mark cerqueira well-rounded nerd

Gaijin Tips for Japan

こんにちは (Konnichiwa, Hello)! It’s been nearly a week since I arrived in Japan and it’s been a blast so far. I’m spending this week and next working (and eating) at the Evernote office in Minato-ku, Tokyo. The following two weeks I will be taking some time off to explore Japan and watch the 16th World Kendo Championships!

My experience has been greatly enhanced by helpful friends, fellow Evernoters, and my kendo family of kohai, senpai, and sensei. Here are a collection of potentially useful tips if you are planning on traveling to Japan!

  • Get a JR Pass if you’re planning on traveling outside of Tokyo. A JR Pass will give you unlimited access to most of the JR train systems. They are available only to foreigners and are meant to encourage tourism to the Japanese world outside of Tokyo. You’ll also need to buy it BEFORE you get to Japan. They sell them in different lengths of time (7 days, 14 days, 21 days) and they are a bit pricey: a 7 day pass currently costs $236. But it pays for itself pretty quickly; if you’re planning to visit Kyoto, you’ll be coming out ahead already. There are a few places to purchase the JR Pass but I just got mine online. I ordered mine Sunday night and got it Tuesday morning!

  • Get a Charles Schwab Checking Account. This is generally useful advice. Carrying a ton of money around with you while traveling is annoying. Not getting ripped off while converting currency can also be difficult. A Schwab Checking Account makes all this easier. Just land at your destination and hit up the ATM. Worried about those ATM fees? Don’t worry – you’ll get all your ATM fees refunded! It’s pretty amazing. Read more about it on Schwab’s website.

  • Get a PASMO card. You can buy a PASMO card at most train stations. This rechargeable card will let you zip through Tokyo Metro subway station gates and is also usable at コンビニ (konbini, convenience stores) like 7-Eleven. Note, the Tokyo Metro system is separate from the JR system, but it’s incredibly affordable. A short ride (1km - 6km) will cost $1.42 (170 yen) and on the other end a long ride (28km - 40km) will cost $2.58 (310 yen). What a steal!

  • Dealing with the yen to dollar conversion. Generally speaking, 100 yen is 1 dollar, so 1000 yen = 10 dollars, 10,000 yen = 100 dollars, and so on. Right now the dollar is strong and the yen is weak, so American visitors will see their dollar fetch them nearly 120 yen! You can chop off the last two zeroes of a yen price to get a rough dollar approximation. An American friend, who lives in Japan, suggested a clever trick of simply adding the cents separator to yen prices which effectively chops off two zeroes. For example, 100 yen becomes 1.00. Happy converting!

  • Speaking of yen, always have cash on you! I always imagined Japan as a country 20 years ahead of everyone technologically. But cash is king in this country, so don’t expect to use that credit card much. A PASMO card can be used in taxis and convenience stores, but you’ll want cash on you for everything else.

  • Get a Pocket Wifi. Pocket Wifi is a little device that you turn on and it creates a Wifi network for you to connect to the Internet. You could buy a SIM card for your phone but if you’re traveling with others or using multiple devices, a Pocket Wifi is the best way to go as multiple devices can connect to it. The speed and reliability are top notch so far; I’ve even used MapMyRun with a Pocket Wifi to map my runs around Tokyo! There are various places to get them but it’ll cost roughly $3 to $4 per day. But before you buy one read the next tip!

  • Consider using AirBNB to find more affordable housing. I used AirBNB to book housing for part of my trip. I’m staying in a pretty expensive part of Tokyo – Akasaka, Minato-ku – right now. There are lots of government buildings, embassies, and the Imperial Palace is a few stops away on the subway. Most Japanese friends remark that this area is very expensive, but the place I’m staying at is only $70 a night! Not only is it very affordable, it came with a Pocket Wifi to use while I’m staying there! If you don’t have an AirBNB account yet, let me know so I can invite you and we both get free money. :)

  • Google Maps is immensely useful. Just let Google Maps know where you want to go and it’ll let you know which station to walk to, which train to catch, which station to transfer at, and where you need to walk to once you exit the station.

  • Bring a portable USB battery. If the Pocket Wifi or your phone runs out of battery, stuff can get pretty hairy especially when you’re relying on Google Maps to help you get around. A portable USB battery will let you keep your devices juiced while on the go. No more living from power outlet to power outlet! Larger batteries even have multiple USB ports so you can charge multiple devices at once. I bought this Satechi battery nearly two years ago. It has 2 USB ports and I have yet to see the thing run out of power when it’s charging my devices. It is a little on the heavy and large size so you may opt for something a little smaller.

  • Subway stations are cities below cities. Some subway stations are ridiculously massive and have multiple entrances/exits. So follow the signs which are fortunately in both Japanese and English to get to the right place once you arrive at a station. The largest of the stations in Tokyo, Shinjuku Station, has over 200 exits and an arcade in it!

Hope these tips help anyone looking to travel to Japan!