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Ask the Readers: Planning a Trip to Japan

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This series poses questions from readers. You’re invited to answer! You can also send in a question for a future post.

Today’s question comes from Jenny, who’s wondering about planning a trip to Japan:

My son Lorenzo wants to go to Japan for his 14th Birthday. I have exactly two years to save and was curious if you had any pointers one where to take him and about how much time we’ll need. I’m thinking at minimum ten days.

I don’t want to plan too much so we can just simply enjoy the trip. We are listening to podcasts to try to learn the language at least a little. Three years ago my best friend got married in Florence, Italy. I made a big trip out of it with him, going abroad for a whole month in Italy. We had a blast and we still talk about ’til this day.

Any info would be appreciated!

***

I’m no expert on things in Japan, but I love the concept of planning ahead for a big trip like that. It’s certainly plenty of time to save the money. I also think ten days, perhaps adding on travel time, is a great choice for settling into a new place and getting to know it a little.

That’s my $0.02, but I’d love to hear what other people think. What would you suggest?

Share your comments below (and if you haven’t been to Japan before, general comments are fine). Some comments may be featured in a future post.

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    43 Comments

    • Morgan says:

      What a great adventure! 2 years is plenty of time to save up the money and the miles and to become somewhat proficient in the language (hire a tutor!). I’d fully splurge on first class tickets and a few nights in nice hotels through awards tickets and budget cash for some amazing omakase meals.

    • John Pedroza says:

      There are a lot if ways to save in Japan. Asakusa area hotels are cheaper (also smaller). There is a metro line line called the Yamanote Line if your hotel is within walking distance to it, it is cheap travel to almost all of Tokyos best places. Get a Suica card for $5. It is reload card and will let you bypass the crazy chart for train charges. Most ATMs have English versions so look for a USA or British flag on the screen. I like visiting cafeterias to eat because they have a variety of local foods.

    • Ben says:

      I recently took my second trip to Japan (first one that I helped plan) and the one thing that made it super easy was working with a travel agency that specializes in Japan. We were able to give them our budget, the length of our trip and our interests and they helped recommend how many days to spend in each city, helped take care of travel arrangements, and in some cities, had guides that took us around on a day trip. If you tweet me (@ben_loeffler), I’ll give out the company and my contact there. As it turns out, the hotel deals he was able to procure actually offset the cost of his services!

      My wife can read a little bit of Japanese so that was super helpful but not necessary. I was able to get on with no language skills. My first trip was about 8 years ago and our last trip was earlier this year. Even in that period, I feel like signage has been updated in most public places to include English and Chinese. This is just my perception but I feel like even more people spoke enough English to make everything a bit easier.

      Our trip was two weeks long and I there were a few places I wish we could have spent more time. A week in Tokyo and Kyoto would still be filled with sights and activities. Side trips that I have really enjoyed were Hakone, Matsumoto and Takayama.

      I could go on and on. Anything specific, feel free to ask.

    • Patrick says:

      Japan: My wife and I went on one leg of our Honey Moon to Japan. The second you step off the plane you realize everything is different. One word should be used immediately when it comes to getting around in Japan, “Trains”. Know your train lines beforehand. We traveled exclusively on the JR lines. Passes can (and should) be purchased ahead of time for the best discounts. There are very specific rules when it comes to this. Read up.

      A 14 year old will LOVE the bullet train. We traveled from Tokyo to Kyoto on the bullet train and it was a terrific time. 1st class is not all that big of a deal. We opted to save the money on the way back and traveled 2nd class or coach. The accommodations are virtually the same.

      No tipping. This was hard for me to do, but it is true. Tipping can insult some, so stay away from that thinking.

      The people are SO accommodating! Every one of them seem to want to ensure your comfort. They really take pride in helping you accomplish your goal of travel. I make the joke when talking to friends about Japan, “I met only two not so nice people in Japan. One was on the plane when we arrived and one was no the plane when we left and they were both American”. You will find a very NICE people!

      Enjoy!

    • Will Werner says:

      Hi Jenny,

      I was in Japan this summer for 2.5 weeks and learned quite a lot. Trying to adjust to the big cultural differences (vs. America) improves your flexibility as a traveler. I had practiced with Nihon University’s sumo wrestling team there for two of those weeks and they had the insight as to where a visitor would enjoy themselves the most. I recommend traveling to the beach town south of Tokyo called Kamakura, as it has fantastic beaches and plenty of sights to see. Tradition abounds there with more than 20 Shinto and Buddhist temples within biking distance of each other. You can also see Mt. Fuji from that town. As for Tokyo itself, the Meiji shrine is (I believe) the biggest in Tokyo and is MASSIVE. I bet your son would be blow away by its sheer size. If you have any seafood allergies, try the vegetable tempura since it is outrageously good. Good luck!

    • Naomi Brown says:

      Hi Jenny,
      Just returned from my 6th trip to Japan with first experience of interrupted by typhoons. I am also an independent travel advisor who specializes in Japan travel. I can recommend you about a lot of things but try to be brief and not to repeat what the others have commented already.

      Yes, 2 years is a good length of time to save for the travel. From my experience researching Japan travel deals (for a 7-10 days packaged tours close to $3000.00), usually, the airfare is NOT included. But in your case, probably can use frequent flyer miles, etc. to save. Other information that I’ve read somewhere has suggested about $110.00 per person for a daily travel expenses so that figure is a good starting point, of course Tokyo being the most expensive.

      After your research and decide where you want to travel or what kind of experience you want, you can decide if you use escorted tours, do independent travel or combination of both. I would recommend at least use some escorted tours since this will be your first trip. But if you can figure out the transportation, meaning train system, you can travel independently since not all your interests will be included in these tours. However, you need a lot more planning to travel this way. It is true English signs around train stations but once you are out of the station sometimes you don’t see much of anything in English. It is always a good idea to know basic Japanese. Also at least some hotel staff and many ordinary Japanese can understand English and they will try to help you so if you know the basic phrases you will be o.k. Other option is that you can hire a private tour guide who speaks English.

      My go to hotel site now will be in Asakusa. Once you pass Sensoji Temple area things are much calmer and you can almost blend in with the locals. Hotel rooms may be smaller but reasonably priced. Also if you fly in and out of Narita Airport Asakusa is close to Ueno (train) station where I can catch Skyliner (train) to get to Narita very easily and comfortably. One thing to think about hotels, though, if you are taking some escorted tour the tour bus will pick you up from certain hotels in Tokyo area; however, these hotels tend to be on the luxury side. For other tours you need to get to one of the big train stations. I prefer to stay in a hotel within the walking distance of a train station especially outside of Tokyo or in smaller cities because a train station is usually a transportation hub. You can catch trains, buses, and taxies.

      If you have 10 days or so in Japan I suggest that you look at Tokyo and Kyoto. Tokyo is a very good place to stay for several days. The city has many places of interests to visit by tours or independently, also is a good central place to do some day trips, such as Yokohama, Kamakura, Fuji/Hakone. Are you or your son interested in museums, tea ceremony, Anime, or Electronics? You can experience all that while you stay in Tokyo and travel to Kyoto for remaining days of your stay. In Kyoto you can also do tours or independent travels and can travel to Nara, Osaka, Himeji, etc. from Kyoto as day trips.

      Japan has a great public transportation system and I usually use rails first. They are punctual, comfortable and you can almost go anywhere with rails and buses. To get around in Tokyo and vicinity use Suica or Pasmo cards. If you travel longer distance such as going to Kyoto and elsewhere you may come out ahead by using the Rail Pass. Need to compare the prices. Yes, the bullet trains are cool!

      I have more tips for saving money, how to get around, and travel more comfortably, etc. But the way you want to travel is the RIGHT way for you. If you have any questions you can contact me @NaomiNoroBrown. Happy planning!!

    • Mark Arthur says:

      My favorite experiences were Miyajima island off off Hiroshima (the one with the giant Torii gate), the Moss Garden Temple in Kyoto, and staying at a hotel with a view of Mt. Fuji from the room (guest house Sakuya in Fujikawaguchiko). For food, Osaka has some great finds in the ex-pat section of town. If you stay in Tokyo, Sawanoya was a good “beginner westerner friendly” ryokan in Hitamachi. For something more exotic, go to the castle in Matsumoto or the historical village and samurai district in Takayama (note- one of the snowiest places on the planet in winter!). Enjoy!!

    • Keita Shimbo says:

      Hi Jenny,

      I’m Keita, a guide writer from Japan. I’d love to suggests some travel tips for your Japan trip plan but importantly I need to know when you are coming to Japan. As Japan has a very strong seasonal contrast, the places you should visit and you can really enjoy will be different depending on the season.

      If I can know it, I can support your trip or even make a plan that you can know what Japan is like when you finish your 10 days (or a bit longer) in Japan.

      If you feel interested, contact me @mytokyoweekend on twitter.

    • Cody James says:

      Hi, Jenny —

      Congrats on your decision to go to Japan. I’ve only been there on business, so I can’t recommend touristy places to go. What I would suggest:

      * If you are there during baseball season, see a baseball game!

      * About the language: Japanese is very different from English. Some Japanese people I worked with said that it is almost impossible to “translate” English to Japanese–the languages must be “interpreted.” That is, if I give you a French sentence, you can “translate” word for word and (except for idioms) get some sense of what is meant. Not so in Japanese. The concepts are different; they must be “interpreted.” So, I would suggest a phrase book rather than trying to “learn” the language. “Please,” “thank you,” and a smile go a long way. Also, in my experience the Japanese people will avoid saying “no.” (Although you will hear the sound “no” A LOT. In Japanese the syllable “no” is a grammatical marker designating the subject of a sentence.) Also learn the names of the numbers (“ichi,” “ni,” “san,” etc.) for prices and such. (I pray you won’t use the numbers for ordering your Big Mac meal. 🙂 )

      * Enjoy the differences. At one time in my life I wondered how illiterate people could function in modern society. Then I went to Japan, and I found out, because I was the one who was illiterate. I knew that the train stops I wanted were “upside down Christmas tree” and “house with fancy roof on its side.” (At least, that’s what they looked like to me.) I never knew how to pronounce either of those, but I knew what shapes to look for.

      * Make sure to experience okonomiyaki. Sushi gets all the rave reviews, but okonomiyaki is a wonderful comfort food if you’re a little homesick.

      * Be prepared for lots and lots of smoking. I have heard that young people don’t smoke as much, but when I was there (about 10 to 15 years ago) just about everyone smoked.

      * Keep an open mind and have fun!

    • Alex says:

      Hi Jenny,

      The best piece of advice I can give you is to get a Japan Rail Pass (http://www.japanrailpass.net/). You purchase it in your home country and it effectively gives you free travel on any Japan Rail Line for the period that you purchase (7 days, 14 days, etc.). You pay for the rail pass in Japanese Yen, and the period of the pass starts from time of activation in Japan. Consequently, you can purchase it when the exchange rate is good and choose when to activate it, based on your travel plans.

      Japan Rail manages essentially all lines between cities and also have in-city networks in most cities. (Most cities also have local trains, not run by JR, which you may have to pay for [e.g. Tokyo Metro, or Nishitetsu, in Kyushu], but you can realistically get around solely on JR, and just pay the couple of dollars on those other lines if more convenient).

      Most Japanese travelling internally choose to fly because it’s cheaper for them, but as a foreigner, this gives you a massive opportunity to travel on the cheap. (You can’t take the top speed bullet trains or travel in the ‘luxury’ cars, but that isn’t a problem at all. You guys will have an amazing time on the standard bullet trains).

      I am more than happy to give you more information about destinations, travel tips, language tips (I am a Japanese teacher), etc. Let me know and I can contact you through email.

    • Nine says:

      Hi Jenny! Depending on when you’re going to Japan, you might be able to purchase the ‘seishun ju-hachi kippu’ which allows for rail travel at about half the cost of the Japan Rail Pass. I was lucky enough to get it on both my visits to Japan. You can see info on it here (including dates available and valid): http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2362.html

      It means you don’t get to travel on the bullet train, so if your son’s heart is set on that … well, forget I mentioned it. But otherwise, I found it a perfectly handy and enjoyable way of getting around.

      If you want somewhere a little less well-known to visit, Takayama is a beautiful place in the Japanese Alps and my train journey there was stunning.

    • Anna Bek says:

      Hi all!

      As it turns out, I will be moving to Tokyo in about a week and a half to begin my new career working as a Producer for a Tech startup there. While my work will be based in English, I have about a week and a half to plan my new life there! My accommodation will be taken care of the first two months but I’m having a hard time finding the right resources for things I am looking for ie. apartment rentals, workout/yoga/martial arts studios, and knowing what I should be sure to bring with me (if anything) that I won’t be able to get there. Thanks for posting this thread as it is good to know I have a few helpful resources out there as I take this huge leap into being an ex-pat in Japan. Thanks!

    • Kris says:

      What an adventure Japan is!

      I lived in Osaka for 2 years as an ESL and had a lot of fun. In my neck of the woods I would recommend going to Kyoto for some traditional culture (Kinkakuji is lovely and I loved Fushimi Inari shrine. I’d also recommend trying some traditional Kyoto sweets like yatsuhasji and dango), Nara to see all the tame deer (but watch out! They will try to eat things you are holding), Osaka for the food (seriously! Best food in Japan! Try some street food like okonomiyaki or takoyaki) and if you are in Osaka in March you can see sumo wrestling (or Tokyo in Nov., I think), and definitely go to Hiroshima. The peace museum will make you cry but it is worth seeing at least once. While in Hiroshima grab a boat to go to Miyajima Island to see the torii in the water. So picturesque!

      If your son likes anime you definitely need to go up to Tokyo for the Studio Ghibli museum. As a tourist you can get same-day passes but (I believe) you can also RSVP in advance because it is hard to get into. Some other people mentioned travel passes so I’ll skip those.

      If you have any questions at all please feel free to ask me. And when in Osaka the best phrase to use is: Nan de ya nen! (or what the hell?! Hahaha, very useful phrase).

    • Jenny says:

      Chris : Thank you sooo much for posting my question. You’re AWESOME! And thank you to everyone providing input and suggestions. I’ll continuously check-in and will definitely touchbase with you all who offered a helping hand. I’m excited! And I can’t wait to take this trip with my son 😀

    • Jennifer Crowley says:

      Wishing you and your son a wonderful trip.
      I have daydreamed about going to Japan myself for 18 months now. This post has made me so excited that I’m going to put the wheels in motion, thanks everyone!!!
      Jennifer

    • Joe says:

      Hello Jenny,

      This is awesome! (as my wife and I JUST returned from Japan) We absolutely loved our time there and I am really excited to offer some advice!

      You are probably already planning this, but you should visit Kyoto. We originally planned a few days there, but after a day there, we made changes to our plans because we loved it so much. The Fushimi Inari Shrine is amazing! This guy gives an EXCELLENT guide to Kyoto with everything from places to visit, to food to eat, to full day itineraries. http://www.insidekyoto.com/
      Im so glad I found it before we went.

      Also, if you are going to take at least one long train ride on a shinkansen it will be worthwhile to buy the JR 7 day train pass. One trip to Kyoto and back will basically pay for it. Then, while you’re in Tokyo, you can zip around and flash your passes and never have to worry about expensive taxis. If you ask the agents that are positioned at the ticket entrances in the stations, they will be able to tell you what platform to go to based on your desired destination. (the stations can be overwhelming, but just ask, everyone was very helpful)

      Also, even though this doesn’t really sound like a “thing to do” you Need to visit a department store in Tokyo. Specifically the basement level, where there is a crazy amount of food and incredible pastries and snacks to buy. It is an experience alone just meandering through all the different vendors.

      I can go on, but I dont want to leave a 10 paragraph comment. If you have any other questions please feel free to reach out to me 🙂

    • Alyse says:

      What a wonderful adventure you two will have! Japan is such an amazing place of contrasts, definitely one of our favourite places. Unfortunately so many people feel like it’s a travel destination that’s out of their price range when in reality there are lots of great ways to live well and frugally while you explore all the country has to offer. ‘How did you afford a month in Japan?!’ is one of the most frequent questions we get, so we actually just put together a post on money saving tips & budgeting, if you want to check out our site. Have a phenomenal time and feel free to reach out with any questions, always happy to help!

    • Good on you! You and your son are going to have an amazing time in Japan. In 2013 my wife and I went there with our then-15-month-old son. We were there 3 weeks; my wife is a Suzuki music teacher, and we were attending a global Suzuki convention in Matsumoto. We spent one week between Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, a week in Matsumoto, and a week in Yokohama.

      For starters, hone in on activities, cultural aspects, etc., that matter to you. For example, a friend of mine is in Japan right now, and as a martial artist he is visiting Okinawa to pay his respects to the birthplace of karate. If you like skiing, you may want to consider going to the Japanese Alps (such as Matsumoto, and the overall Nagano area).

      Food matters to us, so many of our must-do’s revolved around food—yakitori in Kyoto, sushi in Tokyo, okonomiyaki in Osaka. We were in Japan during March-April, and were able to take in the plum (ume) and cherry (sakura) blossom season, a very special time in Japan. The Japanese consider this time very important culturally, and it’s a time of new beginnings/renewal, when people often start new jobs, move to a new place, start school, etc. For us, it was fascinating to get to meet people during such a special time.

      Spring was also a fun time of year to go because of all the seasonal produce that was coming in. One night in Kyoto, our couchsurfing hosts took us to their favorite yakitori place. One of the house specialties was all the fresh spring produce coming in, and it was a meal I’ll remember for a long time.

      There are loads of ways to stretch budget. Others have mentioned JR passes, and I would add my thumbs-up there too. You’ll need to arrange it before you leave for Japan. We used one during our first week, going from Tokyo-Kyoto-Kobo-Osaka-Nagano. Saved us a fair bit of money, and yes, the bullet trains are amazing. There are also excellent local train and subway systems, and must of the cities are quite walkable too—and that’s coming from someone who often had a toddler in a carrier, and a wife who has a prosthetic leg.

      I’m sure it’s possible to get a bad meal in Japan, but such was not our fate. Even the food in convenience stores was tasty, identifiable, cheap, and (relatively) healthy. Also, if you like baked goods, you must try some of the Japanese bakeries—we had a fair few breakfasts in them (lots of Japanese breakfasts too). It’s pretty much as if the Japanese said, “Wow, you French people are good at baking and making coffee. But you know what? We can do better.” If you really want to earn some points, also be sure to at least try natto, a fermented soybean dish. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but it’s worth a go.

      Depending on your preferred type of accommodation, also be sure to look at homestays, hostels, couchsurfing, and Airbnb. During our convention in Matsumoto, we stayed in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn, with hot springs). Otherwise, we couchsurfed our entire trip. We got to stay in areas of cities that we never would have seen as just regular tourists, and it really enriched our experience. Some of our stays were folks who also had young children, giving our son some playmates.

      If my son were now a teenager and we were planning a return trip to Japan, I would let him take a lot of the initiative for the planning. It’ll keep him more open and engaged in the trip overall, and it’ll mean more to know that you’re building your plans around what matters to the family and each person’s individual interest. I love the Ramen Museum in Yokohama, for example, but if you aren’t a ramen aficionado, that may not be on the list for a teenager (though if his appetite is anything like my teenage self, it may be quite handy to have 8 ramen places within a matter of meters of each other).

      So excited for you. Feel free to email me if you have other questions. Good luck and have a great trip!

    • Ardith says:

      Many places in Japan have volunteer tour guides. This is a wonderful service.
      http://japan-magazine.jnto.go.jp/1211_sgg.html
      The JNTO website is also a good resource.
      http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/
      I also found it very helpful to use a train timetable to plan my trip ahead of time.
      http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2323.html

      Japan is an amazing place. You will get more out of your trip if you try to get a basic understanding of Japanese and they will be delighted with your efforts. Your local library should have books, CDs and even online databases available to learn the language. Ten days is a good start, allow for travel time and jet lag. Have a wonderful trip!

    • Mick says:

      Re the Japanese language check out AJATT http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/ (if you haven’t already done so.

    • Japan is such a great place to travel and it’s one of the safest in the world, so it’s a very good place for taking the family.

      One of the benefits about going to Japan as a tourist is you get access to the Japan Rail Pass which allows you unlimited travel on the JR Rail Network. You can learn how the Japan Rail Pass works here: http://www.japanrailpass.com.au/how-it-works/

      Have a great trip

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