Planning My First Trip to Japan

JAPAN — I don’t know about you, but for me, planning for this trip is the hardest one I have by far! (Tzk… tzk… such a baby traveler…) Honestly, it’s rather overwhelming and I never asked so many questions to people whom I know had been there before simply because I felt at times Google was talking in gibberish to me. 

First, there are too many things to see and I only have eight days to see it all. So the itinerary that I made is pretty ambitious as I try to crunch everything that I want to see in those eight-short-days.
Second, Japan method of transportation is one of the best in the world. They are so well organized up to the minutes (and even seconds probably), which for me is actually terribly daunting and stressful. As I have (too) many options to choose from, so I have to plan carefully with my timing, because say if I’m late to catch this train A that will arrive at 5:13 pm then I’ll be screwed because I won’t be able to catch my next train, which will mess up my whole itinerary or something like that… (admit at this point that I probably should cut down some places from my list so I could have a more relax pace during the trip and will not be so stressed to catch this train and that bus, but Pokemon! Gotta see ’em all!)

So, I’m thinking that probably I could share some of the findings I made from the hours I’ve spent on Google planning for the trip in this one pack blog -hoping that this could be useful for those who are going to go to Japan for their first time like me

Ticket

  1. Buy the flight ticket as early as possible — I’m talking about like 6 months in advance, especially when you are planning to go during the cherry blossom season. I’m using the Skyscanner‘s Price Alert feature – or could use Hopper too – to help me monitor the ticket price and get a sense when to buy the ticket.
  2. As much as possible try to avoid the golden week (end April to early May) — It’s a collection of four national holidays within seven days. Why? Because it will be hard to book the transportation and accommodation during that week. Plus, all the sightseeing place will be very crowded!
  3. A return ticket from the same airport will not always be the cheapest — Most of the time people will travel between Tokyo and Osaka and will probably buy the JR Pass train anyway. So you don’t always have to buy a return ticket from the same airport, but instead, the route could be all one-way or something like this: departure city – Osaka and Tokyo – return city or vice versa depends on where you want to start.

Accommodation

You could have probably a cheaper and better-valued place to stay from if you are open considering an alternative accommodation, which means to skip all the hotels, hostels, capsule hotel or Japanese Ryokan that you usually booked from the Agoda, Booking.com, or Hostelworld etc.

    1. Airbnb – I like to book from Airbnb lately when I traveled because sometimes they are more budget friendly and the houses are also great if you would like to have a large group booking for family gatherings, etc. Some of the houses here are also very unique and very personable, like this bamboo house where I stay in Bali.
      For Japan, all the Airbnb that I booked, always provides a portable WiFi for their guest. So no need to rent a pocket WiFi anymore.
      One more thing, if this is your first time to book with Airbnb, you could use this free code to get a $40 discount when you make your first reservations.
    2. Housecarers – I haven’t tried this type of accommodation yet, but I guess this is also a great alternative if you could found a house that happens to need a sitter just by the time you plan to get in town. How it works is that you will get a free lodge with minimum chores to do around the house, e.g. watering the plants, feed the fish, etc. and the house owner will have someone who will take care of their plants and fish while they are away, so it’s a win-win!
    3. CouchSurfing – Most backpackers probably are more familiar with this type of alternative, but for those who aren’t, this is how it works — you could look around for a spare empty room or literally a couch where you want to go and if there’s one available in the host’s house, then you will contact them and ask if you could stay with them when you get in town.
      Usually, the guest will probably give some souvenir from their home country to their host just as a small token of appreciation for letting them hosting you. In return, you could also be a host for someone else. Don’t have a spare room or couch? Then you could just offer a free tour around your town perhaps? It’s pretty easy and perfect if you’re traveling on your own because most likely your host will be your new friend later.

JR Pass Alternatives

Most tourists who are going to Japan must have heard about the mythical JR Pass, which is an unlimited train pass that could be used to travel around Japan that is also integrated with some buses and ferry for either 7, 14, or 21 consecutive days (phew I managed to pact all the info in one whole sentence!). Now, again, it depends on how you build your itinerary. If you are only going to go to several cities, then probably it will be cheaper if you just buy the specific pass for the cities where you are going instead of the JR Pass. For example, if you are only planning to go to Osaka-Kyoto-Kanazawa-Tokyo like me, then this route could be covered by using the Hokuriku Arch Pass (24,000 Yen), which is cheaper than the JR Pass (29,110 Yen).

Aside from the alternative JR Pass, there are actually other cheaper (and some faster) alternatives:

    1. Shinkansen Nozomi and Shinkansen Mizuho – the Shinkansen train is an icon of Japan so most people would like to hop on one of these fast trains at least once, isn’t it? Now, even if you don’t have any of those JR Pass, you could still hop on into any of the JR trains (of course! and you just have to buy the JR train ticket separately), but these two Shinkansens are actually an exception from the JR Pass because they are not covered by the JR Pass. So you still have to pay for this trains even if you have a JR Pass in your hand. But, the Nozomi Shinkansen could actually be an option if you are only going one-way from Osaka to Tokyo or vice versa. First, the Nozomi Shinkansen are faster (only two and a half hours total because it doesn’t stop at every JR stations along the route) when compare to the Hikari train that is covered by the JR Pass, for example, that will take three-and-half hours to get you to Tokyo or more than five hours if you’re using the Hokoriku Arch Pass from Osaka/Kyoto to Tokyo. Second, the ticket is cheaper to buy if you are going one-way than the JR Pass.
    2. Willer Bus – the night bus is a good option for two reasons, one, they are very cheap (around 5,500 – 7,000 Yen one-way ticket from Osaka-Tokyo) and two, you could save a night accommodation because you’re going to sleep on the bus. The down side of this is that the bus’ station sometimes could be hard to find.
    3. Domestic flights – Yes, you definitely could check out the domestic flights in Japan as an alternative too! They could be a way faster and cheaper than all the Shinkansen combine. On promo price, the ANA Air, Peach Air, JetStar, and Vanilla Air could really offer a bargain for a one-way ticket (and even return!). See below for some sample of these crazy deals I found:

Peach Air from Osaka – Tokyo: 6,540 Yen

Peach Air Osaka-Tokyo

ANA Air from Osaka – Tokyo: 10,990 Yen 

ANA Air Osaka-Tokyo

Activities in Japan

    1. Universal Studio Japan  If you are planning to go to the Universal Studio in Osaka, then to shortcut all the queues, you could go ahead and buy your ticket in advance. The English website will not show you this option, though. So you will have to log into their Japanese website to see this buy in advance ticket option available. Use Google translation to help you navigate around the page and it’s quite easy, but you will need to give them your address and phone number in Japan (if you’re staying in the Airbnb, then just key in the house’s address and the Japan phone number here). There’s also an option for a 12 months installment that you could pick if you like.
    2. Geisha’s Performance  Unless if you are going to one of those expensive banquets where the Geishas will be performing, then most people will go to Gion in Osaka and hoping that they will be lucky enough to spot a Geisha while they are there. There is actually another Geisha’s performance that is relatively cheaper than the banquet and will definitely guarantee you to meet with a real Geisha that is the Geigi performance. This is a regular performance organized in Niigata and the cost is 3,000 Yen per person, which is a save of $$$

Feel free to put your comments below if you have more tips for me!

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