This post is part 2 of 2 for anyone who would like to visit Japan, but thinks it’s too intimidating. See part 1 for tips on where to stay and how long to visit. Some of the best trips we’ve taken have been to destinations that others were shocked we’d chosen. We often consider the positions taken by the US State Department in terms of things like safety, so we aren’t traveling to war zones or seriously dangerous places. But we do enjoy getting off the well-beaten path. We especially like to smash stereotypes or expectations what travel should be.
Understanding the limitations (don’t try to see an entire country, much less all of Europe in a week!), we don’t ever want to avoid a trip because we don’t feel like we can satisfy some notion of what it takes to get there. My hope with this Japan series is to open some minds about how accessible a far-off place can be and how rewarding it is to experience such a different culture. A great way to experience another culture is to dive into its cuisine. Food is my favorite part of travel, so let’s get started!
Adventurous eaters will have an easier time in Japan. However, many restaurants have plastic food displays and picture menus. The word “eigo” which means “English” is also helpful. You often won’t need to ask, though, many waiters will bring it to you automatically. There’s very little “blending in” when visiting Japan.
Most of the food is Japanese. But the cuisine offers a surprising range of foods, flavors and textures. I recommend the book Rice Noodle Fish as a way to familiarize yourself with the food you’ll likely encounter. It’s not all sushi. In fact, sushi in Japan is a special occasion or fancy food. It is one of the pricier options and we recommend treating it as a splurge. Food is one of the reasons we enjoy Japan so much. But if you’re a picky eater, it helps to know what you’ll encounter so you can seek out your preferred dishes.
Taking advantage of conbini (or convenience stores) is a great idea! Due to jet lag, our days started really early–before breakfast in our hotel. This turned out to be a huge money saver over the expensive business hotel breakfast. We had a 7/11 only one block from our hotel that we visited every morning in Tokyo. We each bought a large coffee for $1.50. Japanese 7/11 has a grind and brew machine that makes good coffee at the touch of a button–it’s one of the things we seriously miss. We’d also buy sandwiches, mochi, pastries, Meltykiss candies, onigiri and whatever looked interesting. Our breakfast usually cost less than $5 per person and we’d eat it in our hotel room, enjoying the sunrise from our huge window, with views of Mt Fuji. We also bought some canned beer early in the trip to make our own minibar. So much cheaper and less smoky than the hotel bar. On days where we had Shinkansen (bullet train) trips planned, we’d buy enough food for the train. Food is sold on the trains, but there’s less selection and it’s more expensive than conbini. Shinkansen is an amazing way to travel across larger distances between cities. But Japan is a dense country and getting around will be much easier if you think about it beforehand.
In this post, I’ve mentioned Shinkansen and the Yamanote line. Both are operated by Japan Rail (JR). Foreigners (those not living in Japan) have access to a JR pass for a period of days and covering a geographic area. We repeatedly referred to this as our Golden Ticket. It is expensive, but offers considerable value if you plan to do much traveling around the country. Figure out where you’d like to go to determine whether a regional pass will be sufficient for your needs, or whether you want access to the entire country. The other factor that affects the price of the JR pass is number of days. The pass is available in certain increments only. Our last trip was 9 days–too long for the 7 day pass and too short for the 14 day pass. We handled this by waiting to activate our passes and instead paying a la carte to get around Tokyo using a suica card.
This worked very well and was much cheaper than buying the 14 day pass. However, your results might vary. Your particular trip details might affect what makes sense. The lesson is to think about where you’ll be going and understand that Tokyo, and other cities like Kyoto have a robust transportation system that isn’t 100% covered by a JR pass (although you can get around somewhat effectively that way, especially if you’re willing to do a lot of walking).
Plan out where you’re going–on a macro scale in terms of cities to visit and on a micro scale when seeing a particular sight around your hotel. Japan has widespread and fast wifi. We prioritized staying at a hotel with wifi. You can also purchase a pocket wifi device or a cell phone data plan. We lucked into a hotel that provided us with a cell phone that we could take out with us. This was so helpful! Map out the day while on wifi in the hotel. Figure out train schedules. Especially if you’re taking a Shinkansen day trip, you want to understand that schedules and routes to make sure a day trip will work. We relied almost exclusively on public transportation and a JR pass. One of our day trips was planned for a Mazda factory tour in Hiroshima. Although we had more days in Tokyo and wanted to visit Hiroshima from there, we didn’t have access to the direct train with our rail passes. So we decided instead to travel to Hiroshima from Kyoto. This was a big change that affected the day we visited Hiroshima (where we needed a reservation for the factory tour). If we had waited to plan this at the last minute, it wouldn’t have worked well.
In addition to train fare, the suica card can be used at places like 7/11 and vending machines. This came in handy when we only had large bills and a small tab, like for a $3 coffee and mochi. The suica card requires a small deposit that is refundable at the end of your stay. You also get a small discount on train fares if you use the suica versus a single ride ticket.
Understanding where you want to go and how you plan to get there will help in figuring out a transportation strategy. Do you need the JR Pass? For how many days? What other transportation needs might you have? If you’re planning any time in Tokyo, I recommend the suica (or pasmo) card. I probably also recommend a JR pass, too, unless you’re planning not to leave Tokyo. We visited Himeji, Hiroshima, and Kyoto; these trips alone made our JR passes worth it. There are plenty of calculators that help you figure out whether you’ll get enough use from a JR pass.
Have you visited Japan? What made your trip great (or not)? What do you think of Japanese food? Does sushi in Japan really ruin it back in the US? Let’s talk about it in the comments!