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General Japan Travel Tips


Webmaster Note: These tips are my opinions, based on more than 20 trips back to Japan since mission days. Suggestions are always welcome using a 'comments' entry.

The following topics are discussed on this page:

Travel Guides
When to Go
How to Get Around
Pack Lightly!
Where to Stay
Currency Exchange and ATMs

Travel Guides
Buy a good travel guide. I recommend Lonely Planet Japan, available at bn.com for about $25. Lonely Planet also has some information on their on-line guides. This guide is a top choice for the independent traveler, from the hitchhiker staying at youth hostels to the more well-heeled adventurer. Some good ideas can also be found on the web at GoJapan, and Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) .

When to Go
Spring and Fall are the best times to go, but avoid one of Japan's biggest holidays, Golden Week--27 April to 6 May. June is generally the rainy season, and summer is stiflingly hot and muggy.

How to get around

Trains are the way to travel anywhere in Japan, and are one of the few bargains for foreign travelers, but only if you use the Japan Rail Pass. Please refer to the Train Tips page where rail travel is discussed in detail. Buses can take you pretty much wherever trains can't.

Hitchhiking In the days before Rail Passes were available, my buddy Ken White and I hitchhiked from Hokkaidou to Kyuushuu, catching a few train rides in-between. Two important tips: First, you need a detailed highway map. They're available in paperback book form (Japanese), including detailed on-ramp locations. Second, you need to hold up destination signs (preferably written in Japanese). We found it much easier to be picked up with Japanese, rather than ro-maji (roman lettered) signs, perhaps it made the driver feel at ease to think they wouldn't have to speak exclusively English to communicate. Even though we thought we could write kanji pretty well, we usually asked a nearby Nihonjin (such as at a youth hostel) to write out the sign for us. There are even books on this subject by Will Ferguson. Currently in print is Hitchhiking Rides with The Buddah (April 2006), available at barnes and noble for $14. (June 2006 price).

Akita Ojiisan helping with hitchhiking signs-1978






<<Tsuruoka houmen--onegai" ((going the direction of) Tsuruoka--please)






Rental Cars are available at train stations but are expensive. Unless you're traveling to remote areas, it would be hard for me to recommend them, especially with the issues of left-hand driving and navigation.

Pack Lightly!!! This is especially important if you're planning much travel within Japan. You'll need to pack lightly enough to easily carry your own stuff everywhere. Remember you can do laundry at most Youth Hostels and onsens or have it done at most hotels fairly inexpensively.

Where to stay
If you arrive in a town without having booked a place to stay, the local eki (train station) usually has a ryokou an'nai sho (travel information office) that can help. English is not the primary language used in these offices. Directions, maps, and even phone calls checking availability are typical services provided there. If you arrive late at night, "walk-up" traffic to accommodations near an eki is always a possibility. Some other tips on where to stay:

Youth Hostels If you are on a budget and are adventurous, consider Youth Hostels. You don't need to be a "Youth" to stay in a Youth Hostel, but you must be a member of your own country's hostel organization before you can stay at a hostel abroad. Visit American Youth Hostels for information-a one year adult membership is $25. Japan Youth Hostels has a great English website with good explanations, maps, rules and reservation info. Typical fees for these dormitory-type accommodations are $40/night--(~3,000yen). Evening and morning meals are also available for around $18 and $11 respectively (1,300 and 800 yen, respectively).

Hotels and Business Hotels
Check the travel guide mentioned above for specific hotels they recommend. Western-style hotels in big cities can be reserved through travel agents abroad, but they are pricey. Japanese business hotels are have smaller (some would say cramped) rooms, but are adequate and reasonably priced, even in big cities. I highly recommend a business hotel chain called Toyoko Inn, which has new, clean and inexpensive locations located near train stations throughout Japan. Their English-language website allows reservations three months in advance. (Six months in advance if you are a "member," but membership signup can only be done in-person.) Reservations for other Business Hotels and hotels in smaller cities are a little more difficult, but some Japanese Travel Agencies (Japan Travel Bureau is the largest) have offices abroad and can help. Internet reservations are becoming more prevalent, but so far all the sites I've seen are in Japanese, except Rakuten Travel, which has a limited English section. Keep in mind the possibility of "walk up" traffic to hotels in smaller cities, especially in non-peak times--avoid golden week and local festivals. On some of my visits back to Japan, I've had no trouble getting rooms this way. Most hotels take credit cards.

Ryokan (Japanese Inns) To sample the best of Japanese accommodations, you might want to consider at least one night in a Ryokan. Ryokan don't always welcome foreign guests (Japanese language ability is a huge plus) and are usually more expensive than hotels. They also range from elegant to shoddy--consult the travel guide suggested above and JNTO for more information. Ryokan usually include Japanese-style dinner and breakfast in the price, as well as traditional ofuro (bath). The ryokou an'nai sho (travel information office) in most every eki (train station) is also a good source for information and reservations.

Onsen (Hot Springs) Any one of the above types of lodging may be located in an Onsen area. Onsen typically refers to a naturally occurring hot spring/mineral spa area, and the lodging would include traditional Japanese bathing. There are thousands of onsen in volcanic-zone laden Japan. Some onsen areas are overbuilt and garish, but many are charming and preserve the traditions of thatched-roof buildings and rotenburo (outdoor bath), best located in a mountain setting. As you can imagine, onsen accommodations are usually at the high end of the lodging price range, but are, in my opinion, the ultimate in lodging in Japan. I recommend Japan's Hidden Hot Springs (1995, by Robert Neff), if you're serious about a traditional onsen experience. It's available at bn.com for $15. I've personally visited many of the top-rated onsen located in Touhoku in Neff's book and was not disappointed. These onsen could only be reserved by telephone, and only in Japanese.

Currency Exchange and ATMs
Each arrival airport has Japanese bank exchange windows that I recommend for currency exchange. They are conveniently located just outside of customs inspection doors, right as you exit into the public waiting areas. There is usually more than one bank there, so there is some competition, and I've found the rates to be fair (and better than say, the US airport non-bank exchange booths). The same types of bank windows are found in Japan's airport departure wings for easy conversion back to your home currency.

If you have a US bank ATM (debit) card, you may use it at any Japan Post Office ATM to obtain yen currency. I recommend the Japan Post ATMs because they have an English display mode and since they are part of the quasi-governmental Japan Post Savings system, I believe the conversion rates to be better than commercial banks. Commercial bank ATMs in Japan, in my experience, don't always have English display choices, either.

Link back to Travel Tip Index
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