Getting Around Japan – Pocket WiFi

When you’re running around an unfamiliar country, navigating streets and transportation, the last thing you want is to be without Internet – especially when getting it is pretty easy and affordable.

TL;DR

This is totally worth it. Affordable, fast and convenient. If you’re convinced, skip to Step 3. Need more convincing? Keep reading.

Pocket WiFi – What is it?

When you’re running around an unfamiliar country, navigating streets and transportation, the last thing you want is to be without Internet – especially when getting it is pretty easy and affordable.

In Japan, Pocket WiFi is just another name for a mobile hotspot. Speeds vary based on where you’re staying (country vs. city) and what package you get.

Step One: Contact Your Mobile Provider

T-Mobile coverage in Tokyo and surrounding area

T-Mobile coverage in Tokyo and surrounding area

Before anything else, it’s best to know what your current phone service provides. We both have T-Mobile, which for us meant free international data, text, and $0.20 per minute for calls. Knowing this, we decided not to get a Pocket WiFi from the airport because it would be provided at our AirBnB. No problem right? Wrong.

We got turned around at the train station and that slow as molasses Internet had us frustrated and waiting while holding our bags after a 9+ hour commute at 11pm. I also made the mistake of saving everything on dropbox and it wouldn’t download the PDF no matter how many times I tried. I ended up using my broken, grade-school level Japanese to ask for directions.

During our second week, in between AirBnBs, we didn’t have WiFi and while we managed to navigate, it was tough to do any research on things to do in the area. Rather than pay the $25/day fee for hotel WiFi, we ended up sitting in the lobby of our hotel and ordering one from Global Advanced for around $10/day (because it was the first one on Google and easy enough to figure out).

Note: We couldn’t find a single store in Nagoya that rented Pocket WiFi on a short term basis, and only monthly contracts were available. All signs pointed to either finding an online service that would deliver or going back to the airport. 

Step Two: Check your options

Pocket WiFi in our AirBnB

Pocket WiFi in our AirBnB

If you’re staying at an AirBnB, we noticed a lot of them provide a Pocket WiFi that you can take around with you. Another reason to book AirBnB!

Hotels, on the other hand, will typically charge a ridiculous fee (the one we stayed at was $25/day) and it’s only available in your hotel room. If that’s the case, it’s not only more affordable, but also way more convenient to pick up a Pocket WiFi at the airport.

Step Three: Order!

A quick google search will show you dozens of options, and since I already went through this, I’ll summarize the top 5 results. This is totally just based on Google’s magical gnome search algorithms, so feel free to research away!

**1/22/18 Update: HIS in Hawaii now offers Pocket WiFi rentals for ~$45/week with insurance!

Company Speed Daily Cost* Additional Days Additional Charges Delivery Fee
Global Advanced Communication 75Mbps 990 JPY 300 JPY None None
Pupuru 75Mbps 800 JPY 800 JPY 1,500 JPY Registration 800 – 1,000 JPY
Japan Wireless 75Mbps 990 – 730 JPY None 500 JPY
Japan Rail Pass  75Mbps $8 – $10 USD None None
CD Japan 220Mbps 730 JPY Discounted None 540 JPY

*Days 1-5

Things to note:

  • Japan Wireless and Japan Rail Pass costs vary based on the number of days.
  • None of the companies charge a return postage fee, and they all come with a postage paid envelope to send the device back in.
  • Many offer insurance, but we were reckless and didn’t get any 🙂
  • While all pricing was based on “unlimited” data usage, all of the companies have fine print stating that speeds will be reduced drastically after a certain GB of usage (usually around the 10GB mark over the last 3 days).
  • There was only one time we hit that mark (Whoops. Dropbox was syncing photos!) and we were both connected to it.

Protip: Pack a battery charger

Dead WiFi = No WiFi. When used consistently, most Pocket WiFi devices last around 8 hours. Which could work for us on a lazy day, but not so much on the kind of adventures Ryan likes to have. 😉

We brought this Epic Charger to End all Chargers by RavPower and it saved us from dead WiFi and charged up everyone’s phones as well. I won’t lie – it’s a beast of a charger and weighs a pound, but without it we would have missed the amazing opportunity to take photos in alllllll the hats!

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My Adventures…

tl;dr – If you like adventures off the beaten path, you’ll definitely want to follow my posts. 😉 While calculating with most decisions in life, I’m fairly instinctive when it…

tl;dr – If you like adventures off the beaten path, you’ll definitely want to follow my posts. 😉

While calculating with most decisions in life, I’m fairly instinctive when it comes to traveling and adventure. While I love to research “all the things” prior to arriving at a destination, once I’ve arrived – I absolutely hate schedules.

I’m not sure if it’s the monotony of living life in some predetermined loop (re: West World) or #fomo on serendipitous experiences, but I just can’t travel like that.

Some of our most amazing life experiences have come when Sara and I have decided to “go check something out” and we somehow find ourselves at Sing Sing Karaoke until 4 am.

These are the adventures that I long for.

Anyone in 2017 can go to Yelp and find the places that everyone loves.  Do you really want to go to where everyone else has already gone? You’d never be able to find the ridiculously amazing Spaghettini Al Limone at Serafina Osteria on 58th or the free falafels from the King of Falafel on 53rd. What about Sunshine Laundromat and Pinball in Greenpoint? You’d never make it past Barcade in Williamsburg if Yelp is all you consulted.

I think you get the point.

Follow my stories as I write (once a month) about all the places I drag my wife to along with some sprinkles about Islay Scotch, the science behind bread (pizza) making, arcades, and well, the one thing I’m pretty good at, technology.

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Getting Around Tokyo – JR Pass vs. Suica/Pasmo

Definitely filing this one under the “things we’ve learned” tag. Maybe we should add “the hard way”, because when we were planning our trip, we overlooked this detail.

TL;DR

If you’re not planning any trips outside of Tokyo, don’t get a JR Pass and instead get a Suica or a Pasmo card. Use this neat calculator to figure out if it’s worth it. 

Definitely filing this one under the “things we’ve learned” tag. Maybe we should add “the hard way”, because when we were planning our trip, we overlooked this detail. We focused on big picture things: how many days we wanted to stay in each place and where we would stay. While we took into account travel times, we didn’t think about the JR Pass until everything was booked. However – before I go off on a huge tangent, let me explain the JR Pass.


What is the JR Pass

Basically – it’s a rail pass that gives you free rides on any of the JR lines, including the Shinkansen (bullet train), but it’s ONLY for tourists and you have to purchase a redemption voucher outside of Japan. (Note: During March 8, 2017 – March 31, 2018, there will be a trial run of JR Pass sales at certain train stations in Japan.)

They’re available all over the place online, but since we jumped on this one late, we went to the HIS in Downtown. They asked to see our passports (to make sure we were traveling there on a tourist visa) and they filled out a voucher with our info on it.

Should you get the JR Pass?

Honestly? Unless you’re doing a lot of traveling around, it’s not worth it. I mentioned it in the summary of tips on Japan – depending on the current conversion rate, how long you’re planning to stay, and where you’re planning to go, it can save you a little. Really, though, you’re paying for the convenience of just showing folks your pass.

For example our trip:

Cost of JR Pass ~ $260 (29,110 Yen at current conversion rate)
Japan-Guide.com has a nifty calculator (you can also use google maps or sites like Hyperdia if you want exact rates and times.)

screen-shot-2017-02-06-at-10-41-11-pm

We actually purchased the 14 day pass, which for us, wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t a huge loss since we did use it to get around the Tokyo Metro area during our trip, but if we ever go back, we’ll definitely keep our big travel days within a 7 day period to really make use of it (or not purchase one). #LessonLearned.


Suica and Pasmo

I’m combining these two because they’re essentially the same. Basically the same as the Clipper Card in SF or the MetroCard in NYC, you can purchase them at the train station machines (instructions are in English) and add funds as required.

Once you have them, you won’t have to read maps to figure out how much each ticket will cost (we did this a couple times before we just picked up a card). You just add money to it and tap it on the sensor on the way in and the way out.

If you’re like me and get anxiety at the idea of trying to figure this out, The Japan Guy did step by step posts for how to get a Suica and how to get a Pasmo card. It’s from back in 2011, but it looked the same when we were there last January.

Returning your Suica or Pasmo Cards

To get the 500 Yen deposit back, you just have to go to any ticket office at either any JR East station (Suica) or any non-JR subway line / Narita Airport / Haneda Airport (Pasmo). You give your card to the clerk at the desk and they’ll return any money you have on the card.

We actually decided to keep our cards because the line at the JR ticket office was insane and we were running late to the airport. Both Suica and Pasmo cards expire if they are not used for 10 years.


A few more tips

  • If you’re worried about your luggage on the bullet train, ask them for seats near the end of the car. There’s a space behind the last row of chairs where large luggage will fit.
  • If you have a ton of time to kill before your train, you can put your luggage in a nifty locker – for up to 3 days at some places. Just remember to take pics of where you put it and your receipt, in case you forget/lose it. The passcode on your receipt is how you get your things back!
  • Buy your shinkansen tickets ahead of time, even if you don’t have to for the non-reserved tickets with a JR Pass. It makes life easier knowing you’ll have a seat, and you’ll avoid that pesky travel anxiety.
  • You can use your passmo/suica card at vending machines and at some convenience stores – just look for the card logo on the machine/register. Easy way to use the last of your card balance.

That’s it! Since we only have a day in Fukuoka on our upcoming trip, doubt we’ll have much more to add about Japan, but super excited for the week in Korea!

 

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Brunch at Button Up Cafe

Taking a break from the Japan posts to talk about this cafe because it was delish. I don’t want to overhype a place, so I’m going to caveat it by saying that we had just finished the Bubble Run and we were soggy and starving.

Taking a break from the Japan posts to talk about this cafe because it was delish. I don’t want to overhype a place, so I’m going to caveat it by saying that we had just finished the Bubble Run and we were soggy and starving.

It’s located in a tiny, assuming little building, right off Kam Highway. If you aren’t sure where it is, go slow, because it’s easy to miss. Parking in the lot up front is cramped with only 19 stalls, but there’s a bigger lot behind the building as well.

It being a Saturday and a little after 11am, I was pretty nervous about the crowd, but there was no line! Rain must’ve chased everyone away.

Note – it’s a tiny place with only 4 bar seats along the window and eight 2-top tables. Make sure you write your name on the clipboard hanging on the door so they know you want a seat (some folks just came in for takeout).

It’s a bit confusing once you get seated, since there’s no actual service, but they don’t tell you that. We sat for a while, then realized it’s cafeteria style and you have to walk up to the counter to order. Once we figure that out, though, we ordered allllllll the things:

20170121_112212

Yes, those are paper plates and utensils. They also have a self-serve fountain soda machine (but no refills). Okay, lets break this down.

 

First, deserving a giant photo all on its own, the stuffed strawberry cheesecake french toast. It’s giant, it’s sweet, and it’s everything you expect it to be. We ordered it with strawberries, but I don’t think we needed them.

I ordered the spinach and mushroom omelette with tater tots, then got a side of the fried rice because I’m eating meat now and it smelled AMAZING. The omelette had garlic and onion and was loaded with veggies – a perfect balance to the crazy amounts of spam and Portuguese sausage in the fried rice.

We also ordered the Korean Braised Short Rib eggs benny and got a side of mac salad. The english muffins were piled high with short ribs, perfectly poached eggs and hollandaise. Definitely going to have to come back and try the others! The mac salad was okay, but not something I’d order again. A little too light on the mayo – which is honestly what makes mac salad, mac salad.

It’s a bit out of the way in terms of location (especially since we don’t drive), but if you’re in the area, you should definitely check them out!

Button Up Cafe (Yelp)
719 Kamehameha Hwy
Open 7am – 2pm

Note – their menu says breakfast until 11am, but they were still serving when we arrived at around 11:30a.

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AirBnBs vs Ryokans vs Hotels

When it comes to finding a place to stay, the Internet has you covered a bit too much. Here’s our pro/con list of the different types of accommodations we experienced in Japan.

When it comes to finding a place to stay, the Internet has you covered a bit too much. A google search will shower you with 5 million lodging options, all with 5 star ratings – likely the least helpful thing when you’re trying to plan a trip.

Since we moved around quite a bit during our trip (Tokyo -> Nagoya -> Kyoto -> Osaka -> Tokyo), we had the opportunity to stay a few days in different types of places, and honestly, each has its own charm.

Location

I said this in the summary of tips about Japan, but I can’t stress this enough: where you stay is everything. Your future self will thank you if you book a place a few minutes from the closest train station. Extra points if it’s above or near a convenience store! In Tokyo, we stayed near the Yamanote Line (see maps below). Overwhelming, but if you look at the Yamanote line – it’s just a circle running through some of the more popular areas in Tokyo.

For the other cities, since we were only there for a few days, we stayed near the Shinkansen station, to make the biggest commute (ie: the one where we’re lugging our suitcases) less painful.

Staying at an AirBnB

TL;DR: Cheapest way to get a place near public transportation, best if you have a large group, useful amenities (pocket wifi, washer/dryer, kitchen), can be difficult to find / access.
This was the least convenient in terms of checking in, but definitely the cheapest.

Pros: Having a kitchen, washer/dryer, pocket WiFi and being able to get a larger place without breaking the bank (a friend stayed with us for the last week of our trip).

The first week in Tokyo, we were solo and stayed in a tiny shoebox apartment for around $80/night. During the last week, a friend met up and stayed with us, so we opted for a bigger space. This is where AirBnB shines – if you have a group of people, it’s easy to get a multiple bedroom/bed place on a budget.

Our tiny Shinagawa AirBnB:

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Our Shinjuku AirBnB:

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Cons: Coordinating the key pick up and checking in.

For the first place, it was easy enough to find the key in their apartment mailbox, which was locked with a combination code. The second place was a bit more tricky and involved finding a key attached to a long chain, locked to (I kid you not) the gate for a cafe down the street.

Always make sure you have the contact information of your AirBnB host (direct phone number because waiting for them on chat while you’re standing outside in winter is not the best) and double check that if there are exterior security doors, they provide you with a number to ring or an access code.

Staying at a Ryokan

TL;DR: If you want to experience traditional Japanese culture, stay at one of these.
Ryokans are traditional inns from back in the day. With classic shoji sliding doors, tatami mats, futons to sleep on and yukata to wear, it was a fun cultural experience. There are a lot to choose from in Kyoto, but we stayed at Matsubaya Ryokan since it was near the train and reasonably priced.

Pros: Comfortable futons, relaxing atmosphere, unique experience

Kyoto was beautiful and quiet, with temples and bamboo forests and mountains full of monkeys – the perfect way to recover from a week in Tokyo.

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Cons: Curfew (usually around 10pm), reservations can be difficult (some don’t do online reservations)

Staying at a Hotel

TL;DR If you’re looking for convenience or are nervous about getting around, this is the way to go. You pay to play, but you get what you pay for!

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Pros: Giant fluffy pillows, toiletries in individual packages, coffee and amazing service

Japan being a culture that doesn’t accept tips, the hotel we stayed at blew us away when it came to service. In Nagoya, we weren’t sure how to get to the Nabana no Sato winter illuminations, but the concierge desk gave us step by step instructions. Everything from how to get to the bus station, which bus number, platform and what to look for, how much it would cost, exactly what time the illuminations are turned on and what bus to look for to get back. Amazing.

Cons: Lack of useful amenities, tiny rooms

What can I say? When it comes to amenities, I like the idea of pools and gyms, but on vacay what I really need is a washing machine so I can wash my socks or that pair of jeans Ry thinks he can wear for a week. Hahhaa.

Hope this shed some light on finding a place! At the end of the day – do what’s within your budget, and what you feel comfortable with. I mean, if you’re flying in at 1130pm, you probably don’t want to deal with looking for a key hitched to a gate somewhere.


All this being said – we’re still on the hunt for a place to stay for our week in Seoul. Some have said Hongdae, others Myeong-dong and Itaewon. Anyone been recently and have tips? Thanks in advance!

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Japan Tip Series!

Japan! Finalllllly getting around to the “travel” part of this blog. Hahaha. Since a few people have asked us about places to go in Japan and if we have any tips for their trip, I figure we’ll just use this opportunity to write about them here. 😀

Japan! Finalllllly getting around to the “travel” part of this blog. Since a few people have asked us about places to go in Japan and if we have any tips for their trip, I figure we’ll just use this opportunity to write about them here.

Back in January of 2016, (I am still in a state of shock over how quickly this year flew by) we spent 20 days running around Japan. We spent two full weeks in Tokyo, and a week traveling through Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka.

To prevent this post from being too long, I’m going to write a short summary of some of our tips here, and expand/link to them in future posts.


Booking a Place

If there’s one thing you do: stay close to a train station. This was the best decision we made. After walking all day, your feet will totally thank you. 😀 


JR Pass / Passmo / Suica

There’s one sure fire way to figure out if it’s worth it – do the math. You can input your various locations into google maps and it’ll give you the price. The pass runs around $250/person USD (depending on conversion rate), and with one-way tickets from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka coming in at around $140 USD, it’ll save you a lot if you travel more.

If you’re staying in Tokyo, I would just pick up a Passmo or Suica card. Think Clipper Card in San Francisco or the Metrocard in NYC. The machines to get them offer English and will be marked with their logos. If you don’t have one of these cards, you’ll have to look at the train maps and figure out the exact cost and input that into the machine and buy a ticket. Every. Single. Time. 


Mobile Wifi and Google Maps

This is a total lifesaver. We got ours through Global Advanced – and the standard 75Mbps speed was more than enough for us. You can also get them at the airport. 😀

Before leaving I downloaded a bunch of transit apps (Navitime, Hyperdia, etc) but in the end – google maps was by far the easiest interface to use. It shows you the color of the line, sometimes even giving you what platform you need to be on, as well as the total price (if you decide to go the ticket route). Best, ever.


Takkyubin (Ta-Q-Bin)

You will prob never see any Japanese folks dragging their giant suitcases around – all of them use ta-q-bin, a pretty affordable bag forwarding service. We did it on the last day, from our AirBnB to the airport. It was $78 for 3 large suitcases, but totally worth it.


Outlets and Adapters

For the most part, you won’t need an adapter, but you will want to bring the 2-prong version of whatever device you’re using (like your macbook) if you have one. 


Google Translate 

This one was pretty helpful when I was totally stumped as to what a sign said. You can take a pic and highlight the text you want translated and boom – in business. 


Japanesepod101.com

If you do want to learn a few things before you go, this site is awesome. I would just check out some of the “Survival Phrases Season 1”. 


That’s it for now. I think that covers the basics for things we learned the hard way. Hahaha. Will write more about how to use some of those services and where to get things in the coming weeks.

Maybe I can also use this to segue into writing more about the places we visited, as well. It’s tough to figure out a way to make your blog flow and not feel like everything is just at random. For now, I’ll stick to my Hawaii posts on Sunday and Japan on Wednesday.

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