My first trip to Japan during which I visited Tokyo, Kyoto, and Lake Kawaguchi area definitely tops my yet small travel list by the diversity of experiences. I will talk about that in future posts, and this one is dedicated to planning and preparation for the trip =) It has relatively few pictures and lots of text so bear with me.
So… going to Japan, do not forget to:
Make a plan and book everything in advance
If you are not surprised to hear that Japan is one of the most popular tourist destinations, then you should already expect that it is rarely possible to book anything on the spot.
This applies not only to flights and hotels but also train seat reservations, restaurants, tickets to tourist attractions etc.
Once you have some list of stuff to see in Japan, it would be a good idea to go through it and book anything bookable in advance. Do not lay it aside for too long – it is better to book right when the bookings are open for your date. We missed a few “planned” things this way so I know what I am talking about 😉
Good sushi and kobe beef places are usually only bookable via phone and only in Japanese. You can get some help from your hotel or special booking services like Voyagin, Viator and similar.
If some attraction does not have phone or online bookings, it makes sense to come early and buy a ticket for later (for the same day or a later date). Of course, it is only more important during a high season like sakura blooming.
Japan is a country with an incredible density of tourist attractions per square kilometer so you might want some help with planning. I used japan-guide.com for mine – it has all more or less popular sights in Tokyo and Kyoto, but also in many more not as well-known cities.
Order a JR Pass voucher
When your plan is to take a shinkansen (“the bullet train”) from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, but also visit some other cities, ordering a JR Pass will most certainly save you some money. The pass is valid for any train that is run by the JR (Japan Rail) company. It is more than enough for most practical purposes. Important exceptions are subway trains inside cities and the two fastest shinkansen trains (but all other shinkansens are included).
JR Pass is available for 7, 14, or 21 days. We took one for 14 days and managed to go with it to Kamakura, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Lake Kawaguchiko. I do not have exact numbers, but without JR Pass we would pay at least 1.5 times as much (and would have to queue for a ticket every time).
An important thing about JR Pass is that you cannot buy it inside Japan – you would have to order it beforehand. Once you do it, you will receive the voucher with Fedex which you have to swap on arrival to Japan for the Pass itself. Do not even ask why…
Book a portable WiFi
Internet access saved us many times. Need to translate something? Look up which platform your train is departing from? Which subway exit to take? Explain your destination to a taxi driver?
Even though many places in Japan just have free public WiFi (trains, train stations etc.), a pocket WiFi came out handy in many cases. They do not cost that much compared to flexibility that you get with it.
There are many companies that offer pocket access points. For example, you can order one from JR along with your JR Pass. I do not know if there is a chance of getting anything on the spot, so I would recommend ensuring your Internet access in advance.
Stock up some cash or good means of getting it
It was quite surprising for such an advanced country to have so many places which only take cash and nothing else.
Paying for subway tickets, luggage lockers, meals at restaurants, even tickets to popular tourist attractions is often impossible with a credit card.
Since tourist expenses are usually unpredictable, the best option would be to get a credit card with good conditions for cash withdrawals and currency exchange.
Read up social rules
Japanese culture is quite different from the European one including day-to-day interactions with strangers. Fortunately, there are many lists of non-obvious social rules in Japan on the Web which will help you to not seem like an uneducated foreigner.
Spare some time in your schedule for unexpected events
There are two main reasons why you might not want to make your Japanese itinerary very dense.
First of all, it is very easy to underestimate time you need. Initially we expected to be at the hotel in Tokyo at most three hours after landing (considering that it takes a bit over an hour to actually travel). These three hours soon became six thanks to crowds and queues… The same applies to all logistics in general – we will talk about this later.
Second, as I have said above, the cultural density in Japan is extreme so you will for sure stumble upon so many interesing things you have not planned initially but really need to see =)
Get used to waking up early
Dreaming of perfect shots free of people? A bit afraid that Mount Fuji will hide in the clouds and you will not capture its peak floating over a sea of sakura? Not sure what you are going to do when temples close around 4pm? The solution is an alarm set to 6am.
Be ready for weird 😉
This one is difficult to comment. For me it was one of the main reasons to visit Japan in the first place =) Weird food, weird ads, weird entertainment – we will come back to all that, but for now just check out this video: