There’s a lot to be said for taking a break from data, email and social media when holidaying. If you’re Zen enough, go for it. But of all the places I’ve travelled, I’ve never needed my Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy more than in Japan.
Japan is also the one country in the world where you’d feel out of place if you were the only person not jacked in to the Matrix the entire time. So with that in mind, here’s a quick guide to geek travel in general, with some Nippon specific tips.
Japan is a daunting place for an English-speaking traveller. You need data. The best data SIM with little faffing about is from b-mobile. Order the SIM at least one week before you plan to arrive, and have it delivered to your hotel or arrival airport. A one gig 4G SIM will cost 3791 Yen, about $45. If you forget to order one, as I did, then you can pick them up from any Yodobashi or BIC Camera store – which tend to flank the major Shinkansen stations of Japan. However, you will have to convince a friendly local to register the sim with their mobile data plan, which can be a struggle.
Also, be aware of the bands supported by the SIM and their limitations. I used a b-mobile SIM in both a Samsung Galaxy S4 mini and an iPhone 5, and while both support the 4G bands of NTT-DoCoMo (b-mobile’s network provider) I rarely saw 4G, so I switched it off for better battery.
Yodobashi are rather large and easy to spot.
WiFi is not as dire as some would have you believe. There’s free, decent wifi at all Starbucks, all over Japan. You’ll find Starbucks across the road from most major train stations, or just look for the Golden Arches. Starbucks have wisely moved next door to many a McDonalds, so confused and hungry Americans can huddle together — and the McDonalds neon is always larger and easier to spot. I also had fantastic wifi at every hotel and guesthouse I stayed at.
TripIt should be the first app you install. Either allow TripIt to read your webmail account to automatically collect plane bookings, hotel reservations and the like, or forward each booking to your TripIt account. Next, subscribe to the TripIt Calendar of your account, and your calendar will be automatically populated with all your travel details, including the street address of your hotel, the Airport terminal of your flight, etc.
Travel + Google Maps + Google Now = Amazing
Next up is Google Maps, of course. Maps support is fantastic in Japan, and will help you untangle Japan’s amazing train network. In some of the more crowded areas of Tokyo (i.e. all of it), Maps would struggle to find my exact location or direction. Often I’d walk a few blocks in the wrong direction before Maps and I noticed, but I can’t imagine exploring the major cities without it.
Google Now is an absolute god-send while travelling, and it was the reason I used my Android device during the day. Google Now (using the your hotel check in data from TripIt) will keep your hotel location directions floating at the top of Now. If your plane is delayed, Google Now will let you know. Visit Temple X, and Google Now will suggest you might like Temple Y as your next stop. Or, if another popular tourist destination or starred location is in walking distance, it’ll suggest that instead.
Google Now will also show you weather, the current exchange rate, and common phrases to learn, as well as a bunch of other handy travel tips based on your location. It’s fucking brilliant, and like the Hitchhikers Guide, very reassuring.
iPhone users can still access Google Now via the Google Search app, but the experience is far more seamless on an Android device. If you’re looking at Japan-specific holiday planning apps, there a some decent ones to choose from. Triposo is free, and sucks down data from WikiVoyage, Wikipedia and Open Street Maps – including top tourist spots, and historical information of your location.
Triposo was really great (if a little rough around the edges) and there are apps for many locations around the world. For avid walkers, it can create walking tours of the city you are in with one tap. The app stores all that data offline, you can use it without a data connection.
Trip Advisor is another fantastic source of information, if you overlook the middle class American bias of a lot of the reviews, (classic example I saw: our hotel room only had 4 TV Channels, all in Japanese!) I really liked the walking tours and recommended tourist spots of Trip Advisor, in Japan and other countries I’ve visited. Trip Advisor also has a few city guides that work offline – including one for Tokyo.
I normally love using Foursquare and Yelp as a fast guide to the best bars and cafes nearby, but not in Japan. Both Apps have very active local users, so all the information was in Japanese. Fair enough. Hotels were fairly easy to book – I was using the Hotels.com app for iPhone and Android to book a hotel for the night as I zoomed along on a Shinkansen. There are a number of other similar Apps from Booking.com, Expedia, etc – I used Hotels.com more out of habit, and because I can pay for the hotel in AUD.
Refuse The Naked
Another handy tip — that feels quite naff, but trust me — is using Google Translate. For hard to explain requests, I’d use Google translate to lend a hand. Just type out your request and hand your phone to the person you’re trying to communicate with. At worst, this was met with a giggle.
Akihabara – The Land Timezone Forgot
As soon as you mention Japan to a geek, they’ll immediately say you must visit Akihabara. It’s alright, I guess.
Akihabara is the famous “Electric Town’ of Japan – full of video game arcades and stores selling consoles, comics, models, and general computery things. Imagine eBay, Deal Extreme and ThinkGeek came alive and built a city. It sounds fucking cool on paper, but in reality, it didn’t really do much for me. I just didn’t want to load my bags with crap I could find on eBay, Deal Extreme or ThinkGeek.
Akihabara is also famous for its Maid Cafes, where you can buy sickly sweet beverages from Cosplay waitresses, if that’s your thing. It’s not my thing. As a compromise, I went to a weird little sorta-maid-cafe that sold beer without a markup.
A better experience was the world famous Robot Restaurant in Kabuchiko. The Robot Restaurant is a wonderfully playful Brechtian deconstruction of audience expectations, featuring women in bikinis fighting robots. A must visit.
There’s far too many geek tourist spots to enjoy in Japan, so I’ll leave you to find them yourself. I will suggest you make time for a day in Nagoya, which features a pretty kickarse Railway museum, The Toyota Museum (funner than it sounds) and a gigantic science museum with the worlds largest planetarium.
Speaking of railways, you need to grab a Japan Rail Pass, which makes travelling between cities effortless. It’s almost too easy, there were times I would be paralysed by choice – do I jump on a train to Tokyo? A day Trip to Hiroshima? Or pop back to Osaka for some Sumo? The Shinkansen are a joy to ride, so fast, so smooth. To enjoy them as the locals do, buy a bento box and a can of Asahi for your trip. You can get by without booking for most Shinkansen if you travel outside of peak hour – for all trains except the Narita Express.
Finally, you have to try a capsule hotel. I really loved them, they give you all the benefits of a hostel (central, clean, cheap) with none of the downsides. Capsule Hotels kick you out every morning so no one can build a bed fort and own a room, there’s no pile of dirty socks in a room, you can’t hear your room mates masturbating in capsules. Win, win, win. I stayed a few Capsule hotels, the best by far was the seemingly Kubrick inspired 9hours in Kyoto.
I brought along a point and shoot camera, the Panasonic DMC-ZS40, that Panasonic now call a “travel camera” thanks to the GPS and Wifi capabilities. The benefit of bringing a point and shoot over relying on a smartphone was tonne of extra storage, a real zoom, and not having to worry about the smartphone battery life. I took over a thousand happy snaps in two weeks thanks to the point and shoot, I doubt i would’ve taken as many photos relying on the iPhone. More on that in another article.
As if that wasn’t enough tech, I brought along a wifi iPad mini and Kindle Paperwhite. The iPad was a great way to plan the day on hotel wifi, while my two phones were charging. I loaded it with TV and movies, but didn’t watch a damn thing on it. Watching Japan fly by on the Shinkansen was more entertaining than any of the shows I’d packed.
Pack small. Japanese subways are far too crowded for a large suitcase, and I’m glad I used a carry on bag for this trip. Spend the cash on a decent case with a sturdy handle and most importantly, great wheels that can rotate 360. I used the Samsonite American Tourister — it was light, small and the wheels were fantastic. I loved it.
For a day backpack, I had my trusty Incase Campus Mini backpack. This bag folds up into nothing, so i could pack it in the Tourister when travelling, but It’s strong, light and has a padded pocket for a small laptop or iPad. And thank the lord, the bag kept all the gadgets above bone dry through Japan’s snap storms.
This was the first time I’ve travelled overseas without a laptop. The only thing I missed was being able to backup the SD cards from the camera. I’ve worked in IT for too long to trust data in one location. Japan has many internet cafes, but in reality these are Internet/comic/karaoke/porn palaces, and not really my cup of tea. Instead, I popped into an Apple store, smiled then ignored the staff, and used an iMac to backup my favourite photos to Dropbox.
Hilariously, Japanese Apple store staff have that same hipster glaze of Apple store staff the world over. It’s like they buy them in bulk. Other little things I tend to forget to pack – travel with a power board, so you can charge a few devices at once. I broke this rule for the first time, because I had a bunch of US/Japan chargers hanging around from grey market purchases over the years. When I realised I still didn’t have enough chargers, a quick trip to Daiso sorted me out.
Coffee is truly awful in Japan, it’s even worse than American coffee. In most places, your best bet is the smallest Starbucks cup with a double shot. I found one amazing coffee place in Tokyo, Double Tall in Harajuku, but there must be other places. Try a dedicated coffee app like BeanHunters if you’re getting desperate.
ATMs are surprisingly rare in Japan. Once you find one, you’ll notice that many close around 10pm. Find an open one, and you’ll see that very few ATMs accept non-Japanese cards. Of the few that accept foreign cards, many have no english menus. It’s a wonderful inception of crazy making. So my advice here is to withdrawal as much cash as you feel comfortable walking around with, and top up your wallet whenever you get the chance.
I also recommend using a travel debit card, you can grab them from ANZ, Australia Post, Qantas, Virgin and many other places. It’s just reassuring to use a card that isn’t your main ATM or credit card, and you’ll be charged standard local ATM fees. They’re a little annoying to load with cash, there tends to be a few days delay, so again, plan ahead.
Finally, here’s one last practical tip to finish with. Take a few garbage bags with you, so you can separate your stinky clothes from clean clothes in your luggage. Trust me, by the end of a long trip you’ll appreciate the difference.
Most of all, enjoy Japan! I was tempted to keep adding to this guide, to give my fifty favourite places and experiences. But I kinda don’t want to spoil Japan for you. It’s such a bizarre place, such a tremendous culture shock, that it’s kind of better to approach it blind, with just enough information to find you your way around and find a bed for the night. So wait for those Jetstar sales, buy a Rail Pass, and have fun!