1) Fly to Haneda not Narita International Airport
If you’re like me and Tokyo is your first stop, make sure to book your flight to land at Haneda, not Narita International Airport. Flying to Haneda will save you not only time but money as well. Narita airport is located about an hour or so away by train from central Tokyo. Although visitors can ride the Narita Express from Narita, a one-way trip costs around $30.00. Haneda airport, on the other hand, is closer to the heart of Tokyo, and visitors can reach the city center by riding the Tokyo Monorail and the JR Yamanote Line in about 25 minutes for a fraction of the price.
2) Purchase a JR Rail Pass
If you’re traveling to multiple cities, I highly recommend taking advantage of the JR Rail Pass. A JR Rail Pass allows tourists to ride Shinkansen trains (bullet trains) unlimitedly for either a 7, 14, or 21 day period, depending on the length of the trip. Visitors can opt for either Green Car passes or Ordinary, which are the equivalent of first versus economy classes.
Prior to my trip, I purchased a JR Rail Pass through a travel agency in Los Angeles, H.I.S. International Tours. Personally, I selected the 7-Day Ordinary Pass, which costs ¥29,110 (around $231.00). I found the ordinary cars to be well-kept, spacious and offered very comfortable seats, so I don’t see the necessity of choosing the more expensive option. I didn’t feel as if I was sacrificing either comfort or convenience riding the ordinary cars.
The travel agency provided me an Exchange Order, a voucher which can then be redeemed for an actual pass at any of the multiple JR Rail Pass Exchange Office all over Japan. Keep in mind that the voucher must be redeemed within 3 months from the date it was issued so plan accordingly. Note that you can also specify to a JR Rail Pass agent when you want to start using your pass. For example, I explored Tokyo for a few days and knew that I didn’t need the JR Rail Pass yet until I leave the city, so when I redeemed my voucher on a Thursday, I didn’t actually use the pass until my trip on Sunday to Osaka.
*Note: JR Rail Passes cannot be used as a ticket to board the trains! The JR Rail Pass will grant you entrance to the train stations without going through the turnstiles, but you will still need to reserve a seat and obtain a ticket/boarding pass from the JR Rail Pass office, which are located inside the train stations. Your boarding pass will indicate your assigned seat and will be checked by a conductor, so don’t lose it!
Eligibility, prices, restrictions, and other information about the JR Rail Passes can be found here.
3) Goshuin notebooks make amazing souvenirs
Typical Japanese souvenirs often consists of handmade chopsticks, colorful folding fans, Hello Kitty, and matcha this matcha that. For those who want to depart from cliché souvenirs from the land of the rising sun, I suggest picking up a goshuin.
A goshuin is an accordion-style Japanese temple stamp book that you can bring in Japan’s thousands of temples and shrines where monks stamp and hand write the temple name and date (and sometimes prayer) using traditional Japanese calligraphy. The practice is considered sacred, and photography is prohibited while the monks write. The red stamps are unique to the temple or shrine, and payment or “donations” are expected for each work of art, ranging from ¥200-¥500. Goshuin books are so incredibly beautiful, and what makes them so special is that everyone’s book is different depending on the order of temples you visit, the dates, etc. It is truly a one of a kind reflection of the traveler’s individual journey.
It’s not always easy locating the monks within the temple grounds. Most monks sit behind windowless booths, while others are situated inside buildings. With my lack of Japanese speaking skills, my strategy was limited to hand gestures. Upon entering a new temple, I keep my goshuin at hand and show it to any workers/staff at the shrine I can find. I show them the notebook, which they immediately recognize and point me to the right direction.
3) Explore Kyoto by bike!
One of my first observations upon arriving in Japan was the prevalence of bike riders! Bikers from all age groups cycle freely through the sidewalks and narrow residential streets of Japan. It was such a delight stumbling upon bicycle parking lots all throughout the city, which only added more fuel to my wet dream of one residing in their beautiful country. No wonder Japan has the most centenarians in the world! They have a well-balanced diet, they bike every where, they meditate/pray… it all adds up!
It’s always my desire to immerse myself in the culture of my intended destination. As fun as it was to ride the subways, I knew I had to spend a day like a local and explore the city by bike. Fortunately, I was able to rent a bike for an entire day from my hostel, J-Hoppers Kyoto, and I’m sure other hostels offer similar services.
One of the best things about traveling solo is it forces you to be resourceful and hone your social skills. It was difficult navigating a brand new city, but the challenge made it all the more exciting I didn’t have pocket WiFi or internet so I was unable to use Google maps to navigate, and I also didn’t have a hard copy map of Kyoto (not that it would be that much help considering the street signs are predominantly in Japanese), so I was forced out of my comfort zone. I was on my own. Sure, I could’ve grabbed a taxi from my hostel to the Fushimi Inari shrine, but where’s the fun in that? By riding my bike, I was not only able to interact with the locals (who were all incredibly helpful in guiding me with directions), but also explore the narrow streets and alley ways of Kyoto, making my commute to the shrine just as memorable as the destination.
4) Triple check operation days and hours of each tourist attraction for special events/holiday closures
I visited Japan first week of January, and it was an honor witnessing the Japanese partake in their traditions of welcoming the new year. Having the privilege to not only witness but participate first hand in their customs and rituals was truly special.
With so many festivities surrounding the new year holiday, I made the rookie mistake of not checking ahead of time whether the attraction I wanted to visit was open for business or not. Most temples and shrines were open so visitors can pray and wish for health and success, but non-religious sites like Tsukiji Market and the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden were closed during my visit.
I woke up enthusiastically at 3AM the Monday after the new year, brimming over with excitement to witness the famous tuna auctions. I made my way to Tsukiji Market, only to be met with disappointment. The market was scheduled to open the day after I leave Tokyo. My heart sank.
5) Learn basic phrases
As a traveler, it’s important to remember that visiting a foreign country is not mean to make the foreigner comfortable. English-speaking Japanese citizens are still a rarity in Japan, and it would be self-absorbed of me to expect them to know English when I’m in their territory. Travelers don’t need to be fluent in Japanese to get by, but it’s definitely helpful to learn a few phrases.
I must admit that I felt like someone cut off my tongue during my trip. I underestimated the language barrier and learned the hard way how difficult it was to just get from Point A to Point B. It was a struggle and often frustrating being limited to hand gestures and head nods.
Hello – konnichiwa
Excuse me – sumimasen (I used this at least 100x a day)
Thank you – arigato gozaimasu
How much is this? – ikura desu ka?
Thanks for reading! Feel free to ask questions!