Japan is generally a very structured country where the masses all follow the same beat, unlike North America where different people tend to do their own thing. However, Tokyo is more structured than Osaka, Kyoto and Nara were. In Tokyo it is important to keep LEFT when walking. Japan is a right hand drive and drive on the left country. So you will find when walking in the subways, malls, sidewalks etc, that the vast majority are keeping to the left. When you get to escalators, you’ll need the left side. Same on stairs. When stepping off curbs to cross the road, it’s important to look RIGHT before proceeding.
You will find that generally, Japan is a polite culture. While very crowded you will find that there’s no aggression of pushing and shoving. People just work together. When a crowd is advancing towards an escalator that funnels down to a single file, just go with the flow without being aggressive and you’ll find your turn will come and people will let you go. When entering a store the staff will greet you with a welcome (“iraishimase”) and upon leaving will thank you with a bow. If you purchase something the appreciation is heightened.
On the Subway platforms. Look for two lines on the floor. This is where you line up. Subways are very orderly there. You line up at the designated spots, when the train arrives, people exit the train FIRST and then the two lines enter. You won’t see the disorganized process that we see in Canada or in other cities where people are pushing their way on while others are trying to exit. First time I saw this it amazed me. This orderly conduct allows a high volume of people to exit and enter quickly enabling the trains to stay on schedule. Japanese trains are very good at being on time due to this.
Especially in Tokyo, you will find the vast majority of people follow the rules. For example, it may be late in the evening and you’re waiting to cross a road. There is no traffic coming so in some countries like here, people will cross against the red light since there’s no cars but in Tokyo, you will see crowds of people waiting for the walk sign to light up. The only people you’ll see crossing against red lights are tourists. My recommendation would be just go with the flow.
NO TIPPING! In Japan they take great pride in doing their jobs. They feel that serving the public is their job and they get paid for doing their job. There’s no need to ask for extra money. Therefore, they do not accept tips. If you pay by credit card there will not be an option to leave a tip. If you pay by cash and leave extra money, then expect the waiter to chase after you to return your change. This is a difficult thing to adhere to especially when you receive excellent service. You’re natural reaction is to leave some money for tip but the locals find this offensive. They perceive this action as you viewing them with pity.
Many people in the Tokyo area can speak some level of English and can understand more than they can speak. On the Osaka/Kyoto/Nara side you will find less people speak English. But regardless, people will try their hardest and use whatever means they can to help you. Restaurants that serve tourist will have menus with lots of pictures where you can simply point to what you want.
You will find Japanese packaging to be pretty nice. When buying gifts, they will immaculately wrap your items in paper bags and tape them shut. We bought some items at a bakery. They packed the items in a box so that they would not touch each other, along with an ice pack to help it keep cool on the journey back to our hotel. The then placed the box in a paper bag. That day it was raining so they put a plastic rain bag over top so that the paper bag would not melt and fall apart in the rain. Incredible! Such attention to detail!!
As previously mentioned, paying for items can be a challenge in Japan as cash (Japanese Yen) is the most widely accepted form. Larger places and tourist locations will accept international credit cards. We used our Visa Credit Card wherever we could but also kept a bit of cash on hand. This leads to the next challenge. Where to get cash? Many local bank machines will not accept an international cards. Look for these three convenience stores – 7-Eleven, Lawsons and Family Mart. All three of these convenience stores will have a bank machine in them that accepts international credit and debit cards. The store itself also accepts international cards. But smaller vendors will only accept cash. Tokyo was pretty good in accepting international cards. But in Osaka, Nara and Kyoto wasn’t as popular. Most cabs in Tokyo will accept international cards. In Kyoto, we took a cab that only accepted cash.
As earlier recommended, purchase a PASSMO card when you arrive. You can purchase this from a self serve vending machine located in train stations (look for the ‘English’ button on the screen to change the language). You will need to pay with cash. This is an aggravation with me. I wish they’d update their machines to accept international credit cards to make things easier on tourists. This may be fixed at some point as the country prepares for the 2020 Olympics and attempts to be more ‘tourist friendly’. But when I was there last in September 2016, it was still this way. The PASSMO card can be loaded up with cash and can be used on subways, trains (except the Shinkansen), buses and can also be used in many convenience stores. I can speak first hand that the PASSMO card can be used in all citires I’ve mentioned – Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. I’d expect that it’s widely accepted. Simply tap the card upon entry, the gates will open, you walk through and it closes. When you get to your destination, tap to exit and your card will charged an amount corresponding to the distance you travelled.
When travelling by CAB………you will first notice the cars are spotless. Some cars may be several years old but looks like new. When you are about to step into a CAB don’t stand too close to the back door and DO NOT open the door yourself. The doors are automatic. The driver will automatically open AND close the doors automatically from his seat. The drivers are all well kept and wear white gloves. Almost like riding in a limo. Like I mentioned earlier, generally speaking CAB drives in Japan do not speak English very well. Have your destination address written down on a piece of paper including phone number if possible. Their GPS can look up addresses based on phone numbers too. In Tokyo you’ll probably find it more likely to find a CAB driver who speaks some level of English and will accept international cards. But in Osaka/Kyoto/Nara, it may only be cash that’s accepted and their English will not be as good. The drivers will always help you if you have luggage, and again, NO TIPPING!
Shuttle buses……..Japan’s transportation infrastructure is quite advanced so if you do not want to take the train or a CAB, there are often shuttle buses you can consider for times like travelling from the airport to your hotel or visa versa. Just ask your hotel concierge for more information.
SHINKANSEN (Bullet Train)
This should be your choice of transportation for long distance travel. It’s fast, smooth and comfortable. You can buy reserved or non-reserved seats. There’s typically plenty of seats so I have not personally seen the need to buy reserved seating, however, this should be your choice. Look for signage as to what car numbers are the reserved seating and which are for non-reserved. The only difference for non-reserved is that you board the train car and simply pick any seat….opposed to purchasing an actual seat on a specific car. Again, look for markers on the platform as to where to line up for which train.
Your hotel concierge can assist you in making reservations at restaurants, tours or other events. While they can also call you a CAB, it is often easier to just walk outside and look for one. There are plenty. They can also assist with that if you require. You may also ask hotel concierge for some recommendations for places to eat, or a popular attraction that’s nearby. Like other places, look in the lobby for extra information packets.
When trying to select a place to eat, you will find some restaurants will have a showcase of their menu in plastic replicas. It’s pretty neat actually. When you do select a place, simply request “English menu”. Most places will either have an English menu or as mentioned before, contain menus with lots of pictures so you can simply point to what you want. In the cities, basements of department stores will typically be food courts giving you lots of selection. But check the floor plan as in Osaka there was a food court that was on the top floor. For those in the basements, one floor above the food courts will be desserts. You may find some places also have a grocery store.
In general, Japan is an easy country to get around. Their transportation infrastructure is amazing. But like I mentioned to you, travelling around there involves lots of walking which can catch up with you. Personally, we keep under estimating how tiring it can be. So pace yourself and enjoy the sites you’ve chosen. Remember that travelling eats up time too to plan your events with this in mind.
Using Google Maps works very well. It pulls in the train schedules when choosing directions by train. It combines the commuting and walking instructions. Pay attention to the platform number as this is very helpful. Train schedules change depending on time of day so best route options will vary. Another option is using the web and phone app, Hyperdia, explained in the next section, however Google Maps is really all you need.
Hyperdia is where you can get up to the minute train schedules. The only catch is you need to know the station names. But once confirmed, you can see ALL of your options. There are always multiple routes and the results will show you total costs and what lines to take, where to transfer etc. www.hyperdia.com
You can also download the iPhone app. They also have an app for Android too.
We rented our Pocket WiFi from Japan Rail Pass…. Here’s a link to the pocket wifi page: https://www.jrailpass.com/pocket-wifi
We paid a total of $84 to rent the unit for 6 days. For our trip in 2016, we picked up at Haneda airport in Tokyo and returned at Kansai airport in Osaka. Usage is unlimited and can connect up to 10 devices. Speeds are pretty good too. Details can be found on their web page. You can fill out the form and reserve. They will reply with confirmation along with details on where to pick up your unit. While the device is unlimited in usage, it is limited in battery life. We pretty much plugged in every night to top up. Some days where we did not use it as much could last another day. It was very handy to have to use in conjunction with Hyperdia. Plans change and sometimes you end up in places you had not planned on. Handy to pull up the Hyperdia app and look up new routes on how to get from your new point A to point B.
While you are on Japan Rail Pass you can also look up train passes if you need depending on your plans. https://www.jrailpass.com/
List of airports in Japan…. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airports_in_Japan
In general, you can find some great information of places from past visitors who have shared their experiences on Japan Travel…… www.japantravel.com
Another good site for ideas is……. www.japan-guide.com
Japan National Tourism Organization…… https://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/
There’s information on the different transit cards, including the PASMO card that I mentioned……
The Tokyu Stay hotel we’ve stayed at for our two trips in Tokyo. I highly recommend them. They have a few locations to choose from in Tokyo…..
Some general links to good information