Essential Tips when visiting Japan (from someone who lives in Tokyo)

Before making my full move to Tokyo, where I now work remotely full-time from the neighbourhood west of Ginza, I travelled to Japan many times. During my travels in this enigmatic country, from the first trip to now when I take day trips and weekend getaways from Tokyo, there are some essential tips I wish I had known the first time around. Of course, you can step off the plane and just Lost in Translation your way around the country. But if you’re only in Japan for a limited time, and you want to make the most of your trip without the hassle or stressing out about what to do next, I’ve rounded up some personal recommendations that will help you be well prepared for Japan. Curious? Follow me on Instagram and YouTube for more adventures!

© Logan Ly

Suica or Pasmo cards are essential cards that you can top-up on the go that acts as not only as a metro card, but you can also use it as your way of payment in convenience stores too. There’s also an app for them that you can get on your phone so you don’t have to carry around the physical card. For the amount of how I get around the Kanto region with my Pasmo card - the fact that I can zip from Tokyo to Yokohama, to Kawagoe to Enoshima all with one card is incredible. 

You may have heard all the hype about the JR pass, which is great for travelling throughout Japan by rail… Except what people don’t tell you though is that they’re only accessible to JR lines by the JR company. So if you are planning a big Japan trip where you dash from Tokyo all the way across the country to Osaka, and then from Osaka all the way back or to another region, then the JR pass may be worth your money. Otherwise… One way tickets and the Suica/Pasmo card would be the better financial option. Especially if you're doing nearby day trips like Tokyo to Yokohama, which the regular metro system connects both cities to anyways.

© Logan Ly

I love overnight buses for those on a shoestring budget, because not only they save you a whole night of paying for an accommodation, but you will arrive to your destination in the morning with plenty of time to explore it. You’ll sleep overnight on the bus while it ushers you smoothly across Japan, all while having your own personal charger outlets for your seat, and free wifi. I get taking the shinkansen is a fun experience, but overnight buses are only a quarter of the price to get you from point A to point B.

Listen, even as someone who lives in Tokyo, my days can be fulled packed and booked and I still haven’t seen and done everything I wanted to do since moving to this country. So… imagine for someone visiting on a tighter schedule? No matter if it’s Tokyo or the countryside, plan an itinerary. Know where you want to go in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings - with some time allotted for getting there inbetween those places. Of course have room in your itinerary to be flexible with your activities and be albe to move them around as you feel in the moment, but overall don’t be one of those people who don’t know what to do next in Japan after you finish a thing to do. That’s because Japan, especially the bigger cities, can get quite overcrowded - so things may be booked out in advance, or there will be a queue, or things are far away from each other and its best to know these things in advance.

© Logan Ly

Probably one of the most asked question I get about my photos from living in Tokyo is…. How am I the only person in these photos? Isn’t Tokyo super crowded? Yes, yes this megacity is. It’s the most populated city in the world. But guess what? Tourists and locals actually like to sleep in. So if you go out early enough to these popular attractions and landmarks, it will feel like a dystopian ghost town. You’ll most likely have the whole place to yourself (save for the very few coming home in the wee hours from their night outs). It’s awesome - I don’t have to be camera shy, I can take as many photos and videos as I want like this, I don’t have to wait around. It makes going out to the spot from 6am-8am so worth it. By 10am I find a spot would already have lots of crowds.

My favourite season for Japan are the shoulder season - from March to April is sakura (aka cherry blossom season) while November is the autumn foliage. The temperatures are also juuuust right and mild enough. Having said that, those seasons are super famous with locals travelling about - and the crowds are just as populous with international visitors. While winter (from December to February) is great for skiing, snowboarding, hot-springs and less crowds - you better enjoy the cold and snow if you’re here then! And summer… well, honestly, I prefer to avoid Japan from June to August due to the torrential amount of rain during this time. Summer is frigging hot and humid in Japan - unbearable for me unless you don’t mind walking around like a human puddle.

As an expat living in Tokyo, and when I was just a traveller here, I easily do about 20,000 steps per day. It’s a super walkable city, things to see and do are close by, and I hop on the metro here and there. Even when I’m not in Tokyo, I do around the same steps per day - whether that be hiking in Hakone or temple hopping around Kyoto. Your feet will thank you if you have the proper shoes for it.

©Unsplash/ Simon Zhu

I don’t know where the myth of Japanese taxis being affordable came from… Travellers from the upper tax bracket class possibly? But you would never, ever catch me in a taxi unless it’s a desperate situation and I need to get home. Otherwise, go with the metro and bus system. Public transit here, unlike many other countries, is king. It’s super affordable and connects you to most places, whereas a taxi may be really convenient - but also five times more expensive. 

If you haven’t already, these two apps will be your best friend. Seriously, Google Translate has an incredible photo recognition feature, where you can point to a Japanese sign and scan it to translate into your preferred English. While Google Maps is excellent for telling you the precise time the trains and metro arrive, as well as a great lay of the land for businesses opening hours and reviews. With these two apps I can confidently say that I have never had a miscommunication issue or got lost living and travelling in this country.

©Unsplash/ note thanun

…Having said that, Google Maps zap my phone’s battery like hotcakes. Especially since I use my phone to take photos and videos too. To prepare for the day, I always bring a fully charged power bank to use. Don’t be one of those people who carry your phone chargers around - that’s so inconvenient to find an outlet and then what… stand or sit around until your phone gets a decent charge to go again? Nah, buy a power bank and conveniently charge on the go. 

This is one of the things Japan is known for - the locals are super polite. They have respect for each other and have decorum in public - you’ll notice this for proper formed queues when waiting for the train or at a bakery, wearing face masks for certain spaces. If you want to fit in with the locals, watch how they interact in public and move about and copy the way to queue, the way to interact with one another. Having said that, they also know you’re a traveller and have more lee-way for you. While most Japanese people don;t speak English that well - they are glad to help you out with directions too.

© Logan Ly

Either as ID for when you go out to a bar/club or some student specials at museums and exhibitions. But a general rule of thumb for travellers anywhere, not just Japan, is carry your passport or a photocopy of it or a digital copy of it on you - you never know if there’s a random police check or ID check where it will be super helpful to have on you.

I see tourists using pocket wifi but….. Why…. I’ll try to reserve judgement from those outdated (by a decade) technology, and highly recommend you get a sim card online or an e-sim  beforehand. While most places have free wifi, yep even in the underground metro, it’s just super useful to have an e-sim to make calls for restaurant reservations or have internet for an affordable price wherever you go.

©Unsplash/ Masaaki Komori

Before moving to Japan, I was living for a very long time in Stockholm and Amsterdam (where I still go back and forth from). I also grew up in Toronto. In these countries, I barely even knew what the currency looked like in hand because I only carried card. Whereas in Japan - cash is king and 90% of the places even in Tokyo only take cash. So prepare to have a good amount on hand, and have a little coin pouch too as you will receive a lot of yen coins. 

My go to is the atms inside 7-11, they’re always reliable and basically one on every other block. The fees aren’t astronomical to take out your money unlike in other Western countries so if you get enough for your spending in period of time, you’ll be set. The largest bill is the ¥10,000 note… which atms can dispense casually like its water. Don’t fret! While this is a large amount, all of the businesses and restaurants (including food stalls) are super use to it and will accept it with no problemo at all. 

© Logan Ly

While you can probably get around the country just fine without using any Japanese (thanks Google translate!) knowing a few phrases will make interacting with locals that much easier. They’ll see that you’re trying and appreciate it. Words like “Sumimasen!” for “excuse me!” is really useful to get someone’s attention or excusing yourself. I usually say “Arigatou gozaimasu” to my servers, “thank you very much”. And since I’m an early bird, I usually pop into an establishment with a “Ohayou!” greeting, which means “good morning!”

These three cities are like the holy trinity of any first timer to Japan. And I get it, I did it to on my first ever trip to this awesome country. But they only show you a very fine slice of what Japan has to offer - and what it has is so much more than outside of these regions. Even day trips from Kyoto to Nara or Tokyo to Yokohama while fun is well, relatively within the same bubble. If you have more time on this trip, or if you are planning to extend your trip or come back to Japan, explore the regions outside of these cities and you’ll see how much more immersed into Japanese culture you can be, and just what other beauties this country has to offer. 

© Unsplash/ Sora Sagano

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