Here are 10 Japan travel hacks and tips that will make your trip almost infinitely better.
Chris Rowthorn traveling light in Japan
- Don’t wait on line when you arrive in Japan
- Buy a SUICA card
- Use Japan’s luggage delivery services
- Stay in nicer rooms in cheaper hotels
- Travel light
- Take taxis when it makes sense
- Fly domestically
- Stay at the airport
- Eat at restaurant floors
- Change at Shinagawa Station en route from Kyoto to Narita
Scroll down for all the details.
1. Don’t wait on line when you arrive in Japan
Activating your rail pass at the airport when you arrive in Japan makes no sense, especially at Haneda where there’s no JR service into Tokyo. But even at Narita, where there is JR service, it’s a bad idea. You’ll most likely spend the first few days of your trip exploring Tokyo, and it’s crazy to use a Japan Rail Pass for that. More importantly, who wants to wait in a long line after an even longer plane flight? You can pick up/buy/activate a Japan Rail Pass later on in the city. Here’s the line at the JR Travel Service Center at Haneda, and the situation is the same at Narita:
Line at JR Travel Service Center at Haneda © Chris Rowthorn
So how do you avoid any lines at the airport? Easy: Use a Suica card instead of a train ticket. You can buy them in advance here and it will come with Y1500, which will more than cover the Keisei or Tokyo Monorail line from Haneda into Tokyo. From Narita, the Suica card will cover your basic fare on the Narita Express or Keisei Skyliner into town and you can buy a reserved seat/express ticket with cash on the platform. If you didn’t buy a Suica card in advance, you can easily buy a Suica card from a machine like the one below outside the JR turnstiles at Narita. Note that this same method also works at Kansai International Airport.
Welcome Suica card vending machine at Narita © Chris Rowthorn
2. Buy a SUICA card
Skipping lines at the airport is only the first of the many benefits of a Suica card. A Suica card can be used to pay for most of your daily expenses while in Japan: all local transport (buses, subways, trains and many taxis), convenience stores, vending machines, coin lockers, and many shops and restaurants. In fact, the only things you probably won’t pay for with your Suica card are hotels, ryokan, shinkansen, expensive restaurants and shops.
Suica card © Tatsuo Yamashita | CC BY 2.0
So, in a word: you NEED a Suica card in Japan. You can order one online here and have it delivered to your home. Or you can easily buy one from a vending machine in Japan. Note that cards like Suica are not city-specific, so you can use your Suica across Japan (ditto for the Kansai version, Icoca).
3. Use Japan’s luggage delivery (takkyubin) services
Dragging heavy luggage through train stations and onto crowded trains is a sure-fire way to make your journey miserable (and to mark you as a newb in Japan). If your suitcase won’t fit into an overhead bin on a plane, it won’t fit on the shinkansen. The only exception is the space behind the last row of seats, but you need a special ticket to put your suitcases there.
Shinkansen luggage rack © Chris Rowthorn
The solution? Use Japan’s fantastic luggage delivery (takkyubin) services. For about $20, they’ll ship your suitcase overnight to most destinations in Japan. So, you can send your suitcase from the airport to your hotel in Tokyo, or from your hotel in Tokyo to your hotel in Kyoto etc. You just need a smaller knapsack or laptop bag to carry your phone/laptop, charger, travel documents, meds and perhaps a change of clothes. For all the details, see Luggage Shipping: The Smart Way to Travel in Japan.
Japanese delivery service © Rodrigo Reyes Marin | Shutterstock.com
4. Stay in nicer rooms in cheaper hotels
This killer hack can save you thousands on your trip and allow you to stay in luxurious rooms for mid-range prices: Instead of paying a premium for an international luxury brand, just move up to a better room in a good mid-range Japanese brand. When you run the numbers, it’s a no-brainer.
Okura Kyoto Deluxe Corner Twin
On an average day in May 2023, standard rooms at the international luxury brand hotels in Kyoto are well north of US$1,000 and those rooms average 45 square meters in size. Meanwhile, a corner twin at the excellent Kyoto Hotel Okura is around US$300 and they’re 53 square meters (ie, huge). Likewise, a corner king at the Cross Hotel Kyoto is around US$350 and they’re 42 square meters, which is plenty spacious.
Cross Hotel Kyoto Deluxe Corner Twin
This also works great in Tokyo at places like the Okura Tokyo, Century Southern Tower, the Cerulean Tower and the Mimaru chain.
You can compare the different room rates and the availability of accommodation for your specific dates on Booking.com.
5. Travel light
I’m always flabbergasted at the amount of stuff some people bring to Japan – it’s like they’re packing for an assault on Mt Everest.
Too much luggage on the shinkansen © Chris Rowthorn
The fact is, you can buy almost anything you’ve forgotten in Japan. Clothes? Just hit Uniqlo. Electronics, camera gear and computer stuff? Bic Camera. Over-the-counter meds and cosmetics? Any drug store in Japan. The only things that are hard to get are prescription meds (but you can get them at hospitals and clinics) and large-size clothes, particularly shoes. As long as you stay in a place with washing machines every few days, you can easily tour Japan in a warm season with nothing more than a large knapsack. And a wheelie bag is more than enough, even in winter. The fact is, you never really need a full-size suitcase.
The perfect way to travel in Japan is with a wheelie bag for your big stuff and a lighter bag for the stuff you need at hand. Here’s the kit I use when traveling in Japan:
Chris Rowthorn’s Japan travel luggage © Chris Rowthorn
The bigger bag is a wheelie made by Kathmandu, an excellent Australian outdoor brand. Sadly, they no longer make the same bag (I woulda bought three had I known). The smaller bag is made by Kingsons. I ran into a guy on the Kumano Kodo who was hiking with one of them. They are absurdly cheap and they hold up for years. They’ll hold a laptop, your docs and phone, and you can squeeze in a change of clothes. You can see me wearing mine in the picture at the top of this article.
6. Take taxis when it makes sense
Some people seem religiously opposed to taking taxis in Japan. But there are times when it just makes sense.
Tokyo Taxi: Savvapanf Photo | Shutterstock.com
For example, in Kyoto, if you’re on the west side exploring Arashiyama (the Bamboo Forest etc), you might also want to check out another west side attraction like Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion). If you go by public transport, it will take you at least an hour, you’ll probably have to change trains or buses at least once, and it will cost you a few hundred yen per person. In contrast, a taxi will only take about 20 minutes and cost around Y2500 for the whole car. Up to three adults can split the cost, making it only a bit more expensive than the public transport route. But the time savings is the main factor: You didn’t come to Japan to spend your precious time standing on line at a crowded bus stop.
7. Fly domestically
Japan’s trains are fantastic and there’s nothing like a long shinkansen ride with a hot cuppa and a good book. But some rides are just too long. For example, to go by train from Tokyo to Kagoshima (southern Kyushu) takes 7 hours on the fastest trains (which you cannot ride with a Japan Rail Pass), while the flight takes 1 hour and 50 minutes. Likewise, trains from Tokyo to Sapporo (Hokkaido) will take a minimum of 8 hours, while a plane will take 1 hour and 40 minutes. Keep in mind that flying domestically in Japan is WAY more pleasant than in North America or Europe, and with Japan’s new low-cost carriers, it can be amazingly cheap.
You can quickly look up domestic flights on a flight comparison website to find the best deals.
8. Stay at the airport
If you’re arriving late into Japan and you don’t want to deal with getting into the city, why not spend your first night at an airport hotel? This works great at Haneda and Kansai airports, which have fantastic (and reasonably priced) hotels right in the terminals. And it’s highly recommended if you’re traveling with young children or coming off a long flight. If this is your first time to Japan, your first impressions will be so much better seen through rested eyes.
Haneda Excel Hotel Tokyu
Likewise, if you’ve got an early flight home, staying at the airport will make your departure day so much better. I mean, how many times have you woken up at 4am (if you got any sleep at all) to make an early morning flight? It was horrible, right? How about getting a decent nights’ sleep and walking onto your plane feeling fresh and rested? By the way, this is a great option when flying domestically out of Haneda to other parts of Japan.
Check the availability of airport hotels for your specific dates on Booking.com.
Hotel Villa Fontaine Grand Haneda Airport
9. Eat at restaurant floors
Some of the best restaurants in Japanese cities can be found in restaurant floors (resutoran-gai in Japanese).
Porta restaurant floor at Kyoto Station © Chris Rowthorn
You can find restaurant floors in department stores, shopping/entertainment complexes, train stations, and office buildings. In places like Tokyo and Kyoto, some of the best restaurants in town have branches in department store food floors. These restaurants are often way more approachable than their street-level branches. They usually display their specials right out front and English menus are common. So, if you want to choose from a wide variety of Japanese favorites, plus Indian, French and Italian, find the closest restaurant floor and enjoy.
10. Change at Shinagawa Station en route from Kyoto to Narita
This one is a little niche, but if you’re flying home from Narita and want to spend your last night in Kyoto or Osaka, it can save you some time and a lot of energy.
Shinagawa Station © Andy Atzert | CC BY 2.0
Here’s the deal: The Narita Express platforms in Tokyo Station are a long and confusing way from the shinkansen platforms (let’s say 15 minutes if you don’t get lost). However, at Shinagawa Station (the first stop in Tokyo on the shinkansen from Kyoto etc), the Narita Express platforms are just a couple of minutes’ easy walk from the shinkansen platforms. Just be sure to get reserved seat tickets. Most JR ticket counter workers understand this and they’ll route you through Shinagawa, giving you enough time to make the transfer. If they don’t do it without being asked, just tell them you want to change at Shinagawa.
Make the most of your Japan Rail Pass
A Japan Rail Pass only makes sense for long-distance train trips. So, if you fly into Tokyo and spend the first few days of your trip exploring Tokyo, you want your rail pass to become active the day you leave Tokyo. For local transport, you’ll use a Suica card (see above). You can buy a Japan Rail Pass online at an official partner of JR Rail to collect at any JR Rail station. See Making the Most of a Japan Rail Pass for more tips and tricks.
Japan Rail Pass © antb | Shutterstock.com
Use the shower and nap rooms at the airports
Here’s one I’ve used transiting Japan to fly on to Southeast Asia or Australia, and a few times when I just had a really long wait before my flight to the States. All major Japanese airports have shower and nap rooms, usually on both sides of passport control (ie, air side and land side).
Shower nap room at Narita © Chris Rowthorn
Shower/nap rooms are basically tiny hotel rooms with attached shower/bath units. You can tell the staff what time you need to be woken up and they’ll unfailingly wake you at that time, so you can sleep soundly knowing you won’t miss your plane. Entry is by the hour and usually only a few thousand yen for a couple of hours. Let’s face it: You’ll sleep better in one of these nap rooms than in even the most elite airport lounge.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass – here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- A prepaid Suica card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world