Shane’s Guide to Japan: Part 1
This guide started out as a reference sheet I made as a google document to share with my sister and then my cousin who each visited me while I was living in Tokyo in 2017. I’ve since updated it and shared it with many more friends who have visited the country. Japan is one of my favorite places to go, and I have been fortunate to visit many times in many occasions in the past several years. A few more friends of will be heading there soon, and while updating it again, I thought it made sense to publish it publicly for others to enjoy as well.
In this first part, I’m excited to share with you some tips that will make it easier to get by, both in terms of navigating the big city and also the big menus. This will be an incomplete guide for people who have never been to Japan before, and might not know anything about the culture or history.
In part 2 I will give some recommendations of my favorite neighborhoods and day trips, with a few of my personal favorite spots listed in particular.
We will start with the basics:
There's plenty of free Wi-Fi scattered around the major cities, but you can only access it if you have the right app for iPhone or android. You will need to download the “Japan Wi-Fi” app, and when you are somewhere with a usable wifi (such as Family Mart, 7/11, a train station, etc) you choose the appropriate wifi spot and then use this app to actually connect.
You should also download Google Translate and download the Offline language pack for Japanese. It’s an amazing tool and you can even use the camera to translate text in real time, sometimes. You will also want to download a Japanese keyboard to your phone so you can have the locals use the app to tell you something, it comes in handy.
Make sure you have a data roaming plan, and TURN OFF CELLULAR DATA for everything except the absolute essentials, as background data from Facebook or email could eat up everything. Alternatively, AT&T now has a $10/day plan that lets you use your normal US plan abroad, which could be worth it if you’re doing a short trip.
Otherwise, you can visit some stores to buy a prepaid travel SIM card that will give you 1-5 GB for a month. Airports or the big phone shops will have this, like the Bic Camera (West) in Shinjuku. The small phone stores you see everywhere will not help you (they only sell long term plans to residents, no pay per use). You will discover the rates are much less expensive than equivalent data plans in the US… something to think about while you are on the train.
Convenience stores don’t sell pharmacy things like aspirin, so bring some things like cold medicine, Dayquil and Nyquil tablets, as well as a pack or two of alka seltzer. There are actual pharmacies that do sell things like that, but you may have a difficult time finding what you need. It is not impossible, but it was a challenge for me.
Be polite and people will open up to you. “Sumimasen” [su-mi-ma-sen] is arguably the most important word in the Japanese language, meaning “please/pardon/excuse me”. You will use this frequently when you need to ask for help with directions, making your way through a crowded train, or getting a bartender’s attention in a noisy izakaya bar.
Use “Arigato” (Thank you) and “Kudasai” (‘please’, used at the end of a sentence) plentifully as well. People are extremely friendly and helpful (especially if you use Sumimasen!) so don’t be afraid to ask for assistance if you’re lost.
How to speak Japanese without Knowing Japanese:
Most people have taken at least a few years of English class in high school, so you will often meet people with some degree of English, but even if you can’t really communicate with each other, sometimes English does work to a degree. There are a lot of loan-words from English so if you’re stuck, you can try saying words slowly with Japanese accent/inflection and it may help. Looking for a Starbucks or Family Mart to recharge? Ask for a “Sta-ba-ku-su” or “Fa-mi-ri Maa-to”. Many food items are like this too, more on that later.
Now that you know how often English words are adapted into Japanese, you’ll be pleased to know that you can actually learn to read some Japanese with less than a week of practice. Try downloading Duolingo or some other flashcard app to practice Katakana (and Hiragana if possible). Those are the phonetic spelling alphabets for the Japanese language, and Katakana is used for non-Japanese (usually English) words the same way we usually use italics for non-English words. Et voilà! Now you can read!
For instance, if you’re in a restaurant or bar, you can find “Han-ba-ga” (hamburger), “Ko-ka ko-ra” (Coca Cola), “A-i su Co Hi” (Iced Coffee), “Ui shi ki - hi ba ru” (whiskey high-ball/ aka whiskey & soda)... and sometimes you’ll find Italian or French words being used as well.
(Side note: You may notice that the classic japanese noodle soup Ramen is written in Katakana, indicating that its a ‘foreign’ word. That’s because it is considered Chinese-style noodle soup… I was surprised when I first learned that such a quintessential Japanese dish was considered foreign, but then I realized it is like how we Americans consider our pasta and pizza to be Italian food, despite it being vastly different from what is found in the kitchens of Naples)
Here are a few more Japanese words to get you along until you get a proper guide:
Ohayo! - good morning
Ko-ni-chi-wa - good day!
Kon-ban-wa - Good evening!
Omo-shi-roi - Interesting
Muzukashi - difficult
Anno… - Umm….
Naru-hodo-neh ( said while nodding wisely) - I see...
Doko-wa …? - Where is ?
Koko! - Here!
Ikura deska? - How much does this cost?
Chotto tekai.. - Kind of expensive..
Dozo - Please/ here, take this
Go-chi-so-sama-desh-ta! - “Thank you, that was delicious!”
Mata neh! - See you!
Clothes - Footwear - Luggage
Tokyo is a trendy city, like NYC or Paris, so I highly recommend dressing well and even getting a new pair of shoes and a haircut before coming. Seriously. The typical American tourist dresses in clothes they don’t mind if they trash, so they stick out like a sore thumb. You’ll feel a lot better if you’re looking sharp.
You will want to have comfortable shoes for walking because you will cover a lot of ground each day. Bring ones that are easy to put on and take off, since you may be doing that repeatedly over the course of the day. For casual trips, I recommend something like Vans or TOMS, as well as a pair of something else for when it rains.
Bring a backpack and at most a small or medium sized rolling suitcase, since you WILL be taking stairs mostly, elevators are not always easy to find in Japan, and most subway stations only have escalators that go up.
It will be HOT and HUMID in Summer, with at least some rain. UNIQLO stores carry “Airism” line of undergarments, which are pretty much necessary to be comfortable. Autumn and Spring will be rainy and windy, Winter will be Cold. Again, Uniqlo will have essentials for survival on short notice.
If you want to go shopping, remember that Japanese people tend to be smaller in general, and most women there are uniformly size ‘small,’ so you may find better sizes in bigger chain stores like Uniqlo or Muji etc. Personally, I had difficulty finding anywhere that carried pants that fit me (US size 34), so be prepared.
They have H&M, Zara, and most US clothing brand stores in Tokyo, so if you do end up needing something you didn't bring, you can probably find it.
Coin laundromats and dry cleaners are quite common, so you can pack light.
Don’t bother bringing an Umbrella, they are really cheap and easy to find here, every convenience store will have them for sale the moment it starts raining. Depending on the weather, sudden wind may destroy them, or you may just lose it during your travel, so don’t spend too much money on fancy ones. I like to get the largest size clear ones (65cm) since sometimes a gust of wind can render the smaller ones pointless.
Bring a decent lightweight shoulder bag or backpack to carry with you, you’ll probably carry more stuff than can fit in your pockets. You can buy one here there, they are quite common and I am sure the current trend started here.
Cash is king here-- assume that most places are strictly cash-only.
$10.00 is roughly equivalent to 1000 yen, so just move the decimal point two places to get an idea of how much things cost. The exchange rate is actually in our favor in this estimate, so it’ll be a bit less expensive that you expect.
Make sure your ATM card is working with a PIN that you know… you’ll need it.
7-11 is your best friend, they likely have the only ATM machines that will work with your card. The stores are often called “7 & i Holdings” here. I’ve heard that post offices may also have usable ATMs, but its never worked for my cards.
Bring at least $200 in cash to convert to yen before you come, just in case you have trouble with the ATM on the first day or two that you’re here.
The smallest paper bill is $10/1000Y, and the coins go from 500-100-50-10-5-1. Don’t worry too much about giving exact change for things, you’re going to end up with a pocket full of coins no matter what. Use vending machines to spend your excess coins.
Taxis are quite expensive, and the airports are far from the city. A taxi to the city could easily be well over $200. Instead, take the KEISEI Skyliner train from Narita airport to Tokyo for about $20.
Here’s the Keisei Skyliner’s site: http://www.keisei.co.jp/keisei/tetudou/skyliner/us/timetable/index.php
You will want to get a SUICA or PASMO card. There’s a Y500 deposit to get one, then you charge it, and can swipe it to go through the gates. Easy as pie. Without it, you need to look at maps to pre-pay the fare you need for the distance between one station and the next. Kind of a headache-- just get a card. You’ll want to put at least $20 / Y2000 on it to start. You’ll go through it quickly.
Side note: Many convenience stores and vending machines also take Suica/Pasmo cards, so if you’re in a hurry or out of cash, having extra money on your Card can be a blessing.
Don’t forget to budget for the train back to the airport. Again it will be around $20. You get extra points if you manage to have exact change (including that Y500 deposit) left on your card for that final trip back.
If you want to travel outside of Tokyo and visit somewhere like Kyoto or the north, you should consider getting a Japan Rail Pass. These are exclusively available only to people outside of Japan, visit a place like HIS Travel (a japanese travel agency) and ask for a JR Pass. It’ll be like $250 for a week of unlimited travel on JR Lines-- including most of the high speed Shinkansen bullet trains, which are better than flying. I’ve gone to opposite ends of the country to visit a museum, grab lunch, and then head back… a trip that would normally cost $320 for the round trip. It is an incredible deal, plus you can flash the pass to use the JR lines around Tokyo or other major cities as much as you want while its active. Just be sure to bring your passport with you when you buy the pass… and again, its only available for purchase before you get to Japan.
There are 8 or so different train companies that all overlap around the city… Japan Rail Lines (JR), Tokyo Metro, Keisei, Tobu… etc. SUICA/PASMO works on any of them, but the JR Pass only works on JR lines.
Be aware that when you switch lines, you may have to walk from one part of a station to another… and some of these stations are quite large with entire shopping malls within. It may be almost half a mile from one section to another, with several sets of stairs. Occasionally, you will find two underground stations that are attached by a quarter-mile of walkway tunnels, but on the surface the entrances are only about 100 feet apart. Marvels of modern engineering.
When it comes to going to special things like restaurants or other experiences that are higher than a casual level, will probably need a reservation and walk-ins may not be accepted. Ask hotel staff or a Japanese friend help you call and make the reservations. Then be sure to be early— this is something that is taken seriously.
That Hiragana and Katakana you learned will make it easy to order things like Udon, Ramen, Tempura, and Katsu dishes… and here’s a brief guide to my favorite bar food…
YAKITORI is grilled chicken skewers are quite popular and inexpensive, best consumed with a pitcher of beer shared among friends. While the larger chains may have English menus, smaller ones rarely have any English, so here are some popular items. Don’t be shy about trying something new, you might find you enjoy something unexpected, and it’s all great after a drink or two:
momo (もも), chicken thigh
hasami (はさみ), can also refer to chicken and onion
sasami, breast meat
negima (ねぎま), chicken and spring onion
tsukune (つくね), chicken meatballs
(tori)kawa ( (とり) かわ), chicken skin, grilled until crispy
tebasaki (手羽先), chicken wing
bonjiri (ぼんじり), chicken tail
shiro (シロ), chicken small intestines
nankotsu (なんこつ), chicken cartilage
hāto / hatsu (ハート / ハツ) or kokoro (こころ), chicken heart
rebā (レバー), liver
sunagimo (砂肝) or zuri (ずり), chicken gizzard
toriniku (鶏肉), all white meat on skewer
yotsumi (四つ身), pieces of chicken breast
atsuage, fried tofu appetizer
If you have been reading aloud, you may have noticed that some names, such as Hatsu and Reba, are adapted from English words (Hearts, and Liver, respectively).
And most important of all:
SUMIMASEN! SAKE KUDASAI! - “Excuse me, kind sir, I would like to order a small glass of sake, please.”
(or BEERU for beer)