Japan Travel Essentials
I spent a couple weeks in Japan during cherry blossom season. I had never been to an Asian country before (other than being stranded in a remote Indonesian island for a few days...that's another story). I found it to be incredible, not as expensive as I had been led to believe, and very travel friendly. Here are the things that I found most helpful in having:
1. A Japan Rail Pass
We were flying in and out of Osaka, and our itinerary included: Osaka, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Takayama, and Tokyo. After doing the math, buying individual train tickets was going to be incredibly expensive.
Enter the Japan Rail Pass. You can buy a 7, 14, or 21 day pass that you have to purchase prior to arrival in Japan. You'll be sent a voucher that you then exchange at the JR rail office at the station. The 7 day pass is around $250. A great bargain if you pack a lot into those 7 days.
Perks of the Japan Rail pass: you can get free reservations for seats (which is so convenient. You just go to the office and the train station and it is arranged for you), you don't have to go through the automatic gate...just flash your pass to the attendant and walk by (that really saves time standing in line), and did I mention how much cheaper it was than buying individual tickets?
Visit https://www.japan-rail-pass.com to buy yours or read more about it. The voucher is sent via FedEx to your address along with a train guide and maps.
2. A Pocket WiFi
I can't even begin to tell you how important this little device was! After years of traveling with minimal WiFi access in hotels or hostels, this little guy was a revelation! I just wish it was available in more parts of the world.
My advice is to most definitely rent one. It's about the size of a cell phone and provided internet access to my travel companion and I while we were in the city and while we were in the hotels at night. It was so nice to be able to pull up a train schedule, map, directions, etc. As well as being able to communicate with our Air BnB hosts as needed.
We rented an unlimited access device from Global Advanced Communications and the process was smooth. You can have it shipped to your hotel or a post office at the airport. Since we arrived in Osaka, and were staying the first night in Hiroshima...I opted to pick it up at the Osaka airport...thinking it would give me the train ride to figure out how to use it. I ended up having it up and running while we were waiting in line for our rail passes! It was that easy.
If you decide to pick it up at a post office at the airport, I would highly suggest that you look up that airport's map to find the location of the post office beforehand. Because I really care about little details like that so I'm not wasting time running around, or panicking...I looked up the location of the post office at the Osaka airport, and boy, was I glad I did! The post office was on the second floor, tucked away in the farthest corner. Exactly the last place I would have looked. You'll provide your passport to one of the workers and they'll look up your package and hand it over.
Included in the package is the return envelope (sleek, so don't worry about packing it around your trip...you won't notice it). At the end of your trip, just put the contents in the return slip and drop it in the mail slot before entering the airport.
We spent around $100 for our rental for those two weeks. It was definitely worth every penny.
Check out http://www.globaladvancedcomm.com/pocketwifi.html for more details.
3. A Portable Charger
Seeing as you have a pocket WiFi and your devices that you're using to navigate around Japan...you'll probably need a portable charger so you're not left powerless. I purchased one from Zagg for $20 that was about the size of a travel size shampoo bottle. I'd charge it at night, and if during the day either my iPhone or the pocket WiFi went low on power, I'd be able to recharge it.
4. Travel Phone Apps
Here are some of the most handy apps on my phone I used while in Japan:
-Hyperdia by Voice: this app lets you search the train schedules...and has a filter for Japan Rail Pass, so it will only list trains you can take.
-City Rail Map: I used this app the most. Depending upon where we were and where we wanted to go, I'd plug in the stations and it would map out a way for us to get there. It also lists which train/metro to get on. So handy.
-Learn Japanese-Phrasebook for Travel in Japan: This app had a great feature that it listed commonly needed phrases for travel. Not only would it write phonetically how to say it, but a voice prompt would pronounce it as well. Several of my Air BnB hosts or the chefs at restaurants we went to got a big kick out of it.
5. A Rolling Suitcase
Most times when I travel, I use a backpack. It's how my sister taught me for my first trip to Europe. However...Japan is sleek...and I would have struggled with a large backpack. Storage on trains and lockers at the stations were built for slender bags...not bulky items. And there were a whole lot more escalators and less cobblestones that in Europe.
6. Japanese Yen
This was the first trip that I've taken that I exchanged money prior to arriving in the country. It's usually cheaper to do it directly upon arrival using an ATM. But in my research, I read that Japanese ATMs are finicky with American debit cards...and usually 7 Eleven's were the best bet. Since I didn't know when I'd first see a 7 Eleven, I got some Yen from my bank before I went. And really, the fee wasn't that much. It was a nice comfort to know that I was prepared.
7. A Kind Attitude
When I returned home, one of my friends asked, "What did you like about your trip?" And one of the first things out of my mouth was, "The people were so incredible!" She laughed, because that seemed like a really old person thing to say. But, the hospitality, general politeness, and kindness towards travelers really stuck out to me. So, spread the joy, and be ready to be kind and polite back.
Hot tip: if you're going to be staying in someone's home, a small gift, beautifully wrapped is a very cultural thing to do, and much appreciated. I took a few tiny boxes of chocolates from my home town that were tied with a gold ribbon to give my hosts and some other friends I met up with, and it was a big hit.