2 Weeks in Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto and More) -- Part IAuthor: GregW (More Trip Reviews by GregW)
Date of Trip: July 2006
Secondly, though, I think there is some truth to it really being harder in some respects, because in a lot of ways Japan doesn't need internal tourists as much as China or South America does. In those places, the US dollars you are spending are a big part of the economy, so there is a certain amount of infrastructure that is built up to support the international tourist. This even filters down to the backpacker spending level.
In Japan, however, they have a robust economy that doesn't rely heavily on the North American tourist dollar, and so there isn't the same infrastructure readily available to support the North American backpacker.
Tourist Information Centers
The above being said about lack of infrastructure, there is one key thing that every city had that was a godsend for the tourist, and that is the Tourist Information Center (TIC). In most every train station of some size, there will be a Tourist Information Center. Here you will find English speaking staff that can assist you in planning your travels, including booking accommodation. The TICs are hooked into the Welcome Inn Reservation Center, which allows booking of a number of properties across Japan. They can provide directions, and assist me in figuring out how to purchase baseball tickets.
If for no other reason, upon arrival in a new city you should pop in the TIC to pick up the free tourist map of the city. If you can't find the TIC (sometimes they are hard to find unless you know what you are looking for), go to the nearest international hotel and get a tourist map from the concierge.
As stated above, English is not widely spoken. It is, however, very widely used on signs throughout the country, and many menus and restaurants will have English / Japanese menus (where you can point at what you want, and the waiter can read the Japanese translation).
The TICs will have English speakers, and can help with translations if needed. Also, some of the hotels I stayed at had free access to an English translation service via phone.
The Japanese use the Yen (¥). Currently, $US 1 will buy about ¥120, though I always just used the easy conversion rate of $US 1 = ¥100.
There are both notes and coins. Most likely, you'll see 1000, 5000 and 10000 yen notes. ATMs (see below), mostly give out 10000 yen notes. Coins come in denominations of 500, 100, 50, 10, 5 and 1. All notes and coins are marked with the denomination of the bill or coin with the exception of the 5 Yen coin, which is bronze with a hole in the middle.
ATMs are plentiful, but most are not hooked up to the International networks, meaning that you can't get money. For international travellers, the best choice is to find an international bank. Citibank was the most common. Also, the postal service has ATMs that are hooked into the international network, though those are only open during the postal office hours. Look for ATMs with English instructions, or ask at the TIC or your hotel where the nearest international ATM is.
Credit cards are not widely used, and even most hotels expect cash payments.
The best deal in Japanese travel is the JR Rail pass. The JR Rail pass allows unlimited travel on any Japan Rail service for a period of time (either 7, 14 or 21 day). It is only available to international travellers on a tourist visa, and must be purchased overseas. You will be given an exchange order, and upon arrival in Japan, the exchange order can be exchanged for a JR pass (once they see your passport and visa type).
The 7 day pass is ¥28300 (US$ 280). Even if you are just planning on travelling between Tokyo and Kyoto (the two most popular destinations in Japan), the pass will almost be paid off. Any additional side trips and the pass is paid for.
There are a number of JR rail services. Of most use to the first time, short term visitor to Japan will be the Tokaido Shinkansen service, which runs between Tokyo and Osaka (including stops at Kyoto). The trains are fast and comfortable, and run very frequently. I never bothered with advanced reservations, and the longest I had to wait was 20 minutes for a departure.
Once in town, most of the cities I went to had subways, except Hiroshima that had a tram system. For subways, the price of your ride depends on how far you are going. There will be a map indicating the cost from the current station to all the stations in the system. Carry your city map with you, as it includes an English subway map and could come in handy if the station's map isn't in English. When you enter the subway, you put your ticket in the gate and retrieve it. When you exit the subway at your destination, the gate will accept your ticket and keep it. Don't worry if you didn't put enough on your ticket. All subway exits will have a place to add additional value to your ticket so you can exit.
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