Japan is one of the most unique countries I have ever visited. It is one of those places which makes you change. You feel like a different person after you return, or at least that was my experience. From the culture, breath-taking nature, mind-boggling efficiency, sophisticated taste, to people's humility, everything is different from our way of living in North America.
There are thousands of online content sharing tips and the must-see places for travellers visiting Japan for the first time. The sheer number of information available on this topic explains the uniqueness of Japan, and the degree of bewilderment experience by the poor tourists when planning a trip to Japan.
In this post, I am going over some of the tips for those who are planning to travel to Japan, which significantly enhanced my trip. Similar to many other first-time travellers, I read many articles and blogs before travelling to Japan, which not only did not help me but on the other hand, misguided me during my trip. So, I am also including some notes for the misconceptions about this beautiful country.
Flying to Japan
If you are able to get on a direct flight, definitely do that! It is worth the extra cost as the flight is very long, and if you are travelling from West, you will be losing almost a whole day when you arrive. So if you're going for a couple of days or even weeks, considering the time difference, the initial jet lag and the exhaustion of travelling, it is worth paying an extra than losing you precious travel time.
Airbnb is not allowed in both Tokyo and Kyoto, or as they say "it's frown upon by the traditional Japanese people". Most of the hosts will ask you not to linger in the common areas for too long, make noise, or even mention Airbnb to the neighbours. However, there are many affordable Airbnb listings that are a fraction of the cost of staying at a lousy hotel. , Japanese people are the least nosy people in the world, so the chance of a neighbour interrogating you is extremely low, and if you are encountered by a neighbour, it will be accompanied by a very respectful and welcoming greeting in Japanese.
One thing to consider is that most Airbnb rentals in Tokyo and Kyoto are significantly small, which is how the locals live. After all, Tokyo is one of the most populated cities in the world. Despite the small size of the apartments, they are very well-equipped. Also, don't be surprised by the disproportionately generous size of the toilets compared to the rest of the apartment. In fact, one of the striking differences evident everywhere in Japan is their elaborate toilets. They are clean and high-tech with tons of gadgets and buttons to adjust the temperature and pressure. They even include a privacy button which plays a music so you can do your job, with no pressure!! As I said, Japan is truly a unique place! :)
My most IMPORTANT and LIFE-SAVING tip that I want to share with you is for all travellers visiting Japan to get a JR Pass! It saves you hundreds of dollars, and you can travel to any city in Japan with the same pass. For the two weeks that I stayed in Japan, I paid $500 CAD for a two-week pass which allowed me to take the express train from Narita Airport to Shibuya (Where I stayed for the first few days), have unlimited access to the Yamanote Metro line (which covers most of the stations you'd be visiting as a visitor to Tokyo), and take the bullet train (Shinkansen) to Kyoto and back to Tokyo. You can use your pass for JR lines and buses stretched across all of Japan, and if you want to take the Bullet train to other cities to further explore this beautiful country or have day trips, you will not be charged.
Tip 4: How to get your JR Pass
You need to apply for a JR Pass from your home country before you travel to Japan. Once you arrive at the Narita airport, there is an office with a big sign "JR Pass" where you can fill out a form and receive your pass. The great thing is that the agents there speak in English and can guide you to get to the city from the airport, and if you want to travel around Japan they would even book your Bullet train (Shinkansen) for you.
Most tourists have the misconception that commuting in Japan is very confusing, as all the signs and stops are in Japanese and no one speaks English. Well, I was surprised by how easy it was for me to find my way to the city once I arrived at the airport and travel around. When you get on the Express Train at Narita Airport, everything is announced in English and all the stations are written in English as well as Japanese. Even all the Metro lines include the English version of the stations and the train operators announce it in English before every stop. So commuting around Japan (or at least Tokyo and Kyoto) is very straightforward. Besides, many places have wifi, even bars and restaurants, so if you're stuck, Google Map can be to your rescue.
One of the biggest attractions of Japan for tourists is the cuisine. From the comforting ramen to gorgeously presented sushi, to Japanese tapas, there are myriads of options for everyone. Most of the Japanese dishes are well-known to American and Europeans so what I am including here is not what to eat, but tips to enhance your dinning experience in Japan.
Surprisingly, coffee is quite expensive in Japan. There are many cafes and 7-Elevens selling coffee but the prices range from $3 to $6 for a cup of coffee. So after a few days, I found these pre-packed coffee selling for about $2 serving more than 15 cups of drip coffee.The way it works is that they have grips where you can place it in a cup and pour hot water over it to make a fresh cup of coffee. (I don't mean instant coffee! Those are disgusting!) Here's a video on Youtube that shows how it works.
With the fast-paced lifestyle and the small residential spaces, Japanese people mostly eat out. However, the produce in Japan is amazing. From hundred kinds of seafood to exotic vegetables and fruits, you can find everything you need to cook a beautiful dish, if you are staying at an Airbnb as most of them have well-equipped kitchens.
With the abundance of restaurants at every corner serving mouth-watering dishes, it is very hard to resist eating out all the time when you're visiting Japan. But, one thing to consider is that Japanese cuisine has high amounts of sodium, MSG, and fat and the dishes are usually not served with fresh salad. Vegetables are usually used as a garnish for dishes in small amounts. After a week, if you are a healthy eater like me, it is advisable to try eating at home having some healthy food options like a simple salad to avoid getting an upset stomach.
I am a huge foodie and one of the major reasons for my travel to Japan was to explore the cuisine. And, I have to say I was not disappointed. In Tokyo, you can find amazing restaurants at every corner of every street, all filled with people starting at 8 pm until after midnight. My tip is not to waste your time researching for restaurants before you go to Japan, but get there and walk around and just try out the ones that resonate with you. Google Map is definitely a good tool to check for restaurant reviews there before you go in. One more thing to do before going in is to make sure the restaurant has an English menu from the get-go.
I am dedicating my next blog post to the must-see places in Tokyo and Kyoto. But, here I have just one tip when it comes to how to spend your days and nights in Japan which is my final tip for first-time travellers to Japan.
There are thousands of blogs and articles on the popular places in Tokyo or Kyoto and it's easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. So I have only one tip. Do not limit yourself and your experience in Japan by trying to visit all the touristy places. Just walk around and check out what's around you. Take the subway and go to another station and start exploring that neighbourhood. Chances are you will see some cute little streets filled with tiny stores and unique restaurants and cafes. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world so you will not get in trouble if you follow your curious mind. The most memorable places I've visited in both Tokyo and Kyoto were not the ones included in other travel guides, but those I accidentally came across. Make sure to wear some comfortable shoes and get ready to walk for hours every day and get mesmerized by the beautiful scenery, tasteful stores, and cute little bars and restaurants.