How to prepare for a trip to Japan

As you probably know already I went to Japan with my boyfriend earlier this year. It was an amazing trip and I still think about it daily - I would go back in a heartbeat if I could. While I never really thought that much about visiting Japan, my boyfriend had already been there and hearing his stories made me want to see the magic for myself. We went Kyoto and Tokyo mainly, but thanks to our Japan Rail Pass we also did some day trips around those cities. I’ve been getting quite some requests to blog about the trip, so I’ll do a small series of how to prepare for Japan, what to see & do in each city and some special places we discovered. I won’t post all of these in a row - so you’ll see these pop up once a week or so. Today I want to talk you through preparing for Japan - this is a trip that deserves some well thought-out planning!

How To Prepare For Japan
1. Get a Rail Pass
The Japan Rail Pass is a special rail pass you can obtain when you’re a tourist, but you can only order it from your home country. You have to look for an authorised JR Pass dealer in your region - these are mostly travel agencies specialising in Japan travels. Order it a couple of weeks before departure - it needs to arrive by post at your own home. You can’t have it delivered in Japan. The pass is valid on a lot of trains through Japan - we used it to go from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, and also for a lot of day trips around those cities. While you can use it for most major connections to travel through the country, you can’t use it on most of the Tokyo metro system. There are some JR lines in Tokyo though, so it’s always worth checking out the different types of trains that can take you to your destination on the website Hyperdia. The whole train system in Tokyo sounds quite confusing and I was lucky to have my boyfriend with me to guide me from train to train, but you do figure it out after a few days. The biggest tip I can give you for purchasing your JR Pass, is to calculate and plan your trip according to the length of your ticket. You can get one for just a week, but also for more weeks if you wish. It can be a very good deal if you’re using it enough, but it’s also possible that you would’ve paid slightly less in total if you had bought separate tickets for everything. We took a guess that we’d end up around the price of our one week pass, as we were planning to do quite some day trips during the first week. Afterwards we estimated that we probably gained a little bit by using it, but not much. Mostly it’s very easy having this rail pass - you can walk through gates when you show it and it’s easy when making train reservations.

2. Make train reservations when you can
On some of the Shinkansen trains (Hikari, Sakura, Kodoma & Tsubame) it is possible to reserve seats with your JR Pass, so I’d strongly suggest to take those trains if you can. It can get quite busy during some weekends and holidays (such a Golden Week, which is when we went), and when you’re on the train for three hours.. You’ll want to sit down and enjoy the scenery outside. If you don’t care for reserved seats, you can just pick any seat that is still open in the unreserved cars. There are a few exceptions that apply when using your pass on the Shinkansen such as the Nozomi and Mizuho trains on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen: these won’t accept the use of a JR Pass. Luckily, you should make reservations with your pass at a Travel Service Center or a Reservation Office (which you can only find at JR train stations), where most of the employees speak some English and will be able to help you out with your travel plans.

How To Prepare For Japan
3. Try and schedule your arrival
We arrived in the morning in Tokyo and by then had already been awake for 20 hours (seriously, I couldn’t sleep on the 11 hour flight out of sheer excitement), which left us feeling delirious on the Shinkansen to Kyoto while we were trying to stretch it to staying awake for 30 hours. I completely failed and passed out for an hour on the Shinkansen, by the way. It isn’t always possible, but do try and schedule your arrival in the afternoon, especially when you’re flying in from the West. This will help your jet lag a little, as it’s very important to stay awake until a decent hour to go to bed (8PM the earliest, I’d say).

4. Order SIM cards if you want to have data connection on your phone
Your phone won’t work in Japan - there, I said it. Luckily there are special SIM cards for visitors, which you can order beforehand and have delivered to your hotel, guest house or to the airport post office. Unlike the JR Pass, you can’t have your SIM card delivered to your own house - it has to be delivered in Japan. We just bought two SIM cards with enough data connection for our stay and told our family and friends to reach us through e-mail, but if you insist on being able to make phone calls you can always hire a phone through various companies (check Google). The data connection came in super handy for finding our way around (seriously, the address system in Japan is challenging) and to communicate with each other on Whatsapp (which still worked!) when we weren’t together. The only provider you can order this SIM card at is B-Mobile. You have to do this at least two weeks in advance so the company has enough time to deliver your SIM cards to your delivery address of choice.

5. Bring enough cash with you
Although we did notice that you could pay by card (only VISA, Mastercard and such.. No Maestro whatsoever!!) almost everywhere, I strongly advise you to take enough cash with you to survive the first days and to do some payments in local little shops or market stalls that don’t accept electronic payments. With the time difference and whenever you might arrive on a weekend, it might not be possible to contact your bank straight away in case your cards aren’t working or suddenly get blocked because your expenses are viewed as ‘suspicious’ (it happens & it’s annoying).. This is the biggest reason to have enough cash on you. We spent the remainder of our cash in the tax free shops at the airport and I believe our lasts Yens went to a shrimp avocado burger. It was the yums.
I hope you found this one interesting and that it made some sense at least.. I was honestly very lucky to be able to rely on my boyfriend during this trip, I would’ve been a lost and sad little birdie without him! Stay tuned for the next post on Japan.. Which will be all about the first city we visited for four days: Kyoto.

(first and third picture were taken by Stijn - he deserves the credit!)

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