This is the first in a series of articles about travelling to Japan. I had originally planned to write up a single article, but realised very quickly that it was going to become quite large, and that it made sense to break it down into smaller chunks.
When I moved to Singapore in 2016, it put me closer to a range of Asian destinations that had been on my bucket list for ages. At the top of that list was Japan. As a child of the 80s who grew up in the UK, I’d been raised with my fair share of travellers’ tales that would make any make child want to experience Japan for themselves. In the fall of 2016, I finally made my trip there. I took a week off to visit Tokyo and Kyoto.
I was fortunate that I had some help planning this trip, both from co-workers who worked with me in Singapore, and an old friend who lives in Tokyo who was happy give me some advice to guide me.
Before I go much further on, I will say that Japan will capture your admiration. Their society has evolved over centuries of traditional values that are intertwined with a modern way of life. By the time I had finished my trip and was in the departure lounge at Haneda airport, I was already making plans of returning.
My 7-day itinerary involved three days in Tokyo, followed by three days in Kyoto before flying out of Tokyo. In hindsight, I would do a few things differently the next time I visit. These are my recommendations.
Before flying out, one should consider a couple of things that will help make your trip simpler.
Visitors may need a visa to enter. Japan participates in the visa waiver program and has reciprocal arrangements with a large number of countries permitting either visa-free entry, or a visa-on-arrival arrangement which allows tourists a 30-day stay, and then the opportunity to extend further if leaving temporarily. Eligibility varies for nationals of various countries, and is worth checking prior to travelling. In the past, I have used VisasDirect to run a check for visa waiver/visa-on-arrival eligibility.
In spite of being technologically advanced, the Japanese economy still tends to be a cash-driven economy. While credit cards are widely accepted, there are restaurants which only deal in cash. It’s a good idea to carry a decent amount of local currency with you.
Seasons and clothing
Japan has four very distinct seasons. Hence, when visiting, you would pack for the season. It’s worth packing a light jacket, regardless of the season (you’ll probably use it on the plane more than anywhere else). Spring and Autumn will have warm days, and cool evenings. Summers are hot and humid. Winters are cold with snowfall.
You will also do a fair bit of walking when visiting Japan, so it’s important that you have a comfortable pair of walking shoes with cushioning to ease your way over lots of concrete paths. Consider using gel insoles to ease your day trips.
Japan is a very ethnically homogenous society, and English is not widely spoken. Though a lot of people in Tokyo are conversant, the number of English speakers outside Tokyo are significantly fewer. It is worth loading the Japanese language translation pack onto the Google Translate app on your smart phone before you leave for Japan. Google Translate will even translate printed signs through the camera.
Consider where you’re flying into when arriving in Tokyo.
Tokyo is a major destination in Asia and is served by multiple airlines from all around the world. It takes about 7 hours to fly from Singapore direct. Tokyo has two airports – Narita and Haneda. Edokkos (residents of Tokyo) will tell you that Narita is not in Tokyo. This is very true. Narita airport is a good two hours from Shinjuku Station in Central Tokyo by express train. You could hire a cab which will take you the better part of four hours to get into central Tokyo and about AU$200 in cab fare. If you’re visiting Tokyo, plan to fly into Haneda.
Now, I had flown into Narita, and I made the two-hour train ride, which is quite nice… but it’s another two hours of travel after an eight-hour flight, and essentially, two hours of your holiday that you could otherwise spend resting, or sightseeing.
Consider the need to get a Japan Rail Pass
Tourists to Japan have the option of purchasing a week, 15-day, or month-long Japan Rail pass that will provide unlimited access to all JR Train Stations during their period of validity. They also give you unlimited access to the Shinkansen Bullet Trains.
Japan has multiple rail companies who have different stations along different lines. The JR Pass will not get you into stations that are not run by JR. You can purchase the JR Rail Pass at their official website. They will deliver this to addresses in multiple countries.
Now, if you only plan to be in Tokyo and Kyoto, and plan on a round trip on the Shinkansen to Kyoto, the JR Weekly Pass does not make good value. You’re better off purchasing tickets at the stations as and when you travel. However, if you’re planning on doing more than two day trips to surrounding areas from Tokyo on the Shinkansen, the passes definitely make sense.
Japan also offers good mobile coverage, but they use a different mobile standard to a lot of the rest of the world. Free Wi-Fi is more exception than the rule. I would recommend organising a data-only SIM card, or a mobile wireless router. If you’re travelling from Singapore, you might choose to go with a portable Wifi Router from Changi through Changi Recommends. Alternatively, you could get a data SIM card from the Japan Rail Pass site.
I had opted to get a data-only SIM from b-Mobile. They offer a 5GB data-only SIM with 21-days validity for JPY3,480 (about AU$40) which you can order online and have delivered to your hotel, pick up at 7 major airports in Japan, or have delivered to your home address prior to your departure.
Japan is well developed country and is the safest nation in the world. It’s the ideal destination for solo travellers – both male and female.
If you get thirsty while walking around in Japan, there are lots of vending machines that offer a wide selection of beverages. They all generally accept coins.
Japan is very clean. It might surprise you that it is very near impossible to find a public dustbin in Japan. It is commonplace for people to collect their trash and take it with them to dispose when they return home. However, I discovered that the most likely place where one might find a trash can is near a set of vending machines which sell bottled and canned drinks.
Last but not least, carry some sunscreen, hand sanitiser, toilet paper, and a hat. Though rare, I have discovered that there are toilets in Japan which do not provide soap, and some where you have to buy toilet paper!
Japan has a tradition where one can collect a seal for their travel journal at sites that they visit. Several tourist attractions around Japan also offer these seals. They are generally free. Sometimes, they may charge a small fee. If you’re into this sort of thing, consider having a travel journal handy with you to pick up your commemorative stamps.
Japan is a destination that appeals to visitors all year round, but there are two peak seasons which draw tourists more than any other time. The most popular season is in the Japanese Spring between March and April every year – the famed cherry blossom season. In reality, one can wait for decades to see the perfect cherry blossom. When the trees are in full bloom, they are susceptible to the weather, and in the event of strong winds, they may only last for a few days.
The other peak season is in the autumn, when the leaves turn red.
For both these seasons, book well in advance. Hotels tend to fill up quickly, and prices can jump by 5% every week as the season grows closer. Plan to have flights and hotels locked in three months in advance.
The Japanese summer can be very hot and humid. This is generally when tourists tend to visit other destinations. The winter season brings ski and snow sports enthusiasts to Hokkaido.
Japan offers a range of destinations. I had originally planned on writing this as a single article, but realised that it would become too busy, cumbersome and overwhelming to read if I put everything in here together. The following are articles on destinations in Japan that I have been to:
The accounts in this article are compiled from my own experiences from trips that I paid for myself. This post has not been sponsored – be it by any individual, commercial entity, or any other organisation. The opinions reflected herein are strictly my own.