Breakfast Bytes Guide to Japan Travel

Japan, a land of rich culture, cutting-edge technology, and breathtaking natural beauty, is a dream destination for many travelers. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a frequent traveler to Japan, there’s always something new to discover and experience. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the essential tips and insights to help you make the most of your trip to Japan. So, fasten your seatbelts and get ready for an unforgettable journey!

Japan: A Land of Surprises

Japan never fails to surprise its visitors. It’s a country where ancient traditions blend seamlessly with modern innovation. As an experienced traveler to Japan, this was my first time exploring the country purely as a tourist, and it opened my eyes to the vastness and diversity of this incredible destination.

Understanding Japan’s Geography

Before we dive into the details, let’s take a moment to appreciate the size of Japan. Many people underestimate its expanse. To put things into perspective, let’s compare the size of Japan to California. Take a look at this map that superimposes Japan on a map of California:

Map of Japan superimposed on a map of California

Impressive, isn’t it? Now that we have an idea of Japan’s size, let’s move on to some practical advice for your visit. Whether you’re here for business or pleasure, these tips will come in handy.

Money Matters

Understanding the currency and exchange rates is essential before your trip to Japan. The Japanese currency is the Japanese Yen (symbol ¥ or JPY). The exchange rate fluctuates, but historically, it has been around 100¥ to the US dollar. So, for a quick conversion, just remove two digits from the Yen amount, and you’ll get an approximate dollar equivalent. It’s fascinating how exchange rates can vary over time, like when I first visited in 1983, and it was 240¥ to the dollar.

Navigating Airports

When it comes to flying into Japan, you’ll most likely consider Tokyo or Osaka as your point of entry. Previously, it was common to fly into Narita, located about 40 miles outside Tokyo. However, in recent years, Haneda Airport has opened its doors to international flights and has become a preferred choice for many travelers. If possible, flying into Haneda is more convenient as it is closer to Tokyo city center, less crowded, and offers excellent public transport connections.

If your flight lands at Narita, don’t be tempted to grab a taxi. The airport “limousine” bus service is a more convenient and affordable option. These buses, despite their name, are not luxury vehicles but rather reliable orange buses that serve major hotels. However, if you’re flying into Osaka, you’ll arrive at Kansai Airport, located on a man-made island. To reach Osaka, you can take the Haruka Express, a high-speed train that connects the airport to the city.

If you plan to explore both Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto, consider flying into one city and returning from the other. This will save you time and make your journey more efficient. For example, fly into Haneda (Tokyo) and depart from Kansai (Osaka).

From Osaka, you can also venture further south to Hiroshima and other fascinating destinations, while from Tokyo, you can easily explore the enchanting northern region, including Hokkaido and its capital, Sapporo.

The Suica Card: Your Ticket to Smooth Travel

To navigate the intricate subway and train systems in Japan, I highly recommend getting a Suica card. Issued by Japan Railways (JR), the Suica card allows you to travel seamlessly on subway lines, JR lines, and most other train services (excluding the Shinkansen). With the Suica card, you simply tap it on the entrance gate when entering the platform area and tap again to exit. It’s a convenient alternative to buying individual tickets for each trip and eliminates the hassle of calculating fares, especially for complex journeys with multiple transfers. Plus, you can even use the card to pay for small purchases at certain shops and vending machines. Upon leaving Japan, you can cash in any unused balance, but I usually keep a few dollars on it for my next visit.

The Shinkansen Experience

When it comes to traveling longer distances in Japan, nothing beats the Shinkansen, often referred to as the “bullet train.” The Shinkansen is the epitome of efficiency and speed, whisking you from one city to another in no time. For example, you can travel from Tokyo to Kyoto in just two hours and 20 minutes on the fastest trains, known as Nozomi. These trains can reach speeds of up to 200mph. The convenience of the Shinkansen is unparalleled since you can simply arrive at the station, purchase a ticket, and be on your way within minutes. Although food options on the train are limited, you’ll find a plethora of choices at the departure stations to satisfy your cravings.

The JR Pass: Your Key to Unlimited Adventure

If you’re planning to explore various regions of Japan and make multiple train journeys, consider getting a JR Pass. This pass allows for unlimited travel on all JR lines across the country, including many Shinkansen routes. For a duration of seven days, the pass costs $275 and presents a cost-effective option compared to purchasing individual tickets for each trip. It’s important to note that certain restrictions apply, such as the requirement of a visitor entry sticker in your passport, indicating that you are a non-Japanese resident. With the JR Pass, you can seamlessly journey from Tokyo to Osaka, and even venture further to Hokkaido or Hiroshima without worrying about individual fares. It’s an excellent investment for avid explorers.

Accommodation: Finding Your Home Away From Home

When it comes to finding accommodation in Japan, you’ll discover a wide range of options catering to different budgets. However, keep in mind that rooms in major cities like Tokyo can be small or expensive. For instance, the famous Park Hyatt, featured in the movie “Lost in Translation,” offers rooms starting at approximately $500 per night, which may not suit everyone’s budget. Fortunately, there are excellent alternatives in the $150-200 range. When staying in Tokyo, I recommend choosing a hotel near a station on the Yamanote line, a circular train route that covers key areas in Tokyo. With stations at Shinagawa, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Tokyo station, Ueno Park, and Akihabara, you’ll have easy access to major attractions and transportation hubs.

Now, I’ll let you in on one hotel recommendation. If you’re flying into Haneda Airport, consider staying at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. Situated right by Shinagawa train station, it’s only a 10-minute train ride from the airport, and it’s conveniently located on the Yamanote line. While the rooms may be on the smaller side, they offer good value for money. Moreover, the hotel is a stop on the Shinkansen route, including the Nozomi super express, making it a convenient choice if you plan to explore southern destinations without returning to Tokyo station.

Exploring Kyoto’s Rich Cultural Heritage

When in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, brace yourself for a breathtaking immersion into the country’s rich cultural heritage. To make the most of your visit to Kyoto’s historic sites, consider joining a guided tour. Though it may feel less independent, a guided tour offers the convenience of transportation in air-conditioned buses that will take you to all the must-see attractions. It’s an efficient way to explore the city and gain valuable insights into Kyoto’s vibrant history and traditions.

Claiming VAT (Sales) Tax Refunds

If you plan on shopping during your time in Japan, especially for high-value items, keep in mind the VAT (Sales) tax refund system. The rules have changed, and now the minimum amount required for tax refunds has been significantly reduced. To benefit from this, always carry your passport while shopping. If you have a visitor entry sticker in your passport, many retailers will process your tax refund right away, eliminating the need to go through the hassle of claiming it at the airport, as is the case in some European countries.

Tsukiji Fish Market: A Culinary Delight

Don’t miss the opportunity to explore the renowned Tsukiji Fish Market, a paradise for seafood lovers. In my earlier post, “Last Chance to See Tsukiji Fish Market,” I delve into the vibrant and unforgettable experience of exploring this bustling market. From sushi to sashimi and everything in between, Tsukiji Fish Market is a culinary haven that showcases the finest seafood Japan has to offer.

Conclusion

As we wrap up this Breakfast Bytes Guide to Japan Travel, I hope you’re feeling inspired and ready to embark on your own Japanese adventure. Japan is a country that embraces contrasts, where old-world traditions coexist with cutting-edge technology, creating a truly unique experience for every traveler. Whether you’re exploring the bustling streets of Tokyo, marveling at ancient temples in Kyoto, or indulging in the tranquility of cherry blossom season, Japan has something to offer for everyone. So, embrace the unknown, immerse yourself in the fascinating culture, and let Japan captivate your heart and soul.

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