If you want to attend the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 , now is the time to start preparing for the trip. I first visited Japan in 1966 returning from active duty on the DMZ in Korea. Starting in 2005 my wife and I have traveled to Japan on average about once a year. Preparation and learning about the country have made our trips more enjoyable. It also helps that our daughter-in-law is from Tokyo and our son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren currently live in Tokyo.
The obvious is to be sure your passport is up to date and will not expire within 90 days of departure (six months beyond your international departure date is the recommended validity period). Passport renewal is simple and easy if you do it well in advance.
Do you enjoy standing in lines for hours going to and from the U.S.? If so, skip the rest of this section. If not, we have some suggestions. TSA Precheck is great for flying domestically. You use a designated TSA Pre line, do not have to take off your shoes, belts or some outer garments. You may have to take out your laptop. You can sign up for TSA Precheck either through U.S. Homeland Security for $85 or your favorite international air carrier. Go to either website and follow the directions on the website.
My wife and I joined the Global Entry Trusted Traveler program (GOES) which includes TSA Pre. Upon completion of application and in-person interview, you get a laminated card the size of a credit card with your picture on it. At U.S. customs, you look for the GOES line, insert your GOES card or passport in the kiosk, answer seven question, push a button, then take a paper strip to the customs agent. The process takes about ten minutes instead of 2-3 hours. GOES is administrated by the Department of Homeland Security with $100 fee.
Once you decide on your favorite international carrier, be sure your airline profile reflects your current choices for Information and Password, Reservation Preferences, Email and Fare Alerts et al. Then apply to become a secure traveler by following directions on the carrier’s website. When you purchase tickets for domestic or international travel be sure to click on the boxes indicating Email and Fare Alerts for that trip. I cannot remember the number of times I have been at an airport where the ticket counter personnel do not know what is going on while I am getting phone messages and texts from the airline on updated flight status about delays, gate changes, et al. It only takes a few key strokes to get that information.
Once you have a redress and/or Known Traveler Number, TSA Pre will display on your boarding pass making it easier to go through TSA and customs.
Homeland Security has similar programs if you travel into the U.S. from Canada (NEXUS), travel into the U.S. from Canada and Mexico (SENTRI), or you are a truck driver entering and exiting the U.S. from Canada and Mexico (FAST). Distinctions to know are NEXUS and SENTRI may include TSA Pre, FAST does not.
Tokyo does not have to be expensive if you take the time to research. There are a number of Japanese business hotels with clean accommodations in addition to the usual chain hotels. You can find accommodations by doing a little research on any of the many booking sites. We always opt for 3 stars, which gets you clean sheets, shower and sometimes free toiletries. We found the breakfast option was more expensive than getting food on the economy.
I heard on the radio that when using a booking site, those sites have a given number of rooms they can book, which may not be full capacity of the hotel. When the booking site books their allotted rooms, they website shows the hotel ‘booked’ which may not actually be the case. If your hotel is fully booked, consider calling them to see if they have rooms.
Traveling in Japan
Most metro and rail stations have small kiosks near the turnstyles with uniformed personnel who can help figuring out the rail system or providing maps.
Japanese Rail Pass
Japan Rail Pass is a multi-use discounted ticket, valid for travels on all Japanese Railway (JR) national trains in Japan, including Shinkansen bullet trains and Narita Express. You can select 7, 14 or 21 consecutive validity days. Choose between Standard and Green Pass (first class). When you get to Japan, you validate the pass at one of many train stations, and the pass is valid from that date for the number of days you purchased, so plan your trip accordingly. We typically spend a couple of days in country before activating our passes. In the past the tickets must be purchased PRIOR to traveling to Japan. We never use the Green Pass because we found ordinary tickets just as comfortable.
Suica or Pasmo cards
The Suica card is a prepaid smart card that allows you to use most public transport (metro, trains, buses, monorail) in Japan which you can purchase at your arriving airport and/or a major metro station [e.g. Tokyo Station, Shinagawa]. The card is debited for every trip or purchase you make when you touch the card to the reader. The Suica card was created by JR East, but can also be used throughout Japan on the other prepaid card networks like Pasmo. We found the card is starting to be recognized in other cities, including Kyoto. As you pass through the station gate, it will give you the current balance on the card. You can recharge the card at most stations by looking for the green Suica machine. Don’t worry, instructions can be displayed in English.
Pasmo is a prepaid IC card issued by the Tokyo Metro which can be used to travel on the Metro, JR and other trains. Just touch the card on the card reader when you start and end your journey. Both the Suica and Pasmo cards can be purchased at your arriving airport of stations in Tokyo, especially Tokyo station. Other major cities (Osaka, Fukuoka, Nagoya Sapporo) also offer similar IC cards such as ICOCA, Kitaka, Sugoka, Manaca, Nimoca etc. which can be used throughout Japan.
TURN OFF ROAMING on your phone. If roaming is on it will continually ping a tower, charging your account for each ping. I ran up a HUGE bill one year not realizing what “roaming” was doing. Take my word for it: TURN OFF ROAMING when you get on the plane before departing for Japan.
Hot Spots are portable international 4G or greater international WiFi service providers which charge a variation of reasonable rates (daily or monthly) giving you a personal WiFi connection. Units are the size of a deck of cards, are rechargeable and can support – in case of the one we used – up to five devices. The units can be leased or purchased. So rather than worrying about roaming charges, you can be in a park and access your email or other website. Most importantly, with a Hot Spot you can use Google Maps to navigate, which we found incredibly helpful. It is fun to land in Japan, turn on your cell phone or notepad and watch the number of signals coming on line from the other people on your plane with Hot Spots. The units can also be used in other countries, including Europe, you just have to contact the provider, tell them where and when you are going to get the unit activated.
A virtual private network (VPN) extends a private network across a public network and enables users to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if their computing devices were directly connected to the private network. Applications running on a computing device, e.g. a laptop, desktop, smartphone, across a VPN may therefore benefit from the functionality, security, and management of the private network. I do not pretend to understand VPNs; I just know if you use one for your WiFi communications whatever you do can be encrypted and secured anywhere you are in the world. I recommend you purchase a VPN unit with encryption capability. They are relatively inexpensive given the protection they provide.
Go to the Apple or other store and google Japan, Japan travel or any other variation. You will find multiple apps, maps, et al. you can download to your cell phone which you will find invaluable.
Purchase a Charging Brick [rechargeable battery] – a device you charge with ports allowing you to plug in your cell phone or notepad to recharge your device. I travel with two, one in my backpack, another in my luggage. My wife also has one. Be sure you have the proper cords in sufficient numbers. While you can purchase every cord imaginable in Japan, it is less hassle to have cords with you. Some trains and planes still do not have charging ports. ALWAYS bring two sets of cords.
I refer you to my prior article on packing, but want to reinforce that whatever luggage you carry, be sure it is on wheels and expands. We both pack small soft-sided satchels in the outside pocket of our suitcases for gifts and dirty clothes on the return trip. Assume you will be responsible for carrying everything you bring. My wife and I have reduced our luggage to one suitcase and one backpack. We now pack so efficiently that the suitcase can go in the overhead compartment of the airplane or train. Most metro and rail cars have overhead shelves. Rail cars have small areas at the end of the car for storing large suitcases.
Prior to traveling, sign up for State Department Travel Advisories at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/before-you-go/about-our-new-products/staying-connected.html, because you never know what may happen.
Assume everyone you encounter in Japan speaks some English even though they will not always acknowledge that they do. We found by asking if the speak "just a little" English you can carry on a conversation sufficient to get the information you may need. Learn a few words, like thank you, et al. Using just a few words will generate an instant response. The Japanese bow frequently, so it is polite to bow frequently when communicating. Get used to being approached by groups of students who have a set group of questions they want to ask you – “where are you from”, “what do you enjoy about Japan” etc. The adult standing nearby is probably their English teacher. Also expect to have your picture taken with the students.
No loud talking, eating or drinking on metro lines.
When most food is presented in Japan you do not know whether to eat it or frame it. Be adventuresome – Japanese sushi is much better than most American Sushi. Most restaurants have an English menu, and many have display cases near the door plastic models of the food. Smithsonian Magazine did an article about the displays years ago. If you go to the kitchen district of Tokyo near Ueno, you can purchase and bring home some samples.
Learn about the country
Finally, go to YouTube and search Japan. Gearing up for the Olympics, Japan is disseminating a number of different informational formats which – if you have not been to Japan – will enhance your experience. Many of the programs, including Japanology, Japanology Plus, 100 Things to do in Japan, Tokyo Eye 2020 and others.
Japan is a unique and enjoyable culture. Japan is redoing many train stations in preparation for the Olympics, so go and enjoy yourself. Do not forget your camera.
Richard Goodwin spent almost twenty (20) years in private practice in Maryland and the District of Columbia trying cases in both state and federal courts. He has over twenty (20) years of service as a federal administrative law judge with four (4) agencies. He retired from the U.S. Army Reserves in 2002 as a Colonel in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and was awarded the Legion of Merit and two (2) Meritorious Service Medals. He is past chair of the Judicial Division of the American Bar Association. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary (A.B.), Xavier University (M.B.A.), Northern Kentucky University, Chase College of Law (J.D.).