Japan Notes
Some notes for first-timers visiting Tokyo and Japan
 
General Tips/Notes
  • Current exchange rate as of 2020-01 is ¥110 : $1, slightly lower than the historical ¥100 : $1. Despite common US assumptions, JP is pretty affordable in general. Food, hotel, transit are all comparatively cheaper than LA/SF/NY prices. Certain hard goods like JP cameras, headphones and other electronics might also be significantly cheaper depending on the exchange rate.
  • Get a Suica card as soon as possible (You can buy them from machine for ¥2000 (¥500 refundable deposit for the card, ¥1500 initial balance) either at the Airport or any JR station. This will make your transportation life much easier - otherwise you have to buy separate tickets for each subway line and it's confusing/terrible.
  • In Tokyo there are many different companies (at the airport, JR and Keio for example) that run each subway line. These are ticketed separately if you don’t use an IC card.
  • The Suica card can pay for subways and sometimes buses across Japan now. All IC cards are basically interoperable across the country although some remote area buses that are still cash only. In some far-flung prefectures you might be able to use the Suica, but not recharge it. You can recharge your card at any JR terminal/service desk (or at most konbinis). You can cash out your balance when you leave (or use it w/ vending machines or konbinis so there's no reason not to always have it charged up). Balances don’t expire however so you could just leave it for next time.
  • It’s possible to setup Apple Pay w/ the Suica app (getting a virtual card) if you have a newer iPhone (8 or newer) by switching to the JP region temporarily (once you’ve added the card you can switch back): https://atadistance.net/apple-pay-suica/ - You can then recharge your Suica at any time via Apple Pay. It’s super convenient. If you have an Apple Watch, you can also attach the Suica to your watch, however a single Suica “card” can only be on one device - I just have a separate Suica on my Watch and iPhone.
  • Get mobile data as soon as possible - life will be much easier with Google Maps and Translate
  • You can now buy data SIMs from vending machines in KIX and NRT, but you may be better off with a wifi puck if you have multiple devices (which you need to arrange beforehand). If you are arriving when the Airport postal window is closed, then getting a SIM card via vending machine is easiest. (You can also pick up a “travel” SIM in town at an electronics shop like Bic Camera, Yodobashi, or  Labi, but be careful to only get a “travel” SIM otherwise you will have activation woes.)
  • Google Translate works pretty well although you might still look for something that has an offline dictionary (QuickDic (Android) or imiwa (iOS))
  • Caching the Google Translate JP language pack and offline Google Maps before you arrive might be useful
  • Waygo is a great app focused specifically on food menu/transit sign translations (supports Japanese, Chinese, and Korean script), but Google Translate’s image translation does a good job now
  • More ATMs work w/ international networks now
  • There's 7/11 or Citibank ATMs when you arrive in NRT. Go there first to get cash.
  • Japan Post (the post office) has ATMs that work but they typically close/lock them up after 7PM or 9PM. Can dispense ¥1,000 or ¥10,000 bills
  • 7-11s also have ATMs that work but they typically only dispense ¥10,000 bills (actually there may be a 10 x ¥1,000 option now). Unlike some other countries, getting changing/using these larger bills is typically not a problem
  • Lawson’s I believe now also supports international cards
  • Discover is cross-compatible w/ JCB and Union Pay rails and is actually quite useful in Asia
  • If you travel a lot, Charles Schwab is awesome since they refund all ATM fees (including international fees) at the end of the month
  • In  general, just try to be polite, my most useful word is sumimasen (means: please, excuse me, and sorry). My conversations  usually go  'sumimasen, do you speak english' :) everyone says 'no' or 'a  little'  (choto) but in tokyo i haven't found basic communications to be too bad  and  everyone's super nice and tries to be helpful. Google Translate  will  help w/ the rest.
  • Also bow and say "arigatō gozaimasu" (thank you very much) a lot
  • “Domo” is a short phrase that can be used informally to say thanks (or as a greeting), but arigato should be preferred if thanking strangers
  • Ordering food is usually pretty simple since there are plastic food models and photos of everything. Also the machines aren't too hard to order from when those are there. Otherwise, showing a picture of what you want (taking a picture of the model or a picture, or using a Tabelog/4SQ pic, works pretty well)
  • Some places, noodle shops most commonly, have ticket dispensers at the front which may not have pictures. If you have an Android the camera function in Google Translate is very useful for this. If all else fails just ask for "shoyu ramen negi chashu" (ramen in soy sauce broth served with pork and green onion) or "konbu udon" (udon in salt broth served with seaweed)
  • Japan is pretty much the safest country in the world. Just ignore the Nigerian (more annoying because they follow you and keep bugging you if you seem Gaijin/to understand English)/Yakuza (polite and oftentimes will point you to where you want to go) touts and you'll be fine.
  • Everyone uses LINE for chat, a lot of FB as well
  • You may not be able to add some Japanese residents on LINE due to LINE's security features; you can still add them via QR code
  • Claritin, Zyrtec etc is prescription-only, bring your own if you have allergies (Springtime is crazy pollen)
  • Many restaurants don't have napkins, bring your own. Conveniently tissue packets are passed out for free by advertisers on the street (but sometimes not to western Gaijin) - pick some up at a konbini or drug store if you’re short
  • Use konbinis (convenience stores) for their trash bins (sometimes outside, sometimes indoors), there aren't really any elsewhere... (this turns out is an after-effect of the sarin incidents in the 2000s)
  • If you're here during winter, you can use the vending machines as ¥100 hand warmer dispensers (the red items are hot). Only get the metal cans if you have pockets/gloves - they're really hot! Vending machines are also the best way to get rid of spare change.
 
Transit
  • I mentioned getting a Suica card ASAP right? Get one!
  • Most things run very close to schedule (or for long distance trains, practically always on time, don’t be late).
  • The Skyliner is a super fast way to get to Tokyo Station from NRT. You may want to consider the Narita Express if you need to get to the west side (Shinjuku, Shibuya) and don't want to transfer, but the Skyliner to Yamanote will probably be faster/cheaper anyway (if you have a long wait or need to use the regular/local Sky Express train, then maybe consider the NEX)
  • If you're traveling outside of Tokyo, get a JR Pass. It's an amazing deal and is only available for foreigners and bought outside the country. I always pay the premium for the "green" (upgraded class) tickets (less about the slight luxury upgrade and more about having much more flexible seating options, especially if you do last minute ticket booking). Depending on the time of year, trains can get sold out. Along those lines, try to avoid taking the busiest subway lines during rush hour, you will get squished.
  • The JR Pass can also be used specifically for JR line subways in Tokyo (Yamanote and Chiyoda are probably the most commonly useful), but have your Suica ready - most of the most convenient subway lines are not JR
  • Buses can be a lot more confusing than the subways, try to confirm where you are going if you can, or enjoy the adventure. Buses also get snarled in traffic, so are a lot less dependable, time-wise.
  • Within Japan, flying really only makes sense if you’re trying to get to Hokkaido or Okinawa, getting between airports and your destination will typically make your trip longer/more cumbersome than the Shinkansen. If you’re flying north in the winter, be aware that train is much less likely to get canceled than planes during inclement weather (CTS can often get snowed in). Low cost JP airlines (Peach, Vanilla, etc) are incredibly strict on carry-on size and weights. They usually fly from Terminal 3 in NRT, incredibly far (budget an extra 15-20min from T2)
  • Japanese taxis are amazing (white glove, classic black Camrys), but more often driven by old Japanese men who don’t speak a lick of English and can’t read the tiny text on your phone or business card. You should try to experience it, but if you are looking for less stressful car service, you can use Uber. There’s also some new Tokyo Taxi apps that might help? https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/japantaxi/id481647073?mt=8
  • Public transit or taxis can get you just about anywhere (most Tokyo residents don’t own a car), and I’d only recommend renting a car if you have a good idea of somewhere way out in the countryside you want to get to that’s far away from any transit and are comfortable driving (left hand side), I found the process to be fairly pleasant/easy and not terribly expensive (expect tolls to be more than the rental though). You will need an International Drivers License (available from AAA). I had good experiences with https://rent.toyota.co.jp/eng/