Japan can seem like a challenging destination for many Americans, thanks in part to its distance and the language barrier. And while you might find it unfamiliar, navigating Japan is easy if you have the right information.
Here are some quick tips for easier Japan travel, covering four of the most crucial components of your trip.
Japan Travel Tips: Arrival
Most travelers experience Japan travel beginning at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, about 45 miles from central Tokyo. You’ll want to avoid taking a taxi into the city, as it can cost upwards of $175 USD. Luckily, there are other reliable transit options.
Two rail systems run express trips to central Tokyo. The Japan Rail Narita Express runs nonstop to Tokyo central station in about 60 minutes; most trains continue to a few other mainline Tokyo stations. The private Keisei Skyliner runs one-stop to Ueno in 45 minutes. Round-trip express fares on either line are about $35 to $40. Locals use both for connections across all of Tokyo and to other regional points. I found Skyliner to be a bit faster, and that local fares on both lines can be a lot less expensive than express fares. To minimize taxi costs, your choice should depend on which line has a station stop most convenient to your hotel.
Express buses run to multiple destinations in central Tokyo, including some that run directly to major hotels. Bus fares are about the same as rail, but the bus takes a lot longer: 90 minutes to two hours depending on traffic. You can also find some bus trips direct to nearby tourist destinations such as Mt. Fuji or Nikko.
The Tokyo Narita Airport website posts various transportation options. Tokyo’s Haneda and Osaka’s Kansai, the other main airport gateways, are much closer to their respective city centers than Narita is.
Japan Travel Tips: Hotels
Japanese cities are full of modern, no-frills hotels for under $100 per night and within walking distance of major train stations. The rooms pack all the basic features into a tiny space.
Japanese-style Ryokan—or inns—are typically more expensive. If you want international-standard accommodations, you’ll find Hilton, Starwood, or Marriott in most major cities, as well as upscale resorts. If you’re traveling light, many hotels provide coin-operated washers and dryers for use while you’re in the hotel—a lot easier than finding a laundromat or lugging around dirty clothes on a long trip.
Japan Travel Tips: Transportation
Most Japan travel revolves around using the country’s extensive railway system. Japan’s high-speed rail line between Tokyo and Osaka was the world’s first, and the system now extends to most major cities. High-speed Shinkansen, or bullet trains, run every 10 to 20 minutes on the busiest route: between Tokyo and Osaka. Service on other routes is fast and frequent. Opting for Japan travel on the Shinkansen means you’ll spend a lot of time in tunnels, so if you want to see the scenery, try some of the conventional trains along a coastline or through the mountains. You can easily reach some key visitor centers (notably, Mt. Fuji and Nikko) on private railways, instead.
If you’re covering the primary Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka-Hiroshima visitor axis, a Japan Rail Pass is probably your best bet, although it’s only available for consecutive travel days and doesn’t offer a “flexi” version that many European passes do. The Japan Rail Pass does not include travel on the limited-stop trains (Nozomi trains between Tokyo and Hakata or Mizuho trains between Osaka and Kagoshima,) but it does cover many other high-speed trains that stop just a few more times. If you’re mainly sticking around one of the big cities, local Japan Rail passes are available.
Ordinary class is acceptable for just about anybody: Shinkansen seating has reasonable legroom; slightly pricier green car (first class) seating requires reservations. Advance seat reservations are recommended for all Shinkansen trips, but most trains have limited seats available for travelers without reservations.
Japan Travel Tips: Dining
Most hotels have an in-house restaurant, but they tend to be bland and expensive. You can look up authentic restaurants with the help of TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company), but very few restaurants display English writing on their storefront, so they can be hard to locate. Use an offline map to find spots you have in mind, or ask a staff member at your hotel for assistance.
Once inside, most restaurants can provide an English-language menu if you need it. Most restaurants accept credit cards—keep in mind there are no tipping or service charges.
You’ll find plenty of non-Japanese restaurants, as well: Chinese is widely available, Italian is also common, and Indian is a bit less so. In Hiroshima, I spotted (but did not try) French and even German restaurants. In big cities, you’ll find multi-story buildings filled with a dozen or so restaurants in each of two to four levels.
Still, few display names in anything other than Japanese characters. You can sometimes tell what kind of restaurant it is by picture displays, but not always. One minor surprise: Over the last five years, I’ve been around much of Western Europe plus China, Dubai, and Korea, and Japan is the only place where I didn’t encounter a single pizza parlor. But of course, if you’re longing for a Big Mac, you won’t have any trouble finding one.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 7 Tips for Seeing Cherry Blossoms in Japan
- Japan Travel Guide: What to Do in Japan
- Southwest Will Fly to Hawaii in 2018
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.