Even though Japan is ‘global’ and ‘international’, English is not a widely spoken language. Compared to 5-10 years ago, the situation on ‘English’ has changed and at least the signs in the bigger cities and even in smaller ones are written in English. But don’t expect that people will understand or even speak English – not in train stations, tourist hotspots, or even airports. Due to the Japanese being courteous and helpful, they will try their best to understand what you are looking for. And most of the times, they will understand it and try to help. But this will happen more with body language than anything else. And don’t take it personal, if a Japanese waves with his hands and when he is going away smiling. They are super shy, and perfectionist. Telling you (in body language) that they do not understand you is a very shameful thing to them.
Once you arrive in Japan, and this will be mostly by air and at one of the 3 big international airports – Tokyo Haneda, Tokyo Narita and Osaka Kansai International – take the train or shuttle bus to the place you will be staying. Don’t even consider cabs, as they are expensive and the airports are usually far away from the city (exception is Tokyo Haneda, but still, a cab ride is up to 20 times the shuttle bus or train ticket price). Public transport is reliable and extensive and usually the best way to navigate to and from the airport as well as in cities and between cities.
Information on airport transfer is available on the airports websites:
Haneda Airport – http://www.haneda-airport.jp/inter/en/
Narita Airport – http://www.narita-airport.jp/en/index.html
Osaka Airport – http://www.kansai-airport.or.jp/en/index.asp
Japan Rail Pass
Once in Japan, the best means of transport is by train. You have a great network trains and one of the most amazing train experiences when travelling between bigger cities – Shinkansen! The bullet can take you from Tokyo to Osaka in no time (2,5 hours), which is even more convenient than going with an airline. Buy a Japan Rail Pass in advance (you have to buy it before you arrive in Japan, in the country you live). and you can travel on the Shinkansen and on the JR Network for free for the days you have purchased the rail pass. But be warned: there are private train and metro providers in most of the cities which does not fall under the JR network, hence you cannot use the JR pass for travel on e.g. Metro lines in Tokyo. You can navigate around it by trying to use JR trains only but this sometimes means that you have to take detours. And sometimes you are forced to take a private metro to reach a certain destination. Still, one way prices are decent (1-2 Euros in Tokyo) and the JR pass is still economical if you are planning to see more than one bigger city or if you want to use the Shinkansen for a return trip.
More information on the JR pass and where you can buy it here:
There is an very useful english tool to check train times and costs from most Japanese train stations including JR and other private lines.
Hotels in Japan can be expensive, but usually, they are in the price range of usual western hotels, as in Europe or North America. Generally, you can categorise the hotels into
– typical Japanese business Hotels: Japanese franchise/ Chain hotels, tiny rooms, tiny bathrooms, small bed (max. suitable for a couple in one bed) inexpensive, clean and good service, western standard, categorised usually as 3 star hotels.
– Bigger luxury chain hotels (e.g. Hilton): Usual western standard, categorised as 4-5 star hotels, normal sized rooms, bigger beds, great service, clean, expensive (due to the better standard of service, these hotels are probably the most expensive ones and usually cost more than in any other place)
– Ryokan: a typical traditional style Japanese Hotel with Tatami mats (mattresses on the floor), traditional Japanese food included, a lot of times you will have an Onsen (japanese bath) attached to the Ryokan, Zen-Style atmosphere. Ryokans tend to be more expensive as they come with an all inclusive service and are catered towards a more luxury crowd.
– Hostels/ Backpackers: Usual western style to Japanese style backpacker hotels. These can be a hit and miss, but usually, clean and cheap. Prices between backpacker hostels and business hotels might be the same, hence, it might make sense to book a business hotel, just for the convenience.
– airbnb: shared private accommodation are developing in Japan, and this might be a great idea. Especially expats in bigger cities seem to rent out private accommodations. Keep in mind that apartments in Japan are small to tiny, hence make sure that the offers fit your needs.
Why you won’t need a kitchen
Dining in Japan is inexpensive if you are not up for western food all the time. A usual snack price for lunch can be as low as 2-3 euros and dining out would average to 5-10 Euros per person. Interesting, ‘all-you-can-drink’ or flat rate fares on alcoholic drink is very common in Japan, and you can pay 10-15 Euros and have as many drinks as you want for that night to you dinner. Therefore, accommodation with kitchen is rare, and there is not really a need for it. Take the chance to sample some great Japanese food! Also, sharing food in Japan is very common, and this is your chance to try as much as you can. So don’t be greedy, but check out the Izakaya’s on every street corner and share some great little plates with your friends when you go out dining.
If you have an international credit or bank card which allows you to withdraw money for free globally, the best way to do so is at the 7eleven ATMs. For some reason, VISA cards work better than Mastercards. Other ATMs are more of a hit and miss, and most ATMs do not work with foreign cards. Otherwise, bring some cash and exchange at the banks. 7elevens are mostly everywhere and open 24 hours.
How to plan the trip
Anyone visiting Japan, regardless of being a first timer or an experienced Japan enthusiast, should plan at least 14 days to stay in this beautiful country. 14 days is usually a good number for any destination in the world. This will give you plenty of time to check out the bigger cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, go and see ancient Japan in Kyoto, travel the country side such as Nagano or Naoshima, learn about recent history in Hiroshima and even add on some time on the beaches in Okinawa.
Must see places in Japan:
5. Kiso Valley
This list is obviously biased and some places might be missing. But we believe that the first 3 are non-arguable and an absolute must do. There plan at least 3 full days in Tokyo, 3-4 days in Kyoto and Osaka, and 1-2 days in Hiroshima for your trip. The rest of the trip can be tailor made including some of the places from our top list.