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For many people, crossing off one of the things on your bucket list is an important milestone. For me, travelling and experiencing Japan has always been on the top of my list of things I want to do before I kick the bucket. Granted, it’s probably still many many years, but I have always been fascinated by the Japanese culture, norms, tradition, and others. Late last year (2016), I was finally able to do just that: visiting Japan.

This time, however, things are a little bit different.  One of the things that are different is that I am no longer single, and have to travel with my wife and my son to Japan. Travelling as a couple shouldn’t be much different from travelling solo, however travelling with a toddler/infant is an entirely different story.

From flights, accommodation, entertainment, and routes to take, there are so many things to be considered when you are travelling with kids, especially when they are still toddlers, or infants nearing toddler age. Nevertheless, we were able to travel and return safely without any hiccups (okay maybe one or two).

So in this series of post (in the coming days/weeks), I’ll be sharing on our trip to Japan, from preparation to what we do each day. I’m hoping that this could be a guide somewhat for those who were thinking of going to Japan, with or without kids. In this particular post, I’ll be discussing on some tips that you should consider before even preparing for your trip.

Update May 2018

  • Previously I’ve noted the price for a shinkansen ride from Tokyo – Osaka is AU$250. I was mistaken and it’s actually around AU$150. However the recommendation to get JR Pass unless you’re traveling twice or more with shinkansen still stands.

You can enjoy Japan without speaking Japanese

First things first: you don’t have to be able to speak Japanese to fully enjoy Japan. Most of the time, unless you are going to a very remote area, signs are available in both Japanese and English. Even if you buy something, chances are if you don’t understand, they will attempt to communicate to you by way of ye olde point-at-things. Prices are normally shown in numerical values rather than kanji, with the only exception if you go to a specialised vendor such as a dedicated sushi place or something similar.

Although I do speak basic conversational Japanese, I’ve only used it for 3 things: asking for direction, ordering something, and asking for help. There is no way on earth some stranger will initiate a conversation with you on the train like they do sometimes in Australia. Besides, no one speaks loudly on the train. No one. You could literally spot who’s the foreigner by observing the volume of their voice.

If you are really, really concerned about not being able to understand Japanese, make sure you use Google Translate on your phone.

Japan is cash-based

Second most important thing: always have cash in hand. Always. I cannot stress this enough. Always have Japanese yen with you. Japan is still primarily a cash-based society, and unless you are getting Suica or Pasmo (more to that later), you are better off carrying cash. At least have ¥5,000 to ¥10,000 always in your wallet.

That is not to say Japan is technologically backwards (if you really think that way, wait until you experience their trains). They just have different priorities and having a cashless society is probably not in their interest, not for the next decade at least.

How much money should you bring to Japan? Generally, it is advised that you should allocate at least the equivalent of US$100 per day you are going to stay in Japan, excluding accommodation, gifts, and plane tickets. So if it’s 7 days, US$700 it is. Depending on your spending habits, this could be less or more, but generally, we didn’t spend this much for daily stuff (mostly we spent a lot for gifts and souvenirs). A single meal would probably cost around ¥500 to ¥1,000 depending on where you are having your meal.

7Bank ATMs, usually available in some 7-11 stores

If you are worried to bring lots of cash to Japan, no need to worry. Just go to any 7-11 stores that have the logo of 7Bank on it. They will have ATM that you can withdraw money from using your card (they also have English in the ATM menu). Now you may think “why couldn’t I use any ATM to withdraw money,” and yes, it is a valid question. The reason is, as I found out, that Japanese banks ATM rarely have the capability to connect through international middleman merchants such as MasterCard or VISA, but 7Bank ATMs can.

Japan is big

Third: do not attempt to see everything in one go. Japan does not consist of only Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. There are lots and lots of other places that is definitely worth your visit, and attempting to visit all of them within a short time span is ridiculous, if not impossible.

When we were there, we spent 10 days (effectively 9 due to the first day spent on the flight) in Tokyo and still, it was not enough to cover every nooks and cranny of Tokyo. Sure we did go to a lot of the frequently visited places, but we couldn’t stay for long. Why go to Akihabara without going inside one of the maid ca…ahem, I mean, enjoying the newly opened SQUARE ENIX cafe?

Just a very small amount of the extensive Japanese food specialities

The pacing becomes especially important if you have kids. There is no way you would be able to visit 10 different locations in one day without sacrificing either your sanity or enjoyment of your trip, except if all of them are situated very close together or within a walking distance. So when you are planning your itinerary, just accept the fact that you may not be able to visit one of those places, and move on.

With those three out of the way, let’s move to other tips that probably not as important, but still points to consider nonetheless.

Use public transport when you can

Japan’s public transport is unrivalled and unmatched in terms of punctuality, frequency, and reliability. During our trip, I’ve only got one late train, and it was only late by 2-3 minutes. Even the shinkansen was extremely punctual, it arrived at the Shin-Osaka station at the exact time outlined in the schedule. Armed with this fact, you would want to utilise the public transport most of the time, only using a taxi when necessary or if you are in a rush to get somewhere fast.

Speaking of the taxi, I find that you can’t actually call taxi on-demand, they’ll mostly ignore you. However, you can go to any nearby train station, and find a taxi rank there. That’s a nifty little trick to avoid the hassle of calling the taxi cab company.

Now let’s discuss the different types of public transport tickets. With the railway or the train system, you can either buy a ticket directly at the station, or you can buy Japan’s top-up card, either Suica or Pasmo. You might also see ICOCA or some other card types while you’re travelling, and the reason for this is due to Japan’s management of the train system. The “main” railways are all operated by JR, while many of the “minor” railways are operated independently and privately. This results in a myriad of cards, in different regions, and it is confusing.

Suica and Pasmo cards. You can have a personalised Pasmo card if you wish

If you are only travelling through Tokyo-Osaka-Kyoto regions, then Suica or Pasmo card should be enough for you. If you are travelling to other places though, you might need to buy tickets.

Suica or Pasmo offers a small benefit of a slightly discounted ticket price. There is also the convenience of not figuring out how much you should pay for your journey, and the hassle of getting a transfer ticket when you have to change lines.

One other benefit is that you can use the balance on your Suica or Pasmo card to buy items at some convenience stores. When we were in Japan, we didn’t get Suica or Pasmo, opting instead to buy tickets directly at the stations.

Arranging Accommodation

This should come as a no-brainer, especially when the public transport is as good as Japan. When you are finding accommodation, stay near public transport to make it easier for you to travel around. This will obviously allow you greater freedom to travel anywhere you want to go during your trip. If you stay near the JR lines (mostly in big cities), then you can opt to get the JR Pass (again, more on that in the next tip). Just remember that with JR Pass, it doesn’t cover the “minor” railway lines, so you’ll have to buy the tickets separately.

It’s worth to note that if you stay in hotel, then the average room size and bed size is significantly smaller than those in other countries. During our trip we did stay in a hotel in Osaka. The room was very small, and unfortunately, there was just no space for adding a baby cot at all. So we had to cram in a double bed, which I think was just double in a name only as the size is definitely smaller than a standard double bed.

I suggest if there are more than 2 people in your trip, you are better off renting an apartment, a whole house, or Airbnb.

Note on Airbnb though: Airbnb was previously deemed illegal in Japan. This means that there was no legal resource or support should you be faced with a legal situation in Japan regarding your accommodation. This has changed in early 2017, and Airbnb is fully legal in Japan since June 2017. Apart from Airbnb, you could also rent other apartments that will suit your trip itinerary.

We initially booked for Airbnb for our trip, but since it was illegal (in 2016), we cancelled the reservation and opted to rent an apartment (which was already legal) in Tokyo, and hotel in Osaka. The main reason for this is because of Japanese culture of not inconveniencing others, and the fact that we were going with an infant. If for whatever reason he cried a lot at night, it would raise a lot of suspicion from the neighbours and if we were being reported, since it was illegal, there will be no legal support for us if we were kicked out and forced to arrange for another accommodation.

When we were in Japan, we stayed at an apartment in Minami-Gyotoku area, around 40 minutes train ride from central Tokyo. There is a further 10-15 minutes walk from the station to our place, but although far, we did find it pleasant as it was quite far from the central Tokyo and because of that, we felt like true locals. In Osaka, we stayed in a hotel that was literally 2 minutes from the train station in Esaka area.

JR Pass: The Big Question

One of the most common question people travelling to Japan is: should we go for JR Pass, or should we just buy the ticket on the go? This is obviously important because JR Pass is not only expensive, but also only available for purchase outside Japan, meaning you can only buy the pass before you travel to Japan. In answering this question, you will have to consider these points:

  • A single adult JR Pass valid for 7 days (counted from the day it was first used) costs around AU$350. There are also other types such as different valid days (14 and 21), as well as different class (Green class, think of it as the business class for shinkansen ride), but those obviously cost a lot more.
  • JR Pass only allows you unlimited travel on JR railway lines, which are the “major” lines. These lines are usually located near the city central, and for inter-city travel, meaning that more often than not, you have to purchase another ticket to travel.
  • JR Pass does allow you unlimited travel on shinkansen, as the bullet train is run by the JR railway company. You can buy shinkansen ticket on the spot or online, but it’s pretty pricey. As I’ve mentioned, a single shinkansen adult ticket from Tokyo to Osaka cost around AU$150.
  • JR Pass does not allow you to travel on the Nozomi shinkansen, which is normally the fastest shinkansen.

Since the primary savings on using JR Pass lies on the unlimited travel with shinkansen, I suggest that you only buy JR Pass if you are planning to make a round (or more than one) trip with shinkansen. If you’re only travelling one way, just like we did, it is much better to just buy the ticket straightaway.

Summing Up

If you just can’t be bothered reading all of those, here’s the summed up version of the tips:

  • You don’t have to be able to speak Japanese. If you find yourself in a difficult situation, Google Translate will help a lot.
  • Always carry cash in hand (or wallet). Japan is still by large, a cash-based society.
  • Don’t attempt to visit every single place in Japan at once. Accept that you may not be able to visit everything in one go. Rest assured there will be a next time.
  • Use public transport whenever you can, and stay near public transport area for easy travel. If your group is more than 2 people, might as well stay with Airbnb or rent out an apartment.
  • Only buy JR Pass if you are going to travel via shinkansen at least 2 (two) times.

And some extra tips for parents:

  • Remember to carry an easily foldable stroller. Although the major train stations in Japan do have elevator/lift access, don’t expect this to be the norm, especially in the older or small stations. An added benefit of the foldable stroller is that you can fold and carry the stroller on the escalator, like many Japanese people do.
  • Don’t use a cheap umbrella stroller. You will walk a lot in Japan, and it’s definitely a hassle if your stroller breaks while you were there.
  • If you are bringing in nappies, remember to pack quite a lot since it was very difficult to buy nappies. We’ve only found a store that sells nappies and baby stuffs somewhere in Ginza. The same is also true for baby formula.
  • There are no baby or infant car seat in taxis. When travelling with taxi, just keep your child safe with you. Generally Japanese drivers are very safe drivers.

That’s it for now. In the next post, I’ll be sharing on how to customise and create your itinerary.