Planning a trip to Japan

Looking for some tips and tricks on how to plan a fantastic adventure to Japan? Read on below!

Flights

For this trip, I found a fantastic deal on Singapore Airlines through a notification I received from Scott’s Cheap Flights. You can sign up for these notifications here. It’s a great way to start incorporating more international travel into your life as many of the deals are amazing - cheaper than flying domestic in some cases.


Where to go?

With 2 weeks, it’s possible to see a lot in Japan, but unfortunately not everything. It is an enormous country so I had to narrow in on the “must-sees”. Tokyo and Kyoto exploring were at the top, followed by visiting either Nagasaki or Hiroshima for World World II reflection. I also wanted to make sure to get in a healthy dose of nature since Japan has so much of it (did you know 73% of the country is mountainous?). I have enjoyed doing backpacking hikes in foreign countries in the past, so found a 4 day hike in Japan’s Kii mountain range. Final itinerary:

Kyoto - 3 days

Hiroshima/Miyajima Island - 1.5 days

Osaka - 1 day

Kumano Kodo trail - 4 days

Tokyo with day trip to Hakone/Mt. Fuji - 4 days

Accommodations

Once I had ironed out a general plan of attack, it was time to book accommodation. This was particularly important along the hiking trail as ryokans (traditional Japanese accomodations) were limited there as well as on Miyajima Island. I used a combination of booking methods and landed on options mostly out of attempts to save money but also balance it with enjoying an authentic Japanese experience.

Kyoto: AirBnB apartment, which was great for doing laundry!

Miyajima Island: Booking.com Ryokan for an authentic experience.

Osaka: AirBnB Something close to the train since we were only there 1 night.

Pilgrimage route: Kumano Kodo accommodation - all accommodation for this pilgrimage is organized through this site, which is super handy.

Tokyo: Booking.com Hotel so we could enjoy some comfort our last few days, even on a budget!


Transportation

Japan is known for great and easy to configure public transportation, so I didn’t even consider renting a car. I was also able to plan most of the trip while thinking of transportation last, knowing I would be able to make it work between the plethora of trains and buses available. After some homework, I concluded that it was more economical to buy an unlimited tourist rail pass through Japan Rail Pass. The pass covered almost all of the necessary transportation, particularly all the bullet trains over the longer distances between cities. JR offers both reserved and unreserved seating. Seat reservation has to be done in person at JR ticketing offices in train stations, though you can book multiple different city train seats at once when you visit the office for advanced dates. This may be important during weekends, holidays, and peak travel seasons. If you want to go the unreserved route, make sure to board the train in either the first 3 or first 5 cars (depending on how long the train is). Look for markers on the platform and on the train itself.

Pro Tip: Reserved seats are required to ride the Narita Airport Express, which is the JR train you would take between Narita International Airport and Tokyo city center. This is the fastest and most efficient way to get out of the airport.

Be aware that with the rail pass you can only ride specific Japan Rail (“JR”) trains. Because the train system is privatized in Japan, there are different lines run by different companies. To cover the non-JR trains, consider buying an IC Card when you arrive, which is a pay-as-you-go option. Alternatively, large cities like Kyoto and Tokyo offer unlimited single day (and in Tokyo, multi-day which is called PASMO) passes, so explore all your options depending on your itinerary.

Pro tip: Order your Rail Pass at least a few weeks in advance as you need it to arrive in the U.S. before you can activate it when you get to a JR office in the place where you land (or in the Narita airport).

Observation: The Japanese are an incredibly honest people. Despite all the different forms of ticketing, the turnstiles are never closed and the train conductors rarely check train tickets. It’s refreshing to see such an organized and well behaving community, so enjoy!

Access to Maps

Something I was surprised about when planning for this trip was learning that Japan blocks offline google maps. This has been a go-to approach for travel for me and has allowed me to travel with flexibility and security. Fortunately, a number of other apps have popped up to fill the void, which can be downloaded and give you pretty excellent map coverage of the country. These include:

Japan Direct - super helpful for identifying which trains are covered by the JR pass.

CityMaps2Go

Maps.me

City Rail Map

Tokyo Map

Tantu Map


Internet Connection

Japan, being a very tech savvy country, has overcome the obstacle of being disconnected as a foreigner by making internet hot spots, or “pocket wifi”, affordable and easily available. There are a number of pocket wifi’ options, most which can be picked up in the airport upon arrival and dropped back off at the airport before you leave the country or mailed back in any postal box in Japan. I booked a pocket wifi through Ninja Wifi, and chose this mostly because I was late to the game (not that it mattered - it worked well and was cheap!). If you book your pocket wifi in advance (do this at least 1 week early), you might have more provider options and it might be further discounted. For our 14 days on the ground, it cost about $100. The advantage of the pocket wifi was being able to have access to the internet nearly everywhere (even on multiple devices) meaning that finding restaurants and attractions was much simpler. We were able to plan on the go and not worry about getting lost.

Hopefully the above context can help get you started on planning an epic adventure in the wonderful country of Japan. Logistics matter and having some of these pieces figured out in advance can make a huge impact on your overall travel experience!