Nathan's Japan Guide
If you're planning on buying a lot of stuff there, most airlines let you check two bags, plus carry on. I usually bring one smaller suitcase inside a larger suitcase, and a handheld luggage scale to make sure they aren't overweight (probably overkill for most, but I buy books).
Japanese people generally dress fashionably, and fairly conservatively (except the young). You won't see anyone wearing flipflops or tanktops (and generally no exposed shoulders). Wear what you are comfortable in, though.
Things to Pack
- passport (duh)
- comfortable clothes that you can layer
- comfortable shoes (you'll be walking a lot)
- chargers for phone/camera/other electronics (US chargers work fine in Japan)
- JR Pass exchange voucher (if you buy one - and they can only be bought outside of Japan)
- coin purse (coins come in 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen, and will accumulate FAST if you don't use them)
- personal supply of prescription medicines in the original bottle
You can bring your own pain killers and cold medicine to Japan, or buy it there, but it's illegal to bring over some things (no sudafed at all, benadryl you can buy over there as a sleep aid called "Drewell"). Do NOT bring any illegal drugs, Japan is VERY harsh about those.
You can buy almost anything in Japan, though, so if you forget something, don't stress about it.
When you get there, if you're flying into Narita, you'll be about an hour by train out of the actual city, and there are various ways to get in. The Narita express is a little pricier but fast, or you can take a "limousine bus" to most major areas in the city - there are other train options that are cheaper but a little more of a hassle. If you fly into Haneda, it's easier, you take the train (or monorail) out of the airport, and you're in the city's train/subway network.
Look into the Japan Rail Pass - it's usually worth it just for the round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto on the shinkansen (bullet train), plus you can use it in Tokyo on the JR lines, which can be fabulous depending on where you're staying. You can use hyperdia.com to get train ticket info/pricing between cities, although it's a little tricky to use (sometimes the full ticket fees aren't immediately evident). JR pass tip for longer trips: when you pick up your JR pass you can have the starting date be in the future, and book future tickets with it, so if you're going during a crowded season, you'll have a better chance of getting on a train at the time you want.
If you aren't getting a JR pass (and even if you are), you'll probably want to get a suica or pasmo IC card, which you charge up with money and touch at the train/subway turnstiles to get through - way easier than getting a ticket for every subway/local train trip. You can get them at an automatic ticket machine, and they're interchangeable (doesn't matter which you get).
In Tokyo the JR Yamanote Line (the green train/signs) runs a large circle around the center of the city, and the JR Chuo line runs straight east west through the center. Staying close to one of the stops on these lines is always good, but even better is staying in a neighborhood you like. Either way, it's best to stay closer to a subway or train station than to have to walk a long distance everyday at the start and end of your day. Trains will be crowded during rush hour in the morning and evening - expect to be packed in to a train like sardines at least a couple times. Have your IC card or ticket out before you get to the turnstiles, tap and keep moving - or everyone will back up behind you. People walk fast in Tokyo.
Kyoto is a little more of a pain to get around, and the buses seem to be a better bet there (IC cards work on the bus). Another alternative that I like, is to rent a bike for the day, especially if you're going to see a lot in a particular section of Kyoto. Bike parking can be tough sometimes though, so make sure you park in the correct areas (or just pay to park, at some places).
Google maps is great at getting you to places by train/bus/foot. My friends who had T-Mobile apparently got free (but slow) data on their phones. YMMV. I usually rent a wifi hotspot and turn my phone's data off, but most airbnb's will actually provide one to people staying there, which is pretty fantastic - check the listing.
While you are getting around, there will be lockers at the station, and lots of other places. Use one, rather than drag around that 20 pound sack of manga you just bought. Lockers are usually good for about 72 hours, after which they're cleared out, so don't leave stuff there and go out of town.
If you miss the last train (2 am-ish? depending on where you are), find a manga cafe, and you can pay to sit in a cubicle and "read" (AKA sleep) until morning.
If you want to go to any other cities, trains will get you almost anywhere in the country, and buses mostly fill the gaps.
My top neighborhoods in Tokyo are Akihabara and Shibuya. Both have a lot of night life, and it's pretty easy to get anywhere from either one. Almost anything close to a Yamanote line station is going to be decent. Another good choice would be Ueno, which is a little more residential. Some parts of Shinjuku are great, but you need to be careful of which neighborhood (i.e. avoid Kabukicho, etc), so I'd generally recommend against there.
In Kyoto, I usually stay as close to the station as possible, which makes it easier to take day trips to other cities from there. A lot of the bus lines go to/from Kyoto station as well, so that works well.
If you're staying at an airbnb, you probably won't meet your "host", they'll just give you directions on how to get the key out of a mailbox. If you are meeting people you know there, or if there are people who go out of their way to help you, it can be nice to give a small gift, usually a small food item, but wrapped. It might be nice to leave the airbnb host something small. Gifts are not strictly necessary, though. I've been told by a friend that people visiting the US from Japan love Trader Joe's, and they seem to buy those reusable grocery bags a lot - just sayin'.
Late April and May are nice and not too hot yet. August, which I recommend against, is really hot and humid. The general advice of wear layered clothing and comfortable shoes stands. You will likely get rained on regardless of when you go, but you can pick up cheap umbrellas at almost any convenience store (and they are everywhere). Your airbnb may have an umbrella available to use while you stay there.
As for what you want to see, it just depends on what people are interested in - as someone who loves anime and manga, Akihabara (in east Tokyo) is my number one, I enjoy walking up and down the streets, seeing the people, and going in the shops and arcades. So, here's my top 5 touristy list for Tokyo and Kyoto (in no particular order):
- Akihabara (neighborhood, anime/manga haven)
- Shibuya (neighborhood, the scramble crossing and winding neighborhoods to the northeast of the station, etc)
- Sensoji (temple complex)
- Shinjuku (neighborhood, including kabuki-cho/red light district, golden gai/tiny alleys full of bars)
- Disney Sea (if you're into that kind of thing)
- Kiyomizudera (giant temple)
- Fushimi Inari Taisha (giant shrine complex)
- Arashiyama (neighborhood, bamboo groves, temples)
- Kinkakuji/Golden Pavilion (temple, great gardens)
- Nishiki market (a narrow alley full of food vendors, fresh and cooked)
For cherry blossoms (which I haven't been there for), you'll need to be lucky with the timing, but Yoyogi Park and Ueno Park will certainly be full of people enjoying them, which might be more entertaining than the flowers themselves.
You should go into at least one major department store just to see how huge and crazy they are, and see the food floor. In the same vein, you should spend a little time in one of the major train stations (Kyoto, Tokyo, Shinjuku, etc.), because there is practically an entire city inside of them (Tokyo station has an entire ramen "street" inside).
You go to a Don Quixote, which like a 99 cent store on crack, and a Daiso, which is similar but completely different. You should also go to a Tokyu Hands, which is a giant DIY/lifestyle store, and Loft, which is similar but completely different.
If you wake up early, almost nothing besides convenience stores will be open before 8ish, and most places will open closer to 10 or 11. Trains run, but that's about it. I've spent many a morning just walking across the city, having nothing much to do. Temple grounds are (almost) always open though.
You will experience culture shock at some point, as you will essentially be illiterate, and sensory overload is a thing they seem to love over there. You'll be fine. You're also going to be jetlagged when you get there - take a nap if you need to, you'll have a better time.
I have giant lists of my favorite places to eat, but honestly, the food in Japan is just generally so good, you can go almost anywhere and you'll be happy. http://tabelog.com/en/ is basically Japanese yelp, and can give you an idea of what's nearby, and importantly, what days they're open (some restaurants will have wacky closing days).
Japan is not a great place for vegetarians. Almost everything has fish or some sort of fish derivative in it, and the things that don't have pork or beef. Salad (especially as we know it in California) is almost non-existent. You will crave salad when you get back to the US. Fruit is available and delicious, but tends to be expensive.
Bottled milk tea (if you like tea, and sweet creamy drinks) is fabulous. I've been told the cold canned coffee is pretty great, too. Either of these is available vending machines, which are everywhere (like Gary Oldman EVERYWHERE). You can also get them at any of the numerous convenience stores, along with delicious and cheap rice balls, breads, lunchbox style meals, and other snacks and desserts.
Also, most of the wacky kitkat flavors are decent - avoid apple, if you see it.
Basic manners wherever you go (follow the crowd, or what Japanese people do in general, but):
- shoes off/slippers on while indoors, always bare feet/socks on tatami (straw mats)
- don't stab or point with your chopsticks (don't jam them in your rice straight up, lay them down on the side of the plate)
- don't eat, drink, smoke, or talk on the phone on trains or while you're walking (even if they give you a to go cup at starbucks, or if you get something from a vending machine)
- if you have a cold, wear a mask, and don't blow your nose in public
- ask before you take anyone's photo
Be prepared to take your trash back to your airbnb/hotel with you, and sort it, as you won't find any public trash cans except in train stations. Especially important if you're at an airbnb. Japan recycles almost everything.
Don't worry too much about fitting in, you can't - you're a foreigner. You'll mostly get amused smiles when you screw up, or otherwise get a pass on the rude things you'll accidentally do, but it's still best to try avoid doing them. Generally, just be polite, and you'll be treated likewise. Don't break any laws, either, Japan is tough on crime.
One place you don't want to screw up is in public baths or hot springs. The following public bathing etiquette is very important:
- Wash yourself completely before you get into any baths, then do it again. Wash everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Make sure you've rinsed off completely before you get in, too. If in doubt about how things work, do what the natives are doing.
- If you get out of the bath, and go anywhere that isn't the bath area, wash your feet again (or your whole body, as appropriate).
- Baths are completely nude - there should be a place to store your shoes, and your clothes. There may be modesty towels, but don't take one into the bath.
- No tattoos - if you have one, cover it up (you can get waterproof covers that work fine)
Everyone in Japan has learned (and possibly forgotten) some English in school, so most will have at least a minimal understanding. Signs in train stations will be in English, as well as some other signs in major cities. Like every other non-English speaking country, though, if you learn to speak a few words people will be more comfortable with you. Some places in Tokyo/Kyoto will have an English menu, some places you may have to point.
The one word you should learn is "sumimasen" (sue-me-mah-sen). It can mean sorry, excuse me, or even thank you depending on context.
- arigatou gozaimasu (ah-ree-gah-toe go-zah-ee-moss) thank you very much
- gomen nasai (go-men naa-sah-ee) sorry
- kore kudasai (ko-ray koo-dah-sah-ee) this please (while pointing at something)
- onegai shimasu (oh-nay-gah-ee she-moss) please do (harder to use properly)
- numbers (or better yet, hold up the correct number of fingers, counters are hard): 1 ichi (eechee), 2 ni (knee), 3 san (sahn), 4 yon (yo-n)
Romanized Japanese is pronounced somewhat similarly to Spanish. In all of my pseudo-phonetic spellings, the "syllables" are the same length - so double vowels are not longer.
Japan still uses a lot of cash to do business, so you should always have some on hand. 100 yen coins are great for vending machines, lockers, and gachapons (capsule toy machines). There is no tipping in Japan.
When you pay at the register, there will probably be a tray next to it - put the money / credit card there instead of handing it directly to the cashier.
Your ATM cards will probably not work at any Japanese bank ATMs, but every card should work fine at 7/11's, and some cards will work at post office ATMs. You may need to change to a 4 digit PIN before you go. It doesn't hurt to bring some USD, you can change it fairly easily. Your credit cards should all work just fine. Call your bank ahead of time to set up travel notifications on all cards to make sure you don't trigger fraud alerts.
Lots of people have an idea of Japan being perfectly safe, and for the most part it is, but you still need to be aware. Crime is pretty low in general (except maybe in parts of Osaka), so you should be careful, but not paranoid.
You're way more likely to be harassed by drunks or groped on a crowded train than pickpocketed, but as a foreigner, you probably have at least some immunity from the latter, and the drunks are for the most part just overly friendly.
The drunks seem to love foreigners - or maybe just me - and they LOVE practicing their English.
My friend who goes a lot has had a couple of bad experiences alone late at night on the trains, and last time I was there, I watched a guy try to sneakily take upskirt pictures on the first train of the morning, so you do have to be aware - as another friend says, "the normal problems of being a girl in the world."