General Tips For Travel to Japan Based on our Experience
Here are some things to consider for your trip. Of course, we all have different takes on things so your experience may be completely different!
- take a coin purse or two. You’ll quickly end up with a lot of change. If you’re planning on using gachapon or UFO claw machines, keep a separate coin purse for the 100 yen coins!
- we always used the ATMs at 7-Eleven. 7-Elevens are everywhere so stock up on cash when you need to. There are buttons for different languages.
- eating at convenience stores can save you money (if you don’t go overboard trying everything there).
- don’t damage your notes! I had a very, very slightly damaged 1000 yen note, where the corner had been caught in my purse zipper. The store wouldn’t accept it, but I was able to later put it in a change machine.
- Gachapon places and arcades all have change machines that give you 100 yen coins.
- Inform your bank of your upcoming travels as some may put a hold on your cards if they see a foreign transaction.
- Japan is largely a cash based society. While credit cards are accepted at bigger places usually, small business and restaurants are typically cash only.
- I found that market stalls selling things like dango for 120 yen would want you to pay in coins as exact to the amount as possible. I tried my luck using a 1000 yen note to pay for 240 yen dango and the stallholder said no I needed the coins.
I know people who have been to Japan and believe you must speak a bit of Japanese to get the most out of it. I don’t agree with this, though I do think some very basic words and phrases are a good idea. For me, I’d been learning Japanese for about eight months before my trip. Being able to read hiragana and katakana did come in handy, even though I was also using the Google Translate camera function for kanji (but sometimes it wouldn’t work when my internet connection dropped out).
Sure, there were people in Tokyo who spoke English but there were also many who didn’t, such as the post office clerks on one post office visit. With my basic Japanese skills it wasn’t a problem, but I also found that other staff or customers who spoke a bit of English would offer to help. Again, Google Translate helped us communicate.
It really depends on what type of traveler you are. I have friends who wouldn’t go to the regional areas as they’re too worried about not speaking Japanese and running in to difficulties. For this I would say have a printout of different words and phrases (English and Japanese) that you can point to. Or use Google Translate— I did this many times with our farmstay hosts who had ‘beginner’ English just as I have beginner Japanese. You will get by!
- learn basic words (kids included if possible) such as excuse me, sorry, thank you, basic greetings, I don’t understand. There are lots of videos on YouTube for this.
- take a printout of phrases. A Japanese friend of mine translated phrases related to requiring medical care, or being sick or injured (or my daughter being unwell). I included a phrase about having medical insurance and having registered my travel with the Australian government.
- print out a dietary restrictions/concerns card from justhungry.com
- don’t talk (or at least, whisper quietly as possible) on the trains. Public transport in general is very quiet.
- don’t be loud in general.
- don’t use your phone on the train.
- don’t blow your nose if you can help it. Sneeze in to your arm. If you must blow your nose, try to do it away from people. Somehow.
- If using headphones, have the volume low enough so other people don’t hear your music/stuff.
- don’t eat while you’re walking. Move over to the side (don’t block pedestrians) and eat in one spot.
- if you don’t know when to take your shoes off in Japan, check to see if there’s a wooden area/wooden step area before the floor surface changes such as tatami or carpet.
- Move to the side of train doors and wait for everyone to get out before you board.
- queue for a bus (look at the line that forms and join it).
USING THE TRAINS AND STATIONS
- the green carriages (like ‘first class’) on the shinkansen aren’t really necessary. Save money and use the regular class which are still comfortable.
- reserve any shinkansen trips in advance to avoid finding yourself without a seat in the unreserved carriages. You need to do this in person, not online (as at November 2019).
- shinkansen ticket offices have a green logo of a person reclining in a seat, or look for big green signs. Everything is in English so just look out for shinkansen signs, or JR (Japan Rail) ticket office signs at the stations.
- if you have a JR Pass you need to show it, plus your passport, when booking tickets. Be prepared to queue.
- for the subway/metro trains, you need an IC card such as Suica or Pasmo. These allow you to touch panels where your fare is automatically deducted– no need to mess around with paper tickets.
- we used Suica cards. You can get adult Suica cards from machines but you need to go to a ticket office in person for a child Suica, with the child’s passport.
- You can recharge/top up your Suica cards at the many charging stations located in and around the train stations.
- Try to avoid peak hour on the subway when with children. Hold their hands when getting on or off the trains– best to make a safety plan for what you will do if separated.
- watch lots of YouTube videos before your trip on how to use the trains!
- get familiar quickly with how the exits work. In Google Maps for instance, when you plug in a route you will be given exit names or numbers. Look for these names and numbers in the station and follow the arrows!
- the ticket offices, stations and trains are often hot and stuffy so consider wearing a tshirt or something light as your bottom layer if you get overheated quickly.
- be prepared for lots of stairs at stations. There are often lifts, but not always easy to find.
- if you have important train/buses to catch, try and work out the boarding points in person well in advance and take photos of how to get there. Or get there super early if it’s a big station.
- Train stations have their own individual stamp. Look for a small table near ticket offices. There will be a stamp and stamp pads and sometimes paper for you to use. Pack your own unlined notebook and don’t forget to take it with you during the day! It’s a lovely memento.
- Do the same for temples as many have their own stamps too. You can also buy a special goshuin book with foldout pages where you pay a fee to have someone at a temple write (calligraphy) in the book.
GENERAL TRAVEL TIPS AND TRAVELING WITH KIDS
- if you’re planning an itinerary or a loose schedule, bear in mind travel times between destinations. Allow time for getting lost and buying+eating food.
- when traveling with kids, be aware they may run out of steam early. Depending on how your child’s energy levels are, bear in mind you may not get to stuff you had planned or wanted to see. I aimed for one big touristy thing a day and considered it a success if we did that.
- keep kids well fed and hydrated. Goes without saying but you may be surprised that a lot of time has passed between snacks, especially if you’ve been catching trains and chewing up the minutes commuting. Allow time for eating or buying something and walking to a location where you can eat.
- we lost two days due to my daughter being sick and then I was sick later on. Luckily I’d planned the eight nights in Tokyo to factor in downtime. So keep things loose. There are a few things we missed out on like the Kawagoe festival but what can you do.
- unless your kids are super in to it, perhaps it’s best to avoid doing too many of one thing such as lots of shrines and temples. My sister tells me when she was on a tour in Europe, her fellow tourists would groan about “ABC day”– Another Bloody Cathedral day. So I kept that ABC in mind!
- whatever medicine works for you and your family at home, bring it just in case. You can’t exactly leave your sick child in a hotel room alone or take them with you if you’re the only adult and even if there’s more than one adult, do you really want to be stuffing around researching what medicine is sold here and where your closest chemist is etc etc when the child may need medication now. I’m so glad I bought the pain and fever tablets and throat lozenges, they helped when we needed it.
GENERAL OBSERVATIONS AND TIPS
- if you’re using a refillable water bottle, water filling stations may be hard to find.
- we never saw any rubbish bins on the street so we either carried our rubbish in bags, or used the bins at the convenience stores or large parks.
- take your best walking shoes.
- if you don’t know which side of the escalator to stand on or which side of the stairs, just follow other people or look for arrows on the ground.
- watch out for bikes. They weave around people with an inch to spare including at busy crossings. Make sure you and your kids don’t suddenly jump or veer to the side when walking as a bike may be coming up behind you.
- convenience stores may ask you if you want your food heated, depending on what you buy and they may ask if you want the disposable chopsticks or a spoon/fork.
- look for arrows or footprint pictures on the floor in stores so you know where to queue.
- autumn is still quite humid so a warm coat may not be needed.
- fresh fruit and veg can be found easily. Just look for a supermarket in your maps app. We bought fresh fruit (mostly bananas) from the convenience stores and bags of salad mix. From a supermarket we bought broccoli, carrots and cherry tomatoes though I also saw packets of broccoli in some convenience stores. I’d brought a microwave safe container from home to use in hotel microwaves to prepare veg, to make sure we were getting a minimum amount of vegetables. The container was used on the plane to store stuff so it wasn’t just taking up space.
- if you are a zero/low waste person, you may find yourself dismayed at the amount of single use plastic. By default, stores will typically put your items in a plastic bag. You can say “fukuro wa irimasen” which means you don’t need a bag, so feel free to take your own and have it ready at the checkout. But be quick about it!
- I found Japan in general to be extremely clean, safe and friendly. I would not hesitate to travel there solo or with my kids again.