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Some Practical Advice on Japan from a just-returned first timer

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Most of the stuff below is not new, but I wanted to dash off some practical advice/observations while still fresh. This was the most complex trip I've planned, and it went off without a hitch. The stuff I worried about (not speaking much Japanese, for example) turned out to be fine so wanted to reassure anyone planning a trip for the first time to not be daunted.

Here goes (am sure I have forgotten many other useful things so hope other more experienced Japan travelers will chime in)

- Download the app "LINE" for free calls, texts within Japan and US. This allowed us to text our kids in the US and communicate with my friend in Kyoto, all for free! We didn’t have cellphone service and missed it at times, particularly when an innkeeper wanted to pick us up at a train station, etc. There were cellphone rental services at the airport I wished we had done this for certain things. One of our innkeepers downloaded LINE to call us!

- Download HyperDia and/or Japan Trains apps for figuring out travel logistics.

- Rent a pocket WiFi from Global Communications (or other). We always had WiFi for using GPS and uploading photos, etc.

- Rent or buy extra an battery pack. Our cellphones ran out of gas sometimes using GPS and taking so many photos

- Post Offices and 7-11 ATMs worked perfectly for our US Schwab debit cards

- Make good use of the incredible luggage forwarding service. Several times we sent luggage to next destination and packed basic overnight things in our backpacks. Particularly valuable for Koyasan and Hakone, which involve multiple transportation options and transfers

- Use taxis to save valuable travel time; we spent too much time for several days on just getting places

- We stayed at a very inexpensive apartment in Kyoto in order to afford the more expensive ryokans later in the trip

- Plan as early as possible for the busy times in spring and fall. Japanese Guest Houses was the best resource I found for booking ryokans and small guesthouses.

- Bring washcloths if you really like to use them; small pack of tissues for restaurants (napkins often not supplied)

- Don’t worry about using the train system if you don’t speak Japanese. Most of the station signs are in English as well and there are often English speaking ticket agents posted by the ticket machines. Many of the trains have rolling signs in English as well as Japanese indicating the stops and if not you can recognize the name of your stop from the Japanese announcement if you listen carefully

- If you speak no Japanese, choose restaurants with pictures of their dishes. We had some incredible meals with the pointing technique!

- Bring layers – we had everything from several warm days to extreme hail and drenching rain

- Bring gloves if traveling in rainy season. My hands were freezing at times holding up umbrella

- Japan is the Land of Lost Umbrellas – bring a patterned one to recognize it as everyone has the clear see-through ones

- Learn some basic Japanese phrases (this should be obvious)

- Don’t be afraid to rip out appropriate pages of a travel book to carry that day. I had the heavy Fodors Japan book with me but found it loaded my backpack too much.

- Keep a travel journal or you will probably forget the names of the many beautiful temples and gardens you see

- Make sure you read about ryokan etiquette if you are going to stay at one (and you should!). I found I knew exactly what to do from reading beforehand, even though many traditional ryokans don’t have English speaking staff.

- Same as above for Japanese baths. Many of the places we stayed had traditional baths and it’s really important to know the basics of showering before entering the bath, not dipping the small towel in the bath, etc. One hint my friend in Japan also gave me is to rinse off the stool and basin you used and place the basin face down on the stool to let the next person know it’s clean.

- Also there are some basic dining etiquette things to be aware of (as with the two above there are pages dedicated to this topic; read up). You might not be aware that you never stick your chopsticks upright in rice as it’s something done at funerals…etc.

- Many public places have traditional Japanese squat toilets, which can be hard on the knees for women with knee problems. Many also have Western style toilets as well (if so there will be indicators of what style toilet is there).

- Over the counter pain meds seem to be sold in pharmacies and not the stores like Lawson’s and Family Mart, so make sure you bring enough if you take these to avoid having to track down a pharmacy

- If you get desperate for coffee (we did several mornings) and can’t find a coffee shop, 7-11 had decent coffee. I would have never expected it. They also sell warm buns filled with pork and rice balls filled with all sorts of things…both were delicious and kept us going when we needed a break but didn’t want to sit down to lunch.

Best wishes to everyone planning a trip to Japan. It's a beautiful country with warm and helpful people and I can hardly wait to return!

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