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*NEW* Japan Travel Thread


Senior Member
Aug 18, 2010
Reaction score
[SIZE=3.5]I noticed the last major thread regarding travel to Japan was marred by in-fighting to some extent. During my recent plane ride back from Japan I typed up some tips and ideas I hope may be of some use to the StyleForum community and hopefully start a fresh round of discussion. Thank you![/SIZE]


There seems to be no clear consensus regarding the best time to visit Japan. Winters are warm by NYC or Chicago standards, and the degree of walking that a trip to Japan entails could easily supply the body heat one would need to feel comfortable. Conversely, summer is warm and humid enough to make a trip during July, August, and September unappealing for anyone who is not thoroughly cold-blooded. Additionally, major holidays during the summertime bog down transit within Japan. Overall, I feel the average person would enjoy Japan best between: late-March to mid-May (the rainy season begins in June), or mid-October to early-December. Be warned that the times in which weather is most pleasant and the foliage is most impressive are also the times in which travel to and within Japan is most busy, so it may be helpful to enter your planning stages with a broad range of availability and select airfare based on what timeframe is most inexpensive. In terms of trip duration, I feel 2 weeks in Japan is enough to see most of the areas that cater to your preferences of settings and sights. Personally, I prefer staying in any one location for 2 nights so as to not feel rushed and unsettled. That being said, I think everyone should dedicate at least 4 or 5 nights to Tokyo and at least 3 nights in the region of Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara (it’s worth noting that these three cities are close enough for day-trips in either direction).


I don’t believe it’s necessary to purchase every book or comb every online resources but I had a decent amount of time to plan my trip and I feel the following resources may also be of use to you.

  • Book: ‘DK EyeWitness Travel Japan’ includes some useful infographics regarding cultural sights and storied neighborhoods throughout Japan (http://tinyurl.com/o5mb4gu
  • Book: ‘Lonely Planet Tokyo’ focuses on Tokyo events, nightlife, and restaurants more so than other books (http://tinyurl.com/ls8s9a8)
  • Book: “Japan by Train’ features lots of maps and itineraries that may be helpful for someone who is feeling passive about planning their trip (http://tinyurl.com/kz92ngo)
  • Book: 'The Japanese Mind’ was useful to me in learning some cultural practices and aspects of social interaction (http://tinyurl.com/q4sh8n6)


Getting around Japan is incredibly easy given the network of national and municipal trains that crisscross many of the same stations. By-and-large, moving between cities is accomplished by using Japan Railways, also known as “JR.” While each long-distance ‘line’ is operated by subsidiaries of JR Group, non-citizens of Japan are able to buy a Japan Railways Pass that offers unlimited traveling on all national and municipal JR lines for 7, 14, or 21 day durations (http://tinyurl.com/yonynx). Two seating options are available (Green Class and Ordinary Class) but I don’t believe spending extra money on the Green Car pass is necessary because regular cars are already spacious and comfortable. Ultimately, the JR pass is a very economical option relative to purchasing individual fares, especially considering the fact that numerous light rail JR lines may be used for travel within cities. For example, Osaka and Tokyo both have JR ‘loop’ lines that encircle these cities and are arguably as useful or more useful than municipal subways. The JR Pass is designed for use by tourists alone, so passes are not sold within Japan. Instead, one must use an online vendor or local travel agent to order a voucher via mail that you presented alongside your passport at the JR service desks of Japan’s major airports or train stations to receive your JR pass.

For long-distance lines on JR lines, I recommend using your JR Pass to make simultaneous ticket purchases and seat reservations at JR ticket counters found in every major station. To find these ticket counters, look for: a green sign featuring a logo of a man reclined in a chair (http://tinyurl.com/m35jvs4), or a ticket counter with the words ‘Shinkansen Tickets’ above it. Reservations can also be made online for specific lines, but the JR staff are often helpful in choosing trains / seats and queues are usually short. One thing I recommend here and other areas of your trip is to use a cell phone with a prepaid data connection [more on this later] OR offline Google Translate (requiring a ‘Japanese Language’ download) to compose a paragraph of text that features the station you’re departing from, which station you’re travelling to, and that you have a JR Pass. With that information, the staff will quickly select the best train for your needs and often write down the departure and arrival times for you on a paper note. It’s worth nothing that certain super-express trains are not covered by the JR Pass (‘Nozomi’ & ‘Mizuho’ lines), so indicating that you have a JR pass will prevent you from being charged the (expensive) fare for these trains. If you don’t purchase a JR pass, the process of purchasing tickets and reserving your seat is the same except that you pay out of pocket at the ticket counter.

For short-distance travel on JR lines (such as the ‘loop’ lines I previously mentioned), no reservations or ticketing are necessary to board your train. All turnstiles in Japan seem to be flanked by miniature service counters. As a JR Pass holder, you will pass by these counters as part of normal procedure, showing your JR pass to the manned staff for admission to the train area. Passing by these JR service counters is also a component of boarding the long-distance trains, though the gates for local and long-distance trains are segregated the vast majority of the time: show the small ticket you received at the ticket counter, in addition to your JR Pass, and the staff will let you through. Don’t throw your ticket away yet, though, because your ticket will be checked during the first leg of your journey. As an aside, I didn’t feel like taking the relatively large JR pass in and out of my backpack every 20 minutes, so I folded mine in half and kept in my back pocket.

Travel on municipal train lines (subways) is relatively easy, but slightly different than mass transport systems I’m more familiar with; rather than one-flat rate fare, the cost of any trip is calculated based on the distance you travel. Therefore, interpreting the fare charts and maps above ticketing is a necessary skill. To start, approach a ticket machine check the top-right or top-left corners of the screens for the presence of “English” language buttons. If there are no “English” buttons, the task of purchasing a ticket still is less intimidating than it may seem. On the touch screen interface of the ticket machine there is often a columnar list or grid of options to choose from. Generally, the first or most upper left of these options corresponds to ‘Single fare ticket.’ Tap this option and begin the process of calculating your fare by scanning the map above the ticket machine for a station marked in a red circle (corresponding to the station you’re currently in). Stations nearer your current station are marked by a lower number and stations further from your own are marked with a larger number, all corresponding to the fare of ending your journey at a given station (notice that transferring to other lines does not increase the cost). Once you’ve calculated your fare, input the proper change and select the value of the ticket you’d like to purchase on the touch screen to receive your ticket.

Remember the turnstiles I mentioned earlier? Well, they’re not your typical turnstile. Instead, a **** toward the front of the console eats your ticket and spits it out the back (unless you’re at the end of your journey, then the turnstile will display “Thank you, now go away!”). Ticket-reading machines are used when both exiting and leaving the train areas, but it is only on exiting a station that your fare value and the value of your trip are compared by the computer system. If you accidentally got off a station later than expected or something of that sort, the turnstile console may direct you to the nearby service counter or fare adjustment machine where you present your ticket and remediation fare to the staff. It’s important to note that the exact station you initially buy your ticket at is marked on the ticket and somehow important to the ticket reading machines. If you purchase a 220 yen ticket at a station on ‘X’ line/station and decide you don’t want to ride the subway anymore, I believe you can’t simply use the ticket for an equivalent trip later on in the day at a different location. Instead, approach the service counter and get a refund.

While I only touched on the JR Pass, it’s worth mentioning that ‘Suico’ and ‘Pasmo’ are two private, competing firms that offer refillable charge cards that are compatible with virtually all turnstiles in Japan (albeit each pass for different rail companies). I didn’t invest in them too much time into researching, but I may buy one during my next trip because fares are calculated at turnstiles using visual card-readers and debited from your account automatically. ‘Suico’ and ‘Pasmo’ cards can be purchased at or nearby municipal ticketing machines, but it may be best to look for a machine with English language support in case the process of purchasing one is relatively drawn out (though I’m sure nearby service staff can help). A 'Suico' or 'Pasmo' card is probably a convenient investment for someone who would not make the most of a JR Pass (perhaps those not branching out beyond one metropolitan area). On a related note, using local JR lines without a JR Pass is similar to municipal rail lines in terms of pricing, ticket machines, and turnstiles.

Please note that the vast majority (if not all) of train services stop operating between 11:45 PM – 1:00 AM and do not reserve service until 4:00 AM – 5:00 AM. This is something to keep in mind because taxis are very expensive in Japan (at least 30-50% more than in NYC), so it may be worth catering your itinerary to walking home or waiting for the first train of the morning. The fact that Japanese bars and clubs are often open late (some fancy restaurants are even open 24 hours) makes it easy to bide your time waiting for the first train of the new day. Fortunately, Japan is a safe country so I felt comfortable walking long distances back to my hotel at the end of the night.

I recommend familiarizing yourself with the following subway maps before your trip. Although most transport-related menus, signage, and in-train displays incorporate the English language, the train maps above ticketing machines often do not. Whether or not you plan to utilize a prepaid data SIM, carrier roaming, or no data connection at all, it’s a good idea to bring a phone with you featuring PDFs of them so you can match your desired destination to its fare more easily. Though the maps I’m linking below correspond to municipal subways, subway maps often feature JR and other private railways. For example, the municipal map of Tokyo includes an alternating grey-and-white colored line that represents the super-useful JR Yamanote ‘loop’ line.

For timetables of most long-distance trains, you’ll have to visit the specific website of the JR subsidiary that operates the line in question (JR East, JR West, etc). For your convenience, I’m linking the ‘Tokaido’ line timetables because it is by far the most popular long-distance line. Trains run often and are rarely crowded, so it may not be worth your time to work out specific train schedules because JR ticketing staff don’t need to know these specifics to reserve the optimum train for you. Additionally, just missing the previous train will usually only set you back 15 to 30 minutes.


Japan is *mostly* a cash (and change) society. To acquire liquid currency within Japan, there are few options I’ve looked into that seem fairly reliable. For those who already have an account or would not mind opening one, Citi and HSBC have some degree of ATM presence in Japan (including airports), though withdrawing funds at them by tapping into your American Citi & HSBC accounts may still involve an international ATM withdrawal fee because your Citi and HSBC accounts are not of the local variety. This is a good time to warn you about the pervasiveness of fees regarding withdrawals: depending on the bank in question, out-of-network fees for other banks generally range from a flat fee between $3-5 to 1, 2, or 3% of the total transaction value (or both). It’s worth noting that currency conversion rates on bank withdrawal are often a few points below market, another way in which banks take off the top for your travel experiences.

That being said, more popular options for withdrawing cash form ATMs include Japanese Post Offices (relatively ubiquitous, including airports) and convenience stores (particularly 7-eleven), both known for having ATM machines that accept withdrawals using debit cards that utilize the VISA and MasterCard networks. I am not entirely sure which banks issue cards that are or are not accepted at Japanese network ATMs or ATMs of other banks, so please look into the specifics of your financial institutions and cards before hand (the network of 7-eleven ATMs is ‘OneBank’, for instance). One thing I can say for sure is that Charles Schwab Bank issues a VISA-network debit card as part of their checking and savings account packages and will reimburse you for all ATM fees you accrue in the United States and abroad. A colleague mentioned that CapitalOne offers several no-fee MasterCard-network credit cards and debit cards that may be used at post offices, as well.

In terms of credit card transactions, I saw plenty of stores that accepted VISA, American Express, and MasterCard during my time in Japan. Keep in mind that certain credit card issuers may charge fees for international transactions. One lesser-known tip about credit cards in Japan is that JCB, the Japanese conglomerate accepted nearly everywhere, shares their network with Discover in a totally fee-free fashion. Any place JCB is accepted, Discover will also be accepted (though you may have to inform the store clerk of this). Because of its wide acceptance and fee-free use, I applied for a Discover card prior to my trip and had no issues with its use. Be sure to know the debit pins associated with your credit card accounts (if applicable) because, even if the transaction you are completing is purely ‘credit’ and there is no bank account associated with the card, it may be necessary to input the pin at the machine to verify your identity (I didn’t commit my Discover or AMEX pins to memory until my trip to Japan). Whether you'll be using credit, debit, or ATM cards on your trip, be sure to let your financial institutions know you're traveling abroad or booking hotels using foreign vendors so you don't experience any service interruptions.

Lastly, Japan only prints currency for bills corresponding to 1000 yen and above (~10$), so please bring a satchel (or fanny pack?) for all the coins you’ll be collecting and using throughout the trip. I don't mean to suggest that coins are less efficient or convenient as a method of currency, but be prepared to carry some degree more than you are used to. The only coin I dread is the 10 yen coin because it is so large and so common, but I ended up saving them in a different container and using them for subway fare.


The major point I want to get across here is that Japanese people pack lightly, and the accommodations of their transport services reflect that. Only trains to and from airports feature areas for large suitcases (in the front and back of train cars). Long-distance trains feature overhead storage shelves that will easily accommodate a backpack or average-sized overhead luggage piece. For my trip, I had no issues with using one large backpack and one overhead luggage piece (22” x 14” x 9”) to move between cities. Once I was set up in the hotel room, packed personal items in a small backpack I brought with me.

Amenities in Japan are pretty thorough, but there are some aspects of Japanese society you may encounter that may be relevant to you:

  • No soap in public restrooms (bring hand sanitizer?)
  • No hand towels in public restrooms (bring a handkerchief?)
  • No public trashcans or recycling bins (bring a garbage bag in your backpack?)
  • Hertz-dependent electronics from America (certain types of electric clippers etc.) will not work in Tokyo or the rest of the country north of Tokyo as electricity is provided at a different frequency than in the USA (but the same as Europe). South of Tokyo, hertz-dependent electronics from Europe will not work.
  • Electricity plugs do not feature a third 'grounding' slot. Consider an adapter of some kind.
  • Excess loose change (bring a container?)
  • Hotels lacking Wi-Fi (bring a CAT5 ethernet cable in case one is not provided?)
  • Vending machines may or may not carry unflavored water (bring a water bottle?)
  • Pervasive pollens (though certain decongestants are not legal in Japan and should not be brought into the country; Benadryl in its various forms is fine).
  • Seemingly random pairings of innocuous ingredients and potent food allergens (Bring epi-pens, consider buying ‘SelectWisely’ infographic cards to show to your servers).
  • Immigration officials ask that visitors to Japan have their passports on their person at all times; a hefty fine/trip to the police station may ensue if police stop you and discover you don't have your passport on you.

Telecommunication / Navigation:

I’ve mentioned before that I feel a cell phone, irrespective of whether or not it is connected to a ‘data’ network source, is a valuable resource to have in Japan. For one, it is possible to use Google Translate in offline mode after downloading the ‘Japanese Language’ pack. Additionally, one can use their phones to store useful maps and timetables. Even more, some useful applications for travel in Japan work offline. For example, it is possible to save portions of a map into ‘Google Maps’ for offline use. If you have any interest in utilizing a mobile connection in Japan, you have a few options. For one, you can take your current cell phone to Japan as is and likely receive some connectivity on their networks. This option would likely incur significant roaming costs, so I recommend looking elsewhere. The second option is to ability to rent a phone and receive both a ‘data’ and ‘voice’ connection for the duration of your trip. This option seems attractive, but I was slightly dissuaded by the prospects of: 1. Renting a new, Japanese language phone and spending a significant amount of time setting it up for desired use, 2. Not being able to rent a phone until I arrived at my destination, 3. Having to return the phone they day of my departure and not having it available to me at the airport.

Because having ‘voice’ connectivity was never a necessity for my trip, I settled on an alternative option of purchasing a prepaid data-only SIM card from a Japanese vendor (http://tinyurl.com/7yyh3nw). The SIM was delivered to the post office inside the airport I was traveling to and provided unlimited data connectivity for a period of 1 month, costing approximately $50 USD. The SIM card came with useful instructions for setting up the data connection, but your phone will have to meet a few requirements before use. Firstly, your phone must be able to send and receive data signal at the 2100 Mhz “UMTS/”CDMA” bands (check Wikipedia or PM me regarding your specific model). Next, your phone must have a SIM card slot (be sure to select the proper size when ordering). Lastly, your phone must be ‘carrier unlocked’ to be able to utilize SIM cards from other cell phone networks (some carriers are more or less stringent in offering to ‘unlock’ your phone, but it should never cost you money). If your current phone is not compatible with the pre-paid SIM cards for whatever reason it is always an option to purchase a cell phone on craigslist or eBay that is both unlocked and compatible with the NTT DoCoMo utilized by most prepaid SIMs. For example, I purchased a factory unlocked T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy S II (SGH-T989) for the purposes of my trip and had absolutely no issues using the pre-paid SIM. In fact, mobile connectivity is so widespread in Japan that I’m a little bit jealous (full service on the subway? My God.)

Some mobile apps I think may be of use:

  • ‘Google Translate’ (online or offline use)
  • ‘S Translate’ (available for newer Samsung phones)
  • ‘Google Maps’ (online or offline use)
  • ‘Speak Japanese Pro’: Small library of helpful Japanese phrases with audio companions for each.
  • ‘Aedict’: Useful Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionary with (I believe) offline capabilities.
  • ‘Japan Trains’: Useful trip planner that provides multiple routes and their associated fares, duration, and timing (online or offline use).
  • ‘Hyperdia’: Similar to ‘Japan Trains’
  • ‘Gurunavi’: Similar to Yelp, though without a ‘Map view’ feature.

One tip that may of some use to all Google Maps mobile users is ‘starring’ destinations into your Google Maps favorites before leaving your place of lodging. A big reason to do this is that Google Maps does not accurately locate certain establishments if you search for them using English characters. Therefore, if I were interested in a given restaurant I would first find the address in Japanese characters before inputting that into a ‘Google Maps’ search on my computer. I would then ‘star’ that destination, adding it to my favorites, which allowed me to simply select that destination on the Google Maps mobile app and engage the ‘Navigation’ feature with just a tap. For users without a data connection, it’s worth doing a little bit of research and favorite destinations / save portions of Google Maps to your phone because: 1. A lot of phones receive free GPS connectivity with mobile data disabled, 2. In most areas it is easy to navigate using a bird’s eye view of intersections and nearby landmarks.

Two final points: a minor caveat of downloading the ‘Japanese Language’ pack for offline use is that a bug occurs in which the text you translate is no longer translated into roman characters as well as native Japanese scripts, so it’s not possible to utilize Google Translate as a sort of ‘English-Japanese’ dictionary (but ‘Aedict’ is a useful alternative). Additionally, Starbucks in Japan offers free Wi-Fi but one must register prior to using [a difficult task on-the-fly if Starbucks wifi is your only internet connection] (http://tinyurl.com/lrjp4vh).


Unfortunately, I don’t have very much to add in this realm because I travelled to Japan during the summertime and was not entirely sure a traditional Japanese Inn would provide enough of an air-conditioned refuge (though some high-end ‘Ryokan’ [inn] and ‘Onsen’ [hot spring] resorts do feature air conditioning). That being said, I feel that hot spring resorts and inns are a good idea for a trip when weather conditions are better. One tip I can suggest for those interested in staying at a more traditional Japanese lodging option is that these establishments often set curfews that are relatively early, so if you’re a night owl or are only spending a limited amount of time in a given location it may be best to save these lodging options for a portion of your trip that affords you a leisurely night in.

During my trip, I stayed in business hotels in the price range of $90-120 USD a night. I’m definitely under the impression that your lodging money goes further in Japan regarding both cleanliness and amenities, though rooms are admittedly small. The major criteria I used when selecting my hotels was being within a 10 minute walk of major JR stations for convenient access to both local and long-distance JR trains. In terms of Tokyo lodging, it may be useful to consider staying in a ward that conveniently places you in between major areas the major areas of Shibuya/Shinjuku and Ginza/Chuo. For example, Shinagawa station features both bullet trains and local JR lines that place you ten minutes from these hotspots. Lodging near Osaka Station or Shin-Osaka Station is also a good idea because it places you near JR lines and key municipal lines. Some may like moving between hotels in the same city, but the infrastructure was good enough and long walks home were safe enough that I did not feel this was necessary.

To book my hotels (6 – 8 weeks out), I used train map PDFs and Google Maps to assist me in searching for hotels using the following vendors:


I fancy myself more of a city dweller, so my itinerary more so focused on visiting the major urban centers in central Japan while enjoying the countryside from the window of a train. The one exception to this for my trip was Hakone, a resort town near Mt Fuji in which transport to your lodging requires a scenic 45-minute bus ride from Odawara station. I do find the mountainous scenery in Japan to be very lush and recommend you consider incorporating it into your trip but, unfortunately, I can’t really offer much advice in this area. In terms of sights I thought were cool, I’ll break things down by city:


  • Meiji Shrine – (Yoyogi, Tokyo) - The entrance and path to this shrine are, in my opinion, just as cool as the shrine itself. Like all shrines and temples, it closes relatively early in the afternoon.
  • Yogogi Park – (Harajuku, Tokyo) – This is a great idea on Sunday afternoon when all the cosplayers (aka young people) are out and about. Keep in mind that Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine are in the same ‘green’ complex, so you may want to combine your efforts.
  • Shinjuku Station – (Shinjuku, Tokyo) – I’m sure everyone who visits Japan will end up traveling through this, the busiest train station in the world, but it’s also fun to wander around here as an urban catacomb of sorts.
  • West Shinjuku – (Shinjuku, Tokyo) – Not unlike the financial district of downtown Manhattan, if tall buildings and mixed-used public spaces are your ‘thing’.
  • West Shibuya – (Shibuya, Tokyo) – Crowded pedestrian crossings, unique cafes, nightclubs, and retail stores.
  • Tokyo Castle – (Chuo, Tokyo) – Just east of the (off-limits) Imperial grounds, the sprawling grounds of this castle have been reduced mostly to stone structures and gardens. Seeing the moat is worth a trip in itself!
  • Tokyo Station – (Chuo, Tokyo) – This station is a sort of architectural two-face: the western façade is classic early 20th century Tokyo, while the eastern façade (still under construction) is set to be futuristic and ornate.
  • Ghibli Museum – (Mitaka, Tokyo) – I do not consider myself a big fan of anime or its related culture, but I still thought this was an enjoyable museum for the movie studio behind all Miyazaki films.
  • Tsukiji Fish Market – (Tsukiji, Tokyo) – In case you’re dissuaded from the fish market because it is most active during the early morning, I thought the market was also cool during off hours.
  • Senso-ji Shrine – (Asakusa, Tokyo) – Sort of a tourist trap in the sense that it’s always crowded and relatively commercialized, but the altar area is still worth the visit.
  • Ginza – (Ginza, Tokyo) – High-end shopping, great cafes, and high-end restaurants.
  • Akihabara - (Akihabara, Tokyo) - Tech and anime-centric district with cool shops, arcades, and thoroughly stocked showrooms.
  • Odaiba – (Odabia, Tokyo) – An artificial island in Tokyo Bay with interesting statues and surprisingly cool shopping malls.
  • Edo-Tokyo Museum – (Sumida, Tokyo) – Lots of impressive miniatures and artifacts with informative captions.
  • Nekorobi Cat Café – (Ikebukuro, Tokyo) – The original Tokyo ‘Cat café’ (though cat cafes are native to Osaka).
  • Earthquake Hall – (Ikebukuro, Tokyo) – Informative and interactive because it features a powerful earthquake room to stimulate the feeling of a powerful earthquake.
  • Honda Welcome Plaza – (Roppongi, Tokyo) – Robots on parade (though for limited times each day, so check the schedule before going).
  • Skytree – (Sumida, Tokyo) – Great views of the city and surrounding mountains, though reserve your tickets ahead of time and avoid on the weekends.


  • Jozenji-dori – (Sendai) – This major avenue in Sendai (and the city in general) is lined by trees and feels much like open spaces in Paris or other European cities. Keep in mind that Sendai was the urban area most effected by the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami so, in addition to its charms as unique Japanese city, the fact that your tourist dollars may contribute relatively directly to rebuilding efforts is a good reason to visit the area.


  • Kyoto Sation – (Shimogyo, Kyoto) – Very large, modern station with great restaurants.
  • Kinkaku-ji – (Kika, Kyoto) – Gold-plated pavilion that looks really great in the snow.
  • Ryoan-ji – (Ukyo, Kyoto) – Located a 15 minute walk from Ginkaku-ji, this Zen Buddhist garden and surrounding gardens are quite serene. If you venture further south you’ll find a large park that provides great views of the city, as well.
  • Ginkaku-ji – (Sakyo, Kyoto) – The pavilion itself is not as impressive as Kinkaku-ji, but its grounds feature a small trail into the nearby ridge that provide good panoramic views.
  • Kiyomizu-dera – (Higashiyama, Kyoto) – If you only have time for one historical complex in Kyoto, I’d spend that time here because it is large, diverse, and well integrated into the mountain ridge.
  • Sanjusangen-do – (Higashiyama, Kyoto) – Buddhist temple/gallery with hundreds of metal statues and figures flanking a large Buddha.


  • Todaiji Temple / Nara Park – (Nara) – This complex is a worthwhile reason to take a daytrip to Nara because of the giant Buddha statue inside Todaiji Temple and the friendly deer wandering around the surrounding park.


  • Umeda – (Umeda, Osaka) – Very developed commercial center featuring restaurants, businesses, and retail in well-designed complexes.
  • Umeda Sky Building – (Umeda, Osaka) – Not the tallest rooftop pavilion in the world, but certainly the most weirdly designed.
  • Shinsekai – (Shinsekai, Osaka) – Designed during the pre-war era to reflect the large wide streets of Paris & NYC, this leisure area now has a rustic and humble feel.
  • Amerikamura – (Minami, Osaka) – Mostly just a retail area for American products and brands, though some weird shops make and ‘triangle park’ make it worth the trip.
  • Tsuruhashi – (Ikuno, Osaka) – The most thoroughly Korean area I came across during my trip. Be sure to visit the food markets underneath the JR tracks.
  • Tempozan Market / Ferris Wheel – (Minato, Osaka) – Just across from the Osaka Aquarium, this market is great for views of both Osaka Bay and the developed city center.
  • Osaka Aquarium – (Minato, Osaka) – Designed so that you begin at the top floor and spiral toward ground level, this aquarium’s layout allows you to see varying levels of the contiguous water tanks around you. Even if you don’t like fish or zoos, I find this worth the time solely from the standpoint of good design. Also, whale sharks.


I’m a fan of the restaurant industry in Japan for a few reasons. For one, the small size of Japanese homes ensures there is significant competition between restaurants for customers engaging in social dining. Additionally, cuisine is incredibly diverse and the Japanese love of culinary novelty ensures there is always something bold to try. Lastly, it’s impossible to judge a book by its cover: plenty of amazing restaurants will feature limited to no façade or are located in office buildings and train stations (put some research into locating restaurants not located at street level).

Foods to try:

  • ‘Okonomiyaki’ – Sort of a cross between an omelet and a pancake.
  • ‘Takoyaki’ – Fried batter balls featuring octopus, veggies, and spices.
  • ‘Yakitori’ – Skewers of meat and vegetables available in salt (‘shio’) or sauce-marinated (‘sosu‘) varieties.
  • ‘Tonkatsu’ – Meals focused on a main dish of fried meat, always accompanied by small side dishes (like ‘banchan’ in Korean cuisine)
  • ‘Sushi’ – No explanation necessary.
  • ‘Soba’ – Soup featuring buckwheat noodles (generally served cold).
  • ‘Udon’ – Soups that include wheat flour noodles (generally served hot).
  • ‘Ramen’ – Egg-noodle soups (tend to be slightly more oily than Udon or Soba).
  • ‘Izakaya’ – Japanese pub food.
  • ‘Shabu-shabu’ – Do-it-yourself Japanese cuisine.
  • ‘Kaire Raisu’ – Dishes based upon curry and rice.
  • ‘Kaiseki’ – Traditional multi-course Japanese cuisine.

Restaurants I enjoyed:

  • Ginza Kyubey – (Ginza, Tokyo) – Good value relative to other sushi restaurants; be sure to request that you’re seated at the sushi bar and order ‘omakase’ (chef selection).
  • Edogin – (Tsukiji, Tokyo) – My favorite sushi restaurant in the vicinity of the fish market.
  • Birdland – (Ginza, Tokyo) – High-end 'yakitori'.
  • Pho Dragon – (Roppongi, Tokyo) – Self-explanatory.
  • Afuri – (Ebisu, Tokyo) – Great 'ramen' that is not too oily.
  • Harajuku Gyoza Lou – (Harajuku, Tokyo) – Dumpling heaven.
  • Hyungboo – (Akasaka, Tokyo) – Korean cuisine, open 24 hours a day.
  • Heiroku Zushi – (Harajuku, Tokyo) – Non-traditional sushi.
  • The 3rd Burger – (Harajuku, Tokyo) – Self-explanatory.
  • Chili Parlor #9 – (Kudanshita, Tokyo) – I didn’t know Chili beans could be successfully incorporated into so many things.
  • Fumin – (Aoyama, Tokyo) – Well-made 'Taiwanese' cuisine.
  • Chabuzen – (Setagaya, Tokyo) – Vegan 'ramen' that is also filling and delicious.
  • Suzuran – (Shibuya, Tokyo) – Dipping 'ramen'.
  • Shabu Zen – (Roppongi, Tokyo) – Shabu-shabu featuring fresh ingredients.
  • Giro Giro – (Nishigomonsho, Kyoto) – Affordable ‘kaiseki’ cuisine.
  • Chibo – (Dotonbori, Osaka) – Popular ‘okonomiyaki’ restaurant.


Like Japan’s restaurant industry, nightlife is quite ubiquitous and diverse. My nightlife habits typically involve down-tempo bars and jazz clubs. Japan sort of caters to some of my tendencies because many pub-style bars are small and most social interaction takes place in the form of conversation with your bartender. If there’s any piece of advice you’re eating a late dinner and enjoy the environment, do no shy away form ordering drinks and staying quite a while. Oh, and don’t forget to scope out cool spots in train stations!

Nightlife spots I enjoyed:

  • Bar High Five – (Ginza, Tokyo) – Reservation-only bar with detail-oriented bartending and great selection.
  • Zoetrope – (Nishi-shinjuku, Tokyo) - Japanese whiskey heaven.
  • These – (Nishi-azabu, Tokyo) – Lounge-library with stunning design and great fruit side dishes.
  • Bello Visto – (Shibuya, Tokyo) – If seated at the bar you’ll have a great view of Tokyo form the 36th floor of the Cerulean Tower.
  • Womb – (Shibuya, Tokyo) – Dance club that is actually pretty great for low-key fun on weekdays.
  • Grand Café – (Dotonbori, Osaka) – This and other clubs in the Dotonbori area cater toward dance-fanatic natives and foreigners alike.


Fortunately for travelers, verbal communication in Japan is usually brief and scripted based on context. Given the fact that Japanese language doesn’t require the same tonal variations like Mandarin Chinese does, it’s relatively easy to learn a few key phrases and questions that will help you in recurring situations. In my experience, Japanese in large metropolitan areas are more able to understand English than they are able to vocalize themselves in English. A big component of this is the desire to be respectful to international guests by not butchering their language. One fallback you can always rely upon to express yourself despite limited Japanese or cell phone (Google Translate) ability is writing down English words onto paper (Japanese are taught English in the pen-and-paper format more so than verbally, and the roman script is also a component of their Japanese language abilities).

Coupled with the fact that the Japanese individuals I interacted with responded positively to pleasant-sounding Japanese from the mouth of a foreigner, I think Japanese shyness about speaking English means it’s valuable to learn some amount of Japanese before your trip and not be afraid of speaking it. It’s always possible to use Google Translate for things you do not feel comfortable vocalizing. Be warned, though, that flashing a cell phone screen full of Japanese script means you will likely be responded to in Japanese, so ensure the blocks of text you’re composing are thorough and require little to no clarification. In terms of Japanese phrases every traveller may want to familiarizes themselves with:

  • 'Hai' – 'Yes' *Used in conversations to convey attentiveness*
  • 'A so desu ka' – ‘Oh, I see’ *Also used in conversations to convey attentiveness*
  • ' iie' –'No'
  • 'Konnichiwa' – ‘Good day’
  • 'Konbanwa' – ‘Good evening’
  • 'Sumimasen' – ‘Excuse me’
  • 'Gomenasai' – ‘Sorry’
  • 'Arigatou gozaimas' – ‘Thank you’
  • 'Arigatou, kekkou desu' – ‘No, thank you’
  • '… douzo' – ‘Please’ (offering)
  • '… kudasai' - ‘Please’ (requesting)
  • 'Genki desu ka?' – ‘How are you?’
  • 'Genki des, arigatou' – ‘I’m well, than you’
  • 'Kore wa ikura desu ka?' – ‘How much does this cost?’
  • '… wa doko desu ka?' – ‘Where is…?’
  • 'Eigo ga hanasemas ka?' – ‘Do you speak English?’
  • 'Dareka eigo ga hanasemas ka?' - ‘Does anyone around speak English?’
  • 'Nihongo ga hanasemasen.' – ‘I don’t speak Japanese.’
  • 'Wakarimasu' – ‘I understand’
  • 'Wakarimasen' – ‘I don’t understand’
  • 'Wakarimas ka?' – ‘Do you understand?’
  • 'Chekku in shimasu' – ‘I’d like to check in, please’
  • 'Chekku auto shimasu' – ‘I’d like to check out, please’
  • 'Tsumekae kudasai' – ‘Refill please’
  • 'Isshun kudasai' – ‘One moment, please’
  • 'Itadakimasu' – ‘I humbly receive’ *when you receive your food*
  • 'Gochi sosama deshita' – ‘Thank you for the feast’ *when you finish your food*
  • 'Yoroshiku onegaishimas' – ‘Do your best to treat me well’ *very useful*
  • 'Toire' – ‘Toilet’
  • 'Risaikuru' – ‘Recycling’
  • 'Gomi' – ‘Trash’
  • 'Okaikei' – ‘Check / Bill’
  • 'Gurasu' – ‘Drinking glass’
  • 'Denssya' – ‘Train’
  • 'Eki' – ‘Station’
  • 'Mizu' – ‘Water’
  • 'Agari' – ‘Green tea’
  • 'Sore' – ‘This’

Tips regarding pronunciation of the above ‘romaji’ script:

  • a - ‘ah’ as in ‘father’
  • i - ‘ee’ as in ‘bees’ (sometimes not pronounced, such as between ‘sh’ and ‘t’ sounds)
  • u – ‘oo’ as in ‘moon’ (usually not pronounced at the ends of words)
  • e – ‘eh’ as in ‘egg’
  • o – ‘oh’ as in ‘glow’
  • ai – like the letter ‘i’
  • ae – nasal ‘a’ as in ‘sandwich’
  • ei – ‘ay’ as in ‘lay’
  • oi – ‘oy’ as in ‘oyster’
  • r – combination between an ‘L’ and a rolled ‘R’


Japanese people are, by and large, very polite and orderly. Some things that may be helpful:

  • Take your time when pronouncing Japanese words and piecing together your ideas using the Japanese language. I think thoroughness in this department is more endearing to Japanese natives than trying to speak at the pace at their pace and not being understood at all.
  • When in doubt, remove your shoes.
  • Proper, sex-specific floor-sitting techniques do exist.
  • ‘Bows’ actually come in four varieties: shallow bows, medium depth bows, deep bows, and head nods. Expect much of the latter when walking to and fro, shallow bows when you do something nice for someone else, and medium depth bows from service industry members. I didn’t see any ‘deep’ bows during my time in Japan, but I believe those are saved for the deepest of apologies.
  • Try not to point using your finger. An open palm will do.
  • The Japanese do have a word for ‘no,’ but it is not often used in social interactions because of politeness and conflict avoidance. Perhaps it may be best to imply doubt using your body language or suggest alternatives that are agreeable to you?
  • If it’s not a bench or chair, it’s not meant to be sat or leant upon. This seems trivial to me (and Japanese violate it all the time), but just in case you were a stickler for rules.
  • Conversations between Japanese people are peppered with short affirmative statements to demonstrate attentiveness (but not necessarily agreement).
  • Give and accept things using both hands.
  • Queue for trains at the designated markings on the floor. Move to the flank of train doors when you’re getting ready to board, but make sure everyone has gotten off before you get on.
  • Trains are often crowded, so please move toward the ‘middle’. Plenty of people get on and off at each stop, so it’s rare that you’ll feel ‘boxed in.’
  • Many public transport options include priority seating for moms, expecting mom, the elderly, and handicapable individuals. Look out for informational signs or seating painted a different color from others on the train.
  • Follow the host or hostesses’ direction in terms of seating arrangements (oddly, they are culturally important).
  • Water is not automatically given at restaurants and bars, so be sure to ask for it if you'd like it.
  • If you need assistance while dining out, it is customary to speak up and say ‘Sumimasen!
  • Proper tipping and gift giving is extremely nuanced and context-specific, so I’d forego the former and heavily research opportunities for the latter.
  • Don’t place your chopsticks in your food vertically or pass food from one set of chopsticks to another, both things that are reminiscent of Shinto funeral rituals.
  • It’s standard practice to make noise when you eat soup dishes.
  • You don’t need to buy anything to use convenience store restrooms.
  • It's considered rude to eat and drink on the go. If you buy something at a vending machine, perhaps it may be best to finish it while standing nearby.
  • ‘Convenience store’ Japanese is even hard for natives to understand; don’t beat yourself up over responding to the scripted sub-language.
  • It is not uncommon to be solicited for sex by members of that industry anytime after 5:00 PM, so try not to be too alarmed or offended.
  • Payment often takes place at the counter when dining out.
  • Despite the fact that you may or may not appear to be Japanese, it’s perfectly normal to enter a subway train and garner no looks from anyone or go about your day and not be chatted up by natives. ‘Minding your own business’ in Japan is meant to convey respect and modesty, and that may be something to keep in mind if you’re feeling distant from those around you.



Random street near Tsuruhashi, Osaka.


Typical platform of the Tokyo Municipal Subway.


Sleeping sea lion at Osaka Aquarium


Tsukiji Fish Market after hours.
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Timed Out
Timed Out
Sep 6, 2006
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You're over playing the cash change thing, it's not that bad. You need a coin wallet and have the habit of using those coins, they're worth 10 times what the American instinctively thinks when going by handfeel. 500 yen is over $5 and pays for many things, including tube rides, a snack, some meals, and a quick cab ride is a 500, two 100's, and a 10. I have a Comme des Garcons zip wallet with a coin pouch and it has a few coins in it, but never that many.

ATMs for foreign debit cards work best at 7-11 or Post Offices. Post offices close at 5 or 7 usually, except for a few major post offices (there's one in Shibuya up the hill going towards Aoyama that works 24 hours a day, including for postal affairs) and 7-11 ATMs can be finicky at times. Also, the 7-11 ones only dispense in 10,000Y notes for foreign cards so I suspect one should expect to draw a thousand bucks or two at a time to make that and the transaction fee worth it.

Japan can get pretty cold in the winter. I am never warm enough by deep winter, I feel. To compound that, most Japanese houses and buildings have poor heating (by western standards) and so you should dress fairly warm. I need long johns and a down or heavy wool coat by deep winter in Tokyo.


Senior Member
Aug 18, 2010
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I've updated the original post for clarity and the inclusion of some new information.


Distinguished Member
Oct 29, 2008
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I've updated the original post for clarity and the inclusion of some new information.

This couldnt have come at a better time. Thinking about making a solo trip somewhere in the world, went to Japan when I was younger but I dont remember much. Awesome information. Did you travel alone or with a group? I kind of want to do the whole solo travelers put in a group thing, could be fun. Let me know your thoughs:D


Distinguished Member
Oct 25, 2006
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This is a great thread, thank you. The wife and I are planning a trip to Japan for this coming spring, and this is a great intro.


Stylish Dinosaur
Feb 22, 2009
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Been to Japan 4 times, but the last time was over 10 years ago, so pretty sure this will come in handy when I visit again.


Rubber Chicken
Dubiously Honored
May 7, 2006
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Ya, Kyubey. We went there on nutcrackers recommendation and it was excellent. The one in Hotel Okura is also excellent.
Birdland another thumbs up.
Also a ton of ramen/ tsukemen and ten-don places. Yum.


Timed Out
Timed Out
Sep 6, 2006
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Bird Land is fun but not exceptional yakitori. It's accessible and the wine list is averagely good. Torizenseo in Azabujuban and Tokyo station is better yakitori, plus a better wine list. There's tons of good ones out there.


Distinguished Member
Feb 16, 2010
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Also I feel you can use credit card at most places now too, didn't really have many times I needed cash for sure


Senior Member
Aug 18, 2010
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I'm happy to see cuisine discussion in this thread! Though I linked several outside resources that were specific to Japan, feel free to use Michelin or other guides when selecting your restaurants; most of my dining choices were based on novelty or value, but I understand the appeal of truly 'fine' dining. Also, some of my dietary restrictions generally steer me away from French and Italian cuisine; If there's anything I want to get across about dining in Japan, it's that cuisine is diverse and generally of high enough quality that you'll be able to find something worthwhile regarding anything you can imagine. Do some extra research and you'll likely have a memorable experience.

Although I originally forgot to, I'd like to give you all a piece of advice regarding municipal trains that will not likely 'come up,' but you should be aware of anyways. To illustrate this point, I'd like to refer to the NYC subway system in which separate trains travelling in the same direction or on the same basic route will occupy tracks that are side-by-side. For example, at some stops on a local train ('6') I am able to look out the door of the car and see a stationary express train travelling a path that is modified relative to mine ('4' or '5'). Though municipal subways in Japan do utilize express trains and sometimes these trains are organized in a similar fashion, an entirely different situation can take place in which two trains that are both travelling along the same path, in tandem, end up diverging greatly. For example, one day I was taking the Tokyo Metro for a large number of stops and I sort of 'zoned out.' At one stop, I noticed a tandem train on my 'line' just across the platform. I thought it was odd, but only after 10 minutes did I realize that the train I was on had in fact 'switched' to a new line altogether; it's path on the Tokyo Metro line was always meant to be abbreviated, continuing after that point as a new line altogether. I couldn't see the signage change of my own train because I was inside the train, and the Japanese language announcement was lost on me. I nearly ended up in Yokohama! Thankfully, fares in Japan are based on the distance between your entrance station and exit station, so I was able to get off at an unintended station and take a return trip nearer to the point in which I should have switched trains. Here's a picture illustration of what I did wrong: http://tinyurl.com/octolpy

Also I feel you can use credit card at most places now too, didn't really have many times I needed cash for sure

I agree that most places now accept credit cards (especially Discover Cards in the sense that they utilize Japan's largest domestic network). Some reasons I found myself using cash and change more than in America:

1. Vending machines / convenience stores (which usually have a section of healthy/premium options and/or delicious fruit cups). Most convenience stores accept credit cards, but a credit card transaction would nearly double the time I was in-store.
2. Family restaurants in small towns (I figured that the person attending me would feel uneasy having to explain that the restaurant didn't accept credit cards, so I didn't risk it).
3. Bars/pubs, for the ability to leave my payment on the bar and leave quickly.
4. Markets.
5. Bus fare (either flat rate price paid upon exiting or a fare that is calculated based on the 'number' featured on the ticket you take when entering the bus; an electronic board at the front of the bus will show stop these 'numbers' and their corresponding fares, paid for upon exiting.)
6. Admission to shrines / temples.
7. Donations (Direct solicitations don't really happen but, like most countries, Japan is not 'flowers and cupcakes' for the urban poor / homeless. In my experience, any help was appreciated).

This couldnt have come at a better time. Thinking about making a solo trip somewhere in the world, went to Japan when I was younger but I dont remember much. Awesome information. Did you travel alone or with a group? I kind of want to do the whole soloravelers put in a group thing, could be fun. Let me know your thoughs:D

I was with friends for portions of my trip and alone during others. Obviously, people's eccentricities may be exaggerated or inhibitions may be reduced when travelling abroad (especially under the influence of alcohol); there were times I was with others in which I wish I were alone. I think Japan is a good trip idea for a couple, however, because most of the things I enjoyed I thought would be appealing to someone of the opposite sex. For example, Japan has great cultural sights, museums, urban design, restaurants, shops etc. I also trust the ability of a female I'm in a relationship with to 'chill out' and adopt the subdued social atmosphere more so than a male friend, so I think a trip with your SO would be relatively peaceful and valuable to the relationship (though not your wallet book).
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New Member
Sep 3, 2013
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I wanted to go but worried about the language issues if i want to travel all over the country for a week or 2. I decided im going to hong kong instead and can bring my filipina girlfriend who can go to hk not japan.


Stylish Dinosaur
Apr 24, 2008
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That's one of the best initial poasts in the history of this forum, SeanathonHuff. Having been to Japan a few times, all I have to say is, "Go!!!" It is not intimidating at all and the people, all over, are humble and incredibly friendly, funny, and engaging. Tokyo is as easy to navigate through and enjoy to a non Japanese speaker as any city in Europe, or even more easy.

A specific recommendation: bring you eyeglass prescription with you because there are frames, designers, and types of lenses that are not available in the US (higher refractive index) and the data on the Rx translates directly.


New Member
Dec 20, 2013
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I joined up on SF just to say thanks for this great guide.

Trying to find a list of places to visit while in Tokyo for fashion. This is a great start for basics.

Thank you.

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