We were tired. We were hungry. We were lost in Tokyo Station. We had all of our luggage with us. And we had minimal local money left. All in all it was a less than glorious start to our long planned family holiday to Japan.
While I am an experienced international traveller this was my first ever trip to Japan and we were caught out by a few quirks. Sure I had read some information about how to draw cash and how to use the train system but the first time you face anything new it usually takes you a bit longer to work out the system.
And doing it when you are tired after an overnight red eye flight (after having had a massive couple of weeks at work and finishing university assignments leading up to the trip) whilst also caring for our three young children had perhaps been somewhat optimistic.
So here are my top five tips for you first visit to Japan (including a bonus extra tip for when you return home again!).
- 1. Expect to be Tired When You Arrive
- 2. Expect to Experience Culture Shock When You Arrive
- 3. Take Enough Cash to Last For the First Couple of Days
- 4. Expect to Get Lost When You Use a New Public Transportation System (especially in Tokyo!)
- 5. If You Are Staying in an Apartment Expect to Have Trouble Finding It…
- 6. Bonus! Expect to be Tired When You Arrive Home
1. Expect to be Tired When You Arrive
I am guilty of having the ‘super-mum’ syndrome where I sometimes think I can still travel like I did when I was 20 years old. When you get older and are juggling a family, work and study, maybe it is OK to pamper yourself when you travel.
While walking through the maze which is Tokyo Station I had the occasional thought that perhaps it would have been acceptable to pay a bit of extra money to book the airport to hotel transfer bus. (Except we weren’t staying at a hotel – see my comments on how difficult it can be to find an AirBnB apartment further below)…
So the key message is to expect to be tired when you arrive and plan for it by booking easy options to get from the airport to your accommodation and give yourself some time to ease into the culture rather than have to work it all out immediately when you arrive. #justsayin
2. Expect to Experience Culture Shock When You Arrive
It has been a few years since we last visited an Asian country, and while in Japan there are lots of signs in English, you do experience culture shock and everything is a bit or a lot different to what you are used to.
We all had lots of fun playing with our first Japanese bidets at the airport (and I loved seeing the kids trying to work out what the squat toilet was…). But culture shock certainly happens when you are just trying to get around and you can feel a bit overwhelmed by how many things you need to work out just to get started.
So the key message is to plan to take some extra time to get started and to work things out.
3. Take Enough Cash to Last For the First Couple of Days
On past trips I have always have exchanged enough cash before I departed so that I could last the first few days without having to draw more cash. In most countries this strategy works OK as Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) are usually plentiful and easy to use.
Japan is the first country I have been to where this is not the case. If you have a credit or debit card which is not from Japan you are only able to draw cash from ATMs which are designated as International ATMs. And the only International ATMs are at Post Offices and 7-11 Stores. Oh, and as my husband finally worked out you need to draw from your Credit account – he tried to press ‘Savings’ and was denied… when he rang the bank prior to departure they did tell him this piece of information but see point 1 – expect to be tired when you arrive!
In our case we finally thought to ask someone where to find a 7-11 at Tokyo Station and a helpful staff member pointed us in the right direction. Once we worked out how to use the machine we felt rather relieved that we finally had some cash. And we promptly went to the Starbucks next door to get some well earned food and take a time out.
So the key message is to draw extra money before you depart (even at the usually ruinous airport exchange rates) so you don’t need to draw any cash for the first couple of days…
4. Expect to Get Lost When You Use a New Public Transportation System (especially in Tokyo!)
Working out how to use a new public transportation system is always somewhat challenging the first time. Particularly if you are tired (see point 1). I must state that Tokyo has the most awesome (and complex) train system in the world that I have ever had the pleasure of using. While I had read about the train system before I departed, I truly didn’t comprehend the sheer complexity of the train system until after we arrived.
In most places when you use the local trains you are dealing with a single company or government organisation to purchase tickets and use the train stations for each location. In Tokyo there are multiple major train operators in Tokyo alone (not to mention on the inter-city routes), and the important fact to realise is that they each have separate train stations too. Yep. So when you plan to pass through ‘Tokyo Station’, what is really there is three separate train stations which are in close proximity.
There is the Japan Rail Station for the JR Yamanote Line and the separate Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line. And the Tokyo Shinkansen (intercity Bullet Train) Station just to mix things up. So imagine three separate stations which are surrounded by an underground multi level shopping centre which link to multiple underground shopping malls and you start to get the picture.
Each train station is separate and you need to either have separate paper tickets to use each train line, or you need to purchase a Suica card which enables you to tap on and tap off on every different train system. (Top tip: You can purchase adult Suica Cards from JR railway machines outside station entry – but to purchase a child Suica card you need to go to the JR customer service counter – you have to show the child’s passport before you can purchase these cards.) Once you have your Suica cards then you can recharge the cards either outside or inside any station using the automatic machines – but just plan to use cash, not credit to recharge them… and be happy that they have a button so you can get the instructions in English)
As you can see by the train map above take my comments about Tokyo Station and multiply them across the whole Tokyo train network…
If you purchase a Japan Rail Pass and plan to use it on local Tokyo trains please be aware that they are only valid on JR trains – not on any of the others. (We did not have a JR Pass so this wasn’t an issue for us…).
So what is the key message? Plan to take extra time to work out how to use the new train system, particularly in Tokyo! And also expect that you will need to walk between train stations and tap on and tap off every time you change train lines.
After a few days we became adept at working out how to enter and exit train stations so that we ended up in the right place to catch the train we wanted. The process which worked for us consisted of ‘don’t start walking until you have checked the signs and worked out where to go’.
That meant before we entered a train station we checked if it was the right one for the train line we wanted, then we checked which platform to use, then we checked that the train was going in the right direction, then we checked that we were going to get off at the correct stop, then we checked which exit to use from the platform, then we kept on checking until we reached the next place we wanted to get to…
5. If You Are Staying in an Apartment Expect to Have Trouble Finding It…
As a family with three young children we have previously learned that staying in accommodation with separate bedrooms is a real sanity saver. You can put the younger children to bed and still stay up a bit later yourselves.
When I researched accommodation options for Tokyo I quickly realised that finding a hotel room to take five of us was going to be very expensive, and I was not keen on the option of taking adjoining rooms – our children are still a bit too young for this option. So I decided to take the plunge and book an apartment through AirBnB for the first time.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a good range of multi-bedroom accommodation options and I subsequently booked and paid for a nice looking two bedroom apartment near Akihabara, which is north of Tokyo Station. After we booked we were sent the instructions to find our accommodation which looked comprehensive, so I printed them off so we were ready when we arrived.
We arrived at the correct station, and our first mistake was not checking the station exits, so we just left via the first one we saw. (see points 1 and 4). After being somewhat traumatised by our experiences in Tokyo Station we just wanted to get in, drop off our luggage and then do some exploring around the local area.
We quickly realised that the instructions and photos looked nothing like what we were looking at outside the station. We asked for help and a kind gentleman tried to help us to find our accommodation. As it worked out we definitely went the long way around but we eventually managed to find our accommodation. I subsequently learned that when you use the AirBnB Android app that you can click on the map in the accommodation information and get a GPS assist to find your accommodation, but we did not think to do that at the time (see point 1).
So the key message is to learn how to use your apps better to find your accommodation – and expect to be tired and disorientated and in culture shock when you arrive so it is likely to be harder to find than usual…
6. Bonus! Expect to be Tired When You Arrive Home
We had decided to use public transport to get home when we returned to Sydney – while we were at the airport I suggested to my husband that perhaps we could just catch a taxi and go straight home, but he thought we should be ok to take the train and bus like when we departed.
To cut a long story short we missed our connecting bus and had to wait for 30 minutes for the next bus option to arrive while sitting at a less than attractive bus stop, and then take a longer walk from a different bus stop to get home. I was over it by then (see point 1 times 2-3 times over), so next time around I will plan to just take the taxi…
I think our first day in Tokyo was one that I mostly prefer to forget, but it certainly reinforced that you should plan to take the easy option on your first day in a new country. We subsequently had a fantastic family holiday in Japan but I would definitely have preferred to get off to a better start. Hopefully you can learn from our experiences and avoid making the same mistakes.
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