The public transportation systems for many cities, along with the Shinkansen, eliminates the need for most tourists to rent a car. However, some tourists may want to explore smaller towns or specific areas of Japan that are not as easily accessible by plane, bus, or train. Renting a car requires a few steps along with understanding the basic driving laws.
Acquire a International Driving Permit (IDP)
Japanese law requires tourists to have a IDP prior to visiting the country and renting a car, It is a fairly easy process in the United States through AAA. The requirements are filling out an application, obtaining two passport photos, having a valid driver's license, and a $20 processing fee. Pay attention to how far out you can get one before visiting Japan.
Secure a Car Rental
There are multiple companies to choose when renting a car. Toyota Rent a Car and Nippon Rent-A-Car are two rental companies with many options and locations available for a pick up. Prices for cars vary by size, location, days of use, and drop off. You should expect to spend $50 to $60 a day for a sub-compact or compact vehicle rental.
Rules of the Road
In Japan, you drive on the left side of the road. This may be confusing for many tourists that are used to driving on the right side. You should follow normal driving practices such as stopping for pedestrians to cross and obeying traffic lights. If an action is against traffic law in the United States, it is probably against the law in Japan. Road signs in Japan are in Japanese and English. Some of the common road signs can be found here.
Expressways and Tolls
One of the most convenient options traveling by car from city to city is using the expressways. They are similar to the multi-lane, national highways in the United States such as I-95 and I-85. The Central Nippon Expressway and West Nippon Expressway websites are great resources for planning routes and learning more about using the expressways. While expressways are a great way to travel across Japan, their tolls can get expensive. Tolls are collected between cities and can cost almost $100 each way. According to the Central Nippon Expressway website, traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto requires a ¥9,900 ($90) toll. Expressway passes are available offering a discount for multi-day travel across Japan.
Tokyo, Japan is one of the largest and most populated cities in the world. As such, it requires a large-scale public transportation system to move people around. For tourists, the Tokyo transit system can be quite overwhelming. There are multiple subway lines, above ground rail lines, and Shinkansen lines. It is important to understand the different options available for planning activities and save money.
The main method of leaving Narita Airport is by taking the Narita Express into Tokyo. This rail line is fast and convenient to reach Tokyo's busiest neighborhoods as well as Tokyo Station. A one-way ticket from Narita Airport is around ¥3,200 ($29 US Dollars). You must go to a ticket counter to reserve a seat on the train. If you exchange and activate a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass), the Narita Express fare is included. You will typically want to have one trip coming or going from Narita Airport covered by the JR Pass. If you are trying to reach a destination in Tokyo that the Narita Express does not stop at, you will need to transfer to another rail line.
The subway trains that run under Tokyo are one of the more convenient methods of travel. You can take quick trips and easily get to places without too much effort or line switching. There is a free Tokyo Metro App for Android and iOS that can be used offline and online. This makes traveling even easier and a recommended choice of transportation. If you plan to travel to multiple places in a day, you can purchase a one-day pass. Also, you can purchase a PASMO or Suica card to load money on for traveling on subways. This pass eliminates the constant trips to a ticket machine and allows you to swipe through gates. As a side note, the JR Pass does not cover fares on the subway lines.
Rapid and Local Service Rail Lines
There are multiple rail lines that run above ground connecting all parts of Tokyo and outlying areas. Some of these trains overlap stations with subway line access, but many do not. The rapid service lines have limited stops and are faster ways to travel. Be mindful that rapid service trains may skip a stop you need to depart from. Local service trains stop at each station marked on their route. The above ground railways are great to use when covering long distances across Tokyo. Many rail lines are operated by Japan Railway. The fares for rail lines run by Japan Railway are covered by the JR Pass. Some examples are the Yamanote Line, Chou Line - Sobu Line, and the Shonan Shinjuku Line. There are a handful of above ground rail lines that are privately operated that the JR Pass will not cover.
The Shinkansen line of trains come through Tokyo Station. These high speed rail lines reach all parts of Japan and are the country's most convenient way to travel from city to city. This rail line is not meant for local travel. The JR Pass covers rides on some of the Shinkansen trains such as the Sakura and Hikaru. Tickets on the Shinkansen can get quite expensive without using a JR Pass. The main way to get a seat is to reserve one at one of the ticket offices. The other option is to board one of the first three cars of a JR Pass approved train. These seats are non-reserved and first come first serve. If the seats are all taken, try the next car down or stand in the back of the car until a seat opens up.
As you walk through Akihabara and other parts of Tokyo, you may see females in maid or other costumes advertising one of maid cafes. These cafes offer a unique opportunity for tourists to indulge in a different part of Japanese culture. While there has been some controversy over them, maid cafes are a safe and enjoyable experience. There are a few ground rules and tips you should know before visiting a maid cafe in Japan.
Where to Find a Maid Cafe
You can find maid cafes scattered all around Akihabara. Just by walking the main and side streets you may stumble upon a few. You may see advertisements or even an employee of a maid cafe inviting people to come inside.
The Master, Princess, and Maid Theme
When you enter a maid cafe, you will become known as a Master (male customer) or Princess (female customer). The main goal of a maid is to ensure you have a pleasant experience. You will either be paired with a maid or can sometimes choose one.
Rules of Behavior
There are strict rules in place to ensure the safety and respect of the employees. You are not allowed to have physical contact or ask for personal information. As seen in the picture below, cafes may have other rules such as purchase minimums, limitations on photography, and time limits.
Food and Drink Offerings
One of the fun parts of visiting a maid cafe is the interesting food art and drinks served. You can order dishes that are formed in a fun image or object. Japan is known for creative culinary presentations. Even drink offerings can be colorful and interesting. For example, a cappuccino may have a cute image on the top. Ordering a set, or packaged option, will usually save you money rather than ordering each item separately.
Beside serving food and drinks, maid cafes offer various entertainment options. During your stay, you may have the option to play a game or take a photo with a maid. Other forms of entertainment may include a maid singing a song, doing a skit, or other interactions with customers.
Cover Charges and Wait Times
Maid cafes can be expensive. You should expect a cover charge in addition to food, drink, and other purchases. Even when purchasing a set, you can easily spend $25 to $30 for a short stay. Another issue is the chance of a wait list to be seated. Like many restaurants and bars in Japan, maid cafes have limited seating. Be mindful of a long wait during peak hours.
For more information on @home cafe, visit their website here.
@home cafe Akihabara Cafe inside Don Quixote 5F
The Harajuku district in Tokyo, Japan is well known for fast fashion tailored to an urban lifestyle. Walking the streets of Harajuku, you can see interesting tops, shoes, costumes, and much more. While the area is known as place for young adults, there are a number of shops and restaurants for older individuals. Harajuku is home to many boutiques and designers offering a variety of clothing and fashion accessories for all ages. One thing to keep in mind is that the shopping area is not just small, independent retailers. Multi-national brands such as Louis Vuitton, Lululemon, Gap, Nike, and Zara are also located in the area. Here are a few places that should be near the top of the list for anyone interested in fashion and urban culture.
The entrance to Takeshita Dori is very close to Harajuku Station. This street is home to many retailer shops that symbolize the essence of Harajuku. A great way to start exploring Harajuku is to walk through the Takeshita Dori corridor to get a feel of the vibe and fashion trends. Take a peek inside some of the interesting boutiques and grab a quick snack along the way.
Omotesando Hills is an upscale shopping center with multiple floors of shops and restaurants. While Takeshita Dori caters to a younger audience; you will find more shops here that cater to a slightly older crowd. The area around Omotesando Hills is also quite busy and a destination for many people.
The street close to Omotesando Hills lined with trees and expensive retail shops is called Omotesando Dori. This busy road is full of high-end name brand retailers you may recognize. The atmosphere around this street is a different feel from Takeshita Dori and also caters to a slightly older crowd. You should definitely try to catch an outdoor spot for a drink or afternoon snack to enjoy people watching and to soak in the beauty of Harajuku.
Discover Hidden Gem Clothing Stores
Around Takeshita Dori are many narrow side streets and maze-like alleys. This area is home to unique and vibrant boutiques that are off the normal radar for travelers. If you want to be adventurous and explore more of the Harajuku fashion scene, take some time to wander around the area.
There are many retail shops with interesting products and luxury goods scattered throughout Harajuku. From name brand retailers to flashy street wear, you can find a wide variety of goods. However, finding items that are not clothing or fashion oriented can be a bit more challenging. One great place to pick up inexpensive Japanese gifts is the large Daiso on Takeshita Dori. This Daiso is just down from the entrance near Harajuku Station and carries a large assortment items at affordable prices. It is definitely worth a stop when shopping for gifts to bring back for friends and family. Another place well-known for carrying more authentic Japanese souvenirs is the Oriental Bazaar. You can visit their website to see what kind of goods they sell along with their store hours.
Ueno Park in the heart of Tokyo offers many activities and attractions for locals and tourists. It is home to a number of museums, temples, and even a zoo. Here are a few reasons to visit Ueno Park during your next stay to Tokyo.
Cherry Blossom Viewing
One of the best places to view cherry blossoms in full bloom is in Ueno Park. It is very common for people to have picnics and gatherings under the beautiful trees. It can also get quite crowded during this time of the year. The cherry blossoms are a great excuse to visit the park along with its other offerings.
The oldest zoo in Japan, Ueno Zoo is a great destination for families and tourists. One of the zoo's biggest attractions is seeing the giant panda bears. The admission rate is very affordable and free for children. Families traveling to Tokyo should definitely mark Ueno Zoo as a possible activity in Tokyo.
Tokyo National Museum
As the largest art museum in Japan, Tokyo National Museum is a prime opportunity to peek inside Japan's rich history. One of the interesting parts of the museum is its outdoor garden that has multiple buildings representing different periods of history. They have been moved to the museum to show the various architecture and cultural significance of the past. In addition, the museum houses many National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties. If you have played any of the Final Fantasy games and recognize the name Masamune or Yoshimitsu, then you should definitely visit the sword and weapons exhibit.