15 tips for first-time travelers to Japan

Advice to help you get the most out of your first trip to Japan

The challenges of figuring out routes and navigating busy train stations while burdened with heavy luggage, not to mention the seemingly impenetrable language barrier, can make journeying in Japan a little tricky for first-time visitors.

With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of tips for travelers to this incredible country, based on the typical first-time visitor’s route from Narita Airport to Tokyo to Kyoto along the Tokaido Shinkansen. Some of our tips may seem obvious if you’ve been to Japan before, but hopefully even experienced tourists will find some of these useful:

  1. Airport luggage delivery
  2. Get mobile data
  3. Buy an IC card
  4. Pick up your rail pass
  5. Get from Narita Airport to central Tokyo
  6. Unique accommodation in Tokyo
  7. Buy shinkansen tickets via smartphone
  8. Navigate Tokyo Station
  9. Purchase an ekiben
  10. Shinkansen luggage storage
  11. Shinkansen & station toilets
  12. Shinkansen amenities
  13. View Mount Fuji from the shinkansen
  14. Train station luggage options
  15. Access money

1. Airport luggage delivery

Upon arriving at Narita Airport, we recommend dropping heavy or large luggage at one of the airport’s convenient luggage delivery counters. These reliable, great value services ship your bags to anywhere in the country, including but not limited to hotels and hostels, airports, and private residences.

All you have to do is fill in the address of where you want to your luggage to be delivered to and then enjoy being bag-free. We recommend informing your lodgings of your luggage delivery ahead of time, especially if staying at smaller establishments.


A luggage delivery service at Narita Airport

2. Get mobile data

One of the first things many visitors want to figure out upon arriving in a foreign country is how to get connected to the internet. Two common ways to do this in Japan are with a domestic SIM card for your smartphone, or with a portable WiFi router that can be shared for those traveling in a group.

One of the most convenient places to find these is at the airport arrival lobby just after security, where there are numerous shops offering mobile data options. It is possible with some of these companies to book over the internet in advance, and then simply pick up your router or sim card in the terminal upon arrival.
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A cellphone and WiFi counter at Narita Airport

3. Buy an IC card

In order to make traveling around as smooth as possible, we recommend purchasing an IC Card right away at the beginning of your Japan journey. These cards can be used to ride most modes of transport in virtually all major metropolitan areas across the country, and are chargeable at ticket machines as well as at convenience stores. What’s more, IC cards can be used as a cashless payment option at a large number of shops and restaurants nationwide, especially in and around train stations.

The cards can be purchased easily from the ticket machines at Narita Airport’s train station, with instructions available in English. At the end of your trip you can return your IC card for a small refund, so be sure to buy your IC Card and avoid the inconvenience of having to buy paper tickets for every train journey!


Purchasing a Suica card from a ticket machine

4. Pick up your rail pass

Train travel is the most common form of public transportation in Japan, and rail passes such as the Japan Rail Pass and others can, depending on your itinerary, make traveling significantly cheaper and more convenient for foreign visitors.

For those who purchased a rail pass ahead of time, there are a number of places to pick up your pass, including the JR East Travel Service Centers located in the basements of Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 of Narita Airport, and at a small number of major JR stations including some in central Tokyo (in each case, hand your previously received voucher to a staff member to get your pass).

The JR East Travel Service Centers at Narita Airport can sometimes be crowded, and those not wanting to use their pass immediately may prefer to do the voucher exchange after arriving in Tokyo.


JR East Travel Service Center in the basement of Narita Airport Terminal 2

5. Get from Narita Airport to central Tokyo

There are a number of ways to get from Narita Airport to central Tokyo, and the best option depends on two things: where in Tokyo you’re going to, and your budget. For those willing to spend a little more to arrive in central Tokyo faster, the JR Narita Express and the Keisei Skyliner both provide quick and comfortable ways to get to central Tokyo by train, making the direct journey to Tokyo Station and Nippori Station respectively before stopping at other major downtown stations.

Slower, cheaper train options include the regular Keisei limited express trains. There are also two main types of buses from Narita Airport to Tokyo; the expensive Airport Limousines which stop at a number of stations and hotels in central Tokyo, and cheaper discount shuttle buses which connect to fewer places. Taxis can also be used to reach central Tokyo, but bear in mind that this is by far the most expensive option.


The JR Narita Express pulls in at the station

6. Unique accommodation in Tokyo

Tokyo is an extremely diverse metropolis, and this is reflected in the multitude of accommodation options available for visitors to Japan’s capital. Of course there are the usual range of hotels to suit all budgets and other accommodation types that one would expect to find in any major city. However Tokyo also contains a variety of unique options that travelers may want to take advantage of, including capsule hotels, chic hostels, internet cafes and historic yet affordable traditional ryokan.


Capsule hotels make for an inexpensive and interesting lodging experience

7. Buy shinkansen tickets via smartphone

In order to save time at the station, it can be a good idea to purchase shinkansen tickets ahead of time using the user friendly smartEx app which is available in English and allows users to change their seat reservations without limitation. In order to take advantage of smartEx, follow these steps (note that this app cannot be used in conjunction with rail passes to make reservations):

Purchase an IC card
Install the app
Register your credit card
Connect your IC card to the app
Book your shinkansen
Use the associated IC card to tap through the ticket gates at Tokyo Station to get on the Tokaido Shinkansen.

The countries where users can download the smartEx app are limited.

Bear in mind that there are various seat types available on a shinkansen, including reserved and non-reserved and the more luxurious seats in the Green Car. Your seat number will also determine whether or not you have a window seat and a possibility of seeing Mount Fuji on your journey.


Opening the smartEx app in order to purchase train tickets

8. Navigate Tokyo Station

Tokyo Station is huge and can be confusing even for those who travel through it regularly. Upon arriving at the station, follow signs for the Tokaido Shinkansen and then enter the ticket gates (those who don’t have a ticket yet should purchase one before entering the shinkansen gates at ticket machines with English options or from the ticket counter).

It is worth noting that those entering Tokyo Station through some entrances, such as the Marunouchi entrances, will have to pass through a non-shinkansen ticket gate before continuing on to the shinkansen gates.

Remember, in order to avoid travel mishaps, we strongly recommend keeping your eyes up and ahead, and also to give yourself plenty of time between arriving at the station and your train departure, as Tokyo Station is, after all, one of the world’s busiest transport hubs!


Tokyo Station Yaesu Central Entrance

9. Purchase an ekiben

Before boarding the shinkansen, we recommend making the most out of Tokyo Station’s good-quality food options, and purchasing an ekiben from one of the shops or kiosks that can be found around the station or even on train platforms. ekiben, short for eki bento, or station food box, are a popular meal in Japan for those on the go.

They are typically comprised of regional or seasonal specialty foods and presented in a decorative box or on a sealed platter. Delicious and generally good quality, ekiben vary station to station and are great to enjoy during your cross-country travels.


A delicious ekiben ready to be enjoyed

10. Shinkansen luggage storage

If you have luggage, one of the biggest concerns is where to store it on the train. Thankfully the shinkansen have space for suitcases and bags in several locations throughout the car. Smaller bags like backpacks and day bags can be stored on the overhead shelves, and there is also a larger space behind the last row of seats in each car.


Storing a suitcase at the back of the shinkansen car

11. Shinkansen & station toilets

Japan is known as one of the most hygiene-conscious countries in the world, and this certainly extends not only to restrooms within train stations but also on the shinkansen.

This means that you don’t have to worry if you miss your chance to freshen up before boarding. Shinkansen restrooms are clean and located between every couple of cars, so locating them once aboard is quick and easy.


Inside a shinkansen restroom

12. Shinkansen amenities

Bullet trains boast a selection of amenities that make traveling on them comfortable and convenient. For example, if your mobile device’s battery is about to die… don’t worry, there are power outlets at various points near the seats throughout the car. Just plug in, recharge and relax in the reclining comfy seats (availability and locations depend on the particular train model). In case you get hungry, there are also food carts that intermittently make the rounds of the cars from which snacks and drinks from coffee to beer can be purchased for reasonable prices.


Food and drink options on board the Tokaido Shinkansen

13. View Mount Fuji from the shinkansen

Many passengers don’t realize that on a clear day, Mount Fuji can be seen from aboard the Tokaido Shinkansen. The window seat on the side that faces Mount Fuji, seat E (seat D in Green Class) is where the best, unobstructed views can be had of Japan’s most famous natural icon, so make sure while making seat reservations to reserve seat E if possible. If you happen not to be able to sit in this coveted spot, it’s also possible to see Mount Fuji by standing between the cars and looking out of the window there.


Glorious Mount Fuji, as seen from the Tokaido Shinkansen

14. Train station luggage options

Many major train stations have luggage storage and delivery services, and for those who didn’t utilize a luggage delivery service at Narita Airport, now might be a good time to have large or inconvenient baggage delivered quickly and easily to your hotel. Alternatively, for those heading on to immediately do a side trip before returning, there are various luggage storage facilities including coin lockers, which in many major stations are compatible with IC Cards.


A luggage storage and delivery service at Kyoto Station

15. Access money

Last but not least, you’ll need to figure out how to access money while traveling. Many banks and convenience stores across Japan have ATMs, however it can be hit-or-miss if these machines accept your specific international card. Fortunately, all ATMs at post offices and 7-Eleven convenience stores are compatible with foreign cards, with post offices found in even the most remote areas of the country.

It is worth noting also that other convenience stores and banks are increasing their number of ATMs that accept cards issued outside Japan, so getting at your cash as a foreign visitor is set to become increasingly easier in the coming years. Bear in mind that, in Japan as elsewhere, travelers using foreign cards may be subject to additional fees.


A post office on Taketomi Island, Okinawa Prefecture
Those looking to learn more about transportation between some of Japan’s wonderful destinations can check out the JR Central and JAL collaboration website Being Japan.

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