"My Guide To Japan" SfumatoPants's Profile
How many times have I answered the question "Where should I stay in Tokyo?", "Can I use my credit/debit card in Japan?". I don't mind being the pedagogue, travel advice forums like this wouldn't exist if it weren't for smart asses like me. I'm going to commit to this blog my advice about all those basic questions that people have about Japan and, when I'm done with that I'm going to offer some of my secrets. If you want more specific information or you just what to say hi, feel free to send me a message and I'll respond as best I am able.
Why should you consider me an authority at all? Good question. Travel advice is only really relevant if it comes from someone that has similar tastes to yourself. I don't backpack anymore. I've done my share of that, all over North America, from the Arctic to Mexico, Asia, and Western Europe. I'm now a middle aged gentleman of leisure (at least I want to be). I can't tell you the cheapest way to do something, but I can tell you the most convenient.
I am currently living in Osaka, but have lived in Tokyo, and spent a great deal of time in Japan since my first visit in 1994.
Whatever your questions, I will do my best to give you the best information to suit your specific needs. I love Japan, and I want you to love it too. In this blog, I have used proper names, so you can copy and paste them into a search engine and enjoy the fruits of your own research.
Where should I stay in Tokyo?
First time in Tokyo? You should stay on the east side of the Yamanote (the central train loop), somewhere between Ueno Station and Shinbashi (sometimes written Shimbashi) Station. That's a large area and you can spend days researching hotels in this area so I'll suggest you stay in a hotel within walking distance of Shinbashi station.
Why Shinbashi? It is within walking distance to most of the popular tourist sites in Tokyo (and a short train ride to others). This cuts down on lost time spent in transit. Tokyo is very, very large. Staying in the wrong area can add hours of lost time, spent in travel, to your day. Saving travel time also means that you are saving travel costs, albeit the small cost of public transit or the odd taxi, but those extra Yen can be spent on better things.
Let's not forget that you are in Tokyo to see the city, and there is no better way to do that than on foot. You never know what you will discover, especially if you allow your curiosity to take you down small alleys or into noisy, brightly lit buildings.
Tourist sights within walking distance of Shinbashi: Royal Palace, Ginza, Tsukiji market, Kabukiza, Marunouchi shopping area, Shiodome, Hamarikyu Gardens, and Yurakucho under the tracks.
A short train ride, or even taxi: Tokyo Tower (even possible to walk for the ambitious), Asakusa, Sumo Stadium (Kokugikan), Akihabara, Edo Museum, Odaiba.
Hotels I have stayed at around Shinbashi Station, and recommend (roughly in order of most to least expensive):
www.sunroute.jp/map_en/tokyo_kanagawa.html (click on Hotel Sunroute Shinbashi)
Former recommendation - Hotel Villa Fontaine Shiodome (www.hvf.jp/eng/shiodome.php) - I haven't been satisfied with them recently. The furniture and floor were dirty and worn, the linens questionable, the tobacco smell overpowering. The staff is great. My new low end pick is the Sunroute Shinbashi.
*Shibuya/Shinjuku - Although popular locations for tourists, these two areas have inherent impracticalities. Most of the tourist sights are on the other side of the Yamanote (Shinbashi), so you will be spending a lot of your time navigating the train system rather than enjoying Tokyo. Both Shibuya/Shinjuku have great nightlife, but Shinjuku has the one added attraction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (better view than Tokyo Tower). My opinion is that these two areas make better day/night trips than home bases. If you must stay at one of these locations, pick Shinjuku. Shibuya is one large shopping mall, largely targeting teenage girls. If you have ever been dragged around by your wife/girlfriend on an endless shopping trip, and you began to fantasize about clubbing yourself to death with those trendy shoes she's trying on, then Shibuya might just be your worst nightmare. If you are a woman over 25 years of age, Shinjuku, Daikanyama, Marunouchi, Ginza and even the expensive Aoyama offer better shopping. If you are under 25 and really are cool you will shop in Shimokitazawa.
Isn't Japan really expensive?
Japan was expensive - 20 years ago. In fact Japan is one of the few real great secret travel bargains out there. Japan has been in a deflationary cycle since 1992.
What does this mean in practical terms?
When I first went to Japan in 1994 a pint of Guinness cost $8 USD. Today a pint of Guinness costs $8 USD and as little as $5 if you don't want fake British "pub-like" atmosphere.
In Canada, Where I am from, a pint of Guinness in '94 cost $2.50 USD. Today it's $8 USD.
You get it?
Value for money is extreme in Japan. In Tokyo a $300 USD hotel room is comparable in quality of experience to a $600 USD room in New York or Paris. (Yes, there are plenty of hotels in Tokyo for around $100 if you want)
London, New York, Paris, San Francisco... all much more expensive than Tokyo.
Can I use my credit/ATM card in Japan?
Yes. Credit cards and ATM cards work almost universally in Japan (I say almost because there are exceptions that you need to be aware of). I access my bank accounts in Canada from Japan 2 - 3 times a month and my Canadian bank ATM card works just fine. Before you leave your home country be sure to notify your bank that you will be traveling in Japan and you need your card "unlocked" .One bank that doesn't take my card - MUFG. MUFG is among the largest banks in Japan so that eliminates a good chunk of usable ATM's. No reason to panic though, MUFG only has (less than) 20% of the market. Keep walking and within minutes you will find another ATM that will work. 7-11's ATMs, Daily (convenience store) and Shinsei Bank work for everyone. Post Office branches also offer ATMs - ask your concierge where the local branch is. Withdrawal fees are within the $0 - $5 range depending on the deal your home bank has with the Japanese bank.
*People run into problems because they can't identify the difference between a "Savings and Loan", a "Trust", or a professional investment group (Like a farmers COOP or the Engineers association) and a BANK. Unlike BANKS, you shouldn't expect these local financial institutions to serve international needs. It is obvious why people who can't read Japanese assume that no ATM works in Japan after trying to use these type of ATMs - They aren't using a BANK ATM. Again, almost all BANKS work with foreign cards
What is the best way to get from Narita airport to Tokyo?
The answer to this depends on where you are staying in Tokyo. There are many options.
Mori Building City Air Services (helicopter):
One-way: ¥50,000, Round Trip: ¥90,000
Includes Limo from Ark Hills Heliport (Akasaka) to your hotel.
Taxi: Flat rate of Y20000/cab. 3 adult westerners with luggage is about all you can expect to fit into a cab. If you can convince the driver to add another, good for you. There is a taxi stand outside arrivals where an attendant will gather your details and communicate arrangements to the driver.
If this is your first time in Japan I would recommend you use the Airport Limousine Bus.
The bus is easy, convenient and fast. Cost is around Y3000/person. If you haven't yet selected a hotel, then you may want to look at the route maps of the airport bus. They will pick you up at the airport door and drop you off at your hotel's door, where there will often be a hotel concierge waiting to great you, ensuring your luggage is whisked away to your room before your jet lagged brain can even think to ask the question, "Where am I?".
Then there is the train...
There are two express trains, dedicated to airport users, and then there are the local trains. The local trains are the cheapest option, but take forever and involve multiple transfers. For a tourist dragging luggage, this is not the way to go. I did this once. ONCE.
The two express trains are the Narita Express (NEX) (Y3000/person) and the Keisei Skyliner (Y2400/person). As of July 17 2010 Keisei has put into operation a new Skyliner which connects Narita to Nippori station in 36 minutes (compared to 51 minutes previously). The problem with the Skyliner is that it doesn't serve the needs of tourists well. Nippori station is a jumping off point for North Tokyo and the North/North East suburbs. Arriving at Nippori, the luggage dragging tourist will need to connect with the local train system to reach their destination.
This leaves the NEX as the best train option. From Narita, the NEX stops at Tokyo station, Shinagawa station, and Shinjuku station. These stations are closest to the most common areas that tourists book hotels in (if you take my advice and stay around Shinbashi you would get off at Tokyo station and take a taxi* to your hotel).
*Taxis - For some reason people seem afraid to take Taxis in Japan. I don't get it. They are extremely efficient and when traveling in a group, cost effective. For example, it would take you five minutes to take a cab a few kilometers and cost around Y1100, but the time involved in figuring out the train connections and walking could easily cost a tourist an hour or more. If you have spent thousands of dollars to take a holiday, consider the value of your time. The only time to second guess taking a cab is between midnight and 5 am, when fares increase by 30 - 50% (it's been a while since I've done that so I can't recall exact numbers). The trains have stopped running by 1 am so you may not have a choice.
Should I buy a JR Rail Pass?
For most tourists these passes are not of value. Unlike rail passes in other parts of the world that are intended to save the user money, Japanese passes were conceived with a different concept in mind - To save the user the time of having to buy a ticket. In order to make a JR Rail Pass pay for itself you would have to move locations, by Shinkansen, at least 4 times within a seven day period (Green class 7 day pass - Y37,800). In order to travel for free you would have to make 5+ Shinkansen journeys within a week. Most tourists don't want to move around that much, and even if you include the local trains the passes rarely pay for themselves. I would suggest that you are better off to pay as you go.
If saving money is a priority for you, price out your domestic travel carefully, and compare before buying a JR Pass.
"I can't speak Japanese. Will this be a problem?"
By absolute tourist numbers it makes more sense for the Japanese to speak Chinese and Korean rather than English. English is an absolute must for doing business in a global market place and Japan is doing it's best to communicate for business purposes. For the small business owner, this makes English less of a priority.
Communication will be an issue, but don't let this get in your way. Most things can be figured out with a smile and patience. In the end try to keep perspective, not getting what you want may be an inconvenience, but it's hardly a threat to your person.
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