So you’ve finally decided to visit Tokyo. Perhaps you’ve been a lifelong fan of Japanese culture, or maybe you were simply inspired by some pictures of Tokyo you saw on Instagram. No matter the reason, rest assured that you have made the right choice. Tokyo is undoubtedly one of the most unique and awe-inspiring cities in the world. I had traveled to twenty-three other countries by the time I first visited the city, and I found that it was the first place that didn’t feel like just another version of home. In order to get the most out of your own trip, there are a few things you should do to prepare.
Despite its reputation for being a cutting-edge, futuristic place, Japan occasionally finds itself stubbornly stuck in the past. In addition to their inexplicable love of the fax machine, you will come to find that much of Japan; Tokyo included, is still very much cash-based. While many of the larger mainstream stores and restaurants in Tokyo will accept card payments, most of the hole-in-the-wall places from which Tokyo derives its true charm are cash only.
Don’t make the mistake of exchanging large amounts of your own local currency for yen before you visit Tokyo. Not only are the exchange rates typically less favorable than you could find while here, it’s also never a good idea to travel with that much cash on you. Yes, Japan is a very safe country and the odds of you being robbed are not likely, but if you’re anything like me, accidents happen and things can easily be misplaced. Don’t let something like that be the end of your vacation in Tokyo.
The best thing you can do is to withdraw money from local ATMs once you are in Japan. The exchange rates are generally better than you would pay at a bank or exchange service back home, and it gives you the freedom to carry only as much cash as you need in the moment. While not every ATM will accept international debit cards, 7-11 and post office ATMs are typically a safe bet. Be sure to inform your bank that you will be travelling and using your card overseas, as well as to inquire about any foreign transaction fees they may impose.
If you find that your bank charges fees for using your card in another country, I highly recommend opening a Charles Schwab Investor Checking Account. This is the same card I use when travelling internationally. There are no minimums, no monthly fees, and no foreign transaction fees. Best of all, if you get charged a fee to use another bank’s ATM, it will be reimbursed to your account at the end of the month.
One recurring theme I have seen again and again with friends and family who come to visit is over-packing. When travelling so far from home, it’s understandable to think you have to pack for every possible scenario. When it comes to Japan, this is not the case.
Want to stay on top of your skincare routine while on the go? Japan proudly boasts some of the best cosmetic and beauty products on the market. Planning to take lots of pictures of Tokyo? The city is home to one of the largest camera stores in the world, so you’ll never have to worry about running low on film or memory card space. To put it simply, if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for in Tokyo, you can find something just as good if not better.
One question I get often from people is whether or not their electronic devices will work in Japan. Thankfully, outlets in Japan are the same as in the US (2 prong version). The voltage provided by Japanese outlets is slightly different (100 volts compared to 120 volts), but this is not an issue for most modern electronics.
If you check the plug end of your device, it should list the voltage range it can work with. For most of the electronics you use on a daily basis (cellphone chargers, e-readers, laptop chargers, etc), you will find that they are rated for anywhere between 100-240 volts. In this case, a voltage adapter is not needed. Should the rated range fall outside 100 volts however, a travel voltage adapter should ensure that your devices work properly during your stay in Tokyo.
Learning the Language
Your tickets are booked, your financial situation is squared away, and your packing list is prepared. With a whole month to go before you visit Japan, why not spend some of that time learning the language, right? Well, maybe not.
I will never discourage anyone from learning a new language. Polyglots are incredible and I think everyone should try to speak a language other than their native tongue. That being said, learning any amount of functional Japanese in such a short amount of time without total immersion is practically impossible. Even if you manage to memorize a decent amount of vocabulary, the grammatical structures of Japanese are so different from English that stringing together a coherent sentence is incredibly unlikely.
As for reading, Japanese uses three different classes of written characters. Kanji; the most commonly used set, has over 2,000 frequently used characters, and each of those can have several different readings depending on its context.
Rather than trying to learn it all, install Google Translate on your phone and download the Japanese language pack so that it can be used offline. For writing, use the app’s camera feature to translate any text you come across. Need to ask someone a question? Type in or speak your sentence to the phone and it will be instantly translated to Japanese. There is even an option for a two-way conversation, which will automatically detect the input language and translate appropriately.
Make a Schedule
I am a big proponent of keeping travel plans as loose a possible. You never want to miss out on spur of the moment opportunities because your rigorously scheduled vacation plans don’t allow for the slightest deviation. That being said, when it comes to visiting Tokyo, it is not a city that you should jump into without preparation.
Don’t get me wrong - even with zero research or planning, you will have no shortage of things to do in Tokyo. The issue is that there are too many things to do. No matter your interests, you can safely bet that something related to it is going on in the city at any time. Rather than rolling the dice and hoping to stumble upon the things that really resonate with you, check out websites like Tokyo Weekender to learn about upcoming events. The slightest bit of planning can mean the difference between a great vacation to Tokyo, and the best vacation of your life.
Once you’ve accomplished the above, all that’s left is to count down the days until your Tokyo vacation. If you have questions about visiting the city or are interested in getting photos done to commemorate the occasion, send me a message and I’ll do my best to help!