

Hostels, Hotels, and reservations

  • Even the cheapest hostels and hotels are safe and clean.  Every part of Japan we saw was safe and clean.
  • If traveling in a group of 3 or more, a cheap hotel will be roughly the same price as a hostel, and you’ll likely sleep better than in a large room with strangers.
  • For a country obsessed with convenience, booking hostels/hotels/services in Japan is a pain.  Many places don’t have online reservation systems, instead you fill out a web request form and wait for someone to manually email you with an answer for whether they can accommodate you. After a few days of being frustrated by these email reservations, we started using HostelWorld and Hotels.com to book.
  • Hotels and hostels will fill up on Friday nights and weekends.  Book a couple days in advance for those nights.
  • Many special services like bath houses and river rafting won’t let you book less than 24 hours in advance, so plan your activities 2 days ahead.

Important phrases

  • arigatō – thank you
  • sumimasen – excuse me / pardon me
  • konichiwa – hello
  • sayonara – goodbye
  • daijoubu – I’m OK (if someone bumps you)
  • oishī des – it’s delicious (thank the ramen cook after finishing your bowl)