While it’s easier than ever to get around Japan without knowing Japanese, with the right preparation you can eliminate some major headaches during your visit. We’ve put together a few key ways to avoid stress, save time and money, and get the most out of your time here.
Get an e-money card
Japan is still proudly a very cash-based society, so while you might use your Visa to get a pack of gum back home, you’ll most likely need to have cash on-hand during your stay here. If you arm yourself with an e-money card like Suica, Pasmo, or Icoca you’ll not only be able to avoid pocketfuls of change when you make small purchases at places like convenience stores, but you can also use the cards in place of a ticket on most trains and buses, eliminating the need to buy paper tickets. This should really be your first purchase, especially if you’re taking the train from the airport, but you’ll need to load it with cash at first to get going. Don’t worry about putting too much cash on there either! You can always get a refund on your way out. Easy breezy.
Download a navigation application
Your current mapping app will be helpful, but even the best foreign apps can’t do Japan’s train schedules very well. If the indecipherable map of Tokyo’s train network is any hint, you’re going to need to some help getting where you want to go. The Japan Travel app for iOS and Android includes every possible train combination you would need to take, allowing you to plan an itinerary properly and get from A to B with ease. Important points of interest, ATMs, tourist information centers, and even free Wi-Fi spots are all in there, with much of it working offline as well!
Book your hotels in the general area you want to spend time in
Tokyo is geographically much smaller than you’d imagine, but it can take quite a bit of time to get from one side of the downtown area to another. If you want to stay in Asakusa but spend your evenings in Shibuya you’ll be up for some rough late-night trains. It’s best to plan your hotel around the area you think you’ll spend the most time in, so if you’re looking for classic Tokyo scenes like Asakusa has to offer, it’s best to stay in that general area. Not only do you save a ton of time and stress riding the trains, but you’ll get a chance to connect more with the area and find some real favorites.
Get your wi-fi and data sorted in advance
It’s no secret that getting online in Japan isn’t the easiest thing in the world. There are more and more SIM card options available these days, but if you’re traveling as a couple (or need to connect other devices besides your mobile) renting a portable wi-fi spot in advance is a great option as well. Planning on finding “free wi-fi” is pretty much a hit or miss way to get connected, though the Japan Travel app does include free wi-fi spot searches and even gives you free access to them if you sign up before you come to Japan. Free is a tough one to beat.
Easier said than done in Japan (it’s hard to actually get lost with so many people around) but getting the most out of the country means stepping out of your comfort zone, wandering into shops, bars, and restaurants which may seem intimidating, and stumbling into unique experiences. There’s nothing wrong with doing the normal tourist routes, but if you stick to that plan it will be you and a bunch of tourists all following each other around. Go on, walk into that restaurant where you can’t read the menu, climb three flights of stairs to the retro video game bar, and take a stroll past where it seems the shopping area ends. As we said, you can never really get lost, and the only way to get around like a local is to go where the locals go.