A friend is heading to Japan on holiday for a few days in November and December and we’ve been e-mailing each other for the past few weeks. She’s been asking about money-changers, hostel accommodations, sights to see in such a tight schedule, etc. I have only been to Japan once, but there were a few things I did pick up that might help other people planning a trip there for the first time. (Some tips I have already buried, er, included, at the end of my past, long Japan entries, but it might be easier for new readers to see them in one entry.)
BEFORE YOU LEAVE
For me, the second best thing to actually being in Japan is planning your trip to Japan. Or planning a trip anywhere. You just get this wonderful high from the anticipation the trip brings. (My favorite quote from travel writer/editor Don George: Anticipation is one of travel’s great gifts. If you’re still not convinced, check out this NY Times article on a study from the Netherlands, which showed that “the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning a vacation.”) So, what’s included in the planning?
Getting your visa then your plane ticket: When it comes to heading off to a country where I need to acquire a visa, I try not to succumb to the temptation of buying those non-refundable promo fares. What I do is I get in touch with a travel agency, give them my budget for the ticket (that is after looking through websites of different airlines to have an idea on the average cost) and ask how long they can hold it for me. Usually they can reserve it for two weeks, so I then go about acquiring the requirements I need for the tourist visa within that time frame. In Manila, a Japanese visa is acquired through accredited travel agencies. We got ours through Reli Tours and after we submitted everything, we got our visa after 2-3 days. Only then do I give my travel agent the go to buy the tickets.
Getting a Japan Rail (JR) Pass: It can be a real travel bargain for foreign tourists planning to explore the different cities of Japan within seven, 14 or 21 days (the different types of passes), but it can only be acquired outside Japan.
1) You buy the JR Pass exchange order in authorized travel agencies in your country. (Here’s a list from the JR Pass website. We bought ours at Universal Holidays, Inc. in Makati. Credit card is accepted.)
2) When you get to Japan, take your exchange order, along with your passport, to a JR Station Information Center to get your pass. ONLY do this if you already need to use the train or shinkansen to travel between cities. At around ¥28,000 for a mere seven-day pass, it is not a bargain if you’re simply staying within the same city. (If that’s the case you’re better off purchasing one of the many day passes or prepaid cards for the local trains.) It comes close to paying off if you, for example, have to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto and back (roundtrip fare is around ¥26,000). Taking the shinkansen to nearby Nara, Osaka, Kobe or Himeji once in Kyoto makes it a real bargain.
3) Assuming you acquired your JR Pass to ride the shinkansen, make sure you reserve a seat. There’s no additional payment and you can make the reservation at the Information Center as well. You will receive a reserved-seat ticket (left), which you need to show the train inspector once you’ve boarded the train. If you don’t reserve a seat, you might end up standing during the entire ride. (We got our exchange orders exchanged for the actual pass and reservations at the JR Information Center in Shibuya station)
* For an even cheaper transportation alternative between cities, check out the Japan Bus Pass by Willer Express.
Finding cheap and (with a semblance of) cozy digs. Accommodations in Tokyo (and sometimes even Kyoto) can be costly compared to other Asian cities–heck, compared to other Japanese cities. Even among typically affordable hostels, inns and guesthouses, what’s cheap in Tokyo (1 night at a basic twin private hostel room in Khaosan Tokyo Samurai with a shared bathroom is around PHP3,368) will get you a better looking and much more spacious hostel/business hotel/boutique hotel room with its own private bathroom in Saigon, Siem Reap or Kuala Lumpur. (I’ve been checking at Hostelworld.com for a trip next year, fingers crossed!) But then again, real estate in Tokyo is one of the most expensive in the world, so it’s not really a big surprise. Hostelworld is a good source of affordable accommodations. Just start booking as soon as you get your visa and tickets, because the higher rated hostels, inns, and hotels get full pretty fast. If you can’t get the ones you like and only the average- or low-rated accommodations have rooms or beds, check the hostel reviews of other travelers–particularly their “lowest rated” reviews and see if what they’re griping about is something you’ll have an issue with as well. For me, complaints about “not having a common area to meet fellow travelers,” “being hard to find,” “tiny rooms” or “far from the party scene” were things I could easily overlook. Bed bugs, security lapses and just plain bad service were not. (But in our 10-day stay in Japan, I have to say I did not encounter any sort of bad customer service even with the language barrier.)
Japanese culture-tripping: Tea ceremonies, ikebana, sake tasting, calligraphy, sushi making–there are many activities that can immerse you into Japanese culture. Most tours and services though are expensive, but if you’re heading to Kyoto, WAK Japan has a range of short programs for those on a limited time and budget. But if you want an introduction to Japanese culture for free…
Finding out what’s for free: Since Japan can be a costly destination, I searched for places and activities where I didn’t have to shell out a lot of yen. One of the things I found is the free travel guide services. Get to know the city and the culture from a resident. For Tokyo, check out Tokyo Free Guide and for the Kansai region, check out Visit Kansai. I was able to book a volunteer guide from VisitKansai.com for our trip to Kyoto, but I didn’t get one in Tokyo since most guides were only available during the weekend and we needed a guide during a weekday.
What to pack: For your clothes, this would obviously depend on when you’re going. If you’re used to the tropics (like me) and you’re heading to Japan in between winter and spring or fall and winter, better to still bring a winter jacket. Climate change can turn that cool spring morning into an unbearably cold winter day (complete with snow). We learned this the hard way and ended up buying thick outdoorsy jackets to survive the rest of the trip. (All the while I was thinking about the thick and more stylish jacket and coat I left in my cabinet, because they were too bulky and I assumed it wouldn’t be that cold anyway.) To give you an idea of weather forecasts in some of the major Japanese cities, you can check the five-day forecast of Japan Times. Bring a universal charger as well. While there are sockets for two-parallel flat prongs, we encountered many for the three-flat prongs. Check these types of plugs/sockets to give you an idea.
Changing your dollars: After you get past Immigration, Luggage Claim and Customs, it’s advisable that you exchange your money in the terminal’s moneychanger booth (open from 6:30 am to 11 pm). We exchanged a bulk of our dollars when we got to the Narita International Airport and it had a pretty decent exchange rate. You need to fill up a form before handing it over to the person behind the moneychanger counter along with the money you need changed. When we needed more yen, we also changed some dollars in a bank (banks are open from 9 am to 3 pm). Exchanging money in the bank takes a longer process (around 20 minutes) and you need to bring your passport.
Going mobile: Japan has its own mobile phone technology (they don’t have a GSM network, so no GSM phones) and only a few foreign phones work, like some 3G models. If your phone works, you can either get the usual roaming, which tends to be expensive, or get a rental SIM card from a Japanese provider for lower rates. Since our mobile phones were not going to work in Japan and we needed to coordinate and meet up with our resident-friend C almost everyday we were in Tokyo, we decided to just rent a phone (you need a credit card). We got a Japanese phone at Global Rent-A-Phone, which has kiosks in both terminals of Narita (right across the moneychanger booth and beside the limousine bus ticket counter) and at the Kansai Airport. I think it turned out more economical for us as domestic incoming calls (from our friend C) are free. We returned the phone to one of its kiosks in Narita on our flight back. I think we spent around PHP4,000 for the phone rental, the call/SMS charges and the small insurance fee. (You have to get the insurance, because in case of loss, theft or damage, you might have to pay as much as ¥60,000, around PHP30,000. Yikes!)
Traveling from Narita to Tokyo: Traveling to Tokyo from Narita Airport takes between an hour to 1 ½ hours. You can (1) take a train, which is the fastest and cheapest way to get to Tokyo using the Keisei line, JR Narita Express N’EX and the Airport Narita service (range from ¥1000 to ¥3000), but you have to change trains somewhere; if you’re not confident about navigating your way around a new train station the minute you arrive, think about (2) taking the limousine bus. It’s really just an ordinary bus that picks up passengers from the airport and drops them off at a number of hotels in Tokyo. It’s the less stressful alternative if you’re staying in or even near one of the hotel drop-off points. You can buy a ticket at the Limousine Bus Ticket Counter in the airport when you arrive (¥3000 for the regular one-way fare and ¥3100 with a bundled One Day Tokyo Metro Pass; we got the latter and it saved us a couple of hundred yen of ticket fares for a day), but be sure to check the departure times. (You can also check its schedule and your destination area in its site). (3) The last option is to take a cab. As Tokyo is 66 km from Narita, a cab ride can set you back ¥25,000.
Making sense of Tokyo trains: Looking at the Tokyo Subway Route Map (right) can be intimidating for visitors as there seems to be many crisscrossing lines even between points A to B. Don’t worry. Just keep in mind a few things: there are 13 subway lines operated by either Toei or Tokyo Metro, there’s the circular (and simplest) JR Yamanote Line, and each has a designated color; tickets are purchased from vending machines and if you can’t find the fare for your destination, just buy a ticket of the lowest possible cost and once you get to your destination check the fare adjustment machine for the difference; and when in doubt, approach any of the uniformed train station guards or employees. For more tips on how to take the train, refer to this guide.
You can get a copy of the Tokyo Metro Guide brochure (with the subway route map) at the Narita Airport Terminals 1 and 2, at the Tourist Information Center, and most Tokyo Metro stations. You can also download a PDF file from Tokyo Metro website.
Learning the Kyoto City bus basics: The dense bus network of Kyoto is pretty reliable, especially when it comes to seeing most of the tourist sights. You enter the front door of the bus, drop the exact flat rate of ¥220 (unless otherwise stated for longer distances), and get off at the rear door. Most, if not all, buses don’t give change so either always have the exact fare or buy a City Bus All Day Pass for ¥500. If you’re taking the bus more than twice for the day, it should save you some yen. Buses typically run between 7 to 9 pm. To orient yourself in going around Kyoto, grab a hold of the Kyoto City Bus Sightseeing Map (download) available at the Tourist Information Center at Kyoto Station.
Too many sights, too little time. For their first day in Tokyo, my friend wanted to explore Ueno Park, Senso-ji Temple and most of the Asakusa area, the Ginza district, Akihabara, and Tokyo Tower. That is after arriving in Kansai International Airport and taking a sleeper bus from Osaka to Tokyo. Yes, I also plead guilty to trying to cram so many sights in one day, without considering fatigue, weather, or getting lost. If you’re like me and my friend, you know it feels good to plan and hope that every minute of your trip is spent soaking in the scenery and experiencing every inch of the city. But when you realize you can’t do them all, you just have to take a step back, be grateful for where you are and enjoy what’s right in front of you. (If you have other tips to help my friend who’s going to Japan, please feel free to share them. If you have any questions, leave a comment and I’ll see if I can answer them. 🙂 Thanks!)