Travel Advice for Japan Part 1 of 3

03/01/2017 08:50

I was going to talk about this topic at some point anyway but since my mother has recently purchased tickets to come and visit me I figured now was a more than appropriate time to post this.  This post is talking about preparing for your trip to Japan and some things to keep in mind while visiting.  I will create a completely separate post regarding what to pack later.  This post would be excessively long otherwise.  You can use some of what I say here to apply for other countries as well.  I will try to put these in a somewhat order of importance not necessarily in a timeline.  Also, I am not even going to mention money because if you are seriously considering a trip to Japan then you already know about the costs.

1.   Visa

The first and most important thing to consider is your visa status.  Now, I can only answer for Americans as I am
an American myself, but I do know that most countries don't really need to worry about this.  For American tourist, you can just show up and stay there for up to 90 days.  Just so long as you have a passport, you can arrive in the country and they will give you a visitor visa upon arrival.  Same with Korea icyww.  If you are unsure about your visa standing, then check with your local embassy.  You should do this first before you even consider traveling to another country. 

2.   Check the weather

You need to think about the type of weather you like.  During the summer, Japan is seriously humid. Not to mention it rains pretty much nonstop. If you come from a dry climate, this can be shocking to your health.  On the flip side, winter is very windy and dry.  Plus, almost everything is dead so unless you love snow there won't be much to see nature wise.  Be sure you check the weather and plan accordingly.  There is nothing like planning a trip to see snow only to discover that the month you thought would have snow does not have much and you basically just wasted your money.

3.   Travel Agent/Flights

Ok, so now you have checked that your visa requirements are met and you have chosen a time to visit, now it is time to talk money.  The best way to see Japan is via a travel agent because they can offer you great deals on hotels as well as tour packages, which are wonderful.  If you do not know any Japanese, but want to see as much as possible, a travel agency is the way to go.  You will get English tours with other people as well as be assigned an agent to help you navigate around the country during your stay.  I know that not everyone can
afford a travel agency, so that is why I suggest you check out flight prices.  The best way to handle international travel is to purchase tickets via the airline directly.  You can use expedia to find out which has the cheapest then check with the airline company themselves to see if they offer the same prices.  Most of the time, they will match it if you call and ask them.  This way it eliminates the intermediary.  Say you buy tickets through expedia. 
The times are perfect and you are happy with them.  Then suddenly, one of your flight times gets changed.  You would have to contact expedia, explain your dilemma, then wait for expedia to contact the Airline Company, then expedia will contact you back; it is a huge mess and most of the time the 3rd party provider will do nothing about it because it is a huge hassle.  Whereas if you contact, let's say, United directly, they can solve all your problems right then because you purchased from them.

4.   Hotels

If you have somewhat of an idea of what you want to do in Japan then you can go ahead and book now that you have your flights, but I mostly am putting this as number 4 because of financial reasons.  If you are planning to stay in Tokyo, Okinawa, or Osaka, it's expensive.  Just basically plan on paying at least $150 a night.  If you are staying in other areas like Nagano, Nagoya, or in my case, Gunma, then you can find a hotel for around $50-$80 a night pretty easily.  An important thing to note: Japan, and I think most of Asia, charges per person, not per room.  This is important to factor into your budget.  If you are planning a group trip with some friends, make sure that everyone knows the rates of rooms.  They are expensive and tiny.  Hardly enough legroom, but usually enough space, if you are good at Tetris, for all your belongings and you.

Now, if you are young and plan on "backpacking" through Japan, then you are probably ok using a hostel, Air BnB, or pod hotels.  If you are a woman traveling alone I highly advise against a hostel.  Japanese people are safe, but hostels are co-ed and filled with people from other countries that you don't know anything about.  Those are the people I wouldn't trust.  At least with pod hotels you get lockers and private little pod beds.  With Air BnB, book at your own discretion.   If you are traveling with some friends then I'd say hostels are ok.

Any one over the age of 35 should start considering staying away from hostels and pod hotels and if you are in your 40s and up just don't even do it.  It is just not good on your body at that point.  Plus, you will look like a really poor older person lol.

5.   Access

If you are over 25, you have a couple of options.  You are able to rent a car in Japan should you choose to.  However, you need to obtain an international driver's license.  In America, those are easy to obtain.  They cost about $15 and all you need to bring is your current license, your passport, and a passport photo.  You can go to any AAA office and apply in person.  The process takes 15-30 minutes depending on how busy the offices are.

If you don't want to drive or are too young for Japan to be ok with giving you a car to drive, then I recommend the JR Pass. You can find more detailed information here: http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/.  You can purchase the JR Pass here: https://www.japan-rail-pass.com/jr-pass.  The JR Pass allows you to ride most shinkansens (bullet trains), all the JR trains, as well as the JR buses throughout all of Japan.  This means that if you buy the standard pass, then you can go from one island to the next without any limits.  It basically pays for itself in 2-3 shinkansen rides.  They also have area passes if you plan on only visiting a specific area or island, and those
all have varied prices.  You can find all of that info here: https://www.japan-rail-pass.com/pass-regional. 

In short, if you don't want to drive, you are fine with just taking the trains everywhere.  Unless you are wanting to go to Iwate, which has basically no trains, you should be able to navigate without problems.  Especially since all stations include English.

6.   Phones/internet

Japan is not a Wi-Fi nation.  Meaning you can't just go to a store and use their free Wi-Fi because they don't have that.  Starbucks offers free Wi-Fi but there are not that many Starbucks in Japan.  Some other restaurants also offer free Wi-Fi but only if you have certain Japanese cell phone providers.  All hotels offer free Wi-Fi and limited stations in Tokyo do as well.  So if you feel comfortable navigating Japan without Wi-Fi then go for it.  Most of us feel uncomfortable without our phones so here is my suggestion.  If you don't need anything fancy but just want to be able to call your family back home or be able to call someone in case of an emergency then this site https://www.piccellwireless.com/ is my suggestion.  I have used them before without a hitch.  Many many JETs used them when they first arrived as well as when I studied abroad everyone in my program used them too and had no problems.  You place your order ahead of time, then they send you a phone with
instructions.  After you return, you can just ship it back.

If you are more tech savvy or are prone to being lost a lot, like I am, then you may want to use a pocket Wi-Fi. This site http://japan-wireless.com/ is my recommendation.  You can order the pocket Wi-Fi in advance then pick it up either at your hotel or at the airport's post office.  Before you return home return the pocket Wi-Fi to the post office at the airport and they will take care of it.

7.   Language

This isn't that high on the list because it really isn't that important.  However, knowing Japanese will make your life easier but it isn't required.  If you feel it is more important than I am making it out to be then by all means, take some lessons.  If you want affordable lessons at your own pace, I recommend www.italki.com.  I have been using it and I love it.  You basically find your own teacher (they are all professional teachers) then you pay for about one hour at $20 (US) each.  And again, it is all at your own pace. 

Japanese is the hardest language to learn for native English speakers plus they have 3 writing systems and you are not going to master this language overnight.  Carrying a phrasebook around with you might not be a bad idea.  Most people can speak English, but will refuse to speak it to you or pretend not to know it.  If they see you struggling in Japanese they will appreciate the effort and end up helping you in English.  When this happens, don't suddenly spout off in native jargon and speeds.  Speak slowly and clearly.  Don't be rude about it, just be mindful.  I know it sounds odd that it would happen this way, but trust me, this will happen in 75-80% of cases of asking for help to a Japanese in Japan.  Having a phrase book with you will actually help you more than embarrass you.  Even if they don't speak any English, there are enough words and phrases in those books that you guys can just point to what you want in the book.  That actually happens.

8.   Money

I will start off by saying that Japan is not a credit card society.  Rarely will you find places accepting your credit card, those places are usually secluded to highly tourist areas, and even then it is not that common.  You are better off bringing cash with you.

The cheapest way to get yen is to exchange your currency upon arrival at the airport in Japan.  If you do choose this option, make sure you choose a flight time compatible with the hours of operation of the currency exchange counters.  Arriving with cash in your home currency but all the offices being closed is not going to help you.  (Side note: You can use any currency in an international airport as payment for products.  You will just receive you change in the home country's currency).  In Japan, those offices close at 6pm (or 18:00 in Japan time) so make sure you plan to arrive at an accommodating time.  If the time is just not going to work with you and you cannot change your flight, first check with your hotel and see if they offer currency exchange.  Most big name hotels offer this service, especially in Tokyo, their rates vary, but it is an option.

If both of those options feel uncomfortable to you or you plan on bringing a lot of money with you then it is best to order it ahead of time with your home bank.  You will need at least 2 weeks to receive your yen.  Each bank charges a different amount, but I have found that Bank of America is the cheapest.  Check with your bank on the rates and decide if they are worth it to you.  If you don't have a bank account, you can still do this, it will just cost more money and you must pay in cash up front.

9.   Walking shoes

This may seem like a very trivial thing, but you will be walking everywhere in Japan.  Even if you plan on using a car, you will still be doing heavy amounts of walking.  It is important to invest in a good pair of walking shoes.  Don't worry about them not matching your outfit, many places have you take your shoes off when entering anyway so how your shoes look doesn't matter.  Plus, most people in Japan don't match their shoes to their outfits.  It is comical really.  I suggest you people watch after you arrive and you can see their strange shoe matching habits.  It is entertaining.

10. Make an Itinerary

Have a map of Japan on hand with the prefectures clearly listed so you can make a good itinerary.  Check out some travel sites or buy some guidebooks.  I recommend Lonely Planet books because they not only advice locations, but they also provide directions and prices of places.  They are a great resource and I never use anything else.  Even if I find some location online, it will be listed in the guidebook with even more info.  They are really helpful.

It is good to make a list of things you want to do in Japan, and try to achieve as much of them as possible while there.  Don't overdo it.  Be sure that you let yourself rest the first day you arrive.  Do light traveling if any.  You will have plenty of time to check everything out tomorrow.  Don't strain yourself that first day.


That is it for the pre Japan stage!  Next, I will be working on what to bring or not bring to Japan and then what customs you may or may not know about.