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.
Front entrance for Makuhari Messe. This convention center is easily accessible by foot from Kaihimmakuhari station; you’ll know you’re heading the right way if you pass Plena Makuhari shopping center (towards your left as you exit the turnstalls).