5 Unnecessary Things Tourists Do When Traveling in Japan
By Alex Sturmey
On August 29, 2018
Having lived in Japan for a number of years, including a brief stint acting as a volunteer guide (mostly shouting: “This way!”), I’ve witnessed tourists make the same travel mistakes again and again; things that may feel like the most necessary course of action for any well-prepped traveler but, to me, seem kind of avoidable.
To help promote its new Luggage-Free Travel service, JTB, Japan’s largest travel agency, and GaijinPot have teamed up to reveal the most common unnecessary things tourists do when traveling in Japan — and how avoiding these practices will make your trip easier and way more fun.
1. Booking bullet train tickets too far in advance
To give you some idea of how frequent and efficient Japan’s shinkansen (bullet trains) are, if you wanted to leave from Tokyo station on a random Saturday morning and get into Kyoto by the afternoon, you’d be able to take a 2 hour 18 minute train every 10 minutes. A shinkansen is much more like a bus than a plane in that there is almost no protocol you need to go through to get on one — like, a really fancy, super high-speed bus.
Though you can book shiteiseki, or reserved seats, for a small additional fee beforehand, which means you need to pick a certain train to get on, it’s easiest to opt for the jiyuseki, or non-reserved seats. Non-reserved seats usually make up three or four cars of the bullet train, meaning the chances of getting a seat are typically pretty high. Outside of peak times like public holidays (please do check if its a public holiday as that is an entirely different kettle of fish), you can really just wander up to a bullet train whenever you feel like it — with a valid ticket of course — hop on and be on the other side of the country in no time and with little to no advanced effort at all.
2. Packing tons of toiletries
While I do admire the tenacity and resourcefulness of cosmetic crusaders who stuff their suitcase with an assortment of toiletries, traveling in Japan you really don’t need to. Most guesthouses, hotels and ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) will shower you (small pun intended) with all the shampoo, body soap, towels and disposable razors you’ve ever dreamed of, as well as — more often than not — pajamas and slippers.
Even public bathrooms in the middle of the city are well-equipped — toilets are almost always stocked with paper, hand soap and little machines where you can buy retro gum or condoms (hopefully not retro). You’ll also often run into people outside stations handing out small packets of tissues (in the highly unlikely event you do encounter a toilet without paper), while convenience stores stock their own array of in-a-pinch toiletries including everything from contact lens solution to toothbrushes, and yes — even underwear.
3. Relying on public Wi-Fi
When you’re traveling in Japan, the last thing you want is to be without internet access. It’s useful for a great number of things: using GPS to try and weave your way through the crowds on the street, looking up train times and directions, and emergency translation when you’re on a Japanese toilet trying to figure out which button stops whatever it was you just started.
You’d think with all of the technology Japan has to offer, the public Wi-Fi would be just as advanced. Alas, no. Not only is there a lack of it in some areas, if you are actually able to find a hotspot to it, you’ll be hard pressed to get a decent connection. When I first came to Japan I must have spent the better part of an hour going between several free hotspots trying to get online. Some won’t even give you an English option, or will have you jump through so many hoops to login to the service you’ll wish for the blissful sounds of dial-up.
Visitors are much better off getting a pocket Wi-Fi or travel SIM card — you can arrange online beforehand and either pick it up or have the device delivered to your accommodation. It’s usually super simple to setup and since the market is so competitive exactly because of the bad public Wi-Fi, services are cheap.
4. Waiting for the waiter to come to you in a restaurant
I come from the school of thought where you don’t shout for a waiter’s attention, instead, you have to lock eyes with them. There’s an art to making it just awkward enough that they come over and not so much that the two of you are locked in an eternal staring match.
It’s a bit different here and even varies between what establishment you’re in. In most cafés and restaurants, you grab the servers attention by raising your hand and shouting “Sumimasen” (“Excuse me” or “Sorry”) to bring them over to you. Most waiters will wait for you to do this, rather than coming over for fear of bothering you in the middle of an important conversation.
In an izakaya (a Japanese pub), you’ll often be situated down in the far corner of a winding maze of wooden booths with sliding doors and shoes piled up everywhere. You might be lucky and have a magical “pin pon” button on the table you can press to call a waiter. If you don’t have this, and you cannot scream, “Sumimasen!” over the groups of rowdy drunken business men and women, well good luck to you, some say there are tourists who are still waiting for their order to be taken to this day.
5. Carrying a giant suitcase everywhere
One of the biggest mistakes you’ll often see people make when traveling in Japan is dragging around huge cumbersome suitcases. Why? Stairs are everywhere. You might even find some of the more rural stations are yet to discover the technology of the moving-upsy-stairsy thing (also known as an escalator). Unless you’re happy with it being leg day whenever you need to move locations, you’re going to have a bad time.
Then there’s actually getting to the stair-infested stations. You’re going to become very acquainted with the armpits of the person you’re pushed up against on the train itself — add to that the annoyance of your luggage. Then, once you’re off the sardine simulator, you’ll have to dodge, duck, dip, and dive your way through the winding streets. Your GPS will inevitably take you down the wrong one and before you know it you’re suddenly in a heated debate with an old tea shop owner, you’re not quite sure what’s going on, and next week you’ve agreed to marry his daughter.
Coin lockers (compartments at stations you can put items in for a set time and fee) are great. However, they apparently aren’t designed for normal-sized bags. Shops don’t like it if you go through their aisles with a suitcase and when you’re in a restaurant you’ll have to put your bag in a special area away from you, staring at it like a love interest in some romantic film.
And that’s where “Luggage-Free Travel” comes in. It’s a service that allows you to do just that.
Luggage-Free Travel: Removing Luggage Stress
Although Luggage-Free Travel (LFT) won’t be able to help you wash or give you Wi-Fi access, it can do a pretty good job of making traveling in Japan a lot more convenient and enjoyable.
Unlike other luggage services, not only will LFT take your bags from the airport as soon as you land, but if you’re traveling on to another location, they’ll take it from your current hotel to the next one. It’s not only safe to use, with personalized support, but the website is intuitive and easy to navigate (I tested it and was ready to go in under five minutes). Plus the rates are cheap with prices starting from ¥2,000. To give an example, to send a large suitcase weighing 25 kg from Narita airport all the way up to a hotel in Hokkaido (Japan’s northernmost prefecture) it’s just ¥3,240.
Hopefully, with this new knowledge you can avoid making these common mistakes and spend more of your time enjoying traveling in Japan instead (while lording it over all the people carrying giant suitcases filled with toilet paper). Happy travels!