Japan isn’t a country to which you just show up and wing it.
For foreigners, the language barrier can be intense, the technology overwhelming and the prices terrifying for just about everything other than instant ramen.
The key is preparation.
We’ve taken care a lot of that for you with the tips below, leaving you to puzzle out the fun stuff, like getting out of a karaoke bar with your dignity intact and figuring out how to ask them to hold the katsuobushi at breakfast.
1. Rent a wireless router
Getting a prepaid SIM card with local calling service is difficult in Japan.
It’s better to rent a handy little wireless router, known as “pocket Wi-Fi” in Asia.
This will allow multiple gadgets — smartphone, laptop, tablet, Kindle — to connect at once with un-throttled, unlimited data.
Local calls are then possible via cheap Internet phone services like Skype.
You can rent and return one of these devices easily at the telecom company counters at most airports.
Booking online before the trip brings the price down even lower.
Global Advanced Communications, for example, offers a deal of ¥5,550 ($53) for a seven-day rental plan if you book before the trip.
They deliver the device to the airport/hotel/office for free the day before your arrival, and include a prepaid envelope for returns.
2. Book a Japan Rail Pass before arrival
Booking the flat-rate foreigner-only Japan Rail Pass, which can be used throughout the extensive JR train network on all four main islands, can save a lot of money for travel by train.
There are two types of Japan Rail Pass.
The Green Pass (¥38,880 or $374 for a seven-day pass) is for “superior class” green cars on trains.
The Ordinary Pass (¥29,110 or $280 for a seven-day pass) applies to economy class cars only.
As green cars are less likely to be full, the Green Pass makes it easier for couples or groups to sit together (or sit at all).
Important: the pass must be booked outside of Japan before the trip.
To procure one, visitors must do the following:
• Buy an exchange order from JR sales offices and agents in a foreign country.
• Make sure their passport is stamped with “Temporary Visitor” when they enter Japan.
3. Buy a Pasmo card or a Suica card
For multiple trips on short-distance trains (including the subway and metro area JR trains), get a Pasmo card or a Suica card that can be charged in bulk.
These transportation cards save time otherwise spent buying individual tickets for each journey (it can be difficult to figure out how to select your destination on ticket machines).
They’re especially handy when transferring trains, and are available for purchase at ticket vending machines in train stations, bus stations and subway stations.
Preloaded options range from ¥1,000 to ¥10,000, with a deposit of ¥500 included in the price.
While some trains don’t accept Pasmo and some won’t accept Suica, most will accept both and the two are pretty much interchangeable.
They can also be used to make purchases at stores and vending machines.
4. Download the Hyperdia app
Cabs are extremely expensive in Japan — the price is hiked up even higher at night from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. — so it’s good to have a firm handle on the public transport system.
This easy-to-use Japan train app is a godsend to foreign travelers and is free for the first 30 days.
Upon entering train departure and arrival stations, the app displays (in English) the exact journey time, distance, fare and transfer stations, as well as which track your train is departing from.
This includes long-distance shinkansen as well as subway trains.
Woe to those who are late by even a minute — the schedule is incredibly accurate.
5. Take advantage of discount rates on domestic flights
Thanks to a fierce price war for domestic flights, Japan’s major carriers offer discounts for foreign travelers for any air travel within Japan.
ANA’s Star Alliance Japan Airpass allows international visitors to take up to five domestic flights for just ¥10,000 ($96) each.
Japan Airlines offers a Oneworld Yokoso/Visit Japan fare starting at ¥10,800 ($103).
Tickets must be booked outside of Japan on the airlines’ global websites.
6. If there’s a choice, fly into Haneda, not Narita
Haneda Airport is a lot more convenient for most travelers to fly into than Narita International Airportowing to the distance from Tokyo for both. It is not always an option. Delta for example only flies in and out of Narita while Cathay Pacific serves both airports.
A train ride from Haneda to Tokyo Station takes approximately 28 minutes and costs around ¥580 ($6), while the train ride from Narita to Tokyo Station takes approximately 58 minutes and usually costs at least ¥2,600 ($25).
If you need to, there are easy train connections between the two airports, just factor in around an hour of travel time to be safe.
7. Book N’EX or Keisei from Narita
If you’re flying into Narita, the N’EX (Narita Express) and Keisei Skyliner are competing services, both with their advantages.
While ticket prices are usually higher than ordinary trains, N’EX is currently running a deal on one-way trips from Narita into the city for ¥1,500 ($14), half the usual price. The deal is for trips to Omiya station only, not Tokyo Station which is where N’EX terminates and starts from (Tokyo Station to Narita is ¥3,020).
The Keisei Skyliner connects Narita with the Ueno and Nippori stations — depending on your final destination, this can be a better and more timely connection that Tokyo Station. Tickets are ¥2,470 ($24) while there is a special e-ticket discount (¥2,200) for foreign visitors, full details are here including the available trains for discount.
8. Download Google Translate app
The extent of the language barrier may come as a surprise to first-timers to Japan.
We asked translators and a publisher of English study materials in Japan, and they agree that the Google Translate app is one of the handiest ways for translating what you want to say on the spot.
It has a camera input option and is available offline for Android 2.3 and above, and is free to download.
Many of the translations are hardly perfect, but your hosts and others you meet will at least get the gist of what you’re trying to say.
9. Print out your hotel address in Japanese
This goes for travel to most foreign countries as well, but it’s a particularly useful tip in Japan.
Just in case your phone battery runs out and you can’t look up the address in a taxi, have a print-out to show the driver.
10. Know where to get cash
It can be surprisingly difficult to find an ATM that accepts foreign cards, even in Tokyo.
The ATMs that do can be found in 7-Elevens, post offices and Citibank ATMs.
Again, this sounds obvious, but you can save a lot of frustration by double checking before you arrive that your card is activated for withdrawals in a foreign country.
11. Know where to find refuge
When in doubt, head to a konbini — a Japanese convenience store, including 7-Elevens.
They sell everything from phone chargers to underwear to concert tickets.
The hot food selection is also extensive — varying from fried chicken to udon to yakisoba sandwiches.