Ten things to know before you travel to Japan
Explore the narrow alleyways of Kyoto, feel awed entering mysterious shrines, walk through the mists of Mount Koya, immerse yourself in the magnitude of Tokyo.
However, before you go, there are a few things that are good for a traveller to know.
1. Plan ahead
If you want to enjoy everything this amazing country has to offer, don't leave things to chance. Spend time planning in advance. Work out your itinerary. For me, Hyperdia was an extremely useful website for planning my train journeys within Japan.
Spontaneity is not really a thing in Japan, especially when it comes to travelling.
Which brings me to the next point:
2. Book your accommodation with plenty of time in advance
Hotels and hostels tend to get booked out very quickly, especially if you decide to travel in peak tourist seasons like Cherry Blossom Season.
Consider staying in an Airbnb accommodation as an alternative. It can be very good value and often is a great way to get a more authentic feel for Japanese culture and daily life.
3. Choose your travel time wisely
Of course, the most famous time to visit Japan is cherry blossom season. While the sight is truly magical, do expect to share it with thousands of other eager visitors.
Also expect hotels and hostels to be booked out a long time in advance.
Avoid "Golden Week": Around the end of April and beginning of May, many Japanese workers can take a week off thanks to a cluster of national holidays.
The transport network is extremely busy during this time - airports, trains and popular tourist spots tend to be very, very crowded, and hotels booked out. Hardly a "golden" experience for travellers -at least in my opinion!
4. Get the Japan Rail Pass
Granted, it is not cheap, but it is really worth it, especially if you plan to explore the country.
At the time of writing this, the prices for an ordinary (not first class, or "green") pass are as follows:
- 7 days: €283
- 14 days: €379
- 21 days: €485
You must buy the Japan Rail Pass while you are still abroad. You cannot buy it once you are in Japan.
Having said that, on a trial basis, it will become possible to buy it (albeit at a higher price) at selected stations in Japan from March 8, 2017 to March 31, 2017.
The pass includes free seat reservations (pretty handy, because Shinkansen trains can become quite busy), as well as hotel discounts at JR affiliated hotels.
Be aware that the Japan Rail Pass does not work on all networks. Click here for further information.
Sometimes it is cheaper to just buy train tickets, rather than purchasing a Japan Rail Pass. You can work out fares on Hyperdia, which is a very useful website for planning your train journeys and working out how much the trips cost.
If you are intending to stay and travel only within the Kansai region (Osaka, Nara, Kyoto and Kobe), an interesting alternative to the Japan Rail Pass is the Kansai Pass.
5. Pocket Wifi
I would really, really recommend booking Pocket Wifi in advance for the time you are in Japan.
The Pocket Wifi I used was from Advanced Global Communications, and I had booked it via Japan Experience. It is super easy and straightforward to set up and worked perfectly.
You can pick it up at the airport in Japan, and you also have the option of having it delivered straight to your hotel. At the end of your trip, you simply place your device in the prepaid envelope provided and deposit it in a letterbox at the airport.
It might be a bit surprising for a country famed for its technology, but it can actually quite hard to find Wifi hot spots. And when you have finally discovered one, trembling with social media withdrawal symptoms and dying to get your cute kitten pics fix, you will probably find that your foreign device doesn't work there. Most places require a Japanese device/Japanese ID.
Or you are desperately looking for that amazing hidden curry place you have been told about by that charming local, and you just cannot figure out where on earth you are and whether to turn left or right, and you know they are about to close the kitchen, and if you just had access to Google Maps you would be seated in front of a steaming bowl of deliciousness within five minutes.
Believe me, I have been there.
6. Health insurance
Get covered. Medical services in Japan are excellent, but very expensive. Even if you do not have an underlying medical condition before you go, accidents can happen, and you don't want to be caught out. Don't let your holiday be spoilt by a large medical bill.
7. Check which medicines you can bring
If you need to take medication with you, make sure to check with your closest Japanese embassy beforehand regarding what you can and cannot take with you.
Some common over-the-counter medicines are illegal to bring into Japan, among those some inhalers and some allergy medications.
Tip: I would recommend taking a package of painkillers with you. The doses sold in Japan are much smaller, and therefore weaker, than in the West.
8. Cash or card
True, Japan is largely a cash-based society. Many travel guides will advise you to get cash in advance and will warn you that it can be very difficult to find places which will accept your credit and debit cards.
While it is advisable to carry enough cash for your first day (to get you from the airport to your accommodation, buy some provisions etc), I have never experienced any difficulty using my cards in Japan.
- Get cash using a cash machine in any of the ubiquitous 7-Eleven stores.
- Or use the post office to take out money.
I have used my debit card various times to pay in stores and restaurants, and have not encountered any problems.
Do, however, carry enough cash if you plan to explore more remote regions in Japan.
9. Plan more time in Kyoto than Tokyo
While Tokyo is of course truly exciting and should not be missed, many people I have spoken to have expressed regret that they didn't spend enough time in Kyoto.
My Japanese friends often told me that Japanese travel to Kyoto in order to understand their own identity, history and heritage better. It is here where you will find the quintessential Japan you have read about in novels and seen in films.
Kyoto is both mysterious and elegant, and breathtakingly beautiful. Myriads of temples, shrines and palaces to be explored, the magnificent Arashiyama bamboo forest to be marvelled at, and delicate and fascinating geisha and maiko to be admired.
In summer, Gion Matsuri, one of Japan's most important and alluring festivals, awaits you.
Spend your mornings exploring the famous Nishiki Food Market, then stroll along the Philosopher's Path, which is lined by many hundreds of cherry trees.
There is so much to be seen and experienced in Kyoto that you will feel truly disappointed if you didn't allow for enough time there.
10. Fly into Haneda rather than Narita
If flying to Tokyo, book a flight to Haneda. It is much smaller and more manageable than Narita, and it is much closer to Tokyo.
From Haneda, you can simply take the Monorail to Hamamatsucho station on the Yamanote Line, or simply take the Limousine Bus to many destinations in Tokyo.
Getting to Tokyo from Haneda Airport is much quicker and more convenient than travelling from Narita.