Japan Practicalities

A quick list of practicalities if you’re planning on visiting Japan:

Money. Use cash, surprisingly a lot of places don’t take credit cards.
Getting cash is difficult too, though! You can’t just walk into a bank
and use their ATMs, as they are usually only set up for domestic
transactions. Two reliable places that you can get cash from are the
post office and 7-11, they always have international options for
withdrawing money.

Japan Rail Pass. If you are planning on going anywhere outside of the
Tokyo/Kyoto orbit, you have to get a JR pass. It’s expensive and
burned a hole in our pockets but buying the tickets a la carte would
have burned an even greater hole. The other advantage is that you just
flash the pass at the station worker and you breeze right through, no
need to deal with the ticket machine. And they give you a handy
schedule for all the shinkansens in English. You can use the JR pass
on some of the local lines in Tokyo, like the Yamanote line, which
gets you to many places in the city. If you plan to just explore one
area, there are also region-specific passes that are a bit cheaper.

Train reservations. We found no need to make seat reservations for
seats on the train. Of course we were traveling at non-peak hours on
non-holidays, so that may have had something to do with it.

Cell phones. Unless you’re calling friends, we were able to get by
without a cell phone. If you do need one, it’s easy to rent one from
the major airports when you arrive rather than paying ridiculous
roaming fees.

Tourist Information Centers. Use them to help book accommodations for
you and pick up free maps, brochures and info about events. Usually
they’re in the main train station of each city, but the one in Tokyo
is a bit hard to find (it’s near Yurakucho station in an office
building on the 10th floor). We picked up a particularly good brochure
called “Kyoto and vicinity Walking Guide”, put out by the Japan
National Tourism Organization, that we used to explore Kyoto.

Maps. Make use of maps on the streets. Every city we went to had a map
of the local area outside of subway stations and even bus stops with
labels of places of interest, shops, banks, etc. And usually in both
English and Japanese. Even better is that the map is oriented towards
the way that you’re facing. However in Tokyo we had no idea how to
find places with a specific address, even with a map, because streets
apparently are not named!

Cabs. We didn’t really use them, as they were too expensive. The bus
and rail lines are extremely good and easy to use so it really wasn’t
a problem.

Water. Tap water is ok to drink! Yay!

Vegetables. So, surprisingly to us, the Japanese don’t eat many
vegetables and fruit is very expensive. So if you need a healthy dose
of veggies, I suggest you bring powdered supplements or whatnot,
because just seaweed wasn’t cutting it for my system.

Hairdryers. Every single place we stayed at had a hairdryer, so no
need to bring your own.

Language. We had very few difficulties with not speaking any Japanese.
For anyone we encountered who didn’t speak English, hand signals and
gesturing worked out quite well as people are patient and will try to
understand as best as possible.

Hotels. Our favorite hotel was Hotel Monterey La Soeur in Tokyo, in
the Ginza neighborhood. It was the most expensive place we stayed at,
but was really nice in a great location, especially for the price we

Internet. For us, internet was kind of a pain to come by, as it seems
like you can only get a wifi connection if you subscribe and it’s all
in Japanese. However, we found some free/open connections that we
stole bandwitdth from at a cafe, and occasionally we had wifi or an
ethernet port at a hostel or hotel, but it’s not ubiquitous.
Especially if you’re staying at a ryokan-style place. We didn’t
venture into any of those 24-hour internet cafe/gaming places because
we already have a computer, so I can’t speak for that experience.
Sometimes the tourist information centers have a computer you can use
but they make you pay for it.