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General Queries for Japan first-timer


23 Jun 2003
Hi there,

I am definitely considering coming to Japan this September / October / November (haven't decided exactly when yet) for 2 weeks. I was meant to be travelling with a friend, but she's pulled out as it's a bit too expensive (or so she thinks?). Anyway, I have a few questions and any info would be extremely appreciated!

1) In Tokyo, do the majority of Japanese people speak English too? (ie- for basic requests, finding a hotel, finding the right train / building etc)

2) How much would you estimate 2 weeks in Tokyo would cost, going for low-budget accomodation (but would like somewhere I can shower and wash my clothes, store my travel stuff safely) and going out every night?

3) Is it best to pre-book a hotel or simply turn up when I arrive?

Many thanks! Martin
Well, Martin (funny, my name's Martin too...), you're probably going to get as many answers to your questions as there are people on the board. Here's my contribution, according to my own experience.

1) Tokyoites are not any more or any less fluent in English, than people in other parts of Japan. So brace yourself for communication mishaps. One thing you have to grant Tokyoites (and Japanese in general), though, is that they are going to try their darnedest to make you understand in broken English what they want you to understand.

As an extreme example, last Thrusday a group of foreigners (caucasian English speakers, don't know what nationality) tried to transfer from the line I usually take to a different line (owned by a different railroad company) through the gate used exclusively for common ticket and pass holders. Try as they may, the gate just wouldn't let them through, until a station master showed up and curtly said "JR only" (which was his way to say "you cannot get out here because you are not holding a JR (Japan Railways) ticket, therefore you have to go out, by said ticket and come back through the main entrance", but to him it was appropriate. Bemused, the group of foreigners finally caught on...

You can expect this to happen to you at least once. Tourist bureaus and hotels may be a bit better, but don't hold your breath. Yet, there are some very fluent people out there--you just don't meet that many.

2) Estimate a two-week stay? It's near impossible to say without knowing more about what you plan to do. One thing, though, if I were you, I wouldn't plan on spending my whole two weeks in Tokyo as it's not the most interesting place in the world (well, if you're into huge sprawling metropolises and what they usually offer, then you're in for a treat; if not, you should consider another Japanese city as your base of operations) Tokyo is also VERY expensive, second only to Osaka (as far as I know).

There are all kinds of accomodations in Tokyo--hotels (4-star to no star), love hotels (can be handy if you're in a fix), business hotels (to me, a nice in between if you're not worried about space), ryokan (Japanese-style small hotels), minshuku (Japanese-style B&B), youth hostels (I don't recommend them), gaijin houses... If you pick up a Let's go guide or a Lonely Plante guide, they usually explain the differences in accomodation style and prices.

3) Again, it depends what level you're aiming for. It's always safer to book your accomodations ahead of time (especially in Tokyo), but some if not most of the smaller places (hostels, minshukus, and business hotels--forget about love hotels...) don't handle international reservations, which means you'd have to go through a travel agency to book your accomodations for you, which in turn will make it more expensive.

If I were you, what I'd do would be to arm myself with a good budget travel guide, make arrangements to spend my first night in Japan in a more expensive hotel (the kind of hotel you can book yourself or through your travel agent; close to the airport, maybe), then spend the flight time and the first few hours in Japan planning on where to go (of course, you can do that ahead of time too), what kind of accomodations are available and begin making phone calls the minute I check in my room.

I don't know what the yen is worth against the pound at the moment, but Japan is an expensive country to travel. I've been living here for 5 years and I find it's not as expensive to live in as it is to travel in. The key is a good budget travel guide, like the Lonely Planet, I think.

Hope this helps clear things up a bit and that others will have interesting feedback for you.
My two yen:

1) Most people do not speak passable English. However you will usually find friendly people who will help you out. Of course you are more likely to find English speaking people near tourist areas and hotels where foreigners frequent. I would definitely recommend you make use of the tourist information service. You can stop by the office in Tokyo and they will help you plan your trip, make reservations, etc. You can also call them from anywhere throughout Japan if you're in a bind and need some English-speaking help. Note that it's not a 24-hour service.

2) Offhand I'd say $100/day a good base point but, depending on accommodations, you should be able to get by with less. Also depends on what kinds of attractions you go to. I don't agree with tasuki that Tokyo is significantly more expensive than the rest of the country. Sure, cheap Y5000 accommodations are less plentiful and harder to find but they are there. Chances are you will spend more in Tokyo,though, because there is so much to do. Compared to a place like London, I think you will find Tokyo a cheaper place to visit.
3) Either way works. I would tend to at least book my first couple of nights so I have one less thing to worry about when I arrive.
Thanks for this info! I have a (ex-UK) friend who lives out of the way there (teaching English in a small village) and I'll probably spend most of the second week with them, which should help on costs.

She advised I used minshukus, as they're supposed to be relatively reasonably priced. Are they safe for leaving bags, passports in etc and do they have showers? And excuse my ignorance, but what is a love hotel?

I guess my aim would be to go out as much as possible in the first week, I'm in mid-20s and would probably want to visit bars, nightclubs, any underground clubs (I'm a big fan of Japanese electronic groups like Merzbow and Masonna), any art and cultural places really...

Thanks again!
You're welcome. mdchachi, I didn't say Tokyo was significantly more expensive than the rest of the country, but of the world. Tokyo is atrouciously expensive. I mean 4 bucks (US) for a small coffee at Starbucks?!? For having been to Lodon on several occasions, I definitely have to disagree about Tokyo being cheaper...

Anyway, Martin, I agree with mdchachi about the 100$/day and the English. Yet, if, as you say, you want to visit bars and such, you should brace yourself for more. I don't know what you drink, but unless you stick to domestic tap beer, it can get very expensive, very, very fast, even if you don't eat. If you decide to eat, then it gets worse. And that's not accounting for the "sit down" charge that a lot of places take for granted...

In Tokyo, musems are also expensive, but not any more than elsewhere I've been. As for temples and such, be careful, as some charge for the entrance to the grounds. If you plan on staying around Tokyo, I recommend you go to the Imperial palace (it makes for a nice, long stroll). Then there's Kamakura (the oldest capital of Japan) and home of one of two of the biggest wooden Buddhas in Japan (the other one's in Nara). Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ginza are all more or less business and shopping districts and, in my opinion, outrageously expensive.

But as I said earlier, arm yourself with a good budget travel guide and you should do fairly well.

Minshuku's are touch and go. Some are great, some are less nice, but they have a sort of federation (or am I confusing them with ryokan...), asssuring you of a overall level of neatness and service. Japan is one of the most secure countries in the world, despite the rise in crime. I would leave my bags in a minshuku without a blink. Of course, locked, with no valuables inside... No sense being completely off your guard.
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