A few things have changed for the better since my last trip to Japan.
First things first, get yourself a PASMO card. The card requires a 500 Yen deposit then you can top it up as you go. Just look for the pink ticket machines at the subway stations. Why is this card so good? Tokyo has so many train networks, some government some private. On my last trip in 2012, you had to buy different tickets for all of them. The PASMO card now works on well every train network. On this trip we went right to the outskirts of Tokyo, so I can vouch for that. You can even buy food at some supermarkets and pay for taxi fares with it.
So whatever money you put on it, you will use. As we traveled a fair bit, I probably spent about 1000 yen a day topping up my PASMO. Topping up can be done at any station. The machines work in English.
Note: DON’T personalise your PASMO. Because I did and I couldn’t return my card and get a refund. My wife with her normal one got the 500 Yen deposit back plus all credit on the card too.
Your non-Japanese phone will only work for data in Japan. Apparently their mobile network works on a different technology. But the good news is that you can still buy a data SIM and use Viber to text and call your travel buddies. My wife and I bought pre-paid SIMs from SO-NET at Narita Airport. It cost us roughly $50 Australian dollars for a 4G data SIM and about 500 meg of data.
The 500 meg lasted me about 7 days. You can recharge via mobile with your credit card anywhere from 100 meg to 1 gig. When you run out of credit, you can simply recharge via web browser with your credit card. It doesn’t automatically tick over or anything.
If you do need a voice service, you can rent a Japanese phone and SIM for about 1300 Yen a day (roughly $15 Aussie dollars). Unsurprisingly Japan has gone iPhone crazy since my last visit. But you can only rent those old fashioned looking Japanese flip phones.