Things You Must Know Before Going to Japan
In November of 2018, I met up with my good friends @MikeVisuals and @georgiama_ for a two-week trip across Japan and honestly, it was probably one of the best trips of my life (I even got a tattoo to commemorate the trip!). Although Mike had been to Japan before, it was my first time in the country and boy did the culture shock hit hard. Japan is one of my favourite countries as there is so much to offer: culture, delicious food (I LOVE sushi), amazing city life, nature, and things to do. However, it is also probably one of the most hectic trips I've ever been on, simply due to the weather and my unpreparedness.
With that being said, I am writing this blog post in hopes of giving you some insider info before going to Japan, and what to expect there. Hopefully, you'll be a bit more prepared than I was and you'll have more time to enjoy the wonderful country!
WHAT TO EXPECT IN JAPAN.
When you get to Japan, you’ll immediately notice how clean, safe, and efficient the country is; Japan could very well be the cleanest and safest city in the world. The last time Mike was there, he left his Phantom 4 drone in the subway for two hours, and when he went back to get it, it was still there where he left it. You’ll also notice that most citizens are law-abiding (the citizens don’t even jay-walk) and for the most part, the night scene in Japan is quite safe. Japanese people are in general extremely polite and kind, and will help you when you are in need.
Japan’s subway and train system is probably the best in the world, and with that it is also the best method of getting around. You can technically get around the whole country by trains, but places up north and west gets a little hard to reach, so our crew ended up renting a car for a few days when we went to explore Nagano and Mt. Fuji. If you’re considering going to Osaka, Nara, or Kyoto, you’ll want to take the bullet train. You can easily explore Japan without a car, but with some limitations. There is also plenty of taxis in the major cities, as well as bikes to rent to get around town.
Oh baby. If there’s one thing that I love most about Japan, it has to be the food. I’m an avid fan of all things sushi, and boy did the sushi in Japan not disappoint. There are plenty of food options in Tokyo, but as you go towards the country land, it’ll mostly be ramen shops, conveyor belt sushi, or curry places. I would say that the price for a meal is quite similar of that in North America, so be prepared to pay $10-25 USD per meal. If there’s one restaurant that I can recommend, it would be Ichiran, a chain ramen place that’s quite famous. Apparently it’s not the best, but it’s definitely a restaurant that every tourist should go to when visiting.
WHEN TO VISIT.
If you're planning to visit Japan, consider going during Autumn for the red foliage, or Spring for the Sakura (cherry blossoms). These seasonal changes happen over the course of a few weeks and often start at the northern regions and makes it way down south, so if you want to see them you'll have to plan accordingly. Unfortunately for Mike, G, and I, we went a bit too early and had to change our plans around to see them and avoid the bad weather.
BUY A JR PASS.
Before flying into Japan, do yourself a huge favour and purchase a JR Pass online. JR is one of the major rail companies that run all over Japan and unless you’re staying only in Tokyo or not doing any back and forth travelling, a JR Pass will save you lots of money. So why would you need a JR Pass? The pass basically lets you ride on all the JR lines for a set price, with a one week option and two-week option (the one week pass costs about $250 USD). To see if it’s worth getting a pass, I’ll give you an example.
A round-trip from Tokyo to Kyoto and back itself costs $250 USD itself, so that already covers a round-trip If you’re flying from Narita International Airport, you’ll want to get on the JR to get into Tokyo. If you’re planning to visit Osaka, Nara, Nagano, Mt. Fuji (Yashami), then you’ll also need to get on the JR line (unless you’re driving). A normal subway ride on the JR within Tokyo will cost $2-$5 USD, and it adds up quickly (I went on over 50 subway rides in two weeks).
So if you are planning on exploring more than just Tokyo, it's worth it to get the pass in my opinion (I mean who wouldn’t want to pet deers in Nara?!). If you’re planning on doing just Tokyo or spending a considerable amount of time there, I’d suggest purchasing a commuter pass or IC Card which is available at most stations. They will have daily and weekly options for unlimited subway/train rides within Tokyo, and on certain lines. What I did was purchase a one-week pass for the Tokyo Metro lines, and the one-week JR pass for the JR lines.
It is much cheaper to purchase a JR Pass online, so I advise you to do that.
If you’re looking to save a few bucks, consider staying in a hostel. Some hostels in Japan are actually space pods, and you basically stay with 100 people, but you get your own capsule. The best one I stayed at was Nine Hours (this was the priciest one but also the nicest), but there are plenty around the country. They can range anywhere from $30USD to $100USD per night. (Photos taken from the official site from Nine Hours).
KNOW THE SUBWAY LINES.
Mike, G, and I had quite some confusion when we first came to Japan. There are multiple companies that run multiple subway lines, with the main ones are JR, Tokyo Metro, and Toei Subway. If you have a JR pass you will not be able to use it for any other lines but JR. Also, be aware of which kiosk you purchase your tickets from, as each kiosk is specific to their respective company. Forbes has an amazing article that sums up everything I want to say, so check out the article here.
Google Maps does a phenomenal job of giving the right directions, and also tells you which platform you need to be on. Most if not all the subway stations are well marked in English and Japanese, with the subway directions written on the wall. They are also all numbered, so if you are at A15 and you need to go to A23, just check on the wall if the next destination is A16 and you’re good to go. Another note: be aware that some trains are express trains, and some are also women only.
7/11 AND VENDING MACHINES.
If you’re from North America, a 7/11 is nothing too special. But in Japan, 7/11 is LIFE. Open 24/7, this convenience store offers amazing food at extremely reasonable prices, and they heat it up for you on the spot! You can pick up a ramen, fresh sushi, rice, chicken teriyaki, hot beverages, ice cream, etc., at ANY HOUR. That means for your 4 AM sunrise mission you can grab some breakfast on the way. The best thing is that there are so many of them all over Japan (probably one within every 2 kilometres), and they have sister stores called Lawson and Family Mart that offers the same services. Speaking of food, there are vending machines all over Japan, and I don’t mean in buildings, but outside, in the middle of the street. They serve not only cold beverages but steaming hot ones ready to drink out of the can. They cost anywhere between 100-150y, which is equivalent to ~1$ USD. Some also sell food :O.
Go early in the morning to beat the crowd.
Alright, I say that for almost everywhere I go but seriously, I’ve never had it that bad before. I went to Fushimi Inari Taisha (The orange pathway below) at around 7:30AM in the morning, and already there were crowds. I’ve also heard that the Arashiyama bamboo forest gets extremely busy in the morning as well, and when I went at 9AM, it was a disaster.