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Big in Japan: Some Essential Travel Tips

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Big in Japan: Some Essential Travel Tips

V1.24

Over several trips to Japan, I have gathered some knowledge about things that I think should be known to anyone traveling to Japan. Hopefully this will make your life in Japan easier and more enjoyable. Obviously, there would be more things to talk about, but I tried to focus on the essentials here.

Connectivity

Japan has one of the most advanced communication infrastructures in the world, especially with respect to mobile communication. Unfortunately, this infrastructure is not easily accessible by foreigners. That’s a pity because online access to navigation services, train schedules etc., makes life as a foreigner so much easier in Japan.

WiFi

Free WiFi

Japan has significantly ramped up its efforts towards free WiFi service for visitors. Many cities including Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, Osaka offer some sort of free WiFi. Here are a few pointers:

In addition, the JR companies (East, Central, West) offer free WiFi in several train stations. In Kyoto, there is free WiFi at every bus stop (and every subway station).

Other options are probably your hotel and the many Starbucks cafes all over the country. The latter is always an option, at least as a fallback. You’ll find Starbucks cafes in and around many train stations. The downside is that everyone (every foreigner) knows this, so those hotspots are often heavily overloaded. The convenience store chain Lawson also seems to offer free WiFi in their shops (I have not tested that yet).

Also, there is a “Japan Connected” smartphone app by NTT (for iOS and Android) that helps you to find and connect to free WiFi hotspots, including the WiFi hotspots in the 7-Eleven convenience stores. The app also helps you by facilitating logging in into the free WiFi hotspots mentioned above, but please be warned that you are creating quite some data trail — and your usage profile might be used at least for analyzing tourist movement patterns.

Paid WiFi

Japanese mobile operators are operating an extended WiFi network — I believe for offloading traffic from 3G/LTE to WiFi and for coverage extension within buildings. Some of them have opened up their network to visitors (i.e., non-contract users) and offer access to their WiFi hotspots for a fee. Here are the ones that I know of:

This could be a relatively affordable alternative if you urgently need connectivity (1 day…), or if you are interested in connectivity in hotspots (train stations, ward centers etc.). Since there is no data volume limit, it would probably also make sense to use this in addition to a SIM card for offloading traffic from LTE to WiFi.

3G/LTE

Over the recent years, it has become a little easier for foreigners to obtain at least temporary SIM cards. Before you do that, it’s important that you verify that you actually have a device that works in Japan. Since the introduction of UMTS and LTE this has become signficantly more likely, however, there are still different variants of LTE: FDD (Frequency Division Duplexing) and TDD (Time Division Duplexing).  A FDD-only device will not work in an TDD network and vice versa. Japan supports FDD only (see here for a list of LTE networks in countries worldwide, and here for a list of LTE networks in Europe). The EU and the US is mostly FDD, China primarily TDD. Still within one LTE variant, there are different frequency bands used by different network operators in different countries.  This is the reason why there often different version of devices to be sold and used in certain regions or operator networks.

Just as an example, Apple has a list of different iPhone Versions supporting different LTE bands. That list tells you exactly which model would work in Japan. It seems that especially in the US, there are iPhone versions with limited LTE-FDD bands that would only work in the Americas. Other vendors should have similar information on their phones.

It’s also possible to rent phones or mobile LTE/WIMAX gateways in Japan. I have never done that because I only buy phones that work in Japan.

OK, once you have established that you can actually use your phone in Japan, you might want to get a local SIM card to avoid excessive roaming cost. What worked really well for me is the “Visitor SIM card” by b-mobile. They offer you 1GB of data for two weeks for about Y4000. After two weeks (or after you reached the limit) you can re-charge your data volume budget online.

The SIM card is for data only, i.e., no in/or outgoing calls, however, Skype, SIP-based VoIP etc. works well. Also tethering works, so I normally put the SIM card into my second phone or mobile hotspot and then have my regular phone connect over the WiFi hotspot.

You will be on the DOCOMO mobile network. Japan’s mobile communication market is super-competitive, and DOCOMO is the leading service provider. They were the first in the world to deploy LTE commercially and generally operate an excellent infrastrucure. Especially if you are from the US, you might be surprised how well (in terms of low latency) LTE can work.

They can provide you with any type of SIM card (regular, micro, nano), and they will deliver to your hotel or to a post office at an airport so that you can pick up the SIM card directly after landing. The delivery service is really reliable, so you can be sure that you’ll get your SIM card at the specified place and time.

Note that b-mobile has a list of supported devices, and that there have been cases where non-supported devices actually did not work (although they would technically work in the DOCOMO network). So check that list before buying.

I recommend ordering from home (i.e., some time in advance of arriving in Japan) so that you’ll have your SIM card on day 1. They accept major credit cards.

Language

Japanese is admittedly not the most accessible language in the world, mostly because of the way that the three (!) different alphabets of the writing system (not counting romaji) are used, especially the Kanji (Chinese-derived) alphabet. The language itself, i.e., the grammar and the pronounciation, is actually not that difficult, but perhaps still a bit too much to learn for a short trip.

However there are few things that you should learn. Foremost, I recommend you to familiarize yourself with the Katakana alphabet. The Katakana alphabet is a syllable-based alphabet (a syllabary) that is used for transcriptions of foreign language (mostly english) expressions (and for highlighting things). Almost every syllable of the language is expressed in a single character.  Many signs for shops, hotels etc. are actually written in Katakana, and being able to read those words (and to procounce them in your head) increases your chance of not starving to death significantly!

For example, アメリカ in Katakana corresponds to the syllables a-me-ri-ka: America!

Japanese is quite flexible when it comes to importing foreign words, and by knowing Katakana, roaming in the city has far less of a “lost in translation” experience.

There are dozens of phone apps for learning and looking up Katakana (google for “Katakana drill”). Starting to learn the alphabet on the flight to Japan might be a bit too late, but if you have some basic knowledge, it is relatively easy to brush up your Katakana knowledge and get up to speed.

In addition to that, it could also be helpful to learn a few phrases and the numbering/counting systems, but I’d refer you to the many online resources for that.

 Tools

I am evaluating a set of tools that might be useful. This list (which will hopefully grow) contains the actually useful tools:

  • Google Translate (the smartphone app) can actually read Kanji characters using your camera and try to translate it using Google’s online translation service. Quite helpful in restaurants in case you are interested in what you are actually eating.

Currency

Paying in Japan is mostly done by three means: cash, NFC, credit cards. I recommend being prepared to use all of them.

Cash

Although most major shops will accept international credit cards, you will still need cash to pay in some restaurants, bars or train stations. This is really different compared to the US for example, where most payments can be done by credit card. Especially out of the big cities, credit cards in restaurants are mostly NOT accepted.

So, it’s really useful to carry a good amount of cash with you. Also, you will not be able to top off your cash so easily which brings me to the next topic.

ATMs

One thing you might notice in Japan, is that international credit cards are not universal. Some ATMs might claim they accept Visa or MasterCard, however often they only accept Japanese versions of those cards. This is changing from time to time, depending on bi-laterial negotiations of financial institutes, government regulation etc, so your mileage might vary. Just be prepared that you will be not able to withdraw cash from any ATM, not even inside banks.

Many Japanese convenience stores have ATMs, but not all of them work with international cards. The ATMs in the 7-Eleven convenience stores are currently accepting foreign credit cards for cash withdrawl. This seemed to work for most people recently. I just tested that in October 2015, and got mixed results: It worked with one of my MasterCards but did not work with the other (different bank). However, I worked fine with my German debit card (“EC-Karte”). An important message here: it’s helpful to bring more than one credit card — preferably from different credit card companies.

There are some more things to be said, i.e., where to find ATMs that actually work, but I have not compiled a list yet. Your best bet are ATMs that are in hotels or close to hotels with foreign visitors. For example, close to the Shinagawa Prince hotel at Shinagawa station, there is an ATM outside a convenience store that has always worked for me.

In major cities like Tokyo and Yokohama, a Citibank office is normally a safe bet for getting cash with international cedit cards. There is a list of Citibank ATMs online. In Tokyo, the one in Gotanda is easy to reach from Shinagawa. In Yokohama, there is one directly next to Yokohama station.

One option that always worked for me is to use the ATMs in the Japanese Post Offices. They even accepted my German debit card in the past. You will find post offices in all cities and villages. Look for this sign:

The downside is that the post office ATMs can only be accessed during regular opening times of the post office themselves.

NFC Cards

When you go to Japan even for a short trip only, but you plan to use the public transportation system, I highly recommend that you get yourself a Suica card. Suica cards are rechargeable NFC payment cards (like Oyster cards in London, BART Clipper cards in San Francisco etc.). In Japan, however they are much more useful: First of all, the public transportation system is far better, so you tend to use it more often. Secondly, when calculating the exact fare for your city trip in advance any buying the required ticket can be challenging, especially if you have to change train companies — so having a Suica card really saves you time there. Thirdly, you can use the Suica for kinds of other payments, e.g., in convenience stores, at vending machine for drinks etc. Trust me — you need one.

Suica card

suica-card2

 

Suica logo

suica-logo2

You can get Suica cards at ticket machines in train stations (look for the logo). There is a low fee that you’d even get back if you returned the card. If you ever plan to return to Japan, you should just keep the card for your next trip. Recharging is also done at the same machines.

Note that there are actually multiple different NFC cards in Japan. Most of them are popular/available in certain regions only. In the Tokyo area, the PASSMO card is used just as much as Suica. The main difference of those cards seems to be the company distributing them and the brand name. Sucia is a JR-East brand that is used in the Kanto area (which includes Tokyo, Yokohama). In Kansai (e.g., Osaka, Kyoto), there is a different NFC card brand name, but thankfully, there is some sanity in the system, and you can use your Suica card PASSMO card also there (including recharging).

Note that at least for Sucia and PASSMO cards, you will always need cash to re-charge them. This can viewed as a feature, because this way it inherits the anonymous payment property from “real  cash”.

Transportation

Japan has managed what seems to be impossible for most all other industrialized countries: It has privatized its previously state-owned train system into several private companies without completely screwing up the system (Hello, Deutsche Bahn). It’s actually quite the contrary: Japan has one the most advanced public transportation systems in the world: it has excellent coverage, it’s reliable, punctual, fast, clean, operated by well-trained and friendly people, and it’s actually affordable *and* profitable. Japan continues investing into its train system — JR-Central is building a new maglev train from Tokyo to Nagoya. In other words, it is mostly how transportation systems should be, but have stopped being like in the western world many years ago.

When you come to Japan, you will most likely use trains at least once. For trips on local trains (within Toyko or between Tokyo and Yokohama, for example), you do want to have a Suica card (see above). In this area, you’ll find quite many different train lines and companies — and being able to avoid calculating fares, buying individual tickets etc., just makes life so much easier.

Shinkansen

For Shinkansen (long-distance, high-speed) trains, you still need to buy tickets. You can do that in major train stations. There are second class and first class (Green Car) tickets. Even second class is already good compared to most western trains (lots of leg room for example). Green Car tickets are not that much more expensive, so I recommend trying that once. Note that Shinkansen trains have reserved and unreserved (fist-come, first-serve) tickets. Seat reservation does cost extra (significantly). Most people still do it (me too). Green Cars always require a reservation (also when travelling on a Japan Rail pass, see below).

Japan Rail Pass

If you plan to stay in Japan for some time and are planning to do some Shinkansen trips (like from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka and back), you want to consider the “Japan Rail Pass” — a flat rate ticket that entitles you to use all except for the super-fast Shinkansen trains (Nozomi). There are different validity periods. You’d have to buy the voucher before entering Japan, i.e., at home. With a Japan Rail pass, you are entitled to reserve Shinkasnen seats in advance for free. And you can use the pass on all JR trains, e.g., also on the Yamanote line in Tokyo. When you are traveling on a Japan Rail pass, a good practice is plan your trip and your connections in advance (using one of the tools below) and then go to the JR office in your departure station to reserve the seat(s). Sometimes, seats on the very next train are sold out, so consider that for you your planning. For JR East Shinkansen trip (and only for JR East at this point), it is also possible to reserve seats in (on an English language web page) online. Other JR companies offer that in Japanese only — it’s probably a question of time when this will be available in English for all JR companies.

City Buses

The city bus system in Japan is really great,too. From a train traveller’s perspective, the city bus system can be seen as an extension of the train system. Often buses go from a train station to some bus terminal, and the network is really dense in cities, so that nearly any spot can be reached by public transport. The city bus system seems to be quite standardized all over Japan, i.e., if you have used it once in one city, you won’t be surprised somewhere else. You normally enter at the rear door, and you pay when you leave the bus at the front door. In some buses, you enter at the front, and you have to take a ticket that identifies your starting point. You can then use that information to determine your fare, and you also would have to present the ticket to the driver (or his machine) when you pay and exit. Buses that work this way are normally buses that run longer, i.e., where there is a significant differentiation in fares depending on your journey. BTW, in those buses, it’s more convenient to use your NFC card — you register it when entering and you log out (and automatically pay) when exiting.

Displays and announcements in the bus are really very detailed normally, so you should be able to recognize your destination stop. There is also a display for the fare you have to pay. Due to the fact that buses often depart from a train station, the fare is increasing with the distance from the station (but stays within very reasonable limits). Make sure you have the eaxct amount in cash (coins). Some buses also provide for a change machine that allow you to change 1000 Yen into coins. If you need to use this, make sure you do that before reaching your destination.

Taxis

Taxis in Japan are rather expensive and often not necessary to use. I only use them as a last hop extension from the closest train station to my destination, for example at times of really bad weather or when I am carrying too much stuff to walk. On the other hand, the local train system is closing relatively early — so sometimes you have to rely on them as a last resort.

Driving Yourself

It is possible to drive yourself in Japan. I have done it myself. Just a bit of advice:

  • Check the driving license requirements in Japan for driver licenses issued in your country. For some countries’ licenses (Germany for one), you have to carry a certified translation of your national license with you. This has to do with different national ratification status of the “International Driving Permit Conventions”. If your license is from one of the countries that did not ratify the particilar “convention” that Japan did, than you’d most likely need to have a certified translation prepared some time before you intend to drive.
  • Traffic can be crazy, depending on where and when you drive. For example, it’s not a good idea to drive into Tokyo on a Sunday evening, when everyone is returning from Hakone, Shonandai, Nikko etc.
  • Japan has an extensive toll road system. Most expressways require distance-based toll — and it’s not cheap.

Checking Connections Online

Now, once you are in Japan and you want to use the public transportation system, it is extremely helpful to be able to find out about train schedule, fares etc. I can recommend two tools:

  • I can highly recommend Jorudan’s service. It’s really a great tool — you can enter the name of any station (any train system, train company) in Japan, and they will give a set of alternative connections (actually, including flights and buses). It’s a light-weight web site, so works well on mobile devices. You need to know the name of the stations you want to depart from and arrive at. There are also apps for iOS and Android.
  • Another web service for searching train connection is HyperDia. It’s quite useful if you are travelling on a Japan Rail Pass, because it can consider the corresponding constraints for route planing. There are also iOS and Android apps for the service. At least the iOS version tries to charge after a free usage period of 30 days.
  • These days, Google Maps is also able to look up public transport schedules in Japan — however it will only do trains and buses (which is OK for most cases). Google Maps for public transport has some benefits though. You can ask for public transport connections to any address, i.e., not only station names — and you can review the results on a map. BTW, Google is using the Jorudan data base. However, I have to say, while it is really useful for the integration with Maps, it does not always work perfectly, i.e., sometimes it just does not give you the best connection — so be careful.

 Accomodation

These days many Japanese hotels can be booked through booking websites like booking.com or hotels.com. If you do that, you might find out that out that you have to book quite some time in advance, because most room are sold out relatively early. This might have to do with the limited number of rooms that are made available to these websites, but it also has do to with the fact that, especially for holidays weeks, Japanese tend to book really early.

In case you cannot find a room via the familiar websites, you might want to try out the domestic Toyoko Inn hotel chain. This is a business hotel chain that operates all over Japan. It has hotels in all major cities — many in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kawasaki, often close to train stations. You have to book through their “slightly” idiosyncratic website, which is doable, especially if you have some experience with Japanese booking systems. The rooms are small, but quite OK. All of them should have Internet access — sometimes Ethernet only.

Another viable alternative is AirBnb which is becoming popular in Japan, too. I have booked AirBnBs in Tokyo and Kyoto so far.

Shopping

Japan is generally a shopping paradise. I don’t know enough about it to be of general help here, but if you are interested in technology, gadgets etc, here are a few tips.

The major electronics chains Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera are quite accessible to foreigners. You will find them in all major cities. When in Tokyo, “Yodabashi Akiba” (the Yodabashi Camera store in Akihabara) is worthwhile visiting. When you are there, you can also dive into all the other electronics shops in Akihabara.

Sometimes it is good to have an idea of local prices. Check out kakaku.com (a price comparison website) — it’s covering many products.

There is also amazon.co.jp that can deliver to your hotel once you are in Japan.

If you are planning to buy something slightly more valuable to bring that home, you can avoid paying the value-added tax. Some shops (those that try to accommodate foreign customers, for example Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera) can deduct VAT from your payment. You’d normally receive a special certificate for that that you need to present at customs/border control at the airport. VAT is currently 8%, but expected to raise to 10% by 2017.

 Food

If you are interested in good food, then you have come to the right country. Again, it’s impossible for me to provide a comprehensive overview — obviously there is excellent sushi, ramen, okonomiyaki etc, all over the country. This is just to help you survive with some essentials — let’s start with breakfast options and fast food restaurant chains:

Breakfast and Fast Food

Traditional Japanese breakfast is really great — I like it a lot. For those times where you perhaps don’t have the time or are craving for something more conventional, there are plenty of Starbucks and Tully’s cafes all over Japan. Unlike Europe, there has never been a big cafe culture history in Japan, so those chains are really filling a gap as it seems.

Any Japanese city (or neighborhood for that matter) has some restaurants. They are not always easy to identify as such. But even if there is no English menu and no English-speaking staff, it’s normally still safe to just go and try it out. The staff will normally try to accommodate you as best as they can.

Just in case you are not in exploration mode, here are some constants that you could use:

Yoshinoya is a fast food chain for beef bowls: easy to recognize with their orange logo and signs
Mos-Burger is a Japanese burger chain — slightly better than the western originals (which also exist in Japan of course)

Warning: these are fast-food chains, so use this as a last resort and not for your romantic dinner.

Convenience Stores

Similarly, if you are after a quick snack or some beverage, you will most likely end up in one the ubiquitous convenience stores (konbini). There are several chains such as 7-Eleven, Lawson. They cater for rice balls, instant noodle soups, cookies, drinks, sometimes limited selection of warm food etc. Many shops (maybe all of them by now) provide an ATM — but see above (Currency).

Grocery Stores

There are so many convenience stores in Japan that you might ask yourself whether there are any “real” grocery stores at all. There are, but they are much less present and more difficult to find. A good way to find western-style grocery stores is to look inside the shopping mall of larger train stations, for example in Tokyo Shinagawa.

Restaurants

If you are looking for something slightly more fancy, it is always a good to idea to check the area around train stations and shopping centers. In shopping centers, there is often a top floor full of restaurants. If you are looking for something more original, you have to figure out how to find out where the pedestrian area of a neighborhood is located, for example in Shinagawa, Tamachi, Shibuya etc. There are often identifiable by entrance gates — and by the sheer number of people in the evening times.

Finding Restaurants

I cannot say much about recommendations for people with food restrictions, e.g., vegetarians. In general, life in Japan is more enjoyable if you like seafood. Restaurants often offer at least one vegetarian option, but that may not be overwhelming. I know that there are quite good tofu restaurants, however they also often combine tofu with something else…

For finding good restaurants in Japan, I found that services like Tripadvisor are often hopelessly outdated. This may have to do with the high dynamicity in the restaurant business, but I am also skeptical when I read the (badly) machine translated ratings etc. A better tool (that is also used by the locals) is Gurunavi. Also available as an app for iOS and Android.

Vending Machines

For beverage, you will realize that some benevolent greater power has conviniently dropped vending machines literally all over the country. In October/November, you might ask yourself: why? But in the summer, you would really appreciate fact that the next green tea, soda etc. is just 10 meters away. Actually, there is a case for vending machines, even in winter: a good fraction of them offer hot drinks, too. You can distinguish cold and hot drinks by the color of the light on the button: blue for cold, red for hot. You can normally pay cash or use your NFC card.

How to Blend In

You won’t. Obviously you cannot really blend in in Japan unless you have lived there for many years and absorbed the language, culture etc. But there are a few things you can do that can make it easier for you and the locals to get along:

  • Cooperate in public spaces: public spaces, including public transportation, are often really densely populated, or even congested. It’s just logical that this requires a certain level of considerateness that some of us need to re-learn. Try to make room for other people, don’t block escalators, train doors etc. — these kinds of things. Many things should be obvious: if you are the only group in the train that is having a loud discussion, that should get you start thinking. Just don’t behave as you were the only person on the planet.
  • No tipping: the Japanese economy is not based on having people working two or three miserably paid jobs to make a living (not to say that all salaries are fantastic) — similar to Europe some time ago. Most people you see performing some job function take pride in their profession and get a regular salary. Quite often, excellent service is just part of their job description. Tipping is not only not required, it is actually making lives harder for them, because they first might feel insulted, but then they are also obliged to save the situation, explain it to you and return your money. So — much easier for both sides to just pay your bill and say “arigatou gozaimashita”. :-)
  • Here is something that may sound weird: public bathrooms in Japan often don’t have any towels or other means for getting your hands dry. This also holds for train toilets. Japanese typically carry their own small towel with them. Get them at any convenience store.
  • Similarly, whenever there is chance of rain, most Japanese would carry a small umbrella with them. Especially in the rainy season, this really makes sense when your are commuting by public transport and don’t want to appear totally wet a your next business meeting. I’d never bother doing that at home, but in Japan, I have been converted into an umbrella fan.
  • Don’t get too crazy about inter-cultural differences. It’s sometimes funny to see foreigners that desperately try to avoid shaking hands and that bow instead. Nothing wrong with that — just remember that the Japanese also try to accommodate you, so it’s OK to not blend in 100%.

There is definitely more to be said here — I might update this later.

Big in Japan

With this, you hopefully have some essential information to make your stay in Japan more enjoyable and to be Big in Japan.

The only thing that is still missing is the right soundtrack for your trip.

Unless you are born in Germany in the 70s or 80s, you might not know this. The first video is the oh-so 80s song “Big in Japan” by the German band Alphaville. The second video is the adaptation by the German hard rock band Guano Apes in the 90s. The third video is another cover — slightly different to the one before: Norwegian singer Ane Brun. Don’t watch if you are offended by hilarious costumes, noise etc.

Guano Apes – Big In Japan [Official Music Video] Lyrics On Screen from Marko on Vimeo.

Change Log

  • V1.10: added info about ATM in 7-Eleven, free Wifi in Lawson, and about convenience stores and grocery stores in the food section
  • V1.11: added info about NTT free Wifi app
  • V1.12: added info about VAT reclaiming option in Shopping section
  • V1.13: added info about vending machines
  • V1.14: added info about Google Maps
  • V1.15: added more free WiFi information and breakfast options. Added info about other NFC cards in Central/West Japan
  • V1.16: added warning about taxis — and a few hints for vegetarians
  • V1.17:
    • correction for maglev train company (it’s JR-Central, not JR-East) — thanks Martin Dürst
    • increased success probability for getting cash at 7-Eleven ATMs, mentioned Citibank as an alternative,  mentioned PASSMO NFC cards, mentioned HyperDia, explained how to use reservations with a Japan Rail Pass, added warning about supported devices with b-mobile, mentioned hot drinks in vending machines, mentioned need for personal towel — thanks to Benn Oshrin
  • V1.18: mentioned need for umbrellas, mentioned Gurunavi for finding restaurants
  • V1.19: more on free Wifi, mentioned online reservation option for JR East Shinkansen trains, added information on city buses
  • V1.20: added another Big in Japan video
  • V.21: update on cash withdrawl in 7-Eleven stores, new information on paid WiFi, mentioned reseveration requirement for Shinkansen Green Cars, more details on city bus payment procedures, mentioned Google Translate app under language->tools, added tips for driving in Japan
  • V.22: added info on differen LTE variants and frequency bands
  • V.23: German debit cards & 7-Eleven
  • V.24: Bic Camera

Written by dkutscher

October 13th, 2015 at 12:48 am

Posted in