I just returned from my exciting 10-day trip to Japan. During my stay I collected some helpful information for everyone that is planning a trip to the land of the Rising Sun.
9 travel & saving tips for a trip to Japan
1. Japan Rail Pass – The best value to travel in Japan
The Japan Rail Pass is a great possibility to make the most out of your Japan trip without spending a fortune. The Japan Rail Pass is available for 7 days (235€), 14 days (374€) or 21 days (479€) and allows unlimited travel on almost all nationwide trains. A return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto can already cost you the price of the 7 day pass, so it´s really worth it.
How to buy the Japan Rail Pass
- You have to order the Japan Rail Pass before your trip. You can order your Japan Rail pass here. The ticket needs to be activated within 3 months after purchase (so don´t buy it too early). The ticket will be send to you by post (via FedEx).
- Make sure the name on the Japan Rail Pass matches your passport data.
Activate your Japan Rail Pass
- The Japan Rail Pass needs to be activated once you arrive to Japan (it´s only possible to do that in Japan!). Therefore you have to go to a specific JR office. I activated my Japan Rail Pass at Tokyo Station but also Haneda Airport has an office (for me it was not possible since I arrived late and the office is closed by then). For the activation you need to bring your Japan Rail Pass voucher, your passport and the credit card that you paid the tickets with. You need to agree on which date the pass should start (it cannot be changed afterwards). The JR staff will then check your documents and hand out the Japan Rail Pass to you.
- If you are not going in high season, you normally don´t need a ticket reservation. You can basically just show up at a train station and ask at a JR office what is the next connection (trains are very frequent, normally every 15-30 minutes to almost every destination). Afterwards show your Japan Rail Pass to the staff at the ticket control point. If you don´t have a reservation, you need to check which car offers “non-reserved seats”. You can easily figure it out. Check a) how many cars the train has (it´s shown at the display) and then you can follow the signs that are painted on the floor.
- You can check train schedules with the website Hyperdia.
Which trains you can use
- The Japan Rail Pass is not valid for metro or buses. In some cities there are JR lines that you can use as well. For example Osaka has a JR loop line that runs around the city. You can save buying metro tickets. The best way is to ask at a tourist information. They normally speak English very well and can help you with all the information. The Japan Rail Pass is valid for using the ferry from Hiroshima to Miyajima island (which I recommend to visit).
- The Japan Rail Pass is not valid on some Shinkansen trains. Don´t just jump on any train, make sure you are allowed to use it before. It happened to me that I was on the wrong one ;).
2. Cash is everything
I was worried a bit that I would not be able to get cash easily. After Korea I knew that it can be problematic (I remember that I had to go to more than 10 different banks before being able to get money).
I read in my travel guide, that European credit cards are often not accepted. However my experience is that the ATM´s at the 7-Eleven and Family Mart supermarkets work without a problem. You can find one of them almost everywhere. So taking money was not a problem in the end. As an advice: You should call your bank before leaving that you are travelling to Japan (so they don´t block your card).
It´s very uncommon to pay with credit card in Japan. Even in hotels/guest houses you normally pay in cash. Since Japan in general is a safe country, I was not afraid to take larger amounts of cash with me.
3. No tipping
Tipping is not practiced in Japan. Neither for using a taxi nor in cafes or restaurants. Since the prices are high in Japan at least this is a little relief and you also don´t need to think about it. I like the concept :).
4. Left-hand traffic
If you think on renting a car, remember that in Japan you have to drive on the left. The left-hand traffic applies also to public transport. Always queue on the left side. When using the escalator remember to stand on the left and let people pass on your right. Since the metro stations can be really crowded, it´s essential to follow this principle to not run into people.
If you ever tried a Japanese toilet it will be hard to live without. I swear that even public toilets are so clean that you could eat from them ;). I didn´t try all the functionalities because I was scared not to know what was going to happen ;). But I was impressed when the toilet lid opened up automatically when I opened the door to the toilet. Often (also automatically) nice nature sounds were played (waves or birds).
The good thing is, that you can find a public toilet everywhere. My theory is that you never have to walk more than 100 meters to reach the next one ;). The use of the toilets is always free.
6. Drinking water
You can drink the tap water without problems. It doesn´t have any chlorine taste (like in the US for example). What I love is that in most of the restaurants or cafes you always get free water and it´s normally fine to not order additional drinks. Soft drinks can be quite expensive (depending on the location) with prices up to 5€ or more. So you can save a lot if you take the free water only. There are some exceptions at cafes/restaurants that allow to order food only if you also order a drink with it (but that happened only once to me).
7. Breakfast and coffee
For a coffee lover Japan is not a great place. Definitely Japan ranks as one of the countries with the worst coffee I tried. On top of it coffee is very expensive. Prices of 5€ and more are normal.
If you cannot get used to the idea of having rice, fish and Miso soup for breakfast, there are alternatives. But not many. In a cafe you can normally find a small breakfast menu that typically includes a toast with butter + salad or a cooked egg/scrambled eggs + a drink. I started to miss German breakfast after a few days already. A good option are bakeries where you can find a variety of croissants, sweets or sandwiches to go.
Plan your travel ahead and book your accommodations in advance! I know that can be difficult, especially when you don´t really know how long you want to stay in each place. Hotels, hostels and guesthouses sell out quickly and if you don´t want to pay high prices, there is no other option than booking in advance. As an advise I can recommend that you stay a few days for example in Kyoto and then to do day trips from there (Nara is 40min away, Osaka 30min, Kobe 50min, Hiroshima 1,5 hours). Avoid high season such as Golden Week when whole Japan is travelling. Accommodation prices can almost triple during that period and it´s also hard to get train seats.
The standard of hotels and guesthouses is high and they are very clean. It´s common to have rooms with shared bathroom (sometimes you can have a toilet and/or sink inside the room). Shared bathrooms are very clean and equipped with everything (slippers, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, hair dryer…). The room size is normally very small.
I paid in average around 25-30€ per night and person which is very cheap if you compare to hotel prices.
9. English Level
In Tokyo people speak English more or less. If you travel outside Tokyo the English level gets worse. However Japanese are very friendly and helpful. Even if they talk only 3 words of English they are normally are willing to help.
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