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.

One Night in a Japanese Capsule Hotel

Part of the allure of travelling around Japan comes from the weirdness that you see while you are there. A good example of this ‘only in Japan’ strangeness are the capsule hotels (or kapuseru hoteru as the locals call them) which are dotted around the major cities.

These hotels began to spring up in the late seventies as a cheap and convenient place for ‘salarymen’ (Japanese businessmen) to spend the night if they had missed the last train home after an evening spent boozing with colleagues. Somewhat sadly though, in recent times they’ve also become last-ditch, low-cost temporary housing for those ruined by the Global Financial Crisis. 

Bank of capsules at the Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside.

Staying in a capsule hotel has been on my bucket list ever since a friend stayed in one last year, and last week I was able to make it happen during a holiday to Tokyo. There are at least fifty or so capsule hotels in Japan, and so it was hard to decide which one to stay in. In the end though the obvious choice was the Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside – one of the few that caters for both men and women, and therefore provided both myself and my partner and travelling companion the opportunity to sample this unusual slice of contemporary Japan.

After catching the subway to Asusaka station, we walked a couple of hundred metres to find the hotel, something which was easier said than done. There is actually no signage for the capsule hotel whatsoever, and you instead enter via a building adorned with signage for the Hotel New Gyominso which shares the same building and reception.

Home for the night.

We stepped inside, a little unsure what to expect, and were met with a faded 1970s decor and the smell of stale cigarette smoke.The bloke behind the reception desk checked us in, and handed us our keys with a glint in his eyes that seemed to convey the uniqueness of the accommodation that we were about to experience. “I hope you enjoy it”, he said, half-grinning.

Shoes and socks safely secured in the ground floor lockers,  and glorious plastic hotel provided slippers on our feet, we went our separate ways (men and women stay on different floors for safety reasons). I took the lift to Level 4, got out, and walked through the door that read ‘Capsule Hotel Entrance’.

Each floor can hold a couple of dozen guests.

Through a small common area with toilets and lockers was the capsule room itself, featuring two banks of half-a-dozen or so green, plastic capsules stacked two rows high. Most of them seemed vacant and aside from a couple of curious westerners the place seemed pretty empty.

Eager to try my modular plastic capsule out, I hopped inside and found it surprisingly roomy. I could comfortably sit up, however it was not very long and even my short 5 ft 8″ frame only fit with a couple of inches to spare. The capsule was furnished with a thin mattress, pillow, an ancient radio unit and a small television which offered up nothing but static, something which added to the eeriness of it all. There was no Wi-Fi, no power outlet, and no actual door – just a thin curtain that could be pulled down to give some privacy.

Wearing the hotel provided pyjamas. Stylish.

Elsewhere in the hotel there was not much to get excited about. There is a common room on Level 2 with nothing much of note in it save for a couple of gaming machines obscured by clouds of cigarette smoke. Up on Level 9 was a beer vending machine, a balcony with views of the Sumida River (you can see the Tokyo Skytree poking up behind a building), and the bathing facilities.

There are no western-style showering facilities at the hotel – just a Japanese-style onsen (communal hot bath) and sauna which I made use of after a long and weary day traipsing through Tokyo. In true onsen tradition, you have to leave your clothes at the door and the communal bathing all takes place in the raw. It is a bit weird but when in Rome …

There’s no kitchen facilities or on-site restaurant – but you can buy a beer any hour of the day.

After finishing up I dried myself down and put on the hideous green pyjamas that are supplied by the hotel before returning to my capsule for some reading before bed. With the light-bulb blazing and the cover down at the end it soon started to get quite warm inside and I had to switch the light off and open up the cover to let some air in before hitting the hay for the night.

What followed next was a fairly difficult night of sleep. The mattress cannot have been more than a couple of centimetres thick and sat directly on top of the hard plastic of the capsule. It took me a few hours to get to sleep and I woke up uncomfortably a couple of times during the night.

As poor as the quality of sleep may be, and as daggy as the hotel itself is, I cannot recommend a night at the Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside enough. It is a truly, truly unique experience and one that I would encourage any curious travellers to Japan to experience.

Completely Purrfect – Tokyo’s Calico Cat Café

There are approximately eight hundred million cafés in Brisbane. It seems that you can’t walk a block in an any trendy inner city suburb without encountering one. There are cafés in bookshops, cafés hidden down lane-ways, cafés in disused garages, vegan cafés and crappy major chain cafés (hello Coffee Club). But one thing that you absolutely will not find in Brisbane is a café populated by 53 living, breathing, purring felines.

For that you will need to take a trip to Japan – as I did recently – and head to one of the many ‘cat cafés’ where you can pay-by-the-hour to pat cats while enjoying a bite to eat or something to drink. It seems strange to Australians accustomed to the wide expanses of suburbia, but it is a concept which has thrived in cuteness-obsessed Japan where pet ownership is often prohibited in the tiny apartments that many Japanese live in.

Sign outside the Calico Cat Café in Shinjuku
Calico Cat Café – one of apparently 39 cat cafes in Tokyo

Wikipedia’s article on cat cafés makes an unattributed claim that there are 39 of them in Tokyo alone (interestingly, one Tokyo café recently introduced a goat). They are an increasingly popular curiosity for western tourists, particularly since well-documented visits by Katy Perry and Karl Pilkington to the Hapineko Cat Café. One of the most well-known cat cafés in Tokyo though is the Calico Cat Café (猫カフェ きゃりこ) in Shinjuku, and it was this café that I visited last week.

Finding the place was not easy, but it was made harder by some confusing directions online. The best and easiest way to find the cafe is to take a JR train to Shinjuku, exit through the East Exit, and walk down the street to the left of the Studio Alta department store. Walk two blocks until you get to the very busy and wide Yasukuni Dori street. Cross the street and turn right – you’ll find the café on the 5th and 6th levels of the third building down from the corner.

Once you find the café and walk in you are greeted by the staff and presented with a card in English that outlines the rules and how it all works. The main rules are that there is no picking up the cats, no holding them in your arms and no annoying them as they sleep. You pay ¥1200 (about $AUD14) for the first hour and then ¥150 (about $2) per ten minutes after that, plus any snacks that you buy for either yourself or the cats.

Miniature fedoras and witches hats are provided for you to dress the cats with
Finding the place isn’t easy – look up and look out for the brown signage

After placing your shoes in the provided lockers, washing and sanitizing your hands (a process you repeat on your way out – it’s all very, very clean) and putting on the provided slippers, you enter the cat café and are met with the bizarre sight of literally dozens of cats. They are all over the place – inside cat boxes, playing on cat trees, sitting on specially made shelves, and lounging around on cat furniture.

The café itself occupies two stories, with the lower floor catering for both human and feline appetites with a selection of food and beverages available for humans and small containers of chicken meat for the cats. For humans there are books and videos and an Xbox, but obviously the big attraction is the cats and most of the customers (mostly young Japanese couples – there are only a couple of western tourists who are leaving as we arrive) can be seen playing with or feeding the cats.

It’s surprisingly peaceful in the café and the cats seem to live in harmony. Only the Singapura offers up any aggro. The Singapura is one of the world’s smallest breeds and has an exceedingly friendly temperament, but they can be aggressive little bastards. My parents have one and it too engages in Mike Tyson levels of aggression whenever another cat comes within a twenty metre radius.

The cat’s don’t seem bothered by their human visitors – reactions range from ambivalence to bemusement
Sleeping. There is a lot of this going on at the Café.

As you might expect from an animal which sleeps anywhere up to 20 hours per day, many of the felines are asleep. For the most part they don’t show a lot of interest in the customers – that is until you buy them a small container of chicken meat upon which point you’re suddenly their best friend!

As mentioned earlier there is food and drink available for human consumption too but we passed up on that to spend more time with the cats. In total we and hour at the café, playing with the cats, feeding them, putting hats on them, and talking to the friendly staff who are versed enough in English to passionately talk about the cats.

It’s a bizarre but wonderful hour spent in the company of Calico Cat Café’s 53 cats – after all, how can you not be happy when you’re putting a miniature fedora on a Burmese?