Ultimate Japan Travel Guide
We’re going back to JAPAN!. Not until 2020, but planning our latest trip got me thinking… The knowledge we’ve accrued during our last two holidays to Japan have made planning this latest trip an absolute breeze! So we decided to compile that knowledge here in the hopes that it will help you plan for and execute your first trip to Japan with ease and confidence.
The Planning Stage
We had no idea what to expect to spend our first time in Japan, was it cheaper or more expensive than home? The answer… it’s about the same. But so that you can work out how much you should save for your trip to Japan, here’s a quick break down of what we budget for.
Food: $50.00 per day per person
Accommodation: $100.00 per day
All Japan JR Rail Pass: $400.00 per week
A QUICK NOTE ABOUT THE RAIL PASS - I wouldn't recommend getting a JR Pass if you're just staying in Tokyo, most train and subway lines are privately owned in Tokyo and so you have to pay even if you have a JR Pass. But if you're travelling around, I definitely recommend getting one, however, don't activate it until the first day it's needed (ie the day you're leaving Tokyo) to get the most out of it. + You can buy a cheaper JR Pass if you're sticking to certain prefectures.
Tokyo Return Flights (Australia): $600.00 per person
Spending Money: ?? Dependant on you, but we usually budget $50.00 per person per day.
Getting The Best Flights
We always shop around for the cheapest flights we can get, but we won't go as far an airline that won't feed us... I like my food. So! How do we find such cheap flights? The best time to search for flights is 6 months prior to your departure date and on a Tuesday/Wednesday. Search the net for the cheapest flights you can find, no matter how dodgy sounding the website! Ensure they're Australian or at least have an Australian ABN, then call Flight Center and they'll price match the flight for you (sometimes they even throw on extra luggage for free). You get the cheapest flight possible, without having to risk doing business with a dodgy company.
Our Hotel Recommendations
A traditional Japanese Ryokan (hotel) is a must do for at least one night while you're in Japan, but if you're on a budget and not a hostel person (hubby and I definitely aren't either) you can't go past APA Hotels. Their rooms are small, but they have everything you need, they're scattered all over Tokyo and you can get rooms for between $50.00 - $80.00 per night (depending on when you book). Our personal go to in APA Hotel Ochanomizu-Ekikita, it's within walking distance to Akihabara (our favourite spot in Tokyo), close to both a train station (on the JR Line which is a bonus to save you a little extra cash if you have a JR Pass) and a subway, AND it's just a block away from my favourite Taiyaki and Strawberry Daifuku shops.
Cash VS Card
While we’re on the topic of money, lets touch on the cash vs card debate. Here in Australia, we are a very card based society… it’s just safer, and almost everywhere accepts card these days anyway, but in Japan, it’s the opposite. I’m unsure if it’s because it’s so safe in Japan, or if it’s because there are so many small businesses who can’t afford in-store card readers… but Japan is a largely cash-based society, many places don’t accept card full stop, and ATMs can be few and far between (plus often the ATMs you do find don’t accept foreign card). After learning the hard way the first time around and having to find ATMs every second day after running out of cash, the second time around we took out $2500 worth of yen before we left Australia, and once we ran out, we found an ATM and withdrew the rest of our money. Travelling with large sums of money in Japan is not only safe, but it’s also the norm! So save yourself the time of hunting down ATMs every day, and just take out a large sum before you leave. However, if and when you do have to withdraw money, the ATMs inside 7-11s usually accept foreign cards and are quite common.
JR Rail Pass - A Must Have When Travelling Japan
This is a must do if you’re travelling to Japan. JR Passes are only available for tourists visiting Japan and they, for a certain period of time, allow you jump on and off JR Train lines as you please, saving your hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on how much travelling your doing. You can order these online before you leave to redeem upon arriving in Japan, or you can purchase them from select train stations across Japan once you're there. We always order ours and have it delivered to us at home before we leave to save the hassle. An ‘All Japan Rail Pass’ is available if you’re travelling bottom to top as we did, otherwise, there are cheaper options available for certain regions to save you some money. If you’re not leaving Tokyo however, I’d pass on the JR pass, as most of the train lines and the subways in Tokyo are not covered by the JR Pass and you will end up having to pay even more.
Having trouble planning your trip? Here's our Ultimate 14-day 'See Japan' Itinerary
Cost - $2400.00 per person or $3400.00 per couple
(rough estimate includes accommodation, 7 day JR Rail Pass and return flights to Melbourne)
This estimate does not include spending or food money. My husband and I add on $150.00 per day for spending and food money between the two of us and we've never used it all, but this figure is highly dependant on how you're wanting to travel. If you enjoy a lot of shopping (we aren't really big shoppers) or you like to eat at fancy restaurants (we don't eat at super expensive restaurants... but we don't skimp either) then you will most likely need a little more.
Day 1 - Fly in
Day 2 - Tokyo
Day 3 - Tokyo
Day 4 - Tokyo
Day 5 - Tokyo
Day 6 - Tokyo - Day trip to Nikko
Day 7 - Osaka - Day trip to Nara (activate JR Rail Pass)
Day 8 - Osaka - Day trip to Kyoto
Day 9 - Osaka - Day trip to Kyoto
Day 10 - Osaka - Day trip to Himeji
Day 11 - Hiroshima - Day trip to Miyajima
Day 12 - Hiroshima
Day 13 - Tokyo
Day 14 - Fly Home
Once You’ve Arrived
These are available at the airport or in 'tech stores' around Japan. I highly recommend getting your sim cards at the airport, not only is it more convenient because you then have it from the get-go but in Japan, the shops quite often aren't just mixed together... let me explain. Our first time in Japan we checked every department store we passed by to find travel sims with no luck, we figured "Aww well, we'll come across a tech store sooner or later"... We didn't. We got 3 days into our holiday and hadn't come across an electronic store, so we decided to bite the bullet and ask someone where to get them. They directed us to a 'tech district' just outside of the CBD to find a store selling them, and it ended up taking us a whole day to find and purchase our sim cards. Note that we were in rural Japan not Tokyo at this time, but still, better to save the hassle and buy them at the airport because regular department stores don't sell them.
Suika and Pasmo Cards - Japanese Myki
Those non-JR train lines and subways I mentioned… when travelling these routes it’s best to have a Pasmo or Suica card handy. They work like Myki cards in Australia, you simply load money onto them and tap on and off as you board and exit the train station. You can purchase these cards from marked ticket machines in stations and they will save you a lot of time and hassle figuring out and pre-paying fares.
Using Japanese Buses
This is something that confused us very much in our first trip to Japan, once we figured it out, it was a piece of cake, but the first time we encountered the bus far system it threw us completely. So here’s how you do it. When you board you will find a ticket machine usually to your right, take a ticket. This ticket will tell you what numbered stop you boarded at. Now turn your attention to the screen up above the driver, see all the numbers? Look for your stop number, and the amount of yen you owe will be listed underneath it. When you get to your destination, the amount listed under your number is how much your bus fare is. Simply drop the coins into the coin box next to the driver as you disembark. If you don't have exact change for your fare before you reach your destination you can use the machine sitting next to the driver to get change.
Eating out - Japanese Restaurants
Ordering at restaurants was a little uneasy at first, the way in which it is done in Japan just felt rude, but should you not do it… you won’t get served. Once you’re ready to order in a restaurant, raise your hand and say “sumi masen” loudly. The waiter/waitress will then come and take your order. Should you be at a restaurant where they ask you to press a button, simply press the button instead of saying “sumi masen” but you will still need to raise your hand, as they usually only make a noise to get the waiter/waitresses attention, not tell them what table to go to. Once you’ve got their attention, simply point out what you’d like and say “kore o kudasai” which means ‘this please’, should you forget this phrase, pointing should surfiest.
Rubbish - I Know, Weird Topic
Ok, this is a weird topic, but it’s a big deal in Japan! Most public bins (these are VERY rare), and even your bins in hotels will be segregated into AT LEAST 2 separate bins for combustibles and non-combustibles. Please take care when separating your trash because this is a high priority in Japanese society. I also advise tourists to carry a plastic bag in their backpacks while out and about, public bins are non-existent as it’s expected of you to take your rubbish home with you.
Dealing with the Language Barrier
Remember this phrase “eigo ga deki masu ka” it means, do you speak English in Japanese. Although almost everyone in Japan speaks a little English they can be very shy about it, so it’s always polite to ask. Another couple of quick phrases that you’ll use constantly while in Japan is “arigato gozaimasu” meaning thank you, and “sumi masen” meaning excuse me. But a smile and a bow goes a long way to saying Thank you regardless of the language barrier.
Japan is a very polite place, and although people won't scold you for doing things considered to be wrong in Japan, you may get a few odd looks, and we don’t want to offend anyone if we can avoid it right? So here are a few quick etiquette rules and customs you should keep in mind while travelling around Japan.
Train etiquette. Don’t speak on your phone while you’re on the train or subway. It’s considered very rude, nobody else wants to have their peace disturbed by your loud conversation.
When waiting for a train, line up at the marked ‘door’ sections and wait for everyone to disembark the train before boarding and if you’re wearing a backpack, remove it once on the train to avoid accidentally bumping people with it.
Eating etiquette. As a general rule, don’t walk and eat. There are many places where it is acceptable to walk and eat/drink such as markets, however generally when you buy food you should eat in, or stand by the shop you purchased the food from, finish your meal, throw away the rubbish and then be on your way. The same goes for drinks at vending machines, there are bins by the vending machines for the same purpose, buy your drink, drink it, throw it in the bin and then be on your way.
Chopsticks etiquette is a little lengthy, so bare with me. Chopsticks can be tricky, but your technique doesn’t matter too much, if they’re picking up the food then you’re doing well. With a few exceptions. It’s rude to stab your food, it’s also rude to leave your chopsticks standing in rice (this is how they offer rice to the deceased at funerals) and it’s also rude to pass food to another person chopsticks to chopsticks (also a scene from funerals as they pass bones in this fashion), it’s also a no-no to let the tip of your chopsticks touch the table, so rest the tips against your plate or the chopstick stand if one is provided, and last but not least, don’t rub your chopsticks together after splitting them, this is considered rude as it’s implying that the restaurant has cheap chopsticks that will splinter... even if they are cheap, it’s impolite to point it out.
Money etiquette. In many places at the till you will find a small tray, this is where you should place your money rather than handing it directly to the person at the till which is considered inconsiderate. In Japan, physical contact is considered quite uncomfortable and so this is to avoid accidentally touching hands. Also tipping isn’t a thing in Japan. Even telling someone they can keep the change in considered rude as it implies that they don’t earn enough money themselves.
Bathing etiquette. In Japanese style bathrooms there will be a station with a stool and a detachable shower head, sit on the stool and shower here with your soap, shampoo and conditioner before continuing on to the bath or onsen. Baths and onsen are designed to relax in not to bathe in.
Blowing your nose. This is one that I struggled with because I’m just not a sniffer! But in Japan, it’s gross to blow your nose in public because you’re excreting bodily fluids I guess. Sniffling it back is the way to go…. Until you’re in private then you can blow your nose till your heart's content. If you have the sniffles, you should also be wearing a face mask, if not all day, especially when on public transport to avoid making other sick.
Pointing. This one I constantly forgot about, because in western culture it’s so normal for us to point things out, however in Japan pointing has a negative emotion attached to it, and so pointing to something, or especially someone is considered rude as it appears you’re speaking negatively of it. Instead, indicate to the object or a person with your whole hand palm up.
Taking off your shoes when entering a building. This can sometimes be an easy rule to forget. So if you enter into a building and the entrance is sunken (called a genkan), it’s expected that you take your shoes off here. Leave your shoes in the sunken area and put on slippers if they’re offered. Should you enter a room with tatami flooring (green mats) you should leave your slippers at the door. Oh and there will be a separate pair of slippers left in the toilet room, swap your slippers as you enter and leave the toilet room to keep everything sanitary.
When visiting both Shinto and Buddhist temples in Japan, there a are few etiquette rules that you should follow. Always walk through the entrance gates (sanmon for Buddhist temples and tori for Shinto at the sides, the middle is holy ground reserved for the gods and it's rude to get in their way, the other is you must purify yourself in the chozuya (water fountain) before entering the temple.
Using the Chozuya. First, hold the wooden ladle in your right hand, fill the ladle with the running water (not the water in the basin) and tip it over your left hand, then switch hands, and pour the water over your right hand. Refill your ladle, cup your left hand and pour water into it, sip the water from your hand into your mouth, swish it around for a second and then spit it out onto the rocks surrounding the basin. Now you're purified and ready to enter the temple.
Shinto Shrine etiquette. Told apart from Buddhist shrine by the presence of a Tori Gate, of which you should always bow before walking in through the Tori gates and bow back towards the temple before walking back out through the Tori gates. When praying at a Shinto shrine, you should bow once, throw a coin into the offering box (a 5yen in customary), if there's a bell, ring the bell 2 or 3 times to get the gods attention, then bow twice, clap twice, bow once more and remain in the bowing position while you pray.
Buddhist Shrine etiquette. Told apart from the Shinto shrines by the presence of a wooden gatehouse at the entry to the shrine. There is usually incense burning at the entrance to Buddhist temples, it's customary to 'wash' yourself in the smoke. Praying in a Buddhist temple is also different from that of a Shinto, simply bow slightly whilst bringing your hands together and praying, and especially no clapping!
Ok so I know this is a lot to take in, and it may make a trip to Japan seem daunting, but trust me, you'll love it! Japan is such a fun place to travel. The food is spectacular, the people are soo friendly and the whole country is just beautiful. But don't let me tell you... go see for yourself!