Tips for Visiting Japan
Before visiting Japan I did a lot of research. I mean a lot. From Japanese customs, to key menu items and to saying "this is delicious" in Japanese. Some of the information I read had proved to be useful when I was in the country, the rest not so much. Some of these things we came across due to prior travel experiences and others from common website guides. Below are a few tips I learnt whilst in the land of the rising sun.
1. Withdrawing cash from ATMs
Japan is a high cash society. Credit cards are accepted in certain places but these places are few and far between. Foreign bank cards are unlikely to work in Japanese ATMs. However don't fret as you can use your foreign bank card to withdraw cash from 7 - 11 stores or post offices. We were incredibly fortunate to have a 7 - 11 just below our hotel for our first few nights in Tokyo as we were still trying to figure out our spending habits. That's not to say 7 - 11s are a sparse resource, they're situated all over Japan's major cities and it's super easy to withdraw cash when you need to. They're in English and are a treat to work, just take note of the currency conversion.
2. Public Transport
I've been told that Japan's rail system is complicated. I thought it otherwise. Apart from the fact that different lines are run by different companies, the rest of your transportation relies on your navigation skills and a trusty IC card. In Tokyo there are JR (Japan Rail) lines and other subway lines, of which can be easily accessed with Suica (JR East) and Pasmo IC cards. In Kyoto the providers were Icoca (JR West) and Pitapa (other subway lines). However I was still able to continue using my Suica card that I had purchased in Tokyo when I was in Kyoto. For those in Perth IC cards are very much like Smart Riders, except cuter and cooler.
The cost for an IC card is a 500 yen refundable deposit plus an initial amount of about 1500 yen that's charged onto the card. If you are heading off and you've still got a decent balance on your IC card you can ask for a refund of your remaining amount, plus the refundable deposit. Do not get confused with using your IC card for the Shinkansen, that's a completely different ticket altogether.
You can use your IC cards on public transport and as a type of debit card at convenience stores, shopping malls and vending machines (my favourite). It's super efficient when trawling through the fast paced subway stations as they aid you in getting through the ticket barriers with ease and speed. Also as I had experienced in Kyoto, you may find yourself in an interchange station which requires you leaving one station to enter another, although it would seem as if you're in the same station. A quick trip to the loo on the side of another station entailed a difficult task in trying to exit the station and docking of a fare, however a refund at the ticket booth was smoothly processed and I was soon back on my way.
Speaking of ways, if you've lost your way or you're looking for your way to a particular place, major cities in Japan have their public transport integrated with Google Maps. It will quickly show you the best way from A to B and it's updated in real time.
3. Keep connected
Don't underestimate the usefulness of a phone with a data connection. There were times where I needed the assistance of Google Translate and other times just opening and closing times of places we wanted to visit. Most importantly for updating that Instafeed... right?
When travelling overseas a prepaid SIM card from a local mobile phone company is high on the list, however in Japan there is only one company that provides this prepaid service. B-Mobile offers prepaid SIM cards for foreigners and 1GB of data that expires after 14 days. It can be used anywhere in Japan, is already activated and you whilst online, you can organise for it to be delivered to your hotel for when you arrive. B-Mobile is purely data only, calls or SMS is a no-go but it connects you to the NTT Docomo network, is super reliable and has fantastic coverage.
In the weeks leading up to my Japan trip, a friend of mine had mentioned the option to hire a portable WiFi device. PuPuRu offers a variety of rental options, but I am told that the E-Mobile portable WiFi device was the most reliable and useful. This can also be delivered to your hotel for when you arrive in Japan and comes in a prepaid return envelope which you can drop into the post box when you leave.
In Japan, as with most Asian countries, you have two toilet extremes. Especially in Japan you have the super cool, high tech, gadget infused toilets with seat warmers and little fountain spouts that pop out every two minutes to give the toilet bowl a once over. (Are you excited yet?) You also of course have the bend and squat toilets. Often in some Japanese public toilets you are not always provided toilet paper and so I would advise you bring your own and even your own hand sanitiser as not all public toilets outside of shopping malls have these amenities.
5. Socks and footwear
Comfort and practicality. Choose shoes you can easily slip on and off if you're planning on a day of visiting temples and the like, as you will be required to take off your shoes and leave them by the front of the temple before stepping inside. Further to this, it is considered rude if you happen to be wearing socks with holes in them. Buy yourself a new pair specifically or take them off too!
6. Smoking and Non-Smoking
This was key in ensuring a pleasant time in Japan. Many people smoke in Japan and restaurants, Shinkansen carriages/cabins and hotel floors are segregated by smoking and non-smoking areas. Some restaurants have a separate room for smoking customers and others it is a small partition between one area and the next. If you're not happy with smokers then ensure you ask for non-smoking. I would definitely suggest this for long train trips. There is a strict no smoking rule on board subway lines however the Shinkansen is a different story. A twenty minute meal in a restaurant without a non-smoking area is tolerable, only if the food is good. Keep it in mind when booking train tickets or looking for a place to eat.
7. Japanese words
I'm not saying master the language before you visit. I am however saying that knowing a few words here and there will not only help you if you're trying to make a purchase (or god forbid you got lost) but will also positively heighten your trip. People really appreciated if you spoke a little to them in Japanese, not just domo arigato (thank you) but "oishii"(delicious!) to chefs after consuming an indeed delicious meal. There are also obvious other key words to have handy, e.g. toire (toilet), gommenasi (sorry), osoreirimasu (excuse me), ikura desu ka (how much is this), eigo wa dekimasu ka (do you speak English?) and maybe even ryoshushou kudasai (bill please). You can of course use Google Translate (a.k.a my savior). Jamie also had a useful app on his phone whereby if you took a photo of kanji or hiragana, it would translate it into your selected language for you. Pretty cool!
8. Menu Items
You don't know what a dish is on the menu? No worries. Try it anyway. It's usually going to be something super delicious and it would be a crime to just stick to giant food monopolies. Usually there are either pictures that coincide with the writing on menus or there are beautiful plastic displays for show in the windows of restaurants next to little numbers for your convenience. Pointing and then indicating the quantity with your fingers is an easy and sure fast way to get your order across, regardless of the language barrier. Just say thanks and "oishii" and you'll get by just fine.