How to organise your first trip to Japan
- Planning the stages of a trip to Japan
When planning your first trip to Japan, it’s hard to rule out the Tokyo-Kyoto (Osaka) axis, two magnificent cities that are very well connected by flights from Italy.
To Tokyo Haneda (HND) and Tokyo Narita (NRT) there are many direct flights from both Milan and Rome, while to reach Osaka (KIX) you can choose the stopover in Shanghai as we did or others, such as Amsterdam.
According to the duration of your trip, calculating at least 3-4 days to visit the city of Kyoto and as many for Tokyo, evaluate the other destinations.
Many tourists or organised tours choose to stop only in these two cities (so as to limit hotel changes), using them as starting points for day tours: from Kyoto you can reach Osaka, Hiroshima, Nara, Himeji and Gifu in one day; from Tokyo you can leave for trips to Nikko, Yokohama, Mount Fuji, Nagano and Sendai.
- Planning your travel in Japan
Planning your travel and visits is the first step to saving a lot of money.
Considering that in Japan people usually pay for every single ride on public transport and that passes/cumulative tickets are not so frequent or cheap (the companies that manage buses, trams and metro are not the same), it is a good idea to limit long journeys through the city to a minimum.
Especially in Kyoto (I’ll tell you more about it later) where points of interest are scattered all around the city, but also in the megalopolis Tokyo where metro journeys are often longer than half an hour and cost €4 per ride.
- Japan Rail Pass: when to do it?
The Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass), an all-inclusive train ticket similar to Interrail, allows you to travel free of charge and at no extra cost on most trains in Japan (with the exception of some shinkansen, non-JR private lines and local commuter lines). You can travel to almost all major cities in the country.
The JR Pass can be used on JR lines crossing Tokyo (especially on the Yamanote line which connects, in a circle, all the main districts and sightseeing points of the city) and the hinterland. It is instead not very usable in Kyoto where the most important monuments are connected only by urban bus and metro lines not included in the JR Pass.
The cost may seem high and will certainly affect your travel expenses, but if you consider that a one-way ticket Kyoto-Tokyo on the Nozomi shinkansen costs more than 100€, the saving is considerable!
Depending on the stages you have chosen, check the prices on the Hyperdia website and do some calculations so that you can choose the JR Pass that suits you best (7, 14 or 21 days).
Remember that the JR Pass cannot be purchased in Japan but must be booked before your arrival on the Japanese railway website (English) or, if you are too close to your departure, through a qualified travel agency in Italy.
The voucher (a printout of the email is not sufficient) must then be exchanged at JR ticket offices upon presentation of your passport with temporary tourist visa.
- Hotels, ryokan, guesthouses in Japan: booking in advance is worthwhile!
Small rooms, single beds and huge bathrooms are the norm in Western-style 3-4 star hotel chains.
More characteristic, but often more expensive, are the traditional hotels (ryokan and guesthouse) suitable for a local clientele: rooms with tatami mats, hard futon beds on the floor, Japanese breakfast (based on seaweed soup and mushrooms) and staff who find it hard to speak English are qualities that make them more suitable for a short stay, just to try the particular experience.
- Internet in Japan: the solution to all your problems.
Having a Japanese SIM card is essential for travelling in Japan on your own.
Often, paper guides are not enough and the directions, all in ideograms, can make you lose time and lose your bearings.
Add to this the fact that few Japanese speak or understand English, Google maps and Hyperdia’s valuable directions can help you in many situations and take you anywhere.
And if you don’t know how to read the ideograms on bus stops or restaurant menus, there are apps that will do it for you!
SIM cards bought by foreign tourists are data-only: due to the anti-terrorism law, they have blocked calls and SMS, so you can’t use them to call your grandmother or contact hotels. However, the 4G connection allows you to make VoIP calls with Whatsapp, Skype or Viber.
SIM cards can be bought from vending machines at international airports, where you can choose the size (micro or nanoSIM) and the tariff plan according to the Gb available and the validity of the card.