In the previous post, we covered some of the aspects of planning the trip we felt were important to prepare you for the journey. In this post, we will review some of the things we discovered about traveling while you are in Japan. Hopefully these tips can make your travels easier.
1. Getting to where you are staying from the airport
If you arrive at Narita Airport (where most international flights arrive), the best place to get to where you are staying is the Narita Express. This limited express train gets you from Narita to Tokyo area locations. You can make reservations online, which is remitted at Narita, or you can make the reservation once you arrive in Japan.
We recommend Googling the station nearest your hotel, and determining the distance between the two. If you are unsure of how to get to the hotel from the train station, we recommend taking a taxi. Tell the driver the name of your hotel, and they will know how to get there. The taxi stands are clearly marked, though it is possible that some cabbies may shy away from transporting foreigners (try not to take it personally). Taking a taxi after a long flight might be the easiest way to conclude your travel day.
2. Using Mobile Devices in Japan
During our previous two trips to Japan, we simply used our phones with an international data plan from Verizon. The plan, for $10 USD a day, we made calls, texted and surfed the Web, using Verizon partner networks. Each day we used data on our phones, we were charged the $10; if we didn’t, we were not charged. Our 8 day stays therefore cost $80 for data, text and call. In most places, the cell coverage was sufficient to meet our needs. However, there were times when the drop off in coverage caused some issues using a Google Maps while using the Tokyo area trains.
In preparation for our upcoming return to Japan, I have been researching alternatives. Using a SIM card with my locked iPhone appears to be more of a hassle than it’s worth, but others have been ingenious to work with the iPhone to get the SIM cards to work.
The other alternative seems more attractive: a portable WiFi router. Research points to the same provider as being the best in Japan: Japan Wireless. For our 8 day visit, the cost would be about $60 USD. When we experiment with this option during our next rip, we will provide more information.
3. Using Tokyo area trains
If you plan to use train services in the city in which you’re staying, get a Suica card. The card can be obtained at any JR East station, and can be used on JR East trains, subways and buses, as well as some vending machines and taxis. We found the card to be invaluable when navigating the subway. On our first trip to Tokyo, we used tickets obtained at a kiosk. This approach meant accurately determining your destination beforehand, and tabulating the cost before getting the tickets. This approach proved cumbersome, and my brother’s research provided a better alternative.
The Suica card can be purchased at any JR Rail or local/regional train station, at the black kiosks, which have English buttons. You can preload any amount up to 10,000 yen (which is roughly $100 USD), and you are ready to go. The Suica card can be used at any turnstile labeled with IC, even if it is Passmo or other service is in the area, as well as any Tokyo Metro train. Just swipe the card as you enter the station, and swipe out as you exit (much like metro areas in the US). The card doesn’t expire, and you can reload the card at the train station as well.
Make sure you have Google Maps on your phone before you get to Japan. We discovered that this app provides incredibly detailed information about train service. For example, after choosing your starting point and destination, selecting the train option tells you which train to catch, on which platform and when the next train arrives
It might save you some time and stress if you review your route choices in Google Maps BEFORE you travel. Japanese trains stations can be difficult to navigate, even for locals. Leave yourself some time to acquaint yourself with the station, and don’t be surprised if you experience some frustration trying to navigate the station. Don’t worry too much; you’ll figure it out.
Finally, it is worth noting (for people who have difficulty getting around) that there are not many places to sit in Japanese train stations. Fortunately, there are usually escalators within the stations, but you can still expect to have to climb stairs in Japan.
4. Using the Bullet Train (Shinkansen)
If you have not done so , you want to plan your travels on the Shinkansen. Japan Rail (JR) operates bullet trains on JR East and JR Central, the lines you are mostly like to use. As mentioned earlier, there are two good sites to use when planning your travels (for travel from Tokyo and east, for travel from Tokyo and west).
To begin your journey on the bullet train, take your JapanRail pass and make a reservation at the nearest JR Rail Ticket Office (or Travel Service Center). Tell the representative the your destination and preferred travel time, and you will be issued a ticket for a reserved seat. For a Green Card holders, your reservation will be in a first class car, which are typically less crowded and quieter (which, for me, was worth the upgrade). Making a reservation guarantees you seat; otherwise, you may not get a seat on the train car you wish.
Check the information boards for your track (if the representative does not tell you). From what I’ve seen, all of the train information is displayed in Japanese AND English. Head to the gate, and once you arrive, keep to the right of the turnstiles. Show your JapanRail Pass to the JR representative, who will wave you through. At the gate, you will see lines on the floor, showing you where to stand for entry into your car number (listed on the ticket). If you have a Green Card, there is a good chance you will need to look for Car 8.
Once aboard, find your seat. If you are carrying luggage, be aware that you can carry 2 pieces of baggage on JR trains. The total of height+width+depth of each item must be under 250 cm and the weight less than 30 kg per bag. This is because there is limited overhead storage space in the cars. Starting in May 2020, if you have oversized luggage, you must make a reservation for a seat with oversized storage (which is free)
The Japanese are immensely proud of their train system, and it shows. People from around the world come to Japan just to ride the bullet train. The accommodations are comfortable, and the ride smooth and quiet. Most cars have power outlets for charging devices, and some of the trains offer drinks and snacks. Phone conversations are discouraged; if you need to make a call, head to the vestibule.
Service announcements aboard the train are in Japanese and English, as is the signage. Announcements concerning the next stop occur well ahead of time. Timeliness is a staple of the bullet train, and each announcement ask you to be prepared to exit the car BEFORE the train reaches the station.
2. Determine how to use your phone to communicate in Japan. We used our Verizon iPhones with the International plan, but obtaining a WiFi router may be a cheaper and better alternative.
3. Get a Suica card as soon as possible. It helps traveling on Tokyo area travels better. Also use Google Maps to make navigating the train routes much easier.