Want to go to Japan? Of course you do!
Here are the 20 STEPS you need to do to make your dream a reality:
(This post will be cleaned up and beautified at a later time. We ourselves are leaving on our epic journey in less than a week and it’s been a bit hectic! I wanted to at least get this online beforehand but it’s missing all the pretty pictures. All the info is here but come back in a few months and it will be even better!)
*The videos don’t have all the information that is here on the blog. Keep reading!
Decide on the purpose of your trip.
Are you into the unique fashion trends in Japan? Are you obsessed with anime and manga? Are you interested in the traditional culture of Japan? Are you a washoku (Japanese cuisine) foodie? Are you going to shop? To party? Or do you want the smorgasbord experience and try a bit of everything? (For me personally, I am ALL ABOUT all things Japanese so we’ll be doing it all.)
Decide how long you want to go for.
Are you going for a quick trip or an extended stay? Your budget will impact this decision, of course.
Other factors might be how much time you have off from work or school and personal relationship responsibilities (like kids or spouses – Can you be away long? Are they coming with you? How does their time off impact the timing? Etc.)
How much activity are you trying to pack in? Will you be travelling around the country (something that eats up time) or staying in one place?
These are just some examples of things you need to ask yourself.
There are also various visa requirements, depending on which country you are coming from.
Japan has an agreement with 68 countries for a “visa exemption”, meaning you don’t have to apply. You just go through customs when you arrive, with your passport, and they give you a short-term stay visitor’s stamp.
For most of these countries, a Visitor Visa is for 90 days (30 for United Arab Emirates, 15 for Thailand and Brunei).
List of countries
Official criteria for Canadians
You can get 2 Visitor Visas in the period of 1 year. As in, you can’t spend more than 6 months total in Japan without a work visa.
For anything longer or countries not on that list, you need to apply for a work visa. In most (all???) cases, you need to have pre-arranged employment in Japan AND a 4-year university degree to get one. (Which is why I never moved there! I only graduated from college with a 2-year diploma.)
Japan also has a mutual agreement for a Working Holiday Visa with 23 countries which allows citizens between the ages of 18-30 (sometimes 25) to stay in Japan for one year and work part time.
The employment needs to be secured before the visa will be issued. (Proving the offer of employment is part of the application process.)
Sorry, American friends. This doesn’t apply to you since the United States is not one of those countries.
List of countries
Official criteria for Canadians
Note: You can only get ONE Working Holiday Visa in your lifetime.
Pick a time of year for your trip.
Seasonality is a big aspect of Japanese culture. I like to say that each time of year has their own festivals, food and flowers.
Obviously, cherry blossom season (hanami) is famous and one of the busiest times of the year but also arguably the most beautiful.
Each season has its own unique draw. Do a little bit of research and if you come across something seasonal in particular you really want to do, plan to go at the time of year when it occurs.
Obviously, there are pros and cons of travelling during each season. As mentioned, hanami is THE time most first-time visitors to Japan aim for. The first thing to consider for that is that the weather has an effect on when exactly the sakura will be in bloom. It’s generally the end of March/early April but only lasts a week or two so it can be difficult to predict in advance.
The second thing to keep in mind for planning your trip during peak blossom time is that it’s one of the busiest times of the year for tourism. Not only do all the foreign tourist want to soak up the ethereal atmosphere, but so do all the residents of Japan themselves. Every place you go to will be crowded. Wait times will increase. If this is something that spoils things for you, consider going at a different time.
Other very busy times are Golden Week (last few days in April, first 5 days of May) when everyone is off work; O-Bon (over several days in mid-August) when people visit their families and hometowns; kōyō season (viewing the autumn colours) (which is precisely when we are going this time around!) – like a slightly lower-grade hanami, especially in areas known for beautiful leaves, like Kyoto; and the period around the New Year.
Weather is another thing to consider. Rainy season is mid-June to mid-July, summers are (IMO, insufferably) hot and humid, typhoon season is end of summer/early autumn, etc. Winters are generally mild in the urban areas and further south but in the north and in mountainous areas, snowfall can be intense.
Japan is a very beautiful country and any time in would be a great time to visit and will have a lot to offer. It’s a matter of figuring out what you want to see and experience and what you’re not comfortable with.
Decide on your destinations.
If you’re going to be travelling around within Japan, make a list of the places you want to see and prioritize them. See what you can realistically do in the time you have allotted. Remember to factor in the time it takes to get from place to place. On the map, Japan doesn’t look very big but it takes roughly 10-12 hours on the Shinkansen to get from Tokyo, which is fairly centrally located, up to Sapporo in Hokkaido or down to Fukuoka. Domestic flights are also an option, which cuts the time but increases the cost. (In some cases though, there are great deals for flights that are cheaper than Shinkansen travel. If you DO NOT have a JR pass, this can be a great option.)
Or are you simply going to arrive in one city and stay there the entire time? I personally could spend an entire year in Tokyo alone and not have enough time to see everything I want.
Once you have that decided, work out your basic itinerary. What are your “must see” spots in each place?
Make lists – places you want to see, food you want to eat, things you want to buy, experiences you want to try. (Pictures you want to take? Haha.)
Tip: Don’t over schedule yourself. Leave at least some free time to explore your surroundings. Many people say their favourite memories are when they got lost and spent time just wandering around, discovering hidden places they would have missed otherwise.
If you are overwhelmed with all the possibilities and need to know where online to start gathering ideas, check out our videos – The 4 Best Sources of Inspiration for Planning Your Trip to Japan – and comprehensive blog post.
Work out a general budget of how much you’re going to need to fund your trip.
A quick mini list of things you’ll be spending money on:
-Internet connection (WiFi or SIM)
-admissions – including donations and ‘prayers’
Think about what things you want to do cheaply and what you’re okay with splurging on.
Transportation costs include your JR pass and IC card. Will you be staying in a place where you can cook your own food (AirBNB, hostel, or sharehouse)? Many places, as anywhere in the world, can have expensive admission – like Universal Studios and Disney parks, SkyTree and Tokyo Tower – but smaller spots can add up quickly as well. For example, temples and shrines usually have a few hundred yen for an entry fee and then there are the ‘side purchases’ you will inevitably make within them like ‘prayers’ (coin box donation, omamori (charms), ema (wish boards), omikuji (paper fortunes)).
Once you have that totalled and have a general idea, start putting aside money specifically for your trip. Don’t touch it!
A few tips for saving up some cash (for travel or anything, really):
-start a separate account and deposit chunks when you can or a certain percentage from each time you’re paid
-make those necessary sacrifices! (No travel, no eating out, …no fun – Haha)
-pick up some more shifts at work, overtime, or get another side job (I’ve used craft making on Etsy to pad travel funds in the past.)
-if you have a birthday coming up, ask for donations to your fund instead of presents
Book you flight.
In Canada, we don’t have many options for airlines. Of the two major ones, only Air Canada flies to Japan. (WestJet does not.) We went with Air Canada because it was the only direct flight option into Tokyo (and because we had a discount coupon to use due to a previous mix-up). However, if you don’t mind stopovers in other places (such as Korea or China), you can find flights much cheaper.
You can sign up for alerts for when certain airlines have seat sales to Asia. Some travel agents will be able to give you cheaper airfare when you combine with tour packages. Other than that, monitor your favourite airlines websites for a period of time to see when prices drop.
Tip: Use incognito browsing. We noticed that when we kept checking on certain dates, all of a sudden JUST those dates increased and never went back down again. Somehow, they track that data and scam you! Haha. (Really, I don’t know how it works but that seems to be the case and by using an anonymous browser, you can avoid it apparently. I heard that tip from someone else after we had already made that mistake.)
If you are flying directly into Osaka or Fukuoka or Sapporo, etc., prices might be less. Consider that option if you are going to be travelling around or not going to Tokyo at all.
If you are flying into Tokyo, we highly recommend that you arrive at Haneda airport rather than Narita, if you can. Haneda is more convenient. (More about that later…)
Purchase some travel insurance.
Every single other person on YouTube expounded the necessity for insurance. They accompanied their pleas with horror stories…
Confession: We have never purchased insurance. BUT that’s because a certain amount is built in to our credit card agreement. We’ve even made use of it before to replace necessary items when our luggage was delayed (at home, not in Japan).
Look into that option to see if your agreement has that too but if not or you want extra coverage, by all means, do it.
Keep in mind, Japan is a natural disaster prone area. Things happen. Be safe and be prepared.
Make sure you’re healthy.
If you’re a worrier or in poor general health, you may want to get your doctor’s all clear before you travel. Many people ask about what vaccinations are needed for travel to Japan. It’s not like travelling to a nation that isn’t “first world”. For the most part, the vaccinations necessary for Japan are the same that are necessary for here, so we already have them. (MMR, polio, etc.)
Some sites (mainly pharmaceutical companies) will suggest that you get a vaccination for Japanese Encephalitis – a virus carried by mosquitoes. It’s really rare, similar to contracting West Nile here, BUT it’s also 100% preventable with the vaccine. If you want to cover all your bases get that one too, go for it.
Book your accommodations.
What seems like either (or both) the most daunting or the most boring task in planning your Japan trip – figuring out where to stay – is actually pretty interesting. There are a lot of options! Some of them… very unique, to say the least.
You can use the same hotel booking sites you normally use for most of these options. (Booking, Trivago, Hotels, Expedia, Travelocity, etc.) Once you find a place you like, look it up on as many of these as possible to find the best rate.
You can also use the site JAPANiCAN but, in our experience, they are better for only the places that aren’t available to book on the regular sites, such as Japanese style inns. (Otherwise, their rates don’t seem to be as good.)
Japanese Guesthouses is a service that can book remote or virtually unknown places on your behalf. Small, family run, bed and breakfast type places, for instance. These places will often only accept bookings over the phone and if you don’t speak Japanese, this might be your only option. We used them for two of our bookings and it was simple and fast.
Option 1 – regular hotel
Same as anywhere else in the world, if not just a bit more expensive. When you walk into the ubiquitous standard hotel room, you could be anywhere in the world. You don’t even know you’re in Japan (until you look out the window or turn on the TV or call room service). They look the same. They have the same amenities. If you’re someone who likes to stay in their comfort zone of what they have available to them at home, this is your best bet. But you also won’t experience anything world-view shifting here. (Service in Japan is impeccable though, so maybe that’s something new.)
As with anywhere else, prices range from around $100 a night to several hundreds.
Option 2 – business hotel
Originally designed to accommodate business men who needed a basic, no-nonsense place to stay on business trips or who needed a place to crash after missing the last train home, the aptly-named business hotel is a good option for those that still like their privacy – you still have your own room and bathroom – but want to save a bit of money. They are slightly cheaper than their bigger, more ‘fully-loaded’ counterparts. You only get what you absolutely need – a clean room… and WiFi. You don’t NEED space! The rooms can be quite small. (I saw a video once – can’t find it anymore – where an averagely tall American man stretched out his arms and one leg and could touch 3 walls at once.)
Business hotels generally range from about $70-$110 per night.
Option 3 – ryokan
Staying at a Japanese-style traditional inn is on many traveller’s bucket lists (and should be on yours too!). Before western influence overtook the hotel scene, this is where Japanese people laid their heads at night when not at home. It’s a great option for “the Japanese experience” – something you can’t do anywhere else. The room will be covered in tatami (grass mat) flooring and, when you arrive, there won’t be a bed visible. While you’re eating your included traditional multi-course meal in the dining room or off soaking away your fatigue in the ryokan’s onsen (hot spring bath), fast and efficient staff will come into your room and make up your futon (floor mattress) for the night. Japanese breakfast is often also provided.
Many rooms don’t have their own shower facilities so bathing is done in a shared area. Beware if that’s not your thing. (Many foreigners have to get used to the idea but love it once they try it.)
Tip: Bring a towel since many smaller places don’t provide them or do only at a charge.
Ryokan can range from reasonable to extremely expensive.
Note: Ryokan usually charge PER PERSON (since dinner and breakfast is most often included) so look for that when checking prices.
(*From here, the numbering differs from our video.)
Option 4 – AirBNB
Before June 2018, there was a plethora of available AirBNB rentals in Japan. Then they passed a new licensing law which made it more difficult for owners and many of them disappeared. Before, prices were extremely competitive and you could find decent places for less than $30 per night. After, the locations that were left increased their prices to reflect the demand. It can still be more cost effective than a hotel, especially if you stay for multiple days. (The cleaning fee is the same whether you stay 1 night or 7, for example.) They can be great for families since it can be difficult finding a hotel to accommodate more than 2 people.
AirBNB rentals are people’s homes so this is a place where you can “live like a local”. They are often located in quiet neighbourhoods.
Prices can vary drastically. You can still find inexpensive, basic locations or ones that are fancy or special in some way for a lot more.
Option 5 – hostel
Anywhere else in the world, when the image of a hostel is brought to mind, we think cheap but kind of gross. Probably not very clean. Crowded, loud, and maybe not even safe. Hostels in Japan aren’t like that. They are usually quite clean and safe. You still have to share space (dormitory bunk bed style bedrooms, shared kitchen and washrooms) but the difference in price makes up for it. Many hostels have unique selling points that make them attractive options as well. For instance, we have 2 booked – one in a converted junior high school where you sleep in the old classrooms, and one in a 100 year old traditional house with a Japanese garden.
If you’re a social person, hostels can be great options to meet people from all over the world. If you’re more private, this could be a downside.
Like ryokan, beds are reserved per person so it’s a great option for solo travellers looking to save money. Prices can range from $20-$60ish per night.
Option 6 – sharehouse
Similar to hostels, where you share a kitchen and bathroom area, sharehouses are a trend on the rise in Japan. Depending on the place, sometimes you have a private room, sometimes you have a roommate, sometimes it’s dormitory rooms. It’s a much cheaper option than hotels and you often get discounts when you stay more than a couple months. A fantastic option for a solo traveller and for people who plan to stay for longer periods. Couples can still rent sharehouses but, be forewarned, double beds are really rare. Another good place to be social and make new friends.
Sharehouses can be as cheap as $20 a night. Some of the newer style ones are more ‘fancy’ and are more expensive but offer some impressive facilities.
We have booked our time in Tokyo in a Japanese apartment offered by a sharehouse company – so that’s also an option. In that case, you don’t share space. You have your own kitchen and bathroom. It’s another unique experience where you can live like a local for a relatively short time.
Sharehouse apartments can be a lifesaver to someone moving to Japan from a foreign country. Renting an apartment can be very difficult and expensive. There is something called reikin, or “key money”, where you could be paying almost a full month’s rent worth to the landlord as a “gift”. It isn’t a deposit – you don’t get it back. In the sharehouse system, there is no reikin. Apartments also usually come fully furnished and even have dishes to use. WiFi is included as well.
Depending on many factors (size, age, location), prices vary but our apartment comes to around $50 a night.
Prices are per person (or bed) but the subsequent guests are at a much lower cost.
Option 7 – minshuku
A “homestay” is a bed or room in someone’s home. Depending on the owner’s style, it can be thought of as a bed and breakfast or as a boarding house. It can be either several rooms in someone’s home that they rent out regularly to guests coming and going for a few nights each or it can be for one single person, almost like a foster family. Many (if not all) foreign exchange students are placed in a homestay.
For the bed and breakfast style, meals are often included and usually something about the building or area has some interesting selling point. (We’ll be staying at a traditional Japanese farm house up in the mountains.) They are most common in rural areas, although minshuku can be found in cities as well.
Staying at a minshuku is a really good way to immerse yourself in Japanese culture and the local way of life.
Prices vary greatly and are per person.
Option 8 – shukubō
Temple lodgings are another very unique experience that you can’t really find elsewhere. Very few temples offer this option. You get to stay overnight and join the monks in their daily practices. The meals served will be shojin ryori (vegetarian Buddhist cuisine) and is often the highlight of the stay.
The style of room is similar to a ryokan – tatami and futon, shared bathing facilities – but don’t expect any modern conveniences like TV or WiFi. You are there to immerse yourself in the atmosphere.
We are spending one night at a shukubō and really looking forward to it.
Prices are moderate and per person.
Option 9 – love hotel
Something that is probably only in Japan – or at least, very different from a similar idea elsewhere – is the love hotel. Originally designed as an anonymous space for couples to find some privacy away from their multi-generational, cramped homes, they have evolved into quirky, hi-tech, wondrous getaways. Guests can enjoy a “stay” for the whole night or a “rest” (a shorter option of a few hours) for quite a bit less money than a regular hotel.
When we think of ‘pay by the hour’ accommodations in other places, we get the idea of somewhere really seedy and probably really dirty. While Japanese love hotels still have a general seedy edge, it’s in the best, most amusing way possible. And they are usually spotless. The rooms themselves are often quite large in comparison to standard hotels (especially the bathrooms!) and have a full complement of interesting features, such as LED lighting schemes, costume rental, and items you can purchase from either a vending-type machine in the room or by calling down to the reception.
Speaking of reception – the lobby is generally dark and almost empty except for a panel display of available rooms and a discreet curtained window where you slide over your money and never see more than the hands of the person on the other side. (And likewise, they don’t see you.) In some case, there is no lobby. You choose your rooms via a touch screen outside and pay through an automated machine in the room. Often, there are 2 sets of stairs – one leading up to the rooms, one for coming back down – so you never run into other guests. (I’ve seen some with individual stairs leading from a compartmentalized parking garage to each room.) You can order room service and food is passed through a prison-style ‘doggie door’.
One very important note is that once you check in and close the door behind you to your room, you are locked in for the night until you check out again. When you think of what a love hotel is for, the reason for this is obvious. It’s to discourage prostitution! You are supposed to enjoy your stay with the person you came with.
Tip: Bring food/snacks in with you since you can’t leave to go get anything.
Many love hotel rooms have bizarre themes. I’ve seen mazes and stuffed animals dens and Hello Kitty and nurses and school girls and S&M caves. Basically, if you can think of it, it probably exists. At this point, in my online research, if it has a mundane look, THAT is weird.
Staying at a love hotel can be a fun, crazy night but it can also be a cheaper option for a decent night’s sleep.
Prices vary, around the price of a business hotel. You pay per room, in this case.
Option 10 – capsule hotel
Another “only in Japan” experience (although they have copycats in various places in Asia and Europe now) and another option that was originally intended for business men who had missed the last train home to have a space to drop their heads for a few hours until the trains started up again in the morning.
Capsule hotels are made up of long corridors flanked with literal pods – 1.2m wide x 1m high x 2m long – stacked 2 high (mounted footholds to climb into the top row). There are no doors (roll down curtain only) and amenities within the pods themselves are limited (a light, volume control with headphone jack, TV screen, AC, and a power outlet). The shared bathroom facilities are generally nice and fully stocked with everything you might need (shampoo, conditioner, face wash, razor, etc.). Most have semi-private shower stalls but some have public onsen as well. Lockers are available for your luggage and you are supposed to change out of your clothes and into a provided yukata (casual cotton kimono) and slippers there. There is usually a lounge (with WiFi) where you can grab coffee and vending machine snacks and hang out until you’re ready to sleep.
Typically, they were only for men but some opened up with women-only floors. It’s rare to find one completely co-ed.
Capsule hotels have a futuristic vibe and somewhat cyberpunk look and that is what draws a lot of foreigners eager to try it out.
Newer style capsule hotels have been popping up lately to cater to the gaijin who wish to stay but might be off-put by the bare bones simplicity and lack of space. They have more tech in the pods (larger TVs, full control using a smart phone, etc.) and are quite a bit bigger too. Some of the latest are almost unrecognizable as “capsules” at all, allowing you to stand up inside. These higher-end options are obviously more expensive.
The downside is going to be the noise. Since your capsule doesn’t have a door, you’ll be able to hear the ‘night noises’ of all the other people within close proximity to you.
Tip: Bring ear plugs.
If you plan to stay more than one night, most of the time, you have to check out each morning and take all your belongings with you and then return again at night.
My own personal suggestion would be, if the idea of capsule hotels interests you, try out both styles. Get a firsthand sense of how they started and what they have evolved into. Staying at a capsule hotel has been on my bucket list for years, but since we would obviously be separated for the night and had limited time, we haven’t gotten to it yet. Our very last night in Tokyo is not booked yet so I’m trying to convince Jason we should do it!
Price-wise, it’s probably the best option for a solo traveller, but if you’re a couple (or more), it likely works out to about the same as a night in a business hotel. If that’s the case, you’re probably opting for a night in a capsule hotel for the experience rather than for the price.
Basic capsule hotels can be as little as $20 a night but are usually around $40-50.
Here are a few chains to check out:
Option 11 – all night karaoke
In North America, when you go out for karaoke, it’s probably at a bar and you sing in front of everyone. In Japan however, karaoke is a private or friends-only activity where you have a small room with your own karaoke machine, TV screen, and a couple of mics. There is usually a table with booth seating – which in a pinch can do well for a nap. You pay by the hour and rates are often discounted during the day. You can curl up on the bench for a few hours, if needed.
Tip: If you’re actually planning on doing this (not just end up there due to no other options), bring a travel pillow and blanket and ear plugs.
Most karaoke halls (usually several floors with many rooms per floor) offer all-you-can-drink fountain drinks and have a food service you can order from – like room service.
Unfortunately, none of the websites seem to have prices listed so I can’t say exactly how much it is right now, but we’ll do some checking when we’re there and I’ll come back an update this.
Option 12 – manga café
Japan takes their manga reading seriously. So much so that there are cafés designated just for that purpose – called manga kissa (mahn-gah kee-sah) in Japanese. They usually stock a respectable size library for you to choose your preferred books. There are seats at desks or private rooms with a chair that recline or a mat on the floor.
They have WiFi and TVs and gaming systems, and sometimes have shower rooms (for a fee) as well.
Like karaoke, you pay by the hour and drinks are free. Oddly, there is often an all-you-can-eat soft serve ice cream machine as well. They are well-known as places to sleep and offer various time packages.
Option 13 – 24 hour restaurant
This should only be considered if you are desperate! Technically, you shouldn’t be taking up space in a restaurant for this purpose, but it happens. McDonald’s and Denny’s are two places you might spy someone catching a few winks. Just make sure you actually purchase something.
Option 14 – overnight bus
Some coach bus lines run service between cities during nighttime hours. While not exactly cheap, if you have to get to somewhere anyway, you may as well save the money you would have spent on a hotel and time by travelling while you sleep. Killing two birds with one stone.
They have relatively comfy seats compared to regular buses and provide a pillow and blanket. The seat will also have a fold down “hood” to shield your eyes. WiFi is usually available.
The bus makes stops once an hour so that can be disruptive.
Price is dependent on distance.
Buy your JR pass.
We have a video all about this (What is it? Why do you want it? How do you get it?). Check it out here.
Buy tickets and admissions.
There are a few things you will want to purchase well in advance of leaving for your trip. Tickets to the Ghibli Museum is one of those. (They go on sale one month in advance and sell out almost immediately.)
All the info you would need to know about that is covered in our video and blog post.
Buy Ghibli Museum tickets online
Grand Sumo tournaments are held six times a year – January, May and September in Tokyo, March in Osaka, July in Nagoya, and November in Fukuoka. The best tickets will sell out quickly but you can usually get nosebleeds the day of. If you don’t want to risk it or if you want really great seats, you can buy those ahead of time online too.
Buy tickets to sumo tournaments online
For all other major admissions, you can usually wait until at least the day before you want to go there, but if you are planning a shorter trip and don’t have ‘a day before’ for some things, you can also buy tickets for the following online. (These can all be purchased at the door – except USJ – but you run the risk of them being sold out or huge wait times.)
Buy Satsuki & Mei’s House tickets online
Buy teamLab tickets online – Bordeless or Planets
Buy Universal Studios Japan tickets online (Tickets for USJ are NOT sold at the door anyway – you have to buy them online, although you can do it the day of.)
Buy Disneyland and/or Disney Sea tickets online
For tickets you buy through a third party ahead of time, such as the Ghibli Museum or sumo tournaments, you will be paying more for that service than if you wait until you arrive in Japan and buy them yourself. It’s up to you whether you think the extra price is worth the peace of mind that you actually have your tickets rather than running the risk that they are sold out.
If you want to participate in any special events, classes or tours, you should sign up for those in advance as well. Examples would include a Japanese food cooking class, an izakaya (small bar) pub crawl/walking tour, watching a sumo practice, etc.
Exchange cash into yen.
A very overused phrase is “Japan is a cash-based society”. While it’s true that Japanese people on the whole prefer to use cash to pay for almost everything, credit and debit cards are used and frequency is on the rise. However, there are going to be some establishments that are still cash only – restaurants and small shops, some small hotels and inns, etc.
A common question is how much money should a person bring on a trip to Japan? That’s really hard to answer. How long are you going for? How much do you want to spend? What are your expenses?
It’s going to take some planning and budgeting on your part to find out how much you’ll need. (Think back to Step 5 and then figure out what things you’ll probably need cash for.)
Tip: Always bring more cash than you think you’ll need. You can always exchange unused cash afterwards, but having to take more money out repeatedly will cost you a lot in service fees.
You CAN exchange money while you’re in Japan but you won’t be getting as good of a rate as when you buy it in your home country and you’ll be paying an additional ATM fee for the international usage. You are also at the mercy of that day’s exchange rate which could be higher.
Note: Not all Japanese ATMs take foreign cards. (Some don’t even take all Japanese cards!) You will almost always be safe with ATMs at 7-11 convenience stores and post offices (but double check before you leave home that YOUR card will be accepted there).
Note: ATM machines in Japan are NOT 24 hours. They shut down after a certain time.
Your best bet is going to be ordering from your personal bank or a currency exchange business in your home country. Shop around to find the cheapest rates and fees. Watch XE.com daily for awhile to see when the basic rate is good. (All services, including your bank, have their own rates but the basic rate sets the bar.) Some places will have a good rate but higher service charges and likewise.
If you are ordering a large amount, leave yourself at least a few weeks in advance. We ordered online from our bank but it took about a week and a half to arrive. Some services, you need to pick it up in person but others will ship it to your house.
Tip: For any predetermined large purchases that need to be paid in cash (ryokan, tour group, etc.), set aside that amount in a sealed envelope so you don’t accidentally spend it on something else.
You’ll find that you end up with A LOT of change in Japan. Pay with exact change whenever you can (They love that!) but keep a stash of ¥5 coins (the smaller one with the hole in the middle) to throw into the coin boxes at shrines before making a prayer. ¥5 (pronounced “go en” in Japanese) is lucky.
Tip: Bring a coin purse – or buy one when you arrive. Japan is famous for character goods and you can find really cute accessories, like wallets, prolifically throughout Japan. My recommendations of favourite stores for character goods are Kiddyland and Tokyo Station Character Street.)
Get rid of as much of your loose change as you can before leaving Japan. Banks and currency exchange counters will take bills back but you’ll be stuck with the coins.
There are machines called “Pocket Change” in the airports and several other locations where you can dump in your change and charge your Suica/Pasmo card with it or even receive vouchers for places like Amazon and various retailers in your own country!
Quick breakdown of Japanese yen:
-You can think of ¥1 being more or less equal to 1 cent. ¥100, like a dollar, ¥1,000 like 10 dollars. With the current exchange rates though, ¥1,000 is around $9.23 American but about $12.18 Canadian. (¥1,000 = 8.36 euro, 7.29 pounds, 13.59 Australian dollars)
-Coins come in 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 denominations.
-Compare with America which stops using coins after the quarter (with the exception of the rare “special” silver dollar). Canada has 1 and 2 dollar coins and starts using bills at $5. (Is Canada the only country that has $2 denominations?)
-Japan has no equivalent of a quarter but has a 50 yen coin. (50 cent pieces are a thing of the past in North America.)
-Japan smallest bill is ¥1000. They also come in ¥2,000, ¥5,000, & ¥1,0000.
Note: A handful of change can be worth a lot more than you think!)
Sorry that I can’t compare coins and bills with other countries. I don’t know!
Many stores offer duty free for foreign visitors on purchases over ¥5,500 (including tax). You make your purchase at one counter, then take all the items, your receipt and passport to a different counter and they give you a refund. They then staple the receipt into your passport and you are supposed to show that at customs when you arrive home. Some stores will take the tax off the purchase price at the time of initial payment. They will also sometimes package up your purchased items and tape it closed. You aren’t supposed to open it again until you are back in your own country. (If you are consuming something within Japan, you have to pay the tax like everyone else.)
Note: Consumption tax in Japan was just raised on October 1st from 8% to 10%. (Just our luck! Ironically (?!), it was last increased just before our last trip as well.)
In one case, you DO want to use your credit card rather than cash. At select Yodobashi Camera stores (an electronics and home good superstore chain), when your purchase comes to over ¥5,000 (before tax) and you pay with your Visa card, you get tax free PLUS and additional 5% discount.
Order a SIM card or pocket WiFi device.
In this day and age, you probably don’t want to be in Japan for very long without a reliable Internet connection. Your hotel probably has WiFi, but what about when you’re out exploring? Public WiFi is available at certain places – convenience stores, Starbucks, various other hot spots – but generally the connectivity isn’t great. You often need to login and sign up for things as well. (Apart from that, Internet connectivity in Japan is supposedly some of the fastest in the world.)
It’s really helpful to have a connection when you’re going around for many reasons (of which I had to convince Jason were necessary!). Things like public transportation routes and schedules, business websites for opening hours and other information, on the spot language translation (See step 15) , social media, etc. We also won’t have use of our regular phones (data) while in Japan so we will be keeping in touch with family through WiFi enabled calling. (Most of that will happen be at the end of the day or early in the morning when we are at our apartment, due to the time change and so we don’t waste our batteries. But it’s good to have the option to make a call when you’re out in case of an emergency.)
You have two options – one is to buy or rent a SIM card and the other is renting a pocket WiFi (personal hot spot) device. In our opinion, pocket WiFi is the better option because 1) our phones are locked and can only use SIM cards from our account providers anyway and 2) there are two of us. If we were even able to get SIMs, we would need to buy one for each of us, doubling the cost. With the pocket WiFi, we can connect up to 10 devices.
You can arrange all of this ahead of time and schedule a pick up at either airport in Tokyo (and presumably the other major airports in Japan) or, for the WiFi device, pick it up at one of many Lawson convenience store locations (which you pick from a list).
Or you can buy a SIM on arrival in Japan.
There are several well-known WiFi rental companies in Japan – the ones I’d heard of were iVideo and NinjaWiFi. We went with iVideo because of their competitive prices, good reviews, and the fact that many YouTubers are partnered with them and offer viewers discount codes. (Thanks, Tokyo Lens!)
The airport pickup location closes at 5pm and we might not have made that so we arranged to pick up ours at a Lawson right outside the station closest to our first hotel. Doing that was a little confusing because the section of the site with the list of locations was all in Japanese and when you auto-translate it, it messes some things up and nothing made sense. Luckily, I could recognize the kanji characters of that station name and verified the address compared to Google Maps!
Note: I don’t believe that the iVideo Haneda airport pick up location is actually IN the airport. Or else, I’m thinking of the afterhours location… But it is a 10 minute train ride away. Keep that in mind if you are arriving any time after 4pm-ish (to allow for getting through the customs check, etc).
Note: Some AirBNB rentals offer pocket WiFi as one of their amenities. Look into that to avoid having to pay for one when you don’t need it. (It’s common but both of the AirBNBs we have booked don’t offer it.)
Learn a few necessary Japanese travel phrases.
We made a video about that and have a fairly extensive blog post as well.
Load your phone with Japan travel specific apps.
There are several apps that are specifically focused on travel to Japan as well as useful general travel apps. Download a few and try them out before you leave home to see which ones you like.
Some great ones we recommend are:
NAVITIME – Our number one choice for everything you need to travel in Japan, it has maps, articles, alerts, and a great “plan” function where you can save your itinerary and locations. A really great feature is that you can select a JR pass filter so that it will only give you information for transportation you can use for free with your pass.
Apple Google Play
JNTO’s Japan Official Travel App – (similar to NAVITIME) A one-stop-shop for all your up-to-date travel info, like weather alerts (currently displaying updates on Typhoon Hagibis! – very helpful), travel tip articles, info on discount tickets and passes, and emergency contact info.
Apple Google Play
VoiceTra – A great real-time translation service that is more accurate than Google Translate and less robotic sounding so that it’s easier for Japanese people to understand.
Apple Google Play
Google Maps – If you create an account, you can drop pins at all the locations you plan to visit ahead of time and save them in various lists. You can also download maps to use offline.
When you are on the move, it is great for real time route and schedule info and is so detailed that it will even tell you which platform to wait for your train.
Apple Google Play
XE – A currency converter with the current market rates. You can select your home country and country you are travelling to. Type the amount in yen and it will tell you how much that is in your home currency. Great to use while you’re shopping.
Apple Google Play
Hyperdia – Another route and schedule calculator. Warning, it is only free for the first 30 days of use and then you have to pay for it, so if you’re going for more than 30 days, wait to download it until you are about to arrive (or anytime after that).
Apple Google Play
Purchase some omiyage representing your home country to give to people in Japan.
Japan has well-developed gift giving culture. One aspect of this is the custom of giving omiyage (souvenirs) to your family, friends, and coworkers when you return from a trip. The gift you bring is usually a speciality of the region you were visiting. For example, Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku, southern Japan is famous for citrus. They might find something mikan (Japanese mandarin) flavoured to bring back with them.
It’s also customary when you move to a new place to give a small gift to your neighbours (on either side of you and, if you are in an apartment building, above and below you as well). This ensures good relations going forward as acts as a “sorry in advance that I may trouble you at some point”.
Although no one really expects this from gaijin (foreigners) moving in, I believe when they follow Japanese practices such as this, it’s always very well received! As for tourists who will only be in Japan for a short time, it can be quite a delightful surprise for a Japanese person to receive omiyage from you.
This is entirely optional, of course, but I like to advise fellow travellers to pick up a few souvenirs from their home country before arriving and have them on hand to give people as a small thank you. People you might want to give omiyage to could be your AirBNB hosts or ryokan proprietors, a tour guide or class instructor, or someone who has gone out of their way to help you.
We are from Canada and, of course, maple syrup is what we are most known for around the world. We’ve bought a few packs of maple sugar candies to give as the opportunities arise.
Pack your bags.
Packing for travel to a foreign country can be difficult, especially if it’s your first time visiting. Other than the basics – seasonally appropriate clothes, etc. – there are a few things specific to Japan that you might want to bring with you.
–cold medication/allergy medication – The strength of medication is different in Japan. Many people don’t buy OTC cold meds but rather go to a doctor for a prescription instead. If you’re travelling during the change of seasons, or if you’re like me and get all drippy and gross after being on an airplane, you might want to bring along some of what you’re familiar with.
If you don’t read OR speak Japanese, it can be hard to go pick something up at the pharmacy if you don’t know what to look for or even how to ask for it.
–antiperspirant deodorant and other specific products – I don’t know about the truth of this claim but I’ve been told that Japanese people don’t sweat as much as people of European descent… Regardless, a common complaint of foreigners living in Japan is that they can’t find deodorant or that the Japanese ones don’t work. Anything with an actual antiperspirant ingredient is apparently very hard to find.
For most cosmetic/toiletry items, you can leave yours at home and purchase items of equal (or better) value there. But if you are particularly fond of certain brands or have sensitivities and have to use specific products, bring all of those with you.
–portable charger, multi-socket power block, expandable memory/external hard drive, power cord adapter – These items can be found in Japan at most electronic stores, but in order to save yourself the hassle of looking around for them or in case they are too expensive, I recommend bringing them with you.
You’ll probably be using your phone a ton and all that map navigation, etc. can wear down your battery quickly. Have a little pocket size charger to supplement your usage.
Hotel rooms often only have one outlet, and if you are like us, you’ll probably have several devices each that will need to be charge each night. It’s really helpful to bring along a power strip with multiple sockets (and a surge protector!) so you can charge everything all at once. We recently bought a new one that has 4 outlets as well as 4 additional USB ports. Charging party!
Most people will suggest you bring an extra memory card with you to store all the pictures from your camera. I don’t know about these people because just the 2 memory cards still wouldn’t be enough for me! Haha. I always travel with an entire hard drive worth of extra memory and then dump my memory cards daily onto that. We take a TON of pictures as well as video and that takes a lot of space. (The videos from our 360 camera are HUGE – several GB each.)
Power sockets all over the world vary so, depending on where you are coming from, you may need an adapter. Japan uses the same 2-prong plug that is used in North America but they don’t use the additional 3rd grounding prong. When we were in Japan last, we noticed that most hotels (which are used to foreign visitor) had an outlet with a hole for the 3rd prong but not all of them. Both our laptop and the power bar I just mentioned need an outlet with 3 prongs so we’re bringing along an adapter too. If you’re coming from Canada or America and aren’t bringing any heavy duty electronics (just your phones and camera batteries, for example), you probably won’t need it.
If you’re coming from Europe, Australia, other countries in Asia, etc., you’ll also need an adapter since your outlets are totally different.
–towels – As I mentioned earlier, some accommodations, as well as some public onsen (hot springs) and sento (bath houses) don’t provide towels or only rent small ones out to guests for a fee. Some AirBNB hosts won’t provide them either. We’re not even sure if there will be towels available for us to use at our apartment.
I personally ALWAYS travel with my own towels because I quite often am accompanied by several people and hotels never provide enough towels for everyone or because I’m staying at someone’s house and… I’m picky!
–small hand towel for your purse/bag – You don’t necessarily need to bring this from home because they are sold EVERYWHERE in Japan (I personally recommend something from a character goods store.), but it’s something you will most likely need once you are there. Many public toilets don’t have hand dryers or paper towel. That is because most people there will already have a tenugui (hand towel) that they carry around with them everywhere. It’s also great to have to dry your hands on after you do the symbolic water purification at a shrine. And on a really hot day, you’ll see people taking out their tenugui to wipe their foreheads and the back of their necks. Very handy items to have.
–shoes that are easy to take off and put back on and cute socks – It’s a well-known fact that you need to remove your shoes when you enter a Japanese home but you also do so at some temples, restaurants, ryokan, capsule hotels, etc. Anywhere with tatami flooring, you’ll be expected to take off your shoes at the door. You’ll be taking your shoes off and on A LOT. The space to do so in the entryway is often quite small and there usually isn’t a place to sit down. Anything with laces or long zippers is going to have you in the way of other people and waste your valuable time. Bring a pair of slip-ons, if possible.
(People will be seeing your socks so don’t wear something you are embarrassed by.)
Tip: Do NOT step onto the floor where you take your shoes off with your socks! Slide your foot out of the shoe and immediately step up onto the raised floor.
Tip: If you are travelling in the summertime and wearing sandals with bare feet, bring a pair of socks to put in your purse or backpack to slip on after you take off your shoes. Don’t go barefoot in a temple! Gross.
In general, people always tell you to pack as light as possible. You can do laundry while you’re there or you can buy lots of cute, fashionable items. (Keep in mind though that Japanese sizes are small.) Suitcases are also a huge pain and inconvenience to lug around with you, not to mention they get in other people’s way as well. (See our recent packing-related posts on Instagram for more tips.)
Note: You obviously need to bring your passport to get on the plane and then into Japan – but remember to keep your passport with you at all times once you’re there. It’s the law that foreigners need to have either their passport or a gaijin identification card (if they live there) on them wherever they go. There are many stories of foreigners being arrested for not having proper identification while walking around town.
Tip: Make a few copies of your passport – keep 1 copy at your hotel in case you lose your passport and need to go to the embassy to get a new one and give 2 different trusted people back home one each in case you get into trouble. It’s just a precaution but can save you a lot of trouble and time should anything happen.
Inform your bank and credit card companies you will be travelling abroad.
In the “old days” before text message alerts, you needed to call your credit card company to let them know your travel plans so that if they noticed purchases being made in a different country than where you live, they wouldn’t decline them, thinking it was fraud. These days, they usually allow it to go through and then send you an automated text where you confirm that it was in fact you. However… we won’t have data available on our phones and therefore won’t be able to receive any texts!
Jason already called both Visa and MasterCard to inform them and got different responses. MasterCard said, “Okay, we’ll note that in your file. Have a good trip.” Visa, on the other hand, said they no longer did that and we could expect to get alerts instead. When Jason explained that wasn’t possible, the representative suggested we “leave a trail of bread crumbs” on our way over there (purchase something at each airport) and that should be good enough.
What the heck?
Anyway, it’s still a good idea to let them (and your bank as well) know when and where you’re going and for how long and see how that goes. Best of luck to you.
Plan for your flight to Japan.
Here is a checklist of things to make a long flight more comfortable:
(Good for travel anywhere, not just Japan)
(In the interest of time and since it wasn’t specific to Japan, this was a huge chunk we cut out of the video. We will probably post those outtakes at a later time. (Link will be added here when that is uploaded.))
–wear comfy clothes in layers – You don’t want clothes that are restrictive or dig in anywhere. Have a hoodie or sweater that’s easy to take off and put on. (When you first get onto an airplane, before the engine starts, it’s usually pretty hot but as soon as that air kicks in, it can get quite cold, especially way up in the sky.
–pillow and blanket – The teeny pillow they give you sucks! If they even provide one to you anymore. Sometimes you have to pay for them. And the blanket is so thin that you have to fold it up and then it’s way too small to be helpful. It’s also useful to have a pillow and blanket once you arrive in Japan in case the ones at your hotel or AirBNB aren’t up to your standards AND just in case you do end up having to sleep at karaoke or a manga café, like I mentioned earlier.
–slippers – Not a necessity but more like a luxury to make your flight as comfy as possible. Curling up in your seat and sleeping for so long, you’ll want to take your shoes off. But having to get up to use the bathroom or stretch your legs, putting your shoes back on is a pain. Having a cushy pair of slippers that just slide on is a treat. (Don’t wear just your socks around on an airplane! Yuck.) (Those slip-on shoes you packed for Japan will also work just as well for the plane.)
–a facemask and ear plugs – Depending on the time you depart and when your starting point is, you’ll probably, at the very least, have several hours of bright midday sun, if not THE ENTIRE TIME like we do. We leave around 2pm and it’s between 2:00-3:00 consistently as we fly backwards through the time zones. It’s very disorienting to go to sleep in the afternoon and wake up expecting it to be dark but the position of the sun hasn’t changed. It really weirded me out the first time! So have a face mask with you to block out the light. They do ‘gently force’ everyone to shut their blinds to simulate some nighttime hours but people will still turn on their reading lights or, like me, disoriented from sleep, open their blinds by accident.
Ear plugs are great to have during a flight to block out the roar of the engine sound and other people snoring, etc. Noise cancelling headphones are also good so you can hear your own music, although they can get uncomfortable after several hours. Ear plugs are something you’ll likely use again once arriving in Japan too, if you’re staying at any hostels, capsule hotels, or any other shared accommodation.
–snacks – Kind of an obvious one. It’s a long flight and they feed you 2-3 times but… some of it is inedible.
–empty water bottle – You can’t go past security with liquids but you CAN take an empty water bottle and fill it up at a water fountain (or Starbucks) once you’re through. I find that they never give you enough to drink during flights. They only give you tiny cups at a time. Stay hydrated! Being up in the air for long periods wreaks havoc on the body.
–toothbrush and travel toothpaste – Because 15 hours is a long time! Ewwww. You’ll definitely want to brush your teeth before landing. Normal-size toothpaste tubes are too big to go past security so get yourself a travel-size. Or even those pre-loaded disposable toothbrushes.
–sleeping pills – If you’re someone who has a hard time falling asleep on planes, you may consider taking a sleeping pill once you get onboard. I used to do this for any flight over 6 hours. I don’t remember my flight to Hong Kong at all! I slept the entire time.
–load your devices with books, music and movies – Keep yourself entertained while you’re virtually held prisoner in your seat for the majority of an entire day. There is “in-flight entertainment”, of course but you might not be interested in the movie options available.
–charge cords and a portable charger – I use my phone a lot while I’m flying, taking pictures, playing games or watching videos, and doing “work”. You can use your charger in the USB outlet in the panel in the headrest of the seat in front of you but half the time, they don’t work, so that’s why you might want a portable as well.
–a pen – to fill out your customs forms upon arrival. Do this before you leave the plane. Once you land, there isn’t a flat surface to fill it out and you want to speed through as quickly as possible to start your adventure.
–necessity toiletries (travel size, of course) and a change of clothes – in case your luggage is delayed on arrival
–any medications you take – Never, ever put your meds in your checked baggage! I made this mistake once and my baggage was delayed for 4 days. It ruined my entire vacation. Don’t let this happen to you.
Remember to account for the time difference when making your plans and booking hotels, etc. and keep in mind the lack of daylight savings, if that’s applicable.
Plan for your arrival in Japan.
Once you arrive in Japan, there are several things you need to do right away. Plan those out so that things go smoothly and you can start having fun right away.
Pick up your SIM card or pocket WiFi.
Exchange your JR pass.
You can choose your start date for anytime within a month from then. It doesn’t have to be immediately, but if it is, you can use it to take the Monorail or N’Ex. (See below.)
Purchase a Suica or Pasmo (IC card). – This is a reloadable fare card to use on trains, subways, buses as well as at convenience stores, vending machines, and many other places. You get a 5% discount off your fare if you use a card.
(You can exchange for your pass and buy an IC card at the same ticket office area in any of the airports.)
Get to your accommodations.
From Haneda Airport, you can take the Tokyo Monorail to Hamamatsucho station. This is a stop along the Yamanote line loop, which is the one that runs around central Tokyo and is most frequently used by tourists. From Hamamatsucho, you can transfer to get to wherever you’re going for only a few hundred yen more. The Monorail cost ¥490 – or use your JR pass if you activated it already. It takes about 20 minutes.
You can also take the Keikyu Airport Line to Shinagawa station (also on the Yamanote line) for ¥410, 20 minutes.
Other options include the Airport Limousine Bus which drops passengers off at specific hotels and costs roughly ¥4,000-6,000 and takes about 45 minutes, depending on where the drop off point is.
Both the Monorail and the Keikyu train start around 5:30am-ish and have a last departure just after midnight and run frequently. The limousine bus starts earlier and runs until 2am but only comes 1-2 times per hour.
From Narita Airport, you can take the N’Ex (Narita Express) train to Tokyo Station (on the Yamanote line) for ¥3,070 (or free with your JR pass). It takes about an hour and runs every 30-60 minutes.
Or you can take the Keikyu Skyliner train to Nippori station (on the Yamanote line) for ¥2,520. It takes 39 minutes and runs every 20-40 minutes. (If you buy in advance online or from a travel agent before you arrive in Japan, foreigners may only pay ¥2,200.)
The cheapest option is to take the JR Sobu line to Tokyo station. It costs ¥1,340, takes 92 minutes and runs once an hour. It’s also covered by the JR pass.
There is also Airport Limousine Bus service at Narita as well. It costs around ¥3,500 and takes about 100 minutes. There are several connections an hour but you need to find the one that gets you to your hotel, which could be more of a wait (or to Tokyo station).
From either airport, you can take a taxi but it’s way more expensive and takes longer so I don’t recommend that.
It’s obviously a lot faster and cheaper to get in to central Tokyo from Haneda than it is from Narita, which is why we highly recommend you choose Haneda are your arrival point if you have the option.
(Our info is specific to Tokyo (since that’s our experience and will be what the majority of people do). There is a TON of info online about getting to and from the airports online so we won’t expand on that further.)
Drop your luggage off with a takuhaibin service. – Room for luggage is very limited on the trains. (The Tokyo Monorail has a designated luggage rack and although it’s more than on the trains, it’s still limited, especially when you have to share with other passengers during rush hour. There is ample room on the Airport Limousine Bus however.) It’s also cumbersome to drag your suitcases through stations and on the streets.
You can send your luggage to your hotel directly using a takuhaibin delivery service. (Takuhaibin is the general term for package delivery. Takkyubin is the brand name of that service provided by Yamato Transport.) It costs ¥1,800 per piece under 25kg measuring less than 80x40x30cm.
Note: If you drop your luggage with a takuhaibin service before 10am, you can have it delivered to your hotel that day. Any later than that and you won’t get it until the following day so make sure to take out what you’ll need for that night and the next morning and put that in your backpack.
Congratulations! You are now fully prepared with all the information you need to plan your trip. (If I’ve forgotten anything, please do let me know. I hope, after 20 full pages, I haven’t!)
I hope some of this was helpful to someone out there…
Enjoy your trip to Japan!!! Let me know how it goes.
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