11 tips for travelling in Japan
We compiled a list of eleven tips and tricks that can make your stay in Japan easier, more efficient, cheaper and special! We even threw in some bonus tips. Let us know your tips in the comments down below!
If, like us, you are planning to see a lot of Japan, make sure you order the Japan Rail Pass in advance. There are several rules conditions of use and requirements for eligibility, so check the official site for more information.
Although now, the Rail Pass can be bought as part of a trial in Japan, it really pays off to order it in advance since that is much cheaper. Prices differ following exchange rate differences and between companies. So, it pays to shop around. We used Japan Experience and were really satisfied with their service.
This tip mainly concerns those of you going to use the train and public transport. To plan your journey, use the website and or app HyperDia. They have the latest timetables for all the trains in Japan, both for the different Japan Railways (JR) companies and all the private companies operating in Japan.
The app can do a Japan Rail Pass search, providing you with all the options which are free with your Japan rail pass. To enable this option you must pay €2.99, the app and website themselves are free to use.
Another railway tip. When travelling by train, make sure you reserve a (window) seat before departure. You can do this at the station, until five minutes for departure, but also in advance for the rest of your trip, if you already know which train you plan to take. Making a reservation is not mandatory, but it ensures your seat on the train, as the trains can be quite full.
Bonus Tip Look for the Limited Express (WIDE VIEW) trains for even better views. They are for example available in the Japanese Alps between Nagano and Matsumoto and between Toyama and Nagoya.
If you do not want to feel lost in Kanji-translation during your whole trip, we have some tips for translation help. Technology is advancing at a rapid pace and one area where a lot of advances have been made in, is machine translation. Translate apps can scan menu’s and signs and even translate speech back and forth. Although the universal translator still is a few years away, these free apps come pretty close.
Roaming costs may be a thing of the past inside the EU, but roaming can still carry quite a hefty price elsewhere. There are two solutions for this problem, our preferred solution is using a pocket Wi-Fi. The alternative is buying a Japanese SIM card for your phone. The advantage of the SIM card is the price, they are a lot cheaper than a pocket Wi-Fi. But the pocket Wi-Fi has the advantage that you can connect several different devices to it at once and so spare the battery life of your phone. The disadvantage of the SIM in your phone is that at the moment it’s not easy to tether and have a VPN running at the same time. If you’re a bit privacy minded this might be a disadvantage for you.
You can order a pocket Wi-Fi in advance and have it mailed to the airport where you arrive or the hotel you’ll be staying at. If you want to get the best of both worlds, then buy a pocket Wi-Fi device for yourselves and use a pre-paid SIM card of the country that you are travelling to.
This tip concerns booking the best places to stay. We just loved to alternate between staying in hotels and staying in an Airbnb to experience best of both worlds: the luxury of hotels and the insights that Airbnb apartments can give in the Japanese lifestyle. There is not much price difference between either option in Japan. The main tip wherever you want to stay, is to arrange your stays as early as possible to secure the best stay on the best location for the best price. Don’t think in days or weeks, think in months in advance. Especially for stays in popular cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, or popular/special places like Beppu and Koyasan. The same is also valid when you want to stay in a Ryokan or sleep in a temple.
However, be aware when using Airbnb, and this happens quite a lot: if the host says they offer only half a bathroom, it really is just half a bathroom, without a shower.
Arrange to stay in Osaka if you are planning to visit Kyoto. Osaka is just a short 15-minute train ride away, but the restaurants and nightlife are just something else and won’t bore you. Trust us, you won’t be disappointed.
We can’t give tips about Japan without giving some advice on where to go. And while tastes and interests differ, here are some of our favourite places to visit:
– It takes some time to get there, but we cannot think of much that beats our stay in a temple in Koyasan, joining the morning prayer with the monks and strolling around in the mystic mountains.
– Cycling on the modern art island Naoshima was a very welcome change from all the temples and pagoda’s that we saw right before and after our stay there.
– When in Tokyo, a must visit is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where you can have a free panoramic view from the top floor. Another insiders tip is the boat ride from Hama-rikyu garden to Asakusa. Read our Tokyo itinerary for more tips.
If you are going to travel on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, read our article about the Alpine Route to see what you can expect. Then our tip: buy the ticket in advance at certain JR rail stations. This gives you a reduction of 25% and will save you 3.090 yen per ticket. See this website for more information on where and how to buy these relatively cheap tickets.
Get your breakfast at the convenience store (7-Eleven, Lawson, etc). This way you can eat on the way to your first activity of the day and save some money at the same time. You can even choose to do this when you are staying in a hotel, as excluding the breakfast option will save you more money than a convenience store breakfast will cost. And while you’re at it get some bento boxes for lunch.
Bonus tip 7-Eleven is the best place for finding ATM’s that work with European bank cards.
Get up early, so you arrive at the main highlights before the tourist busses do. Especially when you are planning to visit great sites as the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. You don’t want all your photos ruined by crazy tourist groups, do you? An added bonus depending on the season is the beautiful and photogenic qualities of morning light.