My wife and I just can't get enough of Japans beauty and wonders, so this year we visited the land of the rising sun once again. Japan is an extraordinary over-the-top place. The two-week trip was an absolutely unreal experience for us. Whether you are a foodie, monuments hunter or a city crawler that explores urban places, I would recommend booking a trip to Japan. Don't put it off until you have "enough” savings, for it is not as expensive as one might assume. . The trip can be done on a budget – that is, if you can keep yourself from nerd spending once there. :)
Planning the trip
Planning is half of the battle, well maybe even more when traveling. There is an abundance of online material, available for you to plan a trip to Japan. You can find itineraries that include all the famous places with optimized routes. As useful as that is, we prefer to take our sweet time to experience Japanese daily live, and not just run around from one spot to another.
Tools and materials
We live in technology driven world, we should not use it just for social media and such but also for trip organization. It would be very difficult to list all the information sources we used, so here is just a few:
- https://www.japan-guide.com/ - definitely the good starting point of finding general information about Japan, places you will enjoy and read what other people think of them
- https://www.inspirock.com/japan-trip-planner - itinerary planning, we have used it to plan major parts of the trip; where to go, where to stay
- https://amzn.to/2Rp180o - Lonely Planet Japan guide - in a wast selection of tour guides we found that lonely planet currently offers the best information for us
- https://www.google.com/maps - last but not least :D, in all serious everybody uses it but it has a lot of 'hidden' potential. Build your lists and select them on the map to be used afterwards, you can also build an itinerary on the Google Maps
- http://bit.ly/matchaapp - Matcha is a tourist information app, it has a lot of info about the famous sightseeing spots, food but also interesting articles like what to wear, the weather, events and lots more. We used this app more on the go than for planning, but still it deserves a place in this list
Planning the basics
Before any real planning takes place we had to define what kind of trip are we looking for, how long can we stay and how much are we willing to spend. On the topic of which kind of trip what I mean are you looking for a summer or winter trip, rushing over hot-spots or relaxed, to give your trip some rough outline so you can build on top of it.
Somehow bad weather can easily spoil a good trip. With just some googling it was decided that the trip should happen in spring, right after Japan's Golden Week. Golden week is a series of national holidays that take place end of April or the beginning of May and as you might imagine a lot of people take holidays during that time. Japan has quite advanced tourism inside of the country so during Golden week famous places are overcrowded. If you are considering a budget during that period flight and hotel prices are much higher than a week after. During that period the weather is just right, it is warm enough to be in short sleeves and pants but not too hot so you can't walk during the day. As Japan is a coastal city during summer it's very humid so if you are not used to it it can be very tiring. One more option would be to travel during winter (I hear it is very nice) but as I wasn't there in winter I can't judge. If you are big on snowboarding winter Japan may be just your thing, it has more than 500 skiing resorts (well most of them small ones) but still 70% of the country is in the mountains so it can't be bad.
There is sooo much to see and experience in Japan, it is a totally different universe from US and Europe. The western world feels a lot like copy/paste, you have seen one big city you have basically seen them all. But here it is different, sure there are tall buildings in big cities but everything else is the same but different. I feel like you could spend a year traveling to Japan but still, you would be able to spend a month more. But most of us don't have that kind of luxury that we could spend a year traveling (or we are just not ready to give up other things in life) so I would say two weeks are somehow perfect to get a feeling of the life there and see some more spectacular places and events.
Before we deep-dive in the actual trip let's look at the potential costs. No matter how good are you situated this is probably one of the major factors in destination selection and trip planning. The numbers are purely based on our planning and it will differ for you based on your itinerary, number of people, duration, level of luxury....
Without presents for family and friends, we have spent 3530 euros for 2 weeks trip for 2 people. Everything from the time we left the house doors to the moment we have arrived back home is calculated in the cost of the trip. We didn't have any so luxury splurges, nor we were penny-pinching during those two weeks, so moderate would best describe it. We have traveled with economy class with Japan Airlines (their economy class is wonderful), we have traveled with bullet trains between the cities, mostly eaten out and stayed at 3-star hotels in the city center. With simple modifications like staying outside city centers, using airlines instead of bullet trains and eating in the stores (more on it below) we could easily spend 500-700 euros less but still, have a similar comfort level.
Multiple international airports are awaiting you but mostly you will either land in Tokyo at Narita or Haneda airport or Osaka Kansai airport. Our itinerary started at Kyoto so landing in Osaka would be preferable but the flights were more expensive then to land in Tokyo and immediately go to Kyoto, so we chose Tokyo (of course). Japan Airlines is surely one of the best airlines I have flown so far, and due to my work I fly quite frequently. In comparison, last time we were flying with Air France and had much less leg space in Economy class and poorer selection of food.
We have found our tickets via SkyScanner and bought over Opoodo, with non of the mentioned providers there were any problems. Keep in mind that the prices vary a lot on which exact days you selected and also the same flight changes prices every few days. An easy pro tip is to always use incognito browser, if you have VPN select poorer country as an exit point, and track prices daily until they hit what you have as a target. I have written about that topic in a separate post.
Be aware of the 'too cheap' flights, they may not have airport taxes or other obligatory price components included in the listed price.
If you visit Japan you have to visit more than one city, I would recommend at least: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Kamakura.
The fastest, and most expensive, is to travel by a bullet train Shinkansen. You buy an Ekiben (en: bento box) on a train station, hop on the train and enjoy a smooth ride while you eat, drink or sleep. If you are planning to travel to a lot of cities you should consider buying Japan Rail pass. In short JR pass is a tourist ticket for unlimited train raids for a certain period of times. It is only available for tourists and to buy outside of Japan (in recent years it is temporarily available in some places in Japan but considerable more expensive than ordering online). I would suggest that you use a JR calculator to see if it is worth it for your itinerary, I didn't buy it but I probably should as it would be cheaper than buying tickets separately.
There is also an option of using domestic flights to get between major cities, we have tried this last time to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto (Osaka airport). It is certainly cheaper than taking a train but also much more time-consuming, taking into consideration all the time you have to reach the airport, be there 1h before the flight etc. There are a lot of budget airlines that will take you between the cities for a small price, we have used Peach airlines and you really wouldn't say it is a budget airline except there is no luggage and a meal included in the price.
One option that we didn't try is the overnight buses. They seem to be by far the cheapest means of transportation, but it also means that you are dead after trying to sleep on the bus the whole night.
Welcome to the most organized public transportation place I have ever seen or heard about. Forget that you don't speak the language or even can't read the letters, just fire up Google Maps on your phone and all the information is there, from directions to timetables. I'm not even exaggerating when I say I found easier to get around than in my home town. Get yourself a Suica metro card, put some money on it and you are ready to go, you can even choose hello kitty design :)
Food and drinks
If you are a foodie like me (ok, I just love to eat), Japan is a place to be (and gain max kilos while there). The country is filled with small family restaurants of all flavors and convenience store food sections. There is something for everyone but most of their food is based on rice&fish, ramen (kind of soup) and of course sweets.
If you are traveling relatively on a budget you can easily find a decent meal in your local convenience store for 5 to 10 euros. If you are thinking of the west world pastry section of the store you couldn't be further off. You can find packed lunch boxes with fish and rice, meat and pasta, freshly prepared sushi or even just slices of Salomon or Tuna. On our last trip, we were staying right next to a shop that had a rice cooker, water heater, coffee machine, and all the food was gone by 12AM. Fresh food sections take a rather large portion of the store and it is not uncommon that stores also have tables and seats so you can eat your food. Probably because of the cheap price it seems to be very popular in major cities as mostly locals buy convenient store food.
If you want something better to eat there are plenty of small family-owned restaurants all over the city. They are usually a small restaurant with 1-2 people working in it with 10-15 places to sit at best. I would recommend avoiding restaurants in the main tourist places/roads they are more pricey and the food is more mass-produced. Even if you end up in a restaurant with no English translation just take out Google Translator to order whatever everyone else is eating. Family restaurants are specialized and don't offer a wide variety of food but only house specialty. Prices there can vary a lot, we experienced paying between 15-20 euros per person, but the meals were usually really delicious. You can find good places using Google Maps or Yelp, most of the places we visited had a high score.
Well, this is basically up to your own preferences, duration of stay, budget and other variables (weather?!).
For our trip we have booked 2 weeks and managed to fully book every day with something to see and do. To take a full advantage of good public transportation and avoid having to move a lot of times with our luggage we selected two main cities and took multiple day trips. This might seem like more work and wasted time but if you take into account how much time you need to pack your things in a bag, booking procedure, checkout, etc we estimated that taking day trips is much more efficient and enjoyable.
A MUST see city, full heads on Japan experience. Kyoto is the old capital of Japan full of beautiful gardens, Buddhist templates, Shinto shrines and Geisha. Walking around the city while passing by people wearing kimono and visiting many wooden shrines within the city you can feel the traditional culture. You can even rent a traditional kimono for your visit to the shrine if that is your thing. The city is full of wonders, if you have some extra time from visiting the famous places it will be worth your time just to walk aimlessly around the city. We some beautiful shrines and relaxing gardens that are not on any tourist map but in a city with so many of them it would be pointless to try to advertise local small places.
Before taking it easy, there are a couple of things that you have to see when you are in Kyoto. Information is abundant online so here are just a few that we found extraordinary in the city with already amazing places.
- Fushimi Inari Taisha - Head shrine of 'kami' (god) inari (fox). Certainly one of the most iconic places to visit. It is located on a mountain and consist of multiple shrines connected with mountain paths, some of the paths are surrounded by orange gates. The full path takes around 4 hours, I would recommend that you visit it on a hot day as the light breeze and shadows from the trees give a nice time out from the city heat.
- Kiyomizu-dera - Buddhist temple that is part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage site. On your way there it would be a shame not to stop at only Starbucks that is renovated old Japanese building. After the long walk you must be feeling peckish and I found a very nice Okonomiyaki restaurant nearby so head over and enjoy your lunch.
- Ginkakuji - aka Temple of the Silver Pavilion. One of the most famous Zen temples and part of the must-see list, come here in the morning as there are more templates close by awaiting you. When you are here and you want to go forth go down the Philosophers path to the next templates.
- Nanzenji temple - One of the most important Zen temples in Japan, and personally the most beautiful
- Kinkakuji - aka Golden pavilion. Extravagant gold-plated Zen temple sitting on a lake. It is really remarkable but be warned it's not anywhere close to other worthwhile places to visit
- Nishiki Market - Strange food everywhere! Well we ended up going here multiple times during our last trip, everywhere you look there is something strange and new but tasty. Don't be afraid to try stuff :D.
- Monkey Park Iwatayama - a mountain filled with monkeys, you feed them, play with them (they can be dangerous a bit). A fun way to escape the city.
- Wajouryoumen Sugari - probably this should not be in this list but ramen here is amazing, the best one I have ever tried. The place is packed as soon as it opens so you will have to wait 30+ minutes but it is worth to wait. They don't speak English but there is an ordering automate at the front that has an English menu.
- The list can go forever, and there are plenty of guides that will lead the way, the place is amazing!
One even older capital of historic Japan, to be more precise capital before Kyoto. This is a must do a day trip from Kyoto and using the train it takes you around an hour to get here from Kyoto main station. To make the best of your day trip go to:
- deer park - a huge park where more than 1000 deer roam freely and you can feed and pamper them. They are considered a national treasure and you can only feed them with official cookies that are sold in the park (I think it was 100 yen per pack)
- Todaiji Temple -
Food city, no seriously Osaka is famous for its food, especially in Dotonbori district. Some local food is internationally recognized, but fear not you can eat really good on a budget. Just to tickle your interest a bit I would recommend that you try at least: Takoyaki, Okonomiyaki and Soufflé cheesecake. Trust me you can do it in a day trip
- Osaka castle - this is a must-see place, a grand castle that overlooks the city. We climbed to the top where a beautiful overview of the city awaits you, during the climb there are small museums that teach you of the castle history
- Dotonbori district - it's truly a food district, small food shops as far as you can see on both sides of the street. Personal recommendation is to save yourself until you reach here and come hungry.
- Rikuro-ojisan no mise - best huge Soufflé cheesecake we found. I somehow managed to eat the whole cake but it is really for two :D
- Okonomiyaki Mizuno - a really good okonomiyaki restaurant. It is a little hard to find as there is only a small sign at front (and a line of people) with the small entrance. They make the food in front of you while you eat, so it is also a very unique experience
The world's largest city, with 13M inhabitants in the city or 37M in the Tokyo area. The city itself is actually an aggregation of 23 wards (like towns), that form what we reference as Tokyo.
- Akihabara - Weeaboo and Otaku paradise, or any other geek paradise. Neighborhood in Tokyo filled with anime, manga and electronic shops and on top of that maid cafes
- Imperial palace - huge palace located in the heart of Tokyo, still acts as a residence for Japan imperial family. There is a free guided tour of smaller part of the castle but you have to make a reservation well in advance. Unfortunatelly we never made it on time, third time is a charm.
- Shibuya crossing - crossing that you probably saw a million times on TV/news and yes it is worth to go and experience. When there make sure that you visit also the surrounded streets as it amazing how this huge group of people gets assimilated by smaller streets and huge buildings.
And many many more places to visit in the city, there are whole guides just for Tokyo so look it up :D, to name a few that we visited:
- Tsukiji Outer Market
- Yasukuni Shrine
- Sensoji Temple
A smaller costal city just 1h south from Tokyo station via train, perfect for a daily trip to escape in the nature. Worth to visit:
Japan is the origin and mecca for anime and manga, our trip wouldn't be complete without extensive visits to the merchant stores in Akihabara. There is a surprising influence of anime in the Japanese culture and everyday life. You can find anime characters everywhere from parking location mascots, drawings on ambulance vehicles and even on the offerings to the gods in temples. If you are an anime fan you can get all kinds of merch for much less money then in EU and US, we filled our living room with anime figurines. There are blogs dedicated solely to anime and merch so if you are into it check them out before the trip.
Japan is still mostly cash country and it doesn't look that this will change anytime soon. They accept credit cards in major store chains, shopping malls, hotels and similar but street vendors, temples, traditional restaurants usually accept only cash. There is also a smaller number of ATMs that accept VISA and MasterCard, we used Revolut for paying and withdrawing money and it worked without any problems. For some credit card companies, you have to announce in advance that you will travel to Japan otherwise your credit card will be blocked. This happened to me last time that we visited Japan, making calls to EU to unblock a card was really not fun.
I would strongly recommend you to equip yourself with some data plan on your mobile phone, it makes everything so much easier. Roaming was not an option for me as it was crazy expensive for any relevant data plan so we bought a data SIM card at the airport. We choose the medium-priced one from JAL as they have selling points on the arrival terminal and offer unlimited data plans for a more or less affordable price. This was the easiest choice but there are cheaper ones with similar characteristics but buy one that is partnered with DoCoMo mobile provider as it offers great coverage and speeds. We had 4G all the time which made video calls a breeze.
In my opinion Japan is the most unique country in the world, it is a mixture of western civilization and something completely alien. The land of different cultures, ultimate politeness, extraordinary cuisine and of course anime. This has been by far the most fascinating trip to take and I wholeheartedly suggest it to everyone wanting to experience another culture, as in my mind this is by far the most another culture out there. Regardless of the fact that Japan is a developed country with a high GDP, it is one of the safest countries in the world and you can travel on a budget.