Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Japan: Traveling for the First Time

Guide on traveling to Japan for the first time

If you are looking for first time Japan itinerary, planning on how to prepare for a trip to Japan and looking for requirements and stuff to know before traveling to Japan - you are on the right page!

Visa Requirements:
The country has still been strict when it comes for foreign tourists.  But not stricter than before.  As long as you prove that you have true intentions of just touring around the area (without job seeking activities in mind), plus you have good documents regarding your financial status, then you have higher chances of getting an approved visa.

Luckily with my previous applications I was granted: 2012: single entry, 2014: 3-year multiple entry with 15 days duration and 2017: 5-year multiple entry with 30 days duration.

Seasons: When is the best time to visit Japan?
  • Spring: Sakura as what everybody’s thinking about Japan happens every April, from first week (as the flowers are just to open), second week (full bloom) to mid-month (as the petals fall, also called as “petal rain”).  In line with the weather on the latitude, the flowers bloom first in southern areas of Japan (Tokyo, Fukuoka, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto) heading to the northern part (Sapporo). Where to find Forecast and Sakura Reports 
  • Summer:  When roses are in full bloom and parks are in floral festival.
  • Autumn:  Starts on late November to early December, you can enjoy the leaves turn to different hues of yellow, orange and red, before the leaves fall to the ground. Where to find Autumn Color Reports
  • Winter:  Reserve the snow challenge and adventure in Sapporo.
I prefer autumn season followed by spring. Continue to read on when to travel.

Cheap Flights
As a budget traveler with Cebu Pacific, on the average, if you bought the tickets in more than 8 months (264 days) the cheap flight will be around 6500php.  Buying a round-trip ticket in less than 6000php is already a good deal.  

It will be a different case if you are visiting during the Golden Week (first week of May), even though you got it from a promo fare, since it is a holiday, the accommodation fees will go skyscraper. Plus it will be more difficult to find a place since most of the hotels has already been booked in advance.  It's a popular for locals to go on travel during this week, it's possible that seats on express trains have already been reserved in advance.

Round trip (PHP)

You can find other direct flights from Manila to Japan which are serviced by Jetstar Japan (JQ/JST), Philippine Airlines (PR/PAL), All Nippon Airways (NH/ANA) and Japan Airlines (JL/JAL)

Accommodation: Where should I stay?
If it’s a cheap travel, try capsule rooms. However, most of them are exclusive for males only.  There are inns offering this type of bed for ladies but in limited number.

In choosing a place to stay, you may want to consider:
  • Close to subway (better if transfer/exchange station) with easy access to and from the airport
  • Refrain from choosing those located near the shoreline for safety reasons
  • Nearby cheap local restaurants, markets or malls
  • Hotel that follows earthquake proof building and has safety measures 

Itinerary: Places to go, Things to see, What to do in Japan?
Currently (as of this writing on April 2017), there are 4 airports in Japan with Cebu Pacific service:
  • Osaka: where you can reach Kyoto, Nara and Kobe; this is the inbound for Harry Potter in Universal Studios
  • Tokyo: where you can have a choice between Hakone or Lake Kawaguchiko (webcam view) for Mt. Fuji viewing; or between Disney Land or Disney Sea for a theme park; this is where you can take a connecting flight to Hokkaido, Sapporo  
  • Nagoya: where you can extend to parts of Toyota especially during autumn
  • Fukuoka:  where you have a day trip to Saga or Nagasaki.  You can also opt to take a longer vacation to have circular route inclusive of KitaKyushu, Oita (famous spa in Beppu and Yufuin), Kumamoto (for Mt. Aso), Miyazaki and Kagoshima   

Personal preference for me is to enjoy the prefecture of my entry point and extend for a day trip to nearby city/province.  However, there are travelers who spend 2 weeks and beyond. Entry point could be in Tokyo, passing Nagoya, heading down to Osaka (or vice versa).  But this itinerary will make you spend more hours on trains than the place itself.

How about for Fukuoka? Escaping from Kyushu island to reach Hiroshima for example will be expensive in terms of money and time.  Thus, a day escape to Saga and Nagasaki is much preferred.

What to Expect

  • Learn to use chopsticks!
  • Make sure to save-up for your upcoming trip, yes it is expensive especially when taking express trains, but definitely far away places are best to see.  Plus, you'll learn how to make your trip cheaper along the way.
  • Learn some Japanese terms like thank you (arigatou), good morning (ohayo), excuse me (sumimasen) for basic survival.  Download applications on your mobile that will help you when situations require. Watch this video to know more about basic Japanese words.
  • Invest on private guides, join a tour group at least once to increase your knowledge about the place, learn the customs and tradition.  This is your chance to clarify thoughts or questions in English, ask anything that is not offending to the local and the country.
  • Make sure to notify your bank and credit card provider on your upcoming travel so transactions will be validated before hand.
  • Always prepare English and kanji names and addresses of your target destinations
  • Prepare your cash on hand whether you prefer dollar, yen or credit card.
Reality / On the Ground
  • Prepare to get lost!  Traffic signs and directions are in the city are with English translation, but expect that going to the provinces or off-skirts road will definitely be a challenge.  Maps and time table schedule on provincial stations will purely be in kanji.
  • Modern and innovative toilets are found in the city, but expect for the typical ones in rural areas
  • Half bow to greet a person.  
  • Make a full bow when you see monks on temples or shrines. (It may not be required for foreigners, but you'll get to learn it when you've been to temple stay programs).
  • Always carry tissue with you.  Feminine pads on convenience stores are way to expensive.
  • Check the open/close schedule of temples, shrines and museum as some maybe close on Mondays.
  • When visiting temples or shrines, walking along tori gates, make sure to wash your hands in correct manner. 
  • Don't take pictures of the altar inside the temple, don't offend the locals who are praying.
  • Give or accept items with both hands as a sign of respect.
On the Road / Public Etiquette
  • Be quiet on public area and observe personal space.  Have your phones on silent mode, no loud speakers when listening to music.
  • Respect the stand (left) and walk (right) etiquette on subways, road, stairs and escalators, or vice versa depending on the city you are in.  However, the government also suggests to step-in, stop and hold the handrail instead of walking to prevent accidents from happening.
  • Always fall in line.  
  • Subway ticket offices and policemen will definitely find your way.  Just  ask politely and calmly. 
  • Don't be afraid to explore!  Best places to see are those unreachable by public trains and buses.  Expect to walk on 3 km road if you don't have the budget to pay for taxis/cabs.  
Food and Restaurants
  • Clean as you go when you are dining-in.
  • Snack dispenser (biscuits and drinks are everywhere)
  • You can choose to buy bento boxes from convenience stores which  are way too affordable than fancy restaurants and cafes. Where to find affordable meals?
  • Try not to eat and walk on the streets, respect your food.
  • When going to traditional restaurants or visiting temples, check if you are required o remove your shoes (make sure you wear clean socks).

Getting Around:

Joining Tours
In case you consider yourself a tourist, await for deals on tour packages on your travel expo or from travel agencies. This can also be  helpful entry when applying for a visa for the first time.

But as a traveler, no one can equate the adventure and challenge on getting lost in translation when you follow a do-it-yourself (DIY) itinerary.  You can easily go around the cities as long as you have translated kanji of your target destination.

However, it is better to listen to a guide at least once (even for a day), to hear out the culture, tradition and interesting side comments from a local.  On our first to Japan, we have joined Japanican for a day tour in Kyoto (I choose the one in Golden Pavilion).  For my succeeding trips to Tokyo, Nagoya and Fukuoka, all are DIY.

Transportation Cards
Cards like Icoca from Osaka, Suica from Tokyo and Manaca from Nagoya, can be used interchangeably to cities.  So you don’t need to buy again if you already have any one of these. However, these cards are not accepted if you are using JR train, you should buy a separate ticket for it or wait for the train conductor where you can pay to.

Cards become invalid if they are not used for ten years.  So it's better to keep the one that you have since you'll definitely be coming back within that decade.

Read more tips about transportation cards and taking commuter trains in Japan.

Public Transportation
It will be confusing at first, especially when you are looking at the wrong map.  Make sure that you have a copy of combined public and privately owned subways and trains so you can understand good transfer/exchange stations.

When studying your way to the city or a place, make sure to use the combination of or  In Fukuoka, adding bus routes on  will be helpful on your way.

If you are looking on how to reduce your transportation expense apart from using Shinkansen when moving around big cities and if you are up for the tricky process of buying the ticket, try the highway buses.

Where can I go for shopping?
  • Don Quijote is almost 20-24 hours open/daily, where you can buy in cheap goodies and snacks. 
  • Daiso - if you want better selection of cheap unique items compared to your local 100 yen store.
  • Tokyu Hands – nice to visit as well for kitchen and house wares.
  • Muji – is much affordable in Japan than in Manila.
  • Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya –famous Japan department stores known to house expensive brands

Staying connected?
Download the Japan Connected Free Wi-fi application from AppStore or Google Play.
Most of subway and bus stations and post offices offers free wi-fi too.

Returning Gifts
Omiyage (pasalubong ideas) is the term used in Japan are returning gifts you give back to friends and colleagues on your home country.  I already stopped on buying magnets and key chains when it comes to Japan.  I now prefer postcards (for my sister and friends abroad), chocolates, coffee and tea.  If you are a matcha fan, this is the place for you.  Enjoy the most unique flavors of KitKat and Pocky.

Other sample itineraries:
For my further sample itinerary, expense, trip reports and PDF guides, please visit links below:

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