After my car accident in 2019, I did some serious rethinking about my small goals in life. Small because I’m just talking about the little things that keep you going and happy in between. Not the big decisions about what to do, where, and who you want to spend your life with. I concluded that less is more and that I value experiences over stuff I buy to put in my flat. And that’s why I started to get more into traveling (another reason might have been my non-existent travel budget as a student before :)
I spent countless hours checking the different hotels at booking.com trying to find the perfect locations for my next trip to Japan in late September 2020. It’s still a while (which is not that bad actually because I need some more time for saving up :) but rest assured I already put in the legwork to find some great spots for my girlfriend and me to stay.
Thanks for all your great suggestions in the comment section of my last post. I decided to spend a few days in the little onsen town Shuzenji before flying back home to Germany (and a quick stop in
Yokohama Kamakura). I’m a very big believer in taking out the stress of traveling by taking it very easily before a big journey and not having to travel a few hundred kilometers before catching a flight.
You all know that this blog is very personal to me and a big part of writing these articles is to have a checklist to get back to as well. And to have that interaction with you where we can exchange tips, add to this list, and keep it on point. That’s what makes things so interesting and fun.
But let’s get started now with my essential tips for a trip to Japan.
Table of Contents
Get a Japanese Sim-Card
I loved the times when you were traveling and roaming costs were so high that the internet on your phone was turned off all the time. The only option to go online was either to have a burger at McDonald’s or search for a Starbucks around the corner. You had no choice but to sit back, read, relax, and just enjoy that digital detox when you were away.
For a few years, this changed for Europe and I have to admit that being able to use Google Maps in a foreign city is pretty awesome. Especially if you’re sporting a Smart-Watch and don’t have to look at your phone while walking. And that’s exactly the reason why I’m getting a sim card for my next trip to Japan. You can either have it delivered to your home address (MOBAL only) or pick it up at the airport. I’ll probably go for the first option. It’s free (no shipping charges) and I don’t want to search around at the airport after a 12-hour flight for where to pick up my Japanese sim card.
Which mobile carrier to choose
Like with everything in life, there are a bunch of options and this applies to choosing your carrier as well. Docomo is the biggest provider in Japan and is available through Sakura Mobile. It’s supposed to have the biggest coverage in Japan which should become useful if you’re traveling to rural areas or want to go for a hike. It’ll set you back 9000¥ for 30 days (unlimited Data) and can’t be delivered internationally. You can have it delivered to your Airbnb, Hotel, pick it up at the airport, or post-office in Japan though.
The other option would be SoftBank which is available through Mobal. It’s a little cheaper with 7,500¥ for 30 days (unlimited Data) and will allow you to have the sim card delivered to your home in advance. So no pick-up is necessary when you’re in Japan. Judging by the network coverage alone I’ll probably go with Docomo. I’m spending a few days in the small onsen-town Shuzenji and don’t want to miss out on a signal when that happens.
Accommodation: Why Airbnb might not be your best choice
For the biggest part of my life, I was spending my holidays in a rented apartment. Hotels didn’t play a big role in my vacation planning and were mostly used for a two-day stop-over. I just really enjoy cooking when I’m away and the extra space in a rented flat does come in handy as well. But, if you’re only staying for let’s say three-four days maximum at a place it’s much more convenient to just check into a decent Hotel. Not only because you don’t need to pick up a key or worry and having a short house tour (even if that seems to be different in Japan where you might never meet the person renting out) but all those side costs are adding up.
Take Airbnb for example: Add the service and the cleaning fees, and the apartment is probably not worth booking anymore. But if you’re staying for more than a week, the weekly discount steps in, and things become more affordable and worth it. An apartment can give you a totally different feel of a city or region though because it’s best located in a nice residential area where people are actually living.
Hopping from city to city I prefer a hotel and if you pick one you should get the best bang for your buck as well. Some tips from me:
Always compare hotel rates (with the hotel website itself): Most hotels offer the best prices when booking directly through them. This especially goes for one that belongs to the major hotel groups like Marriot. Being a member of their loyalty programs (which are usually free) gives you some benefits and allows you to collect points on all your spending inside the hotel for your visit. Regardless if you’re a point collector checking out the hotel’s own website never hurts.
Always compare various booking sites: Easy to do so with a quick google search. And might save you a few ¥¥ on your trip. If you can book as early as possible and use the free cancellation policy (expedia/booking.com etc.) Easy to cancel and you always have a nice hotel in the back-hand. Glad I booked everything in January because hotel prices already went up for October.
Check the accommodation location with places you want to visit on google maps: Something I always do. For reference, I pick a nice spot that I know is rather central or I want to visit. That way I instantly know how good the location of that hotel really is and how much hassle it is to get around.
Pro tip: Switch to google street view to check out the surroundings of the place you want to stay at. Helped me to avoid being located right next to a giant highway a couple of times.
Food: How to book fancy restaurants
Like JT reader LarsBos suggested: Spoil yourself with some great Japanese food. And that’s exactly what I want to do this time. Unfortunately booking a sought-after Japanese restaurant isn’t that easy because many offer reservations by phone only. Another thing that makes getting a seat difficult is that the top spots are opening up reservations for a certain period (1-3 months in advance) usually at a specific date (same applies to events e.g. The Ghibli Museum).
If you’re after a seat in a Michelin-starred restaurant you need some help from a native living in Japan or you need a booking service. A few options to consider if you’re after some high-end sushi-like Sushi Saito or want some help choosing a nice restaurant.
Being charged for your seat aka 席料 (Sekiryou):
Tipping in Japan is considered rude and not customary. What some restaurants are adding is a seating charge, ranging usually from 500-1000¥. This doesn’t apply to all places but is a common appearance. In Spain, you’ll get some Tapas, in France less frequently a small appetizer and this can even be the case in Japan as well.
Pocket Concierge: A service that’s booking specific menus at selected restaurants for you. They have a very good-looking and laid-out website that makes choosing your next place to eat at a very fun experience. Prices range from 4-35000¥ depending on the menu you’re choosing. You pay immediately to Pocket Concierge with a Credit Card (only). That same card will be used to bill all additional orders you make at the restaurants. That means you don’t pay at the restaurant itself. Everything is taken care of. This service usually comes with a price. Check the restaurant’s website to check the fee Pocket Concierge is adding. One thing to keep in mind: The seating charge is already included when making reservations at PC.
Tableall: With Pocket Concierge the fee they’re charging is not always transparent that’s entirely different from Tableall. Their fee is clearly stated on the site and is usually around 4.500 yen. A pricey fee for their reservation service. Their selection of restaurants is reflecting that price level and usually starts around 20-25k¥ p.P. They only go for the high-end places where it is truly difficult to get a table (even for Japanese people).
Club Michelin: A subscription-based service by the famous Michelin guide that will make reservations for you among a bunch of other treats. The monthly membership for the regular subscription goes for 350 yen and offers a reservation service for restaurants that take reservations in the first place (so no Michelin-rated Ramen joints) and are listed in the guide. I have not tried out their service as of yet but will make a membership and will be back with more details this fall. Let’s not forget the most important thing: Club Michelin will solely make the reservation for you, not charge you in advance or add another surcharge (besides their monthly fee). A big difference to the pricing of Tableall or Pocket Concierge. If it gets you reservations for the really hard-to-get reservations has to be proven though.
Tabelog: The Japanese answer to The Fork/Open Table/Yelp and all the others. Solely focused on restaurants they also provide a booking service for participating ones. I noticed that few where you would want to make a reservation actually offer that only reservation service. Most still want you to call for that so Tableog serves more like an Instagram/review site of the restaurant in question than as a tool to make your reservations. But still: It never hurts to look and it’s great to check out the menu and see some pictures of the menus. I especially enjoyed the different rankings and the option to search for each region specifically. Just check out the Tokyo ramen ranking. They also have a great App with a very nifty Map feature available in the Japanese iTunes (Google Play) store available.
Hotel Concierge: If you’re staying at a hotel you can try to write to them in advance asking to make restaurant reservations for you. Of course, not every hotel does offer that kind of service and the more exclusive the hotel the better your chances, but it never hurts to ask. Concerning hard-to-book places: Many great hotel concierges have excellent connections to sought-after restaurants and might secure a place to near-impossible to book locations. The more renowned the hotel the better the connections usually.
AMEX Platinum concierge service: One of the perks of being an American Express Platinum owner and paying that extravagant yearly fee is having access to their concierge service. A friend of mine is traveling a lot for his job and if you’re a regular at the airport the AMEX Platinum perks are nice to have and alone worth the monthly fee. The concierge service can get tickets for you, plan trips and yes, make reservations for restaurants. Even ones in Japan. The concierge service is usually forthcoming and able to help you out with most places. I have no experience myself with booking hard to get into places with them (my only source is my buddy) so it would be great to hear about some experiences by one of you guys.
With my resolution to travel more, I was looking around for a convenient way to store all my travel-related data and details for my future trips. I like to have things digital so I was browsing the web for some neat App alternatives. I stumbled upon a great-looking iOS App called Tripsy. It’s iOS only and I doubt that there will ever be an Android version available because Trispy implements all the iOS design elements and integrations so well. Siri shortcuts, Darkmode, sleek iOS design – you name it.
I bought their premium subscription for a year which lets you use their automation service. This lets you send booking confirmations to their email which extracts all the necessary information from it and organizes them into your “trips”. A neat feature that their biggest contender TripIt is already offering at their free level. But what sets Tripsy apart (not only their design) is the ability to store documents in a very orderly fashion.
I use it like this: Whenever I see something interesting online that I want to do – I take a screenshot. More than often it’s something Tokyo-related I spotted on Instagram by ldn2hk. A very interesting guy who is heavily into streetwear but also loves a good dinner. I saved a lot of his food recommendations which are ranging from Kagari Honten to Okey Gyouza.
So if you are a foodie it never hurts to follow him on Instagram. In comparison to TripIt and what I really like better about Tripsy is that the App has all the different categories (which have entries) displayed right on the dashboard of your trip. So you don’t need to go into the whole timeline of your trip to see (e.g.) all the restaurants you’re interested in. I get a lot of food recommendations from friends (and Instagram ;) and that’s just a neat feature to have for a quick overview (the same applies to places to shop at).
Payment: Credit Card without foreign transaction fees
In Germany, a foreign transaction fee is usually added to all payments in a currency other than Euro and is around 2% of the whole value.
This certainly adds up over the years if you have a knack for mang, Japanese books and fashion like I do. Just do some searching around which banks are giving out VISA or MasterCard cards without the fee (Barclaycard is offering a free one atm).
A nice, free alternative to have in your pocket: Revolut. It’s a debit card which means that you’ll have to load it up with money first before using it. It’s possible by bank transfer inside the EU but I would always recommend another Credit Card which is handled in Euro to load your Revolut card (AMEX doesn’t work but any other VISA or MasterCard can be used).
Now to the benefits of carrying a Revolut card: You can exchange currencies with a live exchange rate directly inside the App. That allows you to carry and store different currencies in your account.
That’s amazing because you can pay in the country’s currency and know exactly which exchange rate you’re getting. Apart from that, the Revolut App is a really neat banking App that shows you nice graphs about your spending, sorts everything by category, and has tons more to offer.
The basic card is free, if you want to have some extra bells and whistles you’ll have to pay a monthly fee. For me, those additional perks are not worth a monthly charge and I prefer using another credit card alongside Revolut (which you need for an easy and fast deposit well).
Collecting Credit Card reward points: I just recently started to get into collecting reward points (AMEX rewards and Lufthansa Miles) something which is way more popular in GB or the US than Germany. Check the great Revolut forum for tips on which cards you can use to collect points while loading up your Revolut card.
My advice: Get a decent VISA card that allows you to withdraw cash without any fees while you’re in Japan. The best places to do so are Citibank and the ATMs inside Lawsons and 7/11. In addition, make a free account at Revolut. If you feel like it – order a physical card for 5.99€.
Luggage: Get a light, 4-wheel suitcase
After my car accident, last summer and my girlfriend being severely hurting her spine (incl. surgery) I knew that we needed to do some light packing for our vacation. We’re definitely not frequent travelers (even if we would love to be) but visiting friends in other cities or going away over the weekend whenever possible is just a great change of scenery. So what I was looking for essentially was a very light suitcase, that handles well and is made to last. I spent so much time searching for the perfect suitcase that I’d would’ve been a shame not to include this little piece.
Being German I always had my eye on one of these Rimowa suitcases. They were always expensive but made to last a lifetime and you could pick them up at the local bag and “leather-ware” store. In 2016 LVMH the big conglomerate behind Louis Vuitton and countless other designer brands purchased Rimowa. With a change of logos and an overhaul of the whole product palette (which was actually a good thing), they increased the prices by roughly 25% and made Rimowa seemingly more exclusive than ever: By requesting a special display place for their products and a minimum purchase quantity of their retailers that no single store (that isn’t one with a very high customer base) could ever fulfill. many stores not only lost a lot of customers due to losing Rimowa but that brand was also the main money-maker for many bags, luggage, and so-called “leather stores”.
That’s the background story that shows my struggle nowadays with Rimowa. Ethically questionable business strategies and a pretty steep price hike. But otherwise tested through time (my parents and grandparents own them for decades) and I always wanted to own one myself. Now I was looking extensively for a lightweight, good-looking, and well-built quality suitcase alternative. To make things easy for you I summarized my new knowledge for you:
TUMI: The opposite of lightweight but the epitome of beauty in a suitcase (Looking at the gorgeous Tumi 19-degree aluminum collection). Very pricey but can be found for nearly half the retail quote semi-used on eBay and a lot of other retailers. What you might want to check out if you want a light, the durable suitcase is their Latitude Series. It’s made from the same material as the helmets of football players and a very well-constructed suitcase.
AWAY: A new player in the suitcase market with a very strong presence on social media. They offer a limited (like always) lifetime warranty and offer a seemingly high-quality in beautiful colors and sleek design made for Instagram. My tip: Don’t get one. In my opinion, there is no middle ground in purchasing luggage and no mid-price segment where AWAY positioned itself. There is another suitcase manufacturer from Germany called HORIZN Studios. The same applies to them. The company tries to position itself in the 3-400€ price segment for its suitcases. Their bags sport nearly identical construction and interior to AWAY and after handling both bags in person I’m pretty sure that they have the same construction and probably the same materials as well. Not worth the money in my opinion.
RIMOWA: Around for more than a century, well-made, lightweight, and have the best wheels on any suitcase. After slimming down their product line and increase in prices a costly endeavor but if you look around you can find them with a 20% discount.
My advice: If you want to spend the money and you like to have a good-looking, durable, sleek suitcase: Go for a high-end brand like Rimowa (for the lightweight construction and minimalistic look). If you just want something to hold your belongings and is easy to travel with – stick to a budget suitcase. AWAY, HORIZN Studios and I’m sure there will be more to come, are not worth the mid-premium price tag they’re asking for. Quality-wise on par with budget suitcases, it’s all about the marketing with these brands.
That’s it for now. There are still a few months left till September and with time passing (and hopefully a rapid decrease in COVID-19 cases) I will update this list with everything new I discovered. Like always if you have any suggestions that you feel should be in this post – please share them in the comments or drop me an Email. More than appreciated.