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Japan isn’t a country that you can just show up and wing it. The language barrier is everywhere, and most people speak little English (including some hotel staffs). Here are three practical Japan travel tips that will help you with your upcoming trip to this wonderful country!
Japan Travel Tips #1 – Get money upon arriving
Before leaving for my first trip to Kyoto last month, I was debating whether I should exchange some Japanese Yen here with my bank. Couple of my friends told me not to. Instead, exchange money at the airport when you land in Japan! You will get a better exchange rate there!
You will most likely fly into Tokyo Haneda or Narita airport, or Osaka Kansai airport. After you clear customs, you will find a bank/ money exchange window in the arrival hall. If you need money fast and do not feel like hunting down an ATM, go there and exchange some U.S. dollars so that you have some Japanese Yen on hand. It will come in handy.
We landed at 8pm in Tokyo Haneda after the 11 hour flight. We were all tired and I did not bother to look for an ATM (apparently they are somewhere in the terminal). Convenience was more important to me at that point. The exchange rate was 110.77 yen per dollar. For $400, we got little over 44,000 yen, better than the 43,000 yen I would have gotten from my Wells Fargo Bank. You might get an even better rate if you can find the ATM in the airport terminal.
Japan Travel Tips #2 – Get money from ATMs at convenient stores
Instead of carry loads of US dollars with you, bring a no-fee ATM card instead. You can easily get money out, you just need to know where to find an ATM that accepts your U.S. debit card.
Not all Japanese bank ATM accepts international debit cards. Not all bank are open 24-7. But fortunately, convenient stores like 7-11 are everywhere and open 24-7. They have ATMs that will accept your U.S. bank cards!
During the trip I used my Schwab ATM card twice. The first time was at an international ATM at a bank, and I had no idea where it was since I was driven there by a local (I have a friend who speaks Japanese). The second time was at a 7-11 store.
Japan Travel Tips #3 – Buy an IC card for each person in your party
Even if you have a JR pass, you will most likely end up traveling on subways or train lines that aren’t covered by the JR pass. This is where IC cards come in handy. IC cards are in short prepaid travel cards that are valid on almost all kinds of transportation, in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and almost everywhere else in Japan. The idea is to make life easy and convenient. Just tap the card over the ticket gate every time you enter or exit the train or subway platform. The ticket amount will be automatically deducted. There is no need to figure out the right fare or wait in line to get tickets. When the balance runs low, you simply add more funds to the card.
There are many different version of IC cards – SUICA, PASMO, ICOCA. Which one is better? The answer is, it does not matter! They all work the same way and all require 500 yen initial deposit. The only difference is, if you get the SUICA and PASMO card, you can only get the 500 yen refunded in Tokyo. But for an ICOCA card you can only get the refund in Osaka.
You can purchase the IC cards at airports near the train station. I purchased our SUICA cards at the monorail station at Haneda airport. I paid 2,000 yen initially for each card (you can choose any amount from 1,000 yen to 10,000 yen including the 500 yen deposit). At the end of the trip, I ran the balance down to 80 yen on each card. Instead of finding a JR station to get refunds, I just keep them as souvenir. (In Tokyo, you can even use SUICA card to pay for purchases at vending machines, some stores and kiosks.)
There you have it! I hope these three practical Japan travel tips will help you prepare for the next trip. Japan is a lovely country with wonderful people. Happy travels!