I’ve missed a couple of days but I’ve decided I’m now just going to “blog
every day quite often” in #blogjune
For today’s post I’ve been inspired by Steph’s blog post of travel tips for her recent trip to New York and thought I might do something similar for Japan. In May we decided to try out Jetstar’s new direct Melbourne-Tokyo flights for a two week holiday based in Tokyo and Kyoto.
Japan Rail Pass?
It worked out cheaper for us to fly in/out through Tokyo and pick up a Japan Rail Pass than to fly one way through Kansai International, the nearest international hub to Kyoto, so we figure we got the rail pass for free. One return trip on the shinkansen (bullet train) between Tokyo and Kyoto will pay for a 7 day pass so any other rail trips you can work in after that are a bonus. You’ll need to purchase the pass before you leave home (we got ours from JTB Travel in Melbourne).
You’ll be covered for free travel on most Japan Rail services. Seat reservations usually cost extra but JR Pass holders can make seat reservations for free at station service desks. You cannot use the fastest shinkansen services such as the Nozomi between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka with the pass – book yourself on a Hikari instead, just a little bit slower.
Trains to/from Narita airport
Our flight landed at Narita rather than the closer airport at Haneda. If you’re travelling on a rail pass that will cover you for the JR N’ex Narita Express. It takes over an hour to reach Tokyo where most trains split and some cars continue to Shibuya and Shinjuku. Count on up to 90 minutes from the airport to Shibuya/Shinjuku. All seats on the N’ex are reserved.
If you don’t have a rail pass, the privately run Keisei Skyliner is faster and cheaper than JR from Narita, just 36 minutes to the Keisei terminal at Ueno. You can transfer to the JR lines at Nippori, but it’s not much fun getting on a rush hour Yamanote line train with luggage (ask me how I know) so if you’re heading for somewhere like Shinjuku or Shibuya you might want to take the N’ex.
Hyperdia is a free web site that allows you to search for any JR or private train in Japan. The iOS/Android apps are by monthly subscription but we just used the free web version on a tablet. Hyperdia is great for checking long distance train times, it tells you connection details (including platforms at major stations) and you can exclude the premium shinkansen services such as the Nozomi which you can’t use with a JR Pass.
It’s also great for when you need to make seat reservations. We pulled up the Hyperdia screen for the train we wanted to book and showed it to the ticket clerks at JR offices. Easy peasy.
There are luggage lockers at all major stations. The ones at Tokyo took Y1000 notes but some only take coins. At a huge station like Tokyo there are thousands of lockers scattered all over the station. We took a photo of the lockers and also of one of the nearby “You are here” station maps. I’m not sure we would ever have found our locker again without the photo.
Credit cards are becoming more common but it’s surprising how many places still only take cash. We also had problems with some places that couldn’t process a debit card (even Tokyo Disneyland) so you’ll need to have some money or be able to get some.
A lot of ATMs wouldn’t accept our ATM cards from home but we discovered that the ATMs at Seven Eleven stores not only take foreign issued cards but also have an English display. There are Seven Eleven stores EVERYWHERE.
We also loaded Google Translate on the tablet. You can load a language dictionary so that it will work in limited mode when you’re offline, although I’m not sure how helpful it is. When Wayne got a blister we tried to ask for help at a chemist shop but nobody understood anything that Google came up with, not even the word “blister”.
As Steph wrote in her blog post, we loaded the offline maps for the CityPro app for Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka but the Japanese ones are a bit tricky to use. You can usually find large neighbourhood maps near major roads and train stations in Japan but don’t assume that the top of the map is north. Japanese maps seem to be oriented in the direction you’re looking, so north might be at the bottom or the side.
If you’re looking for a shop or restaurant, always try to get a screen shot of the little maps that seem to be on every business web site. It’s all but impossible to find anywhere in Tokyo just by the address but if you have the map and you’re in roughly the right area, show it to the staff at convenience stores who will try to point you in the right direction.
North/south or east/west?
In Kyoto, the signals at crosswalks make the sound of a cuckoo’s call if you’re crossing north/south and the sound of an owl if you’re crossing east/west. This may be helpful, but it is certainly delightful.