Visiting Japan was like exploring a whole new world for us. Usually travelling to European destinations, this Asian wonder was foreign to all our senses. Although, we had dipped our toes together in Asian waters previously (Maldives and Dubai), they were part of a planned tour for our honeymoon, which meant we had very little planning to do ourselves (apart from figuring out what time to start on our cocktails). Planning a trip to Japan meant we had to research about a lot of things we usually don’t consider on our usual short-haul trips. This blog post will share some handy details and information, that will hopefully make your Japan trip a bit easier.
This travel guide is based on our experience travelling to and within Japan, and therefore only covers the main points we’ve encountered.
Flying to Tokyo
- There are 2 airports in Tokyo – Narita and Haneda. Haneda is closest to the center of Tokyo, with a rough travel time of 30-40 minutes away from some of the major city hotels, vs Narita which is around 1.5 hours away. Due to our flight connections, we flew to Narita.
- It’s worth checking Google Maps for an up to date estimated travel time to your hotel from the airport, as rush hour traffic may cause some delays of up to 1 hour. For example, travel between Narita airport and our hotel 46 miles away, took 2 hours, whereas travelling from Haneda airport would have taken us less than half that time!
- From Narita Airport, we took an ‘Airport Limousine Bus’ to our hotel. This can take you directly to (most of) the major hotels in Tokyo. They have a list of these hotels, and if your hotel doesn’t feature on it, they may still be able to take you to one nearby and get you a taxi – but clarify this at the airport.
- You can buy tickets for the Airport Limousine bus within the airport as you leave the Arrivals area. The buses are similar to UK coaches – very comfortable, with free Wi-Fi and a toilet.
Travel in Tokyo
- The best way to travel around Tokyo is by subway and trains (see below about Japan Rail Pass).
- If you’re thinking about taxis or Ubers – forget about it (unless you’re a millionaire)! They are very expensive. We thought we would try one to check for ourselves – a 7 minute journey (1.2 miles or 2 km) cost us close to £18.
- We can’t emphasize this tip enough but, Google Maps will be your best friend for navigating the city. It can be used to navigate on foot and by public transport. When you search for your destination, and use the public transport option, you can find out whether you can travel by bus/subway/train; where the nearest station is; and all the available routes you can travel by. You can then use it to walk to the chosen station.
- There are a variety of different Day Passes that you can buy at machines in the subway stations. They will have an option to display information in English. You will have to check which machines accept card or cash. Always carry a bit of cash with you, just in case you happen to be at a subway station which don’t have machines that accept card payments.
- Fortunately, due to the upcoming Tokyo 2020 games, there are a lot more staff working in stations, who speak English and are able to help you. There is also now more signage in English than there used to be.
- Make sure to visit the toilets in the subway stations – they will probably be the cleanest public toilets you’ve ever visited.
Japan Rail Pass
- Visitors to Japan can buy the Japan Rail Pass, which can save you money if i) you are travelling by train or bus – but only the JR group lines, and ii) you also plan to get a return Shinkasen bullet train ticket.
- This pass can only be bought by foreign tourists visiting Japan from abroad for sight-seeing purposes.
- The application process looks quite complicated on the official website here, but it’s worth taking a look at if you are considering buying the JR pass.
- The JR pass needs to be ordered online and delivered to you before you travel, so make sure to buy this in advance!
- It is valid for 7, 14 or 21 days.
- It can be used for JR group railways only and includes travel on the Shinkasen bullet train EXCEPT for the 2 fastest bullet trains – Nozomi and Mizuho.
- It can also be used for local JR buses (excluding some local lines) and JR West Miyajima ferry.
- Please check the official website for all the appropriate lines the pass is valid for, as you don’t want to be caught out.
We did not buy the Japan Rail Pass because:
1) we didn’t plan this in advance, and did not have enough time to receive one;
2) based on our travel plans and estimated calculations, we didn’t think it would save us much money anyway;
3) we wanted the flexibility of using underground subways as well as trains.
Travel in Kyoto
- In Kyoto, we travelled by local buses and subways.
- We bought the Kyoto City Subway and Bus Pass, which is available as a one day or two day pass.
- The two day pass we bought was ¥1,700 (£12) per adult – this was great as we could use it to travel unlimited on a lot of the local buses and subway lines.
- There are a few exceptions for routes that you can’t use the pass with, but there are so many different bus routes that can take you to the main tourist attractions, that you will always be able to choose an alternate route that the pass is valid on.
- In Kyoto, you enter a local bus at the back, and exit at the front.
- If you’re using the Kyoto pass to travel by bus, when exiting the bus, you insert the card into the slot of the ticket machine, which punches the date on the back of the card. From then on, you just need to show the pass with the date to the driver when exiting the bus.
- If you’re paying by cash, there is a flat-fare rate for travel within Kyoto city, which you insert into the machine at the front when exiting. For travel outwith the flat-fare rate on buses, you collect a paper ticket from the machine when you enter the bus, and then pay on exiting.
- As for Tokyo, we used Google Maps to navigate around Kyoto.
- You’d think with Tokyo’s futuristic image, there would be no lack of free public wifi. However, this was not the case. Although you can still count on the local Starbucks providing free wifi, it’s otherwise not found that easily.
- The best way to get internet is by buying pocket wifi – a portable router that you carry with you, which provides you with wifi wherever you go.
- There are several companies (all with good and bad reviews, of differing prices) that provide pocket wifi services.
- The one we used is called PuPuRu, and gave great coverage in both Tokyo and Kyoto.
- You order it online a few weeks before you leave for Japan, and can choose to pick it up from the airport you arrive at, or have it delivered to your hotel.
- It’s fairly easy to setup once you collect it, and you just carry it around with you. For us, an overnight charge was enough to last an entire day of providing wifi to 2 smartphones and a tablet.
- At the end of your trip, you just pop it into the provided return envelope and post it. We departed from Narita Airport, and were able to post it into a post box at the airport, before check-in.
- Tipping in restaurants is usually not customary as Japanese culture believe that good service should be standard. However, in this modern day, tour guides and big chain hotels are used to Westerners offering tips, so really it’s up to you, but don’t feel offended if it is rejected in less touristy areas.
- In restaurants, you may be provided with a call bell at your table, which you use to get the attention of the wait staff when you are ready to order, and to pay the bill. We found this was a great idea as you could take as long as you needed to order (and pay), and you don’t have to struggle to catch their attention.
- We found it fascinating that whenever we placed any bags on the floor, it was picked up and placed on a chair by the wait staff. We found it even more unusual, that in one of the ‘fancier’ restaurants we dined in one of our hotels, a cloth was placed over my bag to cover it.
- If you are visiting a traditional Japanese restaurant, it is customary to take your shoes off and place it in a locker.
- You get ¥145.8 for £1 (at the time of writing in July 2018).
- Japan is an expensive country to visit, which you may find when trying to book a hotel in Tokyo. It’s important to bear this in mind, when coming up with a budget.
- As per most of our trips, we mostly paid using a credit card, which we find gives us an extra bit of security and means we don’t have to carry a large amount of cash with us.
Hope these travel tid-bits come useful for planning your trip to Japan!