(Thanks Siwa for the proof reading)
The Far-east has always been my favourite destination. Yet, Japan comes in the top places I want to visit for multiple reasons. During my lifetime, I have heard a lot of exciting stories about the Japanese people and culture. Also, in my elementary studies, we studied a lot about this very developed country with almost no resources except human capital. Finally, in the last few years, I started being a little fan of Otaku. Anyway, I have dozens of reasons to visit Japan, but I couldn’t make it alone. I would rather be with friends to visit such a far and new place than start the adventure alone. So thanks for the people who shared this milestone with me !
In this note, I want to share basic things you should do to have a successful trip to Japan.
1- The airport to choose: Haneda!
Most airline companies offer flights to Tokyo’s 2 main airports, Narita and Haneda. Even though both airports are connected to the train/subway networks, it is better to be in Haneda because it is only 5 miles far from downtown when Narita is 50 miles away. This will help reach your hotel fast and reach the airport in few minutes on your return flight
2- The hotel to choose: Anyone!
The hotels in Tokyo look the same: clean, small and welcoming staff. So it is better to have a cheap 3 stars hotel near a subway station.
3- The public transport within the cities: The subway!
Let’s agree on something: Tokyo is much more than a city. The huge capital of Japan is inhabited by more than 20 million people. The best means of transport is the subway/metro, but there are at least 7 companies/lines that cover all the regions of the capital. The best thing to do is to buy a Suica card and to charge it whenever you need to continue your subway adventure. You will definitely need Google Maps (unless it is not obvious to use localization apps, a problem of clueless people like me) to know what metro to take, from which platform and at which station you have to switch the train. It is very common to switch 2-3 trains to arrive to the desired destination. Also, you should be aware that the Subway stations are so big and crowded that you can get lost easily. The metro stops at midnight. In the first days, it will be hard for you to familiarize yourself with the subway system of Tokyo, but you will manage after 2 days. One final thing: Avoid taxis, they are very expensive.
4- The transport between cities: it depends!
There is a lot of means of transport between cities. From Tokyo to Osaka for example, I found: The Shinkansen (the rapid train), the train, the aircraft and the bus. We chose the bus for economic and logistic reasons. Any choice among these is good. If you want a rapid one, go for the Shinkansen, if you want to avoid wasting a daytime trip in transit, you can have a night ride in a conformable bus where you can sleep. You can book your seat on willerexpress for example.
5- Internet connection: get a Data sim card!
Most of Japanese public places are covered by free Wi-Fis. But, it is a hassle because for each connection you may need a pass that can be purchased from an office that you cannot locate easily. I advise you to have a Data Sim card (Docomo telco operator, 3000 Yen = 25$, 100 Mb/day, valid for 15 days) to use it for your multiple apps and internet searches.
6- Japanese people: Respect, extreme discipline but no English!
The Japanese people are so respectful. You will rarely hear a loud voice in the street or in the subway (except late in the evening). When you buy something, the cashier will use a small plate to avoid taking/giving the money directly from/to your hand. The Japanese are always smiling and bowing when he talks to you. In the subway, all phones are silent, and they have always a section for old, handicaps and any kind of people with special needs (pregnant women…).
Also, the great people of Japan are so disciplined that in the streets and subway escalators, they use the left hand side of the road to walk to let the right side for people in hurry (just like the cars). You will never see a Japanese crossing the street when the light is red, even if the street is completely empty of cars.
One thing that you may find surprising: the Japanese people don’t speak English, or to be accurate, don’t want to speak in English, because they are ashamed to speak a language they are not good at. So don’t rely too much on asking people to know something, try to use your smartphone apps and ask people in emergencies.
7- How much is the budget?
Excluding the flight tickets, I can estimate that the hotel will cost you 60-80$ per night, the subway 5-8$ per day, a meal 6-15$, the 3G/4G 25$ (2 weeks), a Starbucks coffee 4$. Gifts are usually around 10$. You need an extra budget to visit some museums and temples. In total, I think 1000$ should be enough for a week in Tokyo!
8- Apps you should have!
TripAdvisor offers great offline applications per city. You can download the Tokyo/Osaka/Kyoto ones from your Smartphone store. Also, you will need Google maps to know how to go to any destination.
9- Places to visit: cities are so big that you will have to skip a lot of things!
We tried our best to visit the maximum number of places in Tokyo, but in one day, you cannot visit more than 3 things. So try to short-list one or two places from each category (museums, parks, stores, temples…) to visit during the stay! Yet, Shibuya (city centre: entertainment, shopping, night life…), Shinjuku (shopping, night life) and Akihabara (electronics, gaming, anime…) are top places to visit in Tokyo! For the cities, the top ones are Tokyo (the biggest and the most attractive city), Kyoto (the old capital of Japan with a lot of history) and Osaka (the new industrial pole in Japan).
10- The food in Japan: you can eat what you want!
I chose to answer this question last because I had a small problem with the Japanese meals. Since the local food is based on sea food and noodles, and since I am somehow anti-sea food and somehow vegetarian (except fried chicken and canned tuna), I have almost missed this great part of the Japanese culture. You can try the traditional Sushi (which is a bit different from the western Sushi) served on the turning table or any other typical local food. The 12 pieces of Sushi will cost you 6$ in a mid-class Japanese restaurant. Otherwise, the western restaurants are available. You can find Mc Donald’s, Italian restaurants …
Finally, Japan is a dream that just came true, but I am wondering what should be my next destination?