Whenever visiting a new country, there always that learning curve where everything down to small, daily actions are now unfamiliar. But that's part of the fun of traveling - rediscovering the thrill of doing something not-new for the first time again. Sometimes, however, these moments can become frustrating, stressful, and something you're glad that you'll already know for the next time. So here are the things I wish I'd already known when I went to Japan, or in the words of my friend, Amy, "What I wish I knew before shaming myself 1000 times over".
- After you've pre-bought your JR Rail Pass, what they mail to you is not your pass. It is like a voucher, and to get your pass, you have to bring it to the JR office at the airport. You can get it at any office, but I would recommend getting it at the airport because it can be used for the train ride into Tokyo.
- If you fly into Haneda, it will not take long to get to downtown Tokyo, but if you arrive in Narita, give yourself about an hour on the train.
- Locations on a map are farther apart that they may seem, making walking times longer than anticipated.
- You will get lost. No matter how well you plan, it will happen at some point. I googled address locations, and even google was not always accurate, sometimes not even to the correct street.
- Each city has a local subway-esque train line owned by JR, and if you have a Rail Pass, you get free rides! To do so, you have to go to the turnstile operated by a JR employee, and you flash your Rail Pass in the manner of an FBI agent with it open to your photo (not kidding). Rarely is there an entrance without an employee present, but if you find yourself at one, there is usually a button to speak to someone. We were lucky that a passerby saw our confusion and took care of it all for us, but if nobody had, we would have probably just walked to another entrance.
- Get a Passmo, Suica, or whatever subway card right away. They're pretty much interchangeable, can be used on almost any subway line not owned by JR. Even better, they will work in most major cities. For example, I bought a Passmo, and I was able to use it on every non-JR subway in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, with the exception of one really old train line in Kyoto (to get to a specific temple).
- It is not necessary to book seats on the bullet train, and I personally found it easier to just show up. If you have not reserved seats, then you need to find the designated unreserved train cars. I would suggest getting there early if you're in a group because quite the line can form. If you do decide to make a reservation, then you have to go to the JR office, but depending on availability, this may not ensure that your group is seated together.
- There are two major train stations in Osaka, so pay close attention to which one your train arrives at and departs from.
- The address system looks completely nonsensical to a foreigner, and for practical purposes, it kind of is. As Ueno-san of Bar High Five explained it to me: you will see 3 numbers in a Japanese address (ie. 3-8-15), and you need to know the borders of a specific neighborhood. The first number correlates to the lateral streets starting from top to bottom of that neighborhood. The second number corresponds to the streets running up and down, I believe starting from left to right. And the third number is the number building on the block, which are ordered in a clockwise manner. According to Ueno-san, this applies to anywhere but Kyoto. Although this to me still seems like a convoluted system, once I learned this, it did help me get around a little bit.
- The subway closes earlier than you would expect for such a metropolitan city, and taxis are not cheap. I think there is an app that will tell you the last subway times (although I did not personally know to use this, someone else used it for us).
- The train stations are massive, so if you're catching the shinkansen or a regional train, giving yourself a little extra cushion time to find the correct section of the station and then the correct platform would be a good idea. We definitely had a few dicey moments.
- I hardcore researched omiyage (food souvenirs) before going, so I had a huge list in each city of things that I wanted to buy. For places located in the train stations and the department stores, the layout was like a maze, it took a lot longer to find the specific booths than I thought it would. I wish that I noted things from special standalone shops or ultra special goods only, and instead wandered freely in the department stores.
- We ate a lot of set meals and kaiseki. Very quickly we learned that Japanese people can eat a lot more and at double the speed. We were on occasion encouraged [pleaded?] to eat faster, and it took me a few days to get used to the portion sizes. Of all the restaurants, we probably ate the slowest at the kushiage place, where in addition, we discovered that Japanese people could easily tolerate the boiling lava hot temperatures, whereas we had to shamefully blow on our food for quite a while before it was a safe temperature that wouldn't destroy our mouths.
- I had read online that there are special ekiben bentos in the train stations, and with the number of travelers, I had assumed, or at least hoped, that these stands would be in plain view for easy traveler access, but not once did I come across one. Instead, it seems like the big train stations are linked underground to a department store, and the food halls have more than enough choices of food purveyors and bento varieties. I wish that before train travel, we had instead bought bento from these department stores.
- When traveling to Mount Hakone, the special train, the Romance Car, had a food cart with all sorts of amazing goodies, like seasonal, sakura-flavored desserts. We had not yet ridden the shinkansen at this point, so I thought that I would be seeing these snacks on future trains, but I was totally wrong. While the shinkansen does have food carts, they are stocked with goods that you could find ay any convenience store. If you see special train snacks, I would suggest that you eat them when you can!
- When researching restaurants, I had read that some of the kaiseki chefs can prepare bento with advanced notice. I never asked for one, but I did see a Japanese couple receive one at one of my last meals, and it made me wish that I had - just to try, even once.
- Even though we knew how amazing the convenience stores are, I still felt like we somehow underutilized them. I would never be the type of person to sacrifice a real restaurant meal for a meal here, but I do wish that we stocked up on snacks and properly explored their offerings a little more.
- I had planned to at least once go izakaya hopping in a manner similar to tapas hopping. What I didn't anticipate was that the izakayas located in busy areas (I had looked up some of the most highly regarded establishments in Tokyo), were packed to the brim, and they did not offer us any wait time, even when a Japanese woman asked on our behalf - just a "sorry, goodbye". If you plan on visiting an izakaya, and especially if it is one that is well-liked, a reservation might be a good idea.
- Most of the places we stayed at were Airbnb, and one of the perks of Japanese Airbnb is that every host had a pocket WiFi for us. It is basically a little device that is about the size of a small power bank, linked to their mobile account, that operates like a traveling router. It was wireless - you just had to turn it on and stick it in your bag somewhere, and it provided WiFi for our whole group (granted, when all three people were using it at once, there was a little slowing of internet speeds). This was a lifesaver. However, when traveling between cities and between Airbnb, we did not have access to this. I would recommend, whether or not you chose Airbnb's for your accommodations, renting out another pocket Wifi (you can easily find them online). This way, you'll have internet access in transit, on the train, and if group members ever decide to split up, you can still remain in contact with one another.
- We had all read and worried about the cash situation: that many places do not accept credit cards and that it can be nearly impossible to find an ATM after dinnertime. So we each made sure to cash on hand at the start of the trip. But we came across few cash-only establishments, and I actually found myself at the end of the trip trying to use it up quickly. I'm not saying that this will never be an issue - I just don't think that this was as great a problem as nearly every internet source led me to believe.