Most students will take the opportunity to travel around Japan before starting school, and you should. After ending up barreling down the streets of Tokyo with two large pieces of luggage, late for my bus to the airport, feet worn to shreds, and downcast after being turned away by multiple taxi drivers … I have a few words of advice.
Have a plan for accessing wi-fi
A couple of my classmates landed in Tokyo and promptly became stranded after departing from the airport. The easy wi-fi access that you can expect in America will not be so easily accessed in Japan. You have some options though.
One is to depend on wi-fi hotspots. These can be found in airports, many train stations and in cafes (Starbucks in Japan is much like Starbucks in America, which means that you can set up camp and loiter away, but some bars and cafes in Japan will push you out if you attempt to do this). There are also wi-fi passport options for tourists and a few apps that will allow you access to an increased number of wi-fi hotspots.
Your second option is to rent a pocket wi-fi, but do this ahead of your trip because they will deliver it to the place where you are staying. The price depends on how much data you need. Between my two friends and I, we burned through 7GB in a week. If you use it mostly for navigation and researching places to visit then you should only need 4-5GB a week.
Your third option is to bring your cell phone from America. Some cell phone companies have international travel plans. Currently several of my classmates are on the Japan Plan with Sprint. This means that they spend $5 more per month to continue their cellphone plan while in Japan.
Gorge at noon and get thrifty at night
There are the obvious cheap eats like ramen and donburi, though – while delicious – your doctor and I would not recommend letting ramen become a main staple in your diet. What I will recommend is having your largest meal in the afternoon. Dinner can be expensive in the city; luckily most restaurants in Japan offer a significantly cheaper lunch menu. You can save anywhere from $10-$100 just by feasting at noon.
My second recommendation is to avoid the vending machines. It is all very exciting, with all of the variety that American vending machines lack, until you realize that you can get the same drink at a much cheaper price if you just pop by the nearest grocery store or a 100 Yen shop.
My third recommendation is following that great, affordable lunch, wait until around 6:30-9 pm and go bento shopping. Grocery stores and some bento shops will knock 20-30 percent off of their packaged food and raw fish a few hours before closing (this is also useful for other international students residing in Japan).
Where America has Yelp, Japan has 食べログ (keep in mind that a 3-star on 食べログ translates to a 4-star by the standards of most Yelpers).
Bring the right footwear
The biggest mistake that I made was packing all of my cute, fashionable shoes to roam around Tokyo. You can’t possibly fathom how quickly I destroyed my feet unless you also happen to be a stubborn, slightly vain woman, or you just happen to be a man who’s had the experience of being stranded in the woods for a week with only a pair of house slippers. After three days I was sporting a pair of feet that were bandaged so well that they would have made embalmers living during Egypt’s classical era very proud.
The pain was great, I actually whimpered audibly while slipping my feet in to a pair of $12 flats that were fashioned for the Elderly Widows Walking Club. When you’re staring longingly across the train at the ojiisan’s croc-sporting feet, you’ve pushed yourself to far. What I am trying to tell you is take every pair of shoes that you are packing for a 7-10 mile walk. If you can’t do it, don’t bring them (unless they are special occasion shoes or you are rich enough to take a taxi everywhere).
Ship your luggage
I packed two large rolling bags, and a backpack for my year abroad. While I do not regret bringing a ton of stuff as it has saved me time and money, my classmates and I will all advise you against holding on to your luggage for longer than is necessary. Rolling your luggage around train stations, and down busy walkways will quickly make you miserable.
I ended up paying for taxis just to give my arms a break, and in one case dragging them one by one down a long stairwell when I couldn’t find an elevator. Find out if your school will allow you to ship your luggage ahead. You can ship one of your bags straight from the airport, or you can take it to where you are residing and ship it at a later time from either the post office (closed on weekends, but has bags and boxes big enough to ship luggage) or from a convenience store (you’ll have to track down your own packaging).
Browse the different accommodations
There are actually a variety of cheap options in Japan. Guest houses, hostels, capsule hotels, Airbnb, and Couchsurfing are a few of my recommendations.
All of them have pros and cons and it will come down to your character and what type of trip you are planning. I only advise that you do not stay at a share house through Airbnb, the quality of the room and the host both tend to be severely lacking when compared to the professionally-run guest houses.
Amy Jackson is an English and Japanese major. She is studying abroad for a full academic year at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.