This article is part of the series describing my July 2018 trip to Japan. Please see the table of contents page for other articles in the series as they are posted.
We started searching for plane tickets far in advance and ended up purchasing them from Delta nearly 6 months ahead of time. Since it was only a little extra money for more leg room, we went with the “Delta Comfort” option and were happy with what we got in terms of space, but the upgrade in service wasn’t particularly noticeable and didn’t meet our expectations, especially in terms of the time it took flight attendants to come when called. The total was a little over $4,000 for three tickets, a direct flight from Portland airport to Narita airport. Fortunately the trip was (only) 9-10 hours, a huge improvement from the nearly 18 hours when we lived in South Florida. Thank you Oregon!
Since Narita airport is a good distance from other important locations (for example, 1.5-2 hours from Tokyo), we followed a tradition begun on a previous trip to Japan: stopping at Narita View Hotel on our first and last days. I’ll write a separate article about Narita View later, but for now I’ll just say it has a great price with good service and a convenient shuttle bus to the airport, train station, and nearby shopping complex.
We arrived first in Narita airport (成田空港) and stayed the night in Narita View Hotel before heading back to take another plane to New Chitose Airport (新千歳空港) in Hokkaido (北海道). The second plane was only around an hour and the security and procedure on the domestic ( kokunai / 国内) flight was much less. After a few days in Sapporo (札幌) we went to Hakodate (函館) for a few more days, then took a ferry to Aomori (青森) where we stayed for a single night before taking another plane, this time to Haneda airport (羽田空港) which was closer to Tokyo. We had expected a nice view from the ferry, but it was too cloudy to see much of anything, and there was surprisingly little to do on the 3-4 hour voyage (both the TV channels and the items in the gift shop were limited). It was the first time I had been to Haneda airport––a memorable experience, especially the large, diverse shopping area. We then stayed in a hotel in Kanda (神田) near Suidoubashi (水道橋) station for a full week before returning to Narita View Hotel for a final day. Generally the hotels we stayed at were around $100 to $200 per day, with the one in Sapporo around $130 and in Tokyo around $170.
Some people might be turned off by this amount of moving around, but it was interesting and educational, and as a result we got to see a handful of places that were geographically distant.
Whereas on our last trip we used taxis, due to their expense this time we only rode in a taxi once or twice when we really needed the convenience. It seems that Uber is actually available in Tokyo, but when compared to America (where is relatively inexpensive), Uber in Japan is still pretty costly so using public transportation is much more economical. I saw advertisements for other similar Japanese Taxi services which allowed reservations using a mobile app (example), but we didn’t try any of these out. We did use buses a handful of times, like when going to Aomori airport.
Around 90% of our trip involved using the JR (Japan Rail) train and Yurikamome train (written simply in hiragana as ゆりかもめ). Fortunately, Japan’s railway system is very well developed, inexpensive compared to other options, and almost always on time. An exception to this punctuality was an approximate 30-45 minute wait we had when first riding on the Yurikamome, whose cause was not specified. Though there are special passes (Japan Rail Pass, etc.), we elected this time to just buy tickets at each individual station.
The process of purchasing a ticket and riding a train(s) is conceptually simple, but for first-time travelers it can be a little daunting. I’ll briefly describe the flow here in case you are considering using trains in Japan.
Once you enter the station you should go to one of the ticket machines (kippu uriba / きっぷ売り場) and usually on the wall above them you will see a large map with locations, each labeled with a number. You will need to buy a ticket for each adult for the amount listed on the number that matches your destination (for example 850 would mean 850 Yen). Children of elementary school age can buy a special children’s ticket that is cheaper, and children younger than that don’t need a ticket at all.
If you look at the map there are generally two possibilities. The first is that the station you are at and the one you are going to are connected by a single colored line. If so, you just need to find the number of that train line and remember it, and once you pass through the ticket gate (kaisatsuguchi / 改札口) you need to board the train with that number when it arrives, and eventually get off at your desired station (which may be one or more stops later). For those who know little Japanese, you’ll be happy to know that most, if not all trains have announcements and digital signs in English in addition to Japanese.
If there are two or more colored lines connecting where you are and where you are going, then you need to do one or more transfers (norikae, 乗り換え). In this case, you’ll need to pay attention to what station(s) to get off midway and what train line(s) to transfer to. Often there is more than one way to travel between two locations.
If you run into trouble, you can find the “green window” area of the station where you can ask a station attendant (ekiin, 駅員) who will give you the summary of what trains to take and where to transfer. If you can’t remember the entire route, don’t worry––you can just ask at the green window again after you get off at the first station you were instructed to. I think they probably speak basic English (or have materials in English they can show you), though we only used Japanese with them.
On a side note, a majority of places in metropolitan areas take common credit cards like American Express or VISA. We used the former roughly 70% of the time, and VISA for another 10%. The remaining 20% of places required cash (in the form of bills/coins) which is called genkin (現金). One way I heard this expressed to me was “genkin nomi to natte orimasu” which is a fancy way to say “We only take cash”. The tricky part is that it is hard to predict which places take credit cards and which don’t. For example, I remember in the ferry station one of the gift shops took credit cards while the other didn’t. We also found some places that took American Express even though it was not listed on the list of cards accepted, and other places where the person behind the counter thought that they took American Express, only to find out it failed to process when attempting payment with it. I generally showed my card at the register and said “Crejitto caado, tsukaemasu ka?” While there may be other phrases for this, I found my point generally got across.
It so happens that the ticket machines at JR stations generally only take cash (the same goes for payment machines on buses), so be prepared in advance for this. While there is a slot that says “card”, when we put it our credit card the machine froze up, and soon after a window opened up from which a guy came out and handed our card back to us with a frown––quite a surreal experience! He said strictly that the machines do not take credit cards, and by putting one in could “break the machine or the card itself”. By the way, it seems that many Japanese people use “Suica” cards as an easier method of payment for train fares (unchin / 運賃), so if you are staying there for a longer period of time I would suggest researching those.
For those purchasing the normal one-time tickets as I described above, when you first put in your ticket into the ticket gate it will come out the far end. When you have reached your final destination (after any possible transfers) you will need to put in that ticket again to leave the station, so don’t forget it. The reason is to make sure that you don’t travel farther than you paid for. If you try to use a ticket to leave a station and it detects you didn’t pay enough, an alarm will beep and you will have to either get help from a station attendant or use a “fare adjustment” machine to do the process called seisan (精算), which means basically adding enough money to your ticket to match the distance you traveled.
Now, the above process is just for basic station-to-station within a specific rail system. If you need to transition to another rail system (like the Yurikamome) then you may have to exit one station, enter in another, and then purchase a new ticket there(or set of tickets). There are separate procedures for special trains like the ultra-fast Shinkansen (新幹線), such as a separate machine to purchase them at.
If all of this seems like a lot of work, you’ll be happy to know that common smartphones (like iPhones) can help you with the process via map apps, including transfers. While I am talking about cell phones, I should mention that our T-Mobile plan worked in Japan without any changes to our contract, including both Internet and voice calls. However, the download speed was really slow, and the reception spotty. Also, we nearly got lost a few times when using the GPS on our iPhones to navigate because the location kept jumping around. So if you don’t want to deal with this sort of thing, it is still worth considering renting a Japanese cell phone that connects to a Japanese provider.
There are some other quirks to the trains that can take some getting used to, like the extreme crowding that can occur at peak times (tsuukin rasshu / 通勤ラッシュ is a phrase that means ‘commuter rush’) On this trip we experienced a severe case of “gyuugyuu zume” (ぎゅうぎゅう詰め)––essentially people packed in a train car as tight as sardines in a tin can. It was around the time of peak rush in Tokyo (~8 am) and there was a mass of people pushing in on my body from all sides, such that I was held upright without any effort on my part and I thought I’d get a back injury from the extreme forces. I wasn’t hurt, but this was a reminder to pay more attention to the rush times. A day or two later we purposefully delayed our departure time and boarded the train around 10:30 am, and it was practically empty. It seems that the evening rush is not as extreme as the morning, probably because the average Japanese person works until pretty late, and may go out for dinner and drinks after that before returning home.
I mentioned above that we used trains for traveling for most of the time, but technically I should say it was an old-fashioned “mechanism” that got us most often from point A to B––our feet. Of course it would be nice if everything (hotels, stores, restaurants, etc.) were right next to the stations, and while there are generally a good selection of places to visit at or near the stations, if you want to go to someplace specific you’ll often have to walk at least 10-20 minutes, if not longer. And for those, like myself, used to a more American lifestyle that relies on a car to get you from store to store, the massive amount of walking during our two weeks in Japan was pretty harsh on our legs.
Through enough resting we were able to make it to though, but sometimes even resting can be difficult because of the limited number of places to sit (you can sit on the ground but generally that is frowned upon). Also, avoiding steps does tend to make legs last longer; Japan has a lot of steps––I heard they have the most of any country the world––but at least in many public places like train stations you can usually find an elevator if you search hard enough.
If your legs can’t take it, keep in mind there are other options like renting bicycles or, if you can afford it, riding taxis.
Because we changed hotels several times, rather than lug around all the stuff we bought we periodically went to the post office and shipped a few things back to the U.S. However, for a reasonable shipping time (1-2 weeks) that turned out to be pretty expensive, so next time we will probably just bring a large extra suitcase and store the stuff in that. If you are going to ship stuff back like we did, be careful to avoid buying things that are available online as it may be cheaper to buy them online directly. We bought a few books in Japan and when returning home discovered they were also for sale in the nearby Kinokuniya bookstore in Portland, but at over double the cost. So books are one way you can potentially save a lot of money by buying directly in Japan.
The weather in Japan was problematic when we were there: heavy rains in Hokkaido and a massive heat wave in Tokyo, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees in some parts of the country. It’s hard to predict the exact weather ahead of time, but I recommend researching what type of conditions to expect when you are traveling, and also checking the weather channel after you arrive to get more details in real time. If you do happen to be in a region of high temperature, make sure to drink enough water to avoid heat stroke (nesshabyou/ 熱射病), especially if you are not used to the heat. Fortunately, Japanese vending machines (jidou hanbaiki / 自動販売機) are all over the larger cities in Japan, and those have a good selection of cold drinks including spring water, tea, and coffee––all a great way to beat the heat. Just be careful since some of the latte-style coffee drinks have so much milk there is practically no coffee flavor.
A handful of times we asked a native if they suggested any restaurants nearby. Two or three times we got an ironic response: “Just check your smartphone, you’ll find something.” I don’t think they were being rude, it is just they didn’t know the area that well and it’s hard to ignore the convenience of our mobile devices.
(Back to the table of contents page for this series)