Five Things I wish I Knew Before Travelling to Japan

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In many ways, the media and popular culture portrays Japan pretty closely: technologically advanced, cosmopolitan and ever so polite and polished. But having recently visited the country, here are five things I wish I knew beforehand that would’ve made my visit even smoother.

Train Pass vs. Bus Pass

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard of Japan’s well established and advanced rail system. But if you are like me and budget is a high priority on your list, foregoing trains and opting for buses is way more economical.

Many travellers will go for the JR Pass, but it was an easy decision for me to dismiss the pass in favour of the Willer bus pass. There are other bus companies, but Willer is one of the largest operating bus companies that actually have an English website. I noticed many other bus companies at the station, but were all in Japanese only.

Here are my reasons why I preferred the bus pass over the rail pass:

JR Pass    

Area restrictions

Passes are restricted to specific areas and routes. There’s no a la carte system, where you pick only the destinations you want to travel to. Instead, if you have destinations outside of a package, you’re only choices are to buy another package or buy a single ride – which can cost as much as a package itself.

Time constraint

JR Passes come in 7, 14 and 21 day passes. The pass is activated after your first transit and you’re given unlimited rides within the package time period. The downside to this is that the pass will run continuously, and days are counted regardless if you have travelled or not.

Price

The JR Pass gives travellers access to the most advanced and quickest trains available. With that comes with a high price tag. JR trains are the top of the line, but are often more expensive than any other choices available.

Willer Bus pass

The Willer Bus pass on the other hand doesn’t have area restrictions or time constraints. You can get 3, 5 or 7 days ride passes. Bus trips can go anywhere within Japan, though you may need to transfer for longer distances. And the passes are only active on your ride days and don’t expire for months. Ride days also provide unlimited travel, so if you need to travel long distances with multiple transfers, as long as it’s within the same calendar day, it’s accounted for!

The Willer pass is also significantly more economical than the JR pass. Though, at a fraction of the price, travel is less comfortable and a lot slower. However, the Willer buses were still the most advanced and comfortable busses I’ve ever experienced!

Since I was not lacking in time, I also took a lot of overnight buses to save even further. As horrifying as travelling overnight on a bus sounds, the Willer buses might change your mind. The company does try their best to make your travel as comfortable as possible, where each seat comes with a head cover and can recline so far back, you’re basically lying down.

 

Internet and credit cards

Even though Japan is known for its technological advances, I was surprised to find out their online convenience was not as far along as I expected. I thought it would’ve been a breeze to purchase tickets and arrange travel online, but I quickly realized that wasn’t the case.

Some things I could purchase online, but most of the time I had to go directly to the source or go to a local convenience store to purchase tickets. To add to the difficulties, most of the sites were only available in Japanese.

Japan is also still very much a cash based country. I thought I’d be able to swipe my way through the country, but I soon realized that cash is still king here.

 

WiFi

Unlike many of the other Asian countries where free WiFi is simply everywhere: on public transport, shopping malls and even outdoor parks, WiFi in Japan is a bit more of a rarity. Some of the larger malls and attractions had free WiFi, except it was difficult to connect, slow and they made you reconnect fairly often.

Purchasing a tourist sim card in Japan is also more difficult than in most countries. The Japanese government has place a lot of rules and regulations for tourists to get sim cards, allowing only a handful of companies to provide the service.

Portable WiFi devices are also a very popular option. Split between several people, it might be more economical and many even offer generous data allowances. The only downside to portable WiFi devices is that travel companions will need to stick together in order to stay connected or someone will have to go without connection.

Charm Tip: If you can, avoid purchasing a sim card at the airport. There are only a few options and it’s more expensive. Look for Bic Camera, a popular department store, they’ll have more to choose from and if you bring your foreign passport, your purchase may qualify for Japan’s Tax-Free Shopping Program (more details below).

 

Restaurant Seating fee

Space is a hot commodity in Japan and it reflects in many businesses, in particular restaurants. They’re often small and it’s not surprising when they have seating outside, with tables and chairs made up of boxes.

Hungry guests waiting patiently in line

Many restaurants also charge a seating fee along with the meal. This can be anywhere from 300 yen to 1500 yen (or more apparently!) just to sit while you have your meal. The worst part is that most restaurants don’t say how much their seating fee is until the bill comes. You can ask the restaurant before sitting, but I often had trouble getting past the language barrier.

A good clue to whether or not a restaurant will charge a seating fee is if they serve a “free” appetizer or not.

 

Tax free shopping

Japan is an amazing country to shop in. They have incredible selections and things you didn’t even realized existed but needed. I bought a fabric book cover that can be resized to fit any book! To make the shopping experience even better, bring your passport along on your shopping trips. Many of the stores participate in the Japan’s Tax-Free Shopping Program, offering deals for travellers with a foreign passport!

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