A few things I wish I’d known about Japan before visiting (from the UK)
I’ve recently returned from a two week trip to Japan, and it’s safe to say it was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had.
Rather than regale you with stories of karaoke, sushi, ryokan and give you tips on what to do, I thought it would be useful to share some general pointers that I’d wish I’d known before the trip.
Many of these will be fairly common knowledge, so consider at least some of these merely anxiety reducing reassurance.
Get a mobile/cell sim card before you go
So something that I only realised about a week before leaving, that despite a very generous international data roaming plan, Japan was not included and the potential data charges were incredibly high (many £££ per MB of data, that’s a lot of money to watch gifs of puppies). Luckily it’s now possible to get a data only SIM card for a short period of time. I got a 16 day card from here which arrived within a couple of days and was easy to set up (I did so the day before my flight).
When I arrived in Japan, it kicked in and I had unlimited data for the two weeks, which was most useful for using maps and looking up sites and restaurants. The sim card will require an unlocked phone — luckily I had an old one in a drawer, but if you don’t have one of these or a phone that can carry multiple sims, you’ll need to get one ahead of time.
Credit Cards and ATMs — not as bad as you might hear, but still good to have cash
We heard ahead of the trip that despite Japan being a very technologically advanced in many ways (the toilets for one, more on that below), there would not be many places that accepted international credit cards and few ATMs for international credit cards. This fear however was largely unfounded.
Most stores and hotels accept credit cards readily, although some require a signature rather than a chip and pin. In the UK this is incredibly rare, so just make sure your card is in fact signed as they won’t be able to accept cards without this. As a lovely little piece of cultural etiquette, tellers always take your credit card with two hands, palms facing upwards, as a sign of respect for both you and your card. I actually felt guilty about past occasions where I’d jammed my card into a jeans pocket, or slung it across a room when returning from a night out.
ATMs that take international cards are relatively commonplace — most bank branches and some 7/11s (which are everywhere) will have one — it will be clearly marked on the ATM in English. They’ll also have language options as soon as you put your card in.
However, most bars and restaurants do only accept cash so be sure to have enough each day to cover 3 meals and snacks. The public vending machines that dispense hot and cold drinks also only accept coins (these machines are also a good way to use up coins which you’ll inevitably accrue during your stay)
Toilets — completely nuts, and completely brilliant
Like something from the future, toilets in Japan are almost all incredibly high tech. They all have a control panel stuck to the wall next to them, with buttons for seemingly dozens of features, mostly labelled in Japanese, and at first I was terrified that one wrong push would spray perfume into my eyes, or call the local hospital for help. They take some getting used to, but are totally worth it.
On the control panel there’s usually about 10 different functions. There’s back and front cleaning, pressure changes, temperature changes, self-cleaning, seat heat, often three different types of flush and sometimes even a button to raise and lower the seats. My favourite was a privacy button for public loos which plays loud water noises to drown out the sound of you doing your business. As a prude Englishmen, I feel this anxiety reducing feature should be standard across the world.
You’ll also have to get used to using this water jet under-carriage-cleaning function, as the toilet paper in Japan resembles wafer thin tracing paper — single ply, no more. Water vapour from your breath has the potential to dissolve it in your hands. However, all of the instructions are usually in Japanese. Follow the images, and if in doubt about the actual flush function, it’s either usually a button on top of the control panel, or there’s a manual flush on the cistern itself.
The JR pass is great and can also be used on more than just bullet trains
The unlimited Japan Rail pass was absolutely brilliant for us. It allows you unlimited bullet trains around Japan. You can find a number of sites that sell JR passes online, and they’ll send them to you via first class post. All offer the same service, so shop around for the best price.
Once you arrive in Japan, you’ll want to find the JR ticket office at Narita train station (assuming you’re getting the train into Tokyo) to redeem your pass in exchange for your receipt. Once you’ve got the pass, you can then use any eligible train, which includes plenty of bullet train services and certain local rail and subway lines.
The pass itself is just under A5 size and you can’t use it in the regular electronic barriers. Instead, every set of barriers will have a manned booth to one side — simply flash your pass and head through — usually they only give a cursory glance at the pass and you can shoot straight through.
The trains themselves are comfortable, fast, on time, and the seats have an extremely generous amount of legroom. As a side note, the toilet facilities are also great and even have urinal rooms for men, and a sink and mirror room too.
As a fantastic bonus to the rail pass, there are a couple of subway lines in Tokyo that the JR pass can get you access to, further saving you some £££ on transport.
Bullet trains have both reserved and unreserved carriages. For shorter journeys you may be fine to try to grab a seat, but you’ll want to ensure you get a seat. You can reserve seats at any major station at the JR ticket office and the staff are incredibly helpful. Best to do this a couple of days ahead of time — we usually reserved our seats for leaving a city when we arrived a few days in advance.
Public transport is great, don’t be hesitant to use it
Public transport is uniformly excellent in Japan. The services are punctual, reasonably priced and can get you more or less anywhere you want to go. This includes the busses, which require exact change (meaning coins) and are a flat fare.
Very helpfully, busses and trams have both an english announcement of upcoming stops, as well as a visual display to show the next stops in the service.
Map apps are pretty much spot on in terms of describing which busses and trams can get you where you want to go, although if they are wrong, the stops themselves contain plenty of information too.
In short, don’t be afraid to use public transport. It is great, and taxis are expensive.
Get out of stations as fast as you can
The train stations in Japan are absolutely bonkers. Usually spread out over several subterranean floors and often directly under a department store or two, they can often have dozens of different exits and several open spaces that seemingly lead nowhere. They also contain more people than Belgium.
If in doubt, get out a station at any exit and then find your way from there. Even then it will feel like trying to make a quick exit from a large Maze filled with twenty thousand other busy and impatient commuters, so just make a beeline for the first exit sign you see. Honestly one station we visited had no less that 40 different numbered exits.
Food is uniformly excellent, so don’t worry about finding the ‘perfect’ restaurant to eat in (unless you’re a veggie)
It goes without saying that the food in Japan is excellent. But that’s not just the best restaurants in Japan (Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world), but almost every restaurant in Japan is likely to be well above your average restaurant in European countries. I’d say for any given place you walk into, it’s likely to be a 7 or 8 out of 10.
What this means is don’t get too worried about finding and tracking down the best reviewed places to eat where you are — some of the best meals you will have will just be from wandering down a street and walking into an interesting looking place. Sometimes there will be a queue or wait time, but these usually go down quickly and the longest we waiting for food was around 25 mins, and the gyoza were totally worth the wait.
The one exception to the above is if you’re a vegetarian or vegan — almost everything in Japan has at the very least an egg slapped on top of it, and most things contain at least one type of meat. For those less carnivorous, it’s probably best to do a bit of searching online for places that specifically advertise themselves as veggie friendly.
Breakfast, or brunch isn’t really a thing in Japan — most of the time we resorted to a pastry and coffee on the go. Not always a bad thing if your days a crammed full of sight seeing.
Most restaurants in Japan do not offer a little bit of everything, instead they pick a type of cuisine, and do it really well. So expect a cosy Ramen haunt, a minimalist Sushi place, a Tempura joint, a Yakitori street food vendor. And expect a lot of fish. There also seems to be a widespread practice of having pictures of every dish in the menu so if you can’t figure out what’s in it, you can guestimate based on the images.
Some places go one step further — using some sort of jelly wrapping (I suspect), restaurants can have physical, permanent examples of everything they serve:
So if in doubt, point.