Our first venture into Japan was bumpy. We had little time to prepare for the trip outside of booking flights and finding places to stay. Thankfully, we packed a lot of patience and a sense of adventure into our suitcases, but we’d like to make your trip simpler.
If it’s your first visit, you will run into confusing transportation and lodging options. Japan has many accommodations for western and international travelers, but maintains its distinctive culture. Knowing the cultural differences will demystify your trip and make planning simple. So here are five tips to help you plan your best trip!
Tip #1: Know your Lodging Options
Your research has probably shown you one thing very quickly: lodging in Japan is expensive. Most of your travel budget will be spent on laying your head down at night, but you can ferret out ways to save money…and we’re going to help you.
If you are traveling solo or as a pair: The small (read tiny) rooms offered in most Japanese accommodations won’t affect you as much. So, you can explore the full range of options Japan offers. Here they are broken down for you.
When you want a traditional Japanese experience, consider staying in a ryokan. These offer a glimpse into the Edo era practice of entertaining weary travelers in these roadside rooms. Ryokans feature tatami-mat rooms and communal bathrooms. Meals are not usually offered. The Culture Trip shares great information and recommendations for staying in ryokans.
When you want to be in the mix, choose a hotel. Hotels are centered in urban, touristy spots. Amenities vary widely, so read descriptions closely. Make sure to check sleeping arrangements and whether private bathrooms are available. Western-style accommodations are common and this is the only option that regularly includes breakfast. Use booking.com for the best rates and to compare rooms.
When you want to save the most money, choose a hostel. Hostels are available across Japan. You share communal sleeping, cooking, and bathing arrangements, but can find rates less than $50 USD a night. Japan Guide can show you how to find the right hostel for you.
Traveling as a Group or Family: Hotels and other lodging can be challenging for large groups or families. Some places offer family rooms with beds or mats grouped together. Another option is to book multiple rooms, but this is challenging with young children.
Air B n B provides a great alternative for groups and families staying in Japan. We were able to book a home in an outer part of Tokyo for three nights and spend only $570.00. The home included all amenities, was close to a train station, and was quieter than staying downtown. We also booked a home in Kyoto using Air B n B. The price was much higher but having space when traveling with teenagers is essential. We recommend using Air B n B over other options for groups traveling in Japan.
Finally, you need to book your lodging early. Accommodations become scarce during peak seasons, especially sakura season. We found places a few weeks out but our options were limited. Every day, options shrunk, especially for hotels, but even Air B n B locations were scarce.
Tip #2: Prepare for the Trains
Traveling in Tokyo means riding trains. Ride-hailing apps are not available in Tokyo at the time of this post. Taxis abound, but finding one was not as simple as we had read online. When we visited, we depended on the railways and our own leg power with great success.
Japan’s rail system is clean, safe, and amazingly efficient. Unfortunately, it is also very confusing. Multiple companies operate the train lines, so if you purchase individual fares, you will be spending a lot of time at vending machines. Instead, you can purchase some key passes to save you time and money.
JR Lines offers a JR Pass that allows you to ride any of their trains simply by displaying the pass at their windows. This includes the Shinkansen (bullet trains) that go to other cities. Unless you plan to visit other cities and return to Tokyo, the cost is probably not worth it. You can find detailed info on the JR Pass here. A JR Pass calculator is offered by Japan Guide. Use it to see if you should buy one.
A final note on the JR Pass: You can pre-purchase it and have it delivered to your hotel or home address through an intermediary. We did this and simply presented vouchers at the JR Lines office in Narita airport to get our passes. This saved us a lot of time.
There are also international locations that will allow you to buy/collect the pass. Search for JR Pass and your location to see if you have one nearby. In Singapore, they are available at Changi Airport.
In Tokyo, you can buy day passes for each line that you need. Buying passes helps you avoid the vending machine hassle to buy individual tickets. You can purchase day passes at vending machines, but it was easier to do so at the window because we had trouble understanding our options at the machine. The window attendants speak English and are happy to help you purchase passes.
Or you can, buy a SUICA Pass
Somehow, we didn’t discover these cards until we visited Kyoto. Make sure you grab one of these before your trip. You can even have them delivered to your home before you take off!
The SUICA pass is an all-in-one pass you can buy in Tokyo. You purchase a pre-loaded card and reload at area train stations. SUICA allows you to travel trains, buses, and streetcars. You can even use it to shop in some stores. If you travel to another city like Kyoto or Osaka, you can use it as well. If you start your trip in one of those other cities, the pass is called by another name. In Kyoto, it is the ICOCA pass, for example. Read this blog to learn all about the passes, where and how they work: https://tokyocheapo.com/travel/suica-card-guide/.
Tip #3: Download the City Rail Map App
The train stations contain line maps for the city. However, they are not easy to interpret. We found apps that worked much better and led us through the train line changes. Download City Rail Map to access Tokyo lines even offline. This app saved us so much time and stress. After using it a while, we could read the station maps and understand them.
Other helpful apps included: Citymapper for walking around and Lonely Planet for must-see ideas.
Tip #4: Rent a Pocket Wi-Fi
Wifi is not widely available in Tokyo and data rates can soar astronomically. The solution is to rent a pocket wifi and take a hotspot with you everywhere. You can charge the wifi for about 10 hours of use as you sightsee. We plugged ours in at night and enjoyed a full day of wifi access each day of our trip.
Rates ran about $60.00-$80.00 for the week. You can pick one up in Terminal 1 of Narita Airport before you catch your train to Tokyo. You can also reserve them online, but if you wait until arrival, it’s as simple as grab-n-go.
Tip #5: Spend the Extra Money on the Green Class ticket
When you travel on the Shinkansen, you can purchase economy tickets or upgrade to Green class. If you buy a JR Pass, you can upgrade then or when you buy individual tickets. An upgraded ticket buys you extra legroom, luggage space, and amenities like power outlets, coat hooks, tray tables and reading lights.
If you are traveling with lots of luggage or with children, a Green Class ticket is money well spent. Japanese efficiency means you get just 60 seconds to get on or off the trains. When cars are crowded and you have kids or luggage in tow, economy cars are a gauntlet you run to reach your stop. Green cars offer fewer crowds and more space. The benefit of Green Class is not just comfort, but ease of travel.
We hope these tips are helpful to those of you planning a Tokyo visit. Our children felt this has been their favorite trip that we have taken since moving to Singapore. If we get the chance, we will visit again and spend more time exploring Japan’s singular culture. Look for an upcoming blog post on what to see with teens in Tokyo.