Level Up! myjapantips.com layout change

I have been debating about a change to this layout for quite some time, and I’m happy to announce that the change is now official!

I hope you enjoy the new layout of the website. I made this change for two reasons: First, it’s been many years, probably since starting the blog, that I’ve left the layout the same. It was starting to look tired. Second and more importantly though, I wanted to find a new layout that was easier to read… the previous layout was small and compressed. I think this one works out much better!

Now that my Japan travel videos are more or less finished, I would like to work on this blog a little more and introduce a new travel series! I’m sure I’ve touched on it a little bit here and there, but I’d like to do a series documenting all of the various ways that you can get around once you land at four of Japan’s major airports – Tokyo Narita, Tokyo Haneda, Chubu Centrair (Nagoya) and Kansai (Osaka). As the number of tourists increase in Japan, more and more options to get into the major cities are becoming available. I’d like to do my best to provide all of the options in a method that is easy to understand.

I’ll also work on updating some of the old blog posts, as I do from time to time, to make them more current.

Thanks and enjoy the new blog layout!

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Tax-Free Shopping in Japan Just Got Better

Greetings everyone! It’s been a while since I last posted here… so before I go into the topic at hand, I just wanted to quickly say thanks to everyone for their continued support. I have been sharing my Japan travel videos on my Facebook page primarily, and I am finally down to the last one! Yes, it’s only been… just about nine months since I went? The last video will be a very long one, documenting my trip on Japan Airlines in International First Class. I expect that video to be released sometime in July.

Now that I’ve almost finished my travel video series, I can go back to the task at hand: giving you tips and suggestions on how to make the most of your next trip to Japan, based on my experience of four visits as a tourist, and based on my research.

Here’s some exciting news in case you want to visit Japan and do some tax-free shopping! You can now get a refund of the 8% consumption tax (like a sales tax) if purchasing a combination of general and consumable items totaling at least 5,000 yen at a tax-free shop.

Within the last few years Japan added a number of eligible products that can be purchased tax-free in the country by foreign tourists. Products were classified in two categories: General products like clothes, jewelry, shoes and appliances, and Consumable products like food, cosmetics, alcohol and tobacco. The previous rule was that if you spent at least 5,000 yen in one of these categories, you would receive the tax rebate. Until now, you could not combine the total for both general products and consumable products…. for example, if you spent 3,000 yen in each category, you would not be eligible for the tax rebate. Under the new rules, you CAN get the rebate.

When you combine general and consumable items in a single transaction, then you cannot use the items while in Japan and must take them out of the country within 30 days.

Hopefully this makes it easier to purchase great items in Japan without the tax. As a general rule, when you make these purchases you will be required to show your passport, and a receipt will be stapled into your passport for each shop. You will then be required to turn all of the receipts in to Japanese customs when you leave the country. At an airport, the customs desks are usually located between security and outbound immigration.

For more information, please see this handy guide from the JNTO.

Watch me on NHK WORLD J-Trip Plan!

I’ve been keeping a secret about my recent trip to Japan, and now I can officially share the news: This Monday I am scheduled to appear on Japanese television, on the international English-language channel of Japan public broadcaster NHK.

The NHK WORLD channel has many public interest shows aside from news updates, and one such program is called J-Trip Plan. I’ve been a follower of this program since its inception. The show offers tourists handy info and regional advice on where to go, what to see, and how to experience Japan like an expert. 

Two of the days on my recent trip were spent with producers and writers from the show who interviewed me and recorded me with television cameras.

My short segment will discuss how to navigate Japan’s often-confusing train system. The show is scheduled to air on NHK WORLD on Monday, January 22 at 9:30 AM, 3:30 PM and 9:30 PM Eastern Time (UTC -5). NHK WORLD can be viewed on some cable/satellite outlets in major US cities, and it can also be streamed online through the NHK WORLD Website and the NHK WORLD mobile app.

On January 23, the show moves to the NHK WORLD Video-On-Demand service, where it will be available for one year. 

I’m really excited and thankful to the NHK and Genki Project for this opportunity, and for the chance to meet new friends!

NHK WORLD J-Trip Plan
Official Website
Official Facebook Page

Are you sure you need a Japan Rail Pass?

I have a new video update that was posted today to my Facebook page, located at facebook.com/myjapantips.

Amidst the unusually cool weather for a late August day in Upstate New York, I tackled the issue of the national Japan Rail Pass. Many online sites have articles that claim that the Japan Rail Pass is the best deal for train travel in Japan, and you have to get your hands on one.

The first part of that statement is true. The second? Not necessarily.

The Japan Rail Pass provides unlimited travel on Japan Railways lines, including all shinkansen trains (except Nozomi and Mizuho) for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days in either ordinary class or green class (first class). You can also make free seat reservations on all services that offer them, which include bullet trains and many limited express services, such as the Narita Express and Haruka trains to/from Narita Airport and Kansai Airport, respectively.

To obtain a Japan Rail Pass, you purchase a voucher in your home country from a travel agency, and exchange the voucher for the actual pass when you arrive in Japan. This year JR has started trial sales for the pass in Japan with no voucher exchange necessary, but at higher prices.

The most important question – or perhaps the only question – that you have to ask yourself is: Will getting a pass be cheaper than buying regular tickets?

To answer this question, put together a list of cities that you would like to visit in Japan. Then, figure out the fares between the two cities. Several online sites will tell you the amount. Two sites I recommend are HyperDia and the JR East site (the latter only lets you search bullet train fares by individual line).

One example: If you’re in Japan for a week, and will only travel between Tokyo and Kyoto, a 7-Day Rail Pass (29,110 yen for ordinary class) might not work out, as the regular round-trip fare between these two cities is cheaper (27,820 yen). If, on the other hand, you add another side trip, then the rail pass might pay off.

If your trip includes visits to, say, Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Fukuoka or Hokkaido – which just gained access to the bullet train network recently – then you most certainly can look into a national rail pass. There are also a plethora of regional and local passes that are available… if you’re just meandering around Tokyo for example, consider one of several day passes, including the Tokunai Pass for unlimited JR travel in one day for 750 yen, or the 24-hour Tokyo Metro open ticket for 600 yen. You could also use a stored fare card such as a Suica or PASMO card.

Be sure to do your homework to see if a Rail Pass is something you really need!

IC Card Shinkansen Ticketing arrives in September

As my next trip to Japan is approaching sooner than I think, I have an update concerning shinkansen ticketing using IC cards.

IC cards go by many monikers in Japan (Suica and PASMO in Tokyo, Toica in central Japan, Icoca in western Japan, etc), but no matter the name, the IC card is an indispensable piece of hardware that make traveling on trains easy. No need to figure out how much a train or a bus costs between point A and point B… just tap your IC card when getting on and getting off, and the correct fare will be deducted from the stored balance on the card. Cards can easily be topped up at train stations and convenience stores, and can be used to pay for items at shops and a growing number of vending machines.

As reported on this blog in February 2016, JR Central and JR West, operators of the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen – arguably the two most important bullet train lines in the country – were said to be making plans to introduce some sort of mobile ticketing system for their bullet trains that would be tied to IC cards.

These plans have now been confirmed in a Japanese-language press release from both companies. Starting September 30, 2017, a new service called SMART EX will begin operation, allowing passengers to purchase bullet train tickets on the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen using a major credit card and then “store” the details onto a linked IC card. The IC card would then be used to enter through the ticket barriers.

Earlier indications were that the new system would be foreigner-friendly. Following the recent JR press release, the travel site Japan-Guide.com has reported that a dedicated, bilingual website will be created. Passengers would need to create an account, register a credit card, and register a valid IC card.

Of course, if you don’t have an IC card in your possession, you will need to obtain one in Japan before you register for the service. When you use SMART EX to make a shinkansen reservation, you will get a small discount of 200 yen off of the normal fare.

The following brands of IC cards can be used with the new service: Kitaca, Pasmo, Suica, Manaca, Toica, Pitapa, Icoca, Hayakaken, Nimoca and Sugoca.

The following credit cards can be used to purchase tickets: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Diner’s Club and JCB. J-West credit cards, exclusive to Japan, are also eligible.

The service can only be used to make seat reservations for Tokaido Shinkansen and San’yo Shinkansen services, as well as through services between the two lines. Tokaido Shinkansen trains run from Tokyo to Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka, while the San’yo Shinkansen runs from Osaka to Kobe, Okayama, Hiroshima, Kita-Kyushu (Kokura station) and Fukuoka (Hakata station).

You cannot make reservations for Kyushu Shinkansen trains (those that run from Fukuoka to Kumamoto or Kagoshima), and you can’t reserve any bullet train services operated by JR East… in fact, JR East already has a website where you can make train reservations.

If you don’t have a Japan Rail Pass, the SMART EX can be a good way to make bullet train reservations without having to stop at a ticket machine or a ticket counter beforehand. The downside is that you need an IC card in your possession before you can register for the service.

If the reports are true and there indeed is an English option for SMART EX, I may give it a shot on my next trip and report my results!

HT: Japan Guide

Throwback to June 2004 – Japan Trip 1, Day 1

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Wednesday, June 2, 2004 was my first full day as a tourist in Japan. The day was spent in Tokyo, with stops at the Imperial Palace, Asakusa and Odaiba. Here I posed with some school kids that were interviewing foreign tourists in English outside of Sensoji Temple, the oldest buddhist temple in the city. They gave out small gifts, which included the mailing address of their school. I regret that I never sent them a thank you gift in return. Nevertheless, meeting these young children speaking my language on my first day in another country – a day filled with anticipation and apprehension – made me feel very welcome, and helped deepen my appreciation for Japan even more.

I enjoy reminiscing about the first trip… and I can’t wait for the fourth trip, now less than two months away!