Traveling to a foreign country can be distressing in many ways: language barriers, geographical unfamiliarity, and trying to spend wisely are just some of the concerns that arise. Even when a destination is popular and well-traversed by tourists, it can still be hard to discover the best tips and tricks for seamless navigation. Japan is certainly no exception—if anything, the country in all of its wonderful glory can be one of the most challenging for English-speaking visitors. What do you do when a menu is only available in Japanese? Is there a way to save money on those high-priced Shinkansen (bullet trains)? In a destination notorious for hard-to-acquire reservations, how do you get a seat at a top-notch restaurant? To answer all of these questions, and more, we’ve compiled eight tips that will help assuage many of your worries and make your trip to this amazing island nation easier.
1. Save Money With a Japan Rail Pass
If you’re traveling beyond Tokyo or plan on hopping around the country, look into purchasing a JR Pass. This ticket will allow for unlimited travel on any trains (with the exception of the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen), buses, and ferries operated by Japan Rail and are valid for one-, two-, or three-week periods, which can lead to hundreds in savings depending on your itinerary. To help you get around, use HyperDia (they also have an app) for accurate timetables and to see if your route is covered by the pass (there’s an option to exclude private operators from showing up in your searches).
Historically, these passes had to be ordered and shipped to a traveler ahead of time, but earlier this year the JR Group decided to temporarily allow selling them at a select number of rail stations. There’s no telling if this will continue after the trial period, but keep in mind that it’s also more expensive to purchase one on-site than to have it sent to you.
2. Buy a Smart Card
Pasmo and Suica cards are ubiquitous among locals. They are like the equivalent of a MetroCard in New York City, allowing fluid access to public transportation, saving time (and potential confusion) at ticket machines. These become particularly useful should you need to hop onto a short-distance train or bus that’s not covered by your JR Pass, but you can also use them to pay for taxis and purchases at convenience stores or vending machines. Pick one up at a subway station or order it with your JR Pass and tap away.
3. Learn Key Japanese Phrases
A lot of American travelers assume someone will speak English, but with technology like Google Translate in your pocket, you really have no excuse not to learn the basics. Greetings are a must as it’s a sign of respect, so brush up on how to say “hello,” “good morning,” and the like so that you can properly address someone when entering their establishment, but also look into “excuse me” or “sorry” in case you need to catch a person’s attention or accidentally bump into a fellow pedestrian on a bustling street. And if you are really having trouble communicating with a local, you can always use the app to help connect the dots while we wait for the company’s Pixel Buds to come out.
4. Translate Menus With Waygo
While many restaurants have English menus or accompanying photos, the truly outstanding local spots unfortunately won’t, and the staff likely only speak Japanese. The Waygo app scans characters and translates food items much better than Google Translate’s camera option, and while you may need to do some inventive interpretation every now and then, it does the job most of the time.
5. Enlist the Help of a Travel Agent
There are a lot of hidden treasures in Japan that aren’t easy to discover unless you have the help of someone in the know. Such experts, or “travel designers” as they’re now called, can help with the most exclusive experiences and make your trip as seamless as possible. One of the leading operators in Asia is Remote Lands, a Virtuoso-approved operator. Cofounder Catherine Heald frequently visited Japan when she lived in Hong Kong and returns every year to continue learning about the country. Her company can set up some of the most incredible activities, like overnight stays at Kuonji Temple, private tours with renowned artists and architects, or arranging a dinner with geishas. They also have connections to many popular restaurants if you’re looking to dine in style.
6. Use Reservation Services for Michelin-Starred Restaurants
While well-connected travel specialists or a concierge at a luxury hotel can go a long way in nabbing a seat at some of the most highly sought-after restaurants in Japan, sometimes things just don’t quite pan out the way you hoped. When all else fails, scour online reservation sites for a chance to dine at a famed eatery. You’ll have to pay a fee, but Tableall, Pocket Concierge, and Voyagin are great resources if you’re really keen on trying out a particular establishment.
7. Take Advantage of Tourist Airfares
Both JAL and ANA offer reasonably priced domestic airfare starting at just 10,800 yen (around $95). This becomes particularly cost- and time-efficient when you want to travel to locales on extreme ends of the country, like Hokkaido, Okinawa, or Fukuoka. The catch? These tickets must be booked outside of Japan, so make sure to plan ahead of your arrival.
8. Stay Connected for Less
If you want to ensure that you have high-speed Internet service at all times, and on multiple devices, rent a pocket Wi-Fi and do so in advance to lower the cost. If you’ll be in a rush from the airport to your subsequent destination, you can always have the device delivered to your hotel.