In April 2016 I did something that had been a nearly lifelong dream of mine: I went to the other side of the world to watch professional wrestling. Now, on its face that might sound a little ridiculous and I certainly did a lot more than just watch pro wrestling in Japan, but the fact remains that my primary reason for traveling there was to see various pro wrestling promotions, most notably New Japan’s Invasion Attack (now Sakura Genesis) event at Sumo Hall. I did a full recap of that trip afterward which you can read here, but needless to say I had the absolute time of my life. It led me to ask myself a pretty simple question: why the hell did I wait this long to go in the first place?!
The answer, in hindsight, was actually fairly complicated. Everything kind of fell together to make last year’s trip the perfect time for me to go, but a huge factor was simply that renowned puroresu fan Alan4L (a great, great man) organized the trip and a bunch of different fans all went together. That sense of being in it together instead of facing the daunting task of planning a trip all by myself ended up being the final push I needed to finally go. But once I was actually there, I discovered that Japan was much less intimidating for a foreigner than I had actually imagined. I began planning my own return trip immediately and will make my second trip this August. Remembering how the group situation had given me the final nudge to go, I opened up my trip to my friends on Twitter and allowed virtually anyone who wanted to come along with us to do so.
But what if you always wanted to go to Japan too but couldn’t make last April or this August? What if you’re scared about getting lost, or not knowing how to speak Japanese, or not understanding where to buy tickets? What if you have a concern that I haven’t even thought of yet? That is where this new series comes in! In Nihon ni Ikimasu, I am going to try my best to provide you–presumably a hardcore fan of Japanese wrestling, or else why would you be reading this column on this already very Japanese wrestling-centric website–with the answers to every question you might have about traveling to Japan. Today is obviously the introduction, a broad overview of the series, topics we’ll cover in the future, and finally some cost-saving tips for planning your trip.
If there’s anything you want to see me cover in this series in the future, please feel free to e-mail me (masudoreiidx @ gmail) or reach out via Twitter (@toshanshuinla). Your feedback and questions will only make this series more useful, both to you and to others, so please feel free to send absolutely anything! It can be a question about traveling to Japan, what to do when you’re there, or even something about wrestling show etiquette/behavior in particular.
Before we get into the overview, I want to share with you the results of a poll I took of my Twitter followers last week asking them what was keeping them from going to Japan other than cost if they desired to go (that was the impetus for the series): see here for the full results, but of the three options, language barrier was by far the winner at 41%, followed by afraid of getting lost at 27%, other at 23%, and don’t know how to buy tickets at 9%.
I deliberately excluded cost from this poll because it’s the one issue I can provide you with the least help on. Simply put, traveling to most far-away places is pretty expensive, and Japan is no exception to that. I do have a few cost-saving tips I can provide you which we’ll get into towards the end of this column, but ultimately if you can’t afford it there’s not much I can do to help. Sorry!
The results of this poll did not really surprise me though; from talking to people in the past year or so, fear of the language barrier came up as a primary reason why they were reluctant to go over and over again, so seeing about 4 in 10 respondents single that out as an issue made sense to me. We will devote an entire column in the future to ways you can combat the language barrier issue, including some useful phrases you can learn, apps you can download to translate for you, and more, but I want to state this unequivocally for you now: you do not need to know any Japanese to travel to Japan, especially in places like Tokyo and Kyoto!
I knew virtually no Japanese when I went last year and still got by very easily, often even traveling alone to various different places. You can make things slightly easier on yourself if you know some key phrases and some basic information on the language, but you really don’t need to know anything at all if you don’t want to. People in Tokyo are very used to dealing with foreign tourists who don’t speak their language by now, a shocking number of Japanese people speak at least some English, and all major signage (especially when it comes to the important stuff like train station stops) is in English as well.
I included “don’t know how to buy tickets” as a possible concern but this came in relatively low, at just 9% of those who responded. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that certain shows do sell out (NJPW, DG, and DDT all routinely sell out Korakuen, and the final night of the G1 at Sumo Hall tends to sell out relatively early every year), so having a plan for buying tickets can be essential when you keep in mind that the secondary market does not really exist there as well. No one wants to travel to the other side of the world only to find out they can’t get in the door at the venue! So we’ll cover some of the various options you have for purchasing tickets in Japan for different promotions in a future column as well.
Finally, the third and final option I included was “afraid of getting lost”, and more than 1/4th of all respondents said this was their primary concern. It’s very understandable that someone might feel intimidated by getting around on the other side of the world; if you’re also more of a suburban or rural person than urban, who isn’t used to navigating public transportation even in your own home country, this will probably seem even more intimidating for you. So again we’ll devote an entire future column toward how to get around in Japan: we’ll talk about the various different train and subway routes, how to buy tickets, whether or not you need a Japan Rail pass, other options for getting around, and more! We’ll also discuss each of the major Tokyo venues and where they’re located in the city, relative to both each other and the major neighborhoods.
I requested that those who answered “Other” let me know what their concerns were and quite a few people did. One that came up over and over again was “time”, in other words just not having enough time to devote to the trip. Unfortunately this is another issue I can’t be of much help to you on; if you really can’t devote at least a week to the trip, it probably isn’t worth it for you to go, just because the airfare is such a huge percentage of the overall cost it would be a waste if you went for any less than that (honestly, I think 10 days or so really should be the minimum amount of time if you care at all about seeing Japan while you’re there, which you should!).
Someone else responded that they find planning the big trip to be simply overwhelming, combined with that aforementioned language barrier, so I hope this series helps you with both!
Cost came up a few times even though I specifically asked “other than cost”, so let’s go ahead and get into that here. As mentioned before, this is the one I will probably be the least help to you on, but I can provide you with a few little tips here and there. So here we go:
This is likely going to be your biggest single cost of the trip (unless you’re staying at really nice hotels the entire time or something), but there are a few things you can do to try and bring the cost down. When you actually go to Japan has a lot to do with this; for traveling to Japan, August seems to be the peak month when it comes to airfare, due to a combination of the usual summer travel and a Buddhist holiday called Obon that sees many Japanese people living overseas return home to visit their families. So if you plan on seeing the G1 like I’m doing this year, you’ll have to pay a lot more for your flight.
On the other hand, there are a few other big shows that take place during much cheaper travel periods. If you choose to see Sakura Genesis in April (an excellent time of year to travel to Japan anyway due to the famous cherry blossom trees) or King of Pro Wrestling in October, your airfare will be much lower. Same goes for the big March DDT show Judgment, or some of the big Dragon Gate PPV shows other than Kobe World (July, while not as bad as August, is still quite expensive). If your goal is to see Wrestle Kingdom on January 4th, you will pay more in airfare than you would for April or October due to the holiday season, but still not as much as the summer.
Some other general airfare tips for those not used to shopping for flights: don’t purchase your flights too far ahead of time, especially not for off-peak times like late March/early April or October. If you’re purchasing for peak times, earlier can be a little better (or, more likely, about the same). But for off-peak, you will generally find your cheapest flights around 30-90 days before the flight. Purchasing more than 90 days out will generally cost more, not less. And of course, you can greatly bring the cost of your flight down by flying with a layover instead of nonstop (if nonstop is even offered to Japan from where you live, that is). Last year when I went in April from New York I paid about $1000 for a nonstop flight, but had I gone with a 4-6 hour layover instead, I could have gotten a flight for as cheap as $600. While nonstop is obviously more convenient (especially given how long the flight is to begin with), if that $400 is the difference between you going and not going (or even the difference between a comfortable trip and one that’s taking up way too much of your bank account), suck it up and deal with the layover.
My biggest advice, both in terms of saving money and just enjoying your trip, is don’t be afraid to move around from place to place even if you’re staying in Tokyo the entire time. Stay at a nice hotel for a day or two if you can afford it; there are some really nice hotels in Tokyo in very convenient locations, and it will greatly enhance your trip overall. If there’s a neighborhood you really think sounds interesting when you’re researching the trip, circle that as a place to find a nice hotel right in the middle of so you can just walk to your various activities.
But ultimately if you want to keep things affordable, the bulk of your trip should be spent in more affordable accommodations. This can mean either an AirBNB or even something like a hostel. I’ll talk more about Airbnb since that’s what I have personal experience with: there are a ton of apartments and flats available for rent in Tokyo, literally all over the city. You can find some very cheap deals here- we’re talking as cheap as $30 a night for one person, or even cheaper if you’re going with friends and can split a bigger room. There are a few things you should take note of when you’re browsing for an affordable place to say, however:
- Do NOT take their word on how far away their apartment is from the nearest train station, as many Airbnb hosts greatly exaggerate this. If they say their apartment is 5 minutes from the train, assume it will be at least 10. If they say 10, assume 15 or 20. You should be browsing through reviews before you book anything anyway, and often reviewers will say how far away the apartment actually was from the train. Take their word for it over the listing, because it’s almost always more accurate. If you’re okay with a further walk to the train that’s fine, just keep in mind that you’ll be doing this over and over again throughout your stay there.
- Make sure you know what neighborhood you’re staying in and what kind of neighborhood it is before you actually book it. It’s fine if you’re staying in a more residential neighborhood that doesn’t get a lot of tourists, but just keep in mind that the English support won’t be as good (because it doesn’t have to be), food options may be less plentiful, and you’ll generally just be further away from a lot of stuff you might want to do. On the same token, if you pick a downtown neighborhood that’s considered a business district, you may find that most of your local food options are only open for lunch! So just keep all of this stuff in mind when you book. Generally, I would recommend picking one of the more famous touristy neighborhoods for a first time, like Shinjuku (there’s generally a ton of Airbnb options for Shinjuku available, making this a great choice). If you wanted to book something close to Korakuen Hall, if you plan to attend a lot of shows there, you want to look at the area called Suidobashi. It’s another area that has its fair share of Airbnb options, but it’s generally a bit quieter and more low-key than Shinjuku. I would consider it somewhere between Shinjuku and a very residential area like Meguro.
- Remember that most Airbnb hosts operate under what’s called the “Strict” refund policy. For those who don’t know, Airbnb lets their hosts choose from several different refund policies, and unsurprisingly the vast majority chooses this one. This requires you to pay for the entire cost of the room upfront, and if you cancel more than two weeks out from your trip, you receive only 50% of the total cost back (if you cancel less than two weeks out, you get nothing). This is the one big downside to Airbnb versus most hotels (which require nothing or only a very small amount upfront to book and can be canceled for free). Unfortunately, you must be absolutely sure about your dates before you book an Airbnb; if you try searching for a listing with a more lenient refund policy, you will eliminate probably around 80-90% of all Tokyo listings right off the bat.
- READ THE REVIEWS BEFORE YOU BOOK! I touched on this when it came to the distance from an apartment, but I cannot stress this enough. At the very least you should read down through the first page of reviews to look for any obvious red flags. If multiple people are telling you this place sucks, you should probably take their word for it and look for something else.
When it comes to hostels, which from what I understand are a pretty good option in Japan especially if you’re traveling alone, I don’t have any personal experience to go with here. But a good place to start is the Japanese Youth Hostel network, which you can find here: http://www.jyh.or.jp/e/. Rooms can be found for as little as $20 a night.
Finally, let’s talk a little about affordable eating in Japan. Eating out is not as expensive as you might expect if you pick the right places; in fact, as someone who lives in New York, I was actually pretty pleasantly surprised with how much cheaper Tokyo was. A budget of around $25-30 a day is more than doable if you stay out of the fancier restaurants. You can go even cheaper if you take advantage of things like convenience store food (konbini food, as it’s called in Japan, can actually be pretty tasty over there, which is a big difference from here, I know) or food served in places like supermarket basements and public building cafeterias.
If you’re someone who likes alcohol, it’s cheaper to drink in what’s called izakaya in Japan. These are basically traditional Japanese pubs that can be found all over virtually any city or town in the country. Some are mom and pop places while others are enormous chains, but either way, you’ll find liquor prices very affordable. Beer can be as cheap as 300-500 yen per glass (about $3-5 dollars US, which is again much cheaper than you’ll ever find in NYC), and other drinks like shochu cocktails or whiskey highballs are not that much more expensive either. Western-style bars are rarer in Japan and priced as a luxury, but on the other hand unlike the vast majority of izakaya, they’re fully stocked with all the liquors you’d expect. Just remember that you’ll pay more for drinks here; generally, the cheapest you’ll find is about 800-1000 yen per drink (around $8-10 US), and some are even more than that.
Izakaya are a great place to grab a bite too since the Japanese comfort-style food is both delicious and rarely that expensive. It is worth noting however that, like many other indoor places in Japan, you are permitted to smoke anywhere in an izakaya, so if you’re very sensitive to cigarette smoke you may find yourself right next to a smoker. Other restaurants in Japan have separate smoking (kitsuen) and non-smoking (kinen) sections, but how separated the two actually are varies greatly based on the restaurant. Sometimes the smoking section will be a separate balcony; sometimes one or the other will be an entirely enclosed glass room; other times the two will be open-air and right next to each other, so even sitting in the “non-smoking section” might not help you. These are all things to keep in mind if you’re very sensitive to smoke. On the flipside, if you’re a smoker it will feel like you time-traveled backward about 50 years with all the places you can just light up (oddly enough though, in a complete reversal from what it’s like in the vast majority of the Western world, you’re actually not supposed to smoke out on sidewalks or in the street).
And that will do it for our very first column. Don’t forget, if you have any questions you’d like to see addressed in a future edition, feel free to either e-mail me (masudoreiidx @ gmail) or reach out to me on Twitter (@toshanshuinla). We’ll see you next time!