This will be a massive post so here is what you can find in it:
- General tips about stopovers and missing luggage
- Japan-only tips: what happens when you land ; English usage ; LGBT travel ; Safety ; Wifi access ; credit card use ; your phone might not work ; general day to day rules about clothing, PDA, and more ; non-existent trashcans and staring contests ; JRPass, and a few other topics here and there.
An important thing to know is that when you book a flight with a stopover, you HAVE to check how long you have between both flights and keep in mind that they start counting from the moment your plane lands, not from the moment the doors open. While it is illegal to have less than 60 minutes, some companies still do it, especially when they’re not affiliated with each other. Even 60 minutes is nowhere near enough time between flights unless your airport has only 1 terminal. Have a minimum of 1h30. Research your stopover airport. During the time-frame between your flights, you have to find your gate (which is often in another terminal), but also go through security all over again. So, don’t buy perfumes or other liquids at your first airport because they will be taken from you at the second airport. A short stopover is also a 100% guarantee for no luggage upon arrival.
Have your essentials in your carry-on luggage. Think of what you’ll need if you have to wait 2 or 3 days to get your luggage back, and be prepared. The first time my luggage didn’t arrive, I was absolutely unprepared, and it ruined the beginning of my trip. Since then, I make sure I won’t need that luggage immediately.
It means that if I don’t have my luggage upon arrival… I’m actually happy about it. Because it means the airport will send it to my hotel, and I won’t have to carry it all the way there myself. I confused the airport staff a lot the last 2 times it happened, because I was all cheery about it.
Sometimes a staff member will have your name on a paper when you exit the plane – that means no luggage. Sometimes they won’t, and you’re stuck waiting until you realize it’s not coming. You’ll have to go to a counter where they’ll ask you what it looks like and you’ll fill in a form. It’s best if you took a picture of it too, and don’t forget to tag your bag!
If it’s your first time traveling so far, don’t plan anything for your first day, and be flexible for the second. First-time jetlag, and first-time long flights have a different effect on everyone: you might just be tired, or you might be actually sick.
Your first day
You’ll be given two pieces of paper in the plane: custom declaration form, and immigration form. Don’t lose them, fill them in, keep them preciously until they take them from you.
Have your hotel reservation with you (the first one) and a rough itinerary. The hotel is required by immigration.
Immigration can take 2 minutes, or 1h if you’re unlucky. Your fingerprints and photo will be taken. Interrogation is usually very fast (what do you want to do here/where are you going) but sometimes you might have someone who decided to ask you tons of questions.
Baggage claim can take up to 25 minutes
Your bags will usually be thoroughly checked in customs so don’t be stupid, they’ll know. I’ve landed there 9 times. My bags have been checked 8 times. The one time they weren’t, was when I landed in Fukuoka. It’s a painless experience, the staff is very polite and quite fast. Allow 15 minutes for it.
Once you exit the customs, you can find the JR office to exchange your JRPass, go to the relevant counter to pick up your portable wifi if you ordered one, and find your way to Tokyo at the numerous counters offering buses and train options.
Don’t expect anyone to speak anything other than Japanese. Even if it’s not true, go with the idea that English will get you nowhere, so you don’t get surprised.
You won’t have more luck with young people than with older ones, it’s really a mixed bag.
The people who do speak English often pretend they don’t, as they don’t have the confidence to use the language. Some of them however will be eager to practice with you and it’s a great way to make friends.
Hotel staff often speaks English in Tokyo and Kyoto, or have at least one receptionist who does, but it’s not always the case, even in popular youth hostels like the Juyoh. A good indication of No English Spoken is if their website doesn’t have an English version. For restaurants, Gurunavi indicates which ones have a menu in English – but many restaurants have pictures or wax replica of their food so you can just show what you want. I sometimes just drag the poor waiter outside to show him the wax replica in the window. Learn how to say the basics of your diet or allergies though.
Train station staff, policemen, shop staff, restaurant staff will, 99% of the time, not speak it (or pretend they don’t). So this can quickly become an issue if you’re not prepared for it.
Roman alphabet is not used everywhere. Kyoto/Tokyo/Osaka should be fine. If you go elsewhere, always memorize or have a paper with the characters of your destination especially if you have to take a bus.
Japan, before Westerners came, was open to male homosexuality, even going as far as calling it the purest kind of love. This changed with Western influence and even today, is not widely accepted. They tend to “ignore” that homosexuality exists. People sometimes adopt each other so they can be in the same family register. You won’t be attacked for being gay, it’s not illegal, it’s just not considered “proper”.
Ordinary homophobia will be shoved in your face if you try to have some fun at a love hotel. Most of them don’t accept same sex couples and will give a stupid explanation for it (as seen on rocketnews24).
Head to Shinjuku Ni-chōme, the gay district in Tokyo, for your safe haven. Look up other similar districts elsewhere as I don’t know those.
Japan is opening up slowly but it’s taking time. Gay marriage is now legal in a few areas however it doesn’t grant a valid spouse visa, it’s only for citizens.
Check the section about PDA below as well.
There is one place you need to know about in Tokyo: Kabukicho. Red light district and mafia breeding ground. It’s just across the street from Shinjuku station so chances are you’ll go through it if you are in the area.
The worst that will happen to you if you’re smart, is foreign touts annoying you (they’re also present in Roppongi and Harajuku). They’ll talk to you in English. Say no, then ignore them as they’ll probably continue, or better, pretend you don’t speak English. They’re mostly foreigners. They’ll target you automatically, and even follow you. If a Japanese host or hostess tries to talk to you (you’ll recognize them), just say no thanks, they’ll let it go easily. Don’t go with them as their establishments, in Kabukicho mostly, are sometimes illegal businesses and traps, and you’ll get out of there without your money. Not that it will necessarily get stolen, but you’ll find yourself swamped with massive hidden fees at some point.
Kabukicho is fun. Just be aware of your surroundings. Kabukicho also invites the Yakuza topic: Yakuza won’t do anything to you. Don’t meddle in their business, that’s all. They’re not a danger to you. You don’t need to run away screaming.
As a foreign woman, you’re not really less safe than a man. If you want to go to Kabukicho at midnight by yourself, go ahead. You will notice very quickly that no one (except the touts) will whistle or catcall you. Hosts might follow you around or wave at you but they’re not a threat, and they don’t feel like one, just tell them no politely and they’ll leave. They’re just trying to get customers for their bars and they can’t give a bad name to their employers, so they won’t harass you.
You might have heard about the issue of sexual harassment in crowded trains – that shouldn’t happen to you as a foreigner but if it does, call the asshole out. They know you’re likely to do it as a foreigner so they shouldn’t touch you.
Get used to being stared at in rural areas. It can get pretty tiring, but it’s nothing compared to the stares you get in Korea or China.
You might encounter xenophobic behavior – people refusing to sit next to you in public transportation, mostly – but don’t think that everything is an attack against you, because it’s easy to fall into that trap. Maybe the reason they don’t want to sit there is just because you put on too much perfume, or you have obviously been sweating – or the same reason you don’t always sit next to someone in a bus. You just don’t want to. If you’re not being loud and obnoxious and don’t expect people to speak your language, you’ll be fine.
Very young kids will either be in awe or cry when they see you. Older kids will be very excited to see you, even high school kids. A friend and I were swarmed in a park in Nagasaki by a group of kids who kept touching our hair and arms (Japanese women shave their forearms, so they were very curious about ours)
CREDIT CARDS, WIFI AND PHONES
Wifi: Japan seems to be allergic to it. Most hotels offer Internet with a LAN cable but no wifi; a few hotels don’t even have Internet at all, especially ryokans, even luxury ones. You will rarely find hotspots and if you do, they’re not always free or require a registration via a Japanese website. Starbucks has free wifi. You can rent pocket wifi at the airport (reservation necessary) with various companies.
Phone: your phone, tablet, etc. even your smartphone, might not work at all. Older phones and smartphones (pre-3G) will never work. So if you need to use your phone, better have pocket wifi ready so you can at least use VOIP services and instant messaging. Assume that your sim card won’t work for the duration of your stay just in case.
Credit cards: credit cards are not commonly used. People walk around with wads of cash in their pockets. Japan is one of the safest country in the world and is mostly free of pick-pockets and petty crimes (mostly-be smart 😛 ).
Anyway, relying on your credit card is a bad idea. Visas are accepted in several hotel chains but rarely in smaller establishments. Restaurants and shops often don’t accept them. Mastercards are even trickier. Withdrawing money can be a pain until you find an ATM that accepts foreign cards. You should find some in 7/11 stores. The ATM at the post offices usually work too, but they are only open from 9 to 5 during weekdays (even machines deserve a break, okay?)
Welcome to Japan, where showing your neck and shoulders is the sexiest thing you can do. This is kind of a pain because a lot of Western clothes are designed to show exactly that. Wearing those would be like wearing an extra miniskirt in Western countries, so if you wouldn’t do that at home, try to think about how it looks in Japan. It’s difficult to get into the mindset though. You can show your legs though 😛
Cover your shoulders, neck and back, and don’t show too much cleavage. Once again it’s not a question of safety, but how you want to be perceived. Just look around when you’re there: you’ll see many girls with skirts so short you don’t even understand why it’s called a skirt, but you’ll rarely see a girl showing her back. Japanese clothes are tailored that way.
RANDOM STUFF LIKE TRASHCANS BECAUSE IT’S ALSO IMPORTANT
Have a cold? Need to blow your nose? Ha. Suffer in silence and sniffle your way back to your hotel room. Blowing your nose is incredibly rude. You’ll become the master of swallowing your own snot in a heartbeat.
Smoking in the street can only be done in specific areas (or side streets), you’ll see them at the explicit signs on the sidewalk. You can often smoke in restaurants and bars, and trains still have smoking cars.
Don’t eat in the street. Try not to drink either.
Restaurants are not made to linger. This is particularly difficult to accept for people coming from cultures where meals are a time to gather and talk. There are places where you can stay longer (izakaya, coffee shops) but if you finished everything on your table and don’t order more you’ll still be kicked out at some point. A lot of restaurants are very small, and if you stay too long they’re losing customers.
Trashcans are literally nonexistent so be aware that you’ll have to carry your trash everywhere with you until you find one, which often means you just bring your trash back to the hotel at the end of the day 😛 it’s a wonder the streets are so clean.
Don’t be loud. That includes being on the phone and not putting your phone on silent mode. Japan is a very quiet country in public transportation and residential areas.
Tourist offices in train stations are more useful than you can think and will give you tons of tips and maps.
Takkyubin is a great system you should definitely use if you plan to move around a lot.It’s a delivery service for large items. Use it for your luggage so you don’t have to drag them with you everywhere. The most famous service is kuroneko, that you can recognize easily with their yellow logo with a black cat. Usually, hotels offer this service too, at least the Toyoko Inn chain does. Just head to the reception and ask if they offer it, tell them where you need to send your luggage, fill in a form with the address of your next hotel and voilà! Your luggage will be delivered two days later. It’s not very expensive, it depends on the distance and size of your luggage.
Carry your passport with you. It can happen that the police stops you to control your landing permit/visa.
A JRPass is a travel pass allowing you to take any kind of Japan Railways transportation including buses, boats, trains and shinkansen (unless otherwise specified) for the duration of the pass (and the region, if you take a regional pass). It’s expensive, but will save you tons of money if you get out of Tokyo.
I’ll only talk about the main pass that is valid in the entire country as I haven’t tested the other ones.
You’ll find it for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days. It’s only available for tourists. If you have any other kind of visa or landing permit, or are a citizen, you’re not eligible.
If you don’t get out of Tokyo, it’s a waste.
The price of the 7 days pass is about the same price as a shinkansen (high speed train) ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto and back. Knowing this makes it helpful in deciding to get one or not.
I highly recommend using HYPERDIA to not only check itineraries and general planning, but also prices, and you’ll know if you need one. Make sure to add the Reserved price to your total if it’s required, some trains are reservation-only.
You can use more than one pass during your trip, but I don’t recommend going into the JR office on your first day with 3 coupons for passes to exchange (you don’t receive your pass at home, you get a coupon and then need to visit a JR office in Japan), as it seems to be a grey area. Exchange your coupons little by little. I’ve used 3 passes in a row with no trouble, but I exchanged them separately.
Regional passes are available for purchase in Japan. The main pass however, was until very recently restricted for purchase outside of the country. I heard this was changed but double-check.
I recommend JRPass.com to buy it. I’ve been buying mine from them for years. They also offer pocket wifi, which I will be testing this year.
Don’t even try. If the limit is 90 days, you have to be gone on the 90th. It’s not 3 months. If you overstay, you will be forbidden from entering the country for the next 15 or 30 years. Being restricted in one country will restrict you in many more. There is also a yearly limit to how many non-consecutive days you can be in Japan. It’s often 180 days total. Everything depends on where you’re from.
Going for a weekend in a nearby country to “reset” your landing permit used to work 10 or 15 years ago but doesn’t anymore as it was abused, so don’t try it.