Prepaid GSM
Getting around

Part 1: Introduction

Map of trip to Japan

28.10: KL -> Tokyo
29.10: Tokyo
30.10: Tokyo
31.10: Tokyo
1.11: Tokyo
2.11: Tokyo -> Nikko -> Tokyo
3.11: Tokyo -> Hakone -> Tokyo
4.11: Tokyo -> Kyoto
5.11: Kyoto
6.11: Kyoto -> Nara -> Kyoto
7.11: Kyoto -> Himeji -> Hiroshima
8.11: Hiroshima -> Osaka
9.11: Osaka
10.11: Osaka -> KL

Overview and overall impression
Overall I was positively impressed by Japan. It wasn't high on my priority list for quite some time, primarily because of the high expected cost of travelling and, having seen most of east Asia I wasn't sure what Japan could possibly have that I hadn't seen yet.
It turned out that it is relatively inexpensive to travel across Japan and that the country is very interesting. Tokyo does not have much in terms of history and culture and is mainly a very modern place, but its modern architecture and its neighbourhoods are very interesting. It's interesting to see the Japanese way of life. Also, Tokyo is a huge place and even after five days it did not cease to surprise me.
Nikko (very interesting temples), Kyoto, Nara and Miyajima island have some highly interesting and very photogenic temples. Hiroshima is a very impressive place to visit, as it is the site of the first nuclear explosion against civilians. Osaka does not have too much to offer in terms of sights, but it can keep you busy for half a day or so.
Very hard to find Japanese who can speak English, although many have some basic knowledge. Japanese are very polite, almost too polite in some cases.
At rush hour there are huge crowds of people moving very fast across the down town areas of cities. Everything gets very hectic, as people speed up to quickly get on the train back home.

Japan is surprisingly affordable. Was expecting a very high price level, instead everything was relatively inexpensive for a developed country.
For single hotel rooms (small, but with everything) I paid between 5800 and 8900 yen per night (35-54 Euro), which is way less than what you would pay for a single room in Europe. These affordable hotels can be booked through their Internet sites or through the tourist offices in Japan.
Meals were also quite cheap. A bowl of noodle soup cost less than 300 yen (1.80 Euro), a complete meal could be had for less than 1000 yen (6 Euro).
Transportation, even with the Shinkansen, was not expensive, cheaper than here in Germany.

Tons of restaurants everywhere, for all budgets. Japanese office workers eat out six times per week, and as a consequence there is an abundance of eateries serving delicious Japanese food everywhere. Prices in these eateries are low and start at 230 yen for a bowl of noodle soup. A full meal can be had for less than 1000 yen. Lots of sushi bars serving inexpensive sushi.
In the larger cities there are also western restaurants, although I have not tried them out. I heard that prices in these western restaurants are higher.
Lots of groceries selling food and drinks until late, perhaps even 24h/day.

I used to stay in budget hotels in the 5800-8900 yen price range. At this price level you get a small room with everything (attached bath with shower, A/C and heating, accessories such as tea boiler, hair-dryer and more, TV, fridge, Internet connection in the room in most places). These are business hotels, with western style rooms. Can be booked through their websites or locally in Japan through the tourist offices.
I didn't stay in Japanese style pensions (so-called 'ryokans'), because most of the time these ryokans do not offer rooms with attached bath (only the more expensive ones) and many have curfews. If a comfortable hotel room costs less, why stay in a Spartan ryokan?

Money  / Exchange rate (November 2007)
1 Euro = 1.45  US $
1 Euro = 165 yen
For current exchange rates check the Universal Currency Converter.

I withdrew cash with a Citibank ATM card from the Citibank ATM in Narita airport upon arrival (it's immediately in the arrivals hall) and at the Citibank ATM in the Ginza area of Tokyo. It has been reported that you can withdraw cash at post office ATM machines and a few other places.
I used to pay hotel bills with the credit card (all hotels where I stayed accepted credit cards).

Mobile phones and prepaid cards
In Tokyo airport I was able to roam with my 3G phone and German provider. In other places the 3G phone could not connect, which would indicate that the 3G coverage is relatively limited.
I didn't buy prepaid cards for the phone and heard that prepaid cards are not sold in Japan.
Japan has no GSM (2G) networks, only local standard mobile communications networks and 3G networks.
This is not a problem if you travel with a notebook computer as you will be able to call home with voice-over-IP services (most hotel rooms have fast DSL lines).

Internet access
All hotels except one where I staid had a fast cable Internet connection in the room. I used this to access the Net and send/receive emails.
I didn't use Internet cafés and frankly can't remember having seen many of them (in fact I can't remember having seen any). Many Japanese use their mobile phones to surf in the Internet.


While I was there between the end of October and the first half of November it was fresh but not cold. Temperatures around 20-22°C during the day (could walk around with a T-shirt). It rained only once. The sky was often overcast.

Health / Vaccinations
None required for Japan.

VISA / Entry requirements
None required for visitors of developed countries (EU, USA, Canada etc.). Brief informal conversation with the immigration officer when you enter the country: first time to Japan? where are you going? purpose of trip? etc. Fast processing of travellers at immigration controls in Narita. No need to prove that you have an outbound ticket, no need to prove that you have funds.

No issues here. Apparently it is very safe to travel in Japan.


Getting around
I used trains, both normal trains and fast Shinkansen trains, to transfer between cities. Tickets can be bought at machines in railway stations (these machines have a menu in English) or at the ticket selling counters.
Japan Rail passes for one, two or three weeks are available for foreign tourists, but must be bought abroad before the beginning of the trip.
There are also some rail passes (the Japan East Pass and the Kansai Pass are two examples) which can be bought locally.
In some cases it is actually cheaper to purchase individual tickets locally that to use these passes. These rail passes, with the exception of the Japan Rail Pass perhaps,  only make sense if you travel a lot.

Osaka and Tokyo have extensive subway networks. Subway trains are frequent (every five minutes or even more frequent), but sometimes you have to change lines which can take time, as stations are huge, so you might need up to one hour to arrive at destination.
The subway stations have a large number of exits, so it is easy to catch the wrong one, although every subway station has detailed maps showing the location of each exit.
At rush hour subways are crowded. Tickets are relatively cheap and you can purchase daily passes, which depending on cost make sense if you do at least 3-5 trips.

All Japanese cities I visited also have good public ground transportation networks, making it easy to reach any location.

Taxis are available as well, but not cheap (slightly more expensive than a taxi here in Germany).

Renting a car + driver, usually an excellent way to quickly explore the major sights of a city, is out of question due to the high cost.

Copyright 2007 Alfred Molon