Tips on Traveling to Japan


Flying to Japan

My favorite time to depart from San Francisco is around 1:00 pm. That flight usually arrives in Narita around 4:00 or 5:00 pm, depending on Daylight Savings Time in San Francisco. Body time is around midnight, and I make sure I don't sleep on the flight over. I find if I can stay awake another 4 hours or so, that puts body time at 4:00 am, and Tokyo time either 8:00 or 9:00 pm. I then usually sleep about 10 hours, waking up at 6:00 or 7:00 am Tokyo time, completely refreshed.

Conversely, my favorite time to depart from Narita is 7:00 pm or so. After eating dinner on the flight, it's about 10:00 pm. I then try to sleep as best I can on the plane. I can usually get about 4 or 5 hours of sleep before having to wake up for the arrival in San Francisco at around 11:00 am Pacific time. I'm usually very tired that day, but after one night's sleep, I'm back on Pacific time with no problems.

Note that as of January 1st, 1999, you no longer need to pay a Passenger Facility Service Charge when you leave Japan. This charge has been incorporated into your ticket price.

Going Between Tokyo and Narita International Airport

I always take the JR (Japan Railways) Narita Express (N'EX) from Narita airport into downtown Tokyo. It stops at Tokyo station, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro (only some trains), Yokohama, and Ofuna (only some trains). The cost to Tokyo station is 2890 yen for a normal seat, and 4890 for a seat in the Green car (first class). The time to Tokyo station is just under one hour. The cost and time to the other stations will be higher.

The train is quite comfortable. It has bathrooms, vending machines, and phones. You can purchase tickets in advance, but I've never done so because you never know if the plane will be late, your baggage will be the last one to show up on the carousel, or you might get delayed at customs. There are automated ticket machines that can display in English, so you needn't wait in the inevitable long line at the JR travel office. These machines are available just as you get to the station level, and is right across from the JR travel office.

If you get off the N'EX at Tokyo station, you will find yourself on the B5 level of the station. There are escalators to the B4 level, then another escalator to the B1 level, then, depending on which exit you are closest to, there may be an escalator to the ground level.

There are also elevators which will take you from the B5 to the B1 level. If you plan to return to Narita via the N'EX, make sure you take the correct elevator back down to the B5 level. If you enter Tokyo station through the Marunouchi North or Marunouchi Central entrances, once you pass through the ticket entrance, turn around and you will see an escalator down to the B1 level.

If you get off at Shinjuku and are headed for the hotels in the area, be sure to follow the signs for the West exit.

Less expensive ways to get into downtown Tokyo include the Keisei Skyliner (not a JR train), or any of the myriad hotel "limousine buses". The hotel buses will take you directly to most of the major hotels, but they are affected by traffic jams. Do not, under any but the most dire circumstances, take a taxi. You'll regret paying the Y30,000 or more cab fare.

When returning to Narita, most airlines will let you check-in at the Tokyo City Air Terminal (T-CAT, pronounced "tea cat") and will take care of your luggage. You might need to check in earlier than usual (so your luggage can get from Tokyo to Narita). The T-CAT can be reached via taxi or by taking the Hanzomon subway line to the Suitengumae stop.

Going Between Tokyo and Haneda International Airport

The easiest way to get to Haneda is to take the monorail from near Hamamatsucho station (on the Yamanote line). The monorail costs under 500 yen and takes 22 minutes from Hamamatsucho. There are luggage bins on the monorail, but very large suitcases will be awkward to handle. It appears that you can check your baggage at the monorail station at Hamamatsucho, but I have not tried this.

Be aware that some airline personnel at Haneda airport do not speak or even appear to read English very well. This could delay your check-in. Also, like Narita, some gates are not true jetways. Instead you board a bus which takes you to the aircraft, which you board by climbing a set of stairs.

Getting to the Kansai Region from Kansai International Airport

There is another JR train called the Haruka which is similar to the N'EX. It starts at Kansai International and makes stops at Tennoji, Shin-Osaka, and finally Kyoto station, taking 73 minutes for the entire trip. The cost to Kyoto is 3430 yen for a normal seat, 4150 yen in the Green car. Simply take the walkway from the airport terminal to the train station. There are automated ticket machines, but they do not appear to be able to display in English. Be aware that the walkway is not completely covered, nor is the station completely enclosed (though it is covered). That can make it very hot, very cold, or very wet, depending on the local weather.

To get to Kobe, in good weather, you can take the ferry from Kansai International to Kobe station.


I find it's most convenient to use a credit card to pay for expensive things, such as hotel bills. You're at the mercy of currency fluctuations, but the convenience of not having to bring lots of cash or traveler's checks is worth it.

Although Japan has lots of cash machines (ATM to an American), almost all of them are tied to Japanese banks, and most of them have no relationships with American banks.

Fortunately, Citibank offers checking and/or savings accounts that are accessible from international locations. You merely need to open an account and the ATM card you receive will work world-wide.

One caveat is that some international ATM's can only access the "primary account" of any one account-holder. This is almost always the checking account, not the savings account. Therefore to be safe you should open a checking account, not a savings account.

If you don't like Citibank, you have two alternatives:

There are three very important things to remember about ATM's:

Another thing you could do is open an account at a bank (or post office) in Japan. I've never done this, so I don't know the procedures or prerequisities. At best, you'll need to acquire your own seal (hanko) to make things official. If you deposit your money in an interest-bearing account, you'll likely get the privilege of having to file extra forms with your country's tax authorities.

I think the next best thing after a credit card is using traveler's checks in yen denominations. Not every bank in America will have these, so you might need to find a bank that can do this for you. I know that Citibank can do this and strongly suspect Sumitomo and Sanwa Banks can do it too. The reason for getting the checks in yen denominations is that when you cash it in at a Japanese bank, you won't get lots of small change, only bills.

You are also insulated from fluctuating exchange rates. This could be good or bad.

Finally, most credit cards will allow you to take a loan on your credit. American Express has at least two locations in Tokyo (in Shinjuku and Marunouchi), where you can get money. Since AmEx is technically a debit card, they will ask you for your checking account information and make a withdrawal from it in the amount you request (plus a 1% or so service charge).

I suggest you get some Japanese currency before heading to Japan. Most every bank can do this, but will require some lead time. Every bank that provides this service will charge a service fee.


Because most train stations in Japan often have lots of stairs and few if any elevators or escalators, and because some flights will not have jetways, I find it's best to travel as light as you can get away with. If you have to bring along lots of stuff, you absolutely must have a suitcase with rollers on it, or a rollable luggage cart.

If you plan to make short side trips within Japan, it may make sense to bring a smaller soft suitcase and use that for your side trips. As long as you have a reservation at the hotel when you return from your side trip, the hotel will store your luggage for you.

Both the N'EX and Haruka lines have ample storage space for luggage, even for large suitcases or golf bags. The shinkansen, however, does not have much storage space, except in the split-level green cars.

Long-distance, cross-country luggage delivery service is available, but it will take at least one day for the luggage to be delivered.


I prefer to stay at a hotel close to a train station, for convenience. One I have used the most is the Yaesu Fujiya Hotel, which is close to Tokyo Station. The rates are reasonable (about Y11,000 for a single, Y13,000 for a double or twin), but the rooms are very small (though impeccably clean). (Note: As of March, 1997, I was charged Y14,850 for a single room at the Yaesu Fujiya.)

A friend recently recommended the Hotel President Aoyama, and I found it to be a very nice place to stay. The rate is Y12,000 or Y13,000 for a single, the rooms are larger than at the Yaesu Fujiya, the clerks speak English, there's a 24-hour convenience store next to the hotel, and the nearest subway station is only one block away (the Aoyama Itchome station servicing the Ginza and Hanzomon lines). The only two drawbacks I found were that the taxi ride from Tokyo station to the hotel is a bit expensive (average Y2000 each way), and unlike the Yaesu Fujiya, there are no restaurants close by that serve a "Morning Set" (see the section below on Eating). Otherwise, I highly recommend this hotel.

If you're more used to "standard American" sized rooms, the Century Hyatt in Shinjuku is nice, but try to get a corporate rate as the "rack rate" is very expensive (about Y22,000 for a single).

There are not many hotel clubs in America which have good rates for hotels in Japan. One such club has world-wide membership: the Tokyu Hotel Chain. You get quarterly coupons good for a discount at their hotels. I found their Kyoto hotel very nice.

My wife and I recently stayed (2005) at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. It is within walking distance of Shinagawa station (although you have to walk through a pedestrian mall and up a slight slope), and thus accessible from both the N'EX and the southbound shinkansen. It has multiple buildings with varying sizes of rooms. We stayed in the Annex (now called the North Tower) and it was a tiny room. If you can afford it, the Main Tower and Annex Tower are likely to be larger. As part of your reservation, you should get a booklet of breakfast coupons. There was a breakfast buffet with both Western and Japanese-style foods, and also a true Japanese-style breakfast restaurant. There's also a nice curry restaurant up the slope at the Takanawa Tennis Center.

Note that a "double" room has one double-width bed; a "twin" has two single-width beds.

Short-Distance Travel

Short-distance (intra-city) within Japan is quite convenient, if a bit bewildering to someone not used to reading maps or figuring out transfer stations. The four ways you're most likely to use are:

The methods for the last three are very similar. You buy your ticket at the embarking station, run it through the entrance wicket, then again at the exit wicket at your destination. If you can't find the correct fare for your destination, just buy the cheapest ticket, then go to a special machine near the exit wickets. It'll tell you how much extra to pay, then code the ticket to let you out.

JR has two extra methods of dealing with tickets. The first is the "orange card". You buy it at special machines (denominations start at Y1,000 and run up to Y5,000), then use it at the ticket machine to buy a ticket. The amount of your purchase is deducted from the cash value remaining on the orange card. The second is the "IO card". Again, you buy it at special machines, but instead, you run the IO card through the wickets. The value of your journey is deducted from the cash value remaining on the IO card.

Both the orange and IO cards make ticket purchaing more convenient. The IO card might seem the most convenient, because you don't need to stop and buy a ticket but instead go right through the wickets. The orange card, on the other hand, offers you more value for your money. Specifically, purchasing an orange card for Y5,000 gives you Y5,300 of ticket-buying power.

There is a card you can use for subway wickets, called the "SF Metro Card" (no relation to the city of San Francisco). I do not know if this card will work on the two different subway systems in Tokyo, but I think they will.

For those interested, the two systems are TRTA ("Eidan"), whose symbol is a stylized "S", and TOEI, whose symbol is vaguely leaf-shaped. Fortunately, all the TOEI lines begin with the word "Toei", so it's easy to distinguish between the two.

Long-Distance Travel

The shinkansen or "bullet train" is the pride and joy of Japan. Since its inception, it has had a perfect safety record of no fatalities. The train runs on specially-welded rails at speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour.

Reservations can be made at any JR travel office, and there are automatic ticket machines at major stations. If you like gambling, you can forego the extra charge for a reserved seat and just purchase a ticket in the self-seating area. There are smoking and non-smoking cars in both the reserved and self-seating sections.

There are two classes of reserved seats: normal and green (first class). Some green cars are split-level; the bottom level will usually contain a cafeteria. Some shinkansen have full-blown dining cars with sit-down meal service. I've never experienced this.

Remember that the shinkansen has limited space for luggage.

The JR Pass

The JR pass is a very useful aid to traveling on JR trains. You must purchase it outside of Japan, and Japanese nationals cannot purchase it. There are three different durations (one, two, and three weeks), and two different classes: normal and green (first class).

When you purchase the pass, you actually only receive a receipt. You can exchange it for a pass at most large JR stations, and at Narita airport. When you get the pass, you specify the starting date from which you wish the be able to use the pass. Once the pass is active, all travel on all JR lines is free (with some exceptions for sleeper trains).

There are two drawbacks to the JR pass. The first is that the pass might not pay back its value unless you take a lot of local trips, or one medium-distance round trip on the shinkansen. The second is that you cannot use the normal automatic wickets at the station. Instead you must pass by the ticket agent window, which is usually crowded with people. I've been successful just flashing the pass (with its expiration date visible) while walking past the window.


Japan has some of the best foods in the world, including most kinds of ethnic cuisine. The drawback is that it can be very expensive. The horror stories of $10 cups of coffee and $100 steaks are true.

However, if you don't mind doing a bit of exploring and experimenting, you can eat very cheaply, even in Tokyo. The secret is to eat as the locals do.

For breakfast, forget your hotel's coffee shop and go out looking for a restaurant serving a "Morning Set" or "Morning Service". These can most often be found near the closest train station. For about Y700, you can get a thick slice of toast, salad and hard-boiled egg or fried egg with bits of ham, a small piece of fruit (usually half of a banana), and one cup of tea or coffee (no refills).

For lunch, many restaurants offer a "teishoku" or set lunch. These usually cost around Y1000, and usually consists of an entree, rice and pickled vegetables. I've also read that you can sometimes sneak into a company or governmental office cafeteria and take advantage of the subsidized prices. I haven't tried this, myself.

Many restaurants will offer a teishoku for dinner as well. For both lunch and dinner, it's often worth looking through the various department stores to find a restaurant. That's right, a department store. Most of the larger chains will have one or even two whole floors devoted entirely to restaurants. Prices there will be competitive with comparable restaurants outside the department stores.

Be aware that most restaurants close around 9:00 or 10:00 pm.

Snackers (or very light eaters) may want to explore the ticket noodle shops. Outside the shop is a ticket machine. After paying for your selection, you receive a ticket. You take the ticket inside and exchange it for your bowl of noodles.


Public restrooms are usually few and far between in Japan. Your best choices are hotels or department stores. They will usually equipped with Western-style toilets and will almost always be scrupulously clean. After that, restaurants are your next best bet. They will probably be Japanese-style (ones you squat over, rather than sit upon), but they will still be clean. The worst places are train stations. They will nearly always be Japanese-style, and although the toilets themselves are sanitary, the stall and restroom itself will usually not be very clean. In fact, they may be downright smelly. You may want to carry some extra packets of tissue paper (as some locations won't have toilet paper available) and a handkerchief to dry your hands with.

Jeff Okamoto /!okamoto / 8 July 2007