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5 Things to Know Before Your Japan Trip

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

Mount Fuji: 5 things you need to know before your Japan trip.
Mount Fuji looking resplendent in the final minutes before sunrise on a cold November's morning.

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:

  1. JR Pass might not be necessary

  2. The weather varies drastically from season to season

  3. Eating out is no way near as expensive as people are led to believe

  4. Wifi is not ubiquitous

  5. 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:

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:

Suica can even be used on local lines such as the Seibu Shinjuku line, which is famous for its quaint yellow trains. These engines must have been in use for over 5o years!

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:

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:

  • Outside the big cities, expect to pay by cash.


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.


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