Your First Day in Japan: The Ultimate Arrival Survival Guide

With the 2020 Olympic Games right around the corner, a record number of first-time visitors will be traveling to Japan in the coming months.

Despite the country’s commendable efforts to internationalize, the thought of traveling to Japan can be intimidating. In this article, I’ll share my perspective on some of the most commonly asked questions first-time visitors have about traveling to and within Japan.

2019-11-05   Travel Tips,

Which Tokyo airport should I fly into?

You have two airports to choose from: Haneda or Narita. Conventional wisdom favors Haneda since it is much closer to central Tokyo than Narita (about 14 kilometers versus 60 kilometers respectively). In reality, the case for the best airport to use is not so simple.

First of all, the airline you use and the timing of your flight may rob you of the luxury of selecting your airport in the first place. However, if you do find yourself with a choice, there are some compelling reasons to opt for Narita.

Narita may be four times farther from central Tokyo than Haneda, but a shorter distance doesn’t always equate to faster speed. Depending on your final destination in Tokyo, the difference in time between taking one of Narita’s two express trains and a local train line from Haneda can be negligible.

You should also consider comfort. After a long international flight, the last thing you’ll want to do is stand in a crowded train or monorail out of Haneda and then lug your bags up and down flights of stairs just to make the inevitable transfer to an equally crowded city train or subway line.

On the other hand, taking the Narita Express or the Keisei Skyliner Express out of Narita is a blissful experience. Nothing beats gazing out at the Chiba rice fields while reclining in your reserved seat, relaxing with your inaugural can of Boss Coffee. With high travel speeds and very few stops on either express route, you’ll find that if you are staying in Shinjuku or north Tokyo, you can cover 60 kilometers nearly as fast as 14 kilometers. That being said, this comfort and speed comes at a price. Taking one of the above express trains can cost up to four times as much as using local trains and subways.

Busses are reasonably priced options for both airports, but their effectiveness varies wildly depending on where you are staying. Additionally, they are subject to traffic and other road conditions. Click here to learn more about the bus routes out of Haneda Airport and here for your options at Narita.

In summary, use Haneda Airport if:

  • – Your hotel is in central or southern Tokyo
  • – You’re traveling light
  • – You’re on a tight budget


Use Narita Airport if:

  • – Your hotel is near Shinjuku or in northern Tokyo
  • – You have a lot of luggage
  • – You don’t mind spending extra money on express trains
Haneda Airport as viewed from nearby Jonanjima Seaside Park, one of Tokyo’s best locations for plane spotting.

Are taxis expensive? What about Uber or Lyft?

Ride sharing services are not permitted in Japan. In most large cities, they aren’t necessary. Tokyo in particular is flooded with taxis, and rates for the first kilometer are typically 410 yen. Pricing gets complicated from there, and I recommend this article for further details. Most travelers simply rely on Tokyo’s affordable and extensive train and subway system that can efficiently deliver you to almost any spot in the city with ease.

Transportation does, however, become an issue in smaller towns and villages in the countryside as well as the extreme ends of the Japan archipelago. So, if you are planning to explore Okinawa or Hokkaido, consider renting a car. To do this, be sure to obtain an international driver’s license in your home country before departing for Japan.

Do subway and train stations have English signs?

Language should be the least of your concerns when using public transportation in Japan. All major subway and train stations display station names and other important information in English. In the run-up to the 2020 Olympic Games more and more train and station announcements are in English as well.

Despite the labyrinthine nature of some of the larger stations, there are plenty of clear wayfinding signs that will help you reach your destination when transferring between train and subway lines. Ticket vending machines are also capable of displaying English.

How do I get an IC card?

I’m often surprised by travelers who debate whether or not to pick up a prepaid transportation card (IC card). Sure, a 500-yen deposit is required to get one, but it’s refundable upon your departure. The small amount of time it takes to acquire and return your card is miniscule compared to the time you’ll save from buying an individual ticket every time you ride a train, subway, or bus. Do yourself a favor and just get one—preferably at the beginning of your trip. You can pick up an IC card at almost any station via vending machine or by asking the station staff for assistance.

Whether you’re a long-term resident or just visiting for a week, an IC card is a must. This one is still going strong after years of use (although, admittedly, it’s seen better days).

What is the best way to exchange money?

Deal hunters on the Internet may direct you to what they claim are the cheapest currency exchange shops in Tokyo. The problem is that a lot of these articles are sponsored content that may have you wasting time scouring through the city for an obscure shop that might not even offer great exchange rates by the time you sign on the dotted line.

When it comes to money matters, I prioritize security, predictability, and reliability. After that, I’ll look for the best exchange rate. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to have yen in hand before leaving your home country. You should be able to order yen from your bank—the rates aren’t the best but they should be better than what you’ll find at the airport.

If a post-arrival Akihabara shopping spree leaves you short on yen, a 7-Eleven ATM is your best bet for replenishing your supply. Their time-tested service offers decent exchange rates and a 7-Eleven can be found on virtually every Tokyo street corner.

Where can I store luggage?

Despite significant progress in accessibility, Tokyo remains a land of stairs, escalators, and narrow passageways—the last place you’ll want to be lugging around large suitcases and souvenir-stuffed bags. You can deposit your luggage at most hotels before check-in time on the day of arrival and after you check out on your departure day. If you’d like to avoid backtracking, most train and subway stations have coin (or IC card) operated lockers of various sizes to store your luggage.

Additionally, some major tourism venues will have luggage storage on site. This isn’t a given, however, so be sure to check your destination’s website for details.

Good to go

If you’ve followed the tips to this guide and the links within, you’re all set for your first day in Japan. We covered some of the most common Japan travel questions, but if there’s something we missed, just drop us a line via your favorite social media platform, and we’d be happy to help out.

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Writer / Translator

Originally from Riverside, California, I've been living, working, and writing in Japan since 2009. Japan has become my second home, and I'm especially fond of Shinjuku, Tokyo. That being said, I also love getting out into the countryside and exploring the entire country. Through Tadaima Japan, I hope to share the wonders of Japan with a wider, international audience. Check out my articles if you enjoy exploring on foot, convenient cafes, and affordable dining.