Japan. A big and beautiful country. So much to do and so little time to fit it all in. We had 10 nights available to explore Japan (which is really not enough time for all we wanted to do!) so it was important for us to plan an itinerary that gave us a ‘taste-tester’ of Japan.
We asked friends for tips on visiting Japan and we received a good amount of information about places visited, how to get around, booking train tickets, connectivity, etc. It was in fact so helpful that I wanted to pass on the advice to others.
Most people speak English or enough to get by (by pointing at menus) and we found people to be very friendly and helpful. If we ever looked lost (trying to find our way around the city – or trying to decipher a menu) then within no time there seemed to be a friendly local by our side helping us.
Using the Bullet Trains:
- Travel by train as much as possible. It is a stress free, enjoyable way to get around the country. The trains are well organised, clean, on time, and easy to navigate. We planned our itinerary around using the bullet trains (Shinkansen) between each location, using a 7 day Japan Rail Pass. The ticket enables you to use the trains as much as you like within those 7 days, and is valid on Sakura, Hikari and Kodama trains but not on Nozomi trains.
- The Japan Rail Pass must be purchased in advance online, as it is a tourist only ticket. We bought ours online in the UK from Japan Specialist – who send the Japan Rail Pass coupons to you within a week.
- Once you arrive in Japan you must swap the coupons for an actual ticket at any of the main rail stations (don’t forget to take your passport with you as it is required for ID verification). When you collect the Japan rail pass ticket, you need to choose the start date for the 7 day period. You can also make all your seat reservations for your trip at that time as you can always amend later on at any ticket reservation counter.
- To check train times, I used this website http://www.hyperdia.com/en/ and to make sure you can use your Japan Rail Pass on the particular routes, on the bottom of the search results page, keep the tick in the box that says Japan Railway (JR) and un-check the box that says Private Railway. Also un-check the box that says Nozomi / Mizuho / Hayabusa (Shinkansen).
- In Tokyo you can also use the Japan Rail routes to get around the city. These lines tend to be a little quieter than the metro train lines… but just make sure you are not getting on board any express services or you might travel further than you bargained for!
Using the Metro:
- I would recommend separately buying a PASMO card (like an Oyster Card in London). Taxis are expensive in Tokyo and traffic can be slow – and with the extensive Metro network you can easily travel all about the city on the trains. The PASMO card can be used in Tokyo and Kyoto.
Using a top-up machine we purchased 2000 Yen on each card (500 deposit + 1500 for travel) which should last you quite a while. You will get the 500 deposit back once you return the card at end of trip.
For comfort of travel, it is best to avoid peak hour travelling times during the working week (7.30-9.30am and 5-7pm).
- Getting around in Tokyo and finding addresses is really hard work. Addresses have no logical pattern (they are based on when the building was built!). You can rent a wifi dongle from Japan Wireless for your mobile. We ordered it in the UK before we left and arranged to have it delivered to our hotel on our day of arrival. It was about £40 for 2 weeks and it really did make exploring the cities that much easier.
- It is very popular with tourists and super easy to arrange. At the end you just post it back in a prepaid envelope that they provide you with . HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!
- Most places shut at 2pm for lunch, so make sure you get in before then, otherwise it can be really hard work!
- Places like gardens, museums and temples etc. generally shut around 5pm in Tokyo, and sometimes slightly earlier in Kyoto.
- Try to carry at least £100 on you in cash, as you can only withdraw money from ATMs in 7/11s (there are lots in Tokyo & Kyoto). Note: Mastercard does not work in Japan at all.
- It is very safe, so no need to feel vulnerable carrying loads of cash about in your wallet. There is virtually no petty crime.
- NO tipping in Japan – even when the service is impeccable and you try to insist on giving a tip, they will not accept
Try and speak a little Japanese. We found that the people really liked us if we just said – Konichiwa, Arigatio, Sayanara and Oishi (which means delicious).
- Make sure sure you finish all your meal! No matter how full you are, it is a sign of respect to not leave food behind.
- Japan is a very clean country with no litter. Carry a plastic bag with you in your backpack for those times you cannot find a rubbish bin.
- It is considered rude to eat in public places (e.g. on the metro or on the go about town) so best to find a quiet place to sit and eat.
- We had a lot of school children ask to have photos with us – it might seem weird, but I suggest just embracing it!! When in Rome …
We wanted to try to cover some of the main must see destinations, whilst not rushing our way through each location. We settled on 4 nights Tokyo, 1 night Nikko, 3 nights Kyoto, 1 night Hiroshima, and 1 final night in Tokyo at the end.
It may sound like we dedicated too much time to Tokyo just based on the spread of nights, however there is so much to see and do in Tokyo, you will be surprised how quickly the days fill up. We also suffered from jet-lag for the first couple of days in Tokyo so it came in handy to have 4 nights in the one place to start with.
To read more on each location click on the links below.