Other Than Rugby: Tackling the Basics of a Trip to Japan

Lily Crossley-Baxter

Visiting Japan for the sportsball this autumn and not sure where to start? Here’s everything you need to know to enjoy your travels, from drinking to exploring and keeping connected.

shibuya crowd
The famous Shibuya Crossing. | Photo by uniquedesign52

A trip to Japan is often a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so there’s plenty of pressure to make sure you get the most out of it. Balancing technology with tradition, Japan manages to attract geeky game-loving otaku alongside temple-admirers and culture lovers—making it a popular destination, to say the least. If you’re in a group, catering for everyone’s different interests can make planning tricky, but whatever you decide to see, you’ll have a fantastic time. Before you start making those between-match itineraries, though, boring things like transport, SIM cards and accommodation have to be thought out, so read on for a comprehensive guide on getting your trip lined up.

Jump to:

1. Three quick tips to get you started

Girl holding phone
Photo by Ken Walton used under CC

OK, so we have a lot to cover in this article, but once you’re done reading it, you’ll have the perfect reference guide for your trip (bookmark this one). Before we get started on the main topics, here are a trio of other cheapo resources we recommend you look through as well:

1. All the apps you should consider downloading before you get to Japan for the rugby
2. Tokyo travel disasters—and how to avoid/fix them
3. Transport guides for getting from Narita Airport to your accommodation, or from Haneda Airport


2. Staying connected: Wifi and SIM cards

Japan SIM card vending machine
You can get SIM cards from vending machines at the airport (because Japan), but they aren’t always the best deal. | Photo by TAKA@P.P.R.S used under CC

You never know how much you rely on data until you don’t have it—and that is never truer than when faced with the translational nightmare that is Japan. Sometimes there’s no English, sometimes there’s too much and it’s somehow even more confusing than when there’s no English. Having wifi or a SIM card means quick access to Google Translate for the signs, Google Maps for directions and Instagram—for showing off to your mates at home about being in Japan, of course.

There are quite a few ways to keep connected, including Mobal SIM cards, our personal favorite because of their data-only or data and voice-calling options, together with solid English-language support.

  • Short-term SIM cards: If you’re looking for an easy way to stay online and have an unlocked phone, there are a bunch of options for traveler SIMs, including the aforementioned Mobal.
  • Portable wifi: If you have more than one device to connect or need some sturdier speeds for your laptop, renting a wifi router can be a great way to stay online.
  • Public wifi: Of course, there’s also (some) free wifi, for those preferring to loiter in cafes (or nice libraries).

  • 3. Accommodation: Capsule, love hotel or regular room?

    room numbers in a capsule hotel
    Photo by hans-johnson used under CC

    Finding a bed for the night is top priority, and Tokyo has a lot of accommodation options, from traditional tatami-floored ryokan to ultra-modern capsule hotels.

    The options: Which type of accommodation will work best for you?

    While you may just go for regular hotels on autopilot, Japan has a good range of options—all with their own experiences.

  • Ryokan: The ultimate traditional experience with tatami, futons to sleep on and baths to relax in—while they’re pricey, ryokan are worth trying at least once.
  • Hotels: Hotels are hotels—but you can choose from business hotels (small, compact, basic) and regular ones which are aimed more at actually enjoying your stay, not just providing a place to crash.
  • Capsule hotels: A weird combination of hostel and hotel, capsule hotels give you a private space, but it’s about the size of a large fridge. Try it, if only for a night—you might love it.
  • Love hotels: Not really designed for long stays or solo travelers, these hotels set a particular mood …
  • Hostels: In Tokyo, hostels range wildly from budget to lovely, with higher standards than you might be used to elsewhere.
  • Private apartments: When it comes to rental flats, Airbnb suffered a hit last year with a law change, but the situation has settled down now and there are some great options, especially for groups or families. Alternatively, you can also find quite a few private apartments listed on hotel sites (just beware of added fees).
  • The areas: Where to stay?

    The central parts of Tokyo are (unsurprisingly) going to be the priciest, but they are also usually big enough to present a decent range of options. Hubs like Shibuya or Shinjuku are well connected, busy and great for sightseeing. Smaller suburbs are good if you want a more chilled-out, local experience. For the latter, we suggest spots like Yanaka, Sugamo and Nakameguro—they’re still pretty central, great to explore and have everything you need, just with a more laid-back feel.

    Pro tips for booking accommodation in Tokyo/Japan

  • When looking for places to stay, focus on the area(s) you need to be in, but also take the connecting train lines into consideration. If you find that the prices in Shibuya and Shinjuku are a bit out of your bracket, it’s likely that you could find somewhere more affordable and within an easy train ride of the two major stations.
  • Consider booking rooms in hostels—more are branching out to provide a hotel-like experience and often have nice rooms (although you may be sharing a bathroom).
  • Don’t be surprised if your hotel room (and bathroom) is small—like really, really small. Space is at a premium in Tokyo and the other big cities, and what you might think of as ‘compact’ is quite likely considered pretty sizeable here.

  • 4. Getting around: Transport in Japan

    tokyo to kyoto bullet train
    On clear days, Mount Fuji is visible from the bullet train. | Photo by hans-johnson used under CC

    It’s all well and good knowing what you want to see, but you also have to figure out the best way to get there. Japan’s transport system is pretty amazing—it’s fast, efficient and punctual, but it can also be really confusing!

    Travel in Tokyo

    Tokyo has trains, a metro and a bus system, and the best way to navigate all three is using a Pasmo or Suica travel card. Meaning you can forget about tickets and all the annoying things that come with them, these cards allow you to whizz through gates and even change your plans while on the train. In terms of picking routes, we suggest you combine the magical powers of Google Maps and Hyperdia. The former tells you which stations are nearest and can give information about available buses, while the latter has more reliable train times and routes.

    Travel around Japan

    Depending on distance, you can choose from bullet trains, regular ones, buses and planes for travel in Japan, and prices vary wildly.

  • The bullet train: A quintessential Japanese experience, aim to try it at least once if you can, even if it’s a short trip. There are, of course, the super-economical Japan Rail Passes to consider, and we have a handy calculator to see if they’re worth it for your plans. Without passes, the Shinkansen can be pretty pricey—so consider budget airlines too.
  • Regular trains: Slower than the shink but good for short-to-medium distances, many regular trains can also be used with the rail passes. There are some more localized options like the JR West Pass and the new JR Hokuriku Arch Pass, which connects Osaka and Tokyo, available.
  • Highway buses: Great for skipping a night of accommodation (and, unfortunately, sleep) this can be a good way to travel long distance without wasting daylight hours. They also have daytime options of course, but that might not appeal if you have limited time.
  • Domestic flights: With LCC companies like Peach and Jetstar, you can travel surprisingly cheaply throughout the country; you just have to sacrifice things like sleep (they often have the eyewateringly early or very late timeslots at airports) and self respect (watching an inexplicably angry airline employee weigh and refuse your 7.1 kg bag based on a 7 kg weight limit is never fun). Despite this, it’s for sure the fastest way to travel very long distances (e.g. Tokyo to Sapporo), and quite often cheaper than long-distance trains.
  • Renting a car: This is a good option for groups, if you have an international or Japanese driver’s license. The roads are dull though, with sound-protecting barriers stealing any hope of American-style roadtrip vibes for most journeys.
  • Pro tips for smooth travel in Japan

  • Remember that trains stop at about midnight in Japan (if not earlier), and Tokyo is no different. Once the clock strikes twelve, you’ll be hit with the ‘go hard or go home’ quandary. Of course, for that scenario, there’s also the love hotel option.
  • We said it already, but get yourself a travel card, it’s just the right thing to do.
  • Unlike most major cities, in Tokyo, taxis are the same price, if not cheaper, than an Uber. While you rarely actually need a taxi, it’s worth keeping this in mind.
  • Cycling is a great way to see Tokyo, but make sure you wear a helmet (even if it’s uncommon here) and don’t drink—it’s illegal to cycle while drunk in the same way that driving a car while intoxicated is illegal. There’s a zero-tolerance limit and foreigners get stopped often, so be careful!

  • 5. Eating out: Food and restaurants in Japan

    Rokurinsha Tokyo Ramen Street
    Photo by City Foodsters used under CC

    Be it a ¥300 bowl of soba or a ¥10,000 set at a fancy sushi joint, eating in Tokyo (or elsewhere in Japan) is pure joy. It’s nowhere near as costly as people may have warned you (unless you want it to be), and there are countless great options and plenty of dishes beyond the old favorites of noodles and conveyor-belt sushi.

    Some speciality suggestions to get you started:

  • Ramen: There’s what goes in it, some Michelin options and some unusual ones.
  • Okonomiyaki: An Osaka-speciality that’s about to become your new favorite food.
  • Kushikatsu: Another Osaka hit—kushikatsu is a deep-fried meat or vegetable treat that goes very well with a beer.
  • Monjayaki: Tokyo’s take on okonomiyaki—there’s really only one place to try it in the capital.
  • Soba and udon: Cheap even at Michelin level, soba and udon prove that ramen aren’t the only noodles in town.
  • Tempura: A classy form of fried food, tempura is a treat to be savored.
  • Nabe: Hotpots are a total joy and a great way to have giant portions.
  • Yakitori: Meat on a stick—what’s not to love?
  • Sushi: The sustainable options, the best restaurants, alternatives to Jiro and ideas for Shibuya, Ikebukuro and Shinjuku.
  • A few extra points to help you along the way.

  • Breakfast: This meal isn’t always as easy to find as you might expect, but we have some great spots in Shibuya, info on where to find a full English, and a guide to getting breakfast sets around the city.
  • Lunch sets: These are the golden secret of dining in Japan, are a great deal and the best way to try places which would other wise be outside of your budget.
  • Michelin-star meals: Super easy to find here, with more restaurants awarded the coveted status than anywhere else in the world—here’s a rundown of the best.
  • Izakaya: These are typical Japanese bars with food you never knew you needed—here’s how to navigate them and what to expect.
  • Themed restaurants: If you’re looking for something unusual, themed restaurants are very popular in Tokyo, and you can choose from prison hospitals to Moomin.

    Tips (and about those …)

    First off, here’s a quick guide to useful phrases for eating out in Japan.

  • Tipping is not the done thing here (it’s actually considered quite rude in traditional establishments), so expect to be chased down if you leave anything on the table. The exception is with foreign joints with foreign staff, but it still isn’t expected in the same way as the US, just more of a nice bonus.
  • Restaurants in Japan tend to focus on a single dish, for example ramen or okonomiyaki, so keep in mind you may have to divide the group to keep everyone happy (or head to an izakaya).
  • Groups of more than 4-6 may well struggle to be seated together—we suggest you book ahead, agree to split for a while, or opt for an izakaya (they really are the best).
  • Strict vegans and vegetarians will struggle to eat in regular restaurants; check out our guide for the common issues and what to do about them.
  • Seating charges are quite common—you’ll know for sure if you get a small dish of food when you’re seated. They range between ¥200 to ¥500 per person.
  • Tax is often left off the menu and added on at the end (like in shops), so don’t be surprised if you’re presented with a slightly different number to the one you expected.
  • Cash is still the only payment form at the majority of restaurants, so always carry some with you. Cards are sometimes accepted at expensive or Western spots, but don’t bank on it (ha!).

  • 6. Drinking and where to do it

    Photo by Nguyen Hung Vu used under CC

    Whether you’re after a pint or looking to try a traditional tipple, the options in Tokyo are limitless, especially with the growing popularity of craft beer. We have a guide to some of the common Japanese drinks like sake and shochu, plus a guide to the rules and hangover cures to get you through the night (and the following day). There will be a fair few bars screening the games (but maybe not as many as you would expect), so check out our list (coming soon) and consider making reservations for the games you’re keen on.

    Popular drinking areas

    For nights out in Tokyo, the main areas are Shibuya, Shinjuku and the infamous Roppongi. Shibuya has everything from tiny yokocho bars to huge clubs, while Shinjuku is known for Golden Gai, the LGBTQ+ area of Ni-chome, and the seedy sidestreets of Kabukicho (which is also where you will find the legendary Robot Restaurant).

    Roppongi is a club-oriented part of town popular with foreigners and those looking to meet them—they have bar crawls, an ever-changing roster of clubs and a good balance of affordable and pricey establishments (not to mention the sketchy-AF ones—keep your wits about you).

    Pro tips for drinking in Japan

  • Drinking in the street is legal in Japan, so make the most of it, but don’t become a total mess or you might end up as a cautionary tale on the infamous @shibuyameltdown instagram account …
  • Nomihodai (all you can drink) is common in Japan—it tends to last a couple of hours (although be sure to check your last-order time in advance) and includes the house beer, wine and cocktails.
  • Kanpai is the ‘cheers’ of Japan—it’s rude to take a sip before this is said.
  • There are hangover-prevention drinks at convenience stores—try them!

  • 7. Sightseeing: Recommended activities

    Statue of Hachiko
    Hachiko is an icon in Shibuya | Photo by Shutterstock

    You may be here for the rugby, but you might as well see Japan while you’re at it—and there’s plenty to see, that’s for sure.

    Tokyo

    If you’re in Tokyo, explore hotspots like Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro, or check our 101 ideas to get you started. There are plenty of unusual museums (and we mean unusual), and gamers will love Akihabara, while Yanaka has the perfect amount of old-school charm for an afternoon stroll. If you’ve been to Tokyo before or just like things to be a little different, there are some more unusual and weird everyday options too.

    For day trips, there are easy spots to hit up like Kamakura—known as ‘little Kyoto’ thanks to its history as an ancient capital and amazing shrines and temples. Hakone is a hot spring spot near Mount Fuji, while Nikko has some amazing natural scenery to enjoy, especially in autumn. We have a whole selection of day trip ideas though, so find a few that tickle your fancy and get sightseeing.

    Outside of Tokyo

    If you’re basing yourself in (or visiting) Osaka, Sapporo, Oita or any of the other rugby venues, we have a whole site dedicated to exploring Japan to get you started. Osaka is a great base for exploring the Kansai region, as it’s close to Kyoto and also Hiroshima as well as having great transport connections for the rest of Japan. While Tokyo is great, there’s more to a country than its capital, so don’t limit yourself.

    Pro tips for finding fun things to do (besides the rugby)

  • Be sure to check out the events pages for Tokyo and Japan—local festivals are one of the highlights of any visit to the country.
  • Consider the travel section above for info on travelcards and rail passes, as well as nightbus options for day trips.
  • Keep in mind seasonal events like autumn leaves—these make places more beautiful, but also affect accommodation and transport prices if you’re heading to well-known spots.

  • 8. Staying safe: Emergencies and medical care when traveling in Japan

    Police in Tokyo
    Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson used under CC

    Crime: Yes, it does exist here

    Japan is known for its low crime rates, so you can (probably) leave your laptop in Starbucks, use your phone as a placeholder or get your lost wallet back with cash intact. You can also get your drink spiked, be groped on a train or stalked though (and worse)—so don’t walk around like you’re not still in the real world. While those three mainly apply to women, the first is common for male theft-victims in nightclubs and massage parlours too, so keep your wits about you. If you witness or are a victim of any crime, you can call 119 or go to the nearest Koban (police box)—you’re never far from one.

    Medical dramas (and we’re not talking Grey’s Anatomy)

    If you get sick or injured in Japan, there are certainly plenty of hospitals to choose from. But they may not all be very helpful. They may not all be open, they may not all accept injured people past 19:00 or they might just be on lunch—who knows. It’s a weird game to play and a terrible time to have to play it—if something goes awry, we suggest you try the Japan Hospital Guide app (details here if you skip down) which gives you locations and facilities of nearby hospitals. We also have a guide with some handy phrases and some tips on women’s health.

    Note: Be sure to call your travel insurance provider before or as soon as possible after going to a hospital, as they may have a limited list of facilities you can visit, or other restrictions/requirements.

    Earthquakes and other natural disasters

    The less fun aspect of being in Japan is its high (compared to most countries) rate of natural disasters, be it a quake, landslide, flood or, in extreme cases, a tsunami. While apps can’t solve everything, they can give you a bit of warning. We suggest checking this article again for tips on Yurekuru Call and other apps. We also have a guide to having an emergency bag prepped if you’re really anxious or staying in one place for a while. Otherwise, just remember to note down where your nearest school is—that’s generally where to head to if there’s any significant incident.

    One more thing: Before you leave, don’t forget to pick up a couple of Japanese souvenirs for the folks back home.

    While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change.

    Written by:
    Filed under: Getting around, Holidays
    Tags: Accommodation, Basics, Beginner, Bullet Train, Capsule Hotel, Day Trips, Drinking In Japan, Featured, Internet Connection, Izakaya, Japan Transportation, Japanese Language, Love Hotels, Low-cost Carriers, Rail Passes, Restaurants, Rugby, Rugby World Cup 2019, Safety, Sightseeing, Sim Cards, Sports, Tourist Guide, Tourists, Trains, Transport, Travel Tips, Wifi
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