Travel tips for Japan (mostly Tokyo)

We’ve just got back from our second trip to Japan. We spent 9 nights in Tokyo before going to Fuji Rock Festival (in Niigata Prefecture) and finishing up with a few days in Osaka/Kyoto.

A few people said to me they’re thinking of going to Japan soon so I thought I’d put together a few tips we’ve picked up along the way (mostly about Tokyo). If you’re going to Japan, I hope they help; if you’re thinking about going, DO IT!

I’ve split this post up into two parts: the important (boring) stuff like weather, trains and money; and fun stuff such as where you can drive go karts on the streets of Tokyo, buy vinyl records, or find an all you can eat KFC.

The Important stuff

Summer in Japan can be sweltering 

Being a Queenslander I wasn’t worried about going to Japan during Summer. How hot could it be? Answer: VERY HOT. It was humid with temps in the high thirties for most of our trip. Admittedly this was during a record-breaking heatwave that hospitalised 70,000 people, but still, if you don’t like humidity, avoid southern Japan in July or August (which is also typhoon season).

Take cash everywhere

Last time we were in Japan (2013), hardly anywhere accepted credit cards, and finding an ATM that took Australian cards was like a real life game of Where’s Wally. Weirdly, many of the ATMs were only open during business hours. Things have improved a lot now, but there are still lots of places that only take cash, so it’s a good idea to always have at least ¥10,000 ($125 AUD) on you.

The trains are excellent (but confusing)

Japan’s railways are fast, efficient and ultra-punctual (make sure to experience the shinkansen or bullet train). They can also be confusing. The Tokyo route map looks like someone threw a bowl of Spaghetti at a map, while major stations can be disorientating labyrinths of train lines, platforms and exits.

To get around Tokyo, get yourself a Suica card (and a JR Rail Pass if you’re doing lots of long-distance travel), map your journeys out in advance with the Google Maps app, and allow double the time you think you’ll need to change trains. Be careful which train you get on—we once got on a ‘Rapid’ instead of a ‘Commuter Rapid’ and ended up missing our stop by 40 kilometres…

English isn’t as widely spoken as you might expect

Surprisingly, English is not as widely spoken or understood in Japan compared to many other popular international destinations where English isn’t the primary language. People in Tokyo and other major cities will usually know some English, and English signage is generally good in tourist areas, but it’s good to have the Google Translate App installed on your phone.

Convenience stores are your friend

While you wouldn’t buy a sandwich from a convenience store in Australia unless you’re trying to test your body’s resistance to salmonella, Japanese convenience stores sell cheap and tasty pre-packaged meals including bento boxes, noodle bowls and rice balls. They usually have microwaves too, making it a convenient way to get a cheap meal.

Airbnb and Uber in Japan

Uber is only in Tokyo, but there’s no need to use it. Trains cover most places you’ll need to go, and if you do need to get a taxi it’s actually not a horrible experience like it is everywhere else on earth. The taxis are clean, and the drivers are polite and won’t rip you off. Install the JapanTaxi app (iOS, Android), and try to have the address of where you’re going written down in Japanese.

As for Airbnb, there are lots of good places to stay (our Airbnb in Osaka was the best place we stayed in), but a recent new law saw the removal of about 50,000 listings, so before you book check with the Airbnb that they have permission to operate.

The fun stuff

Weird and whacky things to do

I recommend spending a night in a capsule hotel, go-karting on the streets of Tokyo, and visiting a cat cafe. Other cheap and fun things to do include getting photos at a Japanese photo booth (¥400 or $5 AUD) and wandering through Don Quijote, which is sort of like a 24-hour all-in-one Costco / Chemist Warehouse / Reject Shop and a great place to buy cheap little gifts for people. Oh, and if you’re in Osaka, there’s an all-you-can-eat KFC

There is good coffee if you go looking for it

Hot canned coffee (weird, right?) and drip coffee are popular in Japan, but there’s an increasingly good speciality coffee scene too. Kannon Coffee based in Nagoya is excellent, and the coffee at Kamon Hostel in Osaka was really good too. You will find good coffee if you look hard enough for it, otherwise, Japanese Starbucks is at least better than Starbucks in most countries and will serve up a passable cup of coffee with a smile (and free Wi-Fi).

God’s nectar: Pocari Sweat

Thirsty? Drink Pocari Sweat. Feeling hot? Drink Pocari Sweat. Hungover? Drink Pocari Sweat. What is it you ask? Well it’s an “ion supply drink” according to the bottle, but I’d describe as being a slightly salty, slightly sweet sports drink with a hint of lemon/grapefruit flavour to it. It’s refreshing and addictive. It has a blue and white label and you can buy it anywhere.

Tokyo is a paradise for record collectors 

Tokyo’s record stores are amazing, offering huge varieties of second-hand records impeccably packaged and graded at much cheaper prices than in Australia. If you’re into vinyl, it’s definitely worth paying for extra baggage and spending a day crate-digging. The best place to start is the cluster of Disk Unions in Shinjuku (each catering to a specific genre). If you have more time, check out this exhaustive guide here.

If you like sport, go to a J-League game

Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any Sumo, but we did see the Yakult Swallows (baseball) and FC Tokyo (J-League soccer) play. Definitely recommend the soccer—the fans never stop singing, the football is good quality, and you can get a cold beer without having to leave your seat. Plus with the likes of Iniesta and Torres plying their trade in Japan you might even get to see a footballing superstar play. Find out how to get to a game here.

Duty free shopping is everywhere

Take your passport everywhere, because more and more stores are offering duty free shopping to tourists (which means you don’t have to pay Japan’s 8% consumption tax on purchases over ¥5000). Just look for the tax-free shopping sign and present your passport at the register. Speaking of duty free, the range of alcohol at Tokyo’s Narita Airport was pretty ordinary, so if you’re looking to buy Japanese whiskey or anything else, do it before you get to the airport.