Japan will always be at the top of my bucket list and I am super excited to finally check it off! Beautiful country, architecture and delicious food. People are polite and friendly. I grew up loving Japanese food and my mouth is salivating just thinking about the cute and oishi (delicious) meals and desserts 😀
But! Going there will need planning, especially for:
- Train travel. This is a must if you plan on moving from city to city and minimize waiting time when changing trains. There are several ways to travel to a destination and the time duration differs in each category. Trains arrive on time so you have to be there at least 10 mins to orient yourself which platform to board. The subway looks like a complicated mesh of multicolored lines. Make sure you are going at the right line and direction.
- Accommodation. Peak seasons are on (1) spring, where Sakura flowers are in bloom, (2) New Year where people starts heading home for the holiday celebration and (3) Autumn where the leaves changes color. Peak season means peak prices so you need to book in advance.
- Attraction operation time. Because we are heading to Japan on Christmas week, there are some attractions that closes as the year ends. Check with the official websites and plan your itinerary from there.
Another important thing to consider that Japanese is the language in this country. Although most areas have English guides, it is better to come prepared on what to do, especially when you are trying to transact something with a machine (DIY purchase). Most Japanese can speak a little English and a lot of hand gestures.
My company always have Christmas shutdown during the Christmas to New Year week so we decided to make use on that mandatory vacation with a trip to Japan: 24 Dec to 3 Jan. I got my fingers cross that I might see Japan covered in snow.
New Year period is considered a peak time to travel since many locals will be heading to their hometown to celebrate + influx of tourist on Christmas holidays. It is a Japanese tradition to visit temples and share dinner on the 1st day of the year. Most shops are closed so you need to do research if the places you plan to visit on 1 Jan are open. What all this means is a need to have early flight and accommodation booking.
We got a good deal from Delta airlines at 833 SGD. It is a direct 7 hour flight with meals and 2 checked-in luggage. I try to avoid budget airlines for more than 5 hours flight if I can afford it. Budget flights always have stopover at nearby countries like Taiwan or Hong Kong and you need to select your meals and luggage at a cost. It is not really worth it the savings if you want to make best use of your vacation time as you add more flight times and need to budget on packing (it doesn’t work during winter with all the clothes layering). Then again, this is my opinion.
I also paid travel insurance of 35.38 SGD with Aviva for 11 days.
I think I need to change nationality in order to have visa free travels Visit your country’s Japan embassy website to check if you need a visa to visit Japan and its requirements. Japan tourist visa has an expiry date of 3 months. This means you can only apply Japan visa 3 months or later before your trip. However, it is safe to purchase your flight tickets earlier than that since there is 98% chance your request will be approved. If you apply for visa here in Singapore, you don’t have to pay visa cost (awesome). Just gather all the requirements, go to the Embassy and after 2 days, it is ready.
Singapore’s Japan Embassy: click here
As of now, 1 SGD = 89.90 YEN, which is a good deal.
Most shops accept credit card, except for street market. Tipping is not allowed and is considered an insult. Sales tax will be 8% but you can get a tourist rebate in some shops, so it is good to ask before purchasing. The coins are useful for vending machines and believe me, there is one in every corner in case you need a hot or cold drink. They even have vending machines for cigarettes!
It is winter time so if you need tips on how to dress up, see my USA prep up: Prepping for winter vacation. Temperature ranges from 10 to negative 2 degrees Celsius. It gets colder in Disney Land since it is near the sea. Dress warm. It is normal to be wearing surgical mask to keep your nose warm. I tried it once but I got used to the cold so I didn’t really need one.
Frequent mode of travelling is via train and bus. Kyoto is easily accessible via bus but it can be hard knowing which stop to alight. Which is one of the reason I would recommend renting WiFi routers for navigation (see my last topic below: More Useful Info). As for trains, there are different kinds of train with various speed and fare. Knowing which one to board just takes a little patience as there will be announcement boards posted everywhere in the station to assist you. There are 2 kinds of pass you can avail:
- JR Pass. Only tourist can purchase this pass and must be purchased before arriving in Japan. I got mine from Nippon travel agency (NTA) in Singapore via their website. This pass allows you to board all rapid or local JR owned bullet trains (also called Shinkansen) except for Nozomi and Mizuho trains (the fastest trains). If you board those restricted trains or green train compartment, you will have to pay extra so be careful. You can reserve seats at the JR station for current and future travels for free. This ensures you have a seat during peak travel time. This pass is worth getting as the total cumulative train fare can be expensive if you are going north and south areas of Japan. You don’t have to buy this pass if you are planning to tour in one city or nearby cities. Cost would be 29,100 YEN (regular fare)
- IC card. IC card is used for subway and buses. It is convenient as you don’t need to queue up every time you need to buy subway ticket. Another advantage is that you can use one card in many major Japan cities so you don’t have to buy one card per city. Purchasing your card can be confusing since the ticket machine is in Japanese. You need to find the English button and then follow the screen instructions. You can also request for assistance by pressing the help button
Planning your routes will take some research.
- First, download a copy or get a brochure of the subway, Shinkansen train routes and bus routes.
- You can plot your routes in Google Maps or HyperDia. HyperDia is the official search engine to find your train route, time and cost. There is an option to tick that limits the search applicable for JR pass.
- Take note on which route best for you and decide if you want to reserve seat (for Shinkansen)
- Be familiar on how to get to the station and make time allowance to avoid missing your train, especially when you are transferring trains. You still need to find the right platform to board your train. Some stations are huge and interlinks with Shinkansen and subway platforms. Train usually arrive on time or earlier. Come earlier to get good seats.
- Bus boarding is a bit different. You board at the rear end and then tap your IC card at the front when you exit. Depending on the area, some bus station will only look like poles with a poster for bus numbers and timing. Google Map is your friend here.
These are the places we had to plan around to avoid missing them.
- Tsukiji Market, Tokyo: 31st Dec to 4th Jan
- Osaka castle: 28 Dec to 1st Jan
- Himeji castle: 29 to 31 Dec
City Hopping and Accommodation
We planned to hit these cities in sequence: Tokyo -> Kyoto -> Osaka -> Himeiji -> Nara -> Mt Fuji -> Tokyo. That is a lot of city transfer for just 11 days. Initially, we planned to end the trip with Mt Fuji for a relaxing close but it turns out a trip to Mt Fuji on New Year is a popular choice with locals. It is considered a good omen to see the mountain on the 1st day. This result to all accommodations fully booked or have sky-high prices. So we shifted our plans to view Mt Fuji at the 1st leg (this is why it is important to plan in advance). Another bump we encountered was that, because Christmas week is peak travel, we would miss the train heading to Osaka (reserved seats are all sold out) 😦 I guess we can visit it next time. Thus, our final plan is now:
Tokyo (1 day) – Mt Fuji(2d) – Kyoto(3d) – Himeiji(1d) – Nara(1d) – Tokyo(2d)
We actually didn’t stay in Himeiji and Nara. Our accommodation is in Kyoto and we just travel for an hour to the places to avoid moving our luggage too much. There are different types of accommodations:
- Hotels – the usual. Prices starts from 150 SGD onwards
- Business Hotel or Inns – for working travelers. Cheaper than regular hotels with basic amenities. Price starts from 100 SGD onwards
- Bed & Breakfast or Hostels or Capsule rooms – for backpacking or on budget. Expect shared bathrooms and rooms. Shared bathroom may also mean open air or no individual stalls (no privacy) but gender segregated (always).
- Ryokan – you must try sleeping on this traditional rooms. Most will have shared bathroom. Expect prices to be similar to business hotels or regular star hotels depending on the quality. Meals are usually provided in the rates
- Temple – for those who want to contemplate about life 🙂 Stay with monks and experience the traditional simple life. Expect shared bathroom. Price similar to business hotels with meals provided.
- AirBnB – live with the locals. Japan is an expensive place so don’t expect that price will drop if you rent room or apartment owned by locals. Price starts at 80 SGD onwards depending on location and type of accommodation.
We only tried hotel, business hotel and AirBnB (with the hint of Ryokan feel). You need to get use to the expectation that rooms will be smaller than what you imagine. So please do not try to squeeze 4 person in a bedroom meant for 2 people. It may work on most countries, except here unless you booked for 4-5 star hotel.
Oh, side note, most WC/bathrooms outside will only have cold tap water (drinkable). Not fun during winter.
When in Rome, act like the Romans. Not all countries share the same courtesy code so it is good to get accustomed with the local culture. Here are some tips when in Japan:
- Usually, the restaurant will offer you a hot towel prior to meal. Do not use for your face, this is meant to clean your hands and provide warmth from the cold weather outside. When you are done cleaning, place it neatly at the table corner.
- There is no need to add wasabi to your sushi sauce. The chef has already added wasabi inside the sushi.
- Proper sushi sauce dipping is on the meat side, not on the rice. It is normal to use your hands or you can use your chopsticks to maneuver
- It is said that slurping when eating ramen is an indication to the chef that you are satisfied with the dish. Do not confuse it when eating soba noodles.
- It is not customary for people to eat in the streets. Usually, they stand on the corner to enjoy their street food and walk away after finish eating.
- No need to bow when greeting people back in the ancient days. A slight nod of the head and a smile are good enough. Hand shake or hugs are not common practice of greeting.
- Please do not stare. Yes, 95% chance that this will be your 1st time visiting a onsen. Although, it is an open bath with naked people, Japanese respect your “privacy” by minding their own business.
- Before jumping into onsen water, you need to wash yourself. There are showers and toiletry provided nearby. This is a common bath area with no separators.
- The small cloth given to you is meant for your head once you are in the water. It is not mean for drying your body after washing.
- When you are done and relaxed, take another quick shower to rinse and then back to cold reality outside 😉
More Useful Information:
Buying convenience is worth taking, especially when you have many cities and places to discover with so little time. These are options you can take to save time and hassle:
- WiFi rental. While Japan is slowly makingWiFI accessible in tourist areas and public transportation, it sometimes pay to have your own internet access without the hassle of logging in different WiFi portal every time. You can rent mobile WiFi router for x number of days and drop it off at any post office or at the airport. It is very useful when checking out alternative train routes on the go and check directions to your destination. There are several WiFi rental companies in Japan. Here are the top contenders:
- Japan Wireless. We took our WiFi here since it has the most competitive price and we didn’t need high-speed internet for video downloading. As long as we can navigate and plan our itinerary along the way, we are ok to get the lower specs. Cost was 6,000 YEN for 11 days.
- Global Advance Communication
- If you live in Singapore, Changi Airport also have this service for any countries
- Luggage transfer. This is a life saver as well since we had to travel 4 hours via train twice. It is not fun carrying your heavy luggage from your hotel to the train and to the next destination. You will need to transfer trains at least once. If you think the luggage with wheels will help you, think again. You will most likely have to carry (yes, carry your30kg bag) in a flight of stairs during station to station transit. Most station do not provide escalators/elevators in every direction. If you are used to backpacking, this is not a problem but most tourist does tend to bring more weight or necessary convenience in a big bag. For a price, a logistics company can ship your luggage door to door and save you the hassle when travelling.
- Useful website: http://www.japan-guide.com/ This website is a lifesaver when planning the itinerary and getting familiar the area.