Before arriving in Japan, we were a little apprehensive. We were told it was very expensive. The train system seemed accurate but very confusing and overwhelming. We were afraid no one would speak English and we would get shoved like sardines onto trains. So, given our fears and worries, here is what we learned by experience:
Japan is not expensive, as long as you know where to look. If you eat at fancy restaurants then yes, it will be very expensive. We are are on a budget so we are eating ramen for about $5-6 a bowl and it’s delicious! Onigiri rice balls for about $1 at little convenience stores and supermarkets. For two people, eating economically, you can eat for about $40 a day! Not to mention the little bars and street side yakitori (grilled kebabs) for $2. The best and cheapest places to eat have been temple festivals and the farmers market. Sushi is cheap at little take out spots and the supermarket. Cheap food abounds around train stations and believe it or not – in department stores that have amazing high quality food stands.
7Eleven and 100 yen stores are your friend here
7Eleven in the U.S. is not a place I would typically ever step foot in. The food is gross and unhealthy – But 7Eleven in Japan is awesome. They have ATMs that accept international cards and they make good, cheap coffee, fresh snacks and have lots of cool, cute items that are actually designed well. They even have their own line of socks and stationary items. Oh yes, and free WiFi. There are many shops to buy anything and everything you need, but you may want to check the 100 yen shops first like Daiso, because they sometimes have the same stuff for less than $1.
Buy a Pasmo card or equivalent, it makes travel easier
We were afraid of navigating the complex subway system in Tokyo and not being able to understand the signage or pricing system, but it’s very easy once you get here. The machines have a button in the upper right corner for “English” and the rest is self-explanatory. A Pasmo card is a card you fill up with cash and you tap it to get through the turnstiles. You can use it on all the different train lines, buses and to pay for items at certain stores too. Takes the guess-work away. Just ping and go.
Learn a few phrases in Japanese and you will be okay
Everyone here is very shy to speak English. Mostly because they don’t think they can speak well and feel embarrassed. But a lot of people can write in English if they can’t speak it. As with any foreign country you go to, it is only polite to at least learn a few key phrases in the local language like “please, thank you, excuse me, etc.” The Google translate app can also assist with conversations. You can take a photo of a sign or speak and type into the app and it will translate it. We’ve had entire conversations this way. Overall, most everyone in Japan has been patient, kind and helpful. You can get by on just a few phrases and most restaurants have pictures so you can just point to order. If you are feeling adventurous, go into a restaurant with no English menu and ask for their specialty.
Always carry these things with you (buy in Japan)
Tissues: most places do not offer napkins and sometimes when you ask for a napkin, they give you a tissue, like a Kleenex, so just carry them
A Tenugui, or small, pocket towel: I would have never thought to carry one of these, but they are surprisingly useful in multiple circumstances, and even come in beautiful designs and different fabrics. Most public bathrooms do not have towels for after you wash your hands, so this comes in handy. Also for when you go to a temple and need to wash your hands, you can dry off with this.
Disposable bag: for an incredibly clean country, trash cans are hard to find. You may want to bring something to keep trash in.
Basic Tea ceremony items: you never know when you may suddenly happen upon a tea ceremony and it’s embarrassing not to have some basic items with you to enjoy it such as Keishi paper for the tea sweets. For women, you may also want to carry a hair tie, white socks or white Tabi socks which are fun to buy and wear in Japan.
Bring an empty suitcase
There are not many places in the world I would go without packing anything but Japan is one of them. You can buy anything that you need here and most likely it will be better designed than anything you can find at home. This is a shoppers paradise! Shipping things home is also expensive. The only caveat would be to bring a pair of comfy walking shoes you can slip on and off and consider your body type. If you are skinny, empty suitcase. If you are curvy or really tall then bring some basic clothes with you, but accessories like socks, shoes, bags, stationary, hats, makeup, scarves whatever – buy it here. Seriously, the best shopping I’ve ever seen, anywhere, for any budget. My favorite area in Tokyo has been Harajuku side streets for very cool boutiques and used clothing shops. Yanaka has been great for small, hip boutiques down alleys and traditional shops for food like crackers and tea sweets as well as crafts like calligraphy, paint, brushes and, custom stamp shops.