Everything you never needed to know about how to visit Japan
Everyone I’ve ever met has said that they’d love to go to Japan except they’re worried about the cost/the language/the crowds and sometimes a combination of all three, but really there is nothing to worry about as long as you prepare and do a bit of research. As far as cost is concerned, most fully guided tours I’ve seen are 3 or 4 times the cost of doing it yourself. I know there is something very relaxing about having minions to do your bidding while you’re in a foreign country and to not have to think about a thing, but if I can make 2 or 3 trips by myself for the price of one guided tour, I know which option I’ll take.
Some of this information will relate to Australians visiting Japan, but mostly it’s general stuff that I’m hoping everyone will find useful.
So let us begin.
1. Pick a season: The two most common seasons to visit are Spring and Autumn. Why? Because summer is very, very unpleasant with the rainy season in June/July and exceptionally high humidity and heat during August/September and winter in December/Jan/Feb is cold, cold, cold. For Spring, you’re looking at travelling during April, and for Autumn, November. April & November also give you the added delights of cherry blossoms and the colours of the autumn leaves (which make a lovely backdrop to pictures of temples, castles and scenery.)
Having said that though, summer is when all the best festivals and fireworks displays are held and if you want to see the snow festival in Sapporo, you’ll be looking at visiting in February. So it will depend on what you want to do while you’re there.
One thing to keep in mind is to avoid the peak holiday times. School holidays will differ slightly prefecture to prefecture (sometimes city to city and school to school) and the public holidays will change year to year so the periods below are rough guides:
New Year Dec 29th- 3rd (lots of things are closed)
Spring school holidays March 25th – April 7th
Golden week April 29th – May 5th
Obon August 13-16th
Summer school holidays July 21st- August 31st
Autumn school holidays October 11-16th
Winter school holidays December 25th-January 10th
New Year, Golden Week & Obon see a mass movement of people on the first and last few days of each period, so you really want to avoid these times at all costs – unless you love getting caught in 50km traffic jams and 300% passenger rates on bullet trains. Accommodation prices also tend to triple and you will pay a small peak surcharge for reserved seats on some trains.
There are 13 public holidays observed in Japan, some of which fall within the New Year and Golden week periods and mostly they’ve been moved to fall on a Monday in keeping with the government’s ‘Happy Monday’ long-weekend scheme. You might want to avoid going to Tokyo Disneyland on a long-weekend for example.
2. Pick a route:
At it’s smallest point, Japan is only 300km wide, but it extends for 29,751km from tip to toe and is made up of 6852 islands (give or take a few depending on which Koreans & Russians you talk to) so there are lots of places to go.
Have a long look at at the Japan National Tourism Organisation, the lonely planet guide, the japan guide, do some google searches and think about what parts of Japan you want to see. Do you want the big-city -lost-in-translation experience? Do you want the temple-temple-shrine-shrine experience? Do you want to see some mountains, rivers, lakes? Do you want to see some festivals? Do you want to ski or snowboard? Are amusement parks and rides your thing? Do you want to soak in hot springs and eat yummy food?
There are four main islands: Honshu, Shikoku, Kyuushuu, Hokkaido. Honshuu is the biggest and includes the cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima etc. At the moment Honshuu and Kyuushuu in the south are linked by the bullet train and soon Hokkaido in the north will be linked by another bullet train. Shikoku is linked to Honshuu by the Seto Ohashi suspension bridge and there is an under-sea tunnel connecting Hokkaido with Honshuu. There are also ferries linking various ports and lots of domestic air routes as well as regular trains and buses crisscrossing the country. There are very, very few places you can go in Japan that can’t be reached by some form of public transport.
Most people take the golden route, which is Tokyo>Mt Fuji>Kyoto with a side trip to Nara. You could also centre yourself in Tokyo and just make day trips to see Mt Fuji and Nikko. You could head up north to potato & corn country in Hokkaido or down south to tropical spammy Okinawa. Having a look at the itineraries of some of the guided tours is also a good way to get ideas of where to go.
Just bear in mind that the further you get away from the big cities and the main tourist destinations, the less English there will be, the funkier the Japanese will get (dialects…) and the more complex things will become. Some people love that though and getting off the beaten track is the only thing they do.
3. Find cheap flights:
There are plenty of websites to look at for cheap flights like expedia, webjet and others. I use these sites just to find out what airlines are available and what sort of connections are available. I’ve generally found the cheapest flights to be available directly through the airline though. You’ll be wanting to book as early as possible to get the cheapest flights (prices are usually available 6 mths before your travel date), but bear in mind that you probably won’t be able to change the dates or anything else with dirt-cheap tickets.
My other trick is to find the cheapest possible flight you can, print off the details and then take them into flight centre. Ask them how much their cheapest flight is and then hand over the even cheaper flight details you’ve printed off. Their ‘lowest fare guarantee’ means that they have to give you a cheaper fare and a voucher. They will give you a slightly cheaper airfare (like $1 or $2 cheaper than the airline’s fare) and a $25 voucher per person that you can use to purchase train vouchers, accommodation or other flights.
HIS is a very famous discount travel agency in Japan and they have some quite good airfare, rail voucher and accommodation deals for particular dates available through their Australian office. You would need to check the locations of the hotels and date restrictions though.
When looking for flights, you’ll be looking for flights into Narita airport (for Tokyo) and Kansai airport (for Osaka). Haneda is the domestic airport in Tokyo and Itami is the domestic airport in Osaka. Depending on where you want to go in Japan, it might also be more convenient to fly into Tokyo and fly out of Osaka (or the reverse).
4. Buy a rail pass:
If you’re planning on travelling the golden route or doing some long trips on the bullet train, a rail pass is good value. If you’re just planning on staying mostly in Tokyo and doing a day trip to Mt Fuji or Nikko, you wouldn’t get your money’s worth out of a rail pass so don’t bother.
There are several types of JR rail passes covering different areas of Japan and they are available for 7, 14 and 21 days in two different classes (ordinary class and green (first) class) for adults and children aged 6-11yrs. The price fluctuates with the exchange rate and they can only be purchased outside Japan by people visiting Japan on a tourist visa.
When you buy the voucher outside Japan you have to specify the dates you are going to use it and they can’t be changed. You are given a voucher that you take to a JR office in Japan with your passport and then you receive the actual pass. Once you start using it, it’s valid for 7,14 or 21 consecutive days and ends at midnight on the last day. If you’re on a train at midnight, they will let you travel to the next station for free and then after that you will need to purchase a valid ticket.
You use the by showing it at the ticket gates and you can make seat reservations for free on both the ordinary and green types. You do this by going to a JR ticket office, showing your passes and asking for a 指定席券 shiteisekiken. It’s a good idea to do this as the seats are slightly better in the reserved section and you are always guaranteed a seat. If you don’t make a reservation, you’ll need to line up at the unreserved cars and hope for the best. Bear in mind that smoking is still allowed on the bullet train in certain cars.
The rail passes are valid for all JR trains, buses and the ferry to Miyajima. There are many, many different rail & bus companies in Japan, but rail passes are for JR only. They are also not valid for the Nozomi bullet trains (the fastest trains) and if you accidentally get on one, you will need to buy a normal ticket at the normal price (ticket conductors do their job well in Japan).
As of 18/9/10 the price for a 7 day ordinary pass was 28,300 yen. A one-way ticket on the bullet train Tokyo>Kyoto costs 12,710 yen or 13,520 yen (with reserved seat). If you’re doing it on the cheap, there is also an option of taking an overnight bus for about 8,000 yen or if you’ve got masochistic tendencies, you can use the Seishun 18 kippu during limited periods during the year. It would take you about 10+ hours on local trains with umpteen train changes, but you could get there for 2,300yen. You can check rail timetables and connections with Hyperdia or Jordan.
5. Book your accommodation:
I booked some of my accommodation using the Rakuten travel and Jaran travel websites. Both sites give you points that you can use as discounts towards future bookings, but that’s not why I used them. I used them simply because they were the cheapest. Rakuten has an English site, but Jaran doesn’t, unfortunately. I also looked at Japanican, JTB, Expedia and a few other websites, but found their prices to be higher. The rest of the accommodation I booked directly with the hotels through their websites. I received confirmation emails from the hotels and rang them directly about two weeks before to double-check everything was okay.
When looking at accommodation, location is everything. Make sure you choose something close to a train or subway station. Most hotels will say they are xx minutes from so and so station. There is a standard that 1 minute walk means 80m (not including time spent waiting for traffic lights etc.)
There are also several different grades of hotels: city hotels, normal hotels, business hotels, capsule hotels, love hotels and then you have your traditional ryokaninns and your minshuku.
City hotels are your luxurious Conrads, Sheratons & Hilton-type hotels which will set you back several hundred dollars per night. Normal hotels are nice, but not so fancy and business hotels are designed to be basic, cheap and frequented by salarymen given miserly travel allowances from their companies. Capsule hotels are those freaky things you’ve seen on tv and some of them are men-only. Love hotels are rented for 1 or 2 hrs during the day time and if you want to stay the night you usually have to check in after 10pm. Ryokan general provide dinner, breakfast and communal bath facilities with an ensuite in the room, while minshuku are the scaled-down version of ryokan and are more like a B&B or guest house where you’ll have to share toilet and bath facilities.
As far as normal & business hotels are concerned, be prepared for small rooms, hard beds, pillows filled with small plastic beads (often you can request a different pillow) and prices quoted on a per person basis. Also there will be an accommodation charge, a service charge at city hotels (usually 10%) and if you’re in Tokyo, a small accommodation tax if your room rate is over 10,000 yen per night.
Bed-size is pretty crucial and you’ll often see ‘semi-double’ rooms advertised quite cheaply. A semi-double is really just a large single bed with two pillows and while it’s possible to have two people sleep in it (as long as you don’t move at all during the night) it’s not really comfortable for large foreign people for more than one night. Twin rooms will often be two single beds (not two double beds).
Some cheaper hotel chains:
An alternative to the hotels is a self-contained apartment or ‘weekly mansion’ as they are called in Japan. If you’re going to be in one place for at least a week (some require minimum stays of 2 weeks or 1 months) these often work out to be cheaper. I’d originally booked us into Citidines in Shinjuku for a week (they’ve recently opened a new hotel in Kyoto as well) but decided the walk to the subway (and the stairs-only access to the station) would not be the best for M. If you don’t mind a 5 minute walk to the subway and two flights of stairs are no problem for you, I think this is the best value accommodation you can get in Tokyo if you book under an advance 6 night 7 day plan.
Although I wasn’t planning on cooking anything, so the kitchen wasn’t strictly necessary, I thought the extra space and location of the apartments would be great (some are in local neighbourhoods for that ‘just one of the locals’ feel and some of them are in uberly fashionable places).
Some other weekly mansion sites:
Just be aware that with some weekly mansions, they do not come with any furnishings or bedding (you have to rent separately) and sometimes you have to pay a cleaning fee when you leave so look at the fine print carefully.
Also. tripadvisor is your friend for not-in-the-pamphlet photos and real-life experiences.
6. Pack light:
If you’ll be doing some travelling in Japan, you’ll appreciate a small suitcase the minute you step out of your hotel. I recommend taking only a carry-on size bag with wheels. Layers are your friend as you may experience several seasons in one day. Even in summer you’ll often need a light sweater or something inside as the air conditioning can be fierce. In winter, the heaters will see you having sweat pour down your butt crack if you can’t strip off a layer or two.
Take a fold-up umbrella or buy one the minute you arrive. I can’t repeat how important this is.
Take clothes that are one-rank above what you would wear at home. Japanese people spent a lot of money on clothes and dress very well. Men do not wear shorts. Take socks that don’t have any holes in them and shoes that don’t smell so bad the room clears when you take them off. You will need to remove your shoes at some stage during your trip.
If you do take a ridiculously large bag, you can take advantage of the takkyuubin system and send on your luggage to your next location. You can also send your suitcase from the airport to your hotel or from your hotel to the airport.
7. Get some cash:
Japan is a very cash-based society. You’ll be able to use credit cards at most hotels and some restaurants, but for everyday things, you’ll need cash -there is no EFTPOS in shops. Traveller’s cheques will require you to go to a bank and fill out lots of forms to cash them and quite honestly, carrying around lots of cash is no problem. I bought yen online using travelex. You’ll get a better exchange rate outside of Japan than inside and after looking at all the bank rates and shop-front exchange places, I found travelex to give the best rate.
You’ll also want to call up your credit card company and tell them you are going overseas so they don’t put a lock on your card for ‘suspicious activity’ which can often happen if you don’t tell them. At the same time, it might also be a good idea to ask them if you can increase your limit for the duration of your trip just in case. I got a $1000 increase approved over the phone just to give me some lee-way.
8. Get some travel insurance:
Shop around for this as prices can vary by up to $200 on exactly the same policy. I used Travel Insurance Direct and was very happy with their price and coverage. If you have pre-existing conditions, check the fine print for what is covered. I also found it cheaper to buy separate policies for M and myself because of our age difference. Make sure you specify that you are travelling in Japan (not just ‘Asia’), as it requires the highest level of health coverage due to medical costs in Japan.
If you have private health cover, get a quote on travel insurance from them to compare. Also some credit cards come with free travel insurance if the travel is booked using the credit card, so check that too.
9. Take whatever you need from home to make yourself comfortable:
Take your medications, your favourite toothpaste, deodorant, tampons and condoms because these things are different to what you’d get back home and there is nothing worse than going into a drug store and trying to buy these things in a foreign country. Leave your porn with exposed genitals at home though because you can get arrested for bringing it into Japan.
Take comfy shoes because you will be doing a LOT of walking.
Leave your knife and fork at home.
10. Use every discount you can find:
There are lots of special discounts and tickets for foreign visitors to Japan.
Pick up a Tokyo map at any JNTO outlet and use it for discounts at 37 tourist sites.
Welcome cards are available for many areas of Japan and provide a range of discounts for foreign tourists.
For travel to Nikko, Tobu Railways has lots of cheap tickets like the All Nikko Pass and the World Heritage Pass.
For travel to Hakone, Mt Fuji & surrounding areas, Odakyu Railways has cheap passes.
Tokyo Metro has many value-added tickets for subway travel in Tokyo.
Toei is the other subway company in Tokyo and has its own set of economical tickets.
Tokyuu Railways has discount tickets for travel to Yokohama & Odaiba.
Keio Railways has many combined train/amusement part tickets and all-day passes.
Osaka subway has similar pass tickets.
Lots of coupons are available for restaurants at Gurunabi (The Gourmet Navigator) but not all places have an English page and many restaurants have coupons on their webpages. You can also pick up several coupon magazines around Tokyo like Hot Pepper.
And that’s about all I can think of at the moment! The only other really big piece of advice I would give is not to be afraid of trying new things. Try funky food, go have the communal bath, sleep a night on a futon on the floor – it will all make for good memories and you might actually find that you like it.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list and is based on my own personal research and experience. Prices change and things disappear so the onus is on you to check. Make sure you also check things like visa requirements with your local Japanese embassy/consulate before you decide to go.