Keyword English

Japanese people often understand English, but only if you say the right words.  There are a couple of reasons behind this.

The first reason is that everyone is taught the same English in public schools.  Secondly, the Japanese “borrowed” words from English without consulting any of us, so the result is like an alternate-dimension version of English.

I used to teach English at a Japanese middle school. Lucky for me, I used to be an English teacher in Japan, so I got pretty good at this alternate language.  There’s a list of words below if you want to dive right in to the vocab, but you might consider reading these communication tips first:

Use as few words as possible.  Put important words up front.
Don’t ask, “Can you tell me where the hotel is?” because it’s too many words for your average Japanese person to process.  Instead, make a polite face and ask, “Where is the hotel?” 

Use gestures to augment your speaking.
What someone sees can be just as valuable as what they hear.  Nod your head in agreement or disagreement.  Point in directions.  Make an X with your hands to either say “Not doable” (or “We’re finished,” if you’re in a restaurant).

Give speakers the impression that you’re following very closely.
If you’re listening to a longer bit of speech, like directions to someplace, acknowledge every clause with “uh huh” or “OK.”  If you stay quiet and let them speak, they’ll start thinking you’re not paying attention. 

Repeat things often.
Japanese speakers do this all the time.  Upon being told a place is closed: “Oh, it’s closed?”  Upon being told that the neighbor’s daughter is getting married: “Oh, really?” If you receive directions from someone, it’s normal to run through them to confirm them.
*Fun fact: This is where the “ah, so” stereotype comes from.  Emperor Hirohito was trotted out of the imperial palace to meet the people after World War II.  But after all that time in the palace, he had no social skills.  People were eager to meet him, but all he could manage to say to anyone was “Ah, so?” (Oh, really?)

The vocabulary list

Keyword English is easy.  It’s just a short list of word substitutions, and the whole thing is printed below.  When you’re done, you can move on to changing hotel reservations on the fly.

Instead of: bathroom
Say this: toilet

Instead of: hang on
Say this: please wait
Notes: Gesture this instead by putting your hands near your chest, palms facing outward (as if making a “stop” or “whoa” motion)

Instead of: I’m ____.
Say this: My name is ____.

Instead of: I have a [headache / backache / etc.]
Say this: My [head / back / etc.] hurts.

Instead of: Huh? / What? [in case of a difficult accent]
Say this: I don’t understand.

Instead of: arcade (video games)
Say this: game center

Instead of: cyber cafe
Say this: Internet cafe, or just “comic”
Notes: People often read manga (anime-style comics) at Internet cafes, hence the “comic.”

Instead of: carry-oh-kee
Say this: kah-rah-oh-keh
Notes: This is the correct pronunciation of “karaoke.”  I still say “carry-oh-kee” around my Western friends, but I say “kah-rah-oh-keh” around Japanese speakers.

Instead of: sah-kee
Say this: sah-keh
Notes: Like “karaoke,” this is a pronunciation thing for “sake.”  “Sah-kee” sounds like “saki,” which means a variety of other words unrelated to booze.

Instead of: notebook
Say this: note

Instead of: laundromat
Say this: coin laundry
Notes: The Japanese pronunciation of ‘laundry’ sounds more like ‘laun-do-ree,’ so be careful.

Instead of: laundry detergent
Say this: soap
Notes: “soap” still applies to ordinary soap, as well.

Instead of: conditioner (hair)
Say this: rinse

Instead of: one’s own [car, bag, house, any noun really]
Say this: my [car, bag, etc.]
Notes: This one’s kind of backwards.  The Japanese use the word “my” without associating it with “me” – so as a result you might have a “my car,” or a “my bag.”  Just be aware of that, because it really confused me a few times.

Instead of: Information Center / help counter
Say this: information [just that word]
Notes: For the Japanese, the English word “information” refers to a place with guides, not knowledge or facts.

That lesson wasn’t too bad, was it?  Now you’re ready to communicate with Japanese people!  Isn’t that cool?  Why not put your new skills to use and book a better hotel room?


Around Tokyo: Internet, Laundry

You’ve been busy getting around Tokyo and embarking on culinary adventures, so you might need a little bit of time to relax.  Or maybe you need to email Mom and let her know that you’re doing OK.  Internet cafes are a great way to do both.

Finding a cafe might be the hardest part, because they’re usually advertised only in Japanese.  You’re looking for signs with the word インターネット.  They’ll look like something like this:

Internet cafe sign courtesy The 2F in the sign means that the cafe is on the second floor of that building.  Internet cafes are usually on higher floors, so keep your eyes open for signs hanging high on the sides of buildings.

This particular sign also has a price schedule laid out.  You pay for bits of time at a cafe, starting with smaller increments of 10 or 15 minutes.  Discounts are common for 3 or more hours.

When you enter a cafe, they’ll make a copy of your passport and give you a ticket attached to a little clipboard.  That clipboard is your tab, and it has your internet time logged on it as well as any snacks or anything else you purchase.  Take your clipboard to your booth, sit down, and let Mom know how well you’re getting along.

And don’t forget the drinks!  You’ll find a well-stocked soda bar near the front.  In Keyword English it’s called a “drink bar,” and while there’s no booze involved, it’s still a nice thing to relax with some coffee, or tea, or cocoa, or funky Japanese soda while you do your Internet thing.

You may see lots of manga (Japanese anime-style comic books) on the shelves, too.  They’re free to read, so take a look if you’re curious.  Just make sure you put the book back in the right spot.

When you’re done Internetting, drop off your drink cups at the appropriate spot and take your clipboard to the front to pay. 

All out of clean clothes?  That’s likely to happen when you follow the packing guide.  Fear not, because we came prepared for this possibility. 

A laundromat is called a “coin laundry” in Japanese, and after the accent it’ll sound more like “coin laundoree.” 

Japanese laundromat image courtesy Your hotel’s front desk should be able to point you to the nearest coin laundry.  Take about 500 yen in coins, and laundry will be pretty straightforward.  A vending machine will sell you detergent (“soap” in Keyword English) and fabric softener.  Buying the smallest size of detergent will be fine.  The rest should be straightforward: clothes and “soap” go in the washing machine along with the required coins.  When that’s done, clothes go in the dryer.  You pay for small increments of dryer time, and I usually dry my clothes for 25 minutes.

I know that doing a mundane chore doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time in Japan, but there are two reasons why it’s a good idea to go for it:

1. It’s a great chance to unwind.  Tokyo’s a hectic place and chances are you’ll want to give your legs a rest for an hour or so while you munch on some convenience store snacks.
2. This actually saves you time.  That was the whole point of the one-bag packing trick.  Not having to check your luggage saves you from waiting forever at baggage claim and in the customs line.  Not all time savings are obvious.  Some are like ninjas – you don’t know they’re even there until they’ve already happened.

When you’re done laundering, you can just pack your bag right back up and go on your way!    

Now that you have some clean clothes, maybe you want to go find some fun things to do in Japan.  Or, you can get a lesson in Keyword English.

Around Tokyo: Food

Got some cash?  Now you can afford to eat, hooray!  You can’t throw a stick in Japan without hitting a restaurant serving something tasty.  As such, you’ll be left to your own devices, but there are a few tricks to enhance your dining experience:

-Follow your nose.  It will probably lead you to some of Japan’s best foods like grilled chicken or okonomiyaki.
-Raw eggs are safe in Japan.  Eggs are handled differently in Japan, so don’t panic if you’re served undercooked eggs.  Many places will sell you raw eggs for 50 cents a pop.
-No substitutions.  Japanese food comes as it comes, and you can’t even change what comes on a burger at McDonald’s.  Izakaya lantern. Image courtesy
-Keep an eye out for samples in windows.  Lots of restaurants have realistic-looking samples sitting in their front windows, along with prices, so you know what you’re getting into.
-Quick recommendation: You can’t go wrong with izakaya, restaurants that specialize in beer, sake and foods that go well with them.  A red lantern (pictured) marks an izakaya.
-Need beer? Say “nama.” That word will get you a large mug of whatever’s on tap (it’ll be Japanese) for around $5 or $7.
-Adventurous? Try “omakase.” That word will let the chef make whatever he wants, and it’ll be what he thinks is the best of his restaurant.  Be careful because blindly ordering omakase might be expensive.  You can try offering a budget with omakase, like 3,000 or 5,000 yen, but be liberal with the budget to be nice.
-Vegetarian?  You’re in for a challenge.  Lots of places don’t quite get the idea of vegetarianism (even if there are plenty of veggie restaurants in Tokyo), so make it clear to your servers before ordering anything.  Tokyoites understand the word “vegetarian,” but not “vegan” – so if you are vegan or have another alternative diet, it’s best to just go for “vegetarian” and work from there.  After you receive your order, check your food for non-veggie ingredients.  
-If you’re offered something, it’s not free.  If you’re given something without asking, that’s free.  “Service” is the Japanese word for “free,” but with the accent it sounds more like “saab-ees.”
-Patience will be rewarded.  Don’t just duck into the first place you come across.  Walking around looking for the right place is a fun and stress-free adventure.  Enjoy it!
-Careful eater?  If for any reason you’re very careful when ordering food (vegan, allergies, just plain picky), consider getting a Japanese food guidebook and reading up before leaving.

If you’re hungry between meals, convenience stores are your friends.  They have plenty of snacks, drinks, and fried food to keep you going with all that walking you’re doing.  If they ask you a question you don’t understand, they’re offering to heat up your snack in the microwave.

So now you’ve got some cash and a full belly.  You’re getting good at this travel thing!  If you need some time online, read about Internet cafes.  Otherwise, jump straight into Keyword English.

Around Tokyo: Money

At this point you’ve been in Tokyo for a couple hours.  Maybe you’ve found your hotel, someplace to eat, or maybe you’ve taken in that drink that you’ve earned for all your hard work.

But your fun will be short-lived unless you get some cash.

Here’s the thing: Japan works on cash, not credit cards.  Unless your only expenses come from five-star hotels, most places you come across won’t take plastic.  You will need to get some cash to keep the wheels greased on your trip.

Yucho_logoYou get cash from postal ATMs.  The Japanese postal system also runs a huge bank, and you’ll be using their ATMs.  ATMs also give the best exchange rates.  It’s safe, and normal, to carry large amounts of cash in Japan.  So normally you’ll get cash at the post office.   There’s also a postal ATM at Narita Airport, and it’s near the currency exchange counter.  It’s marked with the Japanese Postal Bank logo, which is the green thing on the right.

Japan Post symbol. Image and illustration courtesy offices on the street are marked by the signs in the picture you see here.  The circled red-on-white symbol is the old-school post office symbol, and the orange sign beneath it is the new logo. Every neighborhood in Tokyo has a post office, so you’re never very far away from one. 

When I visit I take out around 50,000 yen ($500) to make sure the cash lasts several days. It’s safe and normal to carry around that much money.

You’ll take out cash directly in yen, and the equivalent in your own currency will be what’s withdrawn from your account, plus a small fee (like $5, or 3%) for changing the currency automatically.

Warning!  ATMs are only accessible during business hours and only on weekdays.  ATMs close – yes, close – at 5:00PM on weekdays and may not be not open on Sundays.  Japan is weird that way.  Plan your cash withdrawals in advance.

Taking money out in large chunks may be uncomfortable at first, but it’s perfectly safe, convenient, and reduces the transaction fees that might hit your credit card.

Now that you’ve got some cash, why not celebrate with some tasty food?

Getting Around

Congratulations!  You made it to central Tokyo.  You got everything done before leaving the airport, right?

Getting around Tokyo is easy and convenient.  The only problem is the bigness of Tokyo, which can make train maps look like a bowl of noodles.  But with a basic understanding of Tokyo’s general shape it’s easy to get from point A to point B. 

Once we get the basics covered, we’ll throw in a few shortcuts from the expats that get you around quickly.

To get started, you need to know the three basic ways of getting around:

A Japan Rail train. Image courtesy Bon Voyage http://gutereise09.blogspot.com1. JR
JR stands for Japan Rail, and it has most (but not all) of the above-ground train lines running around Tokyo.  You’ll use this for long trips to major hubs around the city.

2. Tokyo Metro
As the word ‘Metro’ might suggest, this is the subway.  It’s best used for short trips from one neighborhood to the next.

3. Taxi
Taxis are expensive, but very convenient.  They’ll get you from point A to point B with no transfers and even few stop lights.  They’re best used when you’re too tired to stand up, when you have a lot of luggage, or when it’s late at night and the trains have stopped running.

Yes, the trains stop running between midnight and 6:00AM.  Keep that in mind in case you go out late at night.  We’ll discuss that later.

Now that you’ve been introduced to the transport you’ll be using, let’s give you an idea of which one’s the best to pick.  It’s basically a matter of how far you’ll be going, so it’s time for a super-quick lesson in navigating Tokyo.  You can boil down central Tokyo to three words:

It’s a clock.  One of the JR lines, the Yamanote, is circular and is so integral to Tokyo that it’s often called just “the JR Line.”  Almost every famous spot in Tokyo lies on the Yamanote, so let’s have a look around the clock:

Yamanote Line Clock, courtesy Yamanote Line Clock Sim 1:00: Ueno (and Asakusa nearby)
2:00: Akihabara
4:00: Tokyo Station (and Ginza nearby)
6:00: Shinagawa
8:00: Shibuya (and Roppongi nearby)
9:00: Shinjuku (and Yoyogi, Harajuku and Ichigaya nearby)
10:00: Ikebukuro

These are just the major stops.  There are lots and lots of minor ones, too.

You need to know where you are (roughly) on the clock because the Yamanote Line runs both clockwise and counter-clockwise.  Pick the train that’s headed in the direction you want on the clock. Train stations will have separate platforms for Yamanote trains headed in opposite directions, and the platforms will be labeled according to the next major stop on the clock.

Switching to subways

Plenty of subway lines stop at the places on the clock, so from these major hubs you can branch off into smaller neighborhoods by way of subways.  Hotels are commonly at smaller stations one or two subway stops away from the hubs on the clock.

For example, my favorite cheap hotel is near a subway station called Inaricho.  To get there, I take the JR trains to Ueno, then switch to the subway (still at Ueno) and go out one stop from the clock. 

Switching to taxis

If you’re going to a new place (like a hotel) and have the address for the place (you wrote it down, right?), you can go to the nearest stop on the clock and from there take a taxi to the place.  If you’re just leaving a train station, you’ll probably find a line of idle taxis waiting to pick someone up.  Take the one at the front of the line.

Don’t take a taxi across town.  It’s expensive.  It can cost upwards of $70 to get across Tokyo in normal traffic, and it’ll cost more if traffic is bad.

Making trains convenient

A Suica card for Tokyo trains Get a Suica card before you ride your first train, JR or Metro.  It’s a pre-paid fare card that’s rechargeable, and it makes riding any train easy and cheap.  You can buy a card at any JR station from blue ticket machines.

Once you have your Suica card, just walk through the turnstile and touch the Suica card to the shiny spot with the Suica logo.  You’ll do that on the way to and on the way from your train.

Based on where you enter and where you leave, it charges you the cheapest fare possible.  Recharge your card at any green electronic ticket machine.

Shortcuts in the train station
A train station in Tokyo might seem like a confusing place that’s moving at a million miles an hour, but there are a few helpful resources inside the station that can make your life much easier:

1. Train station staff
Virtually any train station staff person can tell you what to do next in the train-riding process (like “OK, you need a ticket,” or “Go over there to swipe your Suica and exit”).  They can also help you navigate, and they’re good at making it easy.  Shibuya?  “Track number 12.”  Ueno?  “Track number 3.”  They wear uniforms and are easy to spot.  You’ll find them on platforms and near ticket counters.

2. The manned turnstile booth
You’ll mostly use your Suica to swipe in and out of train stations, but if you have problems you can talk to the guy in the booth at the end of the row of turnstiles.  If you enter a train station and decide not to go anywhere, you’ll need him to clear your Suica and let you back out.  Try not to ask him navigational questions – he’s one of the busiest people in the station.

3. The ticket office
The ticket office has everything that can’t be done anywhere else in the station.  If you’re out of cash and need to buy tickets with a credit card, or if you have problems buying your own Suica, it’s best to go here.  They could answer your navigational questions, but you’d have to stand in a long line.

Information counter. Image copyright 2007 Blake Ellison. 4. Information counter
The information counter is good for everything you need to do above, but they’re especially good at helping you with things outside the station.  The staff there tend to speak more English and are good at directing you to places like hotels and post offices.  If your station has an information counter, it’ll be marked with the universal “?” sign.  If the station doesn’t have an information counter, don’t worry.  The places above will get the job done.

Notice that all of the shortcuts involve human interaction.  The train station staff that you come across will speak enough English to get you where you need to go.

Advanced train lines
The Yamanote Line should be your transportation bread-and-butter, but there are a few expat-favorite routes that will save you time.  Be careful using these, as it’s easier to go the wrong way.  Here are a few of my favorite shortcuts from my time in Tokyo:

  • The left side of the clock (8:00-10:00): Try the subway Fukutoshin (F) Line.  On JR, try the Shonan-Shinjuku Line or the Saikyo/Kawagoe/Rinkai Line.  All those JR lines usually stop at the same platforms.
  • The right side of the clock (1:00-6:00): Try the subway Ginza (G) Line.  On JR, try the Keihin-Tohoku Line.
  • Crossing the clock: The JR Chuo Line goes from Tokyo Station (4:00) to Shinjuku (9:00). 

When taking a shortcut train, check the time estimates on the thin vertical signboards attached to the pillars.  If your stop has a time estimate, then you’re facing the right train.  If not, turn around and try the other side.  Also, some shortcut trains land at platforms that serve other lines.  Double-check the name of the line you want with the line marked on the train that comes.  You may be waiting for the next one. 

Taxi. Photograph by yamuhaton/flickr Shortcuts on foot
Are you near someplace (say, your hotel) but just can’t find it?  Ask an idle taxi driver!  Taxi drivers navigate very well and commonly give out directions (for free!) to natives and fluent expats.  The downside is that most taxi drivers don’t speak English very well. 

Not near a taxi?  Try a convenience store.  This doesn’t work as well as taxi drivers, but in a pinch it’s worth trying.

Now you’re ready to go.  Your Tokyo navigational bootcamp was a bit long, but you need to be well-prepared to take on such a big city.  We’re starting to get into the fun part, and in the next chapter we’ll cover all kinds of delicious food and where to get it.

But we’ll start with the most important thing: cash.


Welcome to Japan!  Your plane has arrived, you’re well-rested thanks to Airplane Yoga, and you’re in Tokyo.

Wait – you’re not in Tokyo.  You’re at a Japanese airport, which is over an hour away if you’re at Narita.  You need to get to Tokyo, but first you need to take care of a couple things before you leave the airport.

Get some cash.
Yucho_logoThere’s an ATM right around the corner from the currency exchange, but we had you pack $100 just in case your flight was delayed and the ATM was closed.  Yeah, it’s weird – Japanese ATMs have operating hours.  We’ll cover the ATMs in more detail later, but for now just find the ATM with the little green logo on the right and withdraw a few hundred dollars.  It sounds like a lot, but don’t worry, it’s safe.

If the ATM works out, you can save your $100 to re-deposit when you get back home, if you like.  If the ATM is closed (say, you land on a Sunday or late at night) then you should exchange your $100 for Japanese yen so you can get some food and a ticket into the city.

No smartphone? Rent a cell phone.
These days, you can bring a 3G or 4G smartphone to Japan and have it roam on a domestic Japanese network. If you’re not a data hog, this is usually worth it for easy access to email and navigating public transportation. As long as you don’t need to make a lot of calls, this is the way to go.

If you need to make a lot of phone calls, however, you should leave the cell at home and rent a phone while at the airport.

Phone rental counters counters are easy to find. Feel free to pick any one – the prices are all about the same.  Before you leave the rental counter, add your travel buddies’ numbers to your phone or write them down in your little notebook

Got some yen and a cell phone?  You’re ready to head in to the city.  There are a couple of ways from Narita into central Tokyo, and we’ll start with the easiest. Landed at Haneda instead?

1. Narita Express, aka N’EX
This fast train heads straight from Narita Airport to central Tokyo with just a couple of stops.  If you’re staying on the east side of Tokyo (near Ueno, Asakusa, Ginza or Akihabara), hop off at Tokyo Station.  If you’re on the west side of Tokyo (near Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Roppongi or Shibuya), hop off at Shinjuku Station.  The ticket costs about 3,000 yen ($30) per person.  To save money, buy the combined “Suica + N’EX” ticket.  You’ll use the Suica card around town.

There are a couple of alternatives to the N’EX, if you’re staying in certain parts of town or want a more scenic introduction to Tokyo:

2. Limousine Bus
There’s nothing “limousine” about it; it’s just a bus.  It costs about the same as N’EX and takes just a little more time.  But you’ll see nice scenery above ground, and if you’re staying in a nice hotel, the bus will take you straight to the hotel’s front door.  Check here for a list of hotels that the bus serves directly. Use the Please select your alighting point drop-down menu (and no, I don’t know what that means either.) Make sure you’re reading the Pick me up from the airport section.  

3. Keisei Line Skyliner
If you’re staying specifically in the Ueno area, you can take the Skyliner instead of the N’EX to get to Ueno Station.  It’s faster and cheaper than N’EX, at 2,000 yen ($20) a ticket, but it only goes to Ueno.

Landed at Haneda?
You’ll take the Tokyo Monorail all the way to its final destination, Hamamatsucho. Or you can take the Limousine Bus described above. Here’s your hotel list.

By now, you’re off the train and you’re… somewhere.  In a train station.  You could be anywhere.  We still have to get you to your hotel, so now’s a good time to learn how to get around town.


It’s flight day!  You’ve got your ticket, a place to stay, and you’ve packed your one bag.  Time to get on that airplane!

Now, it’s fair to assume that you’re reading this guide before the actual day you take off, so here’s something to do in the days before you leave:

Screw up your sleep schedule as much as you can while you’re still at home.

The closer to nocturnal you are, the better off you’ll be.  If you can manage to stay up until 6:00 or 7:00 AM (US time), you’ll be in good shape to fit with the Japanese clock as soon as you hit the ground.

Now, once your actual flight day arrives, there are lots tricks that will make your life easier in the airport and on the plane.  We’ll start with the airport, where there are three potential hazards:

  1. Security.  Your goal is to get through security like a mouse running through a house: quietly and sticking out as little as possible.  You’ll have an easier time if you follow the packing guide, because one bag packed properly is really easy to get through security without undoing and redoing all your careful work.  For more details on making security easy, read Wired Magazine’s how-to guide.
  2. Expensive food.  I suck it up and pay out the ear for food, and it’s for psychological reasons.  It’s a good way to pass time while you’re waiting, and a satisfied you will be in a better mental state for the long flight ahead. Eat things that you know won’t cause trouble for your stomach. Also, grab some extra snacks, like bananas and cookies, and take them on the plane.  Don’t rely on airplane food.
  3. Delays. Delays can happen, and sometimes they get extreme.  If strange things happen, don’t cancel your trip and go home.  A delay may be a rare thing for you, but it’s everyday business for the airline.  Let the airline work out its problems, but don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re about to be stranded. FlyerTalk has a vague guide to help you manage your expectations.  Just relax and try to enjoy the downtime.

Made it this far?  Congratulations, your plane is on its way! Time to begin your journey into Airplane Yoga

The truth is, a 10-hour-plus flight in coach is actually a war between you and insanity.  So, we’re going to clear your mind with Airplane Yoga.  It has five major principles:

  • Stretch your legs every hour.  It wouldn’t be Yoga without stretching, right?  Sitting still for several hours will leave your legs very twitchy.  Every hour, find some space and stretch your hamstrings and your quads. If you annoy your seatmates, too bad for them.  You’re a pro traveler, and with that comes the responsibility to stay loose.
  • Don’t drink alcohol.  It’s tempting to be able to get loopy off of one or two drinks, but abstain.  Alcohol exhausts your body, and your body is already under lots of stress from an uncomfortable seat, the weird pressurized cabin, lack of nutrition from airplane food, and tons of germs.
  • Don’t drink caffeine.  At all.  For the same reasons that you shouldn’t drink alcohol, you should avoid all caffeine, even tea or soda.  If one or two drinks can make you tipsy, one soda can leave you tweeked out on caffeine, which means you won’t be able to sit still, which will make you much more twitchy and uncomfortable for what will feel like a very long time.
  • Drink orange juice.  Your stressed-out body needs nutrients, and OJ encourages you to go to the bathroom, which means you can get up and stretch.
  • Focus on remaining calm.  If ever you begin to think “I can’t sit here like this anymore!” you should try to cancel that thought from your mind.  Distractions like in-flight movies and sleep are good for keeping your mind clear and achieving coach-class nirvana.

There is one shortcut in Airplane Yoga: noise-canceling headphones. Airplane engines are very loud, and the constant noise is tiring for your brain.  A good pair of noise-canceling headphones, the kind that cost $200 or more, do work as advertised. That’s why airlines offer them for free in Business Class. I use Bose QuietComfort headphones. They’ve let me relax on every flight I’ve been on, and I’ve often stepped off of international flights feeling just fine.

Get your own noise-cancelling headphones from Amazon.

The flight is over!  You’ve landed in Japan, and your adventure can truly begin.  We’ll start with a couple things to do before you leave the airport.


So you’ve picked flights, booked a hotel or two, and it’s almost time to go.  We should pack those bags of yours.

Or rather, that bag.  For short vacations to Tokyo, I take one bag, and it’s just a carry-on. Whether it’s a backpack or a suitcase, it’s fine, so long as it’s small enough to fit in the overhead bins.

Why take just one carry-on bag all the way to Tokyo? Here are five great reasons:

  1. The TSA can’t break into your bag and steal stuff, because the bag is with you.
  2. You don’t have to wait for baggage claim, so you can head to the front of the customs line while everyone else is still waiting.
  3. You have less weight to carry around Tokyo. 
  4. You’ll look really silly if you take a gigantic suitcase and another huge bag onto a busy Tokyo train.  I speak from experience.
  5. All of the above reasons work for your return trip, too.

With that in mind, we’ll be cutting out a lot of the things you might have thought you need to bring.  Keep in mind that Tokyo is a big, civilized place.  Even if you have to buy something after you land, consider this: a $5 bottle of shampoo is cheaper than checked bag fees for two flights, and may be worth the peace of mind knowing you’re the only one handling your bag.

So, here’s a list of things you should not bring:

Half of your clothes: Bring enough clothes to last half of your trip and do laundry once while you’re there.  It takes a couple of hours, less than $5, and gives you a good chance to relax with a snack and perhaps your travel buddy.  We’ll cover doing laundry later on.  And while we’re at it, is it really going to kill you to “recycle” that T-shirt for a second day?  I admit, I’m a guy, but still I keep pretty clean.  Think about it.

More than two pairs of shoes: One comfortable pair for traveling and sightseeing, and one (optional) pair that’s a bit nicer for things like going out, going to nice restaurants, or nightclubs.

Your laptop: Unless you have some pressing professional need that specifically requires your laptop, leave it at home.  You can check your email at an Internet cafe, which we’ll discuss later. Or on your smartphone, which we’ll also discuss later.

Your cell phone (maybe): Unless you want to bring your smartphone and pay for roaming data, you’ll rent a phone once you land.

Shampoo, conditioner, soap: Your hotel will supply this, unless you’re staying at a hostel.  In which case, there may be some to mooch, or you can get it cheaply at a nearby pharmacy.

Toothbrush: Again, your hotel will have these, unless you’re staying in a hostel.

OK, with that space freed up, these are the things you should make sure you bring:

A small notepad: Go to a grocery store or office supply store and get the smallest pocket notepad you can find.  Mine is smaller than a business card.  You’ll use this to write down hotel addresses and phone numbers, flight and train information, and contact information for people you meet along the way.  Keep it in your pocket, not in your bag.

41NJx1yVeZL._AA280_ Space Bags: Get a set of the travel-size vacuum bags that you can shrink down without a vacuum cleaner.  I find it easiest to put small clothes like socks and underwear in them.

$100 in cash: Save this for after your arrival.  Don’t spend this money at your home airport, because we’ll be changing this into yen. Why just $100?

Medicine: Bring your own kind of the following medicines: allergies (non-drowsy!), stomach, cold/flu, and pain relief.  Expats generally consider Japanese medicine to be worthless.  If you take prescription medicine, bring the medicine and the prescription. 

A special note on medicine: Do not bring the behind-the-counter Sudafed or any medicines containing its generic form (pseudoephedrine) as it’s considered an illegal drug in Japan.

Toiletries: Bring deodorant, toothpaste (the Japanese stuff isn’t that good), and whatever hair styling products you like.  If you’re a girl, bring your girly stuff if you’ll need it.

Shaving stuff: It’s the most convenient to pack an electric razor, but if you manually shave, bring a safety razor and leave the shaving cream at home.  Buy some at a pharmacy after you land.

Make sure your toiletries fit TSA’s carry-on rules.  Nothing over 3 oz, and everything fits in a sandwich bag.

Got your bag all packed up and ready to go?  Let’s get you cleared for take-off.

Booking Flights and Hotels

OK!  So you’ve decided you’re up for a trip to Japan.  Let’s get this ball rolling right away.

You do want to do this cheaply, right? 

Of all the places where you can save money on your trip, your own desk is where you’ll actually save the most.  We’ll look at the three big ways of saving cash in a second, but first, a couple of important things:

How long should you go?
I usually recommend that first-time visitors schedule a trip between 1 and 2 weeks.  People with more international travel experience typically do better with longer stays.

Do you have your passport?
If you already have your passport, skip this section.  If you’ve never had a passport, follow this process [this guide assumes you’re a US citizen]:

1. Get passport photos taken at your local photo processing place (like a CVS Pharmacy).  You’ll be able to take them home with you.
2. Get this form from the US government [hit the “Complete Online & Print” button] and fill it out.
3. Take the photos, the form, a valid ID (like a drivers license), your birth certificate and $135 to the nearest post office.  Take $195 if you want rush service (which you do if you’re leaving in less than a month).

Got your passport?  Lovely, let’s get around to the saving money part.  There are three big steps:

1. Don’t go on a guided tour vacation.
Guided tours are no fun.  I promise.  All the fun stuff in Japan is what you find in between the famous places: the shops, the restaurants, the random people you meet along the way, and most importantly, the stuff you can’t possibly predict.  Plus, they’re really expensive.  If you’re independent, you’ll get to choose what you want to do and when to do it.

2. Book your flight with help
The flight can be the trickiest thing, and many people people think this is where they save or lose the most money.  Not true – that’s number 3.  Still, there’s a lot of money to be saved here.  When I book my flights, I do the following things:

  • Fly to Tokyo Narita.  The most flights go through here, and Tokyo is the best place to start your trip. If your airline serves Tokyo Haneda, feel free to go there. Haneda is more convenient, but flights are more rare and more expensive. 
  • Find a non-stop flight, or the closest thing to it. The fewer layovers you have, the fewer times you have to have your luggage inspected, take off your shoes, show people your tickets and passport, stop to eat expensive airport food, and turn your iPhone off then on again.  Plus, it’s a shorter trip, and who doesn’t love that?  Non-stop flights aren’t the cheapest option, but they’re still the best.
  • Use FlightFox to get you the cheapest flight. For $29 you can hire frequent flyers to play travel agent and plan your flights for you. They’ll save you way more than $29.

3. Book your hotels online.

Hotels, not flights, are where you’re most in danger of spending too much money.  Since you’ll be staying several nights in Japan, price differences add up quickly.  To get some help, there are three great English websites for finding and booking hotels:

  • Rakuten Travel: Basically like Expedia for Japan.  Lets you search by location, sort by price, see photos, and make reservations online.  Mostly has Western-style hotels.
  • Japan National Tourist Organization: The Japanese government’s official tourism promotion agency runs a hotel search engine with links to multiple reservation sites. Good for cheaper hostels and Japanese-style ryokan hotels.

While you’re using these sites, keep these tips in mind:

  • Expect to pay over 5,000 yen per night for a single room with a private bathroom, and closer to 10,000 yen for a room for two.  I typically pay about 6,000 yen for a single and anywhere from 8,000 to 15,000 yen for a room for two.  Anything over that and you’re getting luxurious.
  • Prices vary based on location.  Expect to pay more to be in really famous spots like Shinjuku’s business district or Shibuya Crossing.
  • Pick a single room if you’re alone, a twin room if you want separate beds, or a double room for a room with one bed that sleeps two.
  • If you want to enjoy Japan’s night life, pick a hotel that doesn’t have a lock-up time or else you’ll be stranded until it re-opens.
  • On Rakuten, choose Central Tokyo as your City and start with All locations unless you know you want a specific neighborhood. 
  • On JNTO, choose the Tokyo & Yokohama Urban Area to start searching.
  • On any site, my favorite areas to stay are Ueno and Asakusa for their neighborhood feel. Other good places include Shinjuku for a city feel, Shibuya for nightlife and shopping, and Ginza for fashionistas and foodies.
  • Shinagawa is a hotel hub where there’s always rooms available at any price. There’s nothing immediately in the area, but it’s less than 15 minutes to Shibuya and Ebisu, and less than 30 minutes from Shinjuku, Ueno, Akihabara, and Ginza. 
  • Both Rakuten and JNTO allow you to pay once you arrive at the hotel. This is normal in Japan, so there’s rarely a need to pay in advance. This also means you can cancel your reservations.
  • Searching for just the right hotel takes a little bit of time, especially the first time you try it.  Once you make your first reservation, you’ll be managing your hotels like a pro in no time.

OK, so you’ve got a flight and a place to crash.  Time to pack your bags!


You can go to Japan.  Really, it’s easy.

I’m Blake.  I’ve lived off and on in Japan for the last five years. And I’ve found that it’s easier than most people think to travel to the Land of the Rising Sun.

The torii at Miyajima. Image by Kyoji "Jake" Arita. Here are the three biggest myths about Japan and why they actually don’t get in the way of  your visit:

1. You can’t do anything if you don’t speak Japanese, right?
Actually, it’s pretty easy to get around speaking English.  You just have to use Japan-friendly keywords, based on what the Japanese learn in school.  We’ll work on those keywords later.

2. Isn’t Japan the most expensive place in the world?
It’s not as bad as you’ve been told, I promise.  Now, it’s not a super-cheap place like Thailand or Vietnam, but you can eat a good, filling dinner for under $10 and get a big Japanese beer for $3 if you know where to look.  Expats – the foreigners who live in Japan – know all the tricks to find inexpensive hotels, good meals, and even the occasional all-you-can-drink bar.  I’ve been an expat in Japan on and off for the last five years, so I can help you book a hotel, pick out a delicious dinner, and have the night of your life – all in English.

3. Doesn’t Japan have really weird food?

To answer your question, yes, there are weird foods.  But here are all the ingredients that go into my three favorite Japanese foods (in no particular order): Pork, onions, green onions, cabbage, chow mein noodles, fish, rice, soy sauce, and a couple of sweeter, soy-ish sauces.  (That’s one list for three separate dishes, mind you.)

But none of those ingredients are too scary, right?  Japan has plenty of “weird” things, sure, but a lot of foods are really popular with expats, and we’ll talk about those.

Learn from the expats

In this guide, we’ll discuss every angle of your trip to get you up and running quickly and easily:

Planning: Cheap airfares, cheap hotels, and where to find them.  You save the most money before leaving your door.
Packing: Bring the smallest suitcase you can find.  Leave your laptop at home.  Bring medicine and a miniature notepad.  We’ll talk about why.
Flying: Beating jet lag, reducing the stress from airport security, and relaxing in coach class with Airplane Yoga.
Arriving: How to get cash and a cell phone.
Getting around town: Using the trains, speaking universally understood Keyword English, the best places to find tasty things to eat, and why you should always know where the nearest post office is.
Things to do: Tokyo is quite possibly the most diverse and fun city in the world.  We’ll just scrape the surface.
Worst-case scenarios: These things aren’t likely to happen to you, but it’s good to be ready.
5 ways to save more money: On a college budget?  Japan’s still doable. 
Leaving Tokyo: Riding bullet trains, climbing Mt. Fuji, and visiting places like Kyoto.

So have a look through the guide.  When you’re done, you’ll be a seasoned pro.

How to get started without leaving your chair

You can get started right now. Here’s how to plan a trip.