a city with a mountain in the background

It’s amazing (drops mic, walks off). All kidding aside, Japan is just that- it’s amazing. It’s one of the few places on earth where no matter how many times you visit, you’ll always want to return and discover more. Since there’s so much to do, so much to see- and so little Japanese you most likely speak, we’ve created a guide to help you maximize your trip to Japan.

a red bridge over a stream

If Possible, Fly Into Haneda- Not Narita

Narita is far, Haneda is not. Haneda airport makes transiting into the city of Tokyo extremely easy. There are rail stations, cabs, Uber (promo code Haneda30 gets you 30% off) and the ride only takes about 20-30 minutes. Narita on the other hand is much further out, requiring over an hour ride- which obviously means a more expensive and cumbersome ride.

Almost All Signs Are In Japanese- But…

Part of what makes Japan magical is that you know you’re in Japan. The identity of the country is deeply entrenched in the culture and therefore there are very few English billboards or signs- even in many train stations. With that in mind- Google Translate is your hero. The free app can instantly translate someone speaking or you can take a picture of any sign, menu- whatever- and it will be translated. You can also type and it will come up with a translation in Japanese.

Don’t Sweat Bullet Train Tickets

The great question of travelers from all around the globe yearning for a ride on the (utterly wonderful) Shinkansen “bullet train” is how and when to buy tickets. For a start- you can’t really buy them outside of Japan, even online, with one exception. But don’t sweat- the trains run almost every 15 minutes and you can buy tickets on site at your local station. It couldn’t be easier, so there’s no need to rush. Also- you don’t really need to splurge for first class. “Unreserved” economy seats are as spacious as any short haul first class airline seat you’ve been in.

a plate of sushi with a piece of meat on itSome Food Is Expensive- But Not All

Especially in Tokyo, visiting Japan can be overwhelmingly expensive. A top quality sushi meal or even tempura meal can set you back hundreds per person. If you’re looking to curb your costs to maintain your enthusiasm, noodle shops are your go to. You can have a very filling lunch or dinner for around $10 per person, with lovely bowls of udon or curry noodles. And on the cheap eats front- don’t be afraid of convenience stores. Lawson and 7-11’s are staples of Tokyo culture, and many locals get their lunch “to go” boxes there every morning. Cheap and delicious.

Airbnb Is Vibrant And So Are The Best Hotels

There’s no shortage of $500 a night, absolutely stunning hotels, some of which you can use points for (we love the Andaz, by the way). But if hotel prices are out of control or out of your budget, don’t be afraid to look at Airbnb. There are incredible lofts and apartments that will offer a fantastic stay, and $150 a night can get it done, even for larger groups. Long story short- it’s a city where the best hotels are truly worth it, but if things are out of reach, there are great alternatives.

Save $$$ By Bringing Your Passport Around

Like many of the great movie scenes, sometimes you only get one take in life. Shopping is tax free, IF you have your passport on you. So if you wander out on your last night and find that expensive shirt, painting, tea set or whatever you love, you’ll save yourself about 10% by having your passport on hand. Without it, you’ll have to pay full price. This is easy and can really add up, which comes in handy in a city with some of the best clothes and fashion on earth.

a street sign in a cityIt’s Only Manic If You Want It To be

Movies and pop culture portray Tokyo as a quirky, bustling metropolis where you’re lucky to squeeze by with an inch of room. While there are countless areas (Shibuya Crossing) where you’ll feel all the feelings of the most obscure movie scenes, as guys in go-karts dressed as Super Mario whizz by- it’s not mostly like that. Imperial Palace Gardens, Hamarikyu Gardens, Chiyoda Ku, Ginza, Roppongi Hills- these are just a few areas where the city can feel more tranquil than the quietest corners of Central Park in New York. If manic isn’t your thing, don’t fret.

Tsukiji Fish Market Isn’t Impossible- But It’s Not Easy

If you fancy getting up around 2AM and wandering down to a place that smells like fish, only to stand around until about 5:30AM- this is a breeze. If that doesn’t sound ideal, you may want to save yourself the trouble. Tsukiji Fish Market is the world’s most awe inspiring fish auction and sales center, with the most famous Tuna auction taking place at the crack of dawn each morning. To witness the tuna auction, guests must arrive often before 3AM and stand in line until almost 5:45AM. If you want to just wander around, you can do that in the morning much easier, you just won’t get the tuna auction experience. More fun to eat it, anyway.

Respect The Culture, Embrace The Experience

There’s an almost “oh my god” moment when you begin to settle into Tokyo. Everyone really bows, they hold it- they mean it. Politeness, honor and grace are a way of life here. People don’t jaywalk, they don’t spit on the streets, or really eat in transit. If you want to be respected, show respect for the customs of Japan. You don’t need to bow, but an Arigato (that’s thank you, btw) means a lot. You’ll leave the country with a whole new appreciation for how people can coexist in a major city- in the best of ways.

What are your top tips for Tokyo and Japan?

Featured image courtesy of Architectural Digest

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Most people don’t know this one: With Sprint, you can get a $5/month add on that allows unlimited 3G data, and worldwide talk and text while in Japan roaming on Softbank’s network. You need to speak/chat with a rep to do this. Helps that Sprint is 80%+ owned by Softbank.

    Apple Pay in Japan uses Suica or Edy card, not Visa, MasterCard, Amex or Discover as used outside Japan. However if you have a new iPhone 8 (or soon the X) or Apple Watch 3, you can now add a Suica card to Apple Pay.

    Using Narita isn’t horrible, as there are numerous Narita Express trains (NEx) to central Tokyo.
    Also, be careful of late night flights from Haneda as the convenient Limousine Buses stop service in the early evening.

  2. And yes you can use Discover Card in any place that takes JCB card (at least in theory). I’ve even charged beers with Discover Card at Tokyo Dome stadium in the JCB Premium Lounge! But as with any card, be sure to have a backup.

  3. Unlike South Korea where credit cards are almost universally accepted, some local restaurants are cash only.

  4. I would say, if you do plan on using the subway systems, (as there are MULTIPLE), try to get yourself acquainted with the pricing structure, and pricing is distance-based, and it varies based on the subway company (Tokyo Metro vs. JR vs. I overpaid for subway tickets the first couple of times just because i didn’t know it wasn’t a fixed pricing system.

  5. Foreigners can sign up for a free 14 day wifi connection which is available at many places. Most restaurants or cafes also offer free wifi.

  6. not to be a stickler, but japan is not a city…!

    “All kidding aside, Japan is just that- it’s amazing. It’s one of the few cities on earth….”

  7. Gilbert, I dunno how you do it but, your posts always seem to be timely and relevant to my personal travel plans. I was just contemplating taking advantage of the 93k F deal on ANA via Amex and you post this! Awesome! Thanks again.

  8. – Carry Cash. A lot of places don’t take cards or only accept them for expensive purchases.
    – Many Japanese bank ATMs don’t accept foreign bank cards. The ones in convenience stores often do. 7-11 don’t charge an extra fee.
    – Get a Passmo transit pass in Tokyo. Saves figuring the fares. If you buy a paper ticket, it’s not that complicated. There is usually one machine with an English option, and barring that the station maps all tell you how much the fare is from that station.
    – FFS get a JR Railcard unless you’re only planning to be there a couple days or make limited journeys. Google JR Rail Pass Savings Calculator. It will tell you if it’s worth it.
    – When you get the Railcard add Hyperdia to your phone. It’s clunky but will tell you the easiest way to get to your next destination on JR trains.
    – It’s very impolite to leave your rubbish on a train seat and you’re expected to tidy up your hotel room when checking out. You don’t have to clean, but bin your rubbish and put towels in the hamper.
    – First Cabin is the best accommodation deal in the country if you’re travelling solo
    – I disagree that “everything’s in Japanese”. You can always find English signs in urban or tourist areas. When using the WC look for “Western Toilet”.
    – Add Gozaiamas to your Arrigato.
    – Occasionally people will come up to you and ask you questions or ask for a photo . They may even be taking a survey. Oblige them. Unlike many places in the west, people are not trying to rip you off.
    – Don’t take photos of women in kimonos without asking, but if you ask politely they will almost always say yes.

    I could go on and on and on. It’s a magical place.

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