Dear fellow travelers,
It’s Elena here, and I will share with you the memories of my recent trip to Japan! I spent 2 weeks in Japan last May; I went there with my mom. I have always been fascinated by this country and, like many 80’s kids, grew up with their anime and the myth of the futuristic technologies coming from Japan.
In this article, you will find an overview of some practical information that you have to take into account if you are planning a trip to Japan.
When to go there and how to move around
The high season is between the end of March and mid-May. August is also a peak season for tourists, but I suggest you to go in the Spring in order to avoid the humid, hot temperatures of the summer. If you want to see the cherry blossoms (the famous sakura), the wisest choice is going there at the end of March. This site will give you an idea of the 2016 blossoming season, but the perfect moment really depends on the weather, so you also have to count on a bit of luck. The first week of May is the Golden Week in Japan, so many Japanese will be on holidays and touristic sites will possibly be overbooked because of local travelers.
I booked my flights in advance (beginning of December) and took two direct flights with Airfrance (I flew to Kansai airport – which is in between Osaka and Kyoto – and flew back from Tokyo Haneda, although most international flights depart from Narita). Several companies travel to Japan so you only have to monitor the prices and choose the most convenient flight combination.
If you already started gathering information about Japan, you have probably heard about the Japan Rail Pass. The main way to travel around in Japan is by train, and JR Railways (one of the several companies that operate train services across the country) allows the non-Japan residents to travel with no limits on its trains with this forfait. The pass can only be bought outside of Japan. Therefore, you have to buy it before your trip and you will get it delivered to your home address within a few days. The earliest you can buy it it’s 3 months before your arrival in Japan and there are several websites where you can order it. Be careful, though. The JR pass for 7 days costs about 230 €, while the one for 21 days costs about 470 € (for second class seats): it’s only worth buying this pass if you are exploiting it fully and you have at least two long distance trips (for instance, if you are traveling by train from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, it is worth it, otherwise you may have to think twice before buying the pass). I used HyperDia to look for the trains I wanted to take during my trip, and added their prices together. It turned out that for me it would be more convenient to buy a 2 days pass for the Kansai region, another regional pass to visit Koyasan, and buy single tickets and bus/metro cards for the remaining days (I will go into more details about my itinerary later). So, my advice is: arm yourself with patience and a calculator and discover if buying the famous Japan Rail Pass is convenient or not for your trip.
With regards to the perfect duration of a tour in Japan, I personally spent 2 weeks there and I would say that I was able to see everything I wanted to see and also slow down the pace as I arrived in the two cities where I got to stay for longer (Kyoto and Tokyo, obviously). 10 days can also be sufficient to visit these 2 cities and maybe Nara, while 7 days would be a stretch. If you are lucky enough and have the chance to spend even more time in Japan, a 20 days trip would allow you to see something different and travel outside from the most visited paths, to see places such as Okinawa or Hokkaido.
It is normally suggested that you buy a travel insurance if you are traveling to Japan: in case you get sick or have an accident, this way you will be sure that hospitals will take care of you. In fact, they are normally leery of treating patients who are not inscribed to the national health insurance system. Make sure you always carry a proof of this insurance with you. Lonely Planet suggests World Nomads travel insurance, which also covers the costs of flight and hotel bookings cancellations, lost luggage, etc.
What to put you in your luggage?
You will choose your clothes with an eye on the meteo forecast and depending on the time of the year that you have chosen for your trip. Do not forget to bring your JR pass with you if you have purchased it in advance. The power plug is basically like the one used in the US, although the voltage is different. You can check this site to see if you will need an adaptor.
Last but not least, you may want to rent a smartphone during your trip, or buy a Japanese SIM to use it for the duration of your trip. In fact, I found it particularly useful to have the 3G activated everywhere during my trip, in order to regularly check Google Maps, especially in big cities (the streets have no names and everything is written in Japanese!). As an alternative (which is what I did), always book AirBnb accommodations that provide «pocket wifi». With this device, you will basically carry your own wifi network with you, and will have connection available everywhere.
Well.. you have everything you need. Don’t miss the upcoming post about the itinerary, and be ready to Eat the Road!