Traveling to Japan

You’re planning to travel to Japan (which is awesome!) but you don’t know where to start with planning… When and where should you buy your plane ticket? How much money should you bring? Will your credit card work in Japan? Where do you stay while you’re over there? How will you get around? Will your smartphone work?

This will be a guide answering a lot of common questions on what to plan for and how to plan when traveling to Japan.

Passport

US Passport Site

A lot of people start planning to travel abroad without even thinking about this. You need a passport. No ifs, ands or buts. You should secure your passport as early as possible in the planning process because they can take a while to get. Depending on where and how you get your passport, it can take anywhere from 1-6 weeks before it’s in your possession. You do not want to make this the last step of your planning process. Depending on the airline, you’ll also want this before you try to book a ticket.

What you need:

  1. Money for Fees. It’s roughly $135 for a Passport Book. If you wish to have the process expedited you will be playing about $60 more. Overnight shipping will cost you more as well.
  2. Evidence of US Citizenship. Your original birth certificate works best if this is the first time you’re applying for a passport and you were born in the United States (it needs to have a raised or multicolored seal). A copy of your birth certificate will not work, it needs to be the original. If you have an old passport, that works just as well. Other options include a consular report of birth abroad or a certificate of naturalization/citizenship.
  3. Photo Identification. Any photo identification works: drivers license, military/government ID, school ID, old passport, or certificate of naturalization.
  4. A Passport Photo. This will be the photo used inside of your passport. It must be a recent picture that looks like you. These pictures can be taken at a couple different locations such as a post office or a CVS. If you decide to take your own picture, the photo requirements are laid out in the above URL.
  5. Forms. Depending on how you choose to get your passport, you’ll either have to print out the forms and mail them or fill them out in person.

All other questions you might have can be answered by searching in the above URL. If you’re not traveling from the US you’ll need to do your own research on what is required of you in terms of passports, visas and vaccinations.

Money

The exchange rate usually fluctuates around $1 USD = 100 JPY. It’s important to keep an eye on this because it will influence how much money you will actually be pocketing in Japan, not to mention it will change the cost of food and things you plan to buy.

USD to JPY exchange rate can be found here.

Plane Ticket

Unless you’re already in Japan you’re going to have to buy a plane ticket. Depending on where you start from (East Coast USA vs West Coast USA vs Canada), your price can differ in the hundreds of dollars.

Common sites to search for ticket prices:

It’s in your best interest to start playing around with arrival/departure dates & airports ASAP. This is the step where you can save the most amount of money. Find international airports close to you and then set your arrival for either ITM/KIX if you want to fly into Osaka or NRT/HND if you want to land in Tokyo.  Check back frequently or sign-up to get alerts through Kayak to know when the prices drop or increase.

Ground Transportation

Getting around Japan is extremely easy, and you should try to plan out your trip in as much detail as possible. Depending on how you fly in and out of Japan, as well as what you plan on doing there, and on top of where you’re staying your modes of transportation could be very different from everyone else. The best advice I can give here is to use Google Maps and plan your routes accordingly. It will not only spit out train/bus schedules, it will also tell you the price of getting from point A to B. This is an extremely useful tool and it’s why I recommend renting yourself a mobile hotspot later in this guide.

  • Getting to and from the Airport
    • Narita
      • Sky Liner: ~25 USD (one-way) and 40 minutes to get into central Tokyo.
      • Narita Express: ~20 USD (one-way) and a little over an hour to get into central Tokyo. This option is also covered the the JR Railpass which is covered later in this guide.
    • All other Airports
      • Take the local trains/subways/monorails into the city. They are the most economical ways to get to and from the airport.

PLEASE NEVER TAKE A TAXI THEY ARE VERY VERY VERY EXPENSIVE!!!!!!!

Food

Who could forget? You’re going to have to eat while you’re over there, and planning on how you’ll want to eat is important. If you want you can spend as little as $10 a day to as much as $40. The following are general guidelines for how much each meal will cost you:

  • Breakfast: 500 Yen – 1000 Yen
  • Lunch/Dinner: 700 Yen – 1500+ Yen

I’ll be honest, you probably won’t be eating (or spending) much in terms of breakfast. You’ll probably buy some sort of snack from your local convenience store along with a drink to hold you out until lunch, totaling a couple hundred yen. At lunch you’ll buy some sort of fast food such as ramen, beef bowl, or curry to hold you off until dinner. For dinner you’ll either splurge on something like all you can eat yakiniku or keep it simple with another lunch type meal.

I don’t think I ever had a legit breakfast in Japan except for when staying at a resort or when someone personally cooked it for me. Convenient stores are just too damn convenient (no pun intended) and cheap. Also, it should be noted that when you eat out in Japan in a large group the bill is usually split evenly if you’re sharing with everyone at the table. You’re not going to be asking for split checks and you’re not going to be paying with credit card most likely either. Which leads me to the next section…

How to pay for things and how to get money.

I know that this section might seem pointless to you right now, but don’t worry, it will all make sense very soon.

  • Credit Card
    • Recently Japan has been expanding use of credit cards. I was surprised when I saw a friend use a Visa card at a Mister Donut. While overseas your credit card company usually has a foreign transaction fee that is a flat fee combined with a percentage of the purchase (unless you have a travel card that eliminates these fees). Combine this with the fact that you still can’t use your credit card everywhere in Japan yet, and it’s safe to say that you should probably be using cash for almost all of your purchases. You should definitely check to see what kind of fees you would be paying with your credit card if you plan on using it (or just in case you are left with no other options).
  • ATM + Debit Card.
    • While you won’t be using your debit card to make direct purchases, there are some ATMs in Japan that will let you withdraw money in JPY along with a transaction fee. How much is the transaction fee? That all depends on your bank. This is definitely something you should look into before going abroad because this method will probably save you the most money in the long run. The ATMs that will let you withdraw money can be found either in the airport for your initial withdrawal and at all convenient stores (read: 7-11’s) for the remainder of your trip. Please note that convenient stores are everywhere.
  • Order money from your bank.
    • Before you travel you can always exchange money at your bank before you leave. Sometimes your bank will have to “order” the money, so don’t expect to walk in with $1000 cash and expect them to instantly hand over the Yen equivalent. One drawback from all of this (if this is the only way you plan on taking money with you) is that you could be left with having to travel with a lot of cash, which is a big no-no. God forbid you lose whatever you were carrying your money in, whether it be your wallet or luggage. Sometimes there will also be a fee associated with this transaction as well. Check with your bank to see what they offer.
  • Exchanging Cash at Banks in Japanese Airports/Train Stations.
    • Some banks located in Japanese airports offer very good rates. A good friend of mine almost got the full exchange rate with no extra fee, which is pretty incredible. Bringing cash to exchange can save you some money. I would highly recommend using this method as your first transaction, while using an ATM for the rest.
  • Travelers checks, buying cash online, or using the exchange kiosks at the airports.
    • Please don’t do this to yourself. The fees are outrageous and it’s usually a base percentage with no fee cap. You should be using any of the previous methods instead.

Another very important point: before traveling overseas you will want to let your bank know. Most banks have an area where you can put dates where you plan to be traveling abroad. They have this because most banks will automatically assume transactions overseas are fraudulent… unless you tell them otherwise. So do yourself a favor and LET YOUR BANK KNOW! You wouldn’t want to have your accounts locked when on vacation!

Another important note, but buying expensive items in Japan comes with a very nice perk: most of the time any purchase over $50 you can get tax-free (a.k.a “duty free”)!!! This means that not only will you save money if the exchange rate is in your favor, you also won’t have to pay any tax! Make sure to have you passport with you at all time in order to take advantage of this when the situation arises. Keep an eye out for the duty-free signs and registers!

Where to stay.

This is another part of traveling where you can save a lot of money. Things have changed since my first trip about 5 years ago, and it’s only become easier to book a place for cheap. My advice here: for the entirety of your trip you should be staying with a small group or at least one other person, as this will cut down on cost per person.

  • Home/Apartment Rental
    • This is probably be one of the best options while traveling throughout Japan’s major cities. Airbnb is a great service that allows people to rent out their rooms/apartments/houses, which usually translates savings over to you. If you get lucky you can be paying at low as $15-$20 USD per person per night if you find a good spot. Usually most places also come with a free mobile hotspot and/or wi-fi!
  • Western Style Hotel
    • This will be the most expensive option listed. $90+ dollars a night depending on the hotel you choose to stay at. The closer to a train station the more it will cost you (usually). You can book hotels like this online with no additional fees.
  • Hostel
    • The cheapest option outside of staying with your friend who lives in Japan. This will start at $20/night and go up with the location and quality. Think of a hostel like a dormitory. There are a few people to each room and there is usually a shared bathroom and kitchen (sometimes). There’s even a chance that you could end up rooming with a complete stranger. I’ve done this once (although it was booked through Airbnb) and it was great. Sometimes you get to meet some pretty interesting people.
  • Capsule Hotel
    • The one man wolf pack. Capsule hotels are pretty awesome. You have your hole in the wall (literally) and a locker for your stuff costing roughly ~$30/night. There will be a communal bathroom/spa and a few vending machines. These weren’t designed for people making long stays, but you can definitely still make reservations for a week long trip (but I wouldn’t recommend it). There are many “pods” in each hall and there’s no door to your pod (only a small curtain), so if you’re a light sleeper this might not be the best option for you. I do however recommend staying in one at least once for the experience.

Essentials and Recommendations

There are a couple of things I’ll recommend purchasing/ordering for your trip to make your experience a lot less stressful.

  • 3G/4G Cell Phone Data
    • There are a couple ways to get a data plan while in Japan. One is to buy a travel SIM card and put it into your compatible phone. Compatible meaning it uses the same antenna as Japan and the phone allows for a different SIM card. (http://www.bmobile.ne.jp/english/index.html) The data comes in handy when you need to access the internet on the go (free wifi exists but not everywhere), and it also helps when using GPS to get directions. I don’t recommend getting a voice plan since you probably won’t be using it (not to mention VoIP exists). Another way of getting cellphone data is to either rent a hotspot or smartphone. Splitting the cost of a hotspot with a few friends probably wouldn’t be a bad idea if you plan to always travel together. Hotspots and phones can be rented in advance, where you can then pick it up at a location you designate (usually a post office). Travel SIM cards can either be purchased beforehand or while you’re in Japan. You can also rent both hotspots and sim cards without a reservation at all major airports in Japan.
  • Portable Phone Charger
    • When waiting to sit down at an arcade cabinet or while you’re riding a train, you’ll definitely be looking at your phone. Most days you’ll be away from your room for 12+ hours, and with heavy usage your phone it will probably die sooner or later. Most public places don’t have complementary outlets so you’ll either have to not use your phone that much or get a portable charger. Portable chargers can be picked up on Amazon for cheap. Look up the capacity of your battery and multiply that by 1 or 2 times and that’s the charge capacity you should get. At first I wondered why everyone in Japan had one of these and then I quickly learned why. These can also be bought anywhere in Japan if you decide you need one after you arrive.
  • Small Backpack/Messenger Bag + Change Purse/Wallet
    • The manliest assists of all time. Buy yourself a small backpack or messenger bag to store your wallet/cellphone/changer/passport/coin purse/hand rag/etc. It will come in extremely handy and will free up your pockets. Believe me. You can buy one of these before you leave or find them at any department store in Japan.
    • There are no 1 and 5 dollar bills in Japan, so when you’re buying anything under 10 dollars (almost everything) you’ll be using nothing but coins. Also, Japan does something great: it includes taxes in the price of an item. Because of this, while you’re waiting to pay at a register you can prepare the exact change you’ll need to make your purchase. When it’s your turn, you put your money on a little change dish, they’ll count your exact change and then you’ll be on your way. A change purse makes storing and finding your change easy.
    • Another recommendation could be to get a Japanese style wallet. These are no-fold wallets that also have a pouch for change. They’re big enough to store cash and not bend the bill. Japanese bills are slightly larger than USD, so it’s possible they won’t fit in your wallet nicely.
  • Wash Rag
    • This might sound weird but most bathrooms in Japan don’t have air-dry blowers or paper towels, so you’ll wash your hands and have to dry them off on your clothing. Instead, you should buy a small hand cloth and bring it with you.
  • Suica/ICOCA Card
    • These are a rechargeable debit card. You can get one at either the JR office in the airport or at a ticket counter/kiosk in most train stations. You can add money to them at the ticket machines in almost all train stations. So what can you use them for? Almost anything. You can use them to quickly pay for train fare and make purchases at most convenient stores or vending machines. You can also use them to pay for lockers in train stations which are incredibly useful when you buy stuff and don’t feel like hauling it around. The card is free if bought at the airport (500 JPY refundable deposit) and makes your trip super convenient. There’s no reason not to get one. They make a cool souvenir if you decide to keep it. To my knowledge there is no expiration on them either, so you can save it if you plan on making another visit.
  • JR Railpass
    • http://www.japanrailpass.net/eng/en001.html
    • Every time I’ve gone to Japan I’ve gotten a railpass. You purchase a railpass voucher before you travel to Japan, and then you exchange the voucher at almost any international airport in Japan for the actual pass. Depending on how much you spent on the voucher, the pass is good for either 7, 14, or 21 days. The pass pays for all of your rides on all JR lines including Shinkansen (bullet trains). There are restrictions to what trains you can ride on and how far you can actually go, but you’re an unstoppable traveling force on JR lines with this in your hand. Definitely worth the price if you plan on riding the Shinkansen a lot during your trip. To give you an idea on the price, a regular railpass for 7 days costs about $250. A one-way ticket to Kyoto from Tokyo is about $140, so a trip to Kyoto and back pays for itself and then some. Make a travel itinerary and see if the pass is worth it. You don’t have to pick the first day of use until you exchange the voucher in Japan.
    • A railpass is not always needed for your trip, depending on what your plans are. Railpasses are expensive and only worth it if they will save you money. You should definitely plan your trip and then determine whether or not a railpass is worth it.

Useful Japan Travel Resources

Language Preparation

Learn the language. I’m not saying that you should be fluent, but learning simple expressions and understanding how to order and/or buy things will make your trip more enjoyable. The more you know and understand the better off you are.

Closing Remarks

I hope this guide was at least a little helpful. If you see in grammatical errors or have any requests for topics I should consider adding please don’t hesitate to contact me through either Twitter (@St1ckBuG) or this website.