5 Tips for traveling to Japan

2015 Trip to Japan - View from Odaiba Island overlooking Tokyo Bay ©Arsenette Reiter

So you want to take a trip to Japan?  That’s awesome!  Japan has been and continues to be a bucket list item for many people from around the world.  I’ve been blessed to have been able to go to Japan twice and each time I learned something new that I wished I knew before.  I’m hoping what I learned is helpful to some of you, especially first time travelers.  I’m using Japan as an example partly because it is a desired location to travel to, but more often than not, it marks the first time someone has traveled overseas.   This is of course my own list and by no means definitive and could potentially be used to travel anywhere around the world – not just Japan.  These tips are solely based on my own experiences and travel mistakes on my 2 visits to Japan in 2015 and 2016.  Here are my tips to traveling to Japan in no particular order:
A shop in the Akihabara district in Tokyo - 2016 ©Arsenette Reiter
Chose WHAT you want to accomplish during your trip.

Outside of the obvious “I want to go to Japan” thought, what are you going there to see anyway?  Are you there for a festival, event, concert, expo, convention? Visit a historical landmark, how about the mecha for all things gaming and anime in "Akiba"? Taste local cuisine, visit a shrine, temple or even one of the Wonders of the world? Hike a mountain, backpack travel the islands, take a bike ride in the countryside?  Shop ‘till you drop? Choose your path before you get there!  Japan is made up of hundreds of islands each with their ow unique beauty, history and local interests.  There is literally no way you will EVER see everything in one trip.  Heck, there’s no way you will do that just visiting Tokyo!  Chose you game plan early.
Hubby and I posing in front of the (now retired) Gundam Statue in Odaiba Island (Tokyo Bay) - 2015 ©Arsenette Reiter

There are many reasons for this outside of lack of time. What many people don’t take into consideration is that Japan is known for their strict organization, schedules and formality.  This applies to literally everything.  Visit a historical landmark? Do research on best times to visit, closing hours/seasons and other travel restrictions.  Wanna visit the Ghibli Museum? Is it even open? Have you reserved your ticket? Many places that are considered hotspots and “must see” places in Japan are coordinated ahead of time whether through ticket sales, reservations or even opening hours and seasons.  Not everything is open year-round nor is it open at all hours of the day.  Chances are, there is a line of people wanting to do the exact same thing YOU want to do.  Heck they could be closed for massive renovations for months at a time! (In our case with the photo above.. the Gundam statue was torn down in 2017..)
First time eating Shabu Shabu and Sukiyaki! Machida, Japan - 2016

Want to taste local cuisine? Is there a specific regional cuisine you wanted to try and wanted to make your own exotic food adventure? Research where they are and if you can, reserve your place in line.  Pricing alone might not even be the barrier but availability could be your enemy.  Some places are booked so far in advance that you may have to wait a year to even get seating! Want to try that one restaurant you saw online? Chances are they are only open for a limited time promoting a certain product or television show and have already left the location never to return.  Want to hike a certain mountain or backpack a certain region?  Are you going to Hokkaido in November where there is literally feet of snow as far as the eye can see? Wanted to backpack across the Kyushu islands or climb Mount Fuji? What time of year is best for visitors? Some trails are even blocked off for visitors depending on the season. Where can you stay overnight along your chosen path? Chances are if you didn’t research ahead of time all accommodations could be packed because you didn’t realize it was a national holiday and everyone is out doing the same activity.
Not only is your desired activity important, where you stay can also be of significant importance.  Chose a location to stay and use that as a home base.  One of my mistakes when I first arrived in Japan is that I was too far away from everything I wanted to do.  The location was gorgeous (along Tokyo Bay) but it took an eternity to get into the city to meet up with friends. You’d be surprised how long traveling from 1 place to another (especially in a busy city like Tokyo) during a normal work week can take.  I lost so much time traveling between my sleeping accommodations that I could have done more had I not spent so much time on the train or bus or even in a car traveling from point A to point B.  Minimize travel time!!  On my 2nd trip I did MUCH better in choosing a central location close to where I wanted to be that I didn’t waste time traveling and spent more time exploring.  Whether you are out in the country or in the middle of a city, take into account how long you are taking to get there.  Just getting from Narita Airport to one of my hotels took almost 3 hours of travel time (and that was using express trains bypassing all vehicle traffic).
Taking a break between train trips - Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, Japan - 2016 ©Arsenette Reiter

Speaking of transportation I’m happy that there are so many articles about how complicated it could be to use public transportation system if you are not used to it given it’s a foreign country.  YouTubers Rachel and Jun wrote some awesome articles about the complexities of the traveling in Japan.  There was one article just on Nagoya’s rail systems (yes multiple)!  The other which I found fascinating was an in depth look into transportation WITHIN Japan. What is the best way to get to where you want to go? Train, bus, airplane?  JRAIL Passes or Pasmo/Suica cards or even Star Alliance airplane flights? They break down the cost analysis of each of those options to give you the choice of what is best for your own trip.
Waiting for our Hotel Shuttle Bus - Narita Airport in Chiba, Japan - 2016 ©Arsenette Reiter

One last thing about travel: Take into account jet lag!!  Do not under estimate it! If you pack your schedule soooooo tight that you forget that you will be exhausted when you arrive, you can potentially start off your trip on the wrong foot and ruin your entire vacation before it even starts!  I was traveling from the East coast USA and I traveled for almost 24 hours straight before even stepping foot on Japanese soil. I at least figured out that arriving late afternoon gave me time to get to my hotel.. but I didn’t realize how far from the airport my hotel was and after all that traveling I still had to get on a bus for another hour.  Learning that for my 2nd trip.. I chose to stay near the airport to get that one good night’s sleep and only traveled for 10 minutes to get to a hotel near the airport. It is a decision I don’t ever regret given that my 2nd flight over to Japan was.. difficult.
Seriously..  Just traveling to Tokyo alone – arguably the most expensive city in the world.. you can easily go broke in a blink of an eye. I know some people think that the only cost of going to Japan is affording the flight over to Japan however, many do not take into account how quickly you can blow through your money if you are not paying attention. Before you even leave to go to Japan you might need to change your local currency to Japan’s currency. Account for currency exchange rates as they change DAILY and especially between certain countries.  I remember growing up that 100 yen was “generally” equal to 1 US dollar.  I always used the trick of “move the decimal point over twice” to get a rough idea of how much things cost.  As an example if I see something that is listed as 2,000 Yen I can move the decimal point over twice to the left and see it’s roughly $20 US (give or take depending on the exchange rate of course).  The rate has changed over the years and in both of my trips I got more yen from a single US dollar giving me more spending money in Japan.  Given the complexity of the global market that can change overnight!  What if you are coming from Europe?  The Euro is constantly fluctuating, the Yen is constantly fluctuating so it may be better to wait until you know when you are going to Japan to decide if you change your money BEFORE you arrive or WHEN you arrive.  I decided the same week I was leaving to make that decision.  For my specific trips I exchanged the US Dollar WHEN I arrived in Japan.  Regardless of what type of money is being exchanged know that as a general rule of thumb, NEVER CHANGE YOUR MONEY AT THE AIRPORT!  That has the worst exchange rate. Period.  Do your research beforehand and you can save a LOT of money on your trip. I changed my money once I got to Tokyo and used my credit card to purchase my chosen transportation (1st trip “Airport limousine” which is a fancy way to call a bus – 2nd trip Airport Express train where I saved a lot of money booking round trip tickets with my passport).
A shop in the Asakusa Shrine - Tokyo, Japan - 2015 ©Arsenette Reiter

The biggest thing though is to know exactly how much you have to spend and stick to it.  Don’t rely on having to use an ATM machine either as with any type of electronic device they may not be available when you need it, work properly with your ATM card or be protected from Foreign transaction fees (just check your credit card to see how much they will charge you for every single transaction – they add up fast).  Japan is a cash society and the vast majority of places will only deal with the local currency in coins and Yen bills.  Plan accordingly.
Hubby relaxing at our hotel on Tokyo Bay (Odaiba Island) - 2015 ©Arsenette Reiter

Account for booking things in advance. You’d be surprised at some of the savings you can come up with just for booking several weeks in advance!  Remember that Tokyo Bay hotel I talked about? I managed to get a room for $100 a night (including taxes and VAT that are upwards to an additional 20% combined) which normally goes for $1000 a night simply because I booked on a deal 2 months in advance.  Also, given that many places you can reserve online with credit card that is one less thing you have to worry about before you arrive (and less cash you are walking around with in general).  Which leads me to my next point.
"Conbini" (or Convenience Store) food I bought for breakfast! (Onigiri/Rice Balls and Orange flavored Water) Bought from Lawson's - 2016 ©Arsenette Reiter

Decide what you want to spend your money on.

Want to splurge on shopping and/or food and prefer cheap accommodations?  Do you want a private place to sleep and skimp elsewhere on your budget? Do you have to have your own toilet? (yes.. that’s a thing..) Do you want a private onsen or do you not mind Public baths where you are naked with both men and women?  The answers to these questions are your own personal choice but can greatly determine how you spend your money. This will also help you plan your trip.  My own experience I knew I didn’t want to stay in a hostel or capsule hotel. I was traveling with my husband and we share a room. We wanted our own toilet that I didn’t want to share with a floor full of other guests. I didn’t want to find out at 3 am that someone was already in there.. noooo that was not for me.  That changed WHERE I stayed. I stayed in hotels and business hotels some of which already included breakfast as part of the cost saving me a lot of money and time.  I also ate at a lot of convenience stores not only to save money but because they are surprisingly good when you just want something to eat right before you head out for a long day. Trust me, Family Mart, Lawson’s and 7-11 have good food and can save you in a pinch. Bonus is that if you need money exchanged, they also have ATM machines that work with a lot of major foreign banks.
Hubby and I waiting for another train - Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, Japan - 2016 ©Dr. Cathi Jones (with permission)

You may want something different where you are fine to stay in a capsule hotel, hostel, Air B&B or even a Ryokan where your entire trip is to experience the traditional Japanese onsen experience!  If you spend a lot on your sleeping accommodations that may greatly impact how much spending money you have.  If you prefer to leave the bulk of your budget on traveling from one place to another then your sleeping arrangements could be vastly different.  Are you going alone? Are you going with a group? All of these can change how much money you have to spend.  Regardless of where you stay, decide ahead of time what is more important to you on this trip.  Which leads me to my next point.
Account for being overwhelmed.  I didn’t know Japanese and the little words I knew here and there quickly left me the second I saw wall to wall people at an airport speaking various languages I didn’t know with a bunch of Kanji written all over the place.  I luckily had a plan to be in Japan for one event, friends who were gracious to translate for me but even then, all of the other things I wanted to do and even SCHEDULED to do didn’t exactly pan out the way I wanted.  I was there for an event and that part turned out fine. However, all the other plans of meeting people all over the region just didn’t pan out.  Everything from their work schedules, to being too far away and I wasn’t there for as long as I thought I would be. Everything from being too expensive to travel to the locations that on the map looked right around the corner to just straight up logistical problems and bad weather.  I forgot that while I was on vacation, the rest of the country was not and I had to deal with rush hour traffic and people that couldn’t take vacation time.  Also, on my first trip I booked too much and crashed in my hotel before it was time to leave. I wasted almost 2 days just stuck in my hotel because I literally couldn’t walk anymore.  Make sure you have time to rest in between – especially if you are not in the physical shape to do a lot as I was.  My 2nd trip was better organized and when I ran out of gas I had already accomplished what I had set out to do and was still able to enjoy myself despite my health failing.  Being in a central location I was able to accommodate more because everything was much closer and when I was too tired I was able to relax because I didn’t put anyone out by overbooking things.  Whether you are there for a few days or a few weeks – at least figure out the reason why you want to be in Japan. Otherwise you can lose time, money and even ruin your enjoyment of this amazing country.
Selfie with Friends after Dinner in Ikebukuro District in Tokyo, Japan - 2016 ©Arsenette Reiter

Finally, I’m all for spontaneity and going with the flow, however Japan is all about order and process.  Unless you are going off the beaten path, chances are you are still going to run into their organized system.  In most cases this is a trip of a lifetime. Whether it be to Japan or any other town, city or region of the world you’ve never been in, please take the time to research your trip.  By doing these basic things before you arrive you can save yourself a world of headaches that could potentially ruin your enjoyment. Most of these come once in a lifetime. Don’t ruin it with things that could have been prevented. Trust me – you won’t regret it.

Arsenette Reiter