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

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

Apr 22nd, 2015, 05:14 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2010
Posts: 421
Some Practical Advice on Japan from a just-returned first timer

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!
leslieq is offline  
Apr 22nd, 2015, 05:31 PM
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Just remembered something really useful: print out all your lodging addresses in Japanese as well as English. You can hand to taxi drivers who don't speak English, and to the luggage handling service to make sure the address is correct.
leslieq is offline  
Apr 22nd, 2015, 08:10 PM
Join Date: Nov 2009
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How nice that you had a great trip, and that you are safely back home in Northern California. Please do tell us more about your trip, including some stories about the people you met, as I find Japanese culture so fascinating.
CaliforniaLady is offline  
Apr 22nd, 2015, 08:18 PM
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It sounds like you had a fine time! Thanks for passing on what you learned.
Kathie is offline  
Apr 22nd, 2015, 08:52 PM
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Thanks for sharing.

I love traveling in Japan. I always found the people friendly and the scenery so beautiful.

Loved shopping for beautiful paper and stationery and lovely porcelain.

Wondering if you bought any wonderful souvenirs.
ileen is offline  
Apr 22nd, 2015, 10:00 PM
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Would love to hear more about your trip!
Kavey is offline  
Apr 22nd, 2015, 10:46 PM
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Looking forward to reading more details!

I feel like your trip planning was a group effort, so can't wait to hear what worked and what didn't. Both are equally important to the next set of travelers, and to those of us offering info as well!
lcuy is offline  
Apr 23rd, 2015, 03:57 AM
Join Date: Dec 2005
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thanks for your suggestions. I am going to Japan for the first time next January and I am in the planning stage now. You have given me confidence to go on my own.
sdtravels is offline  
Apr 23rd, 2015, 07:14 AM
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Great advice, Leslie! One more thing that we found helpful is to keep a wash cloth with us during the day when sight seeing. Most public bathrooms don't have any hand towels or dryers, so this prevented us from maniacally shaking our hands around to dry them, especially useful on cold days. We kept one in a zip lock bag in our day pack so that it would not get anything else wet.

Also, in addition to 7/11, we found the ATMs at Family Mart took both BofA and Chase debit cards for withdrawing money from our bank accounts.

russ_in_LA is offline  
Apr 23rd, 2015, 08:58 AM
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Great advice, leslieq, the first four are new to me.

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

Ok, but IF you take an umbrella just make sure that your patterned one is cheap because you will lose it.
mrwunrfl is online now  
Apr 23rd, 2015, 09:12 AM
Join Date: Mar 2004
Posts: 220
I second the recommendation for Global Advanced Communications if anyone wished to rent a pocket wifi device.

They posted the device to my hotel on Sunday (the day I emailed to inquire and subsequently paid online to reserve the device) itself and it reached my hotel on Monday before my arrival.

Included was a return envelope which allowed me to send the pocket wifi back to them at the airport simply by dropping the envelope into the post box just before entering the departure area.

All for 5000+yen for 8 days of unlimited wifi. Very useful for checking train schedules and all other manners of data usage without the need to change to a data SIM card.

JannaG is offline  
Apr 23rd, 2015, 10:06 AM
Join Date: Jun 2004
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I also just returned from Japan, and I can second all of these recommendations.

Luggage forwarding was a godsend and really cheap, offering next-day service from Tokyo to Kyoto for about $13 per bag (a 22-inch rollaboard).

Every hotel I stayed at had free Wi-Fi, but having a hotspot helped with my translation app and with Google Maps when we couldn't find something. There's also free Wi-Fi on the Shinkansen trains, but it's so slow it's not really useful.

I rented a pocket Wi-Fi hotspot recently from a different, smaller company called Japan-Wireless. I had tried to rent from Global Advanced, but there were no devices available for my dates of travel (book these at least 2 weeks in advance for the best availability). Global Advanced has a desk in the airport, which is an advantage, but mine was delivered without a hitch at my hotel in Tokyo (and replaced immediately when I had a problem recharging it). They included a spare battery, but I also had one of my own.

I did find that many Japanese bank ATMs did not accept foreign credit cards (I expected that), but what I didn't expect was that the machine would tell me to contact my bank because the card was invalid. After I figured out that the message was erroneous (having called Citibank), I kept to 7-Eleven, the post office, and Citibank from then on and had no more problems.

My translator app from iTranslate was very helpful, especially with taxi drivers and others who didn't speak English.

I had no trouble finding a pharmacy to buy ibuprofen, but prices in Japan were outrageous for most OTC drugs, so definitely take what you need.

Finally, I'd just say this. I was very busy before this trip and took the easy route by booking a package that included hotels and some day tours, but it's just as easy to everything yourself, and you'll save tremendously by doing this. I could have shaved 1/3 off the cost of my trip by making my own arrangements if I'd had time to do that. I feel I got real value by using a tour company (and had good service), but travel in Japan is so easy you definitely don't need (and probably don't want) to be stuck on a bus all the time.
doug_stallings is offline  
Apr 23rd, 2015, 12:15 PM
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Posts: 9,220
We rented a mobile wifi (mifi) device from rentafone for both our trips, was waiting as requested at our first hotel and we were given prepaid envelopes to send it back on departure.

Great trips, all!
Kavey is offline  
Apr 23rd, 2015, 07:58 PM
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Thanks, everyone! Will reassure Icuy that yes, indeed this was a group effort planning this trip...and I sure do intend to pay forward with a trip report soon. Have already written the first few pages. This somehow seemed easier to get out while still fresh.

It definitely was harder planning on my own, but with all of you coupled with Japan Guide, Trip Advisor and a number of other great sites it came off without a hitch (except for the unexpectedly bad weather, which we tried to ignore and just get out there anyway).

ileen, we did bring back some great souvenirs. My husband (not so much me) loves to shop while abroad. We went to a wonderful shop specializing in antique woodblock prints (Ukiyo-e) and Imari. We ended up purchasing a print from Hiroshige (!!!) and three Imari plates/bowls. I just love them. The experience was incredible as the two owners were incredibly knowledgeable and taught us so much about the printing process and the decorative aspects of the Imari. The name of the shop is Yamatoya and is located in Miyanoshita, Hakone.

Look for trip report soon, including where we stayed as most of the places we loved (we actually liked all of them).
leslieq is offline  
Apr 24th, 2015, 01:27 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
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Oh, wow, your souvenirs sound amazing!

I think one of my favourites is the inexpensive suribachi and surikogi - usually translated as a mortar and pestle but I'd describe the suribachi as a grinding bowl because of the textured internal surface. The surikogi is essentially a pestle, though it's made from wood. You can see it in action in one of my recipe posts here: http://www.kaveyeats.com/2014/06/gre...-dressing.html

And my collection of ema (the wooden prayer / message plaques) bought from temples and shrines. Here are some photos of those: http://www.kaveyeats.com/2013/12/kyo...-ema-tree.html

I also bought a collection of those little charms for phones/ bags with the intention of using those as ornaments on a miniature Christmas tree, though not done that yet.

And we bought lots of food and drink stuff, from yuzu koshu to special edition kit kats to mochi to tea and loads more.

I really really wanted to get a knife but I was overwhelmed by the choices and ended up not buying one on either of our trips. Next time!
Kavey is offline  
Apr 24th, 2015, 01:36 AM
Join Date: Dec 2006
Posts: 20,692
"It definitely was harder planning on my own, but with all of you coupled with Japan Guide, Trip Advisor and a number of other great sites it came off without a hitch"

Thanks, leslieq! I would be interested in learning what you thought you needed to know that you did NOT learn from japan-guide.com.
kja is offline  

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