I just returned from my trip to Japan last week and there were some friends and relatives emailing me various questions about visiting Japan. Rather than answering via email, I think it’s better to share the information here so everyone can benefit. Thanks heaps to my friend Fairy who helped me with some of these info when I was preparing for my own trip.
I traveled to Japan from Melbourne with my brother. We visited Tokyo, Kamakura, Yokohama, Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, and Okayama within 2 weeks. We chose Tokyo and Osaka as our ‘homebases’, i.e. we booked accommodations at those two cities and traveled to the other places by train. We canceled our plans to visit Nikko and Nagoya because the travel time was too long for a day trip.
What do you need to prepare?
- Flight Ticket
We bought cheap(er) tickets from Jetstar, the budget airline subsidiary of Qantas. Their planes were rather small, so if you’re tall, you will have neither much leg room nor comfortable head rest. I highly recommend lots of stretching during the 10-hour+ flight and bringing a neck pillow (trust me, you won’t regret it).
If you’re traveling from Melbourne, a ticket to Tokyo Narita Airport is cheaper than to Osaka Kansai Airport. Though bear in mind that Narita Airport is about an hour away from Tokyo via Keisei Line.
You will need to provide proof of your flight ticket purchase when you book your hotel. We booked ours from International Tourism Center of Japan (ITCJ), I think it’s safer to have a third party record of your bookings. My requirements for the accommodations were (1) not expensive but not shabby, (2) private toilet, and (3) laundry facility. We stayed at Grand House Chang Tee Hotel at Ikebukuro, about 20 minutes away from downtown Tokyo via Yamanote Line, and at Hotel Kinki (Kinki is another name for Kansai, a region in Japan), very near to the heart of Osaka. You can also book for a Ryokan via ITCJ web site if you want to experience staying at a traditional Japanese Inn.
- Japan Rail Pass
You will need to provide proof of your flight ticket purchase and accommodation booking when you purchase the Exchange Order for the Pass. Japan Rail Pass is your ticket to use train and bus services operated by the Japan Railways Group which cover 99.9% of your traveling needs as a tourist in Japan. Please note that you can only purchase the Exchange Order from outside of Japan only. The Exchange Order would then be exchanged for the Pass upon arrival at the airport. We purchased ours from H.I.S. Travel (Melbourne office location). Another thing you need to know is that public transport in Japan is expensive and you actually save money by using the Japan Rail Pass.
Check if you need a visa to enter Japan. Australia is one of the countries which have visa exemption arrangements with Japan, so Australian passport holders don’t need a visa, yay :). My brother had to apply for visa at the Consulate-General of Japan in Melbourne. He got it within a couple of days after submitting the application, about a month prior to the trip.
- Universal Adapter
Japan uses 100V electricity voltage while Australia uses 240V, and they also use different socket to Australia (check out world electricity standards). Most of modern gadgets handle 100-240V. I brought my mobile phone, camera, Nintendo DS, and electric shaver chargers during the trip and I could use them in Japan without any problem. And for the socket, I purchased a universal travel adapter online, they’re cheap and useful for your future travels. Don’t bother buying the adapters from Dick Smith (Korjo brand), they’re too expensive, only work for a specific country, and the adapter for Japan doesn’t have the ground for Australian plug.
- Japanese Yen
We arrived at Narita Airport after 9pm and all money changers were already closed, and obviously all the banks were also closed once we reached Ikebukuro at 11pm. I managed to get some Japanese Yen in Melbourne before the trip, and brought some Australian Dollars with me which I then exchanged in Tokyo. Surprisingly the exchange rate was better in Australia at that time, I still have no idea why. I also compared the Melbourne CBD’s money changers’ exchange rates, my conclusion: the one at Bourke St (right behind the tram stop) was a rip-off, while the one on Swanston St near Collins St offered the best rate.
Tip: the Japanese pronounce Yen as ‘en’.
Some pharmacies in Japan (don’t get confused over there, when you see a sign that says ‘drug’, that’s the pharmacy) do have English speaking staffs. But I don’t want to get anything lost in translation when it comes to health so I brought some Panadols and Travelans with me.
Frequently Asked Questions:
- Q: Do I need to know Japanese language?
A: Not really. I reckon anyone could easily travel around Japan knowing just…
- Gomen nasai, nihongo wa dekimasen.
I’m sorry, I can’t speak Japanese.
- Arigato gozaimasu.
You can easily find tourists information center or JR offices at the train stations in Tokyo and Osaka where most of the staffs do speak English. While at the restaurants, sign language worked wonder for us, just point to the picture, indicate how many servings, and pay.
- Gomen nasai, nihongo wa dekimasen.
- Q: Do I need to bring a Japanese dictionary?
A: No. Leave it at home.
- Q: How much does food cost?
A: It depends where you eat. An average meal costs between 500 Yen (at train stations) to 1500 Yen (at the malls). Snacks cost 100-400 Yen at convenient stores (Lawson, Family Mart, etc).
- Q: Do I need to bring guide books like Lonely Planet Japan?
A: I brought mine. Even though I found some information about Japan in the book to be quite interesting, I reckoned it’s too thick and heavy, and the maps (the main reason why I purchased the book in the first place) weren’t accurate. I ended up asking for English maps at the tourist information center at each city we visited.
Hope that helps, and if you have any further question, please leave a comment.
Wow, it has been more than 4 years since I wrote the above post, and right at this very moment, I’m 5 hours away from boarding my flight for my third trip to Japan.
Some things have changed since 2009, so I guess it’s time to add an addendum to this post:
- To get the best information about traveling in Japan, japan-guide.com is the best web site out there by far, and I highly recommend reading ahead about the places you’re going to visit on japan-guide.com . Wikitravel Japan is useful too.
- If you’re planning to travel by train while you’re in Japan, you should use Hyperdia to get an idea of which train service and route you might take between two places. Bonus awesomeness point to Hyperdia for providing an estimation of how long it will take to change platform within a station when you have to change train.
- Thinking of staying at a ryokan? My recommendation goes to the fine folks at Japanese Guest Houses. They are very prompt at replying your emails, and very helpful too, they even helped me with reserving bus tickets.
- Smartphones are everywhere in 2013, there are gazillions of travel apps available for various phones. Here’s the best 50, best 25, best 15, best 10, oh wait… Either way, the weight of a Lonely Planet print book is no longer an issue, bring as much as e-information as you want.
- Take note of the currency exchange rate before you leave, how much is 1 Japanese Yen in your currency? That will make it easy later when you have to calculate how much 200 Japanese Yen is. If you have Internet access, Google is your friend, here’s an example search of 1 jpy in aud.
That’s it for now, time to go to the airport. Cheers!