Go Back  FlyerTalk Forums > Destinations > Asia > Japan
Reload this Page >

Hints for first time visitors to Japan

Hints for first time visitors to Japan

Old Mar 24, 17, 10:02 am
  #1  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Feb 2015
Location: London
Posts: 203
Lightbulb Hints for first time visitors to Japan

I have lived and worked in Japan and still visit regularly. Recently friends planning their first visit there asked me for any tips I had to make their trip more enjoyable. I tried to think of things that are not seen in any of the articles published. Here are some of the comments I came up with hoping they may interest others.

Japanese travellers at home travel light. If you want to pick out the foreign tourists at Shinjuku station look for the guys with the big bags. If you visit a ryokan you can turn up with little more than your passport and wallet. The ryokan supplies almost everything you will need. Day wear, night wear, toothbrush and paste, razor, shaving cream, comb and more lotions and potions that you know what to do with or where to put them. If that is not sufficient just ask, maybe some nail clippers for example, they will be with you in moments.

As a foreign visitor you will have one or more suitcase anyway, and Japanese couples and families have luggage too but JR, Japan Rail, is not luggage friendly and the Bullet Train, Shinkansen, is the least friendly of all. There is no dedicated luggage space on the Shinkansen at all, zero. Behind the last seats in each carriage there is a small free space that will hold a couple of bags each side of the aisle but you will be lucky to find this not already taken. You are not prohibited from taking your bags on board and you will see people doing just that, hoping for a free seat space at best. But it is not the Japanese way. Loads of them take advantage of a super-efficient and cheap baggage forwarding service, Yamato Kuro Neko, the Black Cat system. Their distinctive logo is a stylised black mother cat carrying its kitten by the neck, all on a bright yellow background. Once pointed out you will see it on vans, trollies, carrier bags and on shops several times every hour as you are out and about in Tokyo. It is ubiquitous. Every hotel I have ever stayed in has all the forms and if you present your bag and the address of the next destination to the concierge he will do everything needed. The bill will be added to your hotel account and the service is not expensive. About the cost of a modest lunch in Tokyo per bag. They will have your bag almost anywhere in japan within 24 hours. On arrival at your next hotel or ryokan your bag is likely to be in your room when you get there. Once you have tried the system you will be impressed how easy it makes travel.

My partner and I being unnecessarily cautious devised a fail-safe system when we are moving around quite quickly just in case there is some delay, which we have never actually experienced. We split our packing between two bags and forward one to our next destination and the other to the one after that. Our bags will leapfrog around our route and one or both will finally end up at our departure airport. At Tokyo Narita the Black Cat collection point is right in the check-in area with luggage trollies available and it takes less than a minute to retrieve your bags.

The JR Rail Pass for foreign visitors is a valuable concession and we have used it several times. The cost for a seven day pass equals about the same as the return fare from Tokyo to Kyoto-Osaka so if that is an example of your main travel in Japan any other rail travel off that route and within the time limit of the pass is a bonus, free. Its main drawback is that the pass is valid for consecutive days, perhaps one week, so if you remain in one place, like Kyoto for example, for several days you feel you are missing out on the full benefit of the pass. Not so many visitors are aware of the Airpass system. If you arrive and depart Japan on a carrier associated with one of the airline alliances like Oneworld you can purchase coupons for a substantial discount. You can buy any number of coupons and each is valid for one sector. The length of the sector, long or short, is immaterial. You could probably fly from Sapporo to Okinawa on two coupons. On our more recent trips to Japan we have combined full fare rail tickets and airpass flights very efficiently.

There is a free online website called Hyperdia, a rail planning application that is easy to use and right up to date. It provides not only train times and connections but also the exact cost of each ticket in whatever class you travel, including seat reservation costs. It even gives you all the arrival and departure platform numbers for your trains. If you print out your selected option the JR ticketing office can work from it with no language problems arising. Using Hyperdia you can easily calculate your exact rail costs and decide if the JR Rail Pass would be a better deal or if you will find a combination of rail and air ticketing is more advantageous. When you purchase individual tickets you can vary the class of travel to suit the circumstances and control the cost. Some of our Shinkansen sectors were very short, twenty to thirty minutes, and we chose standard seats while for the longer sectors we moved up to seats in Green Car (First) class. Standard seating is three plus three across and is a bit on the tight side for a well-built westerner. In the Green Car the seating is two plus two.

On our last visit to Japan we travelled from Tokyo to Osaka indirectly with side trips into the Hakone area (Gora) and the Izu Peninsula (Shuzenji) on regular train tickets that were not all on JR and from Osaka flew on an airpass coupon direct to Narita with an immediate connection to British Airways. Because we were with BA we qualified for coupons with JAL. On a previous trip we had coupons with ANA. The costing is identical. The advantage of this routing was that we avoided transit through Tokyo and the cost of travel from the city to Narita. We prefer the Limousine Bus and that fare now is about one third of the airpass coupon so it became a good option.

The Tokyo Metro is easy to use and the most efficient way of getting around. There are two contactless card ticket systems available. PASMO AND SUICA. I am familiar with Pasmo and cannot compare the two. Pasmo cards can be bought using the self-service ticket machines at all stations. The price includes a deposit of Yen500 and you can charge up the card with cash for use and recharge it when necessary. It can be used on buses and in a number of outlets apart from the metro, such as convenience stores. Before you leave you can return the card for a full refund of the deposit and any unused cash, with no deductions. To get your refund you have to find the station masterís office. Not every station has one but all the larger ones will though in the large stations it might take a bit of finding. If you are in Tokyo for just a day or so you might decide that it is not worth the trouble and just buy single tickets. There is no price disadvantage in doing so. Ticket pricing depends on your destination and to work out the proper fare you need to consult a large metro map above most ticket machines where your required station will have a correct fare alongside. If this is a bit complicated or you canít find your glasses itís no big problem. Just buy the cheapest ticket and proceed to your destination. At the exit barrier you will see a clearly labelled fare adjustment counter and the attendant will work out the correct fare and collect the outstanding amount. This is quite a standard and acceptable practice and there is no fear that you may be trying to cheat the system.

The ryokan experience is unforgettable, even though on more than one occasion I have said ďNever againĒ. But I did do it again on our last visit. The problem for me is all the sitting and sleeping at floor level. At my age it is not so easy and a bit undignified getting up. Also I have found that however comfortable the futon seems when I get into bed by morning I feel that I have been sleeping on a stone bench. But there is a solution. Most ryokan will allow several guests to share the room and stored away in the room is the extra bedding should it be needed. Put all of that under you and the night is no longer so punishing. If you are quick about it and remember to ask the room attendant she will do it for you when she makes up the beds after dinner.
gbs1112 is offline  
Old Mar 24, 17, 10:34 am
  #2  
 
Join Date: Mar 2004
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota,USA
Programs: UA, NW
Posts: 3,743
For all practical purposes, Pasmo and Suica are the same in the greater Tokyo area, but Suica is valid in more parts of Japan. (The list has expanded a lot in the past couple of years.) Having a card eliminates the guesswork in transit fares, because the fare is automatically deducted as you swipe the card going onto and leaving the platform.

I'm of the opinion that first-time visitors to Japan should not fly domestically unless they have to cover huge distances in a short time. High-speed rail is one of the quintessential Japanese experiences, and it gives you a glimpse of what Japan looks like between major cities. Even landing in Tokyo one afternoon and making a noon-time meeting in Hiroshima the next day is no problem on the Shinkansen, even if you have a JR Pass, can't ride the Nozomi, and have to change trains at Shin-Osaka.

Japan is quite affordable if you don't need a luxury hotel and gourmet meals. Stay in business hotels in the cities (US$100 or less, as little as US$50 in the smaller cities, for a bare-bones single, sometimes with breakfast) and minshuku (low-cost ryokan-style rooms in family homes) in the country. Eat in the countless mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall restaurants that line the streets of every city.

Yes, you can drink the tap water.

That yellowish-tan liquid that some restaurants will serve you in the summer is iced mugi-cha, or barley tea. It's kind of bitter but refreshing if you can develop a taste for it.

Don't order coffee or black tea in a restaurant unless it's specifically advertised as part of the meal. It will cost you. For a quick caffeine pick-me-up, go to a fast food outlet, a real coffee shop, or a vending machine (hot canned coffee in the winter, cold canned coffee in the summer).

If you go sightseeing in the winter, wear thick socks. You have to take your shoes off to visit temples, and you will be sorry if you do this while wearing thin socks.

Nowadays, washrooms in the cities usually offer a choice between Asian-style and Western-style toilets, but small towns and minshuku or ryokan may have only the Asian style. Fortunately, the aging of Japan's population has prompted the installation of handrails in the Asian-style stalls, so that Western visitors who have not perfected their deep knee bend techniques can do what needs to be done without falling over.

However, it is rare to find a washroom that has hot water AND soap AND paper towels. Carrying moist wipes (wetto tisshuu) or hand sanitizer is a good idea.

Above all, if you land at NRT, do NOT take a cab to the central city unless you do not flinch at the price of a 5-star hotel room. The airport is 60km (40 miles) out of town. Take one of the rail options or, if one goes to or near your hotel, the Limousine Bus, for US$30 max.

The luggage-forwarding service is one of my favorite things about Japan.

Japan is only about the size of California. You can take easy day trips from both Tokyo and Kyoto, so you can go several days without changing hotels. Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe are all within day trip distance of one another (e.g. Nara is 30 minutes from Kyoto), and you can range even farther afield. I once took a group of students on a day trip to Hida-Takayama from Kyoto.

Read up on Japanese culture and history before you go. Otherwise, all the shrines, temples, and castles will look alike. See if you can find a copy of Gateway to Japan. Its descriptions of hotels and restaurants and prices in general are ridiculously out of date, but no book that I know of provides a better overview of things like who all those Buddhist statues are or why the Tokugawas are important historical figures.
muji and burroheadnebula like this.
ksandness is offline  
Old Mar 24, 17, 10:56 am
  #3  
A FlyerTalk Posting Legend
 
Join Date: Sep 2009
Location: Minneapolis: DL DM charter 2.3MM
Programs: A3*Gold, SPG Plat, HyattDiamond, MarriottPP, LHW exAccess, ICI, Raffles Amb, NW PE MM, TWA Gold MM
Posts: 92,784
It varies a bit and might be available only to foreigners, but if you purchase a RT ticket at NRT for the Limosine Bus, there's usually an offer for a free several day pass ticket for the the Tokyo JR subways (not including the private lines) that you can activate within six months. Look for the sign (in English) about this at the counter and point to it when you purchase your ticket. Then be sure to make a reservation with your hotel for the return trip to the airport. At most stops, seating priority goes to hotel guests, but you usually must make the reservation a day before.
MSPeconomist is offline  
Old Mar 24, 17, 1:25 pm
  #4  
 
Join Date: Dec 2010
Location: YYZ
Programs: AMEX AC CX UA AA DL
Posts: 2,991
>> .. Airpass system. If you arrive and depart Japan on a carrier associated with one of the airline alliances like Oneworld you can purchase coupons for a substantial discount.

No need to be flying with any alliance to qualify for other foreign-tourist-only discounted air tickets, same price (or even cheaper) on ANA or JAL, and Air Do. Bookable online only.

On the other hand "Airpass" must be booked through a travel agent or the airlines, and some charge as much as 50 USD extra for the privilege.
beep88 is offline  
Old Mar 24, 17, 4:13 pm
  #5  
 
Join Date: Feb 2015
Posts: 706
Very useful info here. THank you to the OP and everyone who is contributing!
ft4lyf is offline  
Old Mar 26, 17, 1:41 pm
  #6  
 
Join Date: May 2001
Location: exUA1K, UA MM, lifetime UA1P, AA MM, HH Diamond, Marriott Gold
Posts: 3,594
Consider getting a meal or two from a nearby kombini (Lawson, Family Mart, or 7-11. Sadly, Sunkus/Circle K stores are converting to Family Mart.)

Inexpensive and surprising selection and quality! Clerks offer to warm the food. Even the chicken sandwiches are pretty good.

My first test of this was during a massive rainstorm and I had no interest in walking any extra steps to acquire a meal. Success!

Another tip: Avoid US hotel chains in Japan. I stay at an independent business hotel and love it! The price is a fraction of the US chain hotels, too.

When I've stayed at US chain hotels in various countries, I felt like I was still in the US.

Another tip: Trash cans do not exist on the street. Instead, use the trash can and recycling bins in front of konbinis.
RaginPlainsman likes this.

Last edited by roberto99; Mar 26, 17 at 1:50 pm
roberto99 is offline  
Old Mar 26, 17, 2:55 pm
  #7  
 
Join Date: Sep 2015
Programs: LH SEN; BA Gold
Posts: 8,373
Originally Posted by roberto99 View Post
Avoid US hotel chains in Japan.
That tipp can be expanded to the world. Picking a hotel that fits perfectly (price, quality, location, etc...) usually means staying at places not part of a US chain or another chain for that matter.

That said, I don't mind going to a US chain hotel in Japan if that hotel is excellent. I usually try a mix of ryokans, Japanese hotels and Western hotels.
mhrb likes this.
WorldLux is offline  
Old Mar 26, 17, 8:00 pm
  #8  
 
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 2,017
Make it a habit to check which exit you want at subway/train stations and have a general idea of which way to turn. This will save you time and hopefully result in not getting lost as often.

Use your indoor voice in public, especially while on public transit. It might take a while to notice that the overall voice level is quite low. Unfortunately, you might notice you've been speaking too loudly when you hear other foreigners, not because the language may sound familiar but because the entire car is getting a free foreign language lesson.

Carry some cash and a coin wallet. Temple entrances take cash. Street food vendors often take cash and most Japanese people don't walk and eat at the same time. You can use passmo/suica at the combini and this reduces extra change (some 100 yen change is usually handy while too much change is heavy).
muji and mhrb like this.

Last edited by freecia; Mar 26, 17 at 8:18 pm
freecia is offline  
Old Mar 27, 17, 8:03 am
  #9  
 
Join Date: Aug 2006
Location: Smyrna, GA, USA
Programs: DL DM 1MM
Posts: 1,654
  • If you like using bar soap, bring it with you
  • Don't expect to find half and half offered with coffee
angra is offline  
Old Mar 27, 17, 9:48 am
  #10  
 
Join Date: Mar 2004
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota,USA
Programs: UA, NW
Posts: 3,743
Another wonderful thing about convenience stores is that when it starts raining. they immediately roll a rack of cheap (•500) plastic umbrellas onto the sidewalk for passersby who have been caught short.

Public buildings often have a plastic bag dispenser at the entrance. The idea is that you place it over your dripping wet umbrella, should you happen to have one. If there are no plastic bags, leave the umbrella in the rack at the door.

Not all ATMs take non-Japanese bank cards, even though ATMs were commonplace in Japan before they were commonplace in the U.S.

First Citibank ATMs became available in a few locations, and then, when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the World Cup, the post offices began offering international ATMs. Now they are available in 7-11 stores, and the Seven Bank ATMs in locations such as NRT also take foreign cards.

But you still can't walk up to any random Japanese ATM and expect it to accept your card.

You cannot buy a mobile phone as a non-resident foreigner. This used to be possible, but it became illegal at some point, supposedly because foreigners were using them to commit crimes (and Japanese people never did?). You can, however, rent a phone or a SIM card or rent a pocket wi-fi and use your phone's wi-fi function.
ksandness is offline  
Old Mar 27, 17, 10:50 am
  #11  
 
Join Date: Aug 2008
Programs: HHonors Gold, Marriott Lifetime Gold, OZ*G, AA Plat
Posts: 1,675
Originally Posted by ksandness View Post
You cannot buy a mobile phone as a non-resident foreigner. This used to be possible, but it became illegal at some point, supposedly because foreigners were using them to commit crimes (and Japanese people never did?). You can, however, rent a phone or a SIM card or rent a pocket wi-fi and use your phone's wi-fi function.
Well, SoftBank does, but only at the airport, and it's kinda pricey.
jamar is offline  
Old Mar 27, 17, 3:17 pm
  #12  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Feb 2015
Location: London
Posts: 203
[QUOTE=gbs1112;28080995
As a foreign visitor you will have one or more suitcase anyway, and Japanese couples and families have luggage too but JR, Japan Rail, is not luggage friendly and the Bullet Train, Shinkansen, is the least friendly of all. There is no dedicated luggage space on the Shinkansen at all, zero. Behind the last seats in each carriage there is a small free space that will hold a couple of bags each side of the aisle but you will be lucky to find this not already taken. You are not prohibited from taking your bags on board and you will see people doing just that, hoping for a free seat space at best. But it is not the Japanese way. Loads of them take advantage of a super-efficient and cheap baggage forwarding service, Yamato Kuro Neko, the Black Cat system. Their distinctive logo is a stylised black mother cat carrying its kitten by the neck, all on a bright yellow background. Once pointed out you will see it on vans, trollies, carrier bags and on shops several times every hour as you are out and about in Tokyo. It is ubiquitous. Every hotel I have ever stayed in has all the forms and if you present your bag and the address of the next destination to the concierge he will do everything needed. The bill will be added to your hotel account and the service is not expensive. About the cost of a modest lunch in Tokyo per bag. They will have your bag almost anywhere in japan within 24 hours.
[/QUOTE]

Report in today's Japan Times that Yamato (Black Cat) will be raising their prices for the first time in 27 years, in September this year. So right now it must be a super bargain.
gbs1112 is offline  
Old Mar 27, 17, 4:07 pm
  #13  
 
Join Date: Dec 2010
Location: YYZ
Programs: AMEX AC CX UA AA DL
Posts: 2,991
Originally Posted by roberto99 View Post

Another tip: Avoid US hotel chains in Japan. I stay at an independent business hotel and love it! The price is a fraction of the US chain hotels, too.

When I've stayed at US chain hotels in various countries, I felt like I was still in the US.
Comfort Hotel (part of Choice Hotels group) :

60 USD single Downtown shopping district Osaka (and various cities, near main train stations, clean and safe)

Free simple western + JAPANESE buffet breakfast (better than the 10 USD breafkast at Holiday Inn Express in NA)

Small room with no closet.

Unit bath.

None of these reminds me of North American hotels
beep88 is offline  
Old Mar 27, 17, 5:53 pm
  #14  
 
Join Date: Jun 2004
Location: Central California
Programs: Former UA Premex, now dirt
Posts: 6,528
Originally Posted by roberto99 View Post
... Another tip: Avoid US hotel chains in Japan. I stay at an independent business hotel and love it! The price is a fraction of the US chain hotels, too.
...
Not necessarily always the case. The aforementioned Comfort Hotels are on my list and have been central to my plans many times. Like all Japanese business hotels, the rooms tend to the small size but many newer Comforts offer full sized and even queen sized beds, which is almost unheard of. They always have reliable wifi, good breakfast buffet and are often found in excellent locations for tourism. Another plus is that they can be booked via the Choice Hotels website, which is English only.

A near equivalent Japanese chain is Route Inn.
abmj-jr is offline  
Old Mar 27, 17, 6:55 pm
  #15  
 
Join Date: Feb 2013
Location: Hampton->Conrad->Hampton again
Posts: 4,984
Originally Posted by roberto99 View Post
Consider getting a meal or two from a nearby kombini (Lawson, Family Mart, or 7-11. Sadly, Sunkus/Circle K stores are converting to Family Mart.)

Inexpensive and surprising selection and quality! Clerks offer to warm the food. Even the chicken sandwiches are pretty good.

My first test of this was during a massive rainstorm and I had no interest in walking any extra steps to acquire a meal. Success!

Another tip: Avoid US hotel chains in Japan. I stay at an independent business hotel and love it! The price is a fraction of the US chain hotels, too.

When I've stayed at US chain hotels in various countries, I felt like I was still in the US.
I actually think konbini bentos and sandwiches are crap. You'll find much better bread/pastries/sandwiches at chain bakeries (eg, Vie de France), and much better salad and bentos at depachika. The only ready-made eats at konbini that I find delicious are omusubi and maki-sushi. However, convenience store food is still infitinely better in Jpn than it is in US.

As for US chain hotels, I disagree. Especially if you have status. Diamond status takes you much farther at Hiltons in Jpn (and rest of Asia for that matter) than in the US. Lounges are much better, upgrades are generally better, you often get 4-5pm checkout even without asking, you get free breakfast buffet for the entire family (vs continental or sometimes full for just you +1). Even if you don't have status, upscale US chain hotels tend to be a bit more flexible and generous with things like late checkout.

Some of the independent Jpn chains are quite honestly crappy. Prince hotels have low standards. Some of the Nikko Hotels are not kept up well. Keio Plaza in Shinjuku is okay, but I'll take Hyatt and Hilton in Shinjuku any day over Keio Plaza even if I had to pay a bit more. If you go to Fujiya hotel in Hakone (part of the upscale Fujiya Hotel chain), you'd be surprised how filthy some of the rooms are. On the other hand, Hilton and Hyatt in Jpn are consistently clean and comfortable.
mhrb likes this.
evergrn is offline  

Thread Tools
Search this Thread
Search Engine: