In this post I outline some of the process of planning a first-time trip to Japan, based on my own experience of organising a two week trip.
When to go
Ideally, I’d like to visit Japan in April during the peak sakura (cherry blossom) season. However, with other commitments at that time this year, that timing didn’t work out. Instead, we’ll be visiting at the end of June, beginning of July.
It will be the rainy season (tsuyu) for most parts of Japan at that time. But hey, a little precipitation never hurt anyone, and I quite fancy the idea of soaking in open air hot springs on an overcast, rainy day.
Even though it may be wet (45% chance of rain on a late June day in Tokyo) it will be warm, which is a very attractive concept in the middle of a Melbourne winter. While Melbourne in June shivers through average min-max temperatures of 7°C-14°C, in Japan, we’ll have a couple of weeks of 19°C-29°C.
I know from previous years’ experience, an injection of warmth at that time of year, makes it so much easier to get through the winter!
Click on this page at Japan-guide.com for a full description and all the maximums, minimums and expected rainfall for the major cities each month. (Japan-Guide.com is also an excellent source of information on destinations and activities.)
How long to go for and where to go
With Queenie in her final year of school, and looking down the barrel of exams in October, we don’t want to be away for too long, allowing her to be at home and focused on study for at least part of her three week mid-year school holidays. So we have settled on a two-week stay in Japan.
Our aim is to focus on some of the highlights of Japan, and get a taste for the country, without being too rushed and spending too much time in transit between places.
So the next step is to narrow the itinerary to achieve that aim.
Tokyo was an obvious choice, as was Kyoto. We read an article in The Age about the Open Air Museum at Hakone, which is about an hour by train from Tokyo (and en route to Kyoto) so that seemed a good option to add in, especially when I discovered it is a hot springs resort town.
While we’re in Kyoto we’ll definitely do a day trip to Nara, and perhaps one other day trip (TBA).
How we’re getting there
There is only one non-stop flight option from Melbourne to Tokyo and that is with Jetstar, which flies the Melbourne-Tokyo direct route (10 hr 20 mins) three times a week. This non-stop service was introduced in April 2014, after a five+ year period when there were no direct flights between Melbourne to Tokyo.
There are plenty of one-stop options between Melbourne and Tokyo. To fly with Qantas via Sydney takes about 12 hr 35 mins, and most of the Asian airlines that fly out of Melbourne offer a one-stop flight through their hub cities.
The shorter, direct Jetstar route appealed to us, but with the flight to Tokyo being an overnight one…and given we had a good experience with their Business Class on our HCMC trip, we’ve booked the Business Class seats.
How to get about
Every guidebook, every forum, every website, every travel blogger, every friend who’s ever been to Japan, every friend who hasn’t been to Japan but knows people who have, says that the absolute best way to get around Japan is by rail.
Japan has had high speed bullet trains for over 50 years. Today’s Shinkansen (or bullet) trains can reach speeds of up to 320 km/h which make them a very efficient, practically door-to-door way of getting between cities.
Many foreign travelers to Japan choose to buy a Japan Rail Pass, which is a pass offered jointly by the six companies that make up the Japan Railways Group. There are two types of JR Pass: Green (which is First Class), and Ordinary, and each of these types is available as a 7-day, 14-day, or 21-day (consecutive) pass.
There are a couple of important restrictions to know about a JR Pass: you must be a foreign tourist visiting Japan from abroad for sight-seeing, under the entry status of ‘temporary visitor’ to buy one, you have to buy it in advance of arriving in Japan (it cannot be purchased once you’re there), and it cannot be used for travel on Nozomi and Mizuho trains (the super-super-fast ones) on the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu Shinkansen lines.
The rule of thumb for the economy or otherwise of JR Passes, seems to be that if you are doing the equivalent of a Tokyo-Kyoto return trip, it is cheaper to have a 7-day pass than buy the tickets themselves.
Although it is tempting just to get 14-day passes for our entire stay, I actually took the time to use the HyperDia website to check the prices of each of the journeys we’re planning to take, and realised that we are probably better to use a 7-day pass for the second half of our stay (which is when we’ll be doing the longer trips), and to buy individual tickets for the trains we’ll be using in the first half (such as Narita Express, Tokyo-Odawara).
HyperDia is a useful website which offers the best route, timetable and pricing for all rail journeys in Japan.
Where to stay
We didn’t have a lot of word-of-mouth recommendations of places to stay in Tokyo or Kyoto, so I read a few bloggers’ perspectives, and we checked out websites such as expedia.com.au and booking.com to see what was available (and at what prices), and then cross-referenced that information with Tripadvisor reviews.
We are keen to stay at least one night in a ryokan, and (after reading this article) have booked into Ryokan Fukuzumiro in Hakone for the full-on ryokan experience. (updated: this is the post where I describe the experience.)
Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns or guesthouses, usually with straw tatami mat flooring in the rooms. Guests sleep on futons that are rolled out at night and stored in a cupboard during the day. The service is reputed to be high quality and very personalised, and the room rate usually includes traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast (often served on a low table in the same room as the guests sleep in).
Be warned, the traditional ryokan experience of a good standard does not come cheaply. Prices are per person, not per room, and many of them (including the one we’ve chosen) do not have ensuite bathrooms.
I found booking.com was useful for searching for and booking ryokan, as some ryokan have websites that are totally in Japanese, or only offer booking via fax or telephone. The Japanese Guesthouses website is also widely recommended on travel forums.
What to see and do
I’m still working on our day to day itinerary, but there are a few stand out items which went straight onto it, namely:
- Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo (and hopefully, the early morning tuna auction) (updated: here’s my post-trip post about it)
- Hakone Open Air Museum (updated: here’s my post-trip post about it)
- An onsen (hot spring bath) experience – more communal nudity! (updated: here’s my post-trip post about it)
- A Tokyo Giants baseball game at the Tokyo Dome (updated: here’s my post-trip post about it)
- Dressing up like a maiko/geisha in Kyoto (updated: here’s my post-trip post about it)
- Temples and deer in Nara (updated: here’s my post-trip post about it)
Watch this space, as I intend to write posts about all these (plus more!) after we return. Sign up for email updates (see the box in the sidebar) or my monthly newsletter if you don’t want to miss a single word. And, of course, I’ll be live-Instagramming and Facebooking the trip (wifi-permitting…)!
Updated: Here’s two additional posts I’ve written which you may like to also read:
- A sample 13 Day Japan itinerary for first time visitors
- 10 things you need to know before visiting Japan for the first time
Guide books are really useful in the planning stage of any travel. There is just sooooooo much information on the Internet, that narrowing it down and making sense of it can be an overwhelming task.
I like to start off reading through a couple of trusted guidebooks, which I then use to create the framework of an itinerary. After I have all the essentials in place, the Internet is great to add the colour and spice.
For this trip the guidebooks I’m using are:
- Lonely Planet Japan: this is the Lonely Planet comprehensive guide to Japan which covers the whole country. I bought the e-book version so that I can have it on my iPad without the extra weight.
- Lonely Planet’s Discover Japan: this useful guide touts itself as covering the best of Japan and focuses on Tokyo, Central Honshu, Kyoto, Kansai & Western Honshu and ‘the best of the rest’. It offers some handy sample ‘top itineraries’ of 5, 10 and 14 days which helped me work out what we could achieve in our time frame.
- DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Japan: I’ve posted before about how much I love the DK Eyewitness Guidebooks, and the Japan one is no exception.
- Wallpaper City Guide Tokyo: both the Wallpaper guide and the Luxe guide will be handy on-the-ground in Tokyo as they offer invaluable insight into restaurants, bars and hotels as well as shops, activities and interesting landmarks. Plus they are small and portable.
- Tokyo Luxe City Guide: this one was recently republished (as all Luxe guide are, to keep them current) and I have just ordered it. It will definitely be in The Poolboy’s pocket, as Luxe guides are his Bible to any city.
Bookdepository.com has a huge range of travel guide books at great prices and I usually order all the ones I need from there for delivery straight to my mailbox.
Disclosure: The links to travel guides at bookdepository.com in this post are affiliate links, which means that if you click on them and then purchase anything from the site, I will receive a small amount of each sale. You don’t pay any more that you would normally.
Packing and what to wear
And then of course, as we get closer to the time, packing and what to wear will be a major consideration. But I don’t need to think too hard about it this time around, as the lovely Kirralee at Escape With Kids has done the thinking for me.
I’m in awe of her ability to whip up fab visual packing guides for various destinations and lengths of time, and asked her if she could do one for me for our Japan trip. She more than rose to the challenge. Check out her blog post on What to Pack for Two Weeks in Japan for the full run down (click this link or the screen shot below).
I’ve totally fallen for the ‘F’ for Fairlie jumper she suggested. I think it would be excellent to ward off the in-plane chills. And the asymmetrical black dress could definitely be worn dressed up or down. Seeing everything laid out like this has made me realise how little I really need to take to still have a heap of outfit options which, given the luggage-size restrictions for easy train travel is an important consideration.
Is Japan on your ‘list’? Or have you already been? If so, please add all your tips, places to go, things to do, what we should see, in the comments below!
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