Thursday, December 1, 2016

[Japan 2016] How To Plan A Trip To Japan




Photo By: Elin Chow

My husband and I have been wanting to visit Japan for years, but were pushing back our travel plans due to the high cost of traveling and complexity of the public transportation systems. Japan has the reputation for being one of the most expensive countries to visit when compared to many other Asian countries. Just the thought of how much that would cost scares us.

We finally made up our mind to visit Japan this year, during the popular autumn foliage seasons. True enough, Japan is not cheap to travel in, but it is not a prohibitively expensive country that most people think it is. Although it is shockingly expensive, we find it absolutely worth every single penny.

Planning a trip to Japan can be an extremely daunting task. When I was planning our first trip to Japan, I feel stressed because I have absolutely no idea where to start. I found everything to be a little confusing, especially the rail systems. So I started doing lots of research online and tried to get as much information as possible. But with so much information available on the internet, it can be overwhelming at times.

Although challenging, it can be a very exciting and rewarding experience at the same time. At the end, it took me months to plan our first Japan trip because I wanted to make sure everything is smooth and perfect.

In this post, I am going to share about my travel planning process for my trip to Japan. Hopefully this post will be helpful to anyone planning a trip to Japan for the first time.

For anyone planning a trip to Japan, you might be interested to check out my itinerary:
[Japan 2016] 7D6N Osaka - Kyoto - Nara - Kobe Trip Itinerary + Overview

Which Part Of Japan To Visit

First, you will have to decide which part of Japan you would like to visit because this will ultimately decide which airport you will arrive. Most foreign visitors who plan to visit Japan will usually arrive at Narita International Airport (outside Tokyo), Tokyo Haneda Airport (in Tokyo), Kansai International Airport (outside Osaka) or Chitose International Airport (Sapporo, Hokkaido).

Narita International Airport, Tokyo Haneda Airport and Kansai International Airport are the main international hubs for Japan, with most major airline offering direct flights to and from many other destinations around the world. Other than these, there are also many other international airports in other regions of Japan. So, in order to decide which airport you will fly to, you will have to decide which part of Japan you are intending to visit first.

When To Visit

The most common question we often heard is "When is the best time of the year to visit Japan?". Well, I would say that there is no absolute answer because it will depend largely on your personal preference.

Japan is a year-round destination with four distinct seasons, each beautiful in its own unique ways. Visiting Japan at different times of the year offers a completely different experience.

Spring (Mid March - May)

Spring is the best of year to be in Japan. A good time to visit will be the cherry blossom season, which will happens somewhere around late March to early April. This is the peak tourist season, thus a very expensive time to visit Japan. All over the country, beautiful pink cherry blossom bloom and draw visitors from every of Japan and the world. The massive crowds make it nearly impossible for one to compose a nice photo.

During cherry blossom season, hotels also tend to get fully booked out fast, so you have book as early as possible, and expect to pay a much higher price than usual due to higher demand.

Summer (June - Mid September)

Summer in Japan is hot and humid, with July and August being the hottest and most humid months of the year. This is not a popular time to travel to Japan, so you can expect lesser crowds. Therefore, flight and hotel prices are much lower in the off season. During summer, the temperature is perfect for a little bit of hiking. This is also the best time to climb Mount Fuji or visit beach destinations like Okinawa. All around Japan, you can expect dozens of festivals happening, with countless of lively fireworks displays colorfully enlivening the dark skies every night.

Autumn (Mid September - Early December)

As autumn arrives, the leaves change from green to a brilliant red and bright yellow colors. Just like the cherry blossom season, the autumn foliage season is also a peak tourist season in Japan, drawing a large number of visitors from all over the country and the world.

The weather is mild, cool and dry during autumn in Japan, offering spectacular views of colourful autumn leaves.

Winter (Mid December - March)

Winter is a low season and the cheapest time to visit Japan, but it is also a slightly uninteresting time to visit because there are lesser to see. As winter arrives, leaves fall and trees become bare, making it less appealing to visitors.

Most of the tourist attractions also close earlier than usual during winter time due to shorter daytime. However, it is a great time to enjoy skiing, snowboarding and Onsen (hot spring). In regions where there are snow, you will be able to enjoy a beautiful snow scenery.

The most expensive time to visit Japan is during national holidays. Price of flights and accommodations tend to skyrocketed around these periods:

1. Mid December to early / mid January, around New Year

2. Late April to early May around Golden Week when most Japanese make use of their week-long holidays to travel.

3. Mid August during Obon period when Japanese travel to their hometown to visit their relatives and pay respects to their ancestors.

It is best to avoid these time because it will be extremely crowded almost everywhere in Japan, thus harder to enjoy the sights or take nice photos.

Length Of Your Trip

The next step will be to decide the length of your trip so that you can determine your budget and start searching for your flight. To experience the best the country has to offer, I recommend visiting for at least 10 full days.

Budget

Decide your budget and work around it. Remember to set a realistic budget for your trip. Your budget will eventually decide where you will stay, your choice of meals, attractions to visit and of course, shopping. It is not easy to work around the budget, especially in a country well-known for its high cost of living. I suggest bringing a notebook with you to record all your spending when you are traveling in Japan. This will help you to keep track of all your spending in Japan to make sure you don't overspend.

Airfare

After deciding a date for your visit, you can start searching for your flight online. Finding the right flight is undoubtedly one of the most time-confusing and stressful part of travel planning. Airfare is expensive and we often worry that we are not finding the best price or make the best decision.



I used to spend hours and hours searching through multiple websites for the best flight. But then I realized that there is no perfect time or way to buy a flight. But timing still matters, and usually the farther in advance one books a flight, the lesser one will pay. Most airlines will take advantage of public holidays. Price of tickets usually get even more expensive on days close to public holidays. It is advisable for you to book well ahead of time for travel around a peak period to avoid a sudden price-jump.

I recommend using Skyscanner to compare airfare across hundreds of different airlines and travel sites to find the best flight tickets. Do not assume that budget airlines are always the cheapest to fly because it might not be. Extra baggage fees, seat selection fees and extra charges for in-flight meals and beverages. With all these incidental costs, low cost flights would sometimes end up costing even more.

Besides price, there are several other factors to consider while choosing a flight - level of comfort, quality of services and flight schedules.  These are usually the factors that affect not only your flying experience, but also the overall cost of your trip. Sometimes, it is absolutely worth it to book a slightly expensive ticket with an international airline because it usually offers a better flying experience. The most important factors for us are price and flight schedules.

For Japan, I suggest choosing a direct overnight flight so that you can arrive early in the morning. This will help you save on an extra night's accommodation unless you want to sleep in the airport. Having said that, you would noticed that flights that arrive at odd hours, such as late night, are usually cheaper. Obviously, most travelers would want to arrive during the peak hours so that they would waste money and time on an extra night's accommodation.

Attractions To Visit

After booking your flight, the next step is to create your travel itinerary. I recommend reading through various travel websites and blogs for travel informations and tips. This will help you to start the planning process greatly. One of the most useful site I found is Japan-guide, which offers lots of up-to-date travel information on attractions, hotels, restaurants, entertainment, shopping and travel tips.

The next step is to create a must-visit list, which you can use to work out a draft itinerary later on. Putting aside the length of your visit for a minute, you would want shortlist all the attractions that you want to visit and the things that you want to do in Japan. From the list of attractions, try to fit them into your allocated time frame and create a draft daily itinerary.You might want to consider adding extra information to your itinerary including photos of the attractions, excerpts from travel blogs, local maps and tips.

You might want to make use of the tons of suggested itineraries available on the internet as a base for planning your own trip. Remember, DO NOT overplan! Well, I totally understand that when you are traveling to a new country on a limited time, you will want to see as much as possible and not to waste a single second of it. But trust me, you are not going to enjoy the trip if you try to cram too many things into a day. You will feel stressed, rushed and exhausted. The list of things and attractions that you can do and see is infinite, but your time, energy and money is not.

The best way is to plan a few big items daily, but make sure you leave some room and time for side-adventures to discover new things. Try to put down some optional attractions as well just in case you have some extra time to spare.
How To Get Around

After creating your draft itinerary, the next step is to check the locations, distances and traveling time between each of the attractions that you planned to visit. Public transportation in Japan is highly developed, especially in major cities. You can travel to almost everywhere easily and quickly by trains, bus or taxi.

Trains

The railway systems in Japan is amazing, yet complicated and confusing at the same time, especially for first-timer. Reading about the different rail systems in Japan confused me, and it was not until I arrived in Japan that I realized how easy it was actually to travel around the city.

However, the best way to travel around in Japan is by train. Japan has a very extensive and efficient rail network, but its complexity can make it difficult for first-timers to figure out an efficient route. This is also one of the reason why we have kept on postponing our travel plans to Japan over the years.

Surprisingly, public transportation in Japan is very expensive by international standard, but I can ensure you that it is going to worth the hefty price you paid for. Trains in Japan are clean, comfortable, reliable and unbelievably punctual. Even if you cannot read Japanese, most of the trains stations have signs and maps in both Japanese and English. Announcements are made in both Japanese and English too.

The first step is to research on the best train route and type of train for you for every attractions that you are planning to visit. Although confusing, I can assure you that it is really not as daunting as you thought it will be once you understand how the entire system works.

Japan Railway Group (JR) is the main operator, controlling about 70% of Japan's railway network. The rest of the tracks are owned and operated by private railway companies, which tends to be cheaper than JR. All railway and train lines are named by the operators, so make sure you know which line you are using. You might want to download and print out train maps in colors and use it as a reference while you are planning the route for your trip. I suggest adding train routes and directions in your itinerary as well.

Travel Passes

There are lots of travel passes for foreign visitors available in Japan, providing unlimited travels in a certain area, or round trip from a certain region to another region, plus unlimited travels in that particular region. Most foreign visitors would choose to buy the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) which offers unlimited travels on almost all JR trains (including Shinkansen) and certain JR buses and ferries nationwide. But it cannot be used for private railways and subways within cities.

Foreign visitors can buy JR Pass for 7, 14 or 21 days, which must be used on consecutive days within its allocated timeframe. A 7-day pass must be utilized in 7 days and after that, it will be not valid anymore. You cannot buy JR Pass in Japan, so you have to order it online before you leave your home country for your trip. After that, you will receive a voucher that can be used to exchange the JR Pass at any JR Ticket Office.

However, the JR Pass is VERY expensive! An ordinary 7-day JR Pass will cost 29,110 Yen. But is it worth it? It might not be. Before you decide whether to buy the JR Pass, I suggest taking some time and work out the total cost of traveling first.

Hyperdia

I would recommend using Hyperdia, a very useful website that you can use to plan your route around Japan by rail. Upon entering train departure and arrival stations, Hyperdia is an online timetable that will display the exact journey time, distance, fare, transfer stations (if any), time of arrival, as well as departure & arrival track (platform).

Hyperdia results are incredibly accurate, up-to-date and reliable, so you have absolutely nothing to worry about. I recommend you spending some time to check the fare for every journey that you are planning to take and try to work out the total cost of traveling. This will help you to decide whether it is worth to buy a JR Pass.

I actually intended to purchase the JR pass initially because it is highly recommended, but decided not to after I have worked out the total cost of traveling based on the itinerary I have created earlier. The cost of a 7-days JR pass does not pay itself off. It is significantly cheaper to pay with a prepaid IC card as you go.

Generally, the JR Pass will pay itself off when you travel longer distances, rather than short distances. Of course, there are many other cheaper travel passes available for foreign visitors other than the JR Pass. You can check out the list of passes on Japan-guide.

IC Cards


IC Cards are rechargeable cards that can be used to pay your fares on public transportation in Japan. You can travel on almost all trains (except Shinshinkan and Limited Express) and buses (except Airport and Highway buses) by simply touching the card on a reader at the ticket gates. Fares will be automatically deducted when you exit the ticket gate at your destination. The card is preloaded and can be recharged at any train stations throughout Japan.

There are a total of ten different major IC cards (Suica, Pasmo, ICOCA, Pitapa, Toica, Manaca, Kitaca, Sugoca, Nimoca, Hayakaken) issued by JR Railway and other private railway available. which can be purchased at ticket machine and counter at the corresponding railway stations. The card costs 2,000 Yen, which consists a refundable deposit of 500 Yen and an initial amount of 1,500 Yen to be charged on the card. You will get different brand of IC card depending which city you are buying it from (eg. Suica or Pasmo in Tokyo, ICOCA in Osaka). Even so, the IC cards are compatible with each other and can be used interchangeably.

Bus


Buses are a much cheaper alternative to trains, but they take longer time and may be less comfortable. While the cost is much lesser, you will actually end up wasting more time on traveling the road. So if you have limited time in Japan and would like to make the most out of it, I would not recommend taking the buses. But if you are not in a hurry and have plenty of time to spend in Japan, buses are definitely the cheapest way to travel around the country.

Taxi

Taxi are ridiculously expensive in Japan and most taxi drivers speak minimal English. It is not a great option to get around, especially for people with a limited budget.

Accommodations

Once you have decide the length of time you want to stay in each place, you can start looking for accommodations online. Looking for a place to stay in Japan can be a big headache, especially when you have a limited budget.


Price of accommodations are generally very high in Japan, when compared to most other Asian countries. You will be surprised by how expensive a 3-star business hotel would cost in Japan, especially when you are visiting during the peak seasons. Size of hotel rooms are unbelievably small and cramped, and often do not seem to worth the price you paid for.

Please note that most of the hotels in Japan only open for reservation 3 to 6 months in advance. Thus, there are limited choices if you start to search for hotel rooms more than 6 months prior your trip. So, the best time to reserve your accommodations will be 3 months before your trip. However, accommodations in Japan tends to get full really fast once they are open for reservation, especially during the super peak seasons. Make sure you act fast before the rooms are fully booked.

Please note that most of the local booking sites are in Japanese if you are intending to book directly through the hotel. I usually use Google Translate to translate the website over to English. It is not perfect, but good enough for comprehension purposes.

It is not worth to spend so much on hotels when you will be out sightseeing all day. Of course, there are other cheaper alternatives like guesthouses, inns and Capsule hotels. However, most of these have shared bathrooms, which offers lesser privacy.

When it comes to accommodation, Capsule hotels are obviously the extreme budget option, Although Capsule hotels are the cheapest option to spend a night in Japan, they are not for the claustrophobic. The hotel offers a bed in a tube-like pod barely bigger than a coffin in a common room at a relatively low cost.

For those who prefer more privacy and bigger space like us, I recommend renting an apartment on Airbnb. You can start looking for an apartment 6 months prior your trip in order to get a nice place to stay. Comparing to business hotels, apartments are generally cheaper and comes with all basic amenities you will possibly need for a comfortable stay. Most of the apartments would usually offer bigger space than a hotel room in a convenient location, at a fairly affordable price. In addition to that, you will also enjoy some extra amenities like your own kitchen and washing space - things that you will not find in your average hotel rooms.

There are a lot of listings on Airbnb, especially in larger cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. I suggest one to search in a specific location. You will want to read the reviews on Airbnb and shortlist a few apartments that you like. Remember to check the exact apartment location and make sure it is close to major train stations. This will help you to save a lot of time and money on Japan's transport.

Pocket Wifi

Is pocket wifi important? Yes, it is very important. In fact, I would say pocket-wifi is a must-have for travelers to Japan, especially if you are intending to use Google Maps to get around. Most people rely heavily on their mobile devices for navigation, which requires mobile connection to stream map data. No internet connection, no map. No map, no directions.



Surprisingly, free Wifi is not widely available even though Japan is a highly advanced country. Free Wifi access points are still relatively few despite recent efforts by business and government to offer free Wifi in Japan for foreign tourists. Furthermore, the free Wifi tends to be slow and unreliable due to high usage.

Thus, I will recommend renting a Pocket Wifi if you are traveling in Japan. Pocket Wifi is a small, battery powered Wifi device that you can connect multiple devices to, such as smartphones, tablets and laptops. It is easy to set up, provide unlimited access to high-speed internet, allow multiple devices to connect at the same time and most importantly, inexpensive.

Pocket Wifi enables you to stay connected with family and friends at all time, share about your trip on social medias and access to Google Maps for directions at all time. I believe nobody would want to waste their time getting lost and searching around for directions.

It can be frustrating if you are lost and unable to search for directions. With pocket Wifi, you can check on sighting information anytime, anywhere, and navigate around the city effortlessly without getting lost. Pocket Wifi also enables you to access to Hyperdia and check on the fastest train route whenever needed. It is definitely the best way to guarantee a fast and stable internet connection while you are traveling in Japan!

Language

Most Japanese are not fluent English speakers as the language is hardly spoken in the country. Some foreign visitors might find the language barrier a huge problem, but we have not encountered any difficulty navigating Japan without knowing Japanese.

Although most of the Japanese could not speak well in English, they will be able to understand your questions. Even with language barrier, the Japanese people are generally very polite and friendly, and will goes extra miles to help you whenever you need.

Getting Ready For Your Trip

A week before our departure, I got everything printed out, which includes our boarding passes, accommodation booking confirmation, railway maps and of course, the itinerary I have created. I have also reserved my Japan Pocket Wifi rental online with TravelRecommends.

It is advisable to check the weather forecast online prior your departure so that you can pack accordingly to the season and climate. For autumn and winter travels, avoid bringing heavy coats. Instead, you might want to bring a lot of layers with you.

Electrical outlets in Japan are 2-prong. Remember to bring the universal travel adapter along with you if your electrical devices do not have 2-prong plug.

No matter what, it is important that you remain flexible even when you have an itinerary. Be prepared and willing to change your plans if something unexpected crops up because sometimes, these unexpected opportunities could end up being the best part of your trip.

Lastly, put all your worries behind and enjoy your trip to the full. Of course, I understand that there are always reasons to worry while you are traveling. Missing flights and trains, getting lost, not being able to access to your money and so on. The list can be endless! If you are person who have a tendency to worry about particular things, then the only way to deal with it will be to get organized before you leave for your trip. Stop worrying and I believe that everything will eventually work itself out. Enjoy your trip!
Be sure to follow me on my Facebook or Twitter to get the latest updates on my travel adventures! Also, do not forget to share my blog posts with your family and friends if you find them helpful. In the meantime, you might also want to check My Wanderlust page for some of my other travel adventures.

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