This post is part 1 of 2 for anyone who would like to visit Japan, but thinks it’s too intimidating. If you’ve ever thought Japan is too far away, or too expensive, or the language barrier is too high, read on! One thing to note when traveling to Japan for the first time: English is not spoken widely. In contrast with most places in Europe that we’ve visited, we found it more difficult to converse with others in English. That doesn’t mean you have to learn Japanese or should avoid traveling to Japan. It does mean you shouldn’t expect that you’ll be able to have a conversation with a stranger there. That includes abandoning any assumption that you can ask someone on the street for directions. As westerners, we found Japan to be extreme culture shock. We relish the sense of adventure and the truly foreign experience traveling there brings. When visiting Europe, it’s clear to see how much of American culture originated there. Japan is different.
It is also important to note that some Japanese aren’t big fans of American tourists. We had a great time, experienced only hospitality, and were never declined service. But we stuck pretty well to the beaten path. Unless you do a lot of advance research (or have some Japanese language skills) or have a local contact, I wouldn’t recommend trying a capsule hotel or ryokan or airbnb for a first trip to Japan. In this post, I’ll discuss where to stay, some tips about jet lag, and suggested trip length. In the next post, I’ll talk about food and how to get around.
Where to stay
Our total trip was 9 days. We didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin, so we spent 5 nights in Tokyo and 3 nights in Kyoto. From each of those cities, we took a day-long trip via Shinkansen. It is important to check schedules in advance if you have any appointments and also to avoid missing the last train back if you’re not staying overnight. When planning for “home base” cities, think about what you want to see and how to get there. Both Tokyo and Kyoto are large, cosmopolitan, and offer many tourist-friendly accommodations.
In Tokyo, my recommendation would be close to a train station and along the Yamanote line. The Yamanote line will give you access to the heart of Tokyo, with each stop offering a different flavor. I’ve stayed near Hamamatsucho and near Shibuya. Shibuya is much busier and is closer to Shinagawa, which is the main station for Shinkansen departures. Hamamatsucho is the terminus for the monorail, which makes it a great choice if you’re arriving into Haneda airport. Choosing a hotel near a major train station will save time when traveling to the airport and also if you’re taking any day trips via Shinkansen. A major train station will also get you where you’re going with fewer connections. The first time we changed from the Yamanote Line to the Shinkansen in Shinagawa Station was overwhelming! Overwhelming is a good word for much of Tokyo.
When it came time to choose the particular hotel, we selected an upscale / business hotel. We redeemed Chase Ultimate Rewards points for this stay and that was part of why we chose our hotel. For a first visit, choosing a business hotel will make life much easier. There will be a concierge and the front desk staff will speak English. A full service hotel will also have western-style options for breakfast and different restaurants where the waitstaff will speak English. If you don’t speak Japanese at all, it can be helpful to have this sort of support. Especially if you’re looking to do something specific like a mariokart ride or a nice sushi dinner, it will help to have a concierge who can translate, make reservations, and give you directions.
Our hotel also included a smartphone that we were able to take with us when we left the room. This was unexpected and so great! Because we had this, we didn’t buy a pocket wifi. A pocket wifi or a cellphone with a data plan (or hotel-provided smartphone) will come in handy.
The hotel was located next to a 7/11. Conbini (convenience stores) are everywhere, so this is not a hard criteria to satisfy. Almost anywhere you stay will be near a conbini of some sort (Lawson, 7/11, FamilyMart). When jet lag had us up at 4 a.m., starving for a coffee and snack, it was nice to walk over to the 24 hour 7/11. Most hotel breakfasts won’t be served until later, sometimes as late as 8 a.m. On both of my trips to Japan, I was awake hours before the hotel’s breakfast on that first morning (and for a few days afterwards).
Jet Lag (and minimum visit)
Traveling to Asia from the eastern U.S. is a big journey! I could write an entire post about jet lag and tips to prevent it. In some ways I’ve found traveling to Japan (13 hours ahead) to be easier than traveling to Europe (5-6 hours ahead). Something about entirely flipping the days and nights forces a traveler to acclimate quickly. The best general tips to prevent jet lag involve good self care: minimize alcohol consumption, eat healthy, and get enough sleep. Beyond these general tips, skipping across so many time zones has a few quirks that warrant specific advice for getting off the plane. I bring my own non perishable snacks on the plane. Keeping some dried fruit and nuts available is great to keep my blood sugar stable–very important when throwing your whole system for a loop. This goes along with the hotel tip to stay near a conbini. It helps to have a few snacks accessible.
I’ve experienced lightheadedness and nausea if I don’t eat at regular intervals while traveling, particularly in the first 48 hours following a transcontinental flight. It helps me to have something of substance (even a handful of nuts or a 7/11 mochi) every 2-3 hours. Know your system and make a schedule to eat at those regular intervals, whether you feel like it or not. It felt like we were constantly eating, but we were also walking over 20,000 steps most days (compared to my usual 7,000-8,000 steps) and most of our “meals” were small. We also set a Rule of 5. If it was time to eat, we could veto no more than 4 restaurants before stopping to eat. It seemed like shaking our heads at a place was the first clue someone needed to eat. We also made sure to say yes to all sorts of snacks and treats we came across–like the frozen yogurt outside of Himeji castle or the raw oysters at the Hiroshima train station. Eating frequent, small meals and snacks enabled us to try much more than we otherwise might have.
Beyond food, the next jet lag note is force yourself onto the local time zone, or at least close to it. Do not go to sleep as soon as you land if it’s 3:00 in the afternoon. A good way to do this is schedule outside of the hotel activities. If you’re sitting around your hotel room, you will fall asleep. We traveled in November, when it gets dark quite early–around 5 p.m. On the other hand, the sun rose quite early–before 6 a.m. (Land of the Rising Sun, after all). We accepted our jet lag and often fell asleep between 5:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., waking up between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. As long as you’re mostly out and about during the daylight hours and sleeping through the night, this is fine. On the third day we finally felt like we’d turned the corner on the worst of our jet lag. By that time we were able to stay awake until 8ish and waking up around 6 a.m. For this reason, I think 6 days from arrival to departure is the minimum you’d want traveling from the Eastern time zone of the US to Japan.
If you’re taking a Shinkansen trip and you expect to sleep on the train, set an alarm because the stops are brief. You don’t want to end up lost!
Stay tuned for the second post in this series, where I share our food tips and some suggestions for getting around. Have you traveled to Japan? Thinking about it? Let’s chat about it in the comments!