I’ve been sitting at my desk for three days, trying to effectively capture the feeling of what it‘s like to stand in the middle of the Tokyo train station after 12 hours of ass cramps and The Incredibles on repeat.
It’s like a goth kid at Stingaree on a Saturday night during spring break.
It’s like running into your Economics professor at F Street.
It’s like coming home for the holidays and catching your dad in the garage wearing a cocktail dress, holding two extra large cans of butter-flavored Crisco, three corks, and a shoehorn.
The point here isn’t that you’re going to need to change your underwear – that’s a given – but that if you’re going to Japan, do it right and avoid some of the frustrations that go along with ill preparation. So without ruining the surprises like douchebag Easterners blowing the Lost finale on Facebook, there’s nothing wrong with helping new travelers to the Land of the Rising Sun with a few tips and tricks.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Let’s start this off right: plan your trip appropriately. I was never one to find snoozing alongside other cattle on a tour bus very appealing. If that’s your taste, more power to you, but there are plenty of resources to provide a rogue traveler with a sense of direction that don’t involve Ben-Gay and nametags.
Either way you choose, the best thing you can do is to avoid purchasing your plane tickets through one of the major travel websites. Many of the local Asian ticket brokers can provide a better airline deal, plus offer other services that will make life much easier, regardless of whether you choose a package tour or not. Make sure you shop around, though: certain travel agencies get discounts from certain airlines and not others. If you have an airline preference, keep looking.
Protip: we’ve been to Japan twice now, and JAL is by far the better airline. I’ve heard Singapore Airlines is the crème de la crème, but as always, you pay more for higher quality. Korean Air is a nice budget airline, but to get the most for your money and not pay through the nose, JAL would be my recommendation.
Before you decide on your choice of travel agency, make sure they can help you get your JR Rail Pass – an absolute necessity if you plan on seeing anything beyond Narita for three weeks.
The JR Rail pass is an (almost) all-inclusive rail pass that allows travel throughout Japan on any JR Rail line and most bullet trains (Shinkansen). Curiously, the train from Narita to Tokyo Station isn’t covered by the Rail Pass, so don’t get peeved when you have to buy that ticket outright.
Protip: The JR Rail Pass is for tourists only, and you can only redeem it there. Essentially, you’ll pay your travel agent for a voucher that you present to the JR Rail counter, who will, in turn, give you a fancy-schmancy scrapbook-worthy pass that you use to get tickets on whichever train you need. The pass covers most of the regular trains and Shinkansen; the Oops-I-Don’t-Speak-Japanese-And-Got-On-The-Wrong-Train-So-Sorry pass covers the rest, but I wouldn’t recommend using that one too often.
To redeem your JR Rail voucher, proceed directly beyond Immigration and toward a staircase that climbs to a designated smoking area. You can’t miss the booth directly to the right. I highly recommend taking care of this before you leave the airport – they’re going to speak better English than the crusty old guy in the Tokyo train station, and the less you have to do running on adrenaline and lack of sleep, the better.
Remember, by the time you get to Tokyo, it’s 4:00 a.m. back home and you’re going to be out of it. So take your voucher to the airport counter, get your JR Rail Pass, and check that of the list.
Be warned, however – the Japanese mass transit system is as predictable as your wife coming home just when you sit down to a nice quiet moment with your porn stash…and just as unforgiving. If I recall correctly, the JR rail company guarantees punctuality: there was an incident a few years ago where the trains were delayed, causing thousands of Japanese businessmen to weep over the dishonor of tardiness; the JR group paid their corporations for lost time.
So if the schedule says that the Shinkansen to Yokohama leaves at 21:46, be on the platform five minutes early, if for nothing else than to figure out where to stand.
Get Your Money Changed Before You Leave Narita Airport.
Some people like doing this before they leave the States, but after passing through Immigration, there’s a very convenient exchange counter to the left. Don’t forget to fill out the money exchange form before you get to the counter so as to not piss off everyone standing in line behind you.
It’s also best to just get this tedium over with, because finding an open Japanese bank is a pain in the ass. Besides, you’re going to need cash to buy your train ticket from Narita to Tokyo and pay for the best thing since sliced sashimi…
Use the Bag Couriers!
Japan Trip Number 1: We’re standing in the middle of Tokyo Station with our massive, oversized bags falling all over the place, pissed off and swollen because it’s hard enough trying to get to the platform on time, let alone drag 80 pounds of crap behind you without tipping over, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to get dysentery because there’s no way I’m squatting over a ceramic hole in the ground. No way in hell.
Japan Trip Number 2: So fresh and so clean-clean, with bags conveniently deposited at the Bag Courier stations at Narita airport, we strode through Tokyo Station like confident, seasoned veterans – all with a toddler in tow. Those bathrooms are awesome, by the way.
If you have a home base, hotel, or other pseudo-permanent location, definitely utilize the Bag Couriers. There are a number of companies that will charge you flat rates to make sure your bags get from point A to point B, and trust me when I tell you that the cost is worth the convenience. Besides, it’s really not that expensive and in my book, sanity has no price.