Some of the questions I’ve been emailed, about generally getting on as a visitor to Japan. Feel free to ask a question if yours isn’t answered.
Where did you stay?
In Tokyo we stayed at the Citadines serviced apartments in Shinjuku. I’d most definitely recommend it both in terms of location and facilities. It was really nice to have a mini-apartment with sofa and kitchen to relax in, and Shinjuku is a great base both for the airport and getting around Tokyo and the vicinity.
In Kyoto we stayed at Ryokan Sakura which we found a nice mix of traditional and modern, with friendly English-speaking staff and a good central location near the station.
Is the rail pass worth the money? How else do you travel around?
For us, the 7 day rail pass just about paid for itself, based on the price of the same trips with a ticket bought on the day. We used it to get from Tokyo to Kyoto and back again, a daytrip from Kyoto to Nara, and the trip from central Tokyo to Narita airport. It was quite handy having it all pre-paid (although the thought of losing it was worrying as it can’t be replaced) and the only restriction is it can’t be used on the very fastest (Hikari) class of bullet trains.
At the same time as ordering our rail pass (from www.insidejapantours.com), we also got a Pasmo subway card pre-loaded with £20 of credit. These work like a London Oyster and each journey is about £1. You can buy the Pasmo cards at subway stations out there too. There’s also a different prepay card called Suica which covers more local train routes if you’re exploring further afield.
Transport in Kyoto is more expensive and erratic. A daily bus pass is Y500 (£3) but it can often be tricky to find the right stop for where you want to go and information is mostly Japanese only (try to pick up an English map). We only got the subway once; it’s not as expansive as Tokyo’s. Taxis are affordable but the drivers can struggle with navigating due to the odd addressing system – even with the street address written in Japanese and a map, our driver struggled to find our hotel from the station, ten minutes away. A good option might be to hire bikes; there are lots of places to do it, although we didn’t get round to it. Central Kyoto is a bit sprawling and not particularly attractive to walk around but once you’re out in the hills it’s lovely to wander around.
Did you pay with cash or cards? Can you withdraw money?
We exchanged a load of money (a few hundred pounds each) at Heathrow and took cash for the day out each day, leaving the rest in the hotel safe. Japan is very low in street crime so it’s pretty safe to carry cash around. Most of the bigger restaurants and shops do accept cards but some smaller ones were cash only. I withdrew some extra cash from a Citibank in Tokyo and was charged around £5 to do so.
Is food/shopping very expensive?
The cost of eating out was pretty comparable to London, with a range of higher class and cheaper places. Cheap options are the millions of counter-service bars scattered all over the place (but unreliable for vegetarians), ranging up to more expensive international food like Italian. Restaurants in shopping malls tend to be more expensive and classy than ones on the street.
Really good value are the set lunches you find in a lot of cafes which are often around Y1000 (£6) for a main meal, starter/side and drink, or bento style with lots of small dishes. You can also pick up cheap hot snacks from the 7-11 convenience stores.
Drinking is pretty expensive, especially imported beers, but you save a bit because beer is usually served in half-pints rather than full pints. Quite a lot of bars have a cover charge if you’re just drinking, which can be Y300-1000.
Did you get by not speaking any Japanese?
Mostly fine. Both of the places we stayed had staff with excellent English and most public transport staff speak a little English too. The Tokyo subway is bilingual in announcements and information. We tended to pick restaurants that had English menus displayed outside because that gave them a good chance of having English-speaking staff (an unfortunate necessity for vegetarians).