Updated: Aug 16, 2021
Preparing to travel to a far flung destination for vacation or romance is about as exciting as it gets. The days before departure are like counting down to Christmas! However, uncertainty can sometimes take the edge off the excitement and unwanted surprises can be a bit of a downer. Especially if you thought you were prepared for everything.
While we can’t possibly cover everything you will need to know about your trip, based on our client interactions, these are the top 5 things to know before your Japan trip:
JR Pass might not be necessary
The weather varies drastically from season to season
Eating out is no way near as expensive as people are led to believe
Wifi is not ubiquitous
Smoking IS ubiquitous – but this is changing
The first thing on our list of 5 things to know before your Japan trip is all about travel. This can be daunting. The high-speed shinkansen (bullet train) is an engineering marvel as is the very complex network of local trains and buses. But in order to enjoy your trip, you will need to work out the travel puzzle.
Many tourists and travel agents will tout the wonderful convenience of the JR Pass. But the fact is, you might not even need it!
JR Pass might NOT be necessary
The JR issued train pass, that enables “free” travel for tourists once in Japan is a huge attraction for anyone considering a trip out here. The fact that you can just show this to any train conductor or ticket inspector lessens the need for awkward interaction in a language and culture you are not familiar with. However, JR passes, though great, are not always necessary.
The cost of a JR pass for seven days is around ¥40,000. Assuming you only want to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto – for which the average return trip is ¥25,000 – you will not get your full money’s worth from the pass. Obviously, if you make multiple trips of that kind, you will get the full benefit from having a JR pass. However, you then run the risk of not taking the time to fully experience what each destination has to offer…
Before forking out for a JR Pass, check the cost of each journey you anticipate taking against the value of the pass. The following website shows the cost of Bullet Train tickets between major cities in Japan: https://global.jr-central.co.jp/en/info/fare/
Another thing you might consider is that the JR Pass can only be used on JR lines. It will be invalid on some local, private railways, such as Seibu, Tobu and the Tokyo Metro. This has been known to catch some travelers out in the past.
“Suica” or “Passmo” may be a better option
The best alternative to a JR Pass is a Suica card. This is a pay-as-you-go travel card, that can be topped up in any station or metro station around the country.
If you are only staying in and around one or two cities, this card offers the most flexibility and convenience. You can also use them for payment in convenience stores, buses, taxis and in some shops and department stores. It can also be used on most private local lines, as well as on the Tokyo metro (subway).
Where can you get them?
You can get your Suica cards from any ticket machine at any JR Station. You will be required to leave a deposit of ¥500 which you can retrieve at the end of your trip when you relinquish the card. If you relinquish your card at a JR East station, you can exchange it for the value on the card.
Just note, you will be charged a commission of ¥220 to do this. Your refundable amount is calculated as follows:
Remaining Balance – Commission Fee (220 yen) + Deposit (500 yen) = Refundable Amount
Alternatively you can keep the card for your next trip. It retains its monetary value for 10 years!
For more information about the Suica Card, check out this page on JR East: https://www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/suica.html
Suitcases on the Shinkansen
The first time I ever took the shinkansen, aka the Bullet Train, I was surprised that there was no dedicated space for oversized suitcases and luggage. I am sure many first-timers to Japan will have also been surprised and perhaps inconvenienced by this. It is possible to book the last row in a carriage which have room room behind the seats big enough for suitcases. The only caveat with this is that this hinders your ability to fully recline the chair.
The good news with the Bullet Train is that there is ample leg room. Economy class seats have more legroom than premium economy class in air travel. So, no worries about banging your knees on the seat in front! In fact, there is even enough room to hold your suitcase without causing too much discomfort. But if you are like me, you want to protect your freedom to fully stretch you legs out in front of you.
Oversized Luggage Surcharge
In April 2020, JR introduced a surcharge of ¥1000 + tax for oversize luggage. This charge can be waived if you reserve seats with an oversized baggage area – that is the seats at the back of each carriage. (Just remember what I said about being able to recline your seat!) See the following website for more details: https://global.jr-central.co.jp/en/info/oversized-baggage/
If you are unable to reserve the area for oversized baggage, don’t worry. Overhead, there is a very sturdy rack (shelf) upon which to store your baggage. It can easily take a full size suitcase, assuming you can lift it off the ground!
These are ubiquitous, and can be hailed at most train stations. That said, Sods law (Murphy’s Law) works just as well in Japan as it does anywhere else; when you need one – in the rain for example – they are few and far between! For the most part however, you will not have any trouble hailing one. But, when you do, remember the following:
Don’t touch the door. As part of the service culture the taxi driver will always open the door. There is a lever next to the driver’s seat. Wait until he or she opens it before trying to get in or out of the cab.
Most don’t speak English, but this is changing. If you have the address of where you want to go, just show it to the driver.
Japanese taxi drivers don’t have “the knowledge”. They are often reliant on satellite navigation so don’t let this surprise you. I have been in taxis that have gotten lost before… luckily the drivers were kind enough to recognize the inconvenience and offered a decent discount.
Generally, it is a good idea to pay in cash. However in the cities, Suica Cards, credit cards and even some pre-paid apps are admissible. For example Japan Taxi allows you to order and pay for your cab in one fell swoop: https://apps.apple.com/jp/app/japantaxi/id481647073?l=en
Outside the big cities, expect to pay by cash.
ONE MORE THING
Uber is not popular in Japan and is in fact more expensive than the ubiquitous Taxis – during the daytime at least. If you are a regular UBER user in your home country, while the app will work in Japan, it is useful to note that UBER’S coverage is not so wide. But, if it is your thing, go for it.
Check out this post for more info:
Before we get to the second item on our list of 5 things to know before your Japan trip, here is a quick question: did you know, Japan has four seasons?!
I know, I know… this is not unique. I lost count the number of times I rolled my eyes whenever I was told this at the start of my time in Japan. Most countries have four seasons! Hell, even the UK has four seasons, even if you can’t tell the difference between them!
And that is the point.
The seasons in Japan, for the most part, run like clockwork. The changes are almost always on time and the differences between them are quite distinct. The weather is widely different in each. This makes it a perfect destination for outdoorsy people: skiing in winter; hiking in spring; beach in summer; camping in autumn, or whatever it is that you like to do.
Climate of opposites
In Tokyo and Kyoto it is bitterly cold and dry in winter, with average temperatures of 0 celsius, while in summer it is tortuously hot and humid! Don’t be surprised if the thermometer tops 40 degrees!
Heat stroke in July/August until early/mid September is a real danger so it is vitally important to keep hydrated. Sports drinks such as Aquarius or Pocari Sweat will replace a lot of the lost bodily fluids, and are a staple of Japanese bags during this time. These drinks are available at all convenience stores and in the many vending machines up and down the country.
In Tokyo & Kyoto, the weather starts to really cool down in late November/early December. Average daytime temperatures at this time will be around 10 – 15 degrees. In the countryside, especially in the mountains, this may be a whole month earlier, with temperatures from -7 to +7degrees celsius.
If you want to see the changing leaves (momiji), the end of November/beginning of December is your best bet, in Tokyo. For earlier momiji, head north.
Needless to say, Spring and Autumn are the best times for weddings and vacations.
Did I say Japan has four seasons? Scratch that, there are in fact six!!
The two extra “seasons” that people tend to overlook – that will and can impact your plans – are rainy season and typhoon season:
Rainy season runs from mid-June to late-July. It doesn’t rain every day, but it is starting to get hot and humid at this time.
Typhoon season tends to fall in mid-September until mid/late-October. Some typhoons are just heavy rain, but occasionally there will be strong winds flooding.
If you are coming out during these seasons, not to worry, there are a lot of great indoor activities, which, come to think of it, is a great idea for another blog post! Watch this space!
Anyway, on to the next item on our list of 5 things to know before your Japan trip…
This is a great experience all round. The food, the service, restaurant design, decor and facilities all add up to what will surely be an amazing experience. AND as a bonus, it is not as expensive as many people are led to believe. Sure, as with all places, there are some prohibitively expensive restaurants in Japan, but for the most part, you can expect to get a great meal for two for around 50 bucks!
Not only will it NOT break the bank, but you will also find a consistently high level of service, no matter the price point or type of restaurant. And, when you consider that wait staff are not competing for tips, this makes things all the more remarkable.
The Japanese love food! There are lots of TV shows and segments devoted to local delicacies. Celebrities make it a point to travel the country and document the type of restaurants that are out there. And they like nothing more than a small, family owned restaurant in a seemingly ramshackle building which has clearly seen better days. This is all part of the charm. AND, you can nearly always find friendly, unassuming service. So, if you see people ducking into and out of some nondescript building in some back alley, take a chance and check it out. You might just find a hidden gem!
Things to consider when eating out:
Shoes off – many, not all, may ask you to remove your shoes at the door, or section of the restaurant. It’s all part of the fun, and makes for a more homely feel. Your shoes will be safe – in fact, the staff will probably lay them out for you on your departure. They seem to have a knack of knowing whose shoes are whose!
No tipping – One less thing to worry about! Even if the service blows you away and you want to express your gratitude, don’t even try to tip, they simply won’t accept it.
Customer service – it can sometimes feel that they are going way above and beyond what you would typically expect. Some people may feel embarrassed by it, but it is nothing short of what the Japanese have come to expect, so enjoy it!
ONE MORE THING
Key words to learn:
Nomihoudai – all you can drink
Tabehoudai – all you can eat
Nomitabehoudai – all you can eat and drink.
A lot of places, izakayas (casual dining bars) especially, will have special all you can eat and drink menus. These are great ways to sample lots of different dishes without worrying about the bill. Most all-you-can eat/drink services last around two hours.
So, once in the restaurant, be sure to ask if they have any nomi/tabe/nomitabehoudai menus!
This is perhaps the most important item on our list of 5 things to know before your Japan trip!
Many visitors to Japan envision a country of far advanced technological innovation in daily use. You only need to think of toilet technology; bicycle and car parking facilities and robotic greeters at the entrance to some stores to see how many people think Japan is at the cutting edge of technology. And while in many respects this is not false, Japan is still something of a novice in terms of internet connectivity. But this is slowly changing – hopefully!
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the government was practically mandating work from home, many people rushed to upgrade their home networks for better connectivity. Previously, telecommuting had not been actively encourage and so it had not been a high priority. Commuting on over-crowded trains for two hours each day is a common gripe, so this enforced change has been somewhat welcome.
Some research shows an increase in productivity linked with working from home, so it is not inconceivable that more effort will be put into this in the future.
Where to get FREE WIFI?
Until now, the few places that provided free wifi access were bars, cafes and some hotel lounges. Now, hopefully, the next thing will be ubiquitous wifi across major cities. However, until that happens, you’ll need to hire a mobile wifi “dongle” for your trip out here.
You can get these at Haneda and Narita airports. It may also be possible to get them from your point of departure. For more information check out the following link:
The other alternative would be to by a pay-as-you-go sim card for your mobile device. See the following website for more information:
ONE MORE THING
Please note, that locals tend to frown upon the use of long selfie sticks, especially in crowded cities and tourists sites… so if you are thinking of taking a lot of selfies or live-streaming your trip, you might want to consider something not much longer than arm’s length. The locals will thank you, and it could avoid potentially embarrassing situations!
The final item on this list of 5 things to know before your Japan trip is all about smoking. There have been strict laws implemented throughout much of the world governing smoking but Japan was slow to catch up. However, since April 2020, partially with the Olympics in mind, smoking freedoms have changed.
Now, there is a law banning indoor smoking across the nation, with penalties for offenders. Cigar bars and hotel rooms are exempt from the ban, as are a few existing restaurants run by individuals. Restaurants and cafes exempt from the ban must clearly display signs at the entrance showing that smoking is permitted.
There may be designated rooms within restaurants where smoking is permitted. However, restaurant owners must fit these rooms with extractor fans that meet specific requirements and not allow eating and drinking in these rooms. Furthermore, these smoking areas will be off limits to individuals below the age of 20.
Smoking outdoors is strictly prohibited in many cities and they employ volunteers to deal with people found to be flouting the rules. There are however, designated – and often enclosed – smoking spots, designed to limit the risk of second hand smoke. You can see these areas outside most stations.
Anyone found to be smoking in non-designated areas face fines of up to ¥300,000.
One Last Thing
Cigarettes are cheap – around 30% the price in the US. The average price (based on casual research) seems to be around ¥350 for a packet. Some places sell them for as little as ¥200 or as much as ¥400. So, if it is your thing, go ahead and stock up!
What About You?
These were our top 5 things to know before your Japan trip. We would love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree? Was there something we overlooked?
What do you want to know before coming to Japan? Let us know and we will be sure to make a blog post just for you! 🙂
We are primarily a destination elopement planning duo. However, for our couples, we also act as a kind of “concierge” service while in Japan.
If you have questions about getting around Japan or what to do while you are here, please do get in touch. We will be glad to help in any way we can!