Japan Uncovered: Before You Go Basics
Where, When & Why
Japan // No time like the present // Culture shock
In recent weeks, many well-travelled pals have flooded my Instagram feed with their enviable photographs of Japan. From Tokyo to Kyoto, Fuji to Fukuoka and beyond, I've been pretty green because my month spent in Japan with Tom still holds up as one of the most special trips I've ever been lucky enough to embark on. A trip that remains very close to my heart for a whole number of reasons I won't bore you with now, but one that comes up ever so often purely because it still brings me joy to share advice in the hope it helps my friends have the absolute best time possible.
Do I plan on returning to Japan? Hell yes! This is likely to be when Ghibli World opens in 2020 but I can't wait that long to post about the Far East so sharing the best bits of this life changing trip right here, right now, broken down into a four-part series.
Instalment one covers what you need before you go & top tips for getting around. Now ICYMI in the previous paragraph, this was not a solo trip however the aim of this series (and my general M.O.) is to help you make the best of your time there - alone or otherwise. Ready? Let's go!
Before You Go
Planning an extended stay, a clear itinerary was vital in not just saving time and money but ensuring our must-see list was well and truly ticked off. Yes, this revolved around a fairly meticulous spreadsheet and a crash course in Japanese. Although pigeon, my basic foundation of the language sorted us out on more than a few occasions, and scored us some freebies in B-Side Label - a decal & vinyl sticker shop in Tokyo's Harajuku neighbourhood. You should definitely go here.
My now 95 year old Nan gifted me the Collins Easy Learning Japanese Audio Book for Christmas before we left and commuting underground with no changes allowed lots of time to smash this starter kit. As I said, it more than paid off even being far from fluent and despite being a little off the mark here and there, the effort and confidence to at least try appeared to be greatly appreciated.
More on JR Passes in the next section but conducting some research into your planned route before you leave home will alleviate any confusion when you arrive.
Chances are, you're going to need to fly. Back in the day, flights to the Far East were hideously expensive but if you shop right you can score a deal in the £300 - £400s direct. I'm being dead serious.
Aside from keeping a keen eye on your inbox & social media, set up fare alerts on SkyScanner and consider upgrading your Jack's Flight Club membership to Premium. These are easy to use tools designed to get you the best deals - Jack's mission is simply to get you on holiday! How nice is that? Even better is that many of these great deals are now direct so not only will you have more coin for karaoke, you'll have even more time to play "sing what you see" after making the most of your pigeon Japanese to get some random businessman to help you with the karaoke booth channel changer.
The JR Pass
Intercity travel is made incredibly easy thanks to bullet trains, JR Passes & internal flights.
Okay, so what is a JR Pass? Great question! In a nutshell, your JR Pass is your ticket to exploring all of Japan on the world renowned high speed shinkansen. Make the most of great value and some pretty solid savings, oh, and access on-board WiFi as speedy as the trains themselves! Bonus!
Navigating Japan is pain free with the JR Pass but you need to know your route before you book, and you need to book before you leave home so planning is really important. We opted for the 21 day JR Pass as it ticked off all our big-hitters and covered the duration of our stay, even in and around Tokyo.
Hot tip: make sure your emergency credit card hasn't been adjusted without you knowing. Calling your provider after a 17 hour flight is not fun and it's expensive.
Wanting to maximise our time, an internal flight from Tokyo to Yakushima was the best option for two main reasons. First off, internal flights are cheaper for tourists than locals & a one-way flight from Tokyo to Yakushima was about £100 with Japan Airlines. One internal flight freed up approximately 3 days that would otherwise have been dedicated to travelling on land & sea to this magical little island.
Hot tip: book as far in advance as possible to get a sweet deal. Leaving your reservation until last minute could quadruple your airfare. Upgrading to First Class is worth the small extra cash, more on why later.
Travelling Around Tokyo
Many of the other cities we visited felt fairly walkable, whereas Tokyo was a whole different ballgame so that's where I'll shine my light for now.
Tokyo is huge. Sprawling, in fact, and a lot like Los Angeles in the way it's built of mini-cities like Shinjuku, Akihabra and Roppongi. Once you've made it to your day trip destination, dig into the distinct vibe, culture and aesthetic each "city" possess by making use of the the best mode of transport: your own two feet. Of course, you've got to get there first!
Within Tokyo itself there are few things to bear in mind. The subways & trains make light work of getting around this massive city, and picking up a pre-paid Suica or Pasmo card is the simplest way to go. If the thought of forking out more for travel makes you groan, fear not because you can use your JR Pass on the JR Yamanote Line. Simple!
Ladies Only carriages are available, fantastic news for anyone feeling a little apprehensive about travelling on very busy trains by themselves, although it's a bit shit that such an entity is required.
Taxis are brilliant but they are expensive - we learned that the hard way and spent somewhere in the realm of £70 on a taxi to catch an early morning flight to Yakushima but with no real clue how to get to Haneda on public transport at 4am it was the best option at the time, even if we did end up being let into the locked airport by security and allowed to kip in a waiting room opened especially for us. Good times.
Part one, done & I hope you found it helpful. Keep an eye out for part two where I'll be covering the best bits of Tokyo & her surrounding areas.
Want some instant Japan-wanderlust? I've got just the ticket.