Before visiting Japan I did my research and read a lot of information about various topics. During my time in the country, some of what I read proved itself to be useful and some of it not so useful. There were other things that I encountered that I had never read about that I wish I had known before I arrived. There are a lot of sites out there that give you the basics that you need to know and I don’t intend to repeat them, instead here are 8 useful tips that I think you should know before visiting Japan that aren’t on the usual lists.
Make sure you visit The City Lane Tokyo City Guide for ideas on things to eat, drink, and do when in Tokyo.
Mobile Phone Data
When I travel overseas I grab myself a prepaid SIM card from one of the local mobile phone companies and I’m all set for phone calls and data for the duration of my trip. In Japan however, prepaid mobile SIM cards are not widely available. There is one company, B-mobile, who does offer prepaid SIM cards for foreigners. The one you’ll want if you go down this route comes with 1GB of data that expires after 14 days. It’s already activated and you can organise online for it to be delivered to your hotel for when you arrive in Japan. You can find the link here. Note that this SIM is data only (no phone calls or SMS) and is useless once the 1GB/14 days has expired. It connects you to the NTT Docomo network which has excellent coverage and is very reliable.
B-mobile does offer some other prepaid SIM cards but these are aimed at the domestic market that have more data and no expiry. To activate one of these you’ll still need access to a Japanese mobile phone and, coupled with the language barrier, this is not really a viable option unless you know someone in Japan who can do this for you.
After a few days in Japan without any mobile data I soon realised that this wasn’t really working for me. What my wife and I ended up doing was to hire a portable WiFi device. PuPuRu offers visitors to Japan a variety of rental options including Japanese phones with SIMs in them however the one that was most useful to my wife and I was an E-mobile portable WiFi device. It connected to E-mobile’s network which we found to be very reliable and allowed both my wife and I to simultaneously use data on our phones while still being able to roam the NTT Docomo network for voice and SMS. You can organise online to get it delivered to your hotel for when you arrive in Japan and it comes with a prepaid return envelope so you can drop it in the post when you leave the country. It was really handy for the second half of my trip, and something I wish I’d organised before I’d arrived in Japan.
Most of the street signs in Japan are in Japanese (and when I say Japanese don’t mean rōmaji, which is Japanese words using Roman characters as used in the English language, but Japanese characters – kanji, hiragana and katakana), and although it seems obvious, this can really make it hard to get your bearings – the street signs simply don’t mean anything to someone who can’t read Japanese characters. This is also the case when it comes to maps on your phone (in my case, Google Maps). Why this wasn’t as obvious as it seemed was because when I travel, I can generally type in an English address and I’ll get the spot I need in Google Maps regardless. In Japan however typing in an English address or place name will only sometimes bring up a useful result – popular attractions, major shops etc. Often searching for a particular place or an address in Google Maps in Japan will bring up either an incorrect result or no result at all. If you really want to find a place, make sure you know the Japanese address as well, which you can usually figure out doing a regular Google search.
On the topic of maps and street names not being in English, Google Maps combined with GPS on your phone is an even more invaluable tool then usual. When you go get your destination pinpointed on Google Maps finding it is a lot easier. If what you’re looking for is on the street level of a main street then this isn’t as big of a deal but in Japan a lot of places are on side streets, down laneways, in basements, on the nth floor of a building. With street signs being, to a native English speaker, indecipherable, it can be very hard to get your bearings and find a place when in an area that you don’t know. I’ve never travelled anywhere where Google Maps with an active data connection and GPS was such a useful tool. So many of the hidden places that I was seeking out I simply wouldn’t have been able to have found otherwise, at least not to the extent that I was able to during my visit.
Acceptance of Credit Cards
Before visiting Japan, my research indicated that credit card acceptance was quite low in Japan and that it was very much a cash society. During my time in Japan I found credit card acceptance to be very similar, perhaps only slightly less than most of the developed nations that I’ve visited around the world. The main difference with credit card acceptance in Japan was that everywhere that accepted credit cards accepted all credit cards with no surcharge. It was a real “all or nothing” approach and in fact whenever I was able to use my credit card I was able to use my American Express card (which has quite competitive exchange rates) and I didn’t have to reach for my Visa card once.
I did encounter a handful of restaurants and bars that I would have assumed accepted credit cards that were cash only, for example a Michelin starred restaurant but conversely a few of the market stalls and small “mom and pop” stores that I assumed would be cash only did accept credit cards. I also never encountered a minimum credit card spend. A lot of 100-200 yen (USD$1-$2) convenience store purchases were made on my credit card.
Withdrawing Cash From ATMs
This was another area where my research brought up conflicting information. Foreign bank cards will not work in most Japanese ATMs however this is not an issue as you can use your foreign ATM card to withdraw cash from ATMs located at Post Offices and 7-11 stores. The ATMs at the Post Offices are open at the same times that the Post Office is open and the 7-11 ATMs are open 24/7. Since 7-11 stores can be found all over Japan’s major cities it’s easy to withdraw cash when you need to. The ATMs have an English option too so they are easy to navigate. I actually didn’t need to take much cash out during my time in Japan due to the unexpectedly high credit card acceptance that I encountered.
Japan’s rail system can be quite complicated. Different lines are run by different companies. Generally the inter city lines are split into two groups – JR (Japan Rail) lines and the other lines, generally a subway system. If you’ve been to London think of the Underground/Overground distinction. Until March 2013, you needed to get a separate card for the different networks however since then, most IC cards (rechargeable plastic public transport cards) have become interoperable on multiple networks meaning that one card will work on basically all bus, train and subway lines in most major cities in Japan. In Tokyo for example, the cards you can purchase are Pasmo (Metro) and Suica (JR).
The IC cards can be used not only on public transport, but at a variety of convenience stores and other places and any credit on them lasts for 10 years (or you can get any balance and deposit refunded at any station). I’d highly recommend getting an IC card. In the fast paced Japanese cities they let you get through the ticket barriers quickly and with ease. The sensors are very strong and generally you only need to wave your wallet/purse across the sensor and it will detect your card before you’ve even made full physical contact with the sensor. The barriers are generally left open and instead close if they detect that somebody has tried to walk through without scanning on or entering a ticket. It’s all designed for speed so don’t be the tourist that sticks out and slows things down. Additionally, since April 2014 IC card users get a small discount. on an IC card the fare is what it is however if paying cash, fares get rounded up to the nearest 10 yen – for example a 206 yen fare becomes 210 yen.
There are occasions where you will walk into the wrong train station, especially in Tokyo. This is due to the aforementioned fact that different lines are run by different companies, which leads to the situation where an interchange station will actually require you to leave the station of one line and enter the station of another line, despite the fact that the IC cards work on all lines and despite the fact that, to the untrained eye, the station looks like it’s just one station. This is another reason to use an IC card. If you find that you’ve entered a station incorrectly (or that you went into a station to use the clean toilets and didn’t actually want to catch a train – don’t tell them I told you!) you can simply go to the ticket booth near the barriers and ask the attendant for a refund which will be promptly processed, allowing you to get to where you are supposed to be without financial penalty.
Finally on the topic of public transport, are the infamous Japanese rail maps. In Kyoto and Tokyo at least, the JR and Metro lines are not on the same map, despite there being interchanges. In Tokyo especially where there are a lot of lines for both networks, this can make finding out the quickest way to get from A to B quite difficult. Going back to my prior tips about maps and phone data, here’s another reason why both are relevant. The major cities in Japan have their public transport integrated with Google Maps. Any confusion and fiddling around with rail maps is eliminated when Google Maps can easily show you the quickest way to get from A to B, updated in real time. With Google Maps and and IC Card you’ll be using public transport in Japan like a local in no time (well you’ll look you know what you’re doing at least!).
The Coin With A Hole In It
This caught me out on my first day in Japan when I was sorting through my change and came across a round bronze coin with a hole in it and no denomination (that I could understand). It’s value is 5 yen.
Note that the 50 yen coin also has a hole in it as one of my readers pointed out, however that one is silver and has “50” written on it.
The usefulness of a phone with a data connection again comes in useful here. I made an effort to communicate with people without assistance and generally I got to where I needed to be. As with everywhere else in the world, humans have a way of being able to convey quite a lot even when they don’t speak the same language. There were times, however where I’d want to ask something and needed some help – more often than not in situation where I actually wanted to have a proper conversation with somebody. For example I found myself in a bar one night and was talking to a man about life, travel and all those other things you talk about and wanted to ask him something that required more than simple English. Google Translate to the rescue! Most of the time it did quite a decent job of letting the person I was talking to understand what I was trying to convey.
This word means “delicious”. I made an effort to learn a few Japanese words – obvious ones like arigato for thank you etc, however one of the words that people really appreciated was “oishii“. If I had a great meal, I’d say oishii to the chef or person serving us and they seemed genuinely impressed and thankful. A great word for a great meal, of which in Japan there are many.
I hope that you’ve found something of use in this post that you weren’t aware of before.
If you have any tips of your own that you’d like to share, please feel free to share them with my readers and I in the comments section below.