morning view of Chureito Pagoda in the foreground and Mount Fuji in the background

Japan: 10 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting

June 29, 2023laurenslighthouse

Last updated on September 16th, 2023

After spending two weeks traveling in Japan, Jason and I discovered that there were things we were prepared for, and things we missed that made our lives a little more inconvenient than we would have liked. So I’ve put a list of the 10 things that will make your travels in Japan be as much of a smooth ride as you can hope for!

1. JR (Japan Railway) Pass

The most useful and well used card that we pulled out of our pockets throughout our trip was the JR pass. This is the unlimited pass for many trains (local and city-to-city, i.e. the Shinkansen) throughout the country.

When contemplating whether to purchase the pass or not, think about two questions: 1. How long am I staying in Japan? and 2. Is the cost of the pass less than the cost of the individual trains I need to take? The National JR pass comes in different durations (7-, 14- or 21-days) at a flat rate. You can find all their rates and regional pass alternatives on!

Now, is it worth it for you? For some people, it might not be, depending on how often they’ll be transiting between towns versus staying in one city. Or if it’s more convenient to use train lines that aren’t running on JR lines. One thing to note is that the JR system might not provide the most convenient railway path for you to get from A to B and requires a little bit of digging. To find out if it provides more value to you, check out the JR fare calculator. You can input your itinerary to see if it truly is a cheaper alternative than paying the railway fares outright!

If you do decide that the JR pass is a better fit for you, go ahead and download the Japan Travel app (for Apple and Android). This will be your main tool for getting around and using your pass as much as you can!

To ensure that you get the most out of your pass, make sure to only activate on the day you actually start using it! You might be able to get away with getting a 7-day pass even if your stay in Japan is two weeks long, depending on your itinerary and access to the JR lines. For example, if you booked a roundtrip flight to Tokyo and are spending a couple of nights there before hopping over to Osaka and then Kyoto for 3 nights each, and maybe spending a night near Mt Fuji before returning to Tokyo for a few more nights, you could easily get the 7-day pass and activate it at the train station in Osaka.

How to Get Your JR Pass

Another VERY important note is to buy it ahead of time! It might be a cheaper alternative by getting the JR pass, but not necessarily if you wait to purchase it in Japan! The surcharge is quite significant and purchasing it from home is incredibly convenient. You can either do so online on their website or search for a Japan travel agency near you (which is what we did in 2019 for our first trip to Japan). We highly recommend booking directly online as it alleviates the need to visit a travel agent’s office (twice). And you can get your exchange order delivered right to your doorstep within a few business days of purchasing!

After shopping around a lot online for our Japan trip this past May, we noticed that Klook had the best rate and ZERO shipping costs! Currently, they have also have a 12% discount! Plus, you get to pay in your own currency which takes off any foreign transaction fees.

Be sure to bring your physical exchange order with you to Japan in order to redeem it for your JR Pass! The authorities won’t be able to exchange your voucher for the pass unless you provide them with the physical one. Unfortunately, no fax, copy, or photo will slide!

2. IC (Metro) Card

When you’re not using the JR lines, you’ll be mostly riding the metro, and the most convenient way to pay for your metro tickets is by getting an IC card. This is a prepaid card that allows easy and swift passage through the train station gates, without the need to figure out how much it’ll cost you to get from A to B and buy a single paper ticket every single time you get on the train.

There are a number of IC card companies that are available, but the most prominent are Icoca, Suica and Pasmo. Icoca is known as the JR West card, and can be retrieved in the Kansai (incl. Osaka and Kyoto), Chugoku and Hokuriku regions. Suica is known as the JR East card, and can be retrieved in the Greater Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai regions.

Both cards can be used in other regions, but note that you have to pay a 500¥ deposit for the card, so you’ll want to return it and get your money back. My husband and I made the mistake of keeping our Icoca cards when we left Kyoto for Tokyo, where they issue Suica, and when we were ready to return our Icoca cards at the Narita airport, it wasn’t possible because we were no longer in the JR West region! So I highly suggest returning your individual IC cards in their respective regions to retrieve your deposit and remaining balance.

Add Your IC Card to Your Mobile Wallet

Thankfully, we were able to finish using our balance on our Icoca cards on our most recent Japan trip and returned them for our 500¥ deposit.

But now, you don’t have to worry about getting a physical IC card! You can simply use your phone’s wallet app to add a virtual transit card (either Suica or Pasmo) and add whatever balance you’d like! No deposit fee is needed and we managed to add the exact amount we needed to our balance to ensure we had a balance of 0¥ at the end of our trip when we took our final train line to the airport. All you need to have is an Internet connection when you add extra money to your balance, and you can do so directly through Apple Pay or Google Pay with no more need for cash.

3. Cash is King

Despite how advanced Japan is in technology and as a society as a whole, it’s surprising to know that cash still dominates the majority of purchase transactions, particularly for small business shops, especially for dining. Be sure to bring enough cash with you, particularly if you’ll be exploring more remote areas of the country!

Thankfully there are ATM’s literally everywhere (train stations, convenient stores, building lobbies, etc.) but be careful of those dreadful withdrawal fees! At 7-Eleven, to withdraw 10,000¥, it cost 110¥ for the ATM fee, which is thankfully on the low side. But Visa – even for our Visa debit card – still takes a 3.5% foreign transaction fee and they use their own currency exchange rate. It’s not always favourable, so in order to avoid the fees, find out if your bank account allows for free international ATM withdrawals, or if you have a bank card that charges no foreign transaction fees.

One benefit about the new virtual IC card system that I mentioned above is that a number of places that might not take credit card are starting to accept all of the Japanese IC cards as a payment method. So if you’re low on cash, simply add money to your phone wallet’s IC card and use that to pay at these select merchants.

4. SIM Card or Pocket Wifi?

Physical SIM Card

Don’t bother paying your expensive data roaming rate when you have MUCH better options in Japan. You can either A) rent a pocket wifi or B) buy a SIM card. Whether you choose one or the other highly depends on your circumstances. If you’re traveling solo, you might just want to get a SIM card. When you arrive at the airport, there are a ton of SIM card vending machines to choose from. Prices vary according to the amount of data you’ll be needing (check this link out for more info).

This is definitely a good option for last minute decisions to get data, and can often be more convenient than the pocket wifi, but Jason and I opted in for the latter. The reason we did is because sharing one pocket wifi (which you can do across 5 different devices) is cheaper than buying individual SIM cards. Plus, what do we need voice calling for?

Pocket Wifi

The pocket wifi does come with disadvantages though. You need to pick it up and return it at the airport, and you need to reserve it ahead of time. It’s very simple to do but you do need to allocate time to do these things. Another concern is the fact that the pocket wifi’s battery dies pretty quickly (like after 6-7 hours of use). So you might require to carry around a battery pack for the off chance that it does. Again, it’s a cheaper option when you’re traveling in a small group and won’t separate for long periods of time, but the SIM card might just be a better alternative for you. If you’re thinking of reserving the pocket wifi instead, here’s the one we used!

E-SIM Card

A third option is to purchase an e-SIM card versus a physical SIM card. A much easier process, given that you can do it straight from your phone with no need to search for vendors or fuss around with your SIM card port. We’ve been travelling around the world now and have used Airalo extensively, having also used the app for our e-SIM in Japan last month. You can get your Japan e-SIM here, with various data plans, and use code LAUREN2383 at checkout to save $3 USD!

5. Etiquette

a) On the subway:

  • You’ll notice that everyone gets into these perfect lines when they’re getting on escalators and most importantly, when they’re waiting for the train. Honestly, just follow their lead and you’ll be fine. Just be aware of surroundings and remember that on escalators, there’s “standing” lane and a “walking” lane.
  • There are two things you should NEVER do when on the train. Eat or drink and talk on the phone. It’s considered to be quite rude so just wait until you’re in an appropriate place to do those two things. The only time you’ll be able to eat on the train is if you’re riding a Shinkansen. You’ll know you are because each seat will have a tray in front of it. Easy to remember, right?
  • Lastly, if you’re a guy, you might want to be aware of which train car you’re getting on because some of them are “Women Only”. You’ll know which car is which by the sign on the platform floor. It’ll be a big pink sign so you can’t miss it!

b) On the street:

  • You’ll quickly notice on your first day of touring the streets of Japan that there are barely any garbage cans in sight! This is because people rarely eat on the streets. It’s considered rude to be walking while eating so avoid that as much as you can, and when people do eat on the street, they’ll do so right in front of the stand or place they purchased the food at. So maybe just follow their lead!
  • You’ll also see that the majority of the locals obey all rules of traffic. So if you’re a repeat jaywalker (like me), you might want to check yourself before you decide that waiting for the light is just too much.
Japan - Sensoji Temple

6. Have Your Passport on You AT ALL TIMES

You should probably never leave your passport in your room on any trip anyway, but having your passport on you will seriously come in handy if you spontaneously decide to do some shopping. As a foreigner, you’re exempt from paying taxes on most purchases (typically above the 5,500¥ mark) when you simply present your passport at the till. You could save quite a bit of money since their consumption tax was raised to 10%! Just be aware that they might staple the receipt to your passport, which you shouldn’t remove until you return to your home country.

7. Hotel or Airbnb?

Okay, so we didn’t get the opportunity to try out the Airbnb’s in Japan. Why? Because every time we booked our stay via Airbnb’s map, we’d get notified that the apartment’s real location was WAY off compared to the map’s location due to “security purposes”. And so we just canceled our reservations and looked at hotels instead. We found that all the cheaper hotel brands were still really clean and nice looking! The prices were generally around the same as the Airbnb’s as well so we didn’t see a problem with booking hotels instead. Once we arrived at our stays, we noticed that our rooms were yes, incredibly tiny, but they had all the amenities we needed and more! Toiletries consisted of toothbrushes, razors, hairbrushes and your typical cotton swabs and shower caps.

Every hotel we stayed at also provided coin-operated washer/dryers which definitely makes traveling a whole lot easier! One of our hotels, Sotetsu Grand Fresa Osaka-Namba, actually had a whole station downstairs where you could pick up all kinds of teas and many samples for hair and skincare products, including face masks, for the night! If you do decide to do hotels instead of hosted stays, I highly recommend the APA Hotels brand as it’s inexpensive and they have plenty of locations throughout the inner cities.

8. JapanTaxi App

Taxis, as predicted, are fairly expensive and should be avoided as much as possible. But when you need a quick ride to a hotspot or train station at 5 am, and prepare not to further ruin your already sore feet at the start of the day, you might want to think about using the JapanTaxi app (for Apple and Android). It’s just like Uber but for taxi service! Simple to use and every time we’ve used it, the cabs had impeccable arrival timing. One thing to remember is that there might be a pickup fee, but alas, that’s the price of convenience!

9. Travel Light and Prepare for Tight Spaces

The only true workout we got on the entire trip (as most stays don’t have fitness centres) consisted of hauling our luggage up and down multiple flights of stairs to the subway areas when no escalator or elevator was in sight. Trying to get our suitcases over the braille walkways when getting from one stay to the other was also quite a workout! So I can’t stress enough that if you don’t want to pay to have your luggage delivered – which is a great option Japanese hotels provide for a fee -, you should definitely travel light!

By the time you arrive at your first place of dwelling, you’ll notice that the rooms are tiiiny! You might have seen a quite large bed in photos prior to booking, and see that there’s just enough room to keep your limbs from falling out. Our first stay was a tiny little room the size of a closet, with a single/twin bed flush against the wall. So yeah, traveling light would be very beneficial in this case. But after this trip, you’ll have a new skill up your sleeve that Marie Kondo would be very proud of you for accomplishing!

10. Translator Apps

Okay, last but not least: translator apps. These will help you read those Japanese menus, figure out Sake flavours and face masks scents, when no one is around to help you. The one we used was Photo Translator (for Apple and Android) which isn’t always perfect, but it’s free and gets the job done!

Updated 2023: We now use Google Lens through the Google app to translate.

I hope that with this lengthy post, you can plan the best you can for the trip of a lifetime, and enjoy all of Japan, its people and its culture!

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