Planning a trip, according to me is a very exciting. In case of Japan, we had no prior knowledge at all, thus making the planning process all the more important. We realized, for making our trip successful, we needed to get all the information available and making a detailed plan for each day. Including what time to start the day, where to eat-what to eat and also how to get from one place to another. Googling information, reading travel blogs/books and picking up places, routes, local cuisine, specialties etc. is a lot of work but totally worth the effort.
Our focus was on covering maximum number of places while being able to experience each place completely. Didn’t want to miss out on places due to shortage of time or not booking tickets in advance or just not knowing about the place/food.
Japan has a wide network of buses, trains and flights. Depending on the places on your agenda and the time allotted for travelling, travel mode may be decided. We traveled by train in Japan, it was the fastest and cheapest mode of travel for us.
Japan offers wide range of passes for short and long distance travel as well as for single/multiple usage. We used a combination of passes.
- Japan Rail Pass – JR Pass is only for tourists which one needs to purchase before reaching Japan. We purchased ours online (online purchase for JRpass). Once the purchase is done you will receive an “exchange order”, exchange it (exchange order) at a JR station office (after reaching Japan) for the actual pass. The pass can be bought for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days.
This pass provides unlimited trains rides on most trains, for the days it is valid. Check this link for details on JR pass and it working. Why i say most trains is because, Japan has a very intricate system of trains. While JRpass works on long distance (between different cities) trains it cannot be used on most subways within cities.Simply put, JRpass works on JR lines only, which run from JR stations. This cannot be used on city subways (owned by different companies).JRpass can be used on Bullet trains i.e. shinkansen, but JRpass cannot be used on the two shinkansens: ‘Nozomi’ and ‘Mizuho’ Shinkansens. (more details here).
- Pasmo card :Appart from JRpass, we used pasmo card which allows to travel on JR lines (not bullet trains) as well as subway lines. However this is a little expensive and needs to be recharged when the balance is low. We used it for Tokyo only but can be used in other big cities like Kyoto as well.
We purchased this from the airport. More details about pasmo card in this link.
- Tokyo subway ticket : We also used the 72 hour Tokyo subway ticket to travel within Tokyo for a period of 72 hours (Tokyo stay was for 3 days).
Reason we took this card was; while Pasmo could be used, we found it a little expensive compared with this 72hour pass. These calculations depend purely on place where one stays and how the costs workout. More detail about the various day passes in this link.
- One day pass for Kyoto bus : We covered Kyoto in a day (yes, just a day.) but did not miss out on any major spot. We purchased the one-day pass for Kyoto city buses from the Kyoto station. It was the fastest and cheapest. The Kyoto bus pass came with a detailed map of the city, bus routes and bus numbers marked along with all the tourist places (within Kyoto city limits.)
It took us about 5 minutes to decide which temple to begin with and along the way we kept working on the next places to be seen. Since we had earlier read (while planning for our day in Kyoto) one should go to Gion in the evening we kept that as our last stop for the day.
The other options available were of Kyoto subway pass or a combo pass for both the subway and buses. More information in this link.
- One also need to decide the exit and entry strategy from the airports. As these can be a bit confusing. There are a number of choices available but it is better to figure out this in advance.
- While boarding shinkansens, be sure to enter into the unreserved coaches (JRpass is used only for unreserved seats). Before the word ‘unreserved coach’ starts giving you a bad feeling, I should add that there is hardly any difference between the reserved coaches (marked with a green symbol near entrance doors) and the unreserved ones.
Reserving seats is possible by paying extra but it seemed unnecessary.
- Japan has a large variety when it comes to food. While planning the trip we also planned and noted down food/dishes that were famous to places we were travelling to, I think planning food definitely helped us there.
- It could be a challenge for people who are vegetarians. As most dishes include pork/beef or may have a fishy taste/smell.
I found this blog, where the author is a vegetarian and has suggested some places as well, check it here.
- When it comes to food I also need to mention the convenient stores like 7eleven (we had our breakfast from these mostly :p ) or shops selling bento boxes. Such shops are there on all stations. These are a quick fix for hunger and for munches for the train rides 😉
- Then there are the vending machine on the platforms and inside trains (yes, there are vending machines inside the trains as well.) and in some shinkansens there are hostesses who go around with the food carts.
The vending machine dispense Hot and Cold beverages (marked by red name tag for hot and blue name tag for cold.)
It is also interesting to stroll by the food shops and look for food that looks/smells appetizing. This happened to us in Kyoto where we were really hungry after a busy day of site seeing and walked in front of food shops looking for dinner. A shop there had its items displayed with description of its contents. We found what we liked and ordered by pointing out at the food through the display (to the waitress).
There is a wide rage of stay options catering to different needs of travelers. It is easy to find a place without much hassel.
We did a little mix-n-match with our stay dividing it between a hostel, a private room through airbnb and a Ryokan. We picked places depending on their distance from stations/bus stops.
Few other pointers
- Books read : Apart from the blogs we read some books on and about Japan. Most notable ones were; Lonely planet for Japan, tokyo city guides, CultureShock! Japan:a survival guide to customs and etiquette, A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony.
- Notable blogs : Websites were also helpful like; nerdnomads.com , www.japan-guide.com and www.jrpass.com to name some. Japan government and tourism sites also have sample itinerary ideas.
- Instagram feeds helped : Also worth mentioning are Instagram feeds with several pictures of Japan. We found them especially helpful in finalizing places to see and places that could be avoided.
Logic being, certain places owe all their charm to the different seasons. Since we were travelling during the winter months; in most places trees had no leaves left on them. So it did not make sense going to places (parks etc.) which one must go to see the cherry blossoms (or autumn leaves) specifically. The latest pics on Instagram also helped us in tracking down places which were covered with snow at that time.