We aren’t going to lie: getting around Japan isn’t tough, but it isn’t as easy as you think either, especially for a first-timer. In our experience, there are a lot of English speakers there but finding someone to help you along the way can be tough (granted, everyone there will go out of their way to help out, despite the language barrier). Since we aren’t a travel guide, we can’t go into extreme detail—and we can only (strongly) suggest that you at least pick up an actual guide or two to help you with figuring out where you are, and maybe a Berlitz Japanese phrase book so you can teach yourself a few common words. Here are some useful tips and suggestions for visiting the Tokyo area:
Ok, so here are a couple things you MUST know as you leave the baggage claim at Narita (NRT) Airport: 1) if you haven’t picked up any JPY (Japanese yen), do it here at the currency exchange; the rate is better than anywhere else, that is, unless you take money out from an ATM (look for the right system by matching the logo/s on the back of your debit/credit cards to the ones listed on the ATMs you find; Citibank and Seven & Holdings are the two easiest to find), and 2) if you use a smart phone, make sure you call your cellphone carrier BEFORE you arrive to turn on your international data plan. Even though you’re an iPhone user, you won’t even connect with the local carrier unless you have international activated. Beware, rates are expensive!
Getting around: well, tons of options here, but the most useful and convenient is the metro system. You also have choices when it comes to paying to use the metro system; using cash, purchasing a refillable PASMO card (note: this doesn’t work in all areas and there are other smart cards for different regions of Japan) and if you’re willing to make the investment, you can purchase an unlimited 7-day JR pass at market rate from a Japanese travel agency in the US (these passes are for visitors only and can be used on the shinkansen (bullet train)), which comes in really handy if you plan on using the metro system a lot. Don’t forget, your stop for Tokyo Auto Salon is Kaihimmakuhari.
You’ll see these EVERYWHERE; get to know them, discover which ones are cheaper than others and find ones that sell different types of drinks. Japanese vending machines are awesome, in that you can find anything from coffee to soda, cold and hot drinks and supposedly used panties—but we’ll let you figure out where to see those. Coins are used frequently, so save those Y100 coins especially for a vending machine purchase.
Oh, one more thing about using the trains in Japan. They shut down at 12a and start back up at 5a, so if you go out to party, either be prepared to stay out all night long (our suggestion) or pay a hefty taxi fare.
This is Japan 101 right here: visiting any Super Autobacs store. What is it? It’s basically a Kragen/NAPA/fill in your local auto parts store here type chain, except it stocks way cooler shit, like Volk Racing wheels and Mugen engine parts, plus so much more. A must-visit for any car enthusiast, then you can try locating an Up-Garage and tuning shops. Speaking of visiting tuner shops/manufacturers, they are often times quite hard to find without having some basic knowledge of how to get around and are not located close to train stations. There’s an ettiqutte to this as well, so read this month’s Tetsu’s Tales for an important lesson.
When it comes to beverages in Japan you’ll notice many interesting new drinks like Melon and Calpis soda to name a few, but after a while you’ll find yourself craving some of your stateside faves. Here’s what to expect:
How to order: Beer, or Bee-ru as the Japanese call it, will likely be an essential drink for many of you and luckily it’s served almost everywhere (including convenient stores and vending machines) and you can even legally drink it in public (just not on the train or in stations). Note: drinking age in Japan is 20.
Similarity to US version: 10/10
If you’ve ever had a Japanese beer like Sapporo, Kirin or Asahi in the states, you know exactly what to expect —they all taste identical back in the motherland. But there’s an indescribeable taste about drinking beeru in Japan; it just gives you that “ahhh” feeling when it touches your lips and is just…BETTER!
How to order: In Japan they call coffee “co-hee”, but aside from that ordering your favorite drink is easy, just order it exactly the same as you do in America, but try to annunciate like the Japanese do.
Similarity to US version: 7/10
While the coffee is pretty similar in terms of ingredients, the flavor of the Japanese Starbucks is insane and vastly superior. It’s as if every barista’s single purpose in life was to make you the ultimate cup of coffee. There are plenty of other places to get coffee in Japan, but surprisingly the Starbucks there rivals independent coffee shops in the states.
Food! So much to choose from, so little room for us to get into it all. If you're a foodie, you will LOVE Japan! If you're not (and don't worry, you're not alone), get out there and try something different! If push comes to shove, there's always a McDo (McDonalds) lurking right around the corner. If you find it difficult to order, simply ask to see if the restaurant carries an eigo (English) menu. Here are some of our edible favs:
Yoshinoya Beef Bowl – not sure if this is everywhere in America but it’s definitely in California. By far, this is a much better version.
Because Tight Budget
The fastest way to move across Japan—say, Tokyo to Osaka—is obviously by shinkansen, aka bullet train. But with tickets upward in the realm of a few hundred dollars round trip per person, it just wasn’t in the cards to do the two-hour journey this time around. Instead, we opted for a rental car—but beware before you attempt to do this yourself. First, you need an international driver’s license (an easy score at any AAA office) and then you’ll need to find a willing rental agency. In our case, having Tetsu came in really handy and he found us a discount agency to cut down on costs. If you have the time, a road trip is certainly fun as you see a lot of different things on the drive to Osaka, but the shinkansen is a MUST for a first-timer.
An international driver’s license can be had for next to nothing with a visit to your local AAA office. Driving is more or less just as easy, except you’re guaranteed to flip the windshield wipers thinking it’s the turn signal lever.
It’s not fancy but it does the trick. Enough room to haul a crew like ours with baggage.
One thing we didn’t mention in our first tips/tricks guide: convenience stores are going to be your best friend. Early in the morning, late at night, whatever—you can score food and drinks to satisfy you at any time. One thing the Japanese are extremely considerate about is they wear masks when they are sick or to avoid getting sick. Pick up a pack when you get a chance and don’t be afraid to wear one; you’ll see this on the regular and it’s no big deal.
If you don’t recycle, SHAME ON YOU. But seriously, segregating your trash is serious business in Japan. Please do as the locals do and separate recycleable materials from garbage. You’ll see in many places different containers for varying material/liquid types.
Having travelled through the US on many road trips ourselves (remember the Super Street Tour anyone?), we can say the Japanese have got us beat when it comes to rest stops. Clean, unique in design per each stop and with food so good you’d think you were eating at least two-star dining quality, you’ll wish you’d never have to step foot in that dump off the I-15 or I-95 again.
Most Japanese restrooms are equipped with automated sinks, some with automated soap but with hand dryers separate. This one combined all three into one—genius!