Planning your trip to Japan (tiny quarters, free stuff, and why climate change is a b*tch)

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.)

Dreaming of cherry blossoms before the trip

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…

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