Advice for Traveling in Japan
"Japan will mercilessly bleed your wallet dry", to misquote The Economist. Yes, the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo are the most expensive real estate in the world but as long as you can do without a suite next to the Emperor's, Japan can be affordable. Economise on accommodation and you're half way there.
Stay off the Guinness and drink Japanese beer and you're closer. Explore cheap dining and avoid getting taxis and you could be in Thailand. Almost. And if you want to take in a few major cities think about getting the Japan Rail Pass. It offers 7 days unlimited use of bullet trains for 28,300 yen, not much more than the price of a return from Tokyo to Kyoto. 14 and 21 day passes are also available. You have to get an exchange order in advance of your visit and change it for a pass when you arrive. Cash rules everything around here so bring some!
Travelers' cheques can be harder to exchange than you might imagine, especially outside major cities as you'll have to find an 'Authorised Foreign Exchange Bank'. So it's a good idea generally to change more money than you think you'll need, just because doing so again may be time consuming and inconvenient. Banks close early in Japan and, rather inexplicably at 3pm, so do ATMs (around 6pm) though you should be ok at the airport and more convenience stores now have ATM facilities as do post offices.
Sandals are great for warmer climes but the easier they are to get into and out of the better. Open-heeled versions will save you time and a lot of one-legged fumbling in genkan (hallways) where you'll grow to understand why the Japanese favour slip-on shoes.
Onigiri are a rice-eater's equivalent to the sandwich and can be bought at every convenience store. Cheap, tasty and wholesome snacks, they are the mainstay of hikers, walkers, picnickers and also people who rush around missing meals all the time. Look out for triangular packages, dark green in color. Don't count on station luggage lockers to store your 100 liter army surplus rucksack. They are often only day-bag sized.
Toilets in public places present certain options. We suggest that you face the hooded end and squat rather than sit. And remember to bring tissues with you as toilet paper provision is not a public service. Packs of tissues with adverts attached are handed out in many busy public places, especially railway stations. Bin the ad and you've got tissues for those traditional restaurants (and toilets) that don't provide any.
Though very pleasant in Sapporo and other parts of Hokkaido, the rest of Japan can get unbearably hot in July and August.
September too can be wet as is when the typhoons hit. If you do get caught in one you can forget about using your compact umbrella.
The wind will have reduced it to a crumpled wreck before you can whistle "I'm singing in the..."
The Shinkansen (bullet trains) are alarmingly punctual so make sure your watch is correct and aim to arrive at the station early - especially if you haven't reserved your seat.
Get your lunch (an eki-ben) on the platform before you leave unless you want to do it in style (i.e. at greater expense) in the dining car.
Taxis are there to help you, not hurt you. Avoid potential embarrassment and injury by allowing your driver to open (and close) the back door for you with the lever next to his gear stick. This is the service you're paying so much for. If you've made it to the airport, you're nearly there. The next step is to get into town.
Trains are usually fastest, the quicker they are the more you'll pay. Limousine buses move as fast as the traffic they're in but are convenient if you have lots of luggage. Only get a taxi if your wallet is the heaviest thing you're carrying or in a gang of four. Forget about finding your destination from its address, you'll notice few street names and house numbers in Japan.
Ask for the nearest landmark (e.g. subway station) and make sure you've got directions from there. Either that or ask at the local koban (police box), and add some excitement to a policeman's day in this peaceful nation.
Internal travel can be tricky around holiday times when most of Japan go home to see family. Give these periods the widest berth possible or book your planes, trains and buses etc. well in advance.
New Year 27 December - 4 January
Golden Week around 29 April - 5 May
O-Bon usually around 13 - 15 August (or 13 - 15 July in some areas)
Can't figure out which subway ticket to buy? Buy the cheapest and pay the difference when you get where you're going. Helpful staff at your destination will even take the correct coins from your open hand if you so desire.
Tourist information in major ports of call such as airports and railway stations are invaluable. After entertaining your attempts to speak Japanese they'll reply in English and offer you a free map, marking on it the places you're looking for. Packed rush hour trains have to be experienced to be believed.
Apparently if you have any body part in the door, your place is booked so stick out your least favourite and they'll get you in somehow. Better than that, wait at either end of the platform and you may get lucky.