A few Japan tips

Check to see what festivals and holidays are happening on the days you're considering. There might be some awesome things you don't want to miss, or giant crowds (e.g., Golden Week) that could complicate your plans.

If the trip is far enough out, start planning how to get there with points. My planning for our big 3 month adventure is here. Our points planning for the trip before that is here. Try to get on a Japanese airline if you can... ANA is in Star Alliance and is an Amex transfer partner, and they have great off-season deals. JAL is in OneWorld and recently added a partnership with Alaska Airlines.

To quote my best friend who's originally from Tokyo, "I'd rather fly ANA in Economy than United in Business".

Consider getting a Japan Rail Pass before you go. (My detailed thoughts on which, if any, pass to buy are here) It gets you on any JR train in the country, including the urban JR trains like Yamanote and Chuo lines, as well as the Narita Express train from the Airport. There are a few region-specific passes available only in Japan so you're not completely out of luck if you didn't plan ahead. Bring your passport with you to the JR office.

(Points tip: Chase codes the rail pass purchase as 'Travel' so if you use a Sapphire card you should get bonus points)
Save big on train travel with a rail pass!


🏨 Staying

When you're searching for rooms, you'll often see them categorized as either "Western Style" or "Japanese Style" (sometimes called "Wa-shitsu"). The former has an actual bed, latter has a tatami mat floor and futon mattresses that you sleep on. Personally, my 40-something chubby white man back does not tolerate futons well, so I try to limit my stays in wa-shitsu rooms to very special, traditional Ryokan-style Inns where that's often the only type of room available.

Not all hotel inventory is shared with big US travel portals like Kayak.com. We had several instances where we couldn't find any open rooms on Kayak but managed to find space in exactly the same "fully booked" hotels when we looked on Japanican.com. Further, Japanican often shows whole classes of rooms not visible on western websites – I booked a double-bed room for $113 when the cheapest room for the exact dates and hotel on Kayak was $172 Queen room. 

can't find a hotel room? try these guys :)

Many of Japan's "Business Hotels" (e.g., Dormy Inn, APA) have nice onsen spas on the roof or in the basement. After a long day of sightseeing, a long hot soak is exactly what my feet and legs want before bed. Unlike western hotel spas, these stay open very late (often to 2am and beyond). The Japanican portal lets you filter by "Hot Springs" when searching for a hotel. The hotel hot springs are often nicer than any of the private spas I've seen in the US, and they're also more lax with the whole "no tattoos" thing. Business Hotels also usually have washing machines on site.

Gracery Shinjuku might not have a hot springs, but it does have a giant Godzilla climbing the building!

AirBnB can be tricky in Japan (as of Spring 2017 it's been legalized)

📰 UPDATE June 2018: AirBnB abruptly deleted 80% of its listings due to an impending law that will require all hosts to have an official hospitality permit and safety inspection. I strongly recommend avoiding AirBnB for now.


📦 Takkyubin

Another major downside to AirBnB is that it often prevents you from using one of Japan's greatest inventions: Takkyubin (aka Ta-Q-Bin, Yamato, or Black Cat)! Nearly every Japanese person uses this magical courier service to move bags between hotels when they travel. For $8 they transported my roll-aboard bag from one coast to the other, overnight. All hotels have infrastructure in place to send and receive the bags, so my bag was waiting for me in my room when I checked in. All I need on the train is a small carry-on. 

Make sure you have the phone number and the full postal address of your next hotel handy (preferably in Japanese), and note that all Takkyubin payments have to be in cash. Given how crowded subways and train stations are, it's considered impolite to schlep giant bags around unnecessarily. Plus, you might even save money if shipping your bags lets you take the subway to the airport or train station instead of a taxi. Many Japanese people flying home to Tokyo will go to the Takkyubin office at the airport and drop off all of their checked bags so they don't have to bother carrying them back to their house.

Another great feature is that you can specify the day and time your bag will arrive, up to one full week out. This is super handy - you can forward all of your souvenirs and dirty laundry several stops ahead.
With Takkyubin, bags are waiting for you in your room when you check in!
Seriously, don't be "that guy"


🚉 Finding things

One of the biggest challenge for visitors is finding their way to things. Japanese postal addresses provide insight into how they look at wayfinding: City, Ward, Block, Building Number or Name, then Apartment Number – i.e., it's not street-oriented. Google maps is somewhat helpful, but GPS is really unreliable here due to tall buildings and to so much being underground. It's also pretty spotty with its Roman-character entries, so if you aren't finding something and can type (or Copy/Paste) the Japanese characters in, you might have better luck. Even better: visit the website of the business you're looking for and look for the "Access" link (アクセス) and there's usually custom directions.  
Sidenote: for reasons unknown to me, Japan forbids Google Maps offline download function. My international data roaming tips are here.
Even in smaller cities, the mindset is that you'll arrive by subway or bus so directions are often given from that perspective. Train stations, subway stations, and giant malls all bleed together so you'll usually see directions given by which station exit they're near (all exits are named or numbered). Given the vastness of some stations, coming out the wrong exit can make it next-to-impossible to actually walk to your destination. Japan Railways has online station maps that can be helpful.
Most businesses will list their exit number

If you're looking for something outside a station, look up! Lots of retail places are on the 3rd or 4th or 40th floor. Also, while you're walking around town: Keep Left! They drive on the other side of the road here and they walk on the other side of the sidewalk and escalator. (Though in the western part of Japan the escalator customs are sometimes reversed!).


🚇 Metro and Trains

Tokyo has a vast Metro system that's supplemented by Japan Railways' and private urban lines. Most people end up using a combination of the systems to get around. If you buy a transit card (e.g., Suica), you can seamlessly use any system and the fare is automatically deducted from the card.

You can also use the card to buy drinks and food from many vending machines and convenience stores (called "kon bee nee"). Even some of the noodle shop vending machines take transit cards for payment. There's also interoperability between regions – I used the cash on my Tokyo Suica to ride the Nagoya and Kyoto subways, for example.

If you've got an iPhone 8 or X, you can take the convenience to the next level and import your Suica card into your phone and use it instead (and have the added bonus of being able to reload your card instantly with Apple Pay).

Mobile Suica!

There are some day-pass options, but they're quite expensive if you get a standalone one that covers all of the systems (¥1590 for an all-inclusive 24-hour pass), so maybe do a little planning and math before buying one. Google maps and Hyperdia both show the fares for individual trips.
Some of the various regional farecards

if you're doing any intercity train travel, get the Hyperdia app (and bookmark their website) . It can help you find the best options for navigating the huge and often complex rail system. If you have the popular Japan Rail Pass, you can't use a ticket machine to book a free seat reservation, and since many trains require a seat reservation that means you'll be visiting a staffed JR office. Lines can be very long at peak times so I recommend going off-hours at least one day before your trip to reserve your seat. During popular times (e.g., cherry blossom festival, Golden Week) go even earlier. With your desired Hyperdia itinerary on-screen, hand your phone to the JR ticket agent at any station and ask for a reservation — they'll know exactly what to do.  TIP: today is "kyo" and tomorrow is "ashta"; dates are usually written as 2017-12-31.

And speaking of trains, when the Shinkansen bullet train pulls into your station you don't have long to disembark, even at the terminus. If you stay on too long you might end up leaving your husband and your bags sitting on the platform while the train departs with you stuck inside. I may or may not be saying this from personal experience :)
A couple of other great apps: the JR East app shows you a system map, line status, and full station maps. It always tries to connect to the internet, but just ignore that and let it time out and you'll find most of its functionality is available in offline mode. The Tokyo Metro app is also good.

If you love Japanese trains and want to fill up a little station passport booklet, check out my Eki stamp post.


🚖 Driving and Taxis

You can hail taxis on the street just like in the US. Most have a digital sign and you're looking for the magic 空車 sign to tell you the taxi is empty and ready for a new passenger. It's very helpful to have a business card from your hotel in your wallet, as most have directions on the back for taxi drivers. The doors on traditional taxis are automatic so don't shut them yourself, the driver will do it. In general you pay for taxis with cash (you don't tip), though some of them now take Suica. If you need to pay with a card, just ask when you get in (hold up your card and say "credit card ok?").

Uber is in Tokyo now, but I've found that it takes quite a bit longer for them to pick you up than in the US (usually 15 minutes or so). Giving directions in a taxi is quite difficult, so make sure you drop that destination pin in the Uber app before the driver arrives.

If you want to rent a car, Japan requires you to have an International Driving Permit AND your home state Drivers License. If you're near a AAA office you can just go down and get one in person (they'll even take your picture). You don't have to be a AAA member to do this. Even in very rural areas the concept of Taxis is very common, so you almost never need a car. Parking on the street is generally not permitted in Japan, so familiarize yourself with the local, very unique parking lot machines before you set out. If your car has built-in navigation, ask the rental counter people to switch it to English and use that instead of Google Maps! (TIP: Use the phone number of your destination to quickly enter it into the GPS). Also ask the staff if your car can use the electronic toll collection (ETC) lanes on the highway.


 ðŸ± Food

  • I made a short list here of my favorite places to eat in Tokyo. 
  • My Instagram account (@briankusler) is entirely food, with corresponding restaurant check-ins, so you can go browsing through there for some ideas. 
  • Some of the best restaurants are in the train station, so are some of the worst. Good luck!
  • Yelp is what Americans like – by definition it's not a guide to local taste. If you can read Japanese or trust Google Translate, you can use Tabelog.com, one of the most popular Japanese food review sites.
  • You don't tip in Japan. In fact, it's considered rude to hand someone uncovered money.
  • If you're planning on visiting a Ryokan (Japanese-style hotel), here's how you put on a Yukata
  • Draft beer is "nama biiru". 生 is the symbol for draft. Two other useful kanji: 酒 means alcohol, and it'll be on convenience store signs that sell it. 男 means "man", 女 means "woman" and in a nice restaurant it might be the only sign on the bathroom indicating gender.
  • Ordering in a restaurant with no English or picture menu can be tough. Don't forget that Google Translate has a picture mode where you point the camera at something and it tries to read it. It's come in handy quite a bit (requires your phone to be on the internet).
    Google Translate can read signs and menus with your iPhone camera!
  • When in doubt, you can always try おすすめ "oh sue sue may" which basically translates to "whatever you recommend", though this might be rough if you're a picky eater. Even if you're at the vending machine noodle stand, you'll sometimes see this phrase above the buttons for their most popular items.
  • Most restaurants and bars will have a hook or a basket for you to put your bag someplace where it won't "get dirty". 
  • Don't be shy about saying "sÅ«mimasen" when you want something in a bar or restaurant, it's not the custom for the staff to keep checking in with you. Some places (esp. barbecue places) have a button on the table you can push when you need something.
Some tables have a buzzer for summoning your server


🇯🇵 General Stuff

  • If you've studied Japanese at all, you might find my Twitter feed interesting. I basically tweet things that I have to look up while living in Japan, so hopefully it's useful... 
  • As a fat white American, I'm always hot in Japan. They seem to like room temperature around 26° and I like it more around 20. Air conditioners often don't even function until the hotel has decided "it's summer now" so if you have an unseasonably warm day in April, well you're just gonna sweat.
  • There's a little tray at nearly every cash register where you put your money or your credit card when it's time to pay. Do not hand cash or credit cards directly to the checker.
  • Yes there is sales tax in Japan, and it's just as annoying as in the US: unpredictably applied to certain things and with a nasty habit of filling your coin purse (go buy one if you haven't yet) with useless one-yen coins. I find I'm constantly loading my change onto the Suica card. 
  • If you're at a more mom-and-pop store and feel like haggling on price, please read this guide on how to properly haggle in Japan
  • There are almost no trash cans anywhere in the entire country, despite the fact they have an obsession with over-packaging everything. Luckily there are Starbucks everywhere and they have trash cans. So do many public toilets, and those are also fairly ubiquitous and free.
  • Many public toilets are the squat style ones and many bathrooms don't have toilet paper or paper towels. You see all those people handing out free pocket tissues at the train station? Yeah, they're not really for blowing your nose :) Keep a pack in your bag just in case. 
  • If you're going to be out seeing temples and shrines, you'll be taking our shoes on and off all day. Wear slip-on shoes if you can. 
  • Since there's almost no crime in the country, if you lose something, you're very likely to get it back if you remember to label it with your contact info (include an email and/or a LINE ID so you give the finder a way to contact you that isn't an expensive international call in a language they might be too shy to speak). Make certain that your passport has your current info in the front of it, too!
  • Japanese "Onsen" hot springs (温泉 or often just this emoji: ♨️) have distinct hours for different activities. Take note of them before you get in, lest you be the lone naked white guy who's still in the springs after "women only, nude" hour has begun. ("Gomen" is the word for "sorry"). Some great onsen tips here. And yes, it's true, people with tattoos aren't permitted in most onsen, but here's my tips for visiting one with tattoos.
  • If you're a same-sex couple traveling together and you booked a western-style room, they'll assume you want separate twin beds, even if you booked a room with one. Make sure they know you want "ichi beddo." Many business hotels simply don't offer beds that sleep two. 


📱 Digital life

  • Here are AT&T's Japan roaming plans. Honestly, don't go without at least getting the cheapest plan: $60 for 1 GB + unlimited text + steeply-discounted voice. T-mobile offers free 2G roaming in Japan, and it's generally useful but feels painfully slow when you're in a hurry. They offer a "2x speed" plan for $25/mo extra. Information about Verizon is here. Given their network differences, it's probably a good idea to call them ahead of time to see if your current smart phone can connect to Japan's cell network at all. 
  • Renting a Japanese Mi-Fi is another popular option. If there's two (or more) of you and you'll be spending most of your time together, getting a Mi-Fi is a no-brainer. I've used Japan WifiBuddy and love them – their included prepaid return mailer means you don't have to make a hectic visit to a post office or airport drop location on your last day in Japan.
  • On an iPhone there are lots of great tricks to minimize your data usage, I made a list of my favorite ones here.
  • Renting a SIM card is another option, but then you need an unlocked phone, you won't be able to receive calls to your USA number, you can't tether with one, and Japan forbids you from having a voice line or Japanese phone number unless you are a legal resident, so I decided to pass. Some more good info over here.
  • If you're gay and looking to meet locals, install the Jack'd, 9Monsters, and Line apps (the US apps are catching on here very slowly). Given that the majority of gay bars (and even a few restaurants) don't admit unescorted foreigners, it can be very helpful to meet someone local before going out. I have a short writeup about visiting gay bars in Japan here
  • With Olympics coming in 2020, free Wi-Fi is finally starting to catch on. Most airports and large train stations now offer it, as do lots of businesses, including Tokyu Hands, Atre, Don Quixote, Bic Camera, Bicqlo, and 7-Eleven and Lawson convenience stores. The Tokyo Metro app shows which subway stations offer free Wi-Fi. Most of the Yamanote line stations have it as well. Most require you to enter your email address to sign up, so remember that if you're on the Wi-Fi but your apps aren't working, you might need to open Safari or Chrome first so you can be prompted for the login and "accept the terms" screens. The Free version of the Navitime App has an offline map just for finding free Wi-Fi.

    Tokyo Metro app shows which stations have free Wi-Fi


🔗 Links


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