HOW TO: Arriving in Japan
How to ensure your arrival into Japan is as stress free as possible with some pre-departure tasks.
TRAVEL TIPSTRAVEL PLANNINGASIA
Planning a trip to Japan can be an exciting and enriching experience. From the vibrant city of Tokyo to the serene temples of Kyoto, Japan offers a unique blend of ancient traditions and modern innovation. However, navigating a foreign country can sometimes be daunting, especially if you don't speak the local language or are unfamiliar with the customs.
To ensure a confident and stress-free arrival in Japan, it's essential to do some work before your trip. Here are some essentials to take care of before you go:
Buy your JR Pass
If you plan to do any sort of travel around Japan then you will likely be going by train. The Shinkansen is Japan's high speed rail, or bullet train, and is the world's fastest train taking you from city to city with ease and efficiency. It is truly the best way to get around Japan. Buying a pass will allow you to save time not having to buy tickets while you are there & save you money as they are typically going to cost you less bundling as one ticket, especially if you plan to visit a few places and do some day trips in between.
There are two types of JR Passes - The National Pass and various Regional Passes.
The National JR Pass is just that, it allows you Unlimited Travel through the whole of Japan on one pass in either a 7, 14, or 21 day stretch of time. Once you activate the pass, your time starts. So, is important to determine exactly when to activate the pass depending on how long you are in Japan & how you plan to navigate throughout the country. You can also purchase "Ordinary" or "Green Class" seats. Green Class is their Premium seating option is in a private cabin with more luggage storage and comes with more comfortable, wider seats and included amenities such as snacks, drinks & hand towels. However, most travelers feel like Ordinary seating is fine. It can just be more crowded on the more popular routes such as between Osaka and Tokyo, etc.
There are many Regional JR Passes all over the country. One of the most common for first time tourists being the Osaka-Tokyo Hokuriku Arch Pass. This covers Tokyo, Kyoto & Osaka. There are pros and cons to purchasing a Regional JR Pass vs a National JR Pass. The biggest pro being Cost, while some of the cons including it only comes in a 7 day pass and it is not a loop, but an Arch just as it indicates. So, if you are flying round trip out of Tokyo then you would have to navigate yourself back to Tokyo on your own and purchase another ticket, or go all the way back which would take extra time. There are many other Regional JR Passes all throughout the country and if you only plan on staying within one zone for a shorter amount of time, they are very beneficial since the cost is much lower.
It is important to purchase your JR Pass ahead of time so it can get sent to your home before you depart. As a Travel Advisor, I would ensure my clients purchase their JR Pass at least 6-8 weeks in advance. It would likely be one of the first things we got out of the way if we knew they were planning on traveling around the country since we don’t need to have set hotels to at least get our JR Passes secured.
Japan was the first country I ever experienced Pocket Wi-Fi and I was forever changed as it was immensely useful. Pocket Wi-Fi is pretty much just what it sounds like. A little brick of you carry around with you that provides you with Wi-Fi. It is very small and lightweight, so calling it a brick is not the best term - but it is something you will need to carry with you. Typically it is no bigger than a portable charger. After you conveniently pick up your Pocket Wi-Fi at the airport and get it activated, you are then provided with unlimited Wi-Fi for up to 5 devices simultaneously that works anywhere. This allows you to navigate yourself using the local subway systems, or walking along the streets from place to place. To keep in touch with friends and family back home and to upload all the incredible photos you took on Instagram to make all your friends, neighbors, co-workers and ex's jealous.
While, yes, you can purchase a plan from your own carrier. Pocket Wi-Fi is going to save you money in the long run - even if you don't have anyone to split the cost with. The typical cost of International Data with a US Carrier is $10/day. So, if you are in Japan for 10 days, that is $100 per person. Currently, 10 days of Pocket Wi-Fi is $83, and again that is if you are not splitting it with anyone. I personally don't suggest splitting it with up to 5 people as after 5gb/day of high-speed data your data speed declines, but essentially if you are just using it for the basics, you can. I split it with one other girl and we had more than enough data but we also were not on social media 24/7, so take my experience as you will. My guess is 2-3 people would be the sweet spot.
Optional: Meet & Greet Service
Think of this as your very own personal assistant upon arrival into Japan. With Meet & Greet Service you will immediately be taken care of as soon as you land as someone will be waiting for you right after you enter the Arrivals area of the airport. They will help you exchange your JR Pass, get your Pocket Wi-Fi, take care of exchanging money if you'd like, or taking money out of an ATM if needed. Anything you need to that can be extremely confusing at first upon arrival and that can add extra unnecessary time in the airport before ensuring you are confident in getting to where you need to go. Whether that is via the airport train into the city, taking the Shinkansen right away to another city to start your trek around the country, or if you are getting picked up by a hotel van, they will ensure you are taken care of door-to-door. You do not need to worry about dealing with language barriers, if that is something that worries you upon arrival.
This service is available at both Tokyo Airports (Narita & Haneda) and Osaka's Kansai airport and is ideal for families, first time travelers to Japan, business travelers and pretty much anyone that wants an efficient arrival. It is suggested you book your Meet & Greet service at least 5 days prior to arrival, but I would suggest at least a week to be on the safe side and ensure availability as Japan continues to increase tourist visitation every year.
Download Useful Apps
Assuming you already have Google Maps downloaded to help you get around (since this what you will need to navigate yourself anywhere, include the metro!) I'll focus on some other that are either Japan specific, or you may not already have downloaded that would help make your trip easier. I am going to split these into two lists, The Essentials & The Extras.
Suica Card (APPLE, GOOGLE PLAY) - The Suica card will allow you to tap in & out of the train stations, as well as pay for things in convenient stores and various other things around the country. It is a time saver and honestly, a necessity. It can also be used in other parts of the country where they use other e-cards for Public Transportation such as: Pasmo, Kitaca, Nimoca, Icoca, Toica & more. So, don't think twice. Download your Suica Card & add it to your Apple Wallet (if you have an iPhone).
Google Translate (APPLE, GOOGLE PLAY) - This is a very useful tool when communicating with someone who does not speak the same language as you. Additionally, if you hover over or take a photo of something such as a menu or any anything with writing, it will translate the words into whatever language you need. As a vegetarian, this app has saved me from eating something I shouldn't have many times, and allowed me to politely inform people of my dietary restrictions.
I also suggest using this to know some basic words and phrases such as hello & other greetings (good morning/afternoon/evening), goodbye, thank you, please, how much (when purchasing something), where is the bathroom, pardon me/excuse me. At least making an attempt at using the native language of the place you're in goes to show your respect to where you are traveling.
Ramen Beast (APPLE) - Going to Japan and getting an authentic, delicious bowl of Ramen is likely on your to-do list. However, there are a lot of tourist traps. So, Ramen Beast is a great resource for you to research different local shops to not fall victim to the traps. This is very niche, but if you don't eat Ramen in Japan... there is no helping you, I am sorry.
GuruNavi (APPLE, GOOGLE PLAY) - We can talk more about food and not just specifically Ramen, I guess. But this is your go-to on finding more authentic, locally vetted spots to eat in Japan. Think if it like Japan's version of Yelp. It tells you so much information like type of cuisine, budget, hours of operation, if they take credit card or are cash only, recommended dishes, how to get there, etc. It is a great resource for good food during your time there.
Ecbo Cloak (APPLE, GOOGLE PLAY) - Japan is all about efficiency, convenience & experience. So when I explain what this app does, have those thoughts in mind. This app is a luggage storage finder. While you might think this is not necessary, it is extremely useful to not have to cart your luggage through train stations (Tokyo being the world's busiest), or the entire city for the entire day after check out and prior to check in at your next place. You can pop in your location and find the nearest luggage storage location, or find one close to where you will wind up - the world is your oyster. But again, something like this is just so extremely useful and helps your experience as a whole be all the much better.
There are plenty of other apps that will help you during your time, but I felt these were really the most useful and I did not want to suggest multiple navigation or translation apps when it is truly not necessary if one does the job sufficiently.
Welcome to Japan
So there you have it. As a Travel Advisor, these are the most important steps I would ensure my clients take before their trip to feel more confident and prepared when arriving in Japan to make it feel a bit less daunting. Once you are there and settled in with all of this stuff taken care of, remember to embrace the unique experiences and immerse yourself in the rich culture of this fascinating country. Allow yourself some time for wiggle room, as I have always had my best travel experiences when I have had no plans and Japan is great place for that. I always encourage people (even the most Type A of personalities!) to allow for some time with nothing to do so you can just see where you find yourself. Happy travels!
I would love to work with you to plan your travel experience to Japan as it is one of my all time favorite destinations. If you are looking for a JNTO Japan Advance Master's Travel Specialist to plan your trip, please reach out to me today!
As a Travel Advisor and Advanced Master's Travel Specialist with JNTO, I am affiliated with JR Pass and if you click & use any of the JR Pass specific links in this post, I do get a very small commission. Other Links in this post are not commission links and are provided to you for your convenience.