Japan Pre-Travel Necessities – Transport, Accommodation and all these little details you need to know
This post has been a bit of a long time coming, due to procrastination of all sorts, but thought I’d share my 2 week experience in Japan recently, along with recommendations of places of interests to visit, accommodation, transport etc. Budget-wise, Japan’s always been expensive, and if you’re looking at a 2 week trip, I’d recommend you prepare something in the region of 340,000 yen, especially if you’re keen on shopping, and if you have to buy back souvenirs (also known as omiyage) for friends, family and colleagues.
I began my trip in Osaka, went down to Kyushuu and then hied back up to Tokyo, stopping by many places in between. For ease, I’ll split my trip into 3 parts.
Before travelling anywhere though, there’s always a need to plan and to get to know more about the country before you go, so I’ll also add a pre-travel post which will begin below.
Transport-wise, the best deal you will ever get if you’re travelling as a foreigner in Japan is the Japan Rail Pass (also known as the JR Pass). This pass can only be bought outside of Japan, if you have a foreign passport, and you have a valid airticket to Japan, so be sure to purchase this before you travel. There are many different JR passes, to cover the different regions of Japan, so always check which region you are travelling before debating which pass to get. There are also different ranges of validity, from 7 to 21 days, and usage of the pass has to be consecutive, so always check to make sure you get the right number of days to cover long distances if you are travelling inter-city/state.
The pass can only be activated in Japan, and as you have to reserve seats for certain legs of the trip, please make sure you plan your trip well. If you don’t reserve seats, there are carriages that have seats for those who have no reservations, but do consider that you may not be able to get a seat if it is a peak period etc. The pass can only be activated at certain JR stations (the passes should come with instructions when you buy them; alternatively always make sure you clarify this with the person selling you the JR pass, or check out the website). When you have the JR pass, and you want to use it to take the train, you have to find where the train staff are standing at the station counters, and wave it in their faces. Usually if you need to know train timings or what platforms to take the train from etc as well, you can ask them too, they have all the information at their fingertips, it’s amazing.
A detailed guide on how to take the train in Japan can be found here.
If you are travelling only within certain cities e.g. Tokyo, you may like to look out for day-passes instead, or just pay as you travel as it may end up being cheaper. If you’re unsure of what your best option is, try using Hyperdia to check out the different routes and timings you need to take to get where you want to go. You can also go to the tourist travel counters, most of whom usually have at least one person who can speak English, failing which, everyone usually communicates well enough using sign or body language. (Sometimes, even if you know Japanese, it pays to pretend that you have completely no clue what they’re saying. Helps with discounts. Just a headsup. Since they usually have no way of determining whether or not you really are a foreign student. It does help if you happen to have a matriculation card available to wave in their faces.)
In case you get confused, like me, when you first board a bus in Japan, all costs are distance-based. The Japanese board the bus at the back, and alight in front where the driver is. When they board the bus, there is a machine right next to the door that issues a number – that number basically tells you what stop you are getting on. Please take a ticket and keep it! When you alight at the front, you have to pay the driver and if you have no idea what stop you got on, you will have no idea how much to pay. If you have the ticket, you can wave it at the driver and he will be able to tell you how to pay. Alternatively, there is a board in front of the bus usually that tells you how much you have to pay if you get on at a certain stop. Eg. if you got on at Stop 15, and the board says you have to pay 250 yen (i.e. the board will say 15: 250 yen) if you are getting off at that stop, that’s how much you pay.
If you have don’t have small change, there are also machines that you can actually drop in large denominations to get small change i.e. a 500 yen coin to get 5 100 yen coins. These machines are usually on buses right next to the bus driver (which means you don’t have to worry if you can’t pay the driver in exact change). You drop in the large denomination, get the change, and thenpay the driver. (I had this really embarrassing moment where I thought the machine would automatically deduct the amount I owed the driver, and almost walked off without paying the bus driver, and got yanked back by my friend behind me.)
In case you want to see for yourself how it’s done, here is a video made very kindly by chmr103 up on Youtube, with specific instructions below the video.
If you take a tram, it’s pretty much the same distance-based cost. Same for if you are taking a train in Tokyo. Do be careful and note that the subways are different from the JR trains, and that means costs will usually differ too. May be cheaper to take a subway or a JR, you have to check it out yourself depending on your route.
Fare Adjustment Machines
If you end up taking a train and you realise you need to travel further than expected, and you need to pay more for your ticket, fear not. There is a machine called a “Fare Adjustment Machine”. You put your ticket in, they calculate how much more you need to top up, you put in the extra money, they spit out a new ticket for you to exit the station, and it’s as simple as that. You only do this at the last station where you want to exit from, by the way, in case I wasn’t clear enough about that. By the way, this is especially useful if you are travelling in Tokyo. I managed to find a video on Youtube about that too here, also by chmr103.
If you’re looking for quick recommendations on budget business hotels, there are a couple of really good ones I can recommend, and one I can personally vouch for.
There is this chain called Toyoko Inn, and they have a fair number of branches scattered all over Japan. Good thing about Toyoko Inn? They’re usually located really near a train station, which means they’re convenient and accessible. They also have a really bright blue signboard which you can usually spot from a mile away on the train, in case you get lost easily (I don’t know how many times that signboard has saved me).
Breakfast is included in the rates (and since it’s a buffet breakfast, and the spread is usually quite good, it’s damn worth the rate), and they have everything you will ever need – TV, wireless Internet connection, bathroom amenities (so you don’t need to bring soap, shampoo etc), the usual towels etc, and even a trouser press. (It is a business hotel.)
The only drawback to this hotel is that the room is really, really small. I kid you not. You open the door, and the bathroom is right in front of your face, and the bed is like, next to you. In case you can’t figure out where to place your suitcase, the hotel happily informs you with an info sheet on your bed that there is room beneath your bed to store your luggage. That said and done, if you don’t have a massive case of claustrophobia, then I strongly recommend this hotel (and even if you do have a massive case of claustrophobia, the budget rates at this hotel may convince you anyway).
The price range for this hotel, depending on location and what room type you get, is approximately about 4000 yen per person to 6000 yen per person, which is super worth it. If you intend to stay at their chain for your whole trip, get their membership card, because it gives you further discounts, and you can use it for the rest of the trip, so you’ll really be saving a lot on accommodation expenses.
The other chain of business hotel you may want to try is Sakura Hotels. I’ve never stayed there, but apparently it’s quite good as well. These are general recommendations; in my posts I’ll be talking about other places where I’ve stayed at, how much they cost approximately, and how it is like to stay there, so you can decide for yourself where best to stay.
If you’re travelling in Japan you really should be travelling light. There are some places with no escalators or lifts and if you have to heave a 20 kg bag up a flight of stairs exiting from the train station, I wish you luck. Instead of carrying around a large suitcase, my advice is to pack an extra foldable bag, so you can pack in stuff to check in at the end of your trip, like all your shopping.
My advice is to pack only the necessities. Everything else you may need, you can buy from the 100 yen shops in Japan (they’re practically everywhere). Shizuko Mishima gives a detailed packing checklist here, which I found really useful while packing.
Weather in Japan is fairly unpredictable. Umbrellas for the most part are useless if it really rains and the wind is blowing, unless you use it to shield your camera while taking photos, which is what I mostly used my 100 yen umbrella, bought from the 100 yen shop, to do. I packed a wind-and-rainproof jacket with a hood, which was a lifesaver and a bit of genius on my part.
My advice is if you’re travelling anywhere in Japan, constantly check the weather forecast online the night before, so you know what to wear and what to bring. Also, make sure your bags are rainproof, or you’re going to be really sad when it starts pouring down on you. You may also want to pack or wear clothes in layers, so you can take off / put on more clothes as it gets colder/warmer.
I have to admit, straight off – I’m a lousy traveler. I have a terrible sense of direction, and I can’t read maps. It helps that I speak Japanese, but even then, I always got lost for at least about a good half an hour to an hour before eventually finding where I wanted to go.
If you have as bad a sense of direction as me, you’re going to want to download maps from Google or some other navigational site which you trust. The biggest problem with Japanese maps is that they often don’t mark street names / small alleys…and there are a lot of those in Japan, which explains why I managed to get myself lost even armed with maps that I took from tourist counters and booths.
So it’s much safer to either travel with someone with a really good sense of direction, or maybe have a guidebook like Lonely Planet, or download your own maps. It’s a lot of work, but it beats getting lost in a foreign country where you can’t speak the language. Even if you speak the language, it still sucks getting lost. Trust me on this one.
If you’re looking for someplace cheap where you can get souvenirs in a bunch to distribute to friends, family and colleagues, look no further than the 100 yen shops in Japan. 100 yen shops like Daiso can be found in the larger cities all over Japan, and more specifically in Tokyo. If you’re desperate, and don’t mind paying a higher rate, you can also get souvenirs when you leave the airport, especially if you’re leaving through Narita Airport. Narita Airport has all the souvenirs you could ever want. My recommendation? Look out for the Rare Tokyo Daifuku (chocolate mochi). There’s 30 in a box, and it was so popular with my friends and colleagues that there were people who kept asking me where I bought it. I bought 4 boxes and let’s just say that the next time I go to Tokyo I may consider buying more than just 4.
I think that’s it for the most part, pre-departure wise. Now, for the exciting part of the upcoming post(s) – I’ll be describing some places of interests in all the places that I went to in Osaka, Kyushuu and Tokyo! Keep an eye out for Part One: Osaka.