Far East destination specialist Gary recently returned from a two-week journey to Japan, and here shares his expert tips on holidaying in this destination of a lifetime – from how to enjoy tax-free shopping to the best app for rail travellers.
Efficient, clean, and budget-friendly, rail travel is a fantastic way to get around Japan, and as the home of the iconic Shinkansen bullet train, rail journeys can become destinations in themselves. If you want to stay on top of your train trips like a local, download a Japan train app – you can check all the options for your journey, down to the platform number. Although we provide our clients with travel times in our documentation, these are subject to change so I can’t recommend this highly enough. Recommended apps can be found on the Japan Rail Pass website.
Pack as lightly as you can, because you will be lifting your bags a fair amount in train stations – unlike elsewhere in Asia, where porters may be readily available, it is not common in Japan. I thoroughly recommend using a luggage forwarding system (your destination specialist can help you select one) to send your larger bags on, so you can travel light and your suitcase will be at your hotel when you arrive.
Japan is mountainous, and those areas that are at altitude are significantly chillier than the cities. You'll want to pack lots of light layers, which trap layers of warm air near your skin, rather than bulky single-purpose garments. The weatehr can also change very quickly, making layers more practical – during a 12-hour stretch in Hakone, I experienced t-shirt-worthy sunshine followed by a snow storm on the cable cars.
You'll want to carry cash on you at all times, particularly when topping up a Tokyo metro ticket or prepaid IC card (train pass) as these machines do not take card payments. Many restaurants are cash-only, as well.
Present your passport in shops for tax-free shopping, at least for purchases costing more than ¥5000 (approximately £36). As the sales tax is 8%, that makes it very worthwhile.
In Tokyo, you'll want to spend a morning at Tsukiji fish market – this does require getting up well before dawn, but if you love sushi, it's a must. Don't eat breakfast beforehand, however, because once at the market you'll have the chance to eat some of the freshest, best-quality sushi in the world – and if you want to find just the right sushiya to buy from, we can arrange for a guide to show you around and take you to their favourite.
Speaking of scheduling meals, if you're outside a major city you'll want to go for dinner early, or you may find a lot of restaurants closing before you've had your meal. There may still be izakayas (pubs) open, but options are limited.
Vegetarians may have trouble finding purely veggie options. In Japan, many vegetable dishes are also made with dashi, a stock made using fish.
Stay in a traditional ryokan hotel at least one night for a unique culinary experience you simply can't find in restaurants. The traditional kaiseki ryori, is a multi-course meal usually comprised of around 10 dishes, all regional specialties, and is often eaten in your room.