If you’re dreaming about a trip to Japan, you’re not alone. Last month, Japan welcomed 2.52 million visitors — more than doubling the pre-COVID-19 levels of February 2020. My teenagers and I started planning our Thanksgiving week vacation to Tokyo six months ago after I scored amazing round-trip tickets on United Airlines using miles. Never having been to Japan, I crowdsourced tips and recommendations from friends before we left; I also learned a lot during our recent trip. Here are seven useful tips to know before you go:
Exchange Lots of Yen
It might come as a surprise, but for as technologically advanced as Japan is, in many places cash is the only payment accepted — even in big cities like Tokyo. I booked my accommodations, train tickets and attractions like Tokyo Skytree, Shibuya Sky and a traditional tea ceremony lesson in advance online using a credit card, but I still took plenty of U.S. dollars with me to exchange once I landed at the airport. Credit cards were accepted in some places like designer boutiques in Ginza and shops in quirky, bustling Harajuku. But no matter where you are, many restaurants only accept yen. You even need to insert cash into the machine to top off your subway card (more on that later).
Rent a WiFi Router to Use During Your Trip
Even if your cell carrier offers unlimited data overseas like ours (T-Mobile), data might not be as fast as you need it to be, especially to look up directions or make dining reservations. Before your trip, rent a personal wireless router through Ninja WiFi or another local carrier for the duration of your trip for speedier internet access on your devices. We went with the default plan and speed, more than sufficient and less than $40 a week. There are pick-up and drop-off locations at Haneda (HND) and Narita (NRT) airports, as well as various locations around the city.
Learn How to Be a Tokyo Subway Pro
The subway system is clean, efficient, on time and civilized. Lines painted on platforms let riders know where doors will open, and people line up single file and wait their turn to board after letting exiting riders pass first. Subway cars are generally silent, and walkways and staircases in stations have directional arrows for traffic flow. We were especially grateful for this organization when transferring through stations like Shinjuku, the world’s busiest train station, with 3.5 million riders passing through every day. While Google Maps works for planning subway routes, I preferred Japan Travel, which also tells you which car or section of the train to board to be closer to your transfer train or preferred exit, and which subway exit to take to be closer to your final destination. As a tourist, you can purchase a Welcome Suica card at either airport, valid for 28 days and can be topped off as needed. You can also use these cards to purchase items at vending machines and in convenience stores.
Don’t Eat and Drink While Walking
While Americans are used to walking down the street sipping iced lattes and taking bites of a folding slice of pizza, this is considered rude in Japan. This was a rule we momentarily forgot one day after we bought the Japanese stuffed crepes that are all the rage in the aforementioned Harajuku and started walking down Takeshita Street ,taking spoonfuls of matcha ice cream. Often, food stalls and takeaway restaurants will have standing areas specifically designed for customers to enjoy their treats; otherwise, just find a nearby area in which to sit or stand. I’m an avid gum chewer, something you won’t often see there, either. If you must chew, do it discreetly — without loud popping or blowing bubbles.
Know How to Use Toilet Slippers
Warning: You’ll probably fall in love with all the bells and whistles of Japanese toilets. But while you’re oohing and ahhing over the anticipation of heated seats (and ones that automatically raise) and bidet features and white noise buttons that drones out bodily sounds, don’t forget to put on toilet slippers if you see them just inside the bathroom. (They may even be labeled as such.) Take off your street shoes outside the bathroom and use the slippers while you are taking care of business. But don’t forget to retrieve your own shoes on the way out — it can be quite embarrassing to stroll back to your restaurant table or your host’s living room still wearing footwear only designed for the bathroom.
Lean in on Convenience Stores
It seems like you can’t walk a block in Tokyo without seeing a Family Mart or 7-11, and the latter is much different (read: better) in Tokyo than its American counterparts. Convenience stores were our go-to to pick up breakfast to enjoy in our Airbnb. Popular items include yogurt drinks; pastries; fruit; and onigiri, the breakfast staple consisting of fish wrapped in rice and nori. You can also find items here including medicines, toiletries and batteries.
Get Out of the City for a Bit
Even if you are only staying for a week, try to venture beyond Tokyo’s borders to see a different side of Japan. One day, we took a two-hour bus to Kawaguchiko in the Fuji Five Lakes district. The weather was glorious and the massive volcanic mountain came out to say hello. We saw it from many vantage points, including from a cable tramcar atop a mountain, a sightseeing boat and at Oishi Park at sunset. We also stayed overnight at a hotel with onsen, the traditional hot spring baths popular in the area. The next day, we did a bit more sightseeing before catching a late afternoon bus back to finish off our trip in Tokyo. Leaving and coming back definitely gave us a new appreciation for Tokyo.
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