Traveling to a foreign country can be distressing in many ways: language barriers, geographical unfamiliarity, and trying to spend wisely are just some of the concerns that arise. Even when a destination is popular and well-traversed by tourists, it can still be hard to discover the best tips and tricks for seamless navigation. Japan is certainly no exception—if anything, the country in all of its wonderful glory can be one of the most challenging for English-speaking visitors. What do you do when a menu is only available in Japanese? Is there a way to save money on those high-priced Shinkansen (bullet trains)? In a destination notorious for hard-to-acquire reservations, how do you get a seat at a top-notch restaurant? To answer all of these questions, and more, we’ve compiled eight tips that will help assuage many of your worries and make your trip to this amazing island nation easier.
1. Decide Whether a JR Pass Is Worth It
The Japan Rail Pass allows unlimited access to nearly all JR trains, buses, and ferries for seven, 14, or 21 days and are extremely convenient for those who want some freedom to move around the entire country. However, with the recent price hike this past October, you now have to be more diligent than ever about checking whether getting one for your trip is worth it or not. While Shinkansen tickets can add up quickly, unless you’re taking lengthy train rides or bouncing around every day or two, odds are it’ll be less expensive to book your tickets à la carte. You can calculate costs by using tools like Google Maps or Japan Travel by Navitime (they also have an app), and make note of the price difference between non-reserved and reserved seats.
If you decide to get a JR Pass, purchasing from the official site is the best option. Not only will you no longer need a physical exchange order delivered to your home—you will, however, still need to pick up your pass at a JR ticket office—you’ll also be able to make seat reservations ahead of time online. The latter will be particularly useful if you’re visiting during peak times like cherry blossom season and autumn foliage.
2. Get a Smart Card
IC Cards like Suica and Pasmo are similar to New York City’s MetroCards. In addition to fluid access to public transportation, you can also use them to pay at many stores and restaurants, vending machines, and even some of the newer claw machines. Unfortunately, due to a chip shortage, the sale of physical cards have been suspended, with no news of when it’ll resume. For iPhone and Apple Watch users you can add Suica and Pasmo cards to the Wallet app and load funds with a Mastercard or American Express credit card (Visa unfortunately doesn’t work). However, for Android users, devices purchased outside of Japan don’t support the proper software to be used with Japanese smart cards. Instead, look for temporary cards like the Welcome Suica or Pasmo Passport. These cards are valid for only 28 days and there are no refunds on card balances, so be mindful of how much you add to them. Otherwise, you’ll need to go through the hassle of buying tickets at a machine (or pay with cash where applicable).
3. Learn Key Japanese Phrases
A lot of American travelers assume someone will speak English, but with technology like Duolingo or Google Translate in your pocket, you really have no excuse not to learn the basics. Greetings are a must as it’s a sign of respect, so brush up on how to say “hello,” “good morning,” and the like so that you can properly address someone when entering their establishment, but also look into “excuse me” or “sorry” in case you need to catch a person’s attention or accidentally bump into a fellow pedestrian on a bustling street. And if you are really having trouble communicating with a local, you can always use the app to help connect the dots.
4. Translate Menus With Google Translate
Speaking of Google Translate, it’s a good idea to have the app on your smartphone if you don’t already have it downloaded. In addition to using it for conservations, the camera is great for translating menus when a restaurant doesn’t offer an English version. It’s not foolproof, though, and you may need to do some inventive interpretation every now and then, but it does the job most of the time.
5. Enlist the Help of a Travel Agent
There are a lot of hidden treasures in Japan that aren’t easy to discover unless you have the help of someone in the know. Such experts, or “travel designers” as they’re now called, can help with the most exclusive experiences and make your trip as seamless as possible. One exemplary option is Okuni. Founded by Julia Maeda and Lauren Scharf who have both lived in Japan for well over two decades, these two women are some of the most knowledgeable individuals when it comes to Japan’s luxury landscape. For hyper-exclusive experiences including dinners at some of Tokyo’s most coveted restaurants—including Sushi Jiro—with acclaimed food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, Taro is one of the most well-connected services in the country’s capital. And if you plan on hopping over to some additional countries in Asia after Japan, one of the leading operators in the region is Remote Lands. Cofounded by Catherine Heald who frequently visited Japan when she lived in Hong Kong and returns every year to continue learning about the country, the Virtuoso-approved company can set up some of the most incredible activities in the Land of the Rising Sun and beyond.
6. Use Reservation Services for Michelin-Starred Restaurants
While well-connected travel specialists or a concierge at a luxury hotel can go a long way in nabbing a seat at some of the most highly sought-after restaurants in Japan, sometimes things just don’t quite pan out the way you hoped. When all else fails, scour online reservation sites for a chance to dine at a famed eatery. You’ll likely need to pay a fee, but Tableall, Omakase, and Pocket Concierge are great resources if you’re really keen on trying out a particular establishment.
7. Take Advantage of Tourist Airfares
With JR Passes having nearly doubled in price, flying between major cities may be more cost-effective than taking the train, especially if you can manage to land one of JAL or ANA’s tourist fares. Japan’s two major airlines offers discounted rates to tourists to more than 30 airports in the country. While JAL’s rates are lower on paper, starting from 5,500 yen, ANA seems to have more availability for their advertised fares starting from 7,364 yen. Plus, it’s the perfect excuse to explore Japan’s underrated islands, Hokkaido and Kyushu.
8. Ship Your Luggage Between Destinations
Schlepping around large suitcases screams “I’m a tourist” when traveling in Japan. While many train stations are equipped with escalators and elevators, some provide stair-only access and storage aboard trains is limited. It’s not just that the Japanese know how to travel light, they use something called takkyubin. A door-to-door delivery service by Yamato Transport, you can easily ship parcels and luggage from one hotel to the next for a relatively low cost. Delivery time is usually the next day, sometimes two for longer distances, so you’ll still need to bring along an overnight bag with the essentials. But given that most hotels in Japan offer all the necessary toiletries and pajamas, you won’t really need to carry much except for a couple just-in-case items.
9. Stay Connected for Less
If you want to ensure that you have high-speed Internet service at all times, and on multiple devices, rent a pocket Wi-Fi and do so in advance to lower the cost. If you’ll be in a rush from the airport to your subsequent destination, you can always have the device delivered to your hotel.
Alternatively, if you just need high-speed data on your phone, SIM cards are the way to go. There are several companies that will allow you to pre-order a physical SIM that can either be delivered or picked up at the airport. But if you have a device that supports eSIMs, the digital versions are easy to activate at any point during your trip.