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Navigating Japan 101: 11 Travel tips and hacks for your next Japan trip

Navigating Japan 101: 11 Travel tips and hacks for your next Japan trip

It’s almost that time of year―cherry blossom season―when it seems like half of everyone you know is in Japan. Still thinking of whether to join them or not? To help you plan for your next trip to Japan, in this article we’ll be introducing 11 travel tips and hacks to prepare you in navigating around Japan's metropolitans like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and beyond, to help you save on both time and unneeded stress!

 

The “rail” way to travel: Taking the train in Japan

Tokyo’s railway system can get a little confusing, but fret not, you are not alone! (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Navigating Japan’s robust railway system is something that can scare even the most seasoned of travellers. With so many different lines spread across different companies, just Tokyo’s train system alone poses a challenge to visitors new and old. Here are some tips and tricks to get around the city like a pro:

 

1. Use train schedule websites and apps

Trains in Japan bring you almost everywhere. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

One wonderful aspect about Japan’s public transportation system is that you can count on it to be punctual, and navigating becomes much easier with a train schedule website or app. Simply enter your departure station, destination, as well as the time of departure, and a list of train routes with the exact departure timings and transfer instructions will appear.

 

Before COVID-19, Hyperdia used to be every Japan traveller’s favourite train schedule website, however, now the website no longer provides exact train timings. Instead, nowadays you can refer to Japan Travel by NAVITIME or Jorudan, which are available in English. These apps not only provide accurate train arrival and departure times, but also connection and transfer information, journey durations, as well as prices! Alternatively, Google Maps is another handy tool that also provides reliable information for navigating Japan's efficient public transportation system.

 

2. Figure out which train ticket or pass best suits you

What ticket to get? One thing is for sure: you won't need a JR Pass to take the local trains or subways! (Image credit: photoAC)

 

First-time visitors to Japan might try to buy a single journey ticket for the subway, but if you are staying in the same city for a few days, then a 1-day subway pass or a stored value IC card like SUICA or PASMO is definitely the way to go. Single journey tickets are only valid on the train company you buy it from, so you can only enter and exit from that company’s gantries. 

 

Subway passes

Special weekend 1-day subway pass for Nagoya. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

If you are exploring a single city and making multiple trips per day, a subway pass may be worth getting. These special passes offer unlimited rides within the time period (e.g. 1-day), and although limited to the trains of the train company selling it, it can be cheaper than multiple single journey tickets. 

 

For example, a single journey subway ticket starts from about ¥180, while a Tokyo Subway 24-hour Ticket costs ¥800, so as long as you make more than five train rides within 24 hours, it’s already worth it! Some companies offer special passes for tourists, while others have special passes on weekends and public holidays. 

 

IC Cards

IC cards are convenient for riding trains. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Stored value cards, or IC cards (IC カード), can be topped up at train stations and convenience stores. Simply tap the reader when entering and exiting the gantry; many stations even feature “IC Card only” gantries for faster movement. With an IC card, you can avoid the hassle of having to buy a ticket each time you take a train, and effortlessly transfer between lines without having to buy a separate ticket. 

 

IC cards also offer a slight fare discount compared to the single journey ticket, and bring a lot of convenience. These cards are not just limited to trains, but can also be used on some vending machines, buses, taxis, convenience stores, restaurants, train station shops, and more. 

 

Different companies’ IC cards and the “IC” logo. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

In the past, cards from different companies could only be used exclusively in their respective regions; for example SUICA in Tokyo, SUGOCA in Fukuoka, ICOCA in Osaka, etc. Nowadays, most of these cards are interchangeable! If you see the “IC” logo, you can use your IC card. This means you can now use SUGOCA in Tokyo, SUICA in Osaka, and so on.

 

The initial cost of an IC card is typically around ¥2,000, with ¥1,500 being the initial stored value of the card and ¥500 being a refundable deposit. The stored value is valid for up to 10 years, so IC cards are great for frequent travellers to Japan. 

 

IC cards can be added to your phone’s digital wallet. (Image credit: ぱくたそ)

 

Did you know? IC Cards like Suica and Pasmo can also be added to your digital wallet. Instead of carrying around the physical IC card, you can use a digital version.

 

For foreign visitors who don’t read Japanese, mobile Suica and Pasmo are currently only available for iPhone users, and all you need to do is open your Apple Pay / "Wallet" app, and add Suica or Pasmo under the "Transit Card" option. You can add value to the card either via the app, or at selected physical ticket machines and convenience stores. With the global chip shortage, sales of Suica and Pasmo were temporarily suspended in 2023 for a few months and only recently resumed, so it's good to have a digital version. If you’re someone who enjoys travelling light or gets anxiety fumbling for cards, having a mobile IC card makes everything so much more convenient!

 

Tourist IC Cards

Welcome Suica is an IC card for short-term visitors. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

To many tourists, the ¥500 deposit on an IC card might be a deterrent, with lengthy queues for the refund process. Now, this is not a problem anymore with the introduction of tourist-targeted IC cards, which do not have a deposit and expire after 28 days. These come in special designs―red cherry blossoms for the Welcome Suica, and Sanrio characters for the Pasmo Passport―which make a good souvenir after you’re done with your trip. Initial purchases of Welcome Suica range from ¥1,000 to ¥10,000, while the Pasmo Passport is ¥1,500. Due to the global chip shortage, these tourist IC cards are only available at designated stations such as Haneda Airport, Narita Airport, and major stations in Tokyo.

 

Moving around with luggages in Japan

Many travellers to Japan carry large suitcases or a lot of bags in anticipation for all the shopping they will do and all the souvenirs to bring back, but lugging your heavy bags around while exploring the city and hopping from place to place is just not feasible. Here are some tips for handling your luggage:

 

4. Leave your luggage at the hotel for free!

Free luggage storage for luggages at a hotel lobby. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Did you know that most hotels in Japan can hold your luggage on the same day before check-in and after check-out at no extra charge? Usually, they will ask what time you will check-in or come back to retrieve the baggage, and hand you a tag that you need to present to claim your luggage when you return. 

 

5. Store your luggage or shopping hauls in coin lockers

Coin lockers can be found at almost any train station. (Image credit: ぱくたそ)

 

If your hotel is far from the train station, or far from your next stop, you can consider coin lockers, which are available at most stations around Japan. Ranging from ¥200 to ¥1,000, older models accept payment in ¥100 coins, while newer models accept IC card payment. Coin lockers offer temporary storage which is limited to the same calendar day, often with a time limit, but are useful for if you’re going on a day trip and need to store your luggage, or for storing shopping bags after a haul. 

 

6. Forward your luggage with Kuroneko Yamato’s takkyūbin

Try a baggage forwarding service like takkyūbin to reduce the cumbersome lugging around of suitcases. (Image credit: ぱくたそ)

 

If you’ve simply got too much baggage, or are travelling a great distance where taking the baggage might be a hassle, you can opt to use a luggage forwarding service like Kuroneko Yamato’s takkyūbin (宅急便) service to send your bags to your next hotel. For example, if you’re in Tokyo and heading to a hot spring resort in the mountains of Hakone for a night, and then moving on to Kyoto the day after, you can forward your heavy luggage from Tokyo to Kyoto, and just bring a smaller bag of essentials to Hakone. 

 

You can find this service at most major hotels, convenience stores, and the airport, and rates are reasonable. If you send your luggage by the cut-off time, you can receive it the next day. Note that the size limit (sum of dimensions) is 200cm, and the weight limit is 30kg per piece. Forwarding one suitcase from Tokyo to Kyoto costs approximately ¥2,600.

 

7. Plan your luggage storage options for the shinkansen

If you’re travelling between regions in Japan, you will very likely take shinkansen (新幹線 bullet trains). Different shinkansen lines use different trains, and depending on the lines, the luggage storage situation is different, so be aware of this, and keep it in mind when planning your journey.

 

Shinkansen operated by JR East and JR Hokkaido 

Baggage storage on JR East and JR Hokkaido shinkansen trains. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

For shinkansen lines operated by JR East and JR Hokkaido:

  • Hokuriku Shinkansen (Tokyo Kanazawa)
  • Joetsu Shinkansen (Tokyo Niigata)
  • Akita Shinkansen (Tokyo Akita)
  • Yamagata Shinkansen (Tokyo Shinjo)
  • Tohoku Shinkansen (Tokyo Shin-Aomori)
  • Hokkaido Shinkansen (Shin-Aomori Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto)

 

All these trains have free, first-come-first-served baggage storage racks for large suitcases, so no worries about where to store your luggage! You can also store your luggage on the overhead racks, the area behind the last row of seats, as well as the space in front of your seat.

 

Tokaido-Sanyo-Kyushu Shinkansen

Oversized baggage space on the Tokaido Shinkansen. (Image credit: Indiana jo / CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

On the other hand, if you are taking the Tokaido-Sanyo-Kyushu Shinkansen operated by JR Central, JR West, and JR Kyushu (Tokyo Nagoya Shin-Osaka Hakata Kagoshima-Chuo), then you need to make a reservation for large baggage with overall dimensions between 160cm and 250cm. If you bring a large baggage on board without the reservation, you can be slapped with a ¥1,000 penalty per piece of luggage. 

 

You can reserve either a seat in the last row with oversized baggage space, or a space at an oversized baggage compartment (some trains only). Note that these oversized baggage spaces can only be used by the people who have made reservations for them; indiscriminate usage without a reservation may result in a fine. 

 

For baggage with dimensions below 160cm, you can place them on the overhead racks or in the space in front of your seat, but it may be uncomfortable for long journeys, especially if you have multiple bags, so our advice is to make the reservation―reservations are free to make. Some trains in reserved seat cars have oversized baggage compartments, but reservations are required

 

Cash or card? Payment options in Japan

(Image credit: ぱくたそ)

 

Cash, or card? In Japan, many places still only accept cash, but since the pandemic, cashless options are on the rise. However, it’s always best to carry a mix, especially if you are venturing into countryside areas.

 

8. Cash is king

Much of Japan is still cash-based. (Image credit: ぱくたそ)

 

Despite its technological advancements, Japan is still a country where cash reigns supreme—many shops, especially eateries in the smaller cities, still only accept cash. Ramen shops that have a vending ticket system? Cash only. Fresh sashimi and sushi at a seaside restaurant? Cash only. Family-run hot spring hotel in the mountains? Cash only. Thus, cash is still the safest option to have, as it is rare to encounter a place in Japan that does not accept it. 

 

9. Credit cards are accepted in most big cities

(Image credit: ぱくたそ)

 

In most urban areas,,overseas-issued credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard are accepted. For places that do accept credit cards, note that it will most likely be swiping the magnetic stripe or inserting the chip. Even in large cities, only a few shops accept contactless payment options like Visa payWave or MasterCard Contactless, so do remember to enable the “Overseas Magnetic Stripe Usage” setting, as many shops like drug stores and convenience stores commonly use this option. When dining at restaurants, check at the entrance whether cards are accepted before starting your meal, especially if you are low on cash.

 

10. IC Cards as a convenient cashless option

As mentioned earlier, IC cards can be used in many settings other than transport. Since you just tap to pay, it’s a very convenient option. In large cities like Tokyo and Osaka, most convenience stores, newer vending machines, many shops and restaurants within the train station also accept IC cards.

 

11. Cashless payments are on the rise

QR code payments are slowly on the rise in Japan. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Good news: some stores that don’t accept credit cards do accept cashless payments from payment apps like PayPay and R Pay, but the bad news is that many of these apps require a Japanese phone number to register an account, or can only be downloaded from Japanese App Stores. 

 

Apple Pay and Google Pay work in Japan, and are accepted at places where their respective symbols are shown, which are mainly in large cities and retail stores, though not so much eateries. It’s best to keep a lookout for the symbols, which are usually displayed at the entrance or near the cash register.

 

Closing

Whether you’re wandering through historic sites or exploring trendy new districts, Japan is a wonderful place to visit with so much to offer, and it’s not hard to see why so many people are repeat visitors. For the best experiences, remember to keep an open heart and open mind while travelling around the Land of the Rising Sun!

 

Header image credit: photoAC

 

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