8 Tips You Should Know Before Visiting Japan

visiting japan tips tokyo travel advice

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.

 

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.

 

Maps

visiting japan tips tokyo travel advice

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.

 

Public Transport

visiting japan tips tokyo travel advice

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.

 

Google Translate

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.

 

Oishii

visiting japan tips tokyo travel advice

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.


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35 Comments

  • That’s a handy list, and good to see Japan is finally embracing credit cards and prepaid SIMs like the rest of the developed (and even developing) world.. Surprised you didn’t mention the address system – normal streets generally don’t have names and locations are instead based on block number, which is based on when the building was built – not the order of the buildings, which can be quite confusing for visitors. I guess GPS/google maps has mostly rendered that moot!

  • Great tips Pauls. I’ll be going to Japan this summer and even though I was there 5 years ago some of your tips will be helpful.
    I’m not sure about the SIM though, on my first trip we survived without it :)

    • Paul says:

      Glad I could be of help Ricard. You can certainly get by without mobile data. In fact I didn’t have it at all at the start for the Osaka portion of my trip, but it does make things a lot easier. There were a few times when I was looking for something specific in Osaka and I had to give up despite knowing I was close, even after asking a few locals nearby.

      • drunken83 says:

        Know that feeling, I literally passed by a bar I was looking for five times without noticing and eventually had to ask them on their Facebook page how to get there.

        Still looking in to renting a wi fi hotspot for my stay but it’s getting easier to navigate and I’ve been told even locals need to use maps quite often. Thankfully if you’re in central Osaka or one of the big tourist districts there are usually police around who have a local guide book that they can find virtually anything in as long as you can give them a building name or some vague idea.

  • Jo (@271jo) says:

    50 yen coins have a hole in them as well

  • Max Veenhuyzen says:

    Nice set of tips!

  • If you leave Tokyo, no one takes credit cards. Also, unlocked phones do not even work in Japan as they have a one of a kind mobile phone network. My brand new unlocked iphone 5 was even a no go with local SIMS. Spend some time learning the basic Japanese phrases, they may not acknowledge they speak English until you at least stutter your way through some basic Japanese.

    • Paul says:

      Outside of the major cities I’m sure credit card acceptance is still low however in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka it wasn’t a problem.

      Regrading phones, the only SIM you can realistically use is the B-mobile one. I was roaming the NTT Docomo network using my unlocked Australian HTC One. With my Australian SIM I made/received a few calls and sent/received some SMS messages without issue. It’s a lot different than the old days when Japan was on a completely different spectrum to other countries. Most modern phones should be able to roam on Japan’s 3G/4G networks. Regarding the iPhone 5 the A1428 that AT&T sold in the USA won’t work in Japan but the A1429 that the other US networks sold will. In any case, this is why it’s best to get one of the portable WiFi devices IMHO.

      Definately agree that as a rule of thumb whenever travelling overseas it’s always wise to know some basic phrases. People always appreciate the effort that you make as a foreigner.

  • ktjison says:

    For longer train rides and getting around, a JR Railpass is very convenient. It is only for tourists and comes in 7, 14 and 21 day passes of all-u-can-ride trips around Japan with trains operated by the JR. It might sound expensive but in the ling run you can cover more miles with your money.

    • Paul says:

      True. The JR pass comes up on a lot of tips lists. It’s important to know that this needs to be organised before arriving in Japan. Very convenient of you plan do do lots of rail trips around the country.

      Saying that, if you’re doing enough rail trips in 7 days to make it worthwhile you’re probably not spending enough time in a single place to be able to really appreciate the place.

      • Ray G says:

        True that, except that you can use the pass for the JR lines within Tokyo, Osaka, and (I presume) other major cities. You can’t use it for the subway lines, but I know you can get around much of Tokyo (and, I presume, Osaka, et al.) just using the JR lines.

        • Daniel says:

          There are several 1-day passes in Kansai area (and I pressume Kanto may have something similar) that allow you to ride subway lines and busses. They have all the info about them at the Tourist Information Counters! (or you can also check the info posted online in pages like Japan Guidebook)

  • tokyo5 says:

    The SUICA / Pasmo IC have been intregated long before March 2013. And there is a small discount if you use them now.

    • Paul says:

      Indeed, SUICA and Pasmo have been integrated for a while now, however full integration with the IC cards of other cities only occurred in March 2013.

      Any idea what discounts are offered? All of my research has indicated that there is no discount apart from a few rare situations that aren’t of use to most travellers.

      • Jo (@271jo) says:

        From April 2014, the train fare changed due to tax changes. Along with that, they’ve introduced a discount for almost all rides if you use IC cards.

        • Paul says:

          It was confusing at times to see price tags that had prices with the old 5% GST/VAT rate on them. I arrived in Japan just as the rate increased to 8% and a lot of shops hadn’t yet made the changes to their tickets.

          It was hard to find any information on the train discount but finally I tracked something down. I’ve updated the post to reflect this thanks.

  • I’m in Tokyo right now (May 2014) and wanted to note that my American-issued ATM card also worked for withdrawing money at Citibank. I’m mentioning this because I’m currently staying in Shinjuku and the Citibank is just north of the train station and has a huge sign in English, making it impossible to miss. The 7-Eleven, on the other hand…well, I still haven’t managed to locate it, though the Internet says it’s around here somewhere.

    Do keep in mind that the Citibank ATM is not open 24 hours/day, though.

  • lordoflys says:

    I love my Chase Sapphire credit card, mostly. You will find, however, that this card, because of it’s unusual weight, will NOT scan in 90% of Japanese credit card scanners. The sushi place at Narita outside the United Club is one example. I’ve had trouble with it everywhere in Japan.

    • Paul says:

      For some of the thicker/heavier credit cards that are out there I have heard that sometimes the banks will allow you to apply for a second card linked to the same account that is more like a regular credit card thickness/weight wise. This could be worth investigating with Chase.

  • Jenifer says:

    I have to take issue with making “A lot of 100-200 yen (USD$1-$2) convenience store purchases…on my credit card, because you “never encountered a minimum credit card spend.” The stores pay fees on these transactions. I remember when very few places accepted credit cards. And if non-Japanese people go around spending miniscule amounts just because they can, I would not be one bit surprised if the result were, “no overseas credit cards accepted”. Just because they can.

    And it’s not like they’d be losing much business.

    Japanese credit cards are more like “layaway cards”, with the payment being separated, generally the following month, the following 3 months, the following 6 months, or 1 year. I believe that the available length of the payment interval depends on the applicant’s creditworthiness. And obviously no one’s going to pay for a ¥100 purchase over 3 months.

    The reason why you “never encountered a minimum” might well be that Japanese consumers use credit cards as a last resort, for big purchases only….so it never occurred to anyone that people would be spending ¥100. You can sure say, “well, I can, so I’m going to”, but maybe it might not be a horrible idea to limit credit card spending to purchases of ¥5000 or more. There’s a bit of “do as the Romans do” in that advice, sure. But there’s a whole lot of “thanks for not spoiling it for everyone”.

    One purchase here or there might not make a difference. But 5 local merchants get together and chat, and pretty soon it’s back to “cash only”.

    When I first lived in Japan, it goes without saying that overseas credit cards didn’t work in Japanese ATMs. But the ATMs were only open when the bank was open anyway. I asked why, and the answer that was given was, “anyone who needs money at night is probably doing something they shouldn’t, so why make it any easier?” Which would be merely amusing, except the person who answered was vice-president of a bank.

    • Paul says:

      Hi Jennifer. Perhaps I could have phrased that sentence better. For the majority of small transactions that were only a few hundred Yen I did use cash, but there were also often times that I didn’t have any change on me and it was very convenient to be able to use my credit card in these circumstances.

      There is a lot of speculation in this comment that I can’t really respond to as I admittedly do not know of the intricacies of the Japanese banking and credit card system however I would think that it’s quite a long stretch to go from “some tourists putting some small purchases on credit card” to “a future where no overseas credit cards are accepted”.

      I also don’t think it would be unreasonable for some stores to put a minimum spend on credit cards if the merchant fees were proving prohibitive below a certain level. It happens in Australia all of the time. The fact that this isn’t the case in Japan suggests to me that it is a non-issue.

  • Edo says:

    For getting around Japan you can use the http://www.hyperdia.com/en/ web site. There is also an app which is use on my iPhone and iPad. The app has a 30 day free period. As for the Japan rail pass, in just one trip from Tokyo to Kyoto it will have paid for the seven day pass. I have lived in Japan for 14 years and cannot get the rail pass, but my kids get it every time they come over to visit.

    As for credit cards I hardly ever use them once I got used to the cash society. I do keep my Sucia Card (Japan Rail) and several retailers point/cash cards charged up with cash. These can be used about anywhere even vending machines. Though there are still many cash only restaurants.

    Overall Japan is a great place which is why I am still there, but can be very costly without doing research for visitors and even local people. True their are some Japanese people that do not like foreigners but they are very very small minority which is true in any country. Overall though Japanese are a very gracious people who truly enjoy those who visit their country.

    One last tip, do not try and tip.

    • applecat says:

      Strange, my calculations tell me different. I’m flying in to Osaka, staying in Kyoto, then heading from Kyoto to Tokyo. From the Hyperdia site, the calculation seems to be:
      Osaka KIX to Kyoto 3,170Y
      Kyoto to Shinjuku 13,600Y
      Total: 16,770Y
      The 7 day JR pass is 29,110Y
      So it doesn’t seem cheaper to me. Thoughts/Discuss?

      • Paul says:

        The trip I did was from Osaka Umeda to Kyoto then Kyoto to Tokyo Station a few days later and it was cheaper to buy the 2 tickets on the day of travel rather than get the 7 day rail pass.

  • KidJP says:

    Street signs are now in romanji/english

  • Khaoula says:

    Thanks so much Paul for taking the time to write this. Bookmaking this page to read and re-read. We are planning a 10 day trip to japan (4 nights in Tokyo, 3 nights in Okinawa and 2 one nights in both Kyoto and Osaka in the middle) I am curious to hear whether you have any tips for Okinawa. We ll be staying in a resort beach like place but navigating from the airport and during the visiting period is making me a bit nervous.
    We are only taking the bullet train twice ( Tokyo to Kyoto then Kyoto to Osaka) I heard that it was not worth it to get a pass for two trips. I remain confused about the subway cards in Tokyo. Does want get a pass at the airport ?
    I will def follow your advice on getting a portable wifi connection.
    Thanks again

    • Paul says:

      Hi. I’m glad this post has helped you out. I didn’t visit Okinawa so unfortunately can’t provide any tips there.

      For just those 2 bullet train trips you’re better off just buying a ticket – no need for the rail pass. As for the Subway cards, you don’t need to get them from the airport – they are available at regular stations.

      Have a great trip!

  • DH says:

    Was in Tokyo this past Dec 2013, and everything in this article was right on mark. I was very fortunate that T-mobile had just introduced free international data roaming in Japan, so being able to access Google Maps on their SoftBank network really saved me. Within 2 days or so, I was able to “go with the flow” by following Google’s public transit directions to get from point A to point B – pretty sweet!

    A note about the street sign though, or lack thereof. I exited out of Tokyo Station trying to find my bearing to the Imperial Palace. Apparently, I had a hard time figuring out which way to go even though I know exactly where I was from Google Maps. I went to an intersection but just could not see street names… and Google Maps also doesn’t show street names, which made me conclude that streets do not have names, at least around the Imperial Palace. I ended up using the compass feature to gauge which direction I should be waking. Just a heads up for those who are used to finding their way around the city using street names.

    • Paul says:

      Free international roaming would be brilliant and yes you’re exactly right about some of those streets, sometimes the compass and intuition is all you can rely on. Makes things more difficult but you always end up finding out where you need to get to eventually – sometimes you discover something else on the way!

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