1. Get your wi-fi connection
In order to help tourists from overseas get the most out of their trip to Japan, free wi-fi spots and wi-fi services that are only available to tourists from overseas are spreading rapidly in Japan. Among many wi-fi services, the “0000FLETS-POTAL” is drawing attention because it has about 50,000 wi-fi spots in the NTT East area, all of which use high-speed and high-quality optical fiber. It fully covers eastern Japan from Hokkaido to Tohoku and Kanto regions, so service is available in Tokyo as well as other major tourist areas such as Sapporo, Yokohama, Yamanashi and Nikko. This wi-fi service is provided by businesses, including shop owners, to show “Omotenashi” or hospitality to customers from overseas. Anyone can use 0000FLETS-POTAL free wi-fi up to twice a day for 15 minutes at a time, and tourists from overseas can get a “free Wi-Fi card”, distributed at tourist attractions in the NTT East area, and can have unlimited use of the wi-fi service for 14 days.
Obviously this wi-fi option is only available where there is a wi-fi hot spot connected to the network in question. If you want full unlimited wi-fi access, you can rent a wireless router (or pocket wi-fi), like we did. In Japan, these handy little gadgets are the best way to stay connected, allowing multiple devices unlimited, un-throttled data at the same time allowing local calls via Internet calling apps.
There are several rental agencies at the airport, or if you would rather not deal with this at the airport after the long flight, you can organise a pocket wi-fi online and it will be delivered to your hotel. We used http://www.globaladvancedcomm.com. For our two-week stay, a pocket wi-fi cost us $AUD170. We found the parcel at the hotel when we arrived and connected with no issues. And we also got an addressed envelope to return the pocket wi-fi at the end. You can even rent a smartphone, data card, sim card, etc. pretty much all options are covered.
2. Book a Japan Rail pass before the trip for intercity travel
The flat-rate, foreigner-only Japan Rail (JR) Pass can be used throughout the extensive JR network and save a LOT of money for travel by train. They MUST be reserved outside of Japan. We used http://www.traveljapan.com.au. They have offices in most Australian cities or they can mail you the pass if there is enough time left before you take off on your trip. Please note that the JP pass is not a ticket, you have to present it at a JR Pass Exchange Office to get your ticket, within 3 months from date of issue of the pass. Not all stations have an exchange office.
3. Buy a Pasmo or a Suica card for the subway
Pasmo or Suica are IC cards (smart cards) or rechargeable cards that can be used to conveniently pay fares on public transportation and to make payments at a rapidly increasing number of vending machines, shops and restaurants by simply touching the card on a reader. For short-distance trains, these pre-loaded transportation cards save a lot of time that would otherwise be spent buying individual tickets, and are especially handy for transfers. Since March 2013, Suica, Pasmo, Icoca and seven more of Japan’s most popular IC cards became compatible with each other. As a result, it is now possible to travel on almost all trains, subways and buses in most of Japan’s largest cities with just a single of these cards. You can buy a Pasmo card from one of the machines at the train station. Not all machines sell a Pasmo card but all of them have an English menu.
We have a Pasmo card but we are far from being a whirlwind blur in the Japanese subway stations. Many, many minutes are spent looking lost and bewildered and wondering which exit to take.
4. Download the Hyperdia app if you can
The app is available only in Japan and the US and worse, in Japan it recognizes my phone as not being Japanese and it won’t let me download the app. Annoying beyond words. We’ll just have to use the website. Although after our first day on the Tokyo subway, we are ready to beg, borrow or steal a Japanese sim card just so we can download the app.
The app is supposed to be a godsend for foreign travellers navigating the complicated subway and train networks. It’s accurate to the minute.
5. Get discounts on domestic flights
Japan’s minor carriers are offering discounts for foreign travellers for air travel within Japan. Again, bookings must be made outside of Japan, before your trip. We’re not using this option, Puffles likes train travel 🙂
6. Choose your international airport of arrival
Haneda International Airport is much closer to Tokyo city centre than Narita International Airport, meaning the train ride is considerably cheaper too. However, we are told that the transportation options are better from Narita airport.
If you are flying into Narita, and looking to take the train to Tokyo, take the N’EX (Narita Express), it’s more comfortable than alternative trains, with nicer seats and more luggage space, with no transfers. Since we arrived at 6:20am local time, after a sleepless (but quite entertaining 🙂 ) night on the plane, we have opted to take the Airport Limousine Bus to get to the hotel. It was a supposed to be a door to door trip, however, they only have about 2-3 buses a day that actually go to the hotel and all in the afternoon. There are buses every 20 minutes that go the area, in our case Shinjuku, and from there it was an easy 5 minutes walk to the hotel. Sheer damn luck. I think the bus is slightly more expensive than the Narita Express, however, getting off the bus at street level, and not having to navigate the exists out of Shinjuku station, and better still same street as the hotel, was worth the extra money. The luck bit helped too.
7. Download Google Translate app
It’s not perfect, but whipping out the Google Translate app is a handy way for translating what you want to say on the spot. The bears are multilingual 🙂 but they don’t talk to strange people, and my knowledge of Japanese is pretty much zero. People are extremely friendly but for most it is a strain trying to talk English and after a painful conversation, you might still don’t get directions that you can actually follow.
8. Have your address/es printed in Japanese
In case the battery for your phone or pocket wi-fi dies, always carry a print-out of your address. In Japanese!
9. Know where to get cash
Japan is a very cash-oriented society. Even though an increasing number of establishments have begun to accept credit cards, many places still do not. All of this means you will need to carry more cash (in yen, of course) than you’re probably accustomed to. ATMs at Citibank, post offices and 7-Elevens are the best bet for your foreign card. We know it may be obvious, but check to be sure it’s activated for foreign withdrawals before you leave home. Something we definitely forgot to do! It is a new card and untried in foreign places. Do not assume that your card will work at a particular bank ATM in Japan because it worked at that bank in another country. I used to have a HSBC account and imagine my shock when my HSBC card did not work at the HSBC ATMs in Hong Kong! But it worked at the Citibank ones.
You’ll generally need to use cash at neighborhood restaurants, small shops, markets (such as Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market) and at rural ryokans, to name a few. However, you can usually use credit cards at western-style hotels, department stores, as well as at many – though not all – major shops and restaurants.
10. Know where to find refuge
Forgot your phone charger? Craving hot chicken? Need a change of underwear? How about concert tickets? When in doubt, head to a “konbini”, like 7-Eleven. The Japanese convenience stores anticipate pretty much every need of people on the road. But do they anticipate the needs of bears? Turns out not exactly, but they were still able to help with directions to the local Disney store. Using a great deal of sign language. But it was far easier to follow those directions than the spoken ones by others.
11. Carry a spare plastic bag with you for incidental shopping
When you go to the supermarket, the cashier is likely to ask if you’ve brought your own bag. In Japanese. If your default answer to every question you don’t understand is ‘yes’ you might find yourself having to carry your groceries in your hands. As much as that sucks, going back to the cashier and asking for a bag would be to admit not having understood Japanese perfectly, or at all, so that’s clearly out of the question 🙂 I just had a flashback to the first time I bought some fruit at a small supermarket in Rome. I arrived at the cashier with the fruit and no sticker with the weight & price of the fruit, at which point she promptly took off with my fruit! After a moment of perplexity, I had my ‘aaahhh’ moment. I had to weigh the fresh produce in store before getting to the checkout as there were no scales at the checkout.
We brought some plastic cutlery with us since we are not good with chopsticks, but we do that on (almost) every trip. Of course, every time we forget, is the time when we need the cutlery and we end up buying some more.
And last, but most certainly not least, don’t forget your bear at home. You’ll want to fit in!
Jean-Luc travels a lot and loves Japan and was describing it as a different planet. I was thinking, I have four bears hiding in the overhead locker, I am intimately familiar with different planets. I live there regularly 🙂 But unlike our first trips to Paris and Rome where we just felt at home from the first moment, we most definitely do not feel at home in Tokyo. That won’t stop us from having fun.