Planning for Japan

Planning for a trip is one of the things I love to do.  It puts me in my happy place.  It makes the idea of going somewhere real.

I love researching sights and destinations, collecting thoughts and opinions from others, and pulling together an itinerary that I think is going to give me as real of a taste of normal-everyday-life in the place I’m traveling to.

Of course, once on the ground you need to be flexible to make changes to your itinerary, otherwise you risk missing out on those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you could never plan for.

But even though it’s all subject to change, planning for a trip gives me as much of a rush as when I step foot on to the skybridge to the jet.

 

While not an exhaustive list of planning advice (there are guide books and websites for all of that), here are some tips from my trip to Japan that you could apply toward a trip there (or anywhere for that matter.)

 

Plane Tickets

I pulled the trigger a little early on my tickets – costing me about an extra $300 in the process (I missed out on a seat sale about four weeks before leaving.)  Total cost of the flight was just over $1300, although I was willing to spend up to $1600 for a roundtrip ticket.

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Getting ready for takeoff.

From Saskatchewan, it’s a bit of an exercise – having to end up in Vancouver before AC3 takes off direct to Narita.  I lucked out with the fall timetable, but might have to book a full day off to make the connections come spring 2014.

 

Visas

If you’re going to Japan on a tourist visa from Canada, you don’t need to get any prior permission from the Japanese government.  Like the US or the UK, you acquire your visa upon arrival in the country if you are a Canadian citizen.  Customs was a breeze – you fill out two landing cards, with part of one of them being stapled in to your passport.  You are photographed and fingerprinted upon arrival.

Leaving Narita, your departure card is removed from your passport and you are stamped out.

The big “must-do” thing when it comes to being a foreigner in Japan is keeping your passport with you at all times.  While I wasn’t hassled for it, police can request to see it and you need to be able to produce it.  Also, it’s needed when you are checking in at hotels (just like in Europe.)

 

Plot It Out!

One of the things I learned on our trip to London and Paris was to use Google Maps to create a custom map plotting out the location of the attractions I want to see.


View Japan 2013 (Classic) in a larger map

Doing this will help visualize which roads/transit lines things are located along, and can help in grouping attractions when planning an itinerary.  It can also help in choosing a hotel.

 

About Hotels…

Because I stayed with Chris for most of the trip, hotels weren’t as big of the planning process this time around as they have been in the past.  But, I still stuck with my tried-and-trusted method of trying to find places to stay that are close to the action, within budget, and that have decent photos on TripAdvisor.

I’ve reviewed the hotels we stayed at in Utsunomiya and Osaka (both were very good!) on TripAdvisor if you’re curious about where we stayed.

 

Getting Around

Understanding how transit works before you get on the ground is important for any destination – and doubly so for a place where language can be a barrier like in Japan.

Public transit is the way to go when it comes to getting around in Japan.

For travel to Japan, there is one discount pass that gets a lot of buzz – the JR Rail Pass.

A 7-day JR Rail Pass will cost ¥28,300, or roughly about $300.
A 7-day JR Rail Pass will cost ¥28,300, or roughly about $300.

It provides unlimited travel on JR Rail-owned trains for a specific period of time (7, 14 or 21 days.)  It’s handy, and can easily pay for itself if you end up making long distance trips outside of Tokyo (or wherever you end up spending most of your time.)  When you consider a one-way ticket on the Shinkansen from Hiroshima to Tokyo costs roughly C$200, the C$300 price of a 7-day pass makes a lot of sense.

However, the catch is that in Tokyo (and other cities), not all trains are operated by JR Rail.  Subways and some suburban lines around Tokyo are operated by different operators who will not accept the JR Rail Pass.  As a result, getting the pass for the period of your adventure where you’ll be traveling long distances is probably the smartest thing to do. Use it when you can in Tokyo (or other cities) when taking local JR trains, but be ready to ante up when using services offered by other companies.

For the rest of those public transit travels, do as the locals do and get one of the two local smart cards that are used for transit in the Tokyo area – SUICA and PASMO.

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PASMO and SUICA make transit easy.

You don’t need to know much other than they are interchangeable with each other, can easily be refilled with cash at ATM-like machines.  Because transit fares are calculated by distance traveled, it’s really handy that SUICA and PASMO automagically figure out the fare for your trip on a train, bus, or other form of public transit when you tap-in and tap-out of a transit station.

Another benefit to using the cashless cards is with recent changes in Japan, your transit smart card you bought in Tokyo can be used in other cities – like Osaka – when you go to use forms of transit like the subway.  (It can also be used at vending machines, convenience stores and other retail outlets as a form of cashless payment – which is handy when you’re thirsty but don’t have a ¥100 coin on you!)

For my two week stay in Japan, I ended up spending about C$100-120 filling up my PASMO card for travel on private train lines like Keio (which connects Chris’ part of the city to downtown Tokyo) and other lines.

There are times where other forms of transportation might be cheaper than taking the train.  For our trip to Osaka, we booked with the airline Jetstar – which is a no-frills, low-cost carrier in Japan and Australia.  For about C$70 one-way per person, we were able to fly (with one checked bag) from Narita to Osaka.  Even with the C$30 Narita Express train from Shinjuku Station, Jetstar still came in much cheaper than taking the Shinkansen to get there.

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JR Rail’s Narita Express makes travel to the airport easy.

Once you know your itinerary and the cities you plan on traveling to, figuring out your mix of transportation becomes clear pretty fast.

 

Like I said, this is by no means an exhaustive list of the planning I did for my Japan adventure (and Chris has way more background on his blog about the things he had to do in order to make his working holiday a reality.)  But it is a starter guide if you’re looking at embarking on a similar trip.

“A trip of a lifetime…”

My Dad caught me off guard the other day when we were talking about my recent 17 day stay in Japan – he called it a “trip of a lifetime.”  It was startling because in so many ways, travel is one of those things to me that is no different than picking up milk from the store – it’s on the shelf waiting to be purchased and experienced… one just has to do it.

But Dad has a point – even if I go back to Japan (and I’m planning to in the new year), it won’t be the same as the first time.  It never is the same.  And, given the circumstances around my travel, it truly is an experience that will be hard to replicate in 10 or 15 years.

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Chris – fearless adventurer!

At the start of November, Chris did something that I think a lot of us dream about doing.  With the calendar not willing to pause, time was running out on his ability to make a dream come true – living in Tokyo.  Ever since the first time we met for coffee, it was on his bucket list.

“I want to have an apartment in Tokyo,” he told me.

Well, making that dream a reality was something he had been researching for the past 18 months.  At the end of September, he left the company he had been working for over the last three years to embark on an adventure of his own to set up shop for the next year in Tokyo on a working holiday visa.  The proverbial clock was ticking – you need to be under the age of 30 in order to obtain the visa, and he was on the wrong side of 25 when it came to putting things off.

So, on November 1, he ditched many of his possessions (with the keep pile ending in partially at my place and partially at his mom’s), packed his bags, and hopped on an Air Canada flight bound for Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.  (I make it sound so simple, but there was a good 12 months of planning that led up to it that you can read all about on his blog – and I highly encourage it!)

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Chariot!

Six days later, I also hopped on an Air Canada plane bound for Narita.  However, my adventure would not be as long as his will be – 17 days versus 365.  And what an adventure it was.

I’d experience a whole host of new things – from gorging on sashimi at a neighbourhood sushi bar (the mom of one of Chris’ Japanese friends invited us out), to naked bathing at a traditional hot spring, to being in two magnitude 5+ earthquakes.  Japan would push my comfort zone to its limits, and open me up to a new way of looking at the world.

And the “never to be repeated” quality to it all?  Well, the time is ticking on Chris’ stay in Japan.  And while the planes will still fly there 10 to 15 years from now, being able to stay the way I did – where I did, it won’t be replicated.

“A trip of a lifetime,” indeed.

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Since I’ve been home, some people have rolled their eyes or scoffed when I bring up Japan.  I’m unapologetic about relating my time there – it is an experience that has left an indelible stamp on me.  It’s something I can’t shake.  Like the humidity in your clothes, it kind of lingers for a while.  Blogging about it will help me collect my thoughts about the whole experience.

In the coming days, I’ll be sharing my notes from Japan – it’ll range in tone from traditional “trip reports” you’d find on any other travel blog, to some practical information for people thinking about embarking on a similar adventure.

I can’t wait to share it all with you.