Japan: Basic Things to Know
Japan has been one of the most challenging vacations for me to plan, not because there weren’t enough resources available to help, rather because there were way too many. It’s actually super easy to feel overwhelmed when going through the truckloads of information available to you. The cherry on top was that despite being so well prepared (or so I thought), there were still quite a few surprises along the vacation related to travel basics like money exchange, etc. which we could’ve avoided had we known about them in advance.
In this post, I have compiled all the things you need to know before you get on with your vacation planning for Japan based on the information I found online as well as my own experiences in Japan. It’s long (sorry!) but I promise it’s only relevant information. If there is something I missed out or you’d like to know about more specifically, do leave me a comment. So let’s get on with it yeah?
One can not simply just put a few lines about the amazing history of a country like Japan. However, what I will tell you is this much. Japan’s history is not only interesting but also very important to skim through to appreciate the culture of the country. From the emergence, rise and decline of the Samurai, to the influence and assimilation of Chinese and Korean art forms which later evolved into unique Japanese aesthetic styles and approaches, the history is so intertwined with all the aspects of the Japanese society that it would be a huge loss to go through the country without some basic level of its understanding. I would recommend reading up about the Geishas or watching ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ to understand a little bit about them before you head to Geisha town to (hopefully) catch a glimpse of them. Yes geishas still exist. And if you’re lazy like my husband to make all the effort to google different items, you can find the summary of Japan’s history in this and this pdf file. They’re two-part brochures so you can print them out and read them while you’re in Japan! Yay!
Other Interesting Facts:
The Japanese used scrolls to write and draw stories. Their poetry would also be displayed in pictures, since Kanji (the basic Japanese script) evolved out of images. You will find some very interesting (and perhaps twisted) stories with colorful pictures on lengths of scrolls available in their museums. Tokyo National Museum is a must see.
Japanese pay extra attention to aesthetics and there is not a single place that you’d visit which would fail to leave you awe struck. Do notice the details in their parks that lead up to shrines and temples such as the lakes, fountains, and bridges.
Hiroshima, one of the only two cities in the world that suffered a nuclear attack, is not in ruins at all. In fact, it’s a completely developed hustling bustling quaint city with no traces of attack whatsoever, except for the structures erected to pay tribute to the innocent children and families who lost their lives in the event, or left untouched to remember the pain that the city once faced and stay focused on their mission towards peace.
For the Love of Anime:
I have never used a separate category to talk about a medium of art, but I think in this particular case, it is pertinent to talk about animes separately, primarily because they are so pivotal to the culture of the country today and inspire tonnes of tourists to head to the country each year. I’m sure you’ve seen some anime in your life even if you’re not a huge fan, such as ‘Spiritied Away’ by Studio Ghibli. I would highly recommend watching a couple more to truly appreciate the contemporary Japanese culture as well as understand their obsession with all things Kawai (the Japanese term for cute). For the anime lovers, I found this source useful while planning my itinerary. Some more tips:
- Trip to Studio Ghibli Museum: If you’re planning to visit, you’d need to book in advance. Lucky for you, the museum now sells tickets online through Lawsons and you can get them here.
- Trip to Ghibli inspired village: If you couldn’t make it to the museum like us because there were no tickets available on your specified dates (T.T) here‘s another option for you to explore. Nukumori No Mori is a fantasy village with a ghibli style charm located in Hamamatsu (accessible by a 2-3 hour JR Shinkansen from Tokyo as well as Kyoto).
- Akihabara: This is where you will be spending a lot of time in Tokyo drooling over your anime fanaticism. Make sure you’re keeping at least two visits for this town or trust me, you’ll regret it. Also this is where you can buy all your cosplay merchandises.
- Keep some time for people watching. I actually had a mental checklist of all the cues I wanted to see in real life from animes like the Aha-ha-ha-haaa laugh (if you know what I mean) and the super kawai girls that talk in the most adorable manner. I was so sure that the animes were exaggerated, so imagine my surprise when I actually came across each and every single one of these cues. YES people do laugh like that at times. YES girls can actually talk in that uber Kawai tone. OMG!!
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Best time to Visit:
Honestly, there is no best time to visit this country. If you go through their websites, you’ll see that the country has something to offer for every season. Spring offers romantic cherry blossoms complimenting all the beauty the cities have to offer while autumn witnesses magical autumn leaves that just make everything picture perfect. Summer and winter seem the least alluring, however they still see the most tourists because it’s vacation time around the world. Therefore, summers are made happening through summer festivals and other traditional local festivals (like Lavendar Festival in Hokkaido and Gion Matsuri in Osaka), while winters offer a completely different kind of festivities including ice sculptures, light shows and the world renowned Japanese fireworks. Comic con for anime fans also takes place in August. I actually found the weather in the summer quite pleasant and if you’re travelling from Pakistan in the summer, I’m certain so will you. Averages in Tokyo and Kyoto were around 25-26 C and July was mostly cloudy with a few days of showers. It didn’t feel humid even though we were walking around almost all day. August is when the rains get serious, so I’d recommend visiting before that in the summer, especially if you intend to visit Hokkaido.
Depending on the length of your stay, you MUST purchase the 7/14/21 Day Japan Rail (JR) Pass from here in advance before you enter Japan. The pass is only valid if it is purchased before entering the country. It gives you access to all the trains, buses and ferries operated by Japan Rail, including the shinkansen (the too fast and too furious bullet trains that run between cities) without having to pay individually each time, and actually costs cheaper overall compared to paying per trip. You will have to show your JR exchange order at the JR office at the airport as soon as you land to get the pass and then your travel is sorted.
- Trains: Bear in mind that Japan is not like most European cities where the attractions are located in or near a city center and therefore easily accessible on foot. You WILL have to take the trains. And a lot of trains. In fact half of your day will be spent on the trains. However, the trains are super efficient, always on time, and very very comfortable. In fact I found the longer journeys on the Shinkansen more comfortable than my trip home on the flight. True Story.
- Most attractions are accessible by JR. For Nikko and Hakone however, you will have to buy a day pass as the buses there are not covered by the JR. Neither is the famous Hakone Tram (picture above), which is one of the most beautiful experiences you’d ever have. The tram drives through heights of mountains with beautiful flowers and bushes surrounding its route. It’s a dreamy ride for sure and I would highly recommend spending some time (a bunch of hours if necessary) just taking the tram to see the sights. In Kyoto you might have to access some areas using private train but access is easy and speedy. And after a few days, you’ll get the hang of it all.
- Almost all trains run from one station, but have different sections within the station. Do not get confused by the station names, as each entrance is named differently to represent the train line it would take you immediately to. You can still walk to the JR line although it may take 10-15 minutes (the stations are huge and you’ll have to navigate through them). The station names are in English and in bigger cities like Tokyo and Kyoto you’ll easily find English speaking staff who will gladly help you find your way.
- Taxis: This should be your last resort, but there will be times when you’d end up taking them so go prepared. Taxis are expensive! The starting rate is around PKR 650 and for a 15 minute ride can cost around PKR 2000. The taxis are metered though and accept credit cards. Although you must ask them beforehand if they accept cards, as some taxis do not.
- Shinkansen: What a beauty this automobile is! The first time a bullet train whooped past me at the station, I thought I almost had a heart attack. You don’t realize how fast they go while you’re sitting on one though. The journey is super smooth and the trains are super clean as expected of the Japanese. The trains are always on time and leave sharp on time. I recommend booking seats on the shinkansen in advance (it doesn’t cost extra) as they run out or sometimes only carry reserved passengers and if you have a change in plans later you can just choose not go (no extra charges either). Notice how the train tilts on the side when going around bends. It’s super awesome!
- Buses: Some buses are run by the JR like the sightseeing buses in Hiroshima. You’ll find information about JR buses at tourist offices and otherwise at the stations.
- Apps: The following apps helped us a lot to plan our trip in advance as well as along the way. Maps.me provides offline maps that you can download on your device. They even helped us locate coffee shops and restaurants as well as find the way to our hotels and guesthouses, etc. as getting there could get a little confusing. Hyperdia lets you check train times and routes specifically on the JR Pass. You have to check the JR Pass option and in the app settings>Rail Companies>Japan Rail only. Note that the app has a one month free trial only, and expects you to know the JR station names (so do your research in advance). The app also didn’t run on my husbands iPhone 6 while it ran on mine. So check for that in advance, otherwise the website is always an option.
- To understand JR routes go here.
- Make sure to take comfortable wear with you as Japan requires a lot of walking. From the train to exploring towns and cities, going to shrines, etc. In Nikko and Hakone, as well as Sapporo you’d actually find yourself doing quite a bit of hike. So make sure to travel light as well.
- It is quite possible to get cheap hotels in Japan. The key is to book ahead. If you’re a solo traveller, I would recommend hostels and guesthouses. For couples I would recommend guesthouses that offer twin beds (futon beds) and APA Hotels which are mostly located right next to a train station. They’re super clean and provide all sorts of great facilities, including laundry and towels for a reasonable fee. The bathrooms are communal (shared) but they’re really clean.
- Make sure to book a hotel close to the train station, especially a JR station. Use google maps to search the distance (and time it takes to walk) from the hotel to the nearest JR station.
- It is highly recommended to have base stations at one or two cities, and travel to other cities from there via day trips. Hakone and Nikko are both accessible from Tokyo, therefore one base would easily be Tokyo. Since neither of those cities boast a night life anyway, it makes perfect sense. Same goes for Hiroshima, Osaka and Himeji which can be day trips from Kyoto. I would not recommend staying at Osaka as Kyoto has a lot to offer in terms of attractions compared to Osaka and travel time between the two is easily an hour and a half atleast (considering train changes) which means wasting valuable time on travel.
- If you’re one of those who cannot live without a blow dry, you’ll find a dryer at every guesthouse and hotel so no need to use up your luggage space with it.
- Check in and Check out: All hotels/guesthouses usually start check-ins at 3 pm. However you can leave your luggage at the lobby (you’d see a lot of bags there already) and get a numbered tag in exchange. You can take your luggage to your room whenever you return at night. Check-out time is usually 11 am with the option to extend the check out by each hour with a fee. Hotels also let you leave your bags after check-outs if you intend to see the city a few more hours before heading off to the airport or another destination.
- Rarely any room will provide you with a safe. So you’ll have to carry your passports and money with you. The country however is extremely safe and I doubt there has ever been an incident of mugging, etc. In fact I’ve heard accounts of people getting their lost items returned to them via mail by strangers.
- Expect tiny rooms with even more compact bathrooms. That’s how it is across the board.
- Ryokans (traditional Japanese hotels) or guest houses with traditional Japanese rooms and futon beds are a must try. I was a bit skeptical about the futon beds and whether they would be comfortable after a whole day of exhaustion and I was pleasantly surprised. Not only were they super comfortable, it was a really fun and memorable experience. I’ll be sharing the hotels and guesthouses that I booked in another post soon.
- Look at all the websites! We booked from expedia, booking.com and even agoda to get the best rates. We also looked at Trip Advisor for reviews.
- Be mindful of Love Hotels. Booked by the hour, these are essentially rooms for shady purposes, if you know what I mean. They’re usually spacious with a massage chair and what not. There are hotels now that do not mention they are (or were) love hotels as they want to transition into normal hotels. Look at the pictures (red bathrooms, massage chairs, big rooms) or read reviews if you sense anything fishy. They’re generally safe though, and if you want to try them out, go for it! It’ll certainly be an experience.
If you’re planning to skip getting a SIM, the good news is that all hotels and guesthouses provide wifi. You will also have at some 7/11 shops (almost at every branch in Kyoto), as well as some restaurants. Malls and stations sometimes provide wifi but its a sham. It rarely ever works.
- Exchange Rate: The Japanese Yen is same to same to PKR. So you can assume all prices quoted in JPY are in PKR. One of the biggest lessons for me however was learning that it’s a BAD IDEA to exchange money in Japan as they give a pretty crappy rate and you tend to lose out quite a bit of money because of that.
- Money Changing: For the reason mentioned above, I would recommend using your credit card for most of your expenses there. Almost every place will let you use your card, except some shrines or museums, few restaurants, few cabs but you can check in advance, and private train ticket purchases. You can use your card at all convenience stores as well. I also found taking money out of the the ATM more reasonable as the bank applied the rate similar to what you’d see here.
- Exchange in Hokkaido: It might be a bit of a pickle to get money exchanged in some cities, especially cities in Hokkaido where exchange takes place mostly at banks that close by 5 p.m. So be well prepared and have money for two days ahead.
- Halal Ramen: While researching I was disappointed to find that there was no Halal Ramen (the famous Japanese soup noodles) and went there with the understanding that I’d never get to try it. I read that even if there is a chicken ramen somewhere it would most likely have pork soup so it’s better to avoid it all together. However, on the very last day I found a restaurant in Kyoto boasting proudly that it had chicken ramen for MUSLIMS! It was a sign from God. So you can actually try ramen! Head to the ramen floor at the Isetan Department Store (it’s a ten story mall) which is part of the main Kyoto Station in duh Kyoto.
- Lawson, Family Mart and 7/11: These convenience stores keep fresh take away food as well and it makes for great cheap breakfast, lunch and even dinner during your adventurous days, especially when you’re short on time and need a quick fix. You can try their egg, or tuna sandwiches which were actually pretty yummy. And if you don’t mind having halal non-zabeeha food, they also have fresh deep fried chicken (KFC style) to grab, along with fresh coffee, etc. You’d also find ATMs here, and tickets to events and Ghibli Museum are also available at Lawson Stores.
- Tokyo – Food Heaven: Spend time exploring cafes and restaurants here because there’s a lot of variety and creativity happening in this city. We really enjoyed dining in this city. Kyoto, and other cities are a little tough when it comes to finding restaurants and we had to stick to shops in malls (mostly Station malls).
- Enjoy the wet tissues: Japanese are big on cleanliness. You’d see that everyone provides a wet tissue pack with your meal to wipe your hands before you begin munching. And you can ask for more afterwards if they aren’t already provided.
- Wagyu Beef: Again for those that don’t mind halal non-zabeeha, this is considered the best beef in the world. Just saying.
- Chopsticks: There is nothing that you will be served without chopsticks and it’s better to get some practice in advance to get the full Japanese experience. But if you’re not comfortable with it, you can always ask for a fork or spoon.
- Ask: If you’re not sure whether the food has chicken, beef, pork, etc. ask the relevant person at the shop/restaurant and they’ll help you out. No they don’t lie. Yes they understand chicken, beef and pork in English. You can also say beefu, porku, that helps sometimes.
- Most restaurants provide English menus if you ask for it. Almost all restaurants display a model of all items on their menu outside the shop as well as pictures on their menu.
No need because it’s always included in the check. Yay!
No need to spend money buying water. Get a bottle or two at the start of your trip and refill it from your hotel room before heading out for the day. Tap water is safe to drink and you’ll also get free water at restaurants so money saved!
All cities have directions and basics available in English. Almost everyone speaks some basic level of English. We had some trouble with communication in Hokkaido, but that was it. You’d need to rely on your own instincts in that province.
If you’re interested in learning some basic Japanese words and phrases, I’ll be sharing a post for that soon.
Local Customs and Laws:
Carry your passport with you. Don’t smoke anywhere except at the designated places. Be nice to people and smile. Japanese are big on respect and kindness and try their best to be nice. Try and reciprocate that. Be respectful of their culture. Bow your head when saying hello or goodbye, they like that. Also notice how people bow all the way down till their waist so elegantly in the middle of crowds to say goodbye to their colleagues. I found it really amazing. Tell them they’re cute, they’ll love that! Read more about the etiquettes in this brochure I created here.
Super safe. Nobody gonna rob you okkkk!
I wish I had more time just to shop. Japan has some super cute stuff and really good quality stuff in pretty reasonable prices. Things to consider are clothes, shoes, technology, and cute items (like stationary, stuff toys, etc.) Souvenirs aren’t readily available everywhere so you’d have to look for shops. Akihabara has some souvenir shops in Tokyo, while Gion and Arashiyama have similar shops in Kyoto. I would leave souvenir shopping for Kyoto though as it has a lot more to offer and at much more reasonable rates.
The original kimonos are quite expensive and mostly rented out even by the Japanese themselves. They are also very formal and require an understanding of how to wear them. The right option for you would be a Yukata, which is a casual kimono. You’d see some Japanese women and men wearing beautiful Yukatas as well especially if there’s a festival happening (like in the picture on the left). The best city to buy Yukatas is Kyoto with the cheapest set of kimono (includes the slippers and the sash) for PKR 3000.
- Tax free: You will encounter many shops boasting tax free shopping which basically means that any shopping over JPY 5000 automatically eliminates the tax and you don’t have to wait for a refund at the airport.
- Region based electronics: Cell phones and play stations are region locked. No point buying them from there. Check with the staff for these details.
- Do try renting a bicycle in Kyoto as it is not only a beautiful city, but also has a perfect system to allow bikers to roam the city. Bike rentals are easy to locate and some hotels even provide free bikes to rent on advance reservation.
- Be flexible. There is a lot to see and do in Japan and it can really get overwhelming as well as exhausting. Try not to overbook yourself. Give each sight at least three hours so you have enough time to explore and take pictures. Remember that it is not important to see absolutely everything! (This is more like self talk since I suffer from FOMO!)
- Japan is extremely tourist friendly. They give out brochures with train timings, and sights to see at all the major train stations, have someone to help you in English at every station, and have special instructions at almost every place where a tourist might need them. I guess it comes with their OCD to be well-organized.
- It is also very children friendly. Parents can find changing rooms for babies at every station, and most restaurants and hotels. There are lots of family activities including Disney World and Universal Studios parks, aquariums, etc. Most interesting is how they treat their toddlers and teach them autonomy and responsibility from such a young age. You see parents displaying patience with their young ones, waiting for them to move along after they’re done observing the pebbles, but not pressing them to move or holding hands as they walk along. It was a different perspective and a great learning for me.
The voltage in Japan is 100 Volt. Japanese power outlets are identical to ungrounded (2-pin) North American outlets.
THIS IS ONE OF THE BEST PARTS EVER! All restaurants, hotels, guesthouses, etc. have the Japanese toilets. They don’t have the Muslim shower, but they have this digital computerized form of a remote where you can click buttons to warm your seat or use a shower to clean your number ones and number twos (there’s a separate option for each!) You instantly feel you’re in a hi-tech land.
Other Resources to Consult:
So, did I miss anything? Lemme know in the comments below.
If you're looking for some more inspiration to visit Japan, check this post out: 14 Reasons Japan Should be your Next Honeymoon Destination!