Tips for visiting Japan
- When to travel
- Planning a route
- Lodging & food
- Plus this post of miscellaneous practical things…
Phones & data & wifi
The easiest and cheapest option is to get a short term data SIM card. Tourist-oriented places usually have fast wifi, but it’s convenient to stay connected on your own phone when travelling around.
- SIMs and eSIMs are available for sale in the big ubiquitous phone/camera shops (and airports). Look for the temporary travel SIM cards for foreigners. Even easier, get an eSIM online. You’ll be up and running. Some take minutes, some day a day. You need (separate) internet for the setup process.
- Get a Japan-authorised SIM? Many eSIM companies are foreign and run on other networks. For example “eSIM Japan” service runs on China Mobile networks (which the US FCC warns against, whether for spurious or real reasons). Airalo.com appears to be a foreign company but runs on KDDI or Softbank, Japanese companies. SIM Card Geek marks itself as “Approved as a Telecommunications Provider by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in Japan.” 🤷🏻♀️
- Consider a phone number. If you are staying in very traditional places, or want to make dinner reservations, having a phone number can be convenient. Many lovely small traditional places won’t accept bookings online. (Plans that give you a number are rarer & it does cost a bit extra.)
- Get an unlimited data plan. Due to fast speeds, you can burn through a lot of data unless you very attentively minimize/manage usage. Also go unlimited if you want to tether/hotspot and connect other devices.
- APN settings: Check instructions if internet doesn’t start working.
Withdraw Money at the ATM
- ATMs work well and have an English option. For money I just take my fee-free US debit card and go to a ubiquitous konbini (convenience) store. My bank likes 7–11. You will get a perfect exchange rate, no loss.
- Japan really is still a cash economy. You will be handling cash. The more local, small, and independent you get, the harder it will be to use cards.
- International credit cards will be accepted most places but not all. Sometimes the rules are funny: I can reload my iPhone transit card through Apple Pay but only with a Mastercard if it’s international…?
- Other payment methods abound, but they all seem to require local debit cards or bank accounts. Local debit payments, like those set up for phone tap payments, e.g. PayPay app, are common.
- You can really pack light because most accommodations have nice coin laundry machines. I like to carry my own detergent pods. Some machines do have automatic soap, so if you have sensitivities you’d have to avoid some machines. Usually you can just press start, but to read the buttons you can use Google Translate/Lens.
- An umbrella and/or raincoat is a good idea, especially in June but honestly all the time. Though you can buy cheap umbrellas.
- Electricity plug shape is the same as the US — but it’s just 2 prongs and not 3. Voltage is 100V instead of 120V in US (or 220+ elsewhere). Smaller gadgets will all work fine, as usual. Just don’t bring your own hair dryer and don’t take home a standard local rice cooker.
Ship your luggage to your next destination
- You will notice that Japanese people hardly ever have luggage, even for long distance trains.
- Luggage shipping is convenient not just for you but for everyone around you. Japanese trains are designed for one carry-on wheelie sized luggage at most.
- Thanks to affordable, extremely trustworthy, reliable, and careful door-to-door courier services — takyuubin, takuhai-bin — no one needs to trudge around with their luggage.
- Service is overnight at the longest. Each service has pickup/dropoff locations at airport terminals, nearby convenience stores, or sometimes petrol stations, or house/hotel door-to-door. Send it out in the morning for fastest delivery.
- Cost is $15–25 depending on size and distance.
- Bullet trains require advance special oversize luggage ticket booking, and you’ll still have to drag it on there, wedge it into the rack, and if you’re with a group that also has big luggage it will be a pain. Also, you’d want to board last so you don’t hold up everyone else trying to sit.
- Small packages are also OK. I even used to get bags of rice shipped from the farm. And fresh bread shipped from Tokyo boulangeries. If you buy heavy gifts at your destination, ship them onwards.
- For retail, there are huge sales periods at certain set times of the year, and often sales sections. There are some shops that are ethical / socially and/or environmentally responsible. I like to look for them. :)
- Konbinis. Convenience stores that are remarkably well stocked and daily ritual for many. Freshly ground & brewed coffee from a machine for $2? Seasonal flavours of soft serve? Three dozen varieties of fresh rice balls for $1 each? Package and luggage shipping? Cigs? ATM? Xerox or printing? Beer? Phone credit? Sexy zines? Emergency nylons or cables? Midnight parking lot lighting when you’re working across time zones? Each chain has its notable features.
- Tax-free discount of 8–10% off almost everything for foreigners. There is a foreigner tax-free discount on consumables. Carry your passport, buy stuff over $50 almost anywhere, go to a table and get 8% back actually. Official info here. A bit of strategy here.
- Tokyu Hands and Loft are interesting one-stop shops for all sorts of Japanese stuff. Seek out the larger multi-story main stores, available near big-city train stations, rather than smaller satellite shops.
- Muji(rushi) in Japan sells ridiculously convenient stuff. It’s much more expansive (at main locations) and at least 30% cheaper than in Europe/US. But reeeally not great about Xinjiang cotton production policies. And a lot of the goods are plastic. Ethics overall not great.
- 100 yen shops actually have pretty nice and useful stuff. Much better quality than Japanese-styled 100 yen shops abroad. Still not great for the environment.
- Don Quixote is a ubiquitous discount chain and a truly overwhelming experience (sort of casino-like?) with good deals.
- Amazon.co.jp can be convenient, has an English option (works well) and easily takes international cards (or cash on delivery)… even if Amazon is evil.
- Of course, small specialty shops are really the best. :)
- There are some zero waste shops in Tokyo and Kyoto, though only a few seem actually serious about having everything you’d want to restock.
Plastic use in Japan is still awful: carry your own mug & Stashers?
Consider carrying your own (totally clean) travel mugs, water bottles, containers whenever possible. It will be slightly awkward, but otherwise the waste gets serious really fast, and Japan burns loads of its plastic. It was traditional to take your own container to e.g. the local tofu shop.
Or buy an excellent Zojirushi mug or container upon arrival, like from Tokyu Hands or Loft. Or discounted ones at Don Quixote or even thrift stores (overstock, not used). Zojirushi design seems like near perfection, yet somehow they improve upon it each year, and the big stores will have the latest ones. (There are also other good brands next to them at the same stores.) They also make good gifts to take home.
You can also carry your own bags, even plastic, so you don’t end up picking up even more. Vendors do get uncomfortable not wrapping things 3x over to make the package look perfect. I just try to be reassuring when refusing at least layers 2 and 3. Then I tuck the item into my bag, so that I don’t embarrass the store by walking around with an unwrapped item on display.
I would be curious to hear if any Japan visitors (or residents) have managed to spend time there without producing a guilt-inducing ton of one-time use plastic and styrofoam waste. Despite Japan ostensibly being the land of travel mugs, home bentos, trash sorting peer pressure collective behaviour.
Google Translate & a few key vocab
For anything written in Japanese that you can’t read, use the Google Translate/Lens app to take a photo of the text. Voilà. There’s also instant translation just when you hold the camera up, but the photo method is more accurate for all the words. Though none of it produces logical sentences and conveys full meaning. For more nuanced and colourful definitions of words, I love the old school eow.alc.co.jp dictionary.
sumimasen, or suimasen = excuse me, pardon me, sorry, desculpe, con permiso. A minor sorry, all purpose. And/or an acknowledgement someone’s gone (nominally) out of their way for you. Or interchange sumimasen and arigatou gozaimasu if someone’s done something for you.
That should be enough, unless you do something awful, in which case an effusive “gomennasai” or “shitsurei shimashita” is better, in cases when saying sumimasen could trivialise the offence. But, generally, if you go around saying sumimasen all the time, try to go with the flow and stay out of the way, everyone should think you’re a polite foreigner.
Fun fact: Emoji are still quite Japanese. The ones you don’t recognise could be a mini cultural introduction to Japan. Some are especially useful, like the symbols for post office and hospital.
Police & belongings
If you need directions or any help at all, you can always stop by police stations. The tiny police “boxes” are on random corners everywhere.
Tokyo seems to be one of the safest big cities in the world, you should still be decently careful with your things. I got a cellphone stolen on the airport train one time, but granted it was out on the tray table.
Generally, lost and founds are very effective and well used. I retrieved something from an airplane very easily one time. Another time, I left something on the subway in Tokyo, on the top rack above the seats. I called the train company and picked the package up at the terminal station. Though they really grilled me on the contents before handing the bag over.
Owl cafes are terrible!
Those fun-sounding owl cafes are actually really, really sad. It’s a horrible situation: owls tied up, for the whole day, on sale, and you pay to look at them take photos. You pay an extra fee to hold one on your arm or have it fly a few meters, still attached to ropes. They are remarkable creatures to see up close, but the circumstances were awful. There is an owl sanctuary in Kenya I have been meaning to donate to as penance. When in Japan, perhaps try a cat cafe instead.