Here are my top ten Japan travel tips.
(1) Fly into Haneda airport, not Narita, if you are going to Tokyo. Narita airport is a nightmare, starting with the long queues at immigration (in a hot stuffy room) to the long ride from the airport to central Tokyo. Narita lies 57.5 kilometres (35.7 miles) from Tokyo Station (a taxi will cost over US$200, the Narita Express train costs around US$30 and takes slightly over an hour). Haneda Airport by contrast is only 14 kilometres (8.7 miles) from Tokyo Station and is much smaller than Narita so you are spared the endless wait at immigration.
(2) Get a Japan Rail Pass (or JR Pass) before you go to Japan. The JR Pass is available to foreign visitors and is sold only outside Japan. It allows you to travel on trains at a big discount. First, buy an Exchange Order from a travel agent outside Japan or via the Japan Rail Pass website. Determine how long you are going to be traveling inside Japan and which class (first or standard) you wish to buy. Second, when you arrive in Japan, you can go directly to the JR office inside the airport building to get the actual Japan Rail Pass. You cannot use the Exchange Order to travel by train, you must exchange it at the JR office for a Japan Rail Pass.
(3) Get a Suica Card. You can get the Suica card together with a Narita Express ticket at Narita Airport. There will be a small amount deposited in your Suica card for a couple of trips in the Tokyo metro (you will have to top it up at the metro station later). You can also get the Suica card at the Japan Rail office where you get your JR Pass. The Suica card that allows you to travel in the Tokyo metro. You swipe your card on top of the electronic gate when you enter and leave. You add more money to the card at any Suica/Pasmo machine. This will save you a lot of time and money because you don’t have to buy a ticket every time you want to use the metro. The Suica card also functions as a prepaid/debit card at 7-11, FamilyMart, Watsons, Circle K convenience stores (many of these conveniences stores are open 24 hours a day and have delicious snacks like onigiri rice balls). You can also buy food and drink in metro and train stations using the Suica card.
NOTE: If you forget to buy the Suica card at the airport, you can get it inside the metro stations.
(4) Take a bicycle tour whether you are in the city or the countryside. I know, you’re asking: Cycling in Tokyo? Yes, it’s easy to cycle in Tokyo. Hundreds of people do it everyday. The best way to cover a lot of ground, as a visitor, and to see things you’ll never see by yourself, is to join a bicycle tour. I took the Tokyo Great Cycling Tour, which starts around 9:30 in the morning and ends around 3:30 in the afternoon. It sounds like a long tiring ride but it’s not difficult. They stop in a lot of places including the Tsukiji Fish Market. There are two guides who speak English; they also provide bento box lunches and bottled water. I went on their “Tokyo Bay Ride” on a hot, sunny Saturday morning and we stopped at several shrines and temples. We stopped at the Tokyo Tower (the older one that looks like the Eiffel Tower), crossed many bridges, had lunch at Odaiba and ended at the Imperial Palace. Tokyo Great Cycling Tour has other itineraries in Tokyo. You must reserve in advance because Tokyo Great Cycling Tour is very popular.
(5) Go to a Japanese restaurant whose menus and signs are only in Japanese. Don’t worry, you won’t get poisoned. Most likely you’ll find the experience exciting and slightly terrifying, but you’ll have a good time. You might want to bring a small list of Japanese words for different kinds of fish, meat and vegetables. I never bother. If I see a lot of people (or shoes outside), I know it’s got to be good. Then, I go in and say, “omakase”, which means “I leave it to you”. If the menu has drawings of fish or noodle bowls or meat, then I point to the drawing, if I prefer a particular type of dish. Most people who work in restaurants understand English and most young people speak some English so it’s not as difficult as you imagine.
(6) Stay in a ryokan. The Japanese ryokan — their version of the bed and breakfast — will be one of the most vivid memories of your trip to Japan. Do not opt for a Western style room; make sure you book a Japanese style room which means you sleep on a futon rolled out in the evening on the beautiful tatami mat. You will have a Japanese breakfast, served in your room if you are staying in a very small ryokan, or in the ryokan’s dining room, if it’s a larger ryokan. The best part of it all is the Japanese bath for the ryokan’s guests. There are separate baths for men and women. Once inside you must first shampoo and wash yourself (you will see a row of stools next to shower heads) before entering the small hot, steaming, shallow pool.
(7) In Tokyo, explore the small streets in Ebisu and Daikanyama. Most people get stuck in Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ginza, which are very busy and bewildering. Ebisu and Daikanyama have small winding streets lined with patisseries, boulangeries, cafes and restaurants, many of which are frequented only by locals. I have found the quality of the food in these small places, run by the owners themselves, to be much better. For shopping, Daikanyama and Ebisu have many small independent boutiques where you can find clothes, shoes, bags, and other accessories for a truly individual and unique look. Many of the pieces are of high quality and made in Japan. They are much less expensive and better made than designer brand merchandise that, unfortunately, is often made in China (the high prices say nothing about the quality).
(8) Prepare to use cash (not credit cards) more often than in your home country. I was surprised at how many places that don’t accept credit cards (note: most taxis in Tokyo do take credit cards), so make sure you always have cash with you. The only cash machines that take foreign ATM cards are Citibank ATMs and the ATMs inside 7-Eleven stores. This is especially important when you visit Nikko because there isn’t a single ATM that takes a foreign card between the train station and the temples. You will also need to pay for your train ticket (Tokyo-Nikko) with cash.
(9) Tipping is not practised in Japan.
(10) Rent an iPhone from SoftBank (which has stores in airports and in cities). Unless you have a quad-band phone, you will need to rent a mobile phone in Japan. The iPhone is the best option because you can use the Google Maps function with GPS even if the mobile data function is turned off.
Why is this important? Finding an address in a city like Tokyo is time-consuming and confusing even for Japanese people. An address in Tokyo consists of 3 numbers (like this 2-7-18) and the name of the area (e.g. Ebisu). The three numbers stand for the city district (chome)-block (ban)-house number (go). Block and house numbers have no relation to their position on the street. What I mean is, house no. 1 is not next to house no. 2. Block 3 is not next to Block 4. Most shops and restaurants will be in a building with a name — memorize the building name. It will help you find your destination because building names are displayed prominently outside the buildings. Most streets in Tokyo do not have street names. Therefore, if you are trying to find a shop or a restaurant, use the Google Maps function on your rental iPhone which utilizes the phone’s GPS. Let it guide you to your destination (and remember the building name, too, if it was given to you). I’ve seen so many Japanese people in Tokyo staring into their iPhones, walking along the street following the Google Map directions with GPS.