Before even stepping foot in Japan, we were well aware of its allure: a mix of old and new, of traditional temples and flashy shopping centers. Images of bullet trains, Mt. Fuji, quirky pop culture, über-fashionable Harajuku girls, sushi, shrines and skyscrapers danced in our heads as we booked flights, hotels and Japan Rail passes for our two-week adventure.
[Our Japan video – check out the full-size version on YouTube!]
As this was obviously our first trip to Japan, we were prepared for cutting our activity list in half. Culture shock aside, criss-crossing Tokyo, a city inhabited by over 13 1/2 million people, while getting over jetlag was going to knock the wind out of us, so we intentionally kept any set dates and times out of the picture.
I’ve been fascinated with Japan in all its forms since childhood, so crossing this bucket list item off my list was not only a great way to populate this site with travel content but to get a good introduction to this land of harmonious contrasts.
We decided to explore four cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Osaka, starting and ending in Tokyo.
Next to lodging, transportation was one of the two biggest areas we researched before leaving home. Japan is obviously well-connected by trains and busses, but it didn’t hurt to consult Hyperdia’s online train schedules to get a good glimpse of distances and train companies for each route.
The system is as comprehensive as it is organized! We chose the 14-day Japan Rail Pass to make use of the Shinkansen (bullet trains) as well as local (JR) trains in Tokyo, Osaka, Nara and Kyoto.
Tokyo’s subway maps are easy to navigate via colour-coded lines. A PASMO card is similar to Vancouver’s Compass Card with the added convenience of being able to use the cards at shops in the station and in vending machines.
PASMO also works on various busses and trains throughout Japan wherever you spot the logo. You can even use the PASMO to pay for parking lots and station lockers. Although we used the Tokyo Monorail to get to Haneda Airport, the card can be used for airport and intercity express busses.
Cash or Credit Card?
Japan is still big on using cash. Loading up a PASMO card requires cash as do small shops and restaurants. Credit cards are accepted at restaurants and hotels in larger cities and at 7-Eleven stores, handy when you might be low on yen and in need of a snack or drink.
We got used to carrying a lot of bills and coins, which is the norm here. Banknotes come in 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 denominations, while coins break down to 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 yen.
Plugging In & Staying Connected
We had one less thing to pack on this trip: voltage converters! Japan uses 100 volts (close to our 110-volt system) and the same two flat pin-style plugs.
As far as wifi goes, much of Japan has free wifi but there are times when having a Google map (or current train schedule) at the ready helps make life easier. From what I’ve read, there appears to be a restriction in Japan that doesn’t allow offline Google map viewing.
For this reason we looked into pocket wifi, selecting Pupuru for our two-week trip.
Pupuru’s easy to order online, the company delivers the package to your hotel (or you can pick it up at the airport arrival terminal) and you’re good to go for as many days as you’ve ordered. I had a few questions for them prior to ordering and their service team responded pretty quickly considering the 16-hour time difference.
We notified our hotel of the package and it was waiting for us at check-in, saving us lots of time trying to finding SIM cards and other pocket wifi services after a long international flight.
Our total came to 9,180 yen (CAD $120 as of September 27, 2016), including the 1,000-yen return postage fee. Pupuru likes to have a three-day advance notice of date of arrival for processing orders.
The unit’s battery is advertised to last 12 hours so you can be out exploring without having to charge it up halfway through the day. I only had one issue with the battery ever running out, so wound up carrying a small portable charger just in case.
When through, just stick the kit into the prepaid, self-addressed envelope and place it inside any mailbox in Japan. You have a one-day grace period (without having used the wifi that day) to drop it off. Damage insurance, date extensions and cell phone bundles are also available.
Japanese people aren’t known for eating on the go. This takes some getting used to as we often carried snacks in our bag. Whipping out a granola bar out on the streets can yield a surprised look.
Enjoy that bowl of soup as you slurp the noodles. We watched how locals ate and noticed a lot of sharing of plates going around. Bowls are picked up with your hands and brought close to your mouth rather than bending your head down to greet the bowl.
It’s also polite to use the opposite end of your chopsticks for moving food. Some restaurants have a set of dedicated serving chopsticks used for sharing food. When your meal is through, replace lids on dishes and put your chopsticks back in its paper holder or on the chopstick rest.
A soy sauce no-no: don’t pour soy sauce over cooked white rice. The proper way is to pour it into a small dish provided. Another tip: it’s considered bad manners to waste soy sauce; better to pour small amounts as you go.
Lawson is Your Best Friend
And Family Mart too. When you locate one of these Japanese convenience stores, be sure to stock up on snacks. The sushi triangles come in a variety of tasty flavours and are great for in-between meals when you’re on the go. They’ve also got ATM machines and local souvenirs.
Tip: if you plan on eating on the go, either finish near the shop or plan on carrying your waste until you get to either a train station or hotel: trash cans in Japan are few and far between!
Cooori English to Japanese App
In addition to Hyperdia for navigating train schedules, consider downloading handy Cooori (iOS, Android; free) for small phrases and words, an excellent icebreaker when trying to navigate the menu with your waiter/waitress when dining.
On a related note, smoking indoors *still* appears to be a thing in Japan so ask for a non-smoking table! Nothing like spending 10 minutes preparing to order then having the table next to you light up a smoke.